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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.”