Wednesday, April 10, 2013
Tuesday, April 2, 2013
Responding to a slow-acting psychogenic
beandip, Jin finds that he is
capable of just about anything.
He climbs a footpath that arcs the
canopies of witchlimbed oak and
comes to a hilltop, under a
spotlight of moon, surrounded by
coyotes in white tuxedos.
Jin snaps a finger at the alpha,
eliciting a yowl pitched at a
perfect high A (soprano clef).
He continues down the
pack until he has outlined an
A major seventh in double octaves.
They sing Swanee, Danny Boy,
Hava Nagila. They’re wrapping
up Mack the Knife when a
rabbit dashes past and he
loses them all.
Jin spots a milk-white horse in a
neighboring pasture. She claps
twice and the horse floats her
way, using a ten-foot length of
escalator that flies like a
magic carpet. A patch of
black fur on the horse’s flank
spells out the word ASK.
Okay, she says. I’m asking.
The horse smiles rather saucily and
stands on its hind legs.
Jin takes its hooves.
A band of skunks arrives with
percussion instruments and plays a
salsa beat. They dance for an
hour, until the horse sets her
into a spin that never stops.
She wakes on a beach, her
body covered in a blanket of
sand dollars, and rises to
find that she is very pregnant.
Jin has never believed the
old myths about interspecies
breeding, but as the first
labor pain strikes she is
forced to consider the possibility.
As the sun tips the mountains,
she gives birth to a baby
boy who begins to grow larger as
soon as he hits the sand.
In a matter of minutes,
they are standing face to face.
Jin kisses his mother self and
watches her walk into the ocean,
disappearing into a forest of kelp.
I will certainly miss her.
He wakes inside a bass drum.
A redhead kneels at the opening,
offering him a cup of coffee.
Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Thursday, March 21, 2013
Wednesday, June 20, 2012
a novel by Michael J. Vaughn
available at amazon.com
One Tiny Motor Function
Jack stands on the viewing platform overlooking Multnomah Falls. No one else is there but the Imp of the Perverse. It’s a phrase he got from Edgar Allan Poe. Okay, it’s a phrase he got from the New Yorker, quoting Edgar Allan Poe.
It was an article on Lesch-Nyhan, a syndrome that causes its victims to respond to urges of self-mutilation. Patients have bitten off their own fingers, gouged out their own eyeballs, chewed off their own lips. One man referred to his left hand as “the evil hand,” the one that would sometimes punch his own face, knocking out teeth. The best defense was to strap it to the arm of his wheelchair.
But here’s the thing: we all receive the signals, probably from the basal ganglia. Jack recalls driving a farmland highway with no meridian, a week after his layoff. The Imp leaned forward from the back seat and whispered in his ear: one little nudge of the wheel, one tiny motor function, into the grille of that oncoming truck. Problem solved. But Jack couldn’t stand the thought of involving the truck-driver – as killer or co-fatality – so instead he chewed on a fingernail.
The week-long drive was a healthy stab at positivity – an effort to flee the dark cave of his daily life – but it left him open to the Imp. Even standing on the old mid-falls bridge – the one that provided such a graceful foreground for all the postcards – he had not seen the potential of all that height, but the Imp attached himself to a pantleg halfway up the trail, and now Jack could not deny the beauty of his plan. The second-highest falls in North America, Multnomah offered a spectacular exit, and the access was surprisingly easy. All he had to do was vault a moderate stone wall, plant his feet on a narrow ledge and jump, falling through a gentle cloud of mist to a gathering of rocks that would finish the job. The Imp stood behind him, nudging him forward.
Jack returns from his vision to find one foot already atop the railing. He doesn’t remember putting it there. Two more motor functions – the press of two arms on the railing, the swing of his left leg over the top – and an unstoppable momentum will be set into motion.
In the end, it is his greatest weakness – a bleeding self-consciousness – that saves his life. He glances over his shoulder at the darkening trail, and immediately feels like an idiot – worrying about witnesses when he’s about to leap to his death. In the meantime, the lowering sun slides between the overcast and the horizon, painting the wide swath of falling water in an orange light. When Jack looks forward, his arms tensing for the lift, his glance falls on a projecting rock on the far side of the rush, and what he sees is a house engulfed in flames. He freezes in place, his arms relax, and he slides his foot back to the ground.
The Imp, who has already lighted a victory cigar, sinks back down the trail, hacking and cursing. Jack watches the house until the flames die out, then turns and begins his retreat. As he nears the bottom, he realizes how hungry he is and jogs to the snack bar, where he devours a plate of fries as Multnomah roars into the darkness.
Vaporous Gray Ogres
The weather on the Oregon coast is miserable, but it seems to be having a good effect. Faced with the narrow ribbons of 101 and a big gray cave of burly, nasty, steroid-injecting clouds, the chambers of Jack’s mind have no room for the Imp of the Perverse. Jack is also indulging in a bag of cheese cubes from the Tillamook factory thirty miles back, and though he wonders about ingesting so much dairy at a sitting, the mushy bland morsels of Monterey Jack, cheddar and mozzarella are exactly what his soul desires. He cannot possibly stop.
Unless the ocean decides to attack him. He’s rolling into the town of Depoe Bay, smack dab against the waterfront, when a whalespout of water arches over the blacktop and lands on his hood, sending a blinding splash across his windshield. Assuming it’s a rogue wave that has surmounted the seawall, Jack is more than happy to keep driving, but then he spots a gaggle of people gathered under umbrellas at the roadside, looking very much like a gallery at a golf tournament. The Imp of the Curious gets the best of him, so he pulls into a parking spot, slaps on a raincoat and ballcap and gets out to investigate. Peering over a low stone wall next to the sidewalk, he finds muscular slabs of rock, lining the seawall in a blanket twenty feet thick. The waves are piled up for miles, dark green monsters waiting their turn to obliterate themselves in thunderous sprays of foam. A hundred feet along, the wall cuts leftward into a C; the top of the C plays host to the gallery, chattering like kids at the circus. Jack’s usual impulse is to avoid social contact at any cost, so he loops quietly around the gathering and finds a spot around the corner, where the wall straightens back out.
“Hey buddy!” It’s a tall man in a green rainjacket. “You better not stand there.”
His tone reminds Jack of the cruel-joke bullies of junior high, sounding jovial while they’re setting him up for some embarrassing put-down. He has no idea how to respond, but then he hears a dramatic whooshing sound. A column of white water launches from the rocks and catches the wind, heading directly for him. He lets out a squeaky “Shit!” Fortunately, his feet are much quicker than he is, scurrying away of their own accord. The rest of his body is obliged to follow, and the momentum takes him directly into Greenjacket, who catches him in a bear hug as the plume smacks the walk behind him.
The gallery erupts in laughter (more echoes from the playground), but Greenjacket gives him a reassuring slap on the shoulder.
“Wow! With a first step like that you should be in the NBA. Maybe we should… Jack?”
A good-looking redhead leans against Greenjacket and smiles.
“Bloody hell, Thompson! You know him?”
Thompson looks flustered – which for him is a rare occurrence – but he recovers quickly, flashing that automatic grin, the one that seems to get him out of everything.
“It’s Jack Teagarden! He used to work with me at C-Valve. Damn, Jack! What’re you doing thisaway?”
Jack’s pathetic social skills are officially overloaded, especially when he recalls the company barbecue, Thompson’s two small children, his very lovely trophy wife. His very lovely African-American trophy wife. Just to deepen the contrast, the redhead has one of those posh British accents.
“Poor dear,” she says. “His near escape from the devil’s horns hath rendered him mute.”
Jack manages to string two words together: “Devil’s horns?”
“Well, yes!” says Thompson. “As a matter of fact…”
He grabs Jack by the shoulders and spins him around. Jack hears the whoosh again, and this time he can see where the exploding water is coming from, a jagged opening in the top of the rocks.
“Brilliant device,” says Redhead. “It’s a lava tube. I don’t quite know the geology, but some ancient flow has left us a lovely little pipe that takes in those crashing waves and funnels them all the way up here. I would love to have one for home use.”
Wafting over his left shoulder, the redhead’s voice is the single most beautiful thing he’s experienced in months. He wants her to leave him a lengthy voicemail just so he can take in those perfect vowels and consonants whenever he needs a lift.
He turns back around and unleashes a veritable soliloquy. “It hit my car when I was driving by. That’s why I stopped.”
Redhead is holding Thompson’s hand in a tender manner. Thompson’s grin is growing. The way it did at staff meetings as his fabrications grew larger and larger.
“Brigit’s a florist in Portland,” he says. “I met her at that finance conference last May. She was delivering centerpieces.” He kisses her on the cheek as if he’s said something hugely sentimental.
Jack feels like he’s in a minefield, so he decides to simply stand there and look stupid – which is, really, one of his most valuable talents.
“Well hey!” says Thompson. “We need to get up to Chinook Winds for a concert – Kelly, Kiley…who was that?”
“Keely Smith,” says Brigit. “Jazz singer. Married to Louis Prima. She’s fantastic.”
“I do whatever she tells me,” says Thompson. “She’s never wrong.” His smile is threatening to burst from his face. Jack would do anything to have a weapon like that smile, if only for a day.
Brigit grabs Jack’s hand. “Pleasure meeting you. And do be careful, driving in this muck.” She studies the clouds over the bay, looking like vaporous gray ogres. “Imagine. I left London because of the weather.”
“Nice seeing you, pal,” says Thompson, shaking his hand. “Take care of yourself.” He gives him a wink, then wraps an arm around Brigit and walks her across the street to a black retro Mustang.
Jack is feeling ethically shell-shocked, so he remains at the waterspout, raindrops smacking the bill of his cap. He waits for another eruption, noting the exhalation of mist that presages the water. Then he hears footsteps, and finds Thompson returning across the street, pulling out his cell phone.
He’s smiling again, but now he’s talking through his teeth, a style of speech that Jack recalls from their less enjoyable back-hall chats at C-Valve.
“Hey Jack, I’ve already got your cell number, but I’m going to pretend to get it from you while I talk, okay? Just mouth a few numbers at me.”
Jack moves his jaw up and down, just like in school choir, when he was too afraid of the sounds he might produce if he actually sang.
“Just wanted to thank you for not giving me away, pal. This thing with Brigit really knocked me for a loop, and I’m trying to keep her blissfully ignorant until I figure out what to do about my family situation. Anyways, I really appreciate it, and I’m gonna find a way to pay you back. So take care, okay? I’ll be in touch.”
“Sure,” says Jack. “No prob.” I want my job back. You asshole.
Thompson finishes the pantomime by closing his cell, then gives him one of those finger-pistol salutes before heading back for the Mustang.
All things considered, Jack has no idea how to take all of this. Has he just entered into a case of involuntary blackmail? He waits for three more waterspouts then hikes back to his car, tosses his rainwear on the back seat and drives off into a watery horizon. He feels for the plastic bag on his passenger seat and is pleased to find six more cubes of cowy goodness.
For the first six months, he tried. He watched the job listings, took seminars on resume construction, signed up for online listing services. At the end of six months, he came to the conclusion that he was utterly unemployable.
He had time; the layoff came with a year-long severance. After that, he could ride unemployment for a while. After that, he could sell the house. But he wondered if this cushion was, in fact, a detriment. A little closer to financial collapse, a few steps nearer to the street, and he might have to actually do something: sell the house, go back to school, learn something he could actually use to get a job. Hell, cook pizzas somewhere. He seemed to remember actually enjoying that, back in college.
For now, though, he had time, and time was his enemy. He spent his days finding new ways to kill it. Inevitably, he could never kill enough of it, and fell back to remembering how productive he used to be, how valued. These thoughts grabbed him by the proverbial bootstraps and yanked him earthward; he could almost hear the mud sucking around his ankles.
The city itself conspired against him. Cupertino was a centerless San Jose suburb, blessed with rolling foothills, a population of quiet Asian-Americans and the corporate presence of the ever-resurgent Apple Computers. The company’s humongous headquarters rose up along Interstate 280 about the time that Jack was signing the mortgage on his house, ten years before. At the time, the state of the company didn’t seem to merit such architecture – white corporate mosque meets junior college campus – but then came the prodigal son, Steve Jobs, and the birth of the IPod. These days, Cupertino is back to its bustling self, packs of mild-looking tech-heads wandering the restaurants and coffeehouses of De Anza Boulevard with their photo-ID dogtags.
Jack’s neighborhood has benefited from this boom in ridiculous proportions. First came a hotel-condo complex at Stevens Creek and De Anza. The site once held a farming supply center, Cali Bros., back when the Valley was known as one of the finest agricultural areas in the world. The developers adorned their new complex with a public square, dressing it up with fine-laced fountains and a silvery jumble of Calderesque sculpture. Many said that this was, in fact, the city center that Cupertinans had long pined for. (Others said, “Are you kidding me?”)
Jack watches the fountain from a Starbucks across the street, consuming a Wall Street Journal and the last of his morning comestibles, a tall Americano. The drink was named by Italians for the American GIs who favored watered-down espresso over the exotic milk-espresso combinations concocted by the natives. The Journal is half-torture, because it contains great quantities of numbers. Numbers are Jack’s beautiful ex-girlfriends, the ones who dumped him, the ones who were probably out of his league to begin with. He misses their perfect boundaries, their black and white Rubbermaid immortalities.
“You think I deal in abstractions,” he once told a tech writer. “But I’m not. I can say, ‘Nine times five equals forty-five.’ Or, I can go out and pick up forty-five rocks, place them in groups of five, and guess what? Nine sets. Every time. Every, every, every, every time. Numbers are God.”
With the last page of the Journal comes the last drop of Americano, and sadly the first phase of his time-killing is over. He leaves the paper in a basket inside the coffeehouse, deposits his cup and napkin in a trashcan, then heads across the lot and down De Anza, boulevard of Spanish explorers. He crosses at Rodrigues, pacing beneath dying autumn leaves toward the Civic Center.
The Cupertino Library is another new addition, blocky but clean, fronting a wide concrete square with one of those bubbling-from-the-earth fountains that entices children in summer. One corner of the building is dedicated to a privately owned coffeehouse – a smart idea, but Jack doesn’t go there any more. The hip baristas with full body tattoos make him nervous. He wonders how many of them have done time, and he doesn’t like the pressure of trying to match their sardonic wits.
Jack trudges through the electronic gates, past the wall-length aquarium of tropical fish, and upstairs to the computer area, where he sits before a terminal and enters a card number he’s long since memorized. His email is weightless, nothing but Spam and messages from the job-seeking group he never attends. He thinks about trolling the employment pages at Craig’s List – at least to kill some more time. But the thought of all those jobs that he’s not going to get feels like a layer of gravel packed around his heart. He once thought of checking out the MISC section – just to see what kind of exotic, degrading jobs might be out there – but the idea just seems too goofy. Desperate measures work only in the movies. In real life, you get a real job – accountant, marketing director, investment banker – and you stick to it, because that’s where you belong.
A shaking in his chest nearly knocks Jack from his chair, and to his horror he realizes that he has forgotten to switch his cell phone to silent. The phone begins to emit its ringtone, a flurry of beeps that grows louder the longer the call goes unanswered. In his hurry to pull it from his jacket pocket, he fumbles it to the floor; he jerks his foot forward to break its fall and manages instead to kick it underneath the table. The ringtone gets louder. Jack drops to his knees and crawls forward, fetching the phone from a spot near some woman’s feet and flipping it open to answer.
“Hello?” he whispers.
“Jack? Must have a bad connection. I can barely hear you.”
“Sir?” A librarian is standing next to Jack’s terminal, tapping a foot. “Could you please take that call outside?”
Jack scuttles around and peers up at her. “Oh God, I’m so sorry.” He works his way to his feet and heads for the stairs.
“Jack? You still there?”
“Yeah. Just a…”
“Sir? You need to log off your computer first.”
“Oh! Right.” Jack returns to his terminal and hits the Logout button.
“Just a… right there.” The computer asks him if he really wants to log off, and he clicks on Yes. “Sorry. I’m at the library.”
“Ooh, I dig the library. All that forced silence. It’s so sexual.”
Jack paces past the librarian, who is, in fact, wearing a dominatrix expression – “Almost there,” he says, then trots down the stairs and along the aquarium. He’s worried it might be a call for an interview; he’s worried he’s already established himself as an utter dork. He splits the electronic gates and heads for the lawn, leaning on a statue of Winnie the Pooh as he catches his breath.
“Hi,” he pants. “I’m very sorry. Who is this?”
“Hah! It’s Thompson.”
“Is that the company name?”
“Flores, buddy! Thompson.”
Jack feels moisture on his fingers and discovers he’s placed his hand on some freshly deposited bird-turd.
“Jesus!” He holds his hand out like a dead fish.
“I’m flattered, Jack, but no, I am not your savior.”
“Jack, you never change, do you?”
Jack kneels to wipe his hand on the grass and immediately feels the wet lawn soaking into the knees of his pants. Thompson keeps talking.
“All right: take two. This is Thompson, and I’m calling to pay you back for your understanding during that little incident in Oregon. The wife and I are taking off to Italy for a month – a second honeymoon, God help me – and we need someone to keep an eye on the house, which just happens to be directly on the beach in Aptos. I thought you could use a break from the rat race.”
“Oh.” Jack struggles to his feet, looking like he’s wearing two dark kneepads. “I… I don’t know…”
“Let me paint a picture,” says Thompson. “Ten steps and you’re on the sand. You can watch dolphins and sea otters and pelicans from the deck. Dolphins! Otters! Now do me a favor, Jack, and say yes, so I can pay you back. Y-E-S.”
Jack sees no reason to do otherwise. “Yes.”
“Great! Now – you know that Starbucks on Stevens Creek and De Anza? Across from that weirdass sculpture? Meet me there in half an hour, so I can give you the keys. We leave on Tuesday.”
“Sure,” says Jack. “I’ll see you there.”
Jack turns on his own footsteps, surprised at this sudden development. He’s not sure if it’s all good, but he notices the crisp yellow of the leaves along Rodrigues, and decides that he’ll have a second Americano.
The Great White Couch
Jack loses fifteen minutes figuring out that Park Drive and State Park Drive are distinct arterials, despite their shared verbiage. The latter takes him to Seacliff State Beach, where he pulls up to the ranger station, eager to portray himself as a non-burglar-type housesitter. Even though the occupant of the olive-drab uniform is an acne-riddled young man barely out of his teens, Jack’s tongue feels about as useful as a Styrofoam shovel.
“Hi! I’m, uh, the Flores house?”
“You are the house itself,” says the ranger. “Strange. Do you know the password?”
Password? Thompson didn’t mention a password. All this way and now he couldn’t get in? Dammit!
“Dude!” says the ranger. “I am totally fuckin’ with ya. House-sitting, right? Let’s see, I got a note here somewhere. Ah. Teagarden, Jack. Can I see your driver’s license?”
Jack laughs, relieved that it’s just a joke. But the ranger’s still looking at him.
“Dude! I actually do need to see your license.”
“Oh. Sorry.” Jack digs into his wallet and pulls out his license. The ranger gives it a quick scan, then hands it back with a small yellow decal.
“Here. Put this puppy on the inside of your windshield – driver’s side, lower corner – and next time you can just drive on through. Although a friendly wave would be nice.”
“Okay,” says Jack. “Thanks.”
“Pretty sweet gig,” says the ranger. “Big Brown is quite the Playboy Mansion. Have fun!”
Jack has no idea what the ranger is talking about, and he still feels like he’s getting away with something. He follows the road in a long ess and comes out at a pier culminating in the abandoned hulk of a concrete ship. He remembers this oddity from a company picnic ten years before, and makes a mental note to find out more about it.
The road bears right through a grove of eucalyptus and continues along the beach past rows of RVs and camper trailers. The residents appear to be in for the long run. Many have awnings strung with Christmas lights, windsocks and banners. Some have fire cans surrounded by lawn furniture. A fit-looking old man walks by in sweats and a ballcap, walking an enormous chocolate poodle. Jack is struck by the way the poodle walks, some trick of double-hinging that makes it look like strutting, or softshoe. He wonders what evolutionary value this could possibly have. At the end of the campers he arrives at a blue metal gate and gets out to punch Thompson’s code into a keypad. The gate makes a jarring sound and slides to the right. Jack waits till it’s completely open before inching his way through.
Thompson’s neighborhood is a straight, narrow lane between high sandstone cliffs to the right and a menagerie of tightly packed houses to the left. Jack marvels at the variety of styles: an overgrown Tudor cottage with wraparound eaves like something out of Tolkien; a stucco’d stack with Aztec geometrics and a tiny rooftop deck; a sky-blue ranch house that could have been shipped in from Jack’s childhood. Any view of the beach, a mere thirty feet distant, is blocked by habitation.
What he’s looking for, per Thompson’s instructions, is the color of chocolate. He thinks he has it halfway up – a modest clapboard bungalow – but the number on the mailbox doesn’t match. From there, the structures begin to take on resort dimensions. The second hulk from the end has the proper color – high walls of cedar shingles stained mocha – and the right number tiled into the front steps, but Jack refuses to accept this tri-story monstrosity as his intended destination. He pulls a remote from the glove compartment, presses the oversize button and watches as the garage door rises on its tracks, revealing a black Porsche Carrera, a pair of chrome-spangled Harley-Davidsons and a rectangle vacated by the Flores Hummer. Jack pulls in with surgical caution, anxious to come nowhere near the motorcycles.
The feeling of trespass continues as Jack ascends the semicircle steps – waves of floral yellow on a dental white background – and re-reads Thompson’s instructions. At the Starbucks, Jack was certain that Thompson was making some kind of sci-fi joke – until he produced a tiny screen the size of a cell phone and asked him to press the pad of his thumb to the surface. Jack steps up to the welcome mat and finds a similar screen to the left of the door. He presses a red button, places his thumb on the screen, and watches the button turn green. The dark double doors click open and part inward, as if they are being tugged by ninja butlers.
Jack takes a careful step inside, accompanied by a three-tone chime and a rush of water. He finds himself before a pile of blue-gray boulders stacked against the leftward wall. A stream of water tumbles over the crowns, frothing white, and settles into a pond at the center of the room. The pond is lined with blue disc-shaped stones that would be perfect for skipping. A narrow channel carries the overflow to the rightward wall and down a concealed drain.
“Disneyland,” Jack whispers. He circumnavigates the whole enterprise and descends a trio of slate-covered steps to a white leather couch the size of Moby Dick. The couch is so long that there’s a gap in the back where you can board it amidships. He takes this option, sliding to the right so he can take in the sheer size of the living room. The wall opposite sports a stripe of vertical blinds fifty feet long. To the right stands an enormous fireplace of mortared stones, the same blue-gray as the boulders in the fountain. A modern-looking sculpture of shiny steel bars projects from the mantelpiece, like a cubist eagle taking flight.
The center of the room is oddly bare, but for a couple of low coffee tables stained a deep black. This seems curious, and grows more so when Jack spots a red jumprope handle, dangling to his left like a spider. Jack takes a breath and gives it a pull, setting off a low whirring. An enormous black rectangle descends into the room, suspended by three cables. It settles into a spot three feet above the floor and explodes with color.
Jack has never seen a high-definition television before; the sharpness of the picture makes him feel a little dizzy. It’s a soccer match, and it’s almost as if someone has set tiny animatronic figures scampering about the room. He takes a silver remote from one of the coffee tables and embarks on a surfing session that covers seven hundred channels and two hours.
The spell is broken when Jack notices a second remote – on the second coffee table – that looks a little like the garage door opener. He presses the single black square and gets a rather startling result: the vertical blinds on the far wall rotate until they’re perpendicular to the window, then slide to left and right, clicking together as they go. What they reveal is more stunning than anything on the high-def, a canvas of deep purples and pinks over a faint line of tangerine. He’s so acclimated to artificial worlds that it takes a while before he realizes that this is an actual sunset, the actual Monterey Bay, viewed through Thompson’s actual back window. With time ticking out on the day, Jack feels suddenly energized; he grabs his windbreaker and hustles to the sliding glass doors, startled by the burst of cold sea air. He crosses the deck and jogs the back stairs – ten steps, exactly as promised – then makes his way across a broad white-sand beach littered with rocks and driftwood.
The tide is low, but the waves break in like they’re falling off a table. As Jack steps to the wet sand he sees an object that looks like a large, dark rock. As he comes closer, however, the rock mumbles, sprouts feet and waddles forward. Once his eyes adjust, he can make out the feathers, ashen in the failing light, and the small round slope of the head and bill. The bird cuts a bulky silhouette, full-bodied like a duck. From the unsteadiness of its movements, he assumes it’s injured, has come to the beach to rest and recover. When Jack takes another step, the bird struggles away, drifting seaward on a backwash.
Maybe that’s all he needed, he thinks. A little incentive.
He’s wrong, of course. Nature knows what it’s doing. Lacking the strength to navigate, the bird slides underneath a breaker and is unceremoniously thrashed, like a plush toy in a spin cycle. He pops out of the foam and rides the wash back to the sand. He’s closer to Jack now, but he seems too stunned to care. Jack can see that the ashen appearance has nothing to do with the failing light.
“Those are the tough ones. I got a few sandpipers – carried one all the way to the ranger station in my jacket – but those suckers’ll bite a finger off before they let you catch ‘em.”
It’s a man in a one-sided Australian hat. He’s sixty, maybe, wearing a trimmed beard of silvery white. His face bears deep lines at the sides of his eyes which - even in the fading dusk, radiate a sky-blue light. Ernest Hemingway as a Deadhead. He takes Jack’s silence as license to go on.
“They still don’t know where it came from, but every beach I’ve been to you see the birds every fifty feet, standing there like this one, eyeing the waves, wondering what it was that hit them.”
“Oil?” says Jack.
“You an animal rescue worker?”
“Nope,” says the man. “I just go where I’m needed.”
Jack returns his gaze to the bird, who now looks like he’s asleep.
“Will he make it?”
“Not likely,” says the man. “The oil messes with the ability of the feathers to insulate – ‘water off a duck’s back,’ so to speak. Basically, he’s freezing to death.”
Jack feels as if he knows what the bird is going through: his most basic ability has been taken away, and he doesn’t know what to do to survive. He realizes, also, that this thought is radically self-serving.
“Well,” says the man. “I’d better start hiking, or I’ll freeze to death myself.”
“Yeah,” says Jack. “Have a good one.”
He stands near the bird as long as he can bear it, then he spots a bright star above the horizon, connects it to four others, and finds himself looking at Canis Major. He has not identified these stars since a camping trip when he was seventeen.
He sends a silent wish to the bird, nothing but a bag of shadow in the murky dark, and turns to cross back over the beach. He may return to the great white couch; he may watch the monster TV and fall asleep on the cotton pillows. The rest of the house scares him.
In the morning, Jack has no choice. He finds a normal-enough toilet downstairs, but for a shower he’ll have to brave the second floor. He locates a broad, curving staircase near the kitchen (the high-tech possibilities there give him the willies) and climbs to a carpeted hallway with three doors to either side. He fears he may have to do some investigating through those doors – bedrooms? studies? small family of vicious robot lions? – but then he spots an open doorway at the end of the hall, giving off glints of tile and plumbing.
The boulder theme is surprisingly persistent. Here they’re in slices, like cuts of blue-gray bologna embedded in the floor. This includes the shower area, which is delineated only by a small speed-bump of river rocks. A wide gray tab hangs from the ceiling like a periscope, offering a shower head and hot-and-cold valves.
But here’s the thing: the wall behind the shower is nothing but a clear plate of glass, as might be used in a museum exhibit to better display the specimens. And there’s the beach. A woman in gray sweats jogs by underneath the overcast, not seeming to notice. Is the Flores family a tribe of nudists? Jack is about to ditch the whole idea of hygiene when he spots a sign, taped to the mirror over a gray marble counter with double basins. The sign says Play Me, followed by a downpointing arrow. Jack finds a small metallic square positioned between the basins. It presents only one button, so he pushes it, and out comes Thompson’s voice, as fresh as a morning DJ.
“Hey Jack! I figured you might find the shower a little weird, so I thought I’d leave you a message. Not to worry, my friend. The glass is utterly one-way. If you check it from outside – and I know you will – it’s pitch-black, like a solar panel. Anyways, hope you’re having fun, try not to order too much porn on the high-def, and if you’d like a good cuppa java, I highly recommend Aptos Coffee Roasting, next to the Safeway on State Park Drive. Mmmgood! Ciao, bebe!”
A child giggles in the background, and the message clicks off. Jack has no choice – he has to head for the deck and make sure – and it turns out that Thompson’s description is exactly right. Still, as he nervously disrobes, as he spins the shower head until he gets something besides a vaguely erotic pulsing massage, as he finds bits of oatmeal in the soap (and realizes that they were put there on purpose), he gazes out his wall of full exposure and thinks, I don’t like this house. I will never like this house.
Jack takes a glance at the high-def and realizes that it’s a trap – that if he gives it the slightest opening it will suck down four of his hours. He’s not sure if he can walk through the security gate, so he heads down the back stairs for the beach. Toward the water he sees an ambiguous lump that might be a dead bird, so he forces his eyes forward and keeps walking.
Halfway up the entrance road he’s pleased to find a footpath that neatly avoids the ranger station. He’s boarding the sidewalk along the Highway One overpass when what he had taken for harmless fog begins to spit raindrops. Sorely unprepared, he quickens his pace and jogs to the dry overhangs of the shopping center. Passing the high façade of the Safeway, his freak-alarm goes off. It’s a man in a buckskin jacket, squatting on an overturned milk crate as he plays some song from the sixties on a guitar. A tall woman with blonde-gray hair and missing teeth looks on encouragingly. Jack paces briskly forward and is just feeling safe when he hits the freakapalooza: skateboarders, bikers, a tattooed chick with a backpack and a Siberian husky on a tattered rope. An old guy with a severe Amish beard scoots by on crutches, muttering to himself.
What’s worse, the inmates are standing directly between him and the coffeehouse. He takes a deep breath, lowers his gaze to the sidewalk and propels himself forward, like a fullback trying to break through the line.
Inside, it’s not much better. The entire right-hand wall is taken up by musicians, playing some bluesy standard: a gray-haired grandmother on electric bass, thirty-year-old beach bum on guitar, two old jazz-looking guys on drums and trumpet. A middle-aged Persian man stands behind the mic and sings with a voice that is too square to be believed, Mr. Rogers doing Sinatra. The bunch of them are nearly drowned out by a table of cackling fiftysomething females in tie-dye sundresses and hippie accessories. Jack heads for the counter and lines up behind a husband and wife in bright bicycling silks, spandex shorts embracing their derrieres much too tightly. They finish their orders and pass to the right, leaving Jack with a short, tomboyish woman, wearing a mop of blonde hair that might best be found in a production of Oliver! She is aggressively friendly.
“Hi sweetcakes. Tell me your heart’s desire.”
“What would you like?”
“Can I get a tall Americano?”
Jack has no answer for this, so she continues.
“We don’t talk Starbucksian, honey. We call our small drinks ‘small.’”
“Oh. Okay. A small Americano?”
“Are you sure? You know, our specialty brews are pretty fantastic. We brew each cup separately. It’s almost better than group sex.”
Jack is quickly losing his will to fight. This… troll is clearly a force of nature.
“Umm, sure. Whatever you want.”
She smiles at his acquiescence.
“What I want is for you to try the Peruvian. Has that dark, tropical tail-end that will leave you feeling sultry and jazzified. You will float out of here like a human hovercraft.”
Oh God, anything. “Yes! Um, a small, please.”
“We only have medium and large.”
He pays her quickly (mindful of the line growing behind him) and stuffs a dollar in the tip jar.
“Thanks! You’ll be under Brad Pitt. Wouldn’t I love to be under Brad Pitt!”
This must be a local thing – never say anything in a normal way when you can talk like a fucking freak. But he can’t possibly give the blonde elf another straight line, so he slips away and trusts that Brad Pitt will make himself known. He flips through a pile of used newspapers, and meanwhile takes note of the elf’s actions. She places a mug over a spill grate on the counter, then pours water into an aluminum bar hanging over it. Between the two, affixed to the facing, is a photo of Brad Pitt. Once in a great while, thinks Jack, life is figureoutable.
Once the brew has finished its dripping, Jack waits until the elf is off blending a frappe and seizes his drink, stopping to add a little sugar, a little milk, before he settles at a table in the back, far away from the band. He curses himself for giving in to the coffee; he knows he will spend the whole time thinking how he would have preferred that Americano. Still, the Peruvian’s not bad; it carries a bit of an edge that reminds him of black licorice.
His table is enchanted, because someone has left him the Chronicle’s business section. He flips to the back page and pores over the stock readings, luxuriating in its small sea of numbers. If he could, he would soak them in butter and eat them for breakfast. Halfway down the page he hears the sound of scraping chairlegs at the next table, and then the sound of two men talking. One of the voices seems familiar, which sends him into a panic. He just can’t handle any more interaction. He pulls his numbers closer, hoping he will disappear among them, but finds himself almost forced to follow the conversation. The familiar voice is the lower, the other one higher and a little nasal.
Low: You got the macadamia?
High: Oh! They’re the best.
Low: It’s the little pleasures in life.
High: Yeah. The big ones are a little hard to come by, lately.
Low: Wait a minute. Hold it right there, Carlos. Before we dig into your… stuff, I want you to do something for me.
Carlos: Another of your experiments?
Low: Haha! Sure. Now – close your eyes.
Low: Here. Take that cookie.
Low: Now. Take a bite, and I want you to focus on each small sensation. The way it crunches under your teeth. The way your mouth salivates. And of course, the way it tastes: the cookie, the nuts, little chunks of white chocolate. The world is nothing but you and this cookie. Go ahead.
Silence. Sound of chewing. Sound of the Persian guy singing “The Lady is a Tramp” like it’s a funeral dirge.
Low: There! Now. How was it?
Carlos: Nothing’s as good as that first bite.
Low: Except maybe that last bite. Thanks for indulging me. Now. What did you want to talk about?
Carlos: Funny, I… lost my train of thought.
Low: Good! That train was trouble, anyway. No offense.
The conversation continues in the same fashion. Carlos tells the man about his problems – mostly his recent divorce – and the man steers him through the process of how to think about those troubles. It isn’t psychiatry. Jack always pictured a psychiatrist as a guy with too many degrees digging around in someone’s mental closet, looking for grand Eureka moments for his personal collection. This guy is more like a mental mechanic performing a tune-up. The object isn’t to dissect the entire system but to adjust the timing belt, replace a spark plug, put in a new air filter. Jack is very surprised at this thought. He believes a writer would call it a metaphor. Jack isn’t one to create metaphors – but there’s something in the man voice, a subtle music that seems to introduce pictures into his mind. Along with the Peruvian coffee, which is causing his nerve endings to float around like one of those swimming-pool giant soda-straw things.
Another one! He’s beginning to suspect that the elf barista has slipped something narcotic into his brew. He sets down the stock listings and heads for the restroom, but the restroom is occupied, so he stands in the hallway scanning the bulletin board. He spots a flyer about the mysterious oil spills in the bay: Please do not handle injured waterfowl; call the rescue hotline below.
The flyer includes a photo of a besmirched bird; it looks like the one he saw the night before, and he realizes that that was when this metaphor business began. Jack thought of the bird being like himself – having lost an essential skill, a place in the order of things. It seems that Carlos is wandering in the same territory.
One of the hippie-ladies leaves the restroom and tries to hand him a spatula. Jack looks at it, puzzled. He has heard that the 1960s was an age of symbols, and wonders what it signifies when someone hands you a spatula.
“It’s the bathroom key,” she explains. She shakes the keychain looped around the handle.
“Oh,” says Jack. “Thanks.”
The hippie-lady pats him on the cheek – pats him on the cheek! – and says, “No problem, cutie.”
I will never get used to this place, thinks Jack. He settles to his business, meanwhile trying to process some idea about the oily bird and the low-voiced man. Does the oily bird get the worm? Thompson said he got his best thinking done at the urinal. Jack had dismissed it as yet another product of Thompson’s gutter-bound brain cells, but he did have a good point: there wasn’t much else you could do.
Returning past the bulletin board, Jack spots another flyer: a familiar silver-bearded figure wearing a cordial smile. “Feeling Stuck? Want to Get a Life? Get a Life Coach!” The name under the photo is Benjamin Haas, Jr. Jack finds the same face at the table next to his, the low-voiced man now chuckling at the Sunday comics. The same man who, last night, told him about the freezing bird.
Jack walks toward the man, holding the spatula in front of him like a divining rod. When he stops at the table, the man looks at him and says, “No thanks. Don’t need it quite yet.”
Jack looks at the spatula as if he has no idea how it got there.
“Oh! No. I… I think…” (He’s having a hard time getting this thought out.) “I think I’d like a life coach.”
Benjamin Haas, Jr. studies him carefully, the way one might study a wounded bird. “Tell you the truth, I’m sort of finished for the day, but, well – Hey! I know. What are you doing right now?”
“I’m headed for my regular constitutional. Why don’t you join me, and we’ll see if you pass muster.”
Ben spends the first twenty minutes rambling on about politics, fast-food obesity and the central irony of blues music. Jack is very comfortable with this. He is well practiced at the role of sounding board. He finds that people will talk for hours if you let them, and will express much appreciation afterward for your contribution to the “conversation.” This trait may well have been the one thing – besides his talent with numbers – that accounted for his success at C-Valve. And also, inadvertently, contributed to its end.
The only break in Jack’s silence comes as they approach Big Brown. Jack feels like he’s doing a good job of not letting on, but Ben stops to give the house a good hard glare.
“Why they let those bastards build that… Kennedy compound I’ll never know. Probably some Silicon Valley hotshot.”
“Probably,” says Jack.
“So you say you’re in accounting?”
“‘Downsized.’ Cute word. Sounds like they put you under some laser device and Shazam! You’re an action figure. Then they give you a Barbie doll for the lonely nights and send you on your way.”
The idea strikes the visual end of Jack’s funny bone and he lets out a hiccup of a laugh.
“Wow!” says Ben. “Got an actual laugh out of you. Oughta charge you extra for that. Because – no offense, mind you – you’re generally about as wildly witty as a brick. Oh, and this little walkentalk is charge-free, by the way. Don’t want to scare you off. We can figure out the finances later.”
“So this job. Sixty hours a week?”
“Sometimes more. I didn’t mind.”
“The noble Silicon Valley martyr,” says Ben. “Oh yeah, I know that species. Once they’re all fried up and need to find themselves, they all come to Santa Cruz County.”
Jack thinks of correcting him. After all, he’s here on assignment – to take care of Thompson’s house. But that would bring up the scourge that is Big Brown, so he decides to shut up.
“So what’s the problem? Can’t find another job?”
“No. And I’ve tried. It’s just, that’s how it is in The Valley, these days. Tight.”
“Uh-huh. Considered another line of work?”
“You mean… taxes? CPA?”
“No. I mean, something besides accounting.”
The idea strikes Jack so oddly that he can’t respond.
“There are jobs besides accounting, Jack. I know some folks who’ve had three, four different careers. Hell, I know a guy who went from VP of marketing to teaching special education. He’s never been more challenged, and he’s never been happier.”
“I just… I don’t know if I’m the type that could change like that. That would be… weird.”
“Hmmm. Well, life is weird. And speaking of weird…”
They’re nearing the end of the beach, where tall putty-colored cliffs cut off the shoreline. Ben steers them toward the piles of large rocks that line the base. What Jack had first glimpsed as a group of picnickers turns into something entirely different. Rocks have been stacked in tall, precarious formations resembling human figures. On each of them, the top rock remains there seemingly by magic, like one of those impossibly balanced boulders you see in postcards from Arizona. Jack steps up to one – about the size and shape of a baguette – and judges the point of contact with the rock below at no more than a square inch.
He looks at Ben. “It’s a trick, right? Some kind of glue?”
“Not at all,” says Ben. “I’d prove it to you, but I’m not in the habit of vandalizing works of art.”
“Well, it’s impressive, but… art?”
“Have you ever seen anything like it before? Has it nudged your sense of possibilities? Just a little?”
Jack loses track of the questions. No? Yes?
“Not only that. Have you considered the way in which these figures are grouped?”
Jack scans the tableau: one tall, rotund figure at center, a dozen smaller figures in two neat rows to his right. To the left is a figure that appears to be seated, with a taller figure standing over it. Oh, this is stupid, he thinks. They’re just rocks!
“His name is White Horse,” says Ben. “I know – white guy, Indian name, Santa Cruz hippie-dippie shit. And he’s got long hair, and he plays guitar in a band. But he makes a good point. He has taught himself to do this extraordinary thing through extreme patience and a lot of practice. He considers it a spiritual discipline. The balance of things, the oneness of things, the way that objects interact. It might sound loopy, but for White Horse it works, because when he’s out here for hours balancing rocks, he’s actually balancing himself. He is one of the most peaceful, rational beings I know. But in Silicon Valley? There he’d be a freak.”
“Well yes!” says Jack. “This is not a normal thing for an adult human being to be doing.”
Ben rubs his beard and approaches Jack slowly. “So. Have you figured it out yet?”
The answer arrives at once, like an image in a slideshow. “It’s a courtroom – a trial.”
Ben holds his smile for a long time. “There’s hope for you yet.” He starts back down the beach, leaving Jack to follow.
This is what a life coach does? Jack thinks. Look at rocks? When do we work on my resume?
They traverse a shallow sand-stream left over from a recent rainstorm, and Ben seems to emerge from his thoughts.
“How long did you work at C-Valve?”
“Wow! Loyalty, Don’t see that much.” He picks up a flat stone and whirls it sidearm at the water. It skips three times and punctures an incoming wave. “How’s your cash flow?”
“Six months severance, mostly paid-off house.”
“Hey, you paid for it; your company paid for it. If you need it, use it.”
“The thing is, Jack, I’m not on the clock right now, so I swore I would do no analysis on this little hike, but this one’s easy. What’s painfully plain to see is that you, my friend, have led an extremely narrow – no, no, let’s use a more positive word – an extremely focused existence. Faced with your current predicament, the principal skill you now need to obtain is how to take a broader view of the world – how to see the plentiful opportunities that each situation presents to you. And you, my friend, are tremendously fortunate – you have this lovely little window of time in which to see what other styles of living the world has to offer. You don’t have to adopt any of them, you just need to know that they exist. What are you doing tonight?”
“Um… watching TV?” He finds it strange that anyone would think he might have plans.
“I usually take my time with these kind of things – but you’re a hard case, Jack, so I’m going to try a little immersion therapy. Plus, I just happen to have an… opportunity in the very near future. The thing is, though, you have to give me the luxury of absolute trust. Nothing in my plans will do you any real harm, okay?”
Certain sentences carry a single revealing word, and with this one it’s real. Real harm. But the idea of handing his troublesome life over to somebody else for a while is tremendously appealing.
“Sure,” he says. He picks up a rock and hurls it at the surf. It angles over sideways and knifes into the water.
The Beast Has Eight Beats
Jack perches on a long wood-slat bench outside the State Park Safeway, holding the trio of objects that Ben asked him to purchase: a four-pack of Guinness Stout (which he has never tried before), a twelve-pack of bluefin tuna sushi (which he has never tried before) and a package of Peruvian coffee beans (which he has tried once). The dusk is dropping heavily on the parking lot, seasoned with the veil of ocean moisture that never really leaves the Aptos air. A squadron of cypress trees skulk along across the street, looking like caped villains with their rough, sweeping limbs.
He is yanked from his meditations by Ben, whose face appears before him at dwarf elevation. Ben sits in a white Miata convertible, which looks very much like a toy car at an amusement park.
“Jump in!” says his coach. “I think you can squeeze your groceries behind the seat there. Not much space, but it’s usually just enough.”
Jack’s still folding his legs into the meager space beneath the dash when Ben pops the clutch and they vault across the lot. Jack fights the gravity of a left turn to wrestle a seat belt across his shoulder, and soon they’re zipping along Highway One, south toward Watsonville. Ben shouts over the rush of air.
“Got this car in a swap, for staining a guy’s deck in Palo Alto! Poor guy – married, two young kids. I felt like I was taking his bachelorhood away! We’re going to Salinas! Y’got any rhythm?”
“I have no idea!”
“You will soon!”
They sweep into the rolling farmlands south of Watsonville, then cloverleaf inland into a series of tree-lined canyons. Ben turns right onto a familiar stretch of 101, but three miles later he takes a left and Jack’s lost again: another canyon, more farmlands (ribbons of strawberry plants underlain with plastic), a street of tiny ranch-style homes, a limestone mine lit up like a car dealership, then a long, straight drag along the base of the dark hills east of Salinas. From there, Ben narrates his directions.
“Okay, a lit-up sign on a brick wall to the left. Kensington? Binghamton? Ah, Foothill Estates! Then immediately to the right, an angled wooden gate – check! A right at the funky gray hangar, couple of speed bumps – you can really feel the road in a Miata, huh?”
They follow a leftward arc of gravel road, pull through a gap in a high chain-link fence and arrive at a line of bushes before a long mobile home with a carport. What’s much more difficult to explain is the scene directly in front of them: bars of bright red, blue and green flying about the front yard like a trio of lunatic nightbirds.
“Oh, it’s that crazy Willie again,” says Ben. He flicks off the headlights and Jack’s eyes begin to adjust: a small woman and a small man are assailing a large man with light sabers, constructing a ballet of Robin Hoodish leaps and spins.
“Grab your groceries and follow me,” says Ben. “We’ll ignore these roustabouts and head inside.”
Jack loads up and feels his way along, tracing a line of concrete squares to the bottom of a small stairway. Ben reaches the top and is about to enter when the door swings inward, the porch light comes on and out pops a tall woman with an impressive head of curly gray-blonde hair. At the sight of Ben she explodes into a smile, wrapping him in a hug that almost makes him drop the large canvas sack that he’s carrying. He sets it down carefully and continues the embrace, the both of them exclaiming away.
“Ben! Terra! Terra! Ben! What the… How the… So long! Geez!”
Some time later, Ben finally recalls his hanger-on and turns to Jack. “Terra! I have an initiate for you.”
Terra gives a witchy cackle, her eyes lighting up with a remarkably bright blue-gray. “Ah-haeeeh! Young fresh flesh for my par-tee!”
“This is Jack Teagarden.”
“Hi.” With his hands full of groceries, Jack offers a rather lame head-nod.
“Nice to meetcha, Jack. Let’s get your booty to the booty table.” She takes one of his bags and peeks inside. “Sushi! I love sushi.”
Inside is a fairly normal-looking living room: fake hardwood floor, igneous-rock fireplace, high angled ceiling. The contents, however, are something else: more drums than Jack has ever seen, standing around in a cluster like the figures in White Horse’s rocky courtroom.
“So this is what we’re doing?” asks Jack.
“Ben!” says Terra. “You didn’t even tell him what we’re doing? What is that, some kind of life-coach torture trick?” She turns to Jack. “We are the Monkey Tribe. We play drums, and drink and smoke, and talk and eat and goof off until all hours of the night.”
“But I… don’t know how to drum.”
“You will soon! And nobody will make you do it. You’ll simply be unable to resist the gravitational pull. Believe me – I’ve seen it a hundred times. Now if you’ll excuse me, Mama has to feed the horses before she gets to party. Need I say, make yourself at home.”
She disappears out the front door, letting in a tumult of Jedi shouts. A small border collie, patchwork of black and white fur, trots in from the TV room to inspect the newcomers. Ben squats down to rake a hand over the dog’s head and talk to him in the voice of a pirate.
“Jack me lad, how’reya doin’ thurr Jack? Ahr, yurr a fine dog you is, Jack.” Ben looks up and laughs. “Oh. Now that’s funny. I had not even made the connection. Jack Dog, meet Jack Teagarden.”
Jack Teagarden gives an awkward wave. He has never really trusted dogs. They’re not far enough removed from wild beasts. You never knew when one might decide to use your finger for an appetizer.
“Here,” says Ben. “Like this.” He takes Jack’s hand and pulls it to Jack’s nose. He gives it a thorough sniffing.
“Gotta enter your scent on the canine database,” says Ben. “Well go ahead, give his head a pat. Christ! We gotta get you loosened up. Let’s start up the Guinness.”
He goes to the kitchen cabinet and pulls out two pint glasses, then opens two cans of Guinness and quickly pours them in. They froth up like witches’ brews, then settle into a chocolate brown liquid with an inch-high cap of custard foam. Ben hands one to Jack and raises a toast. “To your first. First of many.”
Jack sips through the foam and strikes the liquid, a bitter licorice shock. Ben lets out a satisfied sigh, then spots the lemon-sucking expression on Jack’s face and bursts out laughing.
“Sorry,” he says. “It is definitely an acquired taste. But the acquisition is half the fun.”
The Jedis make their entrance with a burst of laughter and verbal volleys. The smaller man is giving the larger man a post-game critique.
“The problem is, you’re looking to win the fight at any cost and you’re missing the subtleties. The larger aim is the construction of an exciting, aesthetically satisfying battle.”
The big man gives an evil, high-pitched laugh. “Pretty funny, coming from a man whose arms have both been sliced off. Hahahahaha!”
The smaller man, whose sideburns and Mediterranean nose give him the air of a pirate, stops when he spots Ben.
“Ben! Who have you brought with you?”
Ben gives the man a rowdy hug full of backslaps. “Ivan! Good to see you. This is Jack. He’s a client; I’ve brought him here for monkey therapy.”
“Aye,” says Ivan, grinning maniacally. “Everybody needs a little monkey therapy.”
These kind of comments are doing nothing to put Jack at ease, and matters are not improved when the rest of the tribe takes this as a cue to squeal and yip like chimpanzees. Terra comes in, smacking her hands together exactly like someone who’s been feeding horses. “Oh God,” she says. “They’re at it already.”
“So Jack,” says Ivan. “That scalawag over there is Willie – who so graciously brought his high-end light sabers. And the blonde is Constance, our Scandinavian beauty.
Willie and Constance are busy placing a set of bongos on a stand, so they offer smiles and nods. Willie is a robust Latino with a barrel chest and a pompadour of thick brown hair. Constance is ballerina thin, with straight blonde hair cut in a line over her eyes, high cheekbones and a big-toothed smile.
“That’s the crowd so far,” says Ivan. “But we’ll have more later.”
“So when do you start drumming?” asks Jack. The “you” is intentional – he cannot envision being an actual participant.
Ivan cracks a laugh, his brown eyes sparking. “Nothing happens on a schedule at Monkey Tribe. It just happens when it does. But first, I think we need to throw some herbs into the stew.”
Ivan heads into the kitchen to rifle through a drawer. Jack finds that Ben is still beside him, looking over him just like a life coach.
“They’re making a stew?” asks Jack.
Ben snickers. “No. They’re preparing some pot.”
At the very thought of an illegal substance, Jack’s heart is racing. “Well I… can’t do that.”
Ben claps a hand on Jack’s shoulder. “Jack, you don’t have a job, and you say you’re not going to get one anytime soon. So no one’s going to be testing you. If ever there was a time when you should try some pot, it would be right now. And if you’re going to get any actual benefit out of tonight, I am not going to have you walking around with that enormous stick up your ass. As your licensed mental health consultant, I am ordering you to smoke some marijuana.”
“But I… I…”
Jack is feeling confused at Ben’s language, at the vision of large objects sticking out of his rear-end. The next thing he knows, Ivan is handing him a small ceramic pipe shaped like a penis.
Ivan is desperately fighting a giggle. “Dude! I am so sorry. I lost my best pipe last week and… Terra got this as a gag gift at her wedding shower, and it’s all we’ve got. Works pretty well, though, for a… for a dick!”
Ivan bursts into laughter. Once he recovers, he holds the head of the penis to Jack’s mouth. Oh God, thinks Jack. Don’t think about it, don’t think about it.
“Here,” says Ivan. “Put your finger on the carb, right near the… scrotum! Oh, God. Don’t overdo it, just breathe in slowly.” He holds a lighter to the bowl, filled with light green, grass-looking, well… grass.
Fighting phobias both illegal and homosexual, Jack breathes in too hard and sends the smoke straight to the back of his throat. Ivan pulls away the pipe as Jack surrenders to a hunched-over, hands-on-knees coughing fit.
“Ah the young ones,” says Ben. “Always so eager.” He takes the pipe and holds in the smoke, sucking at his teeth.
“Jesus, Jack. You all right?” It’s Terra, framed by a cloud. From his dog’s-eye view, Jack can see what an Earth Mother she is – large breasts, broad shoulders, muscular legs. Something about her face, also, a pale complexion that glows angelically. Oh God, he thinks. I’m stoned already.
“You’re not stoned yet,” she says. “Don’t worry. Here, try this.”
She hands him a joint, which is much more suited to his abilities.
“Okay,” says Terra. “Now this time inhale, but hold it in for a while.”
He does as he’s told, and Terra smiles approvingly. Jack looks around for Ben, but he appears to have drifted off.
It seems to take forever for the pot to take hold, but just about the time that Jack is having this thought he realizes that he actually is stoned. It feels like he’s walking around underwater, without the need for oxygen – or maybe he has gills, how cool would that be? Every few minutes, he seems to punch back through to his normal consciousness, and each time he finds himself in a new physical location, as if he’s undergoing some kind of teletransportation. During one of these, he finds himself having an animated conversation with Constance over the idea of voluntary evolution, and he finds that his brain has separated into two discrete camps. One camp takes what Constance has said and spits back new ideas in complex, cogent combinations (“It could be that computerized intelligence is the ultimate tool that we have developed for intentionally advancing the mass intelligence”). The other camp appears in the form of a coffeehouse slacker, coolly smoking a clove cigarette and saying, “Dude! How are you even doing this? You are so stoned!”
“And then there’s this constant, individual search for identity. Are we really defined by our jobs, or the ways in which each of us cultivates our intelligence and, thereby, our spiritual selves?”
This is Constance. The tone of her voice is simultaneously soft and firm, a dichotomy that Jack finds intriguing. Did he just think the word dichotomy?
“I mean, look at your case. That is so fucked up that you have to go through all that stuff just because some cold-blooded corporation has to send another thousand jobs overseas.”
“Oh God! And the really screwed-up part is…” (This seems to be Jack’s own voice, which sounds oddly loose and vibrant, like a morning-radio DJ.) “…the fucking bastard who cost me my job got off scot-free. And now he’s letting me stay at his beach house while he’s off on vacation. But that’s only because I caught him cheating on his wife in Oregon. You ever hear of the Devil’s Horns? Or Multnomah Falls? In fact, this house has its own waterfall. Crazy, high-tech haunted mansion. Scares the hell out of me.”
“Dude!” says the slacker. He picks at the fresh rattlesnake tattoo on his arm. “Why the hell are you telling her all this? Was that a drum?”
Jack teletransports again, surfacing on an easy chair as a black cat purrs at his shoulder. The stereo is playing an African tribe before the big hunt, thin, coal-black men jumping around a fire in Picasso masks. To his left he finds the moon goddess Terra, one ear cocked to a round frame drum painted with an Irish knot. She holds a stick with bulbous tips on either end, shaking it back and forth across the skin to produce a rolling thunder. Above and behind her is Constance, wearing a focused expression as she works her hands over two standing drums – he believes these are congas.
Across the room, Ivan stands with a cylindrical drum tied around his waist, rolling his hands across the top. The rolls are incredibly rapid, creating high bursts of sound that ride the top of the rumble like a surfer at the peak of a wave. Sitting just behind Ivan is Ben, sipping calmly from a pint of Guinness. He sets it down, then picks up a dark, lacquered frog and runs a stick along its ridged back, producing a sound very much like a frog. (“Genius!” says the slacker.) Ben scans the room, one player at a time, mapping the sonic layout.
The front door opens, admitting a red flame with green cat’s-eyes. Willie jumps from behind his bongos to perform a greeting dance, gray goat’s hooves tied around his ankles. The red flame gives birth to a smile, and scarlet lips that kiss Willie on his plump cheek.
Jack looks down and realizes that he is holding a drum between his knees, a smaller version of Ivan’s. The drum carries a circle of dark fur around its rim, held tight by a fishnet of knots and strings. Jack follows the grain of the skin, swirls of butterscotch and chocolate against a field of sepia. The swirls are like words in a sentence; when he reaches the period, he thumps it with a finger. The drum gives out a hollow sound like black Peruvian coffee. The sound shakes all the way to his legbones, exiting out his toes, which are tapping to the beat of the tribe. He strikes the period with his palm and the sound nearly spills him from his chair. Jack smiles.
An hour later, they’re still at it. Jack’s hands begin to ache from the unaccustomed abuse. He scans the room to find his comrades intent on their work, their eyes settled on a middle space over their drumheads, driving the great rumbling beast forward. And yet, it’s the beast that’s truly in charge, like an enormous dog dragging its owner by a leash. Despite the physical distances between the drummers, they are closer in this conversation, this negotiation of rhythm, than if they were speaking face-to-face.
Jack’s hands are doing things that he really doesn’t understand; he has no idea where this ability might have come from. But on he goes, playing along the drumhead even as he finds the red flame directly across from him, seated on a low stool with a drum just like his. She flashes her green cat’s eyes, and appears to be sending him a message. It arrives in a single thump, and although Jack doesn’t get it, his hands do. He waits for the beast to circle back to that same place in time and sends the single thump right back. Flame girl grins, revealing a leftward quirk in her thick, pliable lips. She waits again on the beast and sends out two beats. (“It’s a djembe,” says the slacker. “You’re both playing djembes.”) Jack’s hands follow the circle and strike the same two. The two of them keep adding beats until they reach eight, and the beast can hold no more. The beast has eight beats! If you play two beats, you have to wait six more till the circle returns. If you play three, you wait five, four/four, one/seven. Numbers! No one told him there would be numbers. He sends the red flame a loopy grin, excuses himself from their tennis match and sets off into a roll, fractions too small to count, stirring up the blurred light with his fingers.
Jack hears an off-beat beneath the rumble and tracks the sound to the far side of the room, where Ivan sits behind a pair of white drums carved with Chinese calligraphy. He drives them forward with two padded mallets, stepping out of his pattern to hammer the two big beats. Jack’s hands are talking to him; they say, ‘It’s another message.’ The two beats begin to spread around the circle, making new converts, growing in volume, gathering silent space around themselves until they are sonic booms, shaking the walls. Ivan flairs the mallets over his head, a gesture that says, Get ready. The beast circles once more and down they come, followed by a hacked-off silence that sucks the air out of the room. The tribe answers with a thrilled chorus of laughter, shouting, Mexican gritos, a few stomps on the floor. Jack makes a sound like an overstimulated crow. The ruckus smooths out into a river of chatter: “That ending! What a I love that part where you Did you see Ivan dude! You were going off little clicking thing God! I’m so I mean awesome! I don’t believe we’ve met.”
A small white hand, palms red with use. He follows it up the arm to a porcelain face, cat’s eyes, red flame of hair.
“Hi,” says Jack.
“Yes you are. What’s your name, sailor?”
“No. That’s the dog.”
“No, no,” says Jack, then loses himself in a fit of giggling.
Ben’s face appears between them. “No, it really is Jack. Jack, this is Audrey, the bird lady of Monterey.”
“She’s fucking gorgeous,” says Jack, who is completely unaware that he has just spoken these words out loud.
“Ha!” Audrey laughs. “Smooth talker.”
“No, believe me, really,” says Jack. “Not talking smooth ever.”
“Okayee.” Audrey looks to Ben. “First-timer?”
Ben laughs huskily. “For everything: drumming, pot, hookah pipe…”
“Hookah pipe!” says Audrey. “Where?”
“Follow me,” says Ben. “You too, Jack.”
“Right,” says Jack – but Jack’s intentions are immediately derailed by the smell of egg rolls. He discovers an entire tray of them on the table, steaming with heat, and attacks them like a bear waking from hibernation. This causes a white flame of laughter from his left. It’s Terra, her face glistening with sweat from the drumming.
“I don’t know why the munchies are so funny,” she says. “They just are. After you’re done gorging yourself, young man, Ben says you should go back toward the car and you’ll spot him. And if you need some extra incentive, Audrey’ll be there, too.”
“Are those deviled eggs?” says Jack. “And sushi! Oh my God.”
After consuming an enormous quantity of food, Jack grabs a chocolate brownie and makes for the front door. The lawn is dark again, and two tall, gangly men are slashing at each other with light sabers, each of them holding a can of beer in his free hand. Jack spots the dull white ghost of Ben’s Miata and heads down the walk. Hearing hoarse laughter from the carport, he rounds the corner to find Willie and Constance roasting marshmallows over a trio of logs in a tiny barbecue grill. Beyond them is a shimmering blue light that smells like strawberries. It’s a hot tub, with three occupants: Ivan, Ben and Audrey. Ben calls out.
“Jack! Over here, lad. Have a dip and a smoke. Or a smoke and a dip.”
“Or a doke,” says Ivan.
“Or a smip,” says Audrey.
Ben inserts the tip of a long, thin hose into his mouth and releases a cloud of smoke. The hose trails back to a tall object on a nearby picnic table, looking like the kind of lamp that sometimes contains genies. The lamp wears a cap of aluminum foil, bearing two ash-gray bars with glowing orange hearts.
“Jack,” says Ben. “Is that chocolate on your teeth?”
“Yes!” says Jack.
“The brownies next to the deviled eggs?”
“I think so. Why?”
Ben taps a thoughtful finger against his cheek, then smiles. “I’ll… tell you later. So, are you coming in?”
“But…I don’t have a bathing suit.”
“Well that certainly didn’t stop us.”
It’s about this time that Jack notices Audrey’s breasts, small milk-white mounds with strawberry-colored nipples. He feels his face growing hot.
Ben takes another puff and hands the pipe to Audrey. He gives Jack a serious study. “I’m sorry, Jack. It could be I’m pushing you too hard. Lord knows, you have so far been a tremendously pleasant surprise. You were terrific on the drums.”
“Numbers,” says Jack. “It’s all numbers.”
“So it is! That’s marvelous, Jack. You are a certified public accountant of rhythm. However, I fear that you will miss out on this delicious feeling, of sitting naked in a hot tub with nothing but your friends and the stars! Let’s see, where is that switch.” He finds a dial on the side of the tub and turns off the underwater lamps. All that remains is a flickering light from the barbecue.
“Now’s your chance, Jack!” says Audrey. “Take it off, baby!”
Something about a gorgeous female commanding him to strip makes Jack laugh out loud; he decides to further the gag by pretending he’s actually going to do it.
“Okay. But only if everyone closes their eyes.”
“Fine,” says Ben. “But you only get ten seconds. Ten… nine…”
It’s a part of Jack’s corporate nature that he simply cannot resist a deadline. He tears off his jeans, shirt and underwear, then vaults over the side of the tub with such haste that he almost slips and falls. He settles into a space between Ivan and Audrey, submerging his private parts just before Ben calls out zero and switches on the lights. His tubmates open their eyes, snickering.
Audrey smiles in a most adorable fashion. “Where do you find these babes in the wood, Ben?”
“Coffeehouses. This one was eavesdropping on one of my sessions and found me simply irresistible. Now, my student prince. You’ve come this far, you may as well try the hookah. Are you sure it was the brownies next to the deviled eggs?”
“I think so.”
“Okay, now this smokes just like a cigarette, and it won’t make you cough like the pot.”
Jack accepts the pipe-end from Audrey, trying hard to keep his eyes on her face. He holds the end in his teeth and breathes in. It’s a sweet smoke, vapor chewing gum, and he realizes it tastes like strawberries.
“It’s a flavored tobacco,” says Ben. “Very smooth.”
“Dude! Check that out.” Ivan gestures over the back fence. A sliver of moon is creeping past the ridgeline, a silver cap on the dark east hills. Audrey leans toward Jack to say something, which makes him that much more conscious of his nakedness. But he has to admit, the nakedness feels good. It’s not so much a sexual thing as a sense that he has crossed a line and now is dangling off the edge of the world, utterly unfettered, in a terrified sort of way. He also can’t believe he’s just had all of these thoughts in the time that it takes Audrey to lean his way.
“I hate to admit that I peeked,” she says. “But I couldn’t help noticing that you forgot to take off your socks.”
In such close quarters, her whisper may as well be an aria. Ivan and Ben burst into laughter. Jack practices a rough yoga attempting to remove said socks without revealing his privates. He lifts them like a pair of used condoms and tosses them to the cement with a dull splop.
The laughter dies down; Ivan manages to ignite a joint and send it around the tub. Jack smokes it without coughing, and feels sophisticated. The talking dies down in the dance of fireflame, stars sprinkled like grains of sugar on a pitch-black table. Jack feels that his synapses have been lain open to the night, and a thought enters the stream like the taste of a strawberry: This must be something like what they mean when they say “happiness.” He feels Audrey’s fingers folding around his.
He wakes to a green ceiling, color of avocado flesh, and hears far-off chatter, plus an odd mumbling sound, like the murmur of bad plumbing. He rolls over and finds he is facing a fuzzy blue object with eyes. The eyes are dark, with yellow circles. He reaches out to touch the fuzzy blue object and jams his finger against a wire.
His exclamation silences the conversation. The flaps of his avocado tent rustle open, allowing the entry of wild red hair followed by a sharp smile.
“Damn, boyfriend! ‘Bout time. Sorry about sticking you in here with the birds. They make all these little noises while I’m trying to sleep, so I always bring an extra tent. And they certainly weren’t going to bother you, because man did you crash! Too bad, too, because I was planning on testing out your man-parts – but, oh, probably better this way.”
Jack feels very much like he must be gawking, and then the word “gawk” boomerangs through his brain for deconstruction. Such a caveman-sounding word: “gok.” Me kill mammoth, have bar-bar-cue. But he should probably say something. Even with bloodshot eyes and electrocuted hair she is beautiful, and how often does he enjoy the privilege of sleeping in the tent of a beautiful woman?
“Well!” she says. “We’re back to square one. I’m Audrey. I was naked in a hot tub with you last night, but don’t worry, the Monkey Tribe has never once inspired a sexual harassment suit. So get the hell up, would you? We’re inside, drinking your coffee – excellent choice, by the way – and we’ve also got a nice little breakfast buffet. If you’re a good boy, you might even be able to sneak in a little shower, although I don’t know how long the hot water will hold out. Oh, and I found these dangling from a rose bush. Ciao!”
Audrey drops an item on the tent floor and ducks her head back through the flaps. As his eyes begin to focus, Jack recognizes the blue and white stripes of his boxer shorts. This brings up the possibility that there might be some gaps in his memory. Sliding out of his sleeping bag, he discovers grass stains on his legs. He scoots sideways into his jeans (he’ll leave the boxers alone, thank you) and scruffs his C-Valve golf shirt over his head. Then he crawls through the flaps into the shock of sunlight. Standing up, he realizes that every muscle in his possession is sore.
When he enters the living room, he is greeted by two small horses, or possibly great Danes. They are white with black markings, snow fields with chunks of coal, leading Jack to conclude that there is something in the water hereabouts that drains all the color from the animals. One of the monsters steps forward and gives him a blank-faced stare, like a bored bureaucrat asking for ID. Jack sees that his eyes are a startling sky blue, and wonders if it’s advisable for him to move, or breathe.
“Luna! It’s okay.” Terra comes to take the beast by the collar. “It’s okay, little girl. He’s a Monkey. Now be nice.”
As if to provide further testimony, border collie Jack splits the great Danes like a field goal and jumps against Jack’s legs for a rubdown. Jack ruffles the dog’s head, and then a round of applause erupts from the dining room. A dozen breakfasters are gathered around a long table, laughing, smiling, clapping.
Terra notes Jack’s puzzled look and takes him by the elbow to the kitchen, where the counters are laid out with platters of scrambled eggs, bacon and casaba melon.
“Forgive them, Jack, but we’ve never seen a Monkey debut quite like yours.”
Ivan steps in to give him a chummy slap on the back. “And… we have a new activity to add to our tribal repertoire: naked light saber battles.”
Willie jumps in with a Darth Vader voice: “You are a worthy opponent, Luke Bumflasher.”
The only words Jack can get out are, “I have to…” He walks quickly to the TV room – noting a small pen near the stereo holding a black pig – then remembers a bathroom to the right. Closing the doors behind him, he hears Terra say, “Oh God, I hope we haven’t scared him off.”
Now that he’s found a refuge, Jack determines to indulge in every stall tactic known to mankind. He enjoys a long sit on the toilet, staring at the patterns in the green-and-white linoleum until they begin to reveal faces and Greek symbols. After that, he takes a marathon shower, using what he can of the available soaps and shampoos to clean up the streaks of mud and grass, some of which are located in rather exotic locations. He dries off, combs his hair and brushes his teeth (these last two accomplished with his fingers) and is contemplating a shave when a quiet knock arrives at the door.
“Jack? It’s Ben. Are you okay? Would you let me in please?”
He considers saying no, but then those dreaded words “absolute trust” float into his mind. He unlocks the door, then sits down on the closed toilet seat. Ben comes in, looking impressively natty in white tennis shorts and a flowery red aloha shirt.
“Look, Jack. I know this might be shocking news, but last night, you may have discovered that you have a wild side. A wild, creative, fun side. And it was beautiful. And just to clarify, you may have started the Striptathlon last night, but believe me, we were all more than happy to join in. Poor Willie managed to wander into the electric horse-fence, which is much more embarrassing than anything you did. Is he ashamed? Hell no! He’s a Monkey. You may think it’s disturbing to find out that you’re a bit of a deviant, but son! That’s what Monkey Tribe is for. It’s a safe harbor where we all get to be our own insane little children for a while.”
He stops to wait for an answer from Jack, but Jack has nothing to offer.
“Listen. If it makes you feel any better, do you remember those brownies next to the deviled eggs?”
Jack blinks his eyes. “No.”
“Well no, I guess you wouldn’t. Those were pot brownies, and I saw you eating one a little bit before your… adventure.”
Jack nods his head. Ben puts a hand on his shoulder.
“Listen. You have exceeded all expectations. Your Monkey Tribe SAT scores are off the charts. I cannot ask a single thing more. But sooner or later, you do have to leave this bathroom, and there’s an entire room of people out there who would love to be your friends. It’s a good general rule of living that you shouldn’t turn away friends. So give me five minutes to give them a little briefing, and we will all pretend that nothing happened at all last night. Deal?”
Jack thinks about it and realizes that sooner or later he will have to re-enter the world.
Ben leaves, and Jack can hear the expected sounds: the general chatter coming to a halt, Ben’s baritone request, and a gradual return to the noises of a morning-after buffet, along with someone making small patters on a conga (a little hair of the dog, as it were). Jack makes a slow re-entry, and what he doubts will happen actually does. The breezy chatter goes on, and everyone pretty much ignores him. Terra comes over to guide him into a chair at the table.
“The food was getting cold, so I microwaved a plate for you. Dig in whilst I prepare you a cup of that lovely Peruvian coffee. Black?”
“Sure,” he says. “Thanks.” He glances out the window at the brown hills, hinting at green where the recent rains have had their effect. The ridge dips in the center, a perfect location for a giant saddle. Jack considers a cousin for the Imp of the Perverse: the Imp of the Distant. Sitting here, the Imp would like nothing more than to be standing on top of that hill. Were the Imp actually standing on that hill, he would look down on the merry little farmhouse with the black and white animals and wish that he were there. Jack realizes how suddenly hungry he feels – the same wolf-mad hunger he felt at Multnomah Falls – and he tunnels into his scrambled eggs. Terra places a mug of coffee next to him and runs a hand over the top of his head. Her fingers leave a trail of electrons, a lighter-than-air tingle that stays with him all the way through breakfast.
The Tribe seems to be largely mellowed by the previous night’s activity, but there are still a few small projects underway. Jack returns outside to find Ivan at the center of the lawn, unreeling the last few feet from a roll of kite-string. The object of his effort is a standard-looking frame kite bearing the face of a red-tailed hawk. Ivan seems to be about the mellowest of the Monkeys, so Jack walks over to attempt a conversation.
“Hey.” Ivan’s wearing fly-eye sunglasses that give him a distinct rock-star aura. “This thing goes up pretty easy in the afternoon. That coastal wind really picks up. I put it up yesterday when people were just arriving – they said they could see it for miles.”
“Cool,” says Jack. He’s very pleased with his word choice. Cool. Very universal. Ivan ties the kite-spool to a fence of sun-gray pickets.
“So,” Jack continues. “Was I… Was I any good last night?”
“At light saber…? Oh. Right. Not supposed to mention that.”
“No. At drumming.”
“Yeah, actually. Yes. It was interesting. You kind of went through the standard newbie Monkey process. At first you were pretty timid. Considering the nature of our little group, very understandable. As the pot kicked in, however, I think you actually got a little too enthusiastic. You had some good energy, but you were off on your own; you weren’t keyed in to what the group was doing around you. Again, very understandable – that first taste of group drumming is very adrenalizing. But I think by flaming away like that, you sort of broke the back of your nervousness, and right after that, you started watching everybody else, and sort of… clicked in. It was very cool. All of a sudden, you just got it.”
“I’m an accountant. I’m… well, this is embarrassing, but I’m in love with numbers. And I didn’t expect there to be numbers in drumming.”
“Yeah!” says Ivan. “It’s all fractions. You’re taking this continuum of time and knifing it up like a big submarine sandwich.”
Jack solidifies a thought by focusing on Ivan’s kite. “I was watching those rolls you were doing. They were much too fast to quantify, but at one point I realized that you were dividing each fractional beat into three.”
Ivan grins. “Triplets.”
“Oh, like twins?”
“Exactly. A beat – or a zygote – divided into three.”
“I don’t even know how I knew it was three.”
Ivan slaps Jack’s shoulder. “It could be you’re a natural. But it also could be you’ve never thought with your solar plexus before.”
“You mean, your gut?”
“I like ‘solar plexus’ better. Guts are messy.”
Jack emits a sound, something like a high-pitched bark. He thinks it’s a laugh, but he doesn’t remember it ever sounding like that before. The front door swings open, producing Terra and Audrey. Audrey’s hair is damp from the shower, and hangs down in fetching tendrils, as if she’s moussed them down for a trip along the catwalk.
“The red flame,” says Jack. “She’s the one who gave me the numbers.”
“The Red Flame?” says Ivan. “Sounds like some kind of superhero. So… why don’t you go thank her?”
Because it would be like talking to the homecoming queen, thinks Jack. It would be like talking to Katie McPhillips. He handed her a slice of pizza at the cafeteria once. She said “Thank you” and smiled. He almost passed out.
“Did I… the naked thing, last night. I really did that?”
“You sure did. And I hope you get over the embarrassment soon, because it was fucking brilliant, and it will soon pass into Monkey lore, and we will be sitting around telling that story for years. You’re a star, man!”
Jack looks carefully at the grass, feeling grossly ashamed. Ivan slaps him on the shoulder. “Look at it this way, Bubba. You could go over there right now, find yourself unable to produce anything but doo-wop syllables – ramalamadingdong, sh-boom sh-boom – and still not cause yourself more embarrassment than you did last night. Besides, I think she liked what she saw.”
Jack’s not positive, but he suspects that, under the sunglasses, Ivan is winking. While he’s looking, the surface of said glasses produces the image of a woman. When he turns, Audrey is inches away, grabbing his hand.
“Hi Jack. Give me a hand with something, wouldja?” She pulls him toward the green tent, then gets on all fours to crawl inside. He finds this point-of-view very unsettling.
“Come on in!” she calls. He gets on his knees – achy from last night’s battle – and finds her squatting behind the bird cage.
“We need to lift it just a little, so it doesn’t tear the floor of the tent, and take it outside. There’s a handle along the bottom there.”
The operation is awkward, but the cage is lighter than it looks. Soon they’re kneeling on the lawn, looking over a pair of large blue-gray pigeons, burbling excitedly in the sudden light. Audrey reaches inside, moving her fingers slowly over the larger of the two, and clamps her hand across its body, securing both wings. She pulls it carefully outside, shifts her grip so she’s holding it with both hands, and shows it to Jack.
“This is Mamet,” she says, teacher-like. “He’s a racing homer, which is why he looks like a regular pigeon on steroids. Mamet’s my fastest flyer, and when he’s courting a female he sounds like he’s swearing, which is why I named him Mamet. He’s what you call a blue bar, ‘cause he’s light blue all around except for those dark epaulets on his wings. He’s a little frantic right now – and you would be, too, if some gigantic alien being were holding your wings. But watch this.”
She returns Mamet to her one-hand grip, then holds him upside-down and strokes his chest. He grows immediately still.
“It’s almost a hypnotic trance,” she says. “Now, hold out your hands so they’re facing each other, and touch your thumbs together. And hold on tight – he’s pretty strong.”
Audrey slides the pigeon into Jack’s hands. He’s impressed by the pulse of strength as Mamet struggles against his new captor. Jack slides his left hand around both wings and copies Audrey’s upside-down chest stroke. The bird emits two throaty murmurs and then grows silent. Audrey reacts with a pleased smile, an expression that would melt him into the grass were he not concentrating so hard on the task at hand. She reaches into the cage and extracts a slightly smaller bird covered in dark blue feathers.
“This is Mamet’s wife, Cigarette. Pigeons are monogamous, actually – much more so than humans. I think I named her Cigarette because I was trying to give up smoking. She’s a blue check – note the cross-hatches in her feathers. Now, if you’ll stand with me…”
Jack shuffles his feet and presses upward, keeping a close eye on his captive.
“Now, we go for the release. Put Mamet right-side-up, so he can catch his bearings.”
Jack flips him slowly over. The bird’s eyes go back to open, alert circles, but he’s not struggling like he was before.
“Okay now. On three, we’re going to toss them lightly into the air. Ready? One, two, three!”
They toss the birds skyward, and they each take wing, joining up as a pair and circling the house three times before heading off for the hills of Monterey.
“They circle like that to get their readings,” says Audrey. “Some kind of magnetic pulse, or so goes the theory. This is a pretty short flight, though. They’ll certainly beat me home. I took them to Reno once.”
“Wow,” says Jack.
Audrey seems amused and enchanted at his relative lack of speech, the natural attraction of the talkative for the mute. She reaches a hand to the side of Jack’s head, grabs a hank of his hair and pulls him forward for a kiss that could almost be described as fierce. Jack feels their teeth scrape together, and a flicker of tongue across his lips.
Audrey pulls away, wearing a look of triumph. “Sorry. You have this irresistible innocence about you, and I just wanted to smash it into little pieces.”
Jack exhales. “O…kay.”
“I’m glad you decided to become a Monkey.”
“I am too.”
“Jack! Stop molesting that poor girl. Time to go.”
It’s Ben, walking their way with Ivan and Terra.
“All set to go? Got anything inside?”
“Um. No. Not that I remember.”
The fivesome conducts a round of hugs in all possible combinations. Jack recalls the look of Audrey waving over her shoulder as she strides toward the house. Strides. A few moments later, he’s on a farmland road, the wind scouring his hair, his lips still vibrating with Audrey’s kiss. He spots Ivan’s kite, a tiny red dot over the farmhouse. Ben shouts at him over the noise.
“You better watch out for that girl! She’ll turn you into a human being.”
The motion of the car lulls Jack quickly to sleep. Waking up near Watsonville, he’s feeling groggy, and when Ben asks for directions he forgets his guilty secret. In a few minutes, they’re pulling up to Thompson’s monstrous house.
“You bastard!” says Ben. “You’re the owner of Big Brown?”
“Oh Jesus,” says Jack. “No, I’m just house-sitting.”
“Well shit – give me a tour!”
Ben hops out, and Jack follows him up the tiled steps. “I thought you didn’t like this house,” he says.
“Aesthetically, maybe. But I’m dying to see what’s inside.”
Ben is thrilled at the thumbprint security lock, the indoor rapids, the dangling hi-def, and especially the see-through shower. “Is there a third floor?” he asks. “Seems like I saw a set of stairs.”
“I haven’t been there,” says Jack. “It’s a little intimidating.”
“Follow me,” says Ben. “I will be your Sir Edmund Hillary. Ah, here it is.”
He boards a flight of stairs next to the bathroom, opens a double door at the top and flips a switch to reveal a single, enormous room containing a veritable amusement park: a set of weightlifting stations with a treadmill, a hardwood floor with wall mirrors and a barre, a wall lined with pinball and video games, a pool table, a miniature golf hole ending in a scale model of Big Ben, and what appears to be a single bowling lane littered with balls and pins.
“Wow!” says Ben. “This friend of yours may be yuppie corporate scum, but the boy certainly has style. Wait a minute. Is that another set of stairs?”
They climb a dozen metallic black risers next to the bowling lane, and find themselves at another double door. Ben swings through to a rooftop sundeck outfitted with fountains, patio tables, a pair of wooden porch swings and a large telescope under a white belvedere. A trip to the railing reveals a view of Seacliff Beach and the Concrete Boat. Ben turns back from his reconnaissance wearing a conniving grin.
“Jack meboy. I think I’ve got a brilliant fucking idea.”
A Butterfly with Sticky Feet
Jack awakes on the great white couch, and decides that the time has come to face the kitchen. Rounding the corner of the dividing wall, he comes upon an exhibit of bullet-gray steel. It reminds him of the kitchen in the pizza parlor where he worked during college. He tugs the huge metal slab of refrigerator door and discovers a sign in Thompson’s writing: For God’s sake, eat everything you can. This makes sense; gone for a month, the Floreses certainly wouldn’t want to return to a fridge full of rotting food. Freed by logic, Jack rifles the drawers for treasure. He lands upon a drawer that seems to be operating as a gourmet bagel center: tightly bagged poppyseed bagels, slices of fresh lox, two tubs of cream cheese (regular and garden herb) and a small jar of capers. Jack cuts two bagels in half, drops them in an eight-slot toaster (which Army division lives in this place?), and immediately gets a call on his cell phone.
“Jack! How you feelin’?”
“You’re doing beautifully, me lad. I’ve got three assignments for you today.”
“More like homeplay. Have you had breakfast?”
“Making it right now.”
“Ah! You’ve made it into the kitchen. Excellent. Your first assignment is to eat that there breakfast on the rooftop – because, if you hadn’t noticed, it’s a gorgeous, sunny day outside. After that, I want you to report to that delicious playroom of yours and indulge in two – count ‘em – two recreations of your choosing. Your third assignment is to walk down the beach and find rocks for skipping. You must skip these rocks until one of them skips at least ten times.”
Jack laughs (actually laughs!). “You are a taskmaster.”
“I also want you to meet me at the coffeehouse at seven tonight. I’ve got some entertainment for you.”
“Okay.” Jack pauses, trying to assemble a question.
“Jack? You there?”
“Is there… I mean, this is all fun, but when do we start on getting me a job?”
Ben clears his throat. “I’m not a job coach, Jack. I’m a life coach. We need to find you a job that serves your life, rather than vice-versa. I’m afraid your last job was a little too all-encompassing. And the first step is to teach you how to play again.”
Jack hears a clicking noise; his four half-bagels bounce up in their slots. “I’m not sure if I…”
“Let’s get you a life first, Jack. Then we’ll get you a job. Now get up there and eat your breakfast.”
Jack assembles two bagel sandwiches with all the trimmings and finds a can of pear nectar in the fridge. He’s about to tote his breakfast up the stairs when he spots a small door built into the wall next to the microwave. Noting a series of buttons next to it – 2, 3 and R – he thinks he has this one figured out. He opens the door, places his food inside, presses R and watches as it slides skyward. When he gets to the roof, he figures the approximate location of the shaft, finds a small door beside the tiki bar, and discovers his breakfast inside.
By seven, a light rain has set in over the coast, turning the slick asphalt of the parking lot into a field of black diamonds. Jack huddles on a window seat in the coffeehouse. The Alaskan husky lies on the walk outside, looking terribly bored. Jack is indulging in another cup of Peruvian, and realizes that, even in his new life, even in his discovery of fresh-drip coffee, he has quickly settled into a rut. Luke Bumflasher or not, he does not feel fundamentally changed.
On the drive home from Oregon, just south of Crescent City, California, he took a short hike through a redwood grove. One of the great trees had fallen in a windstorm, and several smaller trees had sprouted from its side, like teeth in a comb. He recognizes this memory as yet another metaphor, and wonders at their recent incursions into his gray matter. Aren’t metaphors the last refuge of desperate minds? And what the hell was that burning house in the falls at Multnomah?
“Thank God I’m here!” bellows Ben, swinging through the door. “Hast thou been chewing gravel, wild, effeminate boy? Let us hasten from this gloomy countenance. Fie!”
Jack laughs, as one might laugh at a lunatic uncle. “That’s a good idea,” he says. He follows Ben’s biker-looking jacket to the white Miata, which is very impractically topless.
“I know, I know,” says Ben, hopping behind the wheel. “It’s a removable hard-top, and you have to leave it home when you’re not using it. I didn’t think it was going to rain tonight. Here – use this.”
He hands Jack a chocolate brown cowboy hat with feathers along the front, like something from a ‘70s Southern rock band. Jack puts it on, feeling ridiculous, feeling the rainwater on the passenger seat soaking into his jeans. He realizes that a snappy retort has just slipped into his brain. He tries it out in his head to make sure, then lets it fly just as Ben is opening his mouth to speak.
“So tell me again why you’re the life coach?”
The delivery is delicious. Jack realizes at a single shot why people throw away perfectly reasonable careers to become comedians. Ben’s face freezes – as if he doesn’t quite understand that his young companion is making an attempt at humor. The light turns, and he heads into the intersection, letting out a whooping laugh like an aging cowboy on a white bronco.
A minute later they’re tracing the clifftop drive above White Horse’s rock sculptures. Ben asks for a report on Jack’s afternoon assignments.
“I bowled a 115,” he answers. “It wasn’t easy – you have to set the pins by hand. Assuming the golf hole is a par-three, I played nine rounds absolutely even, but I had to hit a hole-in-one on my last attempt.”
Ben raises an appreciative eyebrow. “And the rock-skipping?”
“Took me an hour,” says Jack. “The water was really choppy. I had to throw along the troughs in front of the waves. But I found a perfect disc near the Concrete Boat, some kind of red rock, and I threw an eleven-skipper. At least, I think so – they go sort of fast. There really is an art to it, though. And my arm is sore, thank you very much.”
“You’ll recover,” says Ben. He takes a downhill left into the semicircle cutout of Capitola Village, then cuts right along the ultra-cute storefronts, pulling into a spot next to a shop of Tolkien figurines and tarot cards. Ben jumps out, reaches into the Miata’s tiny trunk, and extracts a folded-up tarp.
“Here. Help me make the bed.” He hands Jack one side and they pull it over the Miata’s interior. Jack is about to raise the question of attachment when he discovers magnets sown into the fringe; they click neatly to the side of the car.
“That’s why I’m the life coach,” says Ben. “Follow me, young lad.”
They cross the intersection and cruise the storefront displays: beachwear, baby clothes, a café with sandwiches and ice cream. Across another street, they pass beneath a mermaid done up in mosaic tiles, the resident goddess of a rowdy Mexican saloon, then board a long, straight stairwell to a coffeehouse called Mr. Toots. The place is scattered with odd pieces of furniture: church pews, sofas, stools, every type of table you could imagine, planted over a floor of rough green rock. A balcony to the left overlooks the Capitola lagoon, which will return to riverdom as soon as the winter rains carve an escape hatch through the beach. A series of windows to the right overlook the street. The tables host a scala naturae of beach species: students buried in laptops, retired tourists, bikers wiring up for a blues club down the street. The chatter dips and swells like a flood tide, capped by the vanilla chimes of a piano. Jack locates an upright against the far wall, a blonde-haired woman sitting on the bench in a billowy, old-fashioned dress, like something the mother would wear in a ‘60s sitcom. Facing the wall, the woman leans toward a microphone to her left and releases a voice that catches Jack entirely off-guard. She lands on her notes only long enough to pull them this way and that, a plane performing a touch-and-go, a butterfly with sticky feet.
“I’m getting a chai, Jacko. You want one? I guarantee you’ll like it.”
“Absolute trust,” says Jack. He likes this phrase; it frees him from the burden of thinking. His eyes return to the singer.
“She’s got you already,” says Ben.
“Suzanne. She’s the reason we’re here.”
Ben heads for the espresso counter as Jack tries to follow the song, something about an impulsive road trip. Jack can see the lines of the melody dipping and dodging, like the roads they took on the way to Salinas. He’s already thinking of the Monkey party as pictures in a scrapbook; the final image is Mamet, cutting his wide blue wings as he leads Cigarette into the bright sky.
He feels a point of heat at his left elbow and finds Ben nudging him with a glass. He takes the offering – a beige concoction with a white line of foam – and follows Ben to a window table at the far reach of the room. The table affords a perfect view of Suzanne: her fingers running the black-and-white field, her face craning toward them to sing. Her hair is frosted in straw-blonde stripes over coffee with cream, her bangs cut in a line over round, startling blue eyes. Her face is round, as well, with plump cheeks and an overbite that gives her an easy smile. Despite the babe-in-the-woods appearance, she sings with a wise humor. She’s onto a bouncy jazz tune about a child discovering a feather, then she segues to an outlandish mazurka about an ice fairy, laced with a minor-chord spookiness. Jack discovers a thought about her singing: She climbs all over the gradations between song and speech, giving the words a footloose tone, like she’s making them up on the spot. The next song is a gently see-sawing love ballad, the words a little mundane and generic, but the longer notes give her the chance to show off the easy flow of her singing.
“You like the chai?” asks Ben.
“Yeah. She’s great.”
Ben laughs. “The chai, son. That thing that you are drinkething.”
Jack feels the buzz on his lips. “It’s like a spice milkshake. Only… warm.”
“A beautifully non-committal answer. So you like the singing?”
“I like the singer.”
Ben shifts in his seat to give Suzanne a look. “Everybody does. She’s a doll. Why, if I were… Jesus! Forty years younger. I think she’ll be breaking soon. Maybe she’ll come over for a chat.”
Jack feels suddenly anxious, and soothes himself with a sip of chai. Suzanne finishes a cover of a Radiohead song, receives her applause (mixed with the neverending chatter) and heads over to greet Ben with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Jack notices that her eyes narrow into upside-down crescents when she smiles, which is ridiculously charming.
“Suzanne, this is Jack, a very promising pupil of mine.”
Suzanne smiles again, but loses it to a cloud of shyness.
“Hi,” she says. “Thanks for coming.”
“I didn’t have much choice,” says Jack, then realizes what a stupid thing he’s just said. “I mean… I didn’t… I hadn’t… You’re great.”
Suzanne manages to compute the intent of his meandering, and smiles again. “Thanks.”
This is precisely the time for Ben to intercede, but Ben is sitting back like a Buddha, arms crossed, happy to let the conversation die on the vine. After an interminable stretch of dead air, he smiles and places his hands flat on the table.
“And… scene! Sorry to hang you both out to dry, but I wanted young Jack to see something. Our Suzanne, she who pours her most intimate thoughts into a room full of perfect strangers, is actually, when it comes to meeting people one-on-one, terribly shy. But do tell us, young Suzanne, what is it that you do for a living?”
Suzanne ducks her head, focusing on Ben. “I play coffeehouses and clubs all along the West Coast. I start at a jazz club in San Diego, and work my way up to this bookstore café in Vancouver, British Columbia. And then I turn around and work my way back.”
Ben holds his hands together, pretending he doesn’t already know the answers, and says, “Do you have a home, young Suzanne?”
Ben puts on a look of mock surprise. “Well! How ever do you manage, then?”
Suzanne laughs at their little drama (obviously, with Ben she’s comfortable). “I stay with relatives in Washington. I went to college at UC Santa Cruz, so I have a lot of friends around here to stay with. And other places, people just kind of… take me in. It’s amazing what the music brings out in people. Of course, the music doesn’t always work, so I keep a sleeping bag and a tent in the car.”
Ben drums his fingers against the table. “And, may I ask, if it’s not too personal, what of money?”
Suzanne flutters her lashes theatrically, giving Jack a brief glance just to let him know he hasn’t been forgotten. “Tips. A few actual payments from clubs. Mr. Toots throws me a twenty or two during the summer. And lots of CD sales. I’m lucky that way. I’ve had some fantastic sound guys, and musicians to record with, and my listeners just sort of get hooked. They sometimes buy all five at a shot. Things are still pretty tight, all in all, but it’s not like I’m paying rent anywhere.”
Ben takes in this last response thoughtfully, then gives her a gracious smile. “Thanks, Suzanne.”
“Delighted. I’d better get back to work. Nice meeting you, Jack.”
“Yes,” says Jack.
Suzanne settles at the upright, flips a switch on the mic and says, “This is for Uncle Ben, because I know it’s his favorite.”
The song is “Hallelujah,” a lovingly bitter commentary on relationships by Leonard Cohen. Jack remembers hearing it in a movie, but Suzanne’s version is different. At the piano she’s fearless, and fashions the song into a small opera, acting out each line as she sings it, slowing the final verse to an aching soliloquy. The room falls miraculously quiet. Suzanne lets the final notes fall from her fingers, and receives her applause like a dreamer waking from sleep.
“What do you think?” asks Ben.
“Amazing,” says Jack.
“She’s twenty-eight years old. Two years ago she decided she could assemble this odd career – a ludicrous notion, nothing a normal person would even imagine – and somehow she makes it work. And, if you’ll allow me to hammer you over the head with this notion just once more, you saw how shy and awkward she was when I introduced you, how like one Jack Teagarden. Don’t think there isn’t a multiplicity of incredible, unexpected things you can do with your life, Jack.”
Suzanne flips through a book of jazz standards and settles it against the music holder. She finds Jack in the corner of her vision and smiles, as if he has discovered her most embarrassing secret, then presses her fingers into a major chord and breathes in.
Liza Selena Dolly
Jack has just gotten comfortable with the idea that life around Ben will be one long rollercoaster ride when his life coach basically abandons him. Left with no blueprint for living, he goes to the old assignments: breakfast on the roof, two games in the amusement room (this time the Skee-ball and an old-school Asteroids machine), and a lengthy search for skipping-rocks. This ruthless agenda gives him a whole new store of energy, so he extends his hike to the coffeehouse, where he makes the radical departure of trying the Guatemalan, which proves a little smoother than the Peruvian – albeit without the psychogenic aftereffects. The blonde dwarf barista is absent, her place taken by a perky college brunette named Cher. On his return home, he surfs the seemingly limitless channels on the high-def, finding the greatest satisfaction when he lands on a well-done documentary or a familiar sitcom. The prime-time dramas are too gory and self-important, the reality shows too clearly aimed at idiots. Jack knows than Ben is trying to teach him open-mindedness, but when it comes to stupidity he intends to remain a bigot.
Against the backdrop of his recent chaotic adventures, this sudden solitude has created something new, a sense of relaxation that he hasn’t felt for years – perhaps ever. The only glitch is a trip to the computer, where a scan of the job sites reminds him of all the number-loaded jobs he will not be getting, and returns him to the desperado mood of two weeks before. He tries to console himself with a trip to Mr. Toots, but the echo of Suzanne’s voice – now playing along the walls of a laundromat café in San Francisco – is not strong enough.
Just as his overanalytic tendencies begin to crowd back in, Saturday arrives, and he knows he’ll have lots of other things to worry about. The very idea goes against a dozen tenets of the house-sitter’s code, but then, when it comes to Thompson, perhaps he’s allowed an exception. He’s just emerging from the shower, fully spruced, when he hears a snatch of jazz trumpet (he is later informed that it’s Miles Davis) and recalls that this is the doorbell. He wanders downstairs and opens the door to a red flame holding a pet-carrier.
“Jack! You look all slicked-up. Gimme a kiss, wouldja?”
In consideration of the sash just barely holding his bathrobe together, Jack leans over rather stiffly and gives Audrey a kiss on the cheek. Audrey responds with a disapproving look.
“Jesus, Jack. Are you that afraid of cooties? Now stand still, and close your eyes.”
He does so, and receives a kiss the texture and warmth of hot cocoa, topped off by a playful tongue-flick.
“Ah, there,” says Audrey. “Now let’s go to the roof so I can release my captives.”
Jack follows her all 47 stairsteps, marveling at the tasteful brevity of her white shorts, the way the fibers in her legs tighten and relax as she climbs. On the roof, she extracts a small blue-bar and hands it to Jack, then reaches back in for Mamet. Jack turns the new bird upside-down and strokes its chest.
“Marvelous!” Audrey exclaims. “A man who retains his lessons. That one’s called Martini, by the way. Now turn her back around, and we’ll go for the release.”
They count off the same gentle toss, and the birds react as they did in Salinas, taking a double-circle survey before heading out for Watsonville.
“I think they follow the shore,” says Audrey. She watches until the two birds are nothing but an umlaut against the clouds. “I suppose if I wanted to know for sure, I could get a teenie-weenie video camera…”
“Or learn to speak pigeon English,” says Jack, completely unaware that he’s making a pun. Audrey attacks him with another kiss.
“There,” she says. “That’ll keep your trap shut. Now put on some beach clothes, honey. You and I are going on an expedition.”
“Oh, um…” Jack taps two fingers against his temple. “Isn’t everybody showing up soon? Don’t I need to be here?”
Audrey bites her lip, a gesture that Jack finds excruciatingly appealing. “I’m under direct orders from Star Command. Ben is concerned that you’ll be too nervous to watch us re-make your household. So he figured I could distract you while the Monkeys go about their Monkey business.
Jack smiles. “I’m thinking you probably can.”
“Damn, Jack. I think I finally got a rise out of you. I was beginning to think I was losing my feminine wiles."
This is clearly an opening for another saucy retort, but Jack has used up his daily quota.
“Okay,” says Audrey. “Don’t hurt yourself. Go, put on something beachy. I’ll be downstairs by the amazing whitewater machine.”
A half hour later, Jack and Audrey are walking the long lot that usually plays host to trailers, RVs and senior citizens. Now it’s loaded up with kiddie rides and carnival games. Audrey stops before an inflatable slide. A little girl in a pink jumper comes soaring down, lands in a pile against the cushioned wall, then jumps right up and scales the ridged steps back to the top.
“Such energy!” says Audrey. “Did I ever have that much energy?”
“I get the feeling you did.”
“Yeah. I guess so.”
Jack picks at his blue admissions wristband. “So what’s this all about, anyway?”
“They put this on every year to raise money for local schools,” she says. “Just a kiddie carnival, really, but they have some bands at nightfall, and then of course the big fireworks show. It’s actually better than most of the 4th of July shows. I think the pyrotechnics guys use it to try out new stuff for next summer.”
They stop at a booth where kids are using hand-held electric fans to propel tiny sailboats along troughs of water. A little Japanese boy blows his craft to the far end and raises both fists.
“Ha!” says Audrey. “That’s so cute. Never had kids myself. Three marriages, no kids. I guess that’s why I’m into pigeons.”
Jack is always surprised that people (normal people, he thinks of them, in contradistinction with himself) are capable of divulging huge pieces of their personal histories in single sentences. He’s further distracted when Audrey takes his hand and pulls him to the next attraction, kids in safety harnesses scaling a rock wall.
“So how did you come by this mansion? You said something about an extortion racket?”
Oh God, thinks Jack. Must have been the pot. But he feels the enormity of the past year welling inside of him like hot water in a teakettle.
“Thompson was always saying, ‘Well, that’s the way they did it at my old company.’ Only, his old company was Enron. He just barely managed to stay out of prison. But it’s like he went through that whole mess and didn’t pick up a thing. What a moron. He was very fond of what we call ‘soft closings’ – which is when you send in the monthly reports without vendor confirmations. After all the accounting scandals – WorldCom, Tyco – those kind of procedures were strictly reined in by the SEC. I remember we were all walking around using the phrase ‘willy-nilly.’ ‘Well you just can’t send in those figures willy-nilly.’ And that became our nickname for Thompson: Willy Nilly. He said we were being worrywarts, wet rags. And… he had this way about him. He was the cool kid, the one where, if you just got to hang out with him a little, you felt like royalty. Plus, you know, among the number-farmers there was this unexpressed feeling about those scandals: for a little while, they made accounting sexy. People saw just how powerful we could be; if we really did things wrong, we could wreak some major kick-ass havoc. We were action heroes. I remember an old cartoon of three geeks in thick glasses and leather jackets that said ‘Hell’s Accountants.’ And the smallest guy says, ‘Hey, you wanna go gang-audit somebody?’
“We got caught. It wasn’t huge, but Corporate needed to can somebody, and all the reports were processed by me. Thompson could have taken the bullet – he was my supervisor – but he had that way of smiling and saying nothing and just breezing along. I was plagued by guilt and my own stupidity, so I just took it. They called it a ‘layoff,’ which sounds a lot nicer, and they gave me a severance. So now, from what I can figure, I’ve been blackballed. Fifteen years in the business, and I don’t even rate an interview.
“A few months later, I went on a road trip and ran into Thompson. He was cheating on his wife, in a very public way. I was too surprised, too typically chickenshit to say anything, but Thompson thought I was upholding some sort of male code. Moron. I don’t even know if it’s possible that he felt guilty over the SEC thing – I don’t think he’s capable of it. But he was grateful that I didn’t rat him out about the mistress, and I’m assuming that’s why he’s letting me stay at his house. I wasn’t about to turn it down, cause Lord knows I needed something.”
When Jack stops, he feels winded, as if he’s just given a five-minute compressed performance of Hamlet. He finds Audrey looking at him, her green cat’s eyes going all moist with sympathy. He knows he shouldn’t be enjoying this – there’s something shameful about relishing pity – but a beautiful woman actually seems to care about his sad, pathetic life, and there’s something in this gaze that absolutely paralyzes him.
“I’m so sorry, Jack. God, that is all so fucking wrong.” She wraps her arms around his torso and kisses him on the cheek. “We are going to have such a party tonight. We’re going to piss off all of that rat-bastard’s neighbors.”
Jack has a thought of telling her that he would prefer they didn’t, but he realizes that this is not entirely true. He smiles, and feels a sudden lightness, like helium coursing through his veins. (Although he’s pretty sure that actual helium in actual veins would not be an advisable combination.)
“Yes,” he says. “I think I would like that.”
Audrey pulls him forward. “Come on. I know a booth with kettle corn and lemon ice.”
Jack follows, feeling the pull of a good karma that he feared would never arrive.
They return to the house just before sunset, and Chateau Flores is a hive of activity. The driveway is stacked up with cars, a few of them spilling out onto neighboring curbsides. Let the pissing off begin, thinks Jack.
The entryway is surprisingly spare. A trio of silver balloons stands guard at the whitewater, and some enterprising soul has tied an inflatable monkey to the rocks so that he appears to be body-surfing. The high-def is showing a scene from High Society. He catches a glimpse of Terra slipping a tray into the dumbwaiter, and hears the chirpy laughter of Constance, but Audrey pulls him up the stairs before he can see more.
“As the lord of the manor, you are required only to show up and look spiffy. Now. Do you have a suit?”
“Oh! I can tell this is going to be a project. Tell you what. Point me in the direction of your wardrobe, and meanwhile take yourself a shower.”
“Right,” says Jack.
Audrey bats her eyes. “Unless milord requires some assistance with his shower?”
“I um… I um…”
“Yes, I’ve met ‘I um’ before.” She places a hand on Jack’s back and pushes him toward the bathroom. “Closet?” she shouts.
To the right of the fountain.”
“Jesus, man. Someday you’ve got to actually live in the house!”
Jack soaps himself before the nudist shower with more of an audience than usual – clots of family and friends taking the beach route to the festival. He gives himself a thorough scrubbing, and then does his best to sharpen the edges, going so far as to try out some of Thompson’s hair product. He’s not quite sure of the recipe. Leave it slicked down? Wipe it off? Comb it out? He goes for slick, and gets a good response from Audrey, who’s laying out men’s clothing in one of the bedrooms.
“Well! Ain’t you all Antonio Banderas/James Bond? Now here, put on these lovely silver and blue boxers. With your sordid personal history of streaking, I am color-coordinating down to the skin. After that, slap on these black pants – and don’t be shy. I’ve seen your junk, mister.”
He manages to slip on the boxers while shielding his privates with his bathrobe. Audrey gives him a scornful look. The black pants are his own, but the rest of the ensemble…
“Well yes, Thompson’s. I like you, honey, but nothing else in that closet is getting into this party. Thompson, on the other hand, has exquisite taste. Are you sure he’s not gay? Here. Put this on and… this.”
She hands him a black button-down shirt and a silver paisley tie. The sleeves are a little long, but the overall effect is pretty sharp, and it matches surprisingly well with the pants. After three attempts, he gets the right length on the tie, and fixes it with a diamond tack that bears the logo of C-Valve, Inc. Audrey holds up a black Italian double-breasted jacket with subtle gray pinstripes, and Jack slips his arms into the sleeves. When he turns to look into the mirror, he can hardly believe the reflection. Something of Thompson’s Latino wiseguy slickness has rubbed off on him. Audrey strokes a hand down either lapel.
“Mee-ow! If I saw you in these clothes, I’d want to tear them right off you. Except then you wouldn’t be wearing these clothes.” She laughs, amused at her own wit. “Now you need to wait here while I get myself cleaned up.”
Jack grows bored as he waits, but he’s under orders from a beautiful woman and powerless not to follow. He finds a copy of Maxim magazine on Thompson’s dresser, and is astonished at the lack of clothing on the models, some of whom are well-known actresses. When did this new slut society begin, and where was he when everything changed? His interest causes him to lose track of time, and soon Audrey is back, dashing in, spinning around, requesting a zip.
Jack is unable to move. She’s wearing a skin-tight, floor-length silver dress, spangled all over with beadwork of cobalt blue. The dress comes to a high collar, which conceals a lot of quality territory, but serves to accentuate her bare arms, angelically white and toned. With the zipper down, his vista includes most of her back, tiny freckles scattered across her shoulder blades like grains of black pepper and paprika. He’s feeling quite averse to sealing this from view, like a security guard locking up the Louvre at closing time.
“Ahem! Zipper, Jack?”
“I um… Right.” He braces a hand against her shoulder and pulls the zipper tight, then hooks a clasp at the top. Audrey circles back around and smiles. Her hair is tied up, dangling here and there in artfully random tendrils. She wears a blue eye shadow with just enough green to set off her eyes, but her lipstick is unapologetic crimson.
“So! How do I look?”
“I…” Jack’s hands manage to settle on the swells of Audrey’s waist. “I’m… speechless.”
Audrey jabs a finger at his tie. “I would be much more impressed if that were not your permanent state. Hold on a second.”
She locates a small shelf built into the top of the dresser and pulls out a spray bottle.
“This is about the only thing I ever liked about my second husband.” She sprays it on her fingers and dabs a sweet, sharp cologne at either side of Jack’s neck. The alcohol evaporates quickly, creating the sensation of ice crystals on his skin.
“Now,” she says. “Let’s go make that entrance.”
Audrey’s tight dress and high pewter pumps should prevent her from scaling the two sets of stairs, but she apparently possesses the powers of a Sherpa witch, and soon they’re standing before the rooftop doors, which have been painted silver for the occasion. (Jack prays it’s temporary paint.) He goes for the doorknob, but Audrey stops him, and pulls a cell phone from God knows where. “Tonight, we’ve got a little system.”
She sends off a blank text message. Jack hears a Mozart-sounding ringtone from the other side of the door. Two seconds later, both doors swing open, revealing a tableau awash in the tangerine light of evening.
“Presenting Sir Jack Teagarden, Lord of the Manor, and his escort, the divine Lady Audrey of LaBrea!”
The declaration is operatic and baritone; Jack is unsurprised to find it coming from Willie. What does surprise him is Willie’s outfit, a gray English suit with an ascot tie, top hat and silver walking stick. Holding the other door is Ivan in a classic James Bond tux, single-breasted black with white pleats, a black-and-silver bowtie and an eyepatch. He smiles like a gregarious maitre’d in a Fitzgerald novel.
“And how is my lord?”
“Geez, Ivan. What’d you do to your eye?”
Ivan lifts the fabric to reveal that all is well. “A pirate in a tux is still a pirate. It does, however, create an issue of depth perception.”
“Remind me to keep you away from the steak knives.”
Ivan goes from smile to grin. “The master is jovial this evening.”
Audrey takes Jack by the elbow and leads him to the tiki bar, done up in silver streamers and hosting two crystal pitchers.
“Gin or vodka?” asks Audrey.
“Martinis?” asks Jack.
“By the pitcher, in the old-school style.”
“Gin? I guess?”
“Gin it is!” She fills an oversize martini glass halfway up, inserts two olives on a toothpick, and hands it over. Constance walks by in a gown of salmon taffeta, with pink gloves that go all the way past her elbows.
“Hi Jack!” she says. “I love what we’ve done with the place. Oh! That’s the lobster bisque. Pardon me.”
She hurries to the dumbwaiter and extracts a large silver bowl of soup that matches her outfit. Jack watches her walk toward the main patio, feeling like he has stumbled into Buckingham Castle. He finds Suzanne walking toward them in a red retro ‘50s dress with white polka dots, poofy sleeves and a high starched collar.
“Hi,” she says. “Thanks for inviting me. Even though you didn’t know you were doing it.”
“I… well, I’m sure I would have…”
They’re joined by a lean, athletic-looking man with a face burnished by sun. He’s wearing a beige Western suit with chocolate suede shoulder patches, a silver bolo tie and a black felt cowboy hat over shoulder-length, gray-blond hair.
“Hi,” he says to Jack. “I’m White Horse. You’ve probably…”
“The rocks!” says Jack. “Wow. I feel like I’m meeting a celebrity. I really like your… work.”
“Thanks. I could teach you sometime. It’s not that hard, really. It just takes balance, and a lot of patience. And… a lot of rocks. Dude! Here’s our hostess.”
Jack turns to find Terra, looking like a Celtic goddess headed for the senior prom. She wears a blossoming satin gown with alternating swaths of spring green and copper, capped by a snow-white wrap, her blonde ringlets falling to either side. She smiles, pleased that her entrance has been noted. She comes to Jack and kisses him on the lips.
“Thank you, Jack. You don’t know what a thrill it is, seeing my Monkeys all dressed up. But enough of this. Let’s eat!”
The word “eat” echoes across the rooftop, and the Monkeys make way for a long table at the beachside railing, covered in a blue-gray tablecloth. An arrangement of fine china and silver carries the most elaborate spread of foodstuffs that Jack has ever seen. Terra ticks off the comestibles as they pass.
“Duck l’orange, whipped garlic potatoes with rosemary, braised vegetables, escargot (which Constance somehow figured out how to prepare), mushroom caps stuffed with crab and parmesan cheese, fresh-baked rye bread from Willie’s oven. Rack of lamb with caramelized onions (that’s White Horse), Suzanne’s family-secret jambalaya, and later, courtesy of yours truly, a dessert of crème brulee. And that large white dish at the end is either Colonel Sanders or Ben.”
Ben rises from his chair. He’s dressed in top hat and tails, brilliant white down to the bowtie and cane, as if he’s just stepped away from a Busby Berkley musical.
“Got a friend in the costume shop at Cabrillo College,” he says. “If I spill something on this, I’m a dead man. But I think it’s worth it. Monkeys! Take your places!”
The tribe produces a high-pitched chittering, but somehow less chimpy than usual, more South Hamptons. The Monkeys stand at their seats as Audrey leads Jack to the far end of the table. Ben lifts his martini glass.
“I hate to break it to Jack, but this party is yet another excuse for me to expound upon life. And tonight’s lesson is this: that a truly open-minded, worldly person should not only pursue the loony extremes of life, but should also learn to appreciate the finer points of so-called ‘normal’ society. In other words, the monkeys do clean up well.”
The monkeys cry out “Hear, hear!”
“That said,” Ben continues, “it is equally true that every worthy person deserves to be the focus of one whole entire toast, and one whole entire occasion, at least once in his or her lifetime. And so I raise this glass of gin and say, Hey-ho! All hail Jack Teagarden!”
The Monkeys shout the phrase back and drink. A silence arrives soon after, a space normally filled by the honoree’s response, but Jack is not about to magically produce a speech.
“Let’s eat!” he says, a suggestion that is not about to be refuted. The space above Big Brown fills with the chatter of utensils, like a flock of silverware seagulls.
After a serious bout of eating, the poor fat Monkeys take a while to recover. Willie is the first to find his feet, opening his guitar case and playing every soft-rock ballad he can think of: Eagles, Clapton, Orbison, Ronstadt. Terra finds her voice and begins tracing the overtones with harmonies. Then Ivan comes in, low and rumbling. Audrey gives Jack a certain look, leaving him no choice in the matter. She leads him to a spot on the rooftop underlain by a square of burnished rock, and he tries to remember what he can of slow-dancing: one hand on Audrey’s back, the other held against the cobalt beads at her waist, taut flesh swimming beneath his palm. He’s afraid to look at Audrey’s face, for fear that he will be overcome, but when he does she gives him a beatific smile, well worth the risk.
At this point, Willie flashes his jester’s grin and begins to walk away. The dancing couples give each other querulous looks and then link arm-in-arm to follow. Ben and Constance achieve the traverse with a tango. They round a wicker dividing wall and come upon a hidden enclave tiled in a black-and-white checkerboard and lorded over by a six-foot tiki god, grotesque features etched in black igneous jags, his enormous jaw-drop mouth hosting the coals of a fire that must have been burning all during dinner. At the far side is Suzanne, looking at home behind her keyboard, teasing the patterns of a song but not yet revealing her intentions. The eventual winner is an old torch song, “What’ll I Do?” The stuffed monkeys are quick on the uptake, and return to their dancing.
Jack feels that he is beginning to understand this: clockwise the direction of choice, the hint of Audrey’s magnolia perfume taunting him at a subterranean level. Suzanne is playing out the tail of the song when an explosion causes her to mangle a chord. The dancers look to the Concrete Boat, where an emerald flowerburst is attempting to embrace the sky, lighting up the crowd on the beach below. Then a silver aster; then a golden hydrangea. The monkeys dash to the railing, but Audrey holds Jack in place, turning her eyes to his like an astronomer grazing the Milky Way.
“There are certain moments, Jack, that can never be re-created.”
The way that she pauses on his name sends a string of cherry bombs down his spine. She closes her eyes; he descends.
After the fireworks, the streams of humanity make their way up the roads and hillsides under a fog of sulfur smoke. A few rivulets course beneath the high walls of Monkey Mansion. The Monkeys themselves are beginning to disintegrate: ties untied, high heels abandoned, long hair unloosed. The tiki god now overlooks a smoking lounge equipped with two bongs, a pipe shaped like a penis, two joints, Ben’s grand hookah and a single Dominican maduro cigar, firmly clamped in Willie’s tycoonish grin. Jack is seated on a long teak bench, Audrey’s gorgeous head upon his lap, framed in a blanket of lush red Rita Hayworth tresses.
“I think you got my story,” says Jack. “So what’s yours?”
Audrey gives a coquettish smile. “PBS could do a nine-part documentary on me, babe. But you have to promise you will hold not a trice of it against me.”
Jack looks away at the string of taillights running a conga line along the cliffs over New Brighton Beach. But he’s doing this mostly to pretend he’s thinking. He hasn’t felt this lucky in years, and why in the world would he hold anything against this mistress of pigeons who has delivered it all to his doorstep?
“Of course not,” he says.
“Okay.” She runs a finger along her lips, running her databases through a quick merge.
“I believe I already confessed to the three marriages and divorces.”
“All by the age of thirty.”
“Hey! You cursed. Do this: say ‘fuck.’”
Jack has had at least two visitations with a joint, so he sees no problem with this.
“Ooh! That makes me all… well. We’ll get to that later. Let’s see. During my last divorce, I was a cocktail waitress in Vegas. When the papers came through, I celebrated by gambling – which generally, when you’re a townie, is not a good idea. Put it this way: we secretly refer to the gamblers as ‘donors.’ This time, however, I won a hundred thousand dollars on a progressive slot machine. I immediately moved to Big Sur with my best girlfriend and opened a percussion shop. It took seven years for me to run it into the ground, but I was generously bought out by a wealthy restaurateur. I moved to Monterey, got a realtor’s license right before the boom, and now I own a lovely little house up the hill from Cannery Row, where the neighborhood car-owners have no appreciation for the artistic expressions of my pigeons.”
Jack takes all of this in, and finds that the whole of his response is a chuckle.
“What?” says Audrey.
“You’ve had a rich goddamn life, Audrey.”
“And you’ve been talking in complete sentences almost all day now. I like that.”
Jack loses his vision once more to distant objects: Terra and Ivan on the main patio, slow-dancing to an unplayed tune; Suzanne laughing open-mouthed at something that White Horse has told her; Ben in the corner with his hookah, smoking half-asleep.
“What would you like, Jack? What would you like most of all? Don’t think – blurt it out.”
Jack tries to wire a shortcut to his impulse drive, but of course when someone tells you not to think you’re bound to think a little.
“I want to get out of my… of Thompson’s suit. I’m tired of being elegant. And… I would love to take a shower.”
Audrey curls to a sitting position, pivots counterclockwise, stands up and reaches for Jack’s hands.
“Let’s go do that,” she says.
Willie is just picking up a spare to launch his score past 100 – Constance at the barre, stripped down to her stockings to try out some old ballet moves – when Jack and Audrey descend the stairs like a royal couple, completely oblivious to the athletic pursuits of their subjects. Just before they reach the next stairwell, Audrey asks, “So what’s the deal with that shower? Can people see you from outside?”
Willie smiles at Constance. Constance smiles back. They both burst out laughing.
In a way that he’s never experienced, Jack feels that he is close to waking – but he doesn’t want to. He’s running film loops of last night, unable to understand this thing between himself and Audrey. It’s what other people have always described as “chemistry,” a third person who shows up at the bedroom doors and goes around knocking down the concentric walls that people build around themselves. The entranceway was the shower, and he never realized, no matter how stupidly obvious it might sound, how intimate a mutual shower could be. Once the clothes are shed, the water engaged, the gels and soaps introduced, absolutely nothing is out of bounds. Each body belongs to the fingers of the other, and almost nothing is considered rude or intrusive. He studied Audrey’s flesh with the care of a sculptor, taking note of each small flaw or asymmetry. She did the same with his, and somehow the tickle reflex that would ordinarily come in to interrupt had been shut off.
Afterwards, they lathered each other into white gelatinous beings and washed it all off, allowing limbs, digits, genitals and breasts to fall where they may. The tactile overload tattooed one spinal knob and the next, creating seismic shivers that shook up his respiration. His breathing fueled hers, echoing off the walls, multiplying. Finally it built to a point of desperation, and he pinned her against the see-through wall, consuming her mouth with his. As he pressed harder, her legs opened, he slipped inside of her and pushed her against the wall with such force that she was able to wrap her legs around his back, airborne. He had never felt so hard in his life, had never gone that far inside a woman’s body. He stayed there for a long minute, his eyes locked on Audrey’s green stare.
“Hmm. I’m thinking I can guess what you’re thinking.”
Jack gives up on the dream and finds Audrey kneeling at his crotch. His cock is crazily stiff again (something about her having turned him into a god, a robot, a barber’s pole, a porn star), and she appears to be sliding a glazed doughnut down its length like a very weird game of ring toss. She nibbles on the doughnut and then licks the head of his penis.
“Mmm… sugar, lard and cock – there’s your well-rounded breakfast.”
Jack is grinning so broadly he’s afraid his skin will crack. “Where the hell did you get a doughnut?”
“Ivan went into town, blessed boy. Here, have a chocolate old-fashioned.”
He takes a chunk from the outer wing. It’s indescribably delicious, but then all his nerve endings have been reconstructed and the intelligence reports are questionable at best. Audrey continues nibbling her doughnut down to his dick, eyeing it with a concerned expression.
“This must be made use of, but we’re heading off in half an hour.”
“Focus, Jack, focus. We simply cannot afford a marathon session like last night… last night… Well. No need for lubrication now. What’s the nastiest position – the one that really gets your nuts churning?”
“I…” Jack can’t possibly just ask for what he wants, can he? Can he?
Audrey gives his thigh a hard smack.
“Now, Jack. Tell me what you want. I’m fucking horny!”
“I… your rear end. I want to see it.”
“You want to see it bounce, don’t you? You want your own private porno. You dog.”
She runs a finger down his nose, runs her tongue along his ear and then pivots into the backwards cowgirl, straddling his cock, facing away. It’s now that Jack realizes they’re in Thompson’s bedroom, which makes it nastier, and then Audrey begins to churn those milk-white hips, which makes it nastier, and he knows that one more nastier will make him blow up.
“Think of someone else,” says Audrey, between gasps.
“Someone cute and bouncy and young. Someone you shouldn’t be fucking at all. I want you to picture her bouncing on your dick. What’s her name, Jack? Tell me her name.”
His mind flies of its own accord to the perky brunette at the coffeehouse, her blue baby doll eyes and generous bubble ass. Oh, and the odd celebrity name. Madonna? He sees them in the manager’s office, after hours. She kneels to suck his cock, then takes off her jeans and turns around, her shoulder-length hair flapping as she rides. Oprah? Uma? Yoko?
“She’s fucking you, Jack! She’s about to come, Jack! She wants you to scream her name so she can come!”
“Cher! Cher! Cher!” He empties himself into her, in the manager’s office, and she, Liza Selena Dolly, begins to shake. “Cher! Cher! Oh, fuck me, Cher!”
A lost minute later, back in Thompson’s room, the perky brunette runs a hand through her red hair and throws a wicked smile over her shoulder.
“Jesus, pal. You catch on quick. But… Cher? I thought I ordered up sweet and innocent.”
Jack’s too stunned and blissed out to explain. “You’re a witch,” he says. “You should not know these things.”
Audrey disengages from his cock with an “ooh!” and says, “The truth about men is not so hard to learn, honey. It’s just hard for most women to accept the truth. I, on the other hand, have learned to harness the truth for my own evil purposes. Now go get cleaned up. Cher-fucker.”
Jack takes a deep breath, and heads for the shower.
Downstairs, the Tribe is looking chipper, watching Daffy Duck on the high-def as they munch on apple fritters, buttermilk bars and bear claws. The general style of dress is somewhere between beachwear and camping, leading one to expect a strenuous coastal hike.
Jack and Audrey make an entrance of shame down the circular staircase, Jack realizing just how audible must have been his cries of “Cher! Cher!” He leans close to Audrey and whispers, “Do I get any clues?”
“No,” she answers. “I want you to experience this without forethought.”
Jack notes one Monkey who is not so chipper as the rest: Ben, who wears a straw caballero’s hat, its hook-nosed brim drawn close over his eyes.
Ivan takes the logical stage-space in front of the whitewater and raises both arms. The chatter slows to a jog and he says, simply, “Shall we?”
That’s all it takes. The Monkeys file out the door and into the drive. Ivan, Terra and Ben pile into the cab of Terra’s farm truck, while Constance, Willie, Suzanne and White Horse head for Constance’s van. Audrey hands Jack a set of keys.
“You’re driving the Miata, big boy. Ben thought you’d enjoy that.”
It’s been a few years since Jack has handled a stick, but the Miata offers a generous clutch. Soon enough, they’re done with the Santa Cruz crawl and off to the easy fourth-gear stretches of Highway One. Ten miles north they pass the town of Davenport, next to the jumbled silhouette of the cement factory. Jack reaches over to take Audrey’s hand. She smiles, her eyes hidden by big Italian sunglasses.
“You’re a sweet boy, Jack.”
Jack doesn’t like the sound of that. Dismissive. If last night was any indication, it could be that sweetness has been his problem all along, and he’s ready to kick the habit. He gazes ahead at the rectangle window of the truck cab. Ben is seated at the right, staring out the window at the foothills, which have gained a green depth with the autumn weather. They round a bend and find the Pigeon Point Lighthouse, a broad white tetherball pole on the crest of the rocks.
“How far are we going?” he asks.
“’Bout ten more miles. The turnout comes up pretty fast, so keep an eye on Terra.”
They pull into the straightaway along Pescadero Beach, high sand dunes bleeding onto the roadside, then they climb a long hillside across the lagoon from a eucalyptus grove, topping the ridge like a cock’s-comb. The road tops out along a seacliff, tracing straight ahead in a series of gentle dips. Jack looks to the left and finds that they’re a hundred feet above the water. The Imp of the Perverse points out two or three spots where an unlucky skid would send them hurtling to the long gray waves below. Jack looks straight ahead. Terra follows a slow downhill curve to the right then drifts off the road into a narrow turnout covered in red sand.
Constance pulls in behind them and the Monkeys are all action, strapping on identical army-surplus backpacks. Ivan hands a couple of them to Audrey and Jack.
“Ahoy, lovebirds. Follow us, but be very careful crossing this highway. Some of these weekend warriors are insane.”
Jack hoists his pack onto his shoulders and follows Ivan as he signals all clear and leads the migration. They climb the opposite roadbank, speckled with broken glass from long-ago parties, then trek through some dicey-looking shrubs to find a scrubby hillside descending to the ocean. A tiny brown sign signals the beginning of an official state park trail, scarred with gouges where rainfall has carved out the soil. Jack could swear he smells lighter fluid, but blames it on the same Audrey-inspired cross-wiring that’s afflicted him all morning.
The trail winds around to the right, and then ends abruptly where a small creek has cut a ravine into the sandstone. The beach is directly below them, a twenty-foot drop, so Jack assumes there’s an alternate route. Ivan, who has obviously been designated scout leader for the day, steps to the creekside to give a little how-to.
“Okay, Mr. and Mrs. Monkeys. I need you to be very careful along this section, and please watch my choreography. No broken bones today.”
He aims that last phrase at Willie, which must refer to an episode from years past. Ivan takes large, precise steps, the better to illustrate. He goes to a higher, narrower section of the ravine and takes one long step over it, where the other side seems to offer a flatter walking area. Then he heads slightly uphill on a tiny path, circles around an outcropping of boulders, and comes back around to the very lip of the drop, where he’s able to hop back to our side of the ravine. A few steps to the right and he comes to another ravine, arriving from a different angle, and crosses it on a wooden plank that’s been firmly fixed to either edge.
But that’s not all (and at this point, Jack has to assume that this is a very important beach, for all the rigmarole they’re going through). The trail continues along the side of a bluff, then drops to the beach in a series of footholds carved into the rock. Jack works his way backward, face to the wall, then, realizing he’s perched in the last two footholds, jumps onto a wide boulder and then onto the sand.
He finds himself in a small cove, bluffs on either side, breakers rolling in to leave a residue of small rocks and shells. It’s a lovely spot, but Ivan is already leaving, rounding the corner of the far bluff for places unknown. Jack falls in with the other Monkeys, and they emerge on a long spread of white sand, lorded over by high, bare cliffs in striations of beige and putty. The Monkeys deposit their identical packs in the shade of the bluff, and Ivan commences with the orders of the day.
“Okay. Terra, why don’t you start on the throne? Willie and I will start the house. Constance, why don’t you act as Terra’s gatherer? White Horse, do that voodoo that you do, and Suzanne, you’re our designated wild card, so it’s up to you to think up something entirely new. Audrey, let’s get you on southern wood patrol and – oh yeah, our newbie.”
Ivan comes to Jack and puts a hand on his shoulder.
“Um… Jack. I know this is all a little mysterious, but hang with us here. I’d like you to head north along these cliffs and see what you can find in the way of usable driftwood. We’d prefer pieces at least five feet long, but it’s looking a little spare today, so we’ll take whatever you can get. There’s some Gatorade in the number-three pack there, along with some beef jerky and power bars. Hop to it, and good luck.”
Jack wanders along the cliff, finding very little for his troubles: a pair of three-foot limbs, white from exposure. He returns and lays them at Ivan’s feet with a look of apology. Audrey has apparently hit a treasure trove to the south, for Ivan and Willie have already laid out a seven-foot square of base logs and fixed them in place with stake-like pieces buried into the sand.
Jack walks further this time, and spots an opening in the cliff. It’s a small lagoon, framed on both sides by steep hillsides, a natural depository for driftwood – logs and logs of it. He grabs two eight-footers and drags them back down the beach.
When he arrives, the peripheral projects are beginning to take form. Terra and Constance have rolled a wide stump into place as the seat of their throne, and positioned two smaller stumps as armrests. Now they’re behind it, planting a row of narrow limbs into the sand as a kind of backing.
Farther toward the water, White Horse and Suzanne are setting up a kind of exhibit. White Horse’s contribution, to no one’s surprise, involves the balancing of rocks. Limited to moderate specimens culled from the creek-drop, he is fashioning a congregation of elves, gathered in random groupings like spectators at a car accident. Suzanne has found a bucket, gone down to the waterline to fill it up with slushy sand, and is dripping the contents into stalagmites, bunched together like a gnarled Tolkien forest. As Jack turns to go, he sees that Ivan and Willie’s house has attained a height of three feet.
Ten minutes later, Jack returns with two more eight-footers. Terra and Constance have finished their backing and are binding the limbs together with strands of kelp. Audrey appears from the south, dragging two long planks. She smiles when she sees Jack, and drops them to give him a kiss.
“Check this out,” she says. “Genuine lumber. It’s like someone was getting ready to build a pier down there. How’re you doing?”
“Pretty well. Found some good stuff, but it’s quite a hike.”
“Sorry. Rookie treatment. Keep at it, though. I think we’ll need it.”
“Um…” Jack looks around, feeling like something’s missing. “Where’s Ben?”
Audrey scans the clifftop. “He usually takes a hike up there. I’m guessing you’ve figured this out, but this is… about Ben. So we do the work while he goes off and thinks. Here, have some Gatorade.”
Jack downs half a bottle, grabs a few pieces of jerky and heads north. He’s feeling grateful for the overcast, since otherwise he’d be working up a pretty good sweat. He takes three more sojourns before Ivan gives him the okay to relax. The cabin walls have attained six feet. Willie places Audrey’s planks across the top, and begins hoisting smaller limbs across the planks, creating a Mohawk of nubs along either side of the ridgeline. White Horse, meanwhile, has found his way inside the structure with a supply of rocks and is building his figures somewhat larger. Having festooned their throne with seagull feathers, sand dollars and bits of glass, Constance and Terra have retreated to the shade of the bluff to enjoy a snack. Suzanne, on the other hand, is growing ambitious, has constructed a large mound so that her stalagmite forest might climb into the hills. Jack chuckles at this, then jolts a little when he feels a hand on the back of his neck.
“All right!” says Ivan. “As soon as Audrey brings us two more limbs, I think we’ll be set.”
“Should I call Ben?” asks Terra. Ivan nods. She reaches into a backpack and pulls out her bodhran, a round frame drum with Celtic knots painted on its skin and sides. Jack recalls seeing it at the first party. She unties a two-headed stick attached to the frame, stands before the cabin and delivers single blows against the skin, sending deep thuds echoing across the cliffs. After a dozen of these, she stops and returns to the shade. Willie takes the last two limbs from Audrey, stands on tip-toes and slides them into the last remaining slot in the roof. The Monkeys respond with subdued applause, and Willie takes a brief bow. Jack finds this all a little muted, Monkey-wise; Terra, always attuned to puzzlement, turns to explain.
“This is sort of a religious ritual, Jack, so it’s not like you wouldn’t be respectful, anyway, but we do tend to take it pretty seriously. I’m sure you’ll catch the spirit.”
Jack stands to scope the clifftops, but sees nothing, so he wanders toward the water and finds Ben descending the footholds. He crosses slowly toward them, eyes straight ahead as if he’s in a trance. He has affixed wildflowers and pieces of grass to his clothing and hair, a King Lear wandering in the wilderness. He walks steadily toward the throne and seats himself, giving the driftwood house an appraising look and then signaling his friends with a slow nod.
Ivan and Willie go to one of the backpacks, extract two squarish containers and position themselves at opposite corners of the structure. Ivan calls “Okay?” Willie answers “Yes!” and they flip up their spouts, spraying the driftwood with a clear liquid. When he catches the odor, Jack realizes that this is the lighter fluid that he thought he smelled before. They pull out long fire-lighters, set the corner sections into flame and then proceed along the base of the structure, pouring and lighting until the ring is complete. The vision strikes at the back of Jack’s mind: it’s the burning house from Multnomah Falls! If the food, the fireworks and Audrey had not opened his nerve endings before – now he is almost levitating with epiphany.
Terra lifts her bodhran and walks until the surf touches her feet. She raises the instrument and plays a series of slow rolls. Ben braces his hands on the armrests, staring into the fire. Willie and Ivan come to stand behind him, placing their hands on his shoulders. Constance and White Horse kneel at either foot and wrap their arms around Ben’s legs. Ben is braced against the fire like a man trying to face down a hurricane, and tears are streaming his cheeks.
Audrey leans over to whisper in Jack’s ear. “Twenty years ago, to this day, Ben returned from a business trip to find that his house had burnt down during the night. His wife and two daughters were asleep when it started. They died, all three. This is why he became a life coach. It was a choice between helping others to live or ceasing to live himself. This awful, awful thing is what brought Ben into your life.”
Audrey takes Jack’s hand and leads him to the throne, where Ben is shaking with grief, his face gone red, the creases in his forehead deepening with anger. Audrey goes behind the throne, wraps her arms around Ben’s neck and kisses the top of his head. Constance waves Jack over to her spot and replaces her arms with his around Ben’s thick calves. Jack feels the muscles tensing and releasing, like a dog running in his sleep. Jack faces the fire, now conquering the Mohawk roof, and hears Terra break into a high, keening wail, a soprano exhalation of her Irish blood. Another voice finds a trail just beneath – Suzanne’s – and he glances over to find Constance carving the sound into motions of pain, sharp-angled turns and leaps that remind Jack of modern dance.
He turns back as the first of the roof-pieces drops inside. This is when he notices White Horse’s figures: one the size of an adult, two the size of children. Jack feels the tears coming freely to his eyes. It feels good. It feels powerful. The roof collapses with a loud cracking, and the figures are gone.
The fire takes three hours to run its course. As Willie and Ivan run buckets of seawater to drown the coals, Ben takes his parting embraces and heads up the trail with Audrey and Jack. Jack is beginning to understand the arrangements: it will be his job to drive, so that Ben can feel at home in his beloved sportscar, can let the wind pound through his hair, but not be expected, in his altered state, to actually navigate a vehicle. Audrey straps him in, gives him a word of parting and then pulls Jack up the red-sand roadside for a lengthy kiss.
“It’s been a wonderful weekend, Jack. You’re fantastic, you really are. But I need to let you know, I’m not all that dependable. So I’m sure I’ll see you again soon, but let’s not play the dating game, okay? I can’t take that shit anymore. Take Mr. Ben home and get him into the hot tub, okay?”
The information is flying a little fast and furious, and all Jack can latch onto is this last tidbit.
Audrey laughs. “Oh my God! You didn’t even know you had one, did you?” She taps a finger against his chest. “Go to the tiki god and turn right.” She gives him a kiss and is gone, across the highway and back to the trail to help the others. Jack feels immediate guilt, ogling a woman’s ass with a grieving friend waiting in the car, but he’s assuming that Ben would understand. Then he hits the rewind and considers the word that he’s using: friend.
Ben is awake, but so lost in thought that Jack thinks it best not to speak. A curtain of navy blue draws down the sky, and as they near Davenport the first stars begin to appear. Ben looks past him to the strip of roadside stores, the little white Mexican church at the base of the hills, then speaks, his voice pock-marked by gravel.
“You wouldn’t believe how it was the first year, and the second. I would scream, I would thrash on the ground – a couple of times I made a dash for the fire and tried to throw myself in. My friends had to hold my arms and legs to keep me from hurting myself. Now they hold me only to comfort me. And the strange thing is…” He pauses for a long time as the Miata gains the following hill; he’s fighting for this thought like a fisherman struggling with a marlin. “I’ve heard men say this of war. That of course it is the most horrible thing that a human being could live through And that they miss it terribly. Because they will never feel that intensely ever again. Our lives should all include things that would utterly rip us apart if we lost them. And that fire most certainly destroyed me. I am the Phoenix, Jack. But it’s better to live as a Phoenix than not to live at all. Have you ever contemplated suicide?”
Jack is tempted to tell Ben about the burning house at Multnomah, but this is certainly not the time. “Yes,” he says.
“I considered it night and day for three years. But I had friends who told me what I’m going to tell you now. Don’t you dare. Because I could not bear losing you.”
In his thoughts, Jack is taking a plunge into the mist, his foot leaving the stone wall, the gravity taking him in like a lover, the sudden jarring flash of regret. That was his only chance, because from now on the Imp of the Perverse will have to answer to Ben’s Don’t you dare. Highway One opens to a stretch of dark farmlands, breaking off at their ocean edges like snapped-off chocolate bars. The wind thunders through Jack’s hair, sending a chill along the sunburn at the back of his neck, and causing him to do the most unexpected thing of all: to smile.
Muggy and Soggy
Two days later, when Jack returns to the Aptos Coffeehouse, he spots the guitarist perched on his milk crate across from the Safeway. He’s singing a song that Jack has never heard, but there’s something about it that agrees with him, a rootsy blues grind that sounds like an approaching locomotive. The man sings over the tracks in a growly voice, lamenting the great distance between himself and his lover. Jack pulls out his wallet, extracts a bill and crosses the street to drop it in the guitar case. The man interrupts his next line to say “Thanks dude” then returns to the song.
But why not? Jack thinks. At least he’s doing something, and he’s not begging. He walks neatly around the eccentrics gathered outside the coffeehouse, reassured by his wariness that he hasn’t totally gone soft, and heads for the door. The college brunette stands at the counter.
“Well hello!” she says. The extra width of her smile tells Jack that she doesn’t remember his name.
“Jack,” he says.
“Jack.” She’s standing on a small platform behind the register, giving her the stature of a judge on a dais. “What culinary delights are we pursuing this morning?”
“Do you have bagels?”
Her eyes light up. “Do we!” She gestures to a board listing ten different varietals of the bagel species.
“Oh! Wow. Let’s go with the pesto, and… could you recommend a spread?”
“Ah. The roasted red pepper. Definitely.”
“All right! And a fresh-brewed Sumatra, please.”
“Gotcha. That’ll be under Heather Locklear. And wouldn’t you love to be under Heather Locklear?”
The subtle flirtatiousness, along with the running joke about celebrity sex, takes Jack to two mornings previous, when he was shouting Cher’s name and mentally placing her in various acrobatic positions. Two weeks ago, such a thought would have destroyed him. Today, he drops a dollar in the tip jar, harvests Cher’s charming smile, and goes off to sit by the window.
He notes the blueness of the sky over the Aptos hills as the first sip of coffee warms his mouth. It’s one of those spotless bite-of-an-apple mornings that the locals would prefer no one knew about, inspired by one of those mysterious pressure-shifts over the Central Valley.
Jack has a sudden thought of what Audrey must be doing. Meeting with buyers over lunch, hosting an open house, planting For Sale signs in the lawns of Monterey. Bringing a new bag of feed into her pigeon loft, the birds muttering excitedly at the smell of fresh eats. He’s interrupted by a brand new anxiety: he wants more of that woman, that drug, and has no idea when, or if, he’s going to get it. Audrey has hung him out to dry.
Thank goodness for Cher. He picks up his plate and consumes another of her smiles. If all this niceness is a show, she’s a fine actress, and he doesn’t care either way. He’s knifing out some red pepper spread when Ben makes his entrance, wearing an aloha shirt featuring tiny surfers riding huge, ornamental waves. He comes to Jack’s table and claps a hand on his shoulder.
“Quick: what are you thinking about at this very instant?”
“What are you, a woman?”
“A life coach. So yes, I’m part woman. Now answer the damn question.”
Jack reminds himself about absolute trust. “Audrey.”
“I could have laid money on that. So what are you thinking about her?”
“She has this narcotic effect on me. But I have no idea when I’m going to see her again, and it’s very… frustrating.”
Ben spins a chair around and straddles it. “This is precisely what I wanted to tell you about. Audrey is a potent force, and it’s tempting to think that she will help you fix your problems. But of course she won’t. I want you to own your problems; I want you to guard them jealously, because your problems are the stepping stones to your new interior self. And once we get the feng shui just right, you, my man, will be a potent force.”
Jack takes this in for a while, parsing Ben’s meanings. “But I’m doing pretty well, right?”
A grin splits Ben’s silver beard. “Yours is the most remarkable turnaround I’ve ever seen. In fact, your momentum is so great, I sometimes feel like tackling you, just to slow you down a little. You’re developing a bit of personal power, Jack, and you’ve got to be careful how you use it.”
Personal power. Jack runs the phrase back and forth through his head. No one has ever accused him of having personal power. “Why do I feel like I’m in a martial arts movie?”
Ben lets out a horse-laugh and stands up. “You see? Right there. A piece of bona fide dry wit. Two weeks ago, you never would have said something like that. Now let me get some coffee, and we’ll dig into this further.”
When he returns, the conversation is much less structured, much less teacher-and-pupil. More like that initial session that Jack eavesdropped on. He talks; Ben asks questions; he talks some more. At the end of two hours, Jack feels tired, emptied out.
“So,” he says. “Do we have any new projects this week? Field trips?”
“Yes,” says Ben. “I have arranged a visitation that will illustrate some of the true extremes of civil society. Things that will make the Monkey Tribe look like a Girl Scout troop. Things that might even seem a little threatening. Keep Friday night open, and see if you can assemble a costume along the lines of fairies and elves.”
“Umm… fairies and elves?”
“Yes. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Peter Pan. Narnia. Tolkien.”
“Wow. Okay. Umm… Do I owe you anything?”
“What do you think you owe me?”
“I can’t afford that,” says Jack.
“The more jokes you make, the higher my fee. But – something you can afford. I don’t want to save your life only to ruin your finances.”
Jack writes a check for four hundred dollars. Ben folds it in half without looking at it and slips it into his shirt pocket.
“Now,” he says. “Give me a big man-hug.”
“Ah geez, I don’t know…”
“Come on, stand up. It’s an art form, and you’d better start practicing. You’re gonna need all the affection you can get.”
“Well… okay.” Ben wraps his arms around him before he’s ready, pinning one arm to his side. He holds it only a couple of seconds before releasing him.
“I’ll let you off easy this time. But work on that approach, okay? None of this reluctance. Let’s see some enthusiasm! Arms out wide. Boisterous! It’s all in the attitude.”
“Say hi to Big Brown for me.”
They both follow Ben’s exit, and then Cher gives Jack an odd look, as if she’s just realized the things he’s been thinking about her in other people’s beds. Jack busies himself with the Wall Street Journal.
When he arrives at Big Brown, Jack is dead tired – probably a result of all that talking. He heads for the great white couch and yanks the red handle, bringing down the high-def. His intention is to simply power up and watch whatever happens to be on. He reaches for the coffee table, smacks the remote and watches as the vertical blinds slide from the far windows. He’s about to smack it again when he realizes that the usual four-layer pie of deck, sand, sea, sky contains an additional element: a woman, asleep on the chaise lounge. She has red hair, brighter and shorter than Audrey's. She wears blue jeans with a broad black belt and a short-sleeve blouse of floral creams and yellows. Her eyes are hidden by a pair of Ray-Bans.
Jack is unsure of the legalities. The deck is so accessible, it almost seems like a public space, anyway. And why should he care if someone takes a nap on it? Especially someone so good-looking? On the other hand, he’s pretty certain that the house-sitter’s code requires some kind of response to trespassers. He takes a minute to work up a suitably authoritarian aura, then steps slowly to the sliding glass door. He cracks it open and says, “Excuse me?” But the woman fails to move. Oh God, someone left a dead body on my deck.
Jack slips outside and steps across, reassuring himself that this does not appear to be a woman who would knife a stranger – and squats next to the chaise. She’s even better-looking up close. Her lips possess a certain cushiony quality that certain Hollywood starlets would pay a fortune for.
She shifts on the lounge and giggles, still semi-conscious. “Thompson,” she croons, “leave me alone, randy beast. Must… sleep.”
Finally Jack has to tap her on the shoulder, praying she doesn’t fly into a deeply programmed secret-agent ju-jitsu. Her eyes flutter open behind the glasses.
“Oh, I… oh my god.” She nudges herself up on an elbow. “I am so sorry. When I found that Thompson wasn’t here, I thought I would steal a few winks and… are you his housemate?”
Jack is greatly relieved to find that she’s friendly. “No, no. I’m his house-sitter. He’s off in Italy with his wife.”
At the precise moment that his lips, mouth and vocal cords are releasing the word “wife” to the greater world, Jack realizes the identity of his listener, and realizes also that he has done an awful thing. For five seconds, she stares at him, expressionless, and although he can’t see her eyes he can tell she’s about to start crying. She covers her face with her hands and conducts a round of self-recrimination in a decidedly posh British accent.
“Idiot! I can’t believe… Stupid, stupid woman! Bloody hell!”
She stops, like a deer alert to a sudden noise, then stands and looks toward the ocean, taking off her sunglasses and dropping them to the deck. Feeling like an accomplice to murder, Jack is scouring his banks for something to say. Brigit stamps her foot on the deck and screams.
“Shit! Shit shit shit shit shit! Oh God, Thompson, you fucking…”
She switches off again, staring oceanward, leaning forward. Jack sees the quaking in her legs, like a spring about to go off. She lets out a blast of sound, somewhere between a grunt and a snort, races down the ten steps and sprints across the sand. Jack does his best to follow, but he stumbles on a shallow depression and has to scramble back to his feet. A pain shoots through his left ankle, he’s running with a limp, when he sees Brigit leaping into the water. Ben’s words – Don’t you dare – flash into his head, and he splashes in right after. The chill of the water is like a punch to the solar plexus. He spots Brigit in water up to her hips, readying to launch herself over the breakers. Jack lurches forward and locks his arms around her waist.
Brigit flails to get away, sending an elbow against his mouth.
“He’s not worth it!” Jack shouts. “Don’t do it!”
Brigit’s anger has discovered a new focus. She escapes his grasp and turns to scream at him with all her might.
“I’m going for a bloody swim, you bloody fucking git! Leave me alone!” When she sees Jack’s bloody lip, the anger drains away, her hands droop at her sides. She begins to sob.
“I was… a fantastic swimmer… in school. I won medals, I… I…The crawl, the butterfly, the… the…”
She’s about to double over when Jack stumbles forward to catch her. She grabs at his shoulders to stay upright, rubbing her face into his chest.
“I’m sorry… I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to…”
Jack stands in the water, holding the slaughtered mistress of Thompson Flores, and meanwhile running an inventory of odd sensations. His lip hurts like hell; his ankle like double hell. The seawater is seeping into his loafers and giving great weight to his Levi’s. A strand of kelp is winding around his right calf, feeling exactly like the tentacle of a great sea squid, the one from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. And mostly, he’s wondering about the statute of limitations: how long is one required to comfort a broken woman in the waist-deep October Pacific before hypothermia becomes an overriding concern?
Jack feels grateful for all the facilities that have been placed at his disposal. He has set the large stone fireplace into gas mode, the flames licking their way between verisimilitudinous metallic logs. He has clothed his patient in a peach-colored satin bathrobe – not unironically purloined from the wardrobe of Esmerelda Flores – and placed her at the end of the great white couch under several layers of flannel blankets. As quickly as she fell asleep, as peacefully as she’s sleeping now, two hours on, he suspects she took the drive from Portland at a single shot. Regardless, he feels obligated to stay near; he had his chance to rid her of Thompson at Depoe Bay, and he failed her. He took the easy path, the path he always takes. He wonders how much of his life has been determined and branded by this tendency.
The length of Brigit’s sleep is also leaving him bored, so he pulls a pair of cordless headphones from beneath the coffee table and switches on the high-def. He gets hooked into a game of Australian rules football, which is entirely confounding to his Yankee sensibilities yet doubtless a wildly spirited activity. The stands are full of rowdies in team-color makeup, waving banners and chanting. He’s greatly puzzled when they begin chanting his name. Eventually he realizes that this chant is coming from Brigit. He strolls to the far end of the couch and sits on a footstool. She smiles weakly, her face scrubbed pink from a combination of crying, long-distance driving and one near-drowning.
“Jack.” She repeats it like a lucky charm. “I didn’t remember that. When I first saw you. But just now, I had a dream. There was this enormous devil – classic stereotype, orange chap, long tail, two rather vicious horns of fire shooting from his temples. But he turned out to be quite friendly. He made me the most delicious breakfast: kippers, bagels and lox, currant scones with chutney. And his name was Jack.”
“So,” says Jack. “I’m a friendly devil.”
“No. I mean yes – but that’s not the point. Because I met you at the Devil’s Horns. A very brief encounter, but you were vastly entertaining, the way you almost got yourself an individual car wash, and then Thompson…”
She hits the name like a tripwire – as if she had briefly forgotten Thompson existed – and loses her speech. She seems headed back toward tears, but instead lets out a sad laugh.
“Oh God. It’s such a pathetic story, Jack. But I suppose I do need to tell it to you.”
She chews on a fingernail, looking pensive.
“Is there anything I can get you?” asks Jack.
She looks at him as if he just appeared there, and her eyes light up.
“Hot cocoa. Might you have hot cocoa?”
She blinks her eyes in a fashion that warps his heart.
“I’ll… see if I can find some.”
He does, of course. Big Brown always provides. It’s in the pantry, next to the coffee mixes and herbal teas, perfectly logical. He boils a kettle of water and mixes two mugs, guessing that too much cocoa mix is better than too little. When he presents one of them to Brigit – now sitting upright and alert – she gives a look of vague disappointment.
“No marshmallows? I must have marshmallows, Jack, else I am going to have to leave you.”
Jack looks at her blankly. “I could… I could look for…”
“Oh Jack!” she laughs. “You are a gulla-bull. That is such a rare quality. I think I like that.”
Jack laughs, embarrassed. Brigit’s expression flashes back to serious. “That’s how he fooled you, isn’t it?”
“Fooled you into taking the fall at C-Valve. He told me all about it; actually, it was one of his favorite stories. He did say that he felt bad about it. Is that why you’re here? Is he finally making it up to you?”
“I think so,” says Jack. “Of course, we’re making the large assumption that Thompson has a conscience. But he’s also paying me back for not tipping you off at Depoe Bay. I’m really… sorry about that. I don’t think I actually set out to lie to you, but seeing the two of you really threw me for a loop, and it all happened so fast. I guess the easiest thing to do was just go along with the program.”
“Oh I know,” says Brigit. “He’s very… persuasive, even when he’s not trying.”
Brigit takes a sip from her cocoa and stares at the fireplace.
“Thompson’s very… smooth,” she says. “Of course, that’s one large reason I fell in love with him. I’ve never met a man so capable of handling things. Of handling me. For a while, we were seeing a lot of each other. It was the most perfect romance. When we were out somewhere, I felt like one half of one of those Hollywood power couples – and I never had to call a shot. It was like I was the visitor and Thompson the Portlander, he knew all the unexpected spots: a coffeehouse with a string quartet, a cool jazz club on the riverfront, a new tapas joint in the Rose Garden – a minor league baseball game.
“But then he just… disappeared. Everything stopped – the emails, the clever text messages, the funky postcards. Flowers. He used to send flowers to me, a florist – and I loved it. And no answers to my voicemails, nothing. When it got to a month, I suppose I blew a gasket. I threw a Hefty bag of clothing into my car and off I went. I tracked down his street address through one of those friend-search websites and I just drove on through, twenty hours on the road. All that time to think, and yet the foolish woman-in-love fails to line up the pieces: that a man in a long-distance love affair had not once divulged his home address, not even on one of those funky postcards, despite all the romance, and sex, and that night on top of the Bancorp Tower when he danced with me, looked out at the lights of the city and told me that… he loved me.”
The sentence trails off into another bout of tears. Jack recalls a box of Kleenex in the downstairs bathroom and goes to fetch it. When he returns, Brigit seems better. She takes a tissue and wipes her cheeks.
“I swear,” she says, “despite all evidence to the contrary, there are those who think of me as an intelligent woman.”
“I’ve heard that love is inexplicable,” says Jack. He’s surprised to find himself saying something like that. From the look of it, so is Brigit.
“Have you been in it?”
“I don’t think I have.”
Brigit leans back against the couch, staring through the windows at the dark beach. After a few long seconds, she snaps into wakefulness.
“Well! I have been all too intrusive, you have been a saint, and I believe it’s time for me to get out of your hair. Do you know any motor inns hereabouts?”
“No,” says Jack – and for a moment, that one syllable is all he’s got. “You’re not going anywhere. For the next two weeks, this is my house, and you are my guest.”
Brigit looks a little overwhelmed. “You’re… certain?”
“This is something that I owe to you. I could have saved you a lot of trouble.”
She processes the thought, indulges in another sip of cocoa, and smiles.
“Thank you, Jack. I will just take you up on that.”
“Are you hungry?”
“Oh God am I!”
“I’ll make you something. Here. Watch some television.”
He hands her the remote and heads for the kitchen. This is straight from Ben’s playbook, he thinks. Take care of yourself by taking care of someone else. He opens the pantry, hoping for God’s sake there’s something he’ll be able to cook.
Having previously ascertained that he was capable of boiling water, Jack settles on a big bowl of bowtie pasta, glazed with olive oil, fresh oregano, basil, and a sprinkling of grated parmesan cheese. He locates enough produce to assemble a salad with honey mustard dressing, and steals a bottle of Pinot Grigio from the winerack. For location, he picks the tiki lounge, which carries still-fresh memories of Audrey LaBrea. He sends everything up on the dumbwaiter and positions their table next to the tiki god, hoping that two Duraflames in the god’s mouth will provide enough heat.
Brigit is back from fetching her car – last seen in a small neighborhood atop the cliff trail - and seems better for the exercise. She sits across from him in a thick red sweater, her blue eyes much clearer than two hours before. She seems impressed by the impromptu meal – and certainly by the setting.
“Egad, Jack. I’m afraid you’re making things worse for me – now that I see the beachfront empire owned by my erstwhile beau. Gracious! I’m sorry. In times of despair, I tend to hide behind ostentatious vocabulary.”
“That’s all right,” says Jack. “I used to do the same thing with numbers.”
Brigit serves herself a heaping portion of pasta and digs in.
“Mmm! This is so the antidote to my disease. Very filling. Thank you so much.”
“So why do British people pronounce it ‘passed-uh’?” asks Jack. “You know damn well it’s ‘pawsta,’ you live much closer to Italy than we do and yet you insist on mispronouncing it. It reminds me of Texans and Spanish.”
Brigit takes another bite and covers her mouth as she laughs. “The vestiges of a lost empire. We may no longer rule the world, but we can damn well mangle the languages.”
“Ha!” says Jack, enjoying his righteousness. “Exactly what I’ve always suspected. Seriously, though, I adore your accent. When I was watching the Devil’s Horns, you were talking right into my ear, and I thought I was going to melt into the sidewalk.”
“That’s why I moved to the States. You Yanks assume that anyone with a Brit accent is bloody brilliant.”
“And if male-female relations are any indication, you’ve certainly thrown the kie-bosh on that notion.”
“Ouch! Verily thou hast run me through, good sir, as a shish doth skewer a kabob. But needst I remind thee, knave, thou hast fallen for those self-same Thompsonian charms.”
“Damn! And touché.”
“We are but the detritus of Flores.”
“Well,” says Jack. “Perhaps someday we’ll exact some kind of revenge.”
Brigit stops mid-bite. “Did you have anything particular in mind?”
“Absolutely not. But I’ll let you know if I think of something.”
Brigit gives him a sly smile, then takes a sip of wine and peers across the water at the tiny sugar-grains of light from Monterey.
“So they tell me.”
“No,” she says. “That day in Oregon, I only met you for a few minutes, but you have definitely changed.”
Jack uses his fork to drum a brief tattoo on the table. “I’ve been undergoing some therapy. Strangest damn therapy you’ll ever see. But it does seem to be having an effect. In fact, if you’re still here Friday, you may attend my next session.”
“Your therapy is open to the public?”
“I told you it was strange.”
“It’s a date. And tell me, after dinner, could we try out that hookah?”
“Yes. Behind yon tiki god.”
Jack walks over to inspect. Sure enough, there it is, Ben’s hookah, freshly loaded with strawberry tobacco, as if for this very occasion.
“I’m beginning to suspect psychic powers.”
“In me? In you?”
“Friend of mine. And I believe he would be honored if we made use of his hookah.”
“Brilliant!” says Brigit, and digs up another forkful of bowties.
The following two days are exceedingly domestic. Jack and Brigit are like patients at a rehab center, both of them recovering from Thompsonitis. Lacking any designated regimen, loosed from her moorings, Brigit follows the daily agenda first set forth by Jack’s life coach: breakfast on the roof, two games in the amusement hall (granting each Foosball figure the name of some player from Manchester United), then a long beachwalk in search of skipping stones. Jack’s ability in this arena has grown tremendously; his sidearm spinners seem like the products of a Yankee infielder. They continue their hike to the Aptos Coffeehouse, where they scour the daily newspapers in silence, like an old couple. Jack studies the sports box scores (his new source of raw numerical fiber) while Brigit reads the world news reports and lifestyle articles – particularly anything on gardening. Bored with the afternoon lull, Cher gives Jack flirty, jesting looks that seem to say, “Where’d you get the hot chick, bruddah?”
After an hour or two, they head next door to hunt up ingredients at the Safeway, and then Brigit (who is, thank God, a better cook than Jack) prepares a dinner for rooftop consumption. After a brief session with the hookah, they adjourn to the hot tub for a long soak. No naked monkey-tubbing, however; Brigit has obtained a discreet one-piece at the local drug store, and Jack wears a pair of modest baggy trunks.
Having only the wildly assertive Audrey for comparison, Jack has a hard time figuring out where this new intrigue fits in. Does he have any trace of Thompson’s dogginess? Could he actually screw two women in two weeks? (Doesn’t the fact that he’s even considering it prove that he’s a dog?) But although Brigit’s comeliness certainly introduces such thoughts, her tragic situation shoos them away. Before he even so much as held her hand, he would require a direct, overt and probably thrice-repeated verbal request.
Regardless, he has already built up a small scrapbook of visions and gestures: the way her eyes widen just before she laughs, the relaxed way that her limbs fit with her body, like a dancer’s. The way she taps her thumb with her fingertips when she’s puzzling something out; how she tucks her right foot under her left thigh when she sits on the couch. Sometimes he enters a room to catch her gazing emptily at the horizon, or dabbing at her face after crying, and the sorrow he feels at her sorrow is as deep as an X-ray. He swears he can feel her anguish at distinct spots beneath his skin – the right cheekbone, the left forearm, the right kneecap, the abdomen – and for this he secretly thanks her.
The fairies and elves party seems to bring up large batches of Brigit’s UK upbringing. They spend Friday hopscotching from thrift store to costume store to lingerie store. Jack manages to fashion himself into a kind of emerald wizard, combining a satin kelly cape with lime circle spectacles, a fuzzy olive top hat, a glow-in-the-dark shamrock pendant and a healthy treatment of green hair dye.
“I think you’re more like Sir Elton,” says Brigit.
“Fairies and elves,” says Jack. “And what the hell are you, saucy wench?”
Brigit has gone all black leather: hip-high boots with deadly looking studs, a wraparound miniskirt with a wide silver belt, and a lace-up bustier revealing cleavage that Jack had not previously been aware of. The capper is a set of black raven-feathered angel wings that attach to her shoulders.
“Hmmm.” She taps a finger against her thumb. “Faerie dominatrix queen? Dark angel?”
Brigit swats him on the forearm, but the blow is cushioned by his cape.
When they arrive at the coffeehouse in Brigit’s black retro ‘Stang, they find Ben sitting out front in a silver jumpsuit covered in patches from various retail corporations. He holds a matching motorcycle helmet with two sparkly deely-bob antennae. Jack attempts to work on his man-hug skills, slapping Ben heartily on the back.
“Explain yourself, mentor.”
Ben stands, the jumpsuit making a noise like a sheet of paper being crumpled. “I may be a NASCAR driver from the Third Realm. After that, your guess is as good as mine.”
“NASA’s first openly gay astronaut,” says Brigit, taking Ben’s gloved hand.
“Duchess de Sade!” says Ben. “You are a schoolboy’s vision.”
“Thank you. Did um… Did Jack explain me?”
“Oh, Jack tells me everything. And I do apologize, on behalf of the male gender, for your pains.”
Brigit gives the emerald wizard a glance. “Well you didn’t necessarily have to tell him everything.”
“Actually, I did,” says Jack. “That’s our deal. Shall we head out?”
“Let’s shall,” says Brigit. “That’s how they speak in Fitzgerald novels. ‘Let’s shall.’”
Brigit handles the serpentine curves of Highway 17 as any retro Mustang owner should, and soon they’re descending into the half-million low-intensity streetlights marking off the Silicon Valley. Jack feels the call of his neglected home as they pass mere blocks to the west, driving north toward Sunnyvale. They arrive at a neighborhood that looks absolutely normal, a strip of ranch-style tract homes, circa 1970, across the street from a softball field, lights blazing. The third house in is a white two-story with mocha trim, the front walk lined with candles in sand-weighted bags.
Jack leads them in and spots a young woman in the hallway, talking to a friend. The woman is dressed in a pantsuit made from wispy black material, and Jack realizes that you can see right through it. Also, that the woman is wearing no underwear, just one beautifully shaped derriere free to all gawkers. She turns to greet them, revealing a set of similarly framed breasts. How does one talk to a nearly nude woman? Does one acknowledge the nudity? Or pretend that everything is absolutely normal?
Fortunately, Ben is there to intercede. “Blackberry! How are you?” He steps up to give her a kiss and a pat on the fanny. “You look smashing! And so much to look at, too.”
“You look like the Silver Surfer,” says Blackberry.
“That is such an improvement on previous interpretations. B.B., this is Brigit and Jack, virgins both.”
“Well! We’ll take care of that soon enough. We’ve got a table of snackables through the kitchen there, and a keg of microbrew out back. Have a great time! I have to set up the Boudoir.”
“Ah, the Boudoir,” says Ben.
“It’s just not a party without the Boudoir,” says Blackberry.
“Break a leg.” Ben laughs as if he’s told an enormously funny joke. Blackberry sashays down the hall, bouncing at pivotal points.
They follow Ben into the kitchen, which is packed to the gills. Navigation is problematic, for half the women are wearing wings and, being mortals, are unfamiliar with matters of clearance. A third of them have exposed breasts, which is causing all the men to walk in a distracted fashion, and people keep bumping into each other, which is clearly what they want to do anyway.
The male contingent leans toward various incarnations of Pan (the ultimate horndog) along with a generous application of Robin Hood caps, a tremendous variety of codpieces, and three sets of exposed Castro Street buttocks.
Brigit whispers in Jack’s ear, taking him back to that first meeting in Depoe Bay.
“It’s a bit like the Ren Faires I used to attend as a teenager. Only, gone a little porno, I suppose. I have never seen Peter Pan in assless chaps!”
“If you think about it,” says Jack, “it was pretty inevitable.”
Ben leads them into the dining room so he can offload his tray of deli meats. The room is so crowded it’s essentially a massive dry hump, and the food is inspired: white chocolate truffles, strawberries dipped in pecan praline sauce, slices of bruschetta, potato skins with bacon and melted gorgonzola cheese. The three of them load up their plates and pursue a draft of fresh air coming from the back steps, feeling like they’ve been spat out by a whale. Brigit beelines for a wooden bench at the edge of the patio.
“Stay here,” says Ben. “I’ll gather up some brews.”
“This is wild,” says Brigit. “Omigosh. Look at that couple.”
Jack glances behind them at a small grove of trees encircling a porch swing. An older man in a harlequin outfit sits with a younger woman, her zaftig physique covered (in spirit, at least) by a veil-like drape resembling something from a harem.
“It’s funny,” says Brigit. “They look absolutely bored, which is about the last thing one should feel when one is 80 percent publicly starkers.”
“I’m betting the woman has never done anything like this in her life. Notice how she’s dipping a toe in the water by trying out her exhibitionism where she’s visible but not accessible. The bored look is just part of her cover. The guy, on the other hand, actually is bored. He wants to join the party but is being held hostage by his wife’s timidity.”
“Big, sparkly wedding ring. The kind you buy for your younger, sexier, big-boned second wife.”
“My!” says Brigit. “You are a wizard.”
Jack enjoys the admiration, but is using most of his energy to not stare at Brigit’s bustier, which does not seem to be held up by much more than friction and good wishes. A cup of ale floats into her outstretched hands, blocking his X-ray vision.
“So what’s the tale here, Flash Gordon?” she asks.
Ben hands Jack the second ale and takes a satisfying quaff from his own.
“These are all folks from Burning Man, which is a temporary community built up and taken down in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert for a week each summer. For that one week, these folks live on the playa, fight the heat and dust storms and pursue what some might call an arts festival, filled with fantastic structures and statues and displays of engineering. And then, at the end of the week, they burn an enormous effigy of a man – whence comes the name – and hoot and holler and carry on like it’s Mardis Gras. The festival also offers a rather extreme pursuit of libertarianism – it’s an adult community with few rules. Nudity is not only allowed but encouraged – especially in consideration of the heat. One of the more infamous events is Critical Tits, a mass bike ride featuring five thousand topless women. The lack of rules foments a certain hypersexuality. I’ve witnessed a man receiving a blow job in a crowded bar, couples fornicating on the open playa, a burlesque show featuring men wearing three-foot Styrofoam penises. Taken in the right light, it’s rather liberating. But this is tonight’s lesson. As much as I enjoy these Burner occasions, I tend to see the artistic aspects being overwhelmed by the sexual – sex being such a powerful drive. I wanted to show Jack some extremes to which he might not want to attain. At the same time, the knowledge that such extremes exist – right here in Sunnyvale! – makes it easier to see the eccentricities of a group like the Monkey Tribe as rather moderate. I tend to think of a lot of my Burner friends as freaks who have found a safe arena for their freakyness. Ah! Now for some action.”
A thin man in an ass-revealing thong appears at the far end of the lawn, accompanied by a big-boned athletic woman in a pair of skin-tight leather shorts and matching halter top. The two of them go to a metal garbage can, stamped with decorative punctures for art and airflow, pour lighter fluid on the wood inside and set it on fire. The man pulls out a chain with small globes at either end, dips the globes in a small bucket filled with liquid, then lights them in the burn barrel and starts to spin them in changing orbits over his head. The woman follows suit, and soon the two of them are inscribing flaming patterns into the dark air. Jack notes two women standing nearby, fire extinguishers at the ready.
“Lovely!” says Brigit. “It’s our own backyard circus!”
“Here,” says Ben. “What this show needs is a little jungle fever.”
Jack is surprised to find a djembe at his feet. Ben sits before a junior conga and begins a rapid beat. Jack follows his lead, the lessons of the Tribe kicking in quickly. He carries the beat as Ben fires off some variations, then jumps to the high ceramic pitches at the rim of his instrument to toss out a few brief solos. Two players means less wandering, more responsibility, but Ben is a solid player, and the ride is easy. They keep at it for ten minutes, until the spinners begin to tire. Ben gives Jack a nod and leads him into a finishing quartet of slams, which the spinners are more than happy to follow, hurling their double globes into the air and catching the chains just before they hit the grass. Jack is surprised to find the scattered groups of the backyard giving them a rousing applause. The spinners dip their globes into buckets of powder.
“We’re a hit!” says Ben, breathing hard. “And Brigit’s enjoying herself, too.”
Brigit is standing next to the bench. A red, fuzzy-looking man with devil’s horns stands behind her, reaching around with both hands to knead her breasts through her bustier. Brigit’s head is back, her eyes closed. The devil-man notes his new audience and says, “Hi. I’m Muggy. Professional groper. Are you with this young lady?”
Jack stands somewhere amid three points: shock, disappointment and taking this fucker down with a flying tackle. “Umm… yes,” he says. Almost simultaneously, he has a starkly reasonable thought: after Thompson, Brigit deserves any pleasure she can find, and should not owe anything to anyone.
The satyr calls out “Soggy!” A curvaceous pink-haired green ogrette skips over, sporting holes in her top where her breasts protrude.
“We have a rule regarding couples,” says Muggy. “Where one is groped, two shall be groped. Keeps the peace. Arise, young buck, and take your medicine. I can attest to Soggy’s talents.”
Jack looks at Ben, then at Brigit, who opens her eyes long enough to give him an encouraging nod. He stands, removes his cape, and feels Soggy’s long nails running slowly down his back.
“Don’t worry,” says Soggy, in a surprisingly girlish voice. “I won’t go anywhere beneath your clothes, and you just let me know if I go too far. But if you don’t, I will go too far.”
“Okay,” says Jack. She kneads her way down his back until his muscles relax, which makes it easier not to flinch when she squeezes his buttocks like she’s testing casabas at Safeway. He surfaces, just for a moment, to realize that being molested by an ogre in a backyard in Sunnyvale is, in fact, a deliciously nasty sensation. He glances sideways to see that Muggy is kneeling behind Brigit, running his fingers along the hem of her panties, and thinks of Ben’s theory, freaks finding arenas for their freakyness. Soggy is on her knees as well, tracing a hand along either of Jack’s inseams until they meet at his balls, which receive a thorough rubdown.
A few minutes later, Muggy and Soggy have shifted their ministrations to the harlequin and his timid exhibitionist. Jack and Brigit sit on the bench arm-in-arm, victims of the same train wreck.
“Bloody hell!” says Brigit. “I hope I didn’t go too far, but it just felt so good! And despite all those naughty things he was doing with his hands, he seemed more like a Boy Scout doing his good deed.”
“Considering what Soggy was doing, I’m pretty sure we’re even.”
Five seconds later, they burst out laughing. Brigit looks toward the house and says, “Where’s Ben gone to?”
A crowd has gathered at the sliding glass door; Jack spots Ben’s deely-bobs rising from the center. He takes Brigit’s hand and leads her over. When they manage to find a gap in the crowd, they see that the room has been piled high with cushions, like a seraglio. Blackberry has now shed every thin stitch and is positioned on her hands and knees, administering a thorough blow job to a dark-skinned man in front of her as a thin, enormously endowed white man plows her from behind. A third man, fully clothed, prowls the vicinity with a video camera.
Ben spots Jack and Brigit and snickers. “I think I’d be into live sex shows, too, if I had a tool like that.”
After dropping Ben off at his Miata, Brigit drives them to Big Brown. She’s been silent most of the way home, and Jack’s afraid that the night’s adventures might have upset her. Once they enter the house, however, she turns and plants a kiss on him that grows over the minutes into animal regions. She breaks off suddenly and gives him a look of crazed intensity.
“You know, Jack, that I am bloody fucked up, and idiotic, and angry, but once that satyr got me going I have got the nastiest idea, and I’ve been squirming all the way home just thinking about it.”
She gives him another kiss, this one more tender and thoughtful.
“You see… Jack. I don’t want just sex. I want more than that. I want revenge. The idea of shagging a fellow victim in Thompson’s bed, surrounded by all those sweet little photos of his wife and children. Well…”
She leaves the thought unfinished and turns her big blues on him. For a moment, Jack doesn’t realize that he’s been asked a question. His hesitation turns her expression to one of anxiety, as if she has grossly misaimed her proposal.
Jack laughs. “Of course,” he says. “Of course.”
Brigit claps her hands together like a cheerleader. “Oh goody!” Jack grabs her around her black leather waist and kisses her neck, silently thanking Audrey for his newborn assertiveness.
“One thing, though,” he says. “Could you leave that outfit on?”
“Oh ye-e-es,” she says, and bounds up the stairs. Jack locks the front door, turns off the whitewater and races after.
Brigit seems determined to sleep in, and Jack can no longer wait her out. He slides quietly to the edge of the bed, and takes a moment to study her face. Over the past ten days, this has become a favorite recreation. As beautiful as Brigit may be in daylight, in the unguarded serenity of sleep she is ravishing.
He summons the high-def and rolls past a dozen channels before he lands on Big, a movie in which a kid makes a wish to be a grown-up and wakes up in the body of Tom Hanks. Hanks’ boy-man fusion plays against a cast of so-called adults adopting all the strait-jacket poses of the corporate world. Jack comes to a horrible conclusion: That was me. The world of numbers that had once been his personal playground began to change in college and by his second year in Silicon Valley the fun was gone. The numbers were different now; they could make people rich, could destroy people, could help to launch world-busting waves of technology, could rip people off or cause great scandal. The numbers got too important, and this gave Jack the illusion that he was important. He never would have thought to accuse himself of being an egotist, but there it was on the high-def – he was one of those people.
Paradoxically, he isn’t egotist enough to think himself capable of coming up with an idea like this on his own. He suspects it’s something that Ben has planted in his head, like an injected microchip. The immediate incarnation of this thought is a trip to the pantry, where he breaks into an area previously considered sacrosanct: the region of children’s snacks. When Brigit comes down the stairs, she finds Jack sitting on the floor before a coffee-table spread of strawberry fruit rollups, apple juice in a box, and frosted blueberry Pop-Tarts with pink and purple sprinkles.
She rubs her eyes and looks at the screen. “Oh! I adore this movie. I had the biggest crush on Tom Hanks. Why are you sitting on the floor?”
She comes around to sit on the couch above him, ruffles a hand through his hair, but stops when she spots his breakfast.
“Oh! I get it. You’re living out the movie. In reverse.”
“I think I already lived out the movie,” says Jack. “Brigit? I think I have a project for us. Want a Pop-Tart?”
“Delighted.” She reaches across to grab one off his plate.
The beach is veiled in mist, nearing on rain, but the weather only seems to bring more focus to their work. Jack uses a half-size shovel from Thompson’s garage to dig a trio of concentric circular trenches just out of reach of the breakers. After that, he begins at the bottom of the innermost circle and digs a trench toward the water. Afterward, he leans with a foot on the shovel blade, breathing hard.
“Are you seeing it?” he asks.
“I think so. But… why don’t you tell me?”
“Well. Once the tide begins to rise, and the breakers come in higher and higher, the water will enter this central trench, then branch off into the circles at either side. If it gets real wild, it might even go all the way up and meet at the top. That would be cool.”
“It would,” says Brigit, though it’s clear she’s distracted. “Would you mind a suggestion?”
“That’s what you’re here for.”
“Well. Like any great public works project, you need some ostentation, just to show the taxpayers that their money is being wisely spent.”
“Anything in mind?”
“If I know the Flores family, I’ll bet they have just what we need.”
On the deck, they find a large plastic trunk stuffed to the gills with beach toys. Brigit finds a set of molds in the shapes of various medieval castle-sections and sets to work on the central circle, constructing a palace of Disneylandian elegance. The process is composed mostly of shoveling damp sand into a mold, picking out a target area and slamming it upside-down to the spot. Several of her subsequent lifts reveal walls and towers with missing fragments, but this only adds a quality of ancient ruination. Brigit adorns the battlements with gull feathers, inscribes the tower walls with narrow pathways, and even places pebbles here and there to create the illusion of villagers and sentinels.
Duly inspired by all this construction, Jack forges a bridge of driftwood sticks across the “moat” to the castle entrance. Remembering Suzanne’s little trick, he then assembles a grove of trees between the first and second trenches by dripping gooey sand into conifer-like piles.
“That is so Tolkien,” says Brigit.
“Stole it from a friend.”
Jack decides that a little reinforcement wouldn’t hurt, so he finds a rectangular plastic Tupperware container and uses it to forge a wall of sand-bricks along either side of the seaward opening. He then uses more driftwood sticks to form two bridges, one at ground level, the other joining the tops of the walls.
Done with their efforts, Jack and Brigit stand at the opening, reciting the minutes of their mutual admiration society.
“That castle is simply… smashing!” says Jack, trying hard to sound British.
Brigit attempts to return the courtesy: “And that thurr wall is a might purty piece uh work.” Then she returns to her real voice: “Now what?”
“Now we wait for disaster.”
“How long will that take?”
They turn at the sound of thunder and find a breaker steaming in at their feet. Brigit dashes left, Jack right, and the water cuts between, rushing into the trench, taking out Jack’s lower bridge and climbing all the way to the second circle.
Jack stands next to his already-imperiled walls, hands on his knees, and laughs.
“It’s life, Bridgey. Disaster is never far away.”
The rules have changed. Jack and Brigit sit in the hot tub “starkers.” They’ve positioned a patio umbrella over the edge to spare them from the rain, which peppers the water at the other side of the tub.
“So all of that perfidoodery today,” says Brigit. “That was all inspired by that movie?”
Jack gives this a good mulling over. “I think it also comes from this general track that Ben has me on. He’s trying to get me to remember how to play.”
“He told you that?”
“I think he did. And you know? Why shouldn’t adults play? We’re so much better at it than children.”
“Oh! Preposterous little morons.”
“Just look at that wondrous creation we came up with today,” Jack continues. “Do you think a couple of third-grade punks could come up with such ingenious hydro-engineering and granular architecture?”
“We Brits pop out of the womb designing castles. It was marvelous, by the way, how those trenches operated. Once the water started whooshing around the circles like that, I imagined myself the tragic queen, perched atop the tower, wondering whatever would become of me if the floodwaters took out my beloved castle. I fancy it’s all gone by now.”
“I think so.”
Out of nowhere, Brigit takes on the expression of a tragic queen. It’s too real to be acting.
“Bridge? What’s the matter?”
“Oh Jack. I have to leave. I talked to my assistant manager today. Sharon. She’s been covering for me all this time, but her family vacation’s coming up and I can’t ask any more of her. I feel… I feel like I came down here for one man, and now I’m losing two.”
Jack slides over on the bench and wraps his arms around her. She leans her head back on his shoulder, and he strokes her damp hair.
“Okay. Listen to me, because I’m the mathematician here. Number one, you cannot lose a man you never had, so the Thompson equation is zero minus zero equals zero. Number two, I like to think that the two of us meeting in this odd way represents a completely unexpected profit; let’s call that variable x. I also don’t think we’re done, so throw in a variable y. So any way you look at this, you are ahead of the game by a factor of x plus y.”
“Are you saying I’ll see you again?”
In the morning, he sees her off, riding along to the security gate and then waving in long, slow sweeps as the black ‘Stang disappears around the leftward bend. He has no idea what to do with himself, so he jumps the railing and heads across the beach.
The trenches, the drip-forest and the castle walls have all been reduced to smooth memories. The only survivor is the central tower, pockmarked by rain but still, clearly, a human creation. Jack crouches beside it and sees, for the first time, the Barbie doll that Brigit has placed atop the battlements, surveying her ravaged kingdom.
Hanging out with this new crowd, Jack begins to understand the important part played by costumery. Any drugstore psychiatrist could tell you that dressing like a pimp, for someone in Jack’s situation, is a natural reaction to circumstance. Having gone from two pale relationships in ten years to two gorgeous redheads in two weeks, Jack feels an unprecedented ease with his body, and the pleasurable use of same. Thus: pimp.
The accessories are easy. Ever since adults took possession of Halloween, the classic funkadelic pimp has become fair game to every nerdy white boy in the country, and the fly-by-night costume shops are littered with the accoutrements: dollar-sign pendants, bling-rings, bejeweled walking sticks, leopard-print fedoras, and, just in case the message has not yet penetrated, a golden goblet with sparkly letters spelling PIMP. Throw in a pair of big-ass blue-tint Elton John sunglasses and snow-white platform shoes and he’s in business. (Jack passes on the fake gold teeth, for considerations both aesthetic and hygienic.) For the capper, he ventures into the women’s section of a Salvation Army and comes away with a fake-fur coat the color of butterscotch. It’s a little tight in the shoulders, a little short on the sleeves, but he doesn’t imagine that he will be wearing it more than once.
He waits for Ben at Big Brown (culture of tolerance or not, he is not going to hang out in this getup at the coffeehouse). When the Miata pulls up, its driver appears to be dressed as a housepainter. Jack slides in and is greeted by Ben’s amused expression.
“Wow! I’m impressed. You sure you haven’t worn this ensemble in a professional capacity?”
“F’shizzle, my mizzle,” says Jack, trying hard not to laugh. “So what are you?”
“I am a blank canvas,” he answers. “I found this wonderful set of paper overalls and cap at Home Depot, and I also bought these.” He holds up a six-pack of Magic Markers. “It’s up to the rest of the party to illustrate me.”
“Fantastic!” Jack takes off his fedora, which is butting against the ceiling of Ben’s hardtop. “Remind me to make my contribution before all the non-erogenous areas are taken.”
Ben wheels the Miata backward and heads for the security gate. “You have found me out. What I’m really after is an all-night massage. So not to be a drugstore psychiatrist but… might your costume be inspired by recent events?”
Jack finds himself growing embarrassed, and realizes that these are the kinds of conversations that standard-issue males have all the time in locker rooms and bars. Kiss and tell. Details, details. He gazes at the orange-festooned RVs along the beach road.
“Ben? Am I being a dog?”
“I’d say you were making up for lost time.”
“This is new for me. I’m not used to… multi-tasking.”
Ben cracks up at the choice of words, then grows silent as he re-assumes his mentorly aura.
“These are unusual situations, my friend. These are two lovely, oversexed women who pretty much dropped out of the sky. I would shout some hallelujahs and count your blessings. And I’ve got news for you: chances are, this little doubleheader will not last. They never do. So for God’s sake, enjoy yourself.”
“But I feel like… with Brigit, I feel like there’s an emotional investment.”
Ben salutes the ranger as they pass his kiosk.
“And whose emotions were those?”
“Um…” Jack squints, trying to understand the question. “Well. The one who really went through all the trauma was… Brigit.”
“So the emotional investment on your part is largely empathy. God bless you for having the capacity to get inside someone else’s pain -–but don't equate that with anything resembling a normal relationship. You need to give her some time to nurse that broken heart, and then maybe go up to Portland for a visit. Right now, though, you need to keep your head down here, where, need I remind you, you are attempting to create a new vision for your life. I might add, as far as tonight goes… I know Audrey’s a wildcat, but don’t think she’s promiscuous. She’s got a thing for you, young man, and over the past ten years I’ve seen that she picks her lovers very carefully. Also, please remember that she asked for some freedom in your budding relationship, so guess what? You get some freedom in return. For God’s sake don’t tell her about Brigit, because true confessions is such a buzzkill, and I’d really like you to enjoy yourself. Audrey’s well-known for her sexy Halloween costumes, so I think you’re in for quite a treat. In fact, I’m pretty freakin’ jealous. Just respond to her in a real fashion, and don’t tell any big, whopping lies. You are most decidedly not a dog – even in that sleazy getup.”
Jack hadn’t quite believed that they were actually going to put on this party out-of-doors, but the fall coast weather has lived up to its reputation, a mite chill but clear as a bell, the stars like tiny shards of glass over the Salinas hills. Ben pulls past the hangar and parks along the dirt road, which is lined with cars. When Jack gets out, he notices a large dirt oval scattered with fences and hedges, like some sort of obstacle course. They walk a good hundred yards to the end of the drive, and find the lawn lorded over by an open-air tent, thirty feet long and twenty wide. A gaggle of figures gathers at one end, working over an assemblage of speakers, mic stands and amplifiers.
“Wow,” says Jack. “All of this for a drum circle?”
“Tonight is different,” says Ben. “For tonight we rock.”
“Our friend Ivan has a secret life. He runs a recording studio out of the extra bedroom – the one nobody goes into? He’s developed quite the reputation for doing live recordings of beginning bands – who tend to find the one-instrument-at-a-time approach a little intimidating. We’ll have three of those bands here tonight, and the rest of us have only to listen and dance and maybe play cowbell. Manny!”
Ben hops away to greet a thin Asian man with long, straight hair. Jack tails behind, anticipating the usual introduction.
“Manny Lee, this is Jack Teagarden.”
“Hi.” Manny gives Jack a calm, blissful smile. “You are quite the pimp!”
Manny chuckles at a private thought. “I may require your services later.” Jack doesn’t bother asking for an explanation, and Manny doesn’t offer one.
“Manny does all the set-up for a music camp at Burning Man,” says Ben. “So he’s definitely the man to pull off a farm jam.”
Manny laughs. “Sometimes I wish I could get rid of that reputation. Makes for a shitload of work.”
“They’ve got your number,” says Ben. “You’re a music whore.”
“Nono. I’m a music slut. Whores get paid.”
Ben unleashes his primo laugh, a husky bark that shakes his chest.
“Come along, young Jack. Let’s go inside and see what’s cookin’.”
They enter the house and discover the number of people at the last two parties times ten, gathered in clumps around a long buffet table, chatting and chowing at an Olympian pace. Ben lifts a whole roast chicken from his grocery bag, tucks it under his arm like a football and breaks through the crowd to leave it on the table. He retreats quickly before someone mistakes his hand for a drumstick.
“Jumpin’ Geehosaphat!” he says, wiping his forehead. “If I did not know better, I would suspect that these people were ingesting some sort of mysterious substance that arouses the appetite.”
Jack feels a tug at his pantsleg and immediately imagines that some unfortunate partygoer has fallen and is being trampled underfoot. In reality, it’s Jack the border collie, who has been forced to wear a leprechaun hat left over from St. Patrick’s.
“Well look at that!” says Ben. “He knows his namesake.”
Jack Sr. attempts to give Jack Jr. a decent rubdown, wary of a real-looking battle axe dangling from the belt of a nearby Viking. Easing his way back up, he finds that he is being closely observed by someone wearing a genuinely hideous zombie mask. The pale visage sports several jagged scars and hideous fleshy projections.
“Hi,” says Jack. “Should I have any idea who you are?”
The zombie nods and grunts, which really doesn’t help.
“I think I have an idea,” says Ben. “Oh Spirit of Halloween Present, might I ask you to lift your shirt just a tad?”
The zombie gives him a blank look (having no other choice) then lifts the hem of his shirt, an oversized white button-down ripped and stained with blood. The motion reveals a pair of white polyester pants; Ben scoots around to study the zombie’s rear-end.
“Constance! How nice to see you and your fine ass.”
“Damn you, Ben!” she mutters. “But on the other hand, thanks!” She gives herself a playful spank.
“Hey! That’s my job.” Willie looms near, dressed in full Star Trek regalia, his face powdered white.
“Willie!” says Ben. “You’re Data, right?”
“Yeh. Check out the eyes.”
Willie has gone to the extreme of wearing contact lenses that remove all color from his irises.
“Well!” says Ben. “Don’t I feel like a piker.”
“Bosh!” says Willie. “You’re a fine, um… housepainter?”
“I’d better get someone started on this. Come on, Jack, draw something on my arm while we check out the first band.”
“Oh boy!” says Willie. He claps his hands together in a very non-android fashion.
By the time they tunnel out of the house-crowd and into the stage-crowd, they find that a hot Japanese anime girl in a miniskirt and go-go boots is playing the theme from Sesame Street on a large saxophone. She’s backed on bass by a long-haired blond man dressed like a Cossack, and on drums by a stout cowboy in a red suede jacket with fringes. Once “Sesame Street” has played out, the drummer clicks a four-count, the anime girl grabs an acoustic guitar and a blue witch runs in to sing “I’m a Believer.”
Jack is busy turning Ben’s left bicep into a field of green fish-scales, as Ben gives him the full narration.
“Dire Mozzarella. They are comic deconstructionists of pop music. They take the cheesiest songs they can find and do very odd things to them. Musically, they are absolute beginners, but it’s always fun to see what they’ll try next.”
After “Believer,” the band takes up an odd assortment of percussion instruments – cabasa, claves, a shaker shaped like a potato – while the anime girl plays a salsa version of George Michael’s “Faith.” Then comes a medley of “Funkytown” and “Play That Funky Music,” followed by “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” and the unlikely pairing of “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’” and the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun.” The blue witch has a deep voice like dark coffee, reminding Jack of Grace Slick and Jewel. For the finale, she hands it over to anime girl, who sings “Brandy.” Her voice isn’t quite so deep as the blue witch, but there’s something about it that’s oddly boyish.
“Isn’t this a guy’s song?” asks Jack.
“Yes it is,” answers Ben. “Nice job on the fish-scales.”
“Something I used to doodle in English class. Pages and pages of fish-scales.”
“Now I know why you’re so good with words.”
Up to this point, the crowd has been more of the stand-and-bob variety, but after the final chorus, they’re inspired to grant the band a solid round of hooting and screaming. Once they’re spent, they scatter to the corners of the property, visiting the horses, gazing at the stars or heading inside for another round of food and booze. Ben leads Jack to a fence across from the stable, opening a gate onto a dimly lit garden. As his eyes adjust, Jack makes out a statue, an exotic-looking human figure.
“Welcome to the Spirit Garden,” says Ben. “That’s Lakshmi, the Hindu god of prosperity. We also have a Madonna and child by the lavender bushes, a seated Buddha next to the roses, and at the center there’s a Wiccan pentagram etched in concrete.”
“Impressive,” says Jack.
“It’s all very Unitarian. But that’s Terra’s reading of paganism – accepting all good thoughts and ideas, no matter their origins. Here – join me.”
He settles onto a bench and lights a joint.
“Ah,” says Jack. “I was beginning to wonder.”
“Yes. Although, I am limiting you to one good puff, because tonight I want you to see and hear things clearly. And perhaps, judging by our last visit, to keep your clothes on for a while.”
“You should eventually check out the hot tub, though. The water is orange.”
“No kidding!” Jack takes his single drag, proud that it doesn’t make him cough, and hands it back to Ben. Were it not for the rumble of laughter and talk rolling over the fence, one could look out on the dark farmlands next door, stretching out to a far-off string of lights representing Salinas proper, and imagine that they were quite isolated. Jack feels something mournful in the empty fields and waits for the thought to reach his lips.
“Ben?” he asks. “How do you… deal?”
Ben finishes his drag, the smoke leaking from his mouth as he speaks. “My loss? My loss was awful, Jack. Unimaginably awful. You hear sometimes about the remains of people being identified by their teeth. That’s how they identified my wife, my children – these whole, amazing personages, these creatures I loved more than breath, reduced to an extracted bicuspid, a capped canine. Bits of bone.
“Now keep that thought in your head and consider the phrase ‘Time heals all wounds.’ The hell it does. Wounds like that become part of us. We incorporate them. How do we build muscles? We exercise them until we’re sore – we damage them, and the body rebuilds them, makes them stronger. You apply friction to the skin – you damage the skin – and it forms a callus, which makes it better able to withstand friction.
“Before my loss, I would meet people who had suffered tragedy, and you know what? I would subtly avoid them. As if their grief were a contagious disease. I think if people were more honest, they would admit that this is a natural instinct, operating almost on the reptilian, evolutionary level.
“Now, when I meet someone who has suffered, I see a fellow traveler, and I ask them to tell me about it. Many times they do, because the reactions of those who don’t understand have taught them that they are not to speak of their tragedies in polite company. That they are almost to be ashamed of their tragedies. And they are literally dying to talk about it, because it is, after all, the most powerful thing in their lives – and there I am, with my muscles and my calluses, ready to listen.”
Jack catches the smell of the Madonna’s lavender. “You are a profoundly good man, Ben.”
“So… is there a lesson plan for tonight?”
“No lesson. Music. Music is good for everything, in ways that we have yet to figure out. When you reduce it to physics, it’s really quite a wacky enterprise. I stand over here with some instrument and, through the force of wind, percussion or electrified plucking, send a set of vibrations sailing through the air. You stand over there and receive these vibrations with your little set of divinely constructed sensors, and it either pleases you, makes you cringe, maybe even scares you. Maybe it’s really a long-distance cousin to tactile sensations. We use the medium of air to touch each other.”
He takes another drag and follows the lights of a plane drifting over the valley.
“I don’t actually know what I’m doing with you anymore, Jack. Maybe this is just another expansion on the life perspective program. Maybe I just wanted you to come as my friend. Or maybe you’re a Monkey now, and you just belong here. Tell you what: stay here, see what there is to see, to hear, to touch, and then you tell me what it’s about. Maybe I’ll learn something. Uh-oh. I believe I hear drums. Let’s head back.”
The crowd has returned to the tent. Jack hears the click of the drumsticks and an explosion of cymbal and guitar, settling into a funky groove that vaguely reminds him of the Red Hot Chili Peppers: slapped-up bass, slippery guitar, little punches of ‘70s-style arena keyboards. A female voice comes in, sounding urgently pissed off, in a pleasing way.
“I don’t recognize this.”
“Nothing but originals,” says Ben. “They call themselves Exit Wonderland – ‘Wonderland’ being the last exit on the way to Burning Man. This one’s about Bush and American jingoism, which is why Pamela sounds so pissed off.”
They manage to find a gap to the side of the stage where they can stand and watch the band. The drummer is a large man with a broad face and a fiercely thick head of dark hair. He’s dressed like a samurai and he plays like one, reeling off long fills on the toms, punching the cymbals like a boxer. Halfway through the first song he’s already shining with sweat. The guitarist is a thin man dressed as a scarecrow, bits of straw drifting from his outfit as he plays. The singer is a lithe brunette done up as a butterfly, her eye-shadow matching the iridescent greens and purples of her wings. She sways in place, working up energy for the next entrance, then hops twice and attacks the mic. The bassist is a woman with fair skin and gray-blonde hair who appears to be dressed as a martini – an outfit that seriously constricts her movement. She seems very intent on the rest of the band, as if she’s taking careful geopositional readings of their place in the song.
Jack is so intent on his analysis that he doesn’t even notice the ending of the song until he hears the applause. The singer begins the next song by herself, a sultry line of blues that is then picked up by the bass and drums. The song has a gentle swing to it, and when the chorus arrives, the keyboard player, a Scandinavian blonde dressed as the St. Pauli girl, kicks in with a rich harmony. Jack didn’t really expect something like this, not from a band playing on a farm.
“This one’s called ‘Burden,’” says Ben, whose back is being scribbled upon by a tall black woman. “It’s actually about credit card debt. I love that about these guys – their subject matter is so unexpected. A little to the left, Leticia – oh! That’s the spot.”
Jack’s paying little attention, too busy pushing down his expectations. Where the hell is she? He’s been having red-flame visions all evening, and finally it drives him to seek a healthy distraction. The band kicks into a surfer tune, and Jack takes off his fur coat, setting it atop a speaker.
“See you, Ben. Time to dance.”
He knows he’s probably left Ben astonished. He slides his way into a no-partners dance party at the front of the stage and loses himself in the hoi polloi. He feels the boundaries of his person dissipating, which is just what he was after. He also suspects that the single drag of marijuana is having its effect. The band breaks into a punk polka, and the dancers begin hopping and bumping into each other. Jack catches a blur going by, a blur wearing an eyepatch, and suspects that it’s Ivan. All the rest is a cubist painting – bits of Indian, medieval knight, a fireman, a can-can dancer, kings, drag queens, the Artist formerly known as Prince, Dolly Parton, Elvises, Einsteins, mafiosi, Harry Potter, all of them stuck in a blender and spat back out as a big ol’ pop-culture Margarita.
The punk song ends with a punch and gives way to a rock ballad, a cinnamon sweep of guitar over a restive heartbeat of drum and bass, thump-thump thump-thump. The crowd filters into couples, and Jack makes his way back to Ben but Ben’s no longer there, so he stands and listens. The song has the forlorn quality of a last cigarette, which is not helping matters. The scarecrow plays a long, sinewy solo, single notes swimming in a soup of ether. The band cuts down to bass and drums, leaving the singer exposed as she mourns her fate, then she lands on the word “alone” and everything disappears but the bass drum thump-thump thump-thump. Jack spots a black feather cruising above the dancers like a periscope. It turns into a red satin tricorner hat as the guitar comes back in, then a spookhouse groan of keyboards, then comes Audrey full-blown in a pirate’s outfit, red satin waistcoat, black velvet trim, a corset topped by vanilla scoops of cleavage, and a miniskirt of torn red strips over gartered hose and vinyl black boots up to her knees. She spies Jack, breaks into a buccaneer’s grin and charges, clamping onto his lips and driving him backward into a sub-woofer that vibrates all over his backside. A yell rises up from the dancers, who have witnessed the whole sequence. Audrey releases her liplock and smiles coyly.
She smiles. “Your answers are getting better. Come on, dance with me. Get reacquainted.”
They turn to find the anime girl holding their hats. “Nice performance,” she says.
Her voice is getting deeper, thinks Jack.
“Manny!” says Audrey. “You are delicious.”
“Oh thank you.” Manny covers his mouth, geisha-style, and attempts a giggle. “I’ve already had three men ask me out.”
“Two words: Crying Game.” Audrey puts on the pimp-hat and hands the tricorner to Jack as she pulls him into the crowd.
Jack is still staring at anime girl. “My God. That’s Manny?”
“His girlfriend is a makeup artist. But the smooth, girlish legs are all Manny’s. And stop looking at them!”
She turns his face back her direction, and keeps it there with a kiss.
“I’m pretty sure I’m going to hell now,” says Jack.
“Hangin’ with this crowd, yes. Oh God, Jack.” She nuzzles her face against his. “I shouldn’t say this at all, I really shouldn’t. I can’t stop thinking about you. What have you done to me?”
“Believe me, I have no idea.”
“Have you been thinking about me?”
“From the moment you left me on that roadside.”
The scary thing is, this is true, and it surprises him how easy it is to say. Even when he was with Brigit, Audrey was never more than an inch from his thoughts.
She slaps him on the ass. “Oh! I am so going to…”
The band heads quickly into another song, something fast and funky. Jack tries to pull away into an appropriate freestyle stance, but Audrey pulls him back.
“Fuck the tempo; we’re slow-dancing.”
“You got it.” Jack pulls her closer and feels a burst of happiness frothing into his brain like a shaken soda. Three fast songs later they’re still entwined, Audrey’s pheromones painting streaks of heat up and down his frame. He’s already having flashbacks of his first sight of her in the pirate outfit. He wants to do things to her.
Just then, he recognizes the pattern: he’s waiting for Audrey to make a move. Respond to things in a real fashion, said Ben. Well, right now he’s incredibly horny, so perhaps it’s time that he became the aggressor. As the crowd breaks into an applause, he takes her hand and leads her away.
The Spirit Garden is dark and unoccupied. It could be that few people actually know about it. He considers finding some way to lock the gate, but realizes that he doesn’t really care. He takes Audrey to the pentagram, motions for her to kneel and undoes his pants, unleashing a steel rod resembling his penis. Audrey gives it a lick and smiles.
“My God, honey, it’s like something on a marble statue. Did I do this?”
“You and that outfit.” Jack looks down to take in the sight: a wicked red-headed pirate girl sucking off a pimp at the center of a pagan garden. The combination is dizzying. He looks out over the long rows of soil next door, hears snatches of conversation and music floating over the fence. It’s all so almost-public, so free and nasty. Audrey has a hand on him now, is pumping his cock into her mouth. He’s tempted to let himself go right now, but decides that he wants even more.
He takes her hands and pulls her up, guiding her to the statue of Lakshmi. Audrey takes the god’s upraised hands in her own and arches her back, extending her ass toward Jack. Jack collects the vision, the curve of Audrey’s cheeks peeking out from beneath her skirt, then runs a hand underneath, happy to discover nothing but flesh and moisture. He dips two fingers into her pussy, rubbing her juices over her labia, then takes his cock in his hand and slowly slides forward. Audrey takes a quick inhale and sways her hips, savoring the feeling.
Jack brings the camera back again and takes in the whole scene: the eaves of the stables across the way, the insect buzz of a motorcycle on a far-off road, the aura of light from the far side of the house and the upwelling thunder of a song’s ending, rolling bass, growling guitar, a screaming singer and the large drummer hammering everything in sight. He brings the focus back to the strange menage with Lakshmi, Audrey’s thin arms held in a skyward plea, the satin folds of her outfit, the white frame of her ass-cheeks surrounding his cock, his hands around her waist, the pimp-rings spelling out SEX and THUG in blingy sparkles.
This is the absolute peak moment of my life, he thinks. He thrusts forward and arches his back, discovering a half-moon in the sky behind him, then bends back forward, reaching around to rub Audrey’s clit. Her legs begin to shake in orgasm, and that’s all he needs; he pours himself into her as the tricorner falls from his head and lands on Audrey’s back. The plume tickles his face and makes him laugh. The mix of sensations is too much; he loses his legs and settles back onto the pentagram.
Noting that he’s still hard, Audrey comes over to plant herself on top of him, happy just to stay there and soak him in. She’s suddenly overcome by laughter, and bends forward to rub her face against his. Jack looks up and finds Cygnus the swan, flying over Salinas. He remembers this from Boy Scouts. Now he is Cygnus, hovering over the valley, looking down on the couple fucking on a pentagram, the two hundred people gathered at a tent nearby.
“Mr. Pimp, you are an outrageously nasty boy.”
“I am, you know. I really am. But I swear, I have never done anything like that in my life!”
“Like this,” she says, squeezing his cock with her pussy. “But you should know, if I have my way, I expect to hear you say that many more times. Mr. Teagarden.”
They hear voices, and the sound of the gate opening – and the sound of the gate closing.
The hot tub seems like the next logical step, and though Jack might be getting used to the idea of public nudity he’s happy to see that it’s walled off by bamboo screens, which at least allows him not to feel like a painting at the Louvre. There’s a strategic gap between the screens that provides a view of the stage. He hears an acoustic guitar and is surprised to see Terra standing before the mic in a gypsy outfit, layers of yellow and red festooned with copper ornaments. She sings with the high, spooky tone he heard at Ben’s mourning ritual. Willie/Data stands beside her, walking a steady bass line as Ivan, a much more ragged, working-class pirate than Audrey, etches in some chocolate leads on electric guitar. The figure at the drums is hard to identify, but finally Jack realizes it’s Constance, zombie mask firmly in place. The song has a straight-ahead folk structure, but it begins to grow in an organic fashion over long, sinewy vocal lines and tidal wellings of sound. Over the top of the wave appears high-pitched squeals that seem strangely familiar.
Audrey squeezes his hand beneath the water. “That’s whalesong. They were messing around one day and Ivan figured out he could mimic it with his guitar, almost like a conversation. Pretty trippy stuff.”
Jack closes his eyes and drinks it in. “I’m just… overwhelmed.”
Audrey chuckles at the choice of word. “What do you mean?”
“I’m surrounded by all these talented people. What am I even doing here?”
“Oh you’re talented, honey. For one thing, you plow like a farmer.”
He smiles. “I owe it all to the richness of the soil.”
“Our euphemisms are getting a little sticky.”
“I’m also in an enormous tub of orange Kool-Aid with a naked pirate,” he adds. “Life is getting weirder by the minute.”
Audrey leans over and pockets her face in the hollow of his collarbone. “Life is weird to begin with, sweetie. We just spend an awful lot of time and energy trying to force it to be normal.”
“Oh my G… Shit! Damn!”
It’s disconcerting enough to wake in a forest of mic stands and amplifiers – Bob Dylan staring from the ceiling. The swearing doesn’t help. Jack rolls over and rubs his eyes into working condition. His gaze lands on a naked woman, so he assumes he’s still dreaming, but then the woman flips a lightswitch and turns orange.
“Holy shit!” Jack declares. He takes away his blanket and discovers that he, too, has become a human tangerine.
“What the fuck!” says Audrey.
A knock arrives on the door, along with a female voice. “Everything okay in there?”
Jack covers himself, but not Audrey, who intends to serve herself up as Exhibit A. Terra walks in and freezes in place.
“Terra! You have turned us into pumpkins!”
“Oh my God,” says Terra. “I am so…” But she doesn’t make it any further before bursting into laughter.
“Christ!” says Audrey. “Don’t you people do some fucking research before you go dipping your guests in food dye?”
Terra can’t answer, because she’s being consumed by an attack of titters and snorts. She squeals as Audrey hurls a cushion at her, then rushes back through the doorway.
They’re lucky enough to find that Ivan’s studio has an adjoining shower, and although their mutual scrubdown leads to another sessions of lovemaking, it does little to restore their skin color. Terra delivers a pair of old trench coats, and soon they’re picking their way through tents and outdoor sleepers, feeling like KGB operatives.
“You be Agent Tangerine,” says Jack. “I’ll be Agent Orange.”
He feels like he’s really come up with a good one, but Audrey is determined to maintain her grumpiness. They arrive at her car – a hunter-green VW Jetta – and she waves him in.
“Wait a minute,” says Jack. “I came with Ben.”
“Screw Ben. I’ll drive you home. Maybe a couple hours in a normal hot tub will steam this shit off.”
They take the coastal route, which keeps them cool despite the coats. The vistas of the ocean, cobalt blue under the midday sun, seems to lighten Audrey’s mood, and the road grants them a welcome isolation. They pull up to Big Brown, not a neighbor in sight, and sneak up the front steps, but before Jack can get to the thumbprint lock, the door clicks open. It’s a tall man in gray sweatpants and a food-stained T-shirt, scratching at a three-day beard, eyes bloodshot, dark hair in a frazzled mop.
It is, in fact, Thompson Flores. He manages a weak smile.
“Jack, I don’t know what kinda tanning salon you signed up for, but ya look like an Oompah-Loompah.”