Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Nature Boy, Chapter Thirty: Focus, Focus

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Focus, Focus

The Everclear is an inn on the western slopes of Boulder, although at the moment those driving by would not know it. The sign is buried in snowdrift, leaving a series of dots and dashes signifying nothing. The front drive skirts a pond that lies in that precarious position between packed ice and cracked ice, the kind that kills teenage skaters in Willa Cather novels.

The Everclear’s exterior looks as if a landslide had roared in from the Rockies, gathering timbers and boulders as it went, and deposited them in a miraculously organized fashion. Skye sits at a small table over a travertine floor, rings and rays the colors of custard and caramel. He takes thoughtful sips from a triple-espresso mocha as he attempts to sketch an introduction for the exhibit program. Sadly, his brain-to-pen connection is in the mood to latch on to every small distraction: the lights of Boulder, for instance, just past the ivory spines of an aspen grove. The pianist in the next room, segueing artfully from one jazz song to the next (“It Could Happen to You,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Laura”). The just-decipherable snippets of a conversation between two young intellectuals discussing a friend’s ineptitude at manpicking.

“I’ve never had the sense that she…”

“…magnifications of the Cinderella complex…”

“…occasionally someone with a paycheck?”

He solves his lede-lock with a desperate maneuver, sitting back in his chair, taking a sip from the mocha and turning his focus to the flavor, the warmth, the way it travels along his mouth, sending out jags of sensation. Five minutes of this conjures the verbal piton he’s been looking for: Talent. It’s time to slow the repetitions of Rachel’s tragic ending and shift to her talent. He hunches over the table and watches as blue ink streams across the white.

I would have to confess to visiting the same crime on Rachel Grossman as the rest of the world: I had no idea how talented she was until she was gone.

Employing the most valuable writing quote ever uttered, Hemingway’s “The first draft of anything is shit,” he scrawls on with triple espresso force, letting superfluous adjectives and non-parallel conjugations pass like unremarkable seagulls. The line of thought spools out on its own momentum, chewing up the paper. A half-hour later, he counts seven pages, ready for hacking and molding.

The mocha is gone, the pianist has taken his break. He gathers up his notebook, takes a mental snapshot of the Boulder nightscape and heads to his room.

It was not until this room that Skye realized how much he missed his solitude. He collects a can of peanuts and a Sprite from the mini-fridge, lies on his bed with his back to the wall and finds a football game. His thoughts drift in like bits of seaweed on the breakers. He is back to Nature Boy.

A half hour later, he is sprung from a snooze by three precise raps on the door. This is highly annoying. He opens the door to find a small woman wearing a trench coat.

“Sandy?”

She rolls her eyes. “Mandy.”

“Mandy! Yes. I’m sorry. It’s been a long time. How did you know I was here?”

“Sigh.”

“Oh! Sure. So you three… kept in touch.”

Oh yeah.”

Skye feels like the one actor in a movie who wasn’t given a script. The two of them stare at each other.

“May I…?”

“Oh, yeah. Sure. Sorry.”

She enters and climbs into an armchair.

“Would you like a drink? I think I’ve got some wine.”

“White?”

“Yeah.” He extracts a mini-bottle of chardonnay, unscrews the cap and hands it over. She drinks half of it at a shot.

“So how are you? How have you…”

“I am incredibly horny.” She narrows her eyes at him. “You ruined me. That little session at the Springs got me all revved up and I can’t stop. I am a raging slut, which sounds great except that a girl like me has a hard time finding a steady supply of penis. So I’m here for some payback.”

She undoes the lower buttons of the trench coat, sets aside the flaps and opens her legs.

“You remember this, Mister Skye.” She reaches down to rub herself. “This certainly remembers you.”

Skye walks her way, closes her legs and picks her up.

“Ooh! You’re going to take me somewhere?”

He undoes the sliding door that leads to the balcony.

“Oh! Nasty boy wants it outside. Are we gonna do it right here on the railing?”

The drop from the balcony is usually ten feet, but the snows have reduced it to three. Skye lets go of his package. Mandy’s mouth forms a perfect circle as she disappears into the white. Skye heads back inside. Mandy screams to the stars.

“You could have just said no!”

The Packers are on the five-yard line. Rodgers takes the snap.



It’s a meet-and-greet with the academics, a woodsy conference room decked out with trays of quality cheeses (edam, provolone, brie), fruits and wine-not-from-a-box. Skye stands in a corner, listening to the psychology professor, an energetic Mexican woman with hair the color of steel wool.

“I’m drawing as much of a profile as I can, but I’m still connecting a few dots. I’m wondering, did she show any indications of depression before the homicide?”

“Yes. Nothing obvious, just an expression she had, a faraway look. I had two descriptions for it: the dark room and the locked door.”

“Excuse me.” It’s Sigh, looking oddly serious. “Could I have a word with you? It’s somewhat urgent.”

“Oh, sure. Excuse me, Dr. Espinoza.”

“Certainly.”

Sigh takes him to an outside walkway. He maintains the grim expression until he’s sure that no one’s watching.

“Okay. Here’s the deal. I know about last night, and frankly it’s one of the funniest fucking things I’ve ever heard. That said, I am duty-bound to pretend that I am greatly offended. So I will go back in there by myself, wearing a pissed-off expression, and I would like you to follow suit in a couple of minutes, looking, um, chastised. A little later, if you could come to my table and fake a little apology, it would be much appreciated. But oh my God, you have balls the size of Ecuador! What man in the world hasn’t dreamt of doing that?”

Sigh holds forth his knuckles. Skye gives them a bump.

“So… why are we doing all of this?”

Sigh laughs. “I totally forgot to tell you. I’m engaged to Mandy’s sister.”

“Sandy?”

“Brandy.”

“You are the oddest couple I could ever imagine.”

“I totally dig the reactions we get. They seem to think I’m a child abductor. But you know twins, they’re a little telepathic about each other’s pain, and they’re both pretty upset about…” He covers his mouth and disintegrates into laughter. “Sorry. I keep picturing her in mid-flight.”

He straightens his collar and clamps his mouth shut. “And now to earn my Academy Award.” He clears his throat and jabs a finger into Skye’s chest. “Do not let this happen again, sir, or I shall be forced to demand my satisfaction. Harrumph!”

Sigh storms off, and Skye indulges in some laughter of his own, picturing the cartoon-like silhouette that Mandy carved into the snow. Harrumph. He re-enters the room, looking artificially upset, and takes an occasional glance toward Sigh’s table. He finds Dr. Espinoza and continues their talk about states of mind, suicidal inheritance, all the things he’s getting bloody sick of talking about. After a suitable passage of time, he reports to Sigh’s table and kneels next to Brandy’s chair.

“I just wanted to say I’m very sorry about the incident with your sister last night. She… caught me by surprise, and frankly I’ve been under a great deal of stress what with all of… this.” He gestures toward the room.

Brandy gives him a serious expression, looking eerily like her sister, and even now he can’t be certain that this isn’t another twin-prank. ”Oh, and congratulations on your engagement! You two make a terrific couple.”

Ah, he’s found the magic button. Brandy smiles, for a half-second, and then forces it back.

“Thank you. But I’ve encouraged Mandy to stay the hell away from you.”

“That’s probably for the best.”

Sigh sees an opening and takes it. “Skye, have you met Dr. Stalignan?”

He takes him to the next table and introduces him. Dr. Stalignan is a buxom strawberry blonde with eyes that form crescent moons when she smiles.

“I’m so pleased to meet you. And we’re so honored to have Rachel’s work.”

Sigh interjects. “Dr. Stalignan has sicced her grad students on the scrolls, and they have come up with some astounding things.”

Candace folds her hands. “We conducted a virtual census on the figures in the scrolls. Commoners, royals, celebrities versus unknown, fictional or real, ethnicities, et cetera. But the most intriguing discovery came from our media analysis.”

“I’m sorry. Media…?”

“Materials. We used a dozen non-invasive techniques to analyze the various materials used in the works. We assumed it would be purely found materials, but the computed axial tomography – the CAT scan – revealed anomalous elements in the Pinky Scroll. It appears that Ms. Grossman made several subtle augmentations with black ink. The curious thing was that none of these additions made any changes to the lines beneath them. However, when we isolated them, we realized that each of them seemed to spell out something: the letter I followed by the letter X.”

She stops to allow Skye a guess.

“Icks?”

Candace lets out a very unprofessional giggle. “No. Think Roman.”

“Oh! Nine.”

She nods. “In addition, the augmentation occurs precisely nine times. I think it’s the title of the piece.”

Skye gazes past her. “Nine. That’s beautiful.”

Dr. Stalignan smiles, turning her eyes to crescents. “I thought you might enjoy that.”



This time he has landed on a hockey game. He’s not really a fan, but the looping chaos of men on skates serves as a balm to his brain, with assistance from a bottle of beer. A quiet knock emanates from the door. He stumbles across the room, opens it, and finds that he is seeing double.

“Mandy! Sandy!”

“Brandy,” says Brandy, and rolls her eyes.

“We’d like to buy you a drink,” says Mandy.

“Well that’s… very nice,” says Skye. “And I’m so sorry about…”

“Not necessary,” says Brandy.

“Hold on,” says Mandy. “I’d like to hear it.”

Brandy purses her lips. “Proceed.”

“I am very sorry for tossing you into the snow. It was a foolish and hurtful thing to do.”

Mandy smiles. “Thank you.”

“Let me, um, slap on some decent clothing.”

They head to 13th Street, known to collegians as The Hill, and find a wine bar. A trio of guitar, violin and female vocalist plays hot jazz from a tiny stage in the corner. Their drinks arrive with deliciously stinky cheeses. Brandy finishes her Pinot and hops down from her stool.

“Okay. You two behave yourselves.”

“You’re leaving?” asks Skye.

“I don’t think you need an all-night chaperone. I just wanted to be on hand for the opening negotiations. Good night, my half.”

Mandy kisses her on the cheek. “Love you, half.”

Skye watches her walk to the door. “Half?”

Mandy smiles. “That’s how it feels, sometimes. I am but one half, for good and bad.”

“You’re definitely different, though.”

“Yep. Brandy’s the boss.”

Skye takes a pair of black grapes and pops them into his mouth. “I’m very sorry about…”

“Oh stop already.”

“Okay. You just caught me off guard, that’s all.”

Mandy laughs and covers her face. “I can’t believe I did that! That’s much more of a Brandy thing. I don’t know what got into me.”

“Me, apparently.” The double entendre sneaks up on both of them and sends them into a liberating round of laughter. The band plays “How Long Has This Been Goin’ On?”

“Mandy, would you like to… Can I make it up to you?”

A cloud of pink washes over Mandy’s face. “First, dance with me.”

Dancing with someone half your size is a challenge, but the song is brief, so the hunching does little damage. They return to the table and order a couple more glasses. By the end of the round, the trio is playing a tango version of “Begin the Beguine” and Skye is chewing on Mandy’s young lips. He buys a bottle of cabernet and they head for his rental car.



A lot of women would be surprised to know that immediately following sex, the average male is overtaken by a powerful urge to flee. This occurs even among highly attached males, and is usually overriden by the high-reasoning portion of the mind. After a lengthy, surprisingly athletic session with Mandy (fueled by months of abstinence), the flight instinct kicks in so strongly that Skye feels his limbs are about to explode. He tries to distract himself with a trip to the bathroom, even brings a glass of water to Mandy, but he can’t seem to shake it. He orders his mind to proceed to slumber; it steadfastly refuses. Then he begins to toss and turn and adjust his pillow.

Mandy strokes his back. “What’s the matter?”

He rolls over to give her a kiss and says, “I think I need you to go.”

The request takes a moment to penetrate. Mandy’s lips straighten to a line.

“Are you joking?”

He takes her hand. “I’m sorry. This opening tomorrow is incredibly important, and I know I won’t be able to sleep if you’re here.”

She’s about to get angry, but she’s a little too blissed out from sex to raise the energy. “I will. But you owe me.”

“Definitely.”

“I’ll need to…” She gestures toward the bathroom.

A few minutes later, she taps him on the shoulder, and he walks her to the door. She looks a little wounded.

“Thank you,” he says.

“I had a… good time,” she says.

He kisses her, says good night, and closes the door before it develops into anything else. He hears footsteps, a door, a car door, an ignition. Within minutes, he’s asleep.



The University Art Museum is a recent addition, using the same materials as the rest of the campus but possessing a much hipper attitude. The lower walls are smooth, cream-colored, topped by a band of frosted glass windows and rough-cut sandstone. The corners are marked by triangular battlements, as if someone had sliced off parts of the building with a fast-acting glacier.

The interior dimensions are tremendously generous. The two scrolls face each other across a broad gallery, employing the lower six feet of white walls that rise another 25. The impact is overpowering, and Skye spends every free moment just staring.

In between, he is back to the celebrity treadmill, chatting with people whose names he will immediately forget, answering questions he is beginning to find repetitious. There are differences, though. Compared to the New York crowd, these folks are more neutral and casual in their fashions. Many are academics, who seem determined to affix their theories to Rachel’s work. If they could, they would simply write them on the backs of business cards and attach them to the scroll with thumbtacks. Here’s What I Think.

The other irritation is Mandy, who seems determined to affix herself to Skye. She sidles up on a regular basis, scratches his back, takes his hand. He tries his best to offer a glance or a smile. Finally, he interrupts a conversation with a ring of grad students and takes Mandy to an outside hall.

“A little break for a makeout session?” She squeezes his butt; he grabs her wrist.

“You need to leave me alone.”

She gives him a blank look. “Sorry?”

“That in there is very important, and I need all my faculties. I don’t know what you thought last night was about, but I really don’t have the time to play boyfriend right now.”

She looks like she’s about to cry, which only pisses him off further.

“Listen to me. Please. The woman who made those scrolls? I was in love with her, and she hasn’t been dead two months. There was a woman in New York who got mad because I didn’t fuck her, and I suppose now you’re upset because I did fuck you and I’m thinking every last one of you needs to go away and let me do my fucking job.”

He re-enters the gallery before her destroyed expression makes a dent. Focus, focus. Fortunately, Sigh comes up with a reporter from the Denver Post, so it’s easy to return to the issue at hand.

“Yes, I’ve got a few minutes. What would you like to know?”



Two glasses of white wine have taken him to the proper level of lubrication, but he has planted a karmic seed and it’s coming back up as poison ivy. Mandy sits at a table not ten feet from the podium, bawling her eyes out. Throw in the hovering twin and their diminutive size, and one might conclude that the museum had arranged for a piece of performance art. Standing at the right-hand border of a scroll now called Nine, staring at a pulp-fiction drawing of a crying, big-breasted brunette, Skye notices Sigh chatting with a patron and waves him over.

“What’s up?”

“I really hate to ask this, Sigh, but your fiancee and her sister need to go.”

Sigh blinks thoughtfully. “God, Skye…”

“Look, I mean this in a completely professional sense. Whatever feelings might be hurt, I need to get up there in a couple of minutes and deliver a decent representation of Rachel Grossman and her art. I am not going to do so with Mandy performing her little soap opera. I’m sorry for putting you in this position. On the other hand, you did play a part.”

“I didn’t talk you into being a jackass.”

“Yes. I’m a jackass. At the moment, I don’t care. Come on, don’t be a fiance, be a program director. Be fierce. These scrolls are important.”

Sigh seems to make the calculation. “You so owe me a beer.”

“I owe you ten.”

Skye tries not to watch as Sigh makes the request, but he can’t avoid the result. Brandy stares a laser beam in his direction. Mandy’s face collapses, producing a stifled sob that echoes through the hall. People stop their conversations to look in Mandy’s direction. Skye retreats to a back room to get some coffee and even out his faculties. Through a small window, he sees Brandy leading Mandy toward the parking lot, holding her by an elbow. He feels greatly relieved.



The repetitive answers to journalists and art-lovers have turned his speech into something that feels rehearsed, so he makes a point of interrupting himself for digressions. He wants his audience to understand that he’s not an infomercial, that he really means it. It goes well, and he’s relieved that his scheduled responsibilities are done for the day. Post-speech, he attracts the usual circle of questioners, with the usual questions, but one of them throws him off his tracks.

“Who do you think she’s more angry at, her mother or her father?”

It’s not just the question, it’s the asker, a young woman with the looks of a Bollywood starlet and, of all things, an Irish accent.

“I’m sorry, I was thrown off by, well, you.”

“Ah. I was raised in Dublin.”

“That makes sense. It’s also a very good question. Like any good artist, Rachel had the ability to see through the distractive layers of emotion and subjectivity to the ugly core of truth. I think it’s readily apparent that her father was beyond violent. He was sick, and needed to be dealt with accordingly. The only person who could see to it that this was done was the one sane adult in the room, her mother. I think her mother’s lack of courage, her willingness to play the punching bag, infuriated Rachel, and forced her to remove herself from the situation. Her departure was entirely justified, but I think Rachel created these scrolls as an act of contrition, for abandoning her mother. In the end, it wasn’t enough. I think the guilt was what drove her to suicide.”

The woman’s eyes get larger as Skye’s analysis reaches its conclusion. She says, simply, “My goodness,” which sends the rest of the circle into titters. She smiles at the reaction, touches Skye’s hand and says, “I’m so sorry.”

At some point, Skye looks up and realizes that there are only a dozen people left in the hall. He has been talking ceaselessly, scrubbing out time. A man paces his way, wearing a checked coat and blue jeans. His boots make a knocking sound on the hardwood. He has short red hair, an immaculate beard. The man extends his hand and smiles.

“Are you Skye Pelter?”

“Yes.”

“From San Jose?”

“Sure.”

“A player of the slot machines of Winnemucca?”

Skye hesitates, then lets out a nervous laugh. “I’m sorry. Am I in a James Bond movie?”

The man smiles affably, though the smile is decidedly forced.

“I’m Thad, formerly of Salt Lake City. I believe you’re the man who fucked my wife.”

Skye realizes that he’s still shaking Thad’s hand. He also knows that he’s utterly exhausted, that Thad could probably beat him to a pulp if he wanted to. He looks around for a security guard but lands on Thad’s eyes, which are the steely blue of the waters off the Mendocino coast. The babies those two could have had…

Thad wraps Skye in his arms and lifts him into the air. He sets him back down and tries to say something, but all that comes out are the sounds of rusty hinges.

A second man approaches, a striking young blond with a boxer’s nose and hair spiked with product. He peels Thad away from Skye and holds his head to his shoulder as he weeps.

“I told him it wouldn’t work. Big fat crybaby. Hi, I’m Charlie.”

He disentangles a hand and holds it out for Skye to shake.

“So here’s what the drama queen meant to tell you. Your mad affair with Lindsy put a capper to a lifetime of playing it straight for Thad’s fascist Mormon family. Once the divorce was filed, he fled to Denver, went full-gonzo homo and met a ruggedly handsome lawyer named Charlie. When he saw your name in the paper, his eyes popped out of their sockets like a character in a Tex Avery cartoon, and he saw his chance to live out his Candid Camera Robert Deniro scenario and then heap gratitude upon your personage. So thank you, Mr. Pelter. Thank you for fucking Thad’s wife.”

Thad mumbles something like “Thank you” into Charlie’s sweater.

Skye smiles awkwardly. “The pleasure was all… mine?”

Which sends Thad into a fit of laughter to go with his crying. Charlie strokes his hair and smiles.

“You see why I love him?”



Sigh turns off the coffeemaker in the break room and heads out to make a final check. As long as this day has been, he yearns for some emergency to forestall his return to his angry fiancee. What he finds is Skye Pelter, sitting on the floor with his legs straight out. He stares at the Nine scroll and takes a swig from a bottle of wine. Sigh settles down next to him.

“Day’s over, champ. Gotta close.”

Skye laughs. “Hi Sigh! Hi Sigh, that’s like Hi Skye, or high sky, all my life man stupid jokes. But you know about that.”

Sigh sighs. “Most people think it’s C-Y. Cy.”

“Good for you! Y’know, Cy, the penis is a powerful organ. Just today, this single extremity, why, it changed a man’s life! And broke a girl’s heart. It also played a part in bringing this magnificent piece of art to the residents of the Denver Metropolitan Region.”

“And it also turned you into a douchebag.”

Skye slaps Sigh on the knee. “Don’t think I don’t know it. I’m sorry. Y’know, Cy, I used to be quite the softball player. Shortstop. I had this ferocity, not so much about winning as playing the game right. To the point where I became kind of a dick about it. Yelled at my teammates, that kinda stuff. And so I quit. Not because I was tired of it, but because I didn’t like who I was when I played it.”

“Hard to believe.”

Skye takes another draught and looks at the scroll.

“Nine. She’s a beauty.”

“Yes,” says Sigh. “But I don’t think she’s good for you.”

“A femme fatale.”

“Yep. Come on, I’ll drive you to your hotel.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t want to keep you.”

“I think it’ll work out okay.”

He lifts Skye to his feet, wraps an arm around his shoulder and helps him out of the room.

“Nine,” Skye half-sings. “Fucking nine.”



The sun rises behind them, behind the blocky buildings of the resort, across a lawn the size of a soccer pitch that ceases at the fenced-off clifftop. They sit on a beach facing the ocean.

“Three million dollars?” She wears a purple beret.

“Yeah. Hard to believe.”

“But who?” She wears a nose ring in the shape of a gecko.

“Don’t know. Anonymous.”

“Well that’s weird.” Her hair changes from black to green.

“I don’t know if I can accept it.”

“Why?”

“I didn’t earn it.”

She laughs. “Do you know how many rich people earn their money? Most of them were simply born rich.”

She sprouts wings.

“But it’s your money.”

“And I no longer exist.” A hummingbird lands on her shoulder, bearing a striking resemblance to Woody Allen.

“I’ve never seen a hummingbird that wasn’t flying.”

“Oh. This is Paolo. He was a plumber in Barcelona.” Paolo offers him a cigar.

“Gracias. You know, you look like…”

“Yeah. I get that.”

Skye lights the cigar with his finger. It tastes like strawberry cheesecake.

“So what do you want?”

A box kite zips past, trailing a stick. She catches the stick and holds on.

“It doesn’t matter. What do I deserve?”

“To be seen. The world needs to see your work.”

She smiles and flaps her wings. “I think that would be nice.”

The sun rises in the west. She laughs. “Well that’s just silly.”

The Foo Fighters appear on the beach below them and begin to play.

“Don’t you ever change your ringtone?”

Skye rolls over and grabs his cell.

“Hi Claudia.”

“You got my message?”

“Yep.”

“So what do you think?”

“I want some kind of guarantee that it will be exhibited publicly on a regular basis.”

“Damn. You sure got a pair.”

“Gracias.”

“I’ll get back to you. By the way, the exhibit sold out. Two hundred and thirty five thousand dollars.”

“Jesus.”

“You’re welcome.”

Skye sits up on the edge of the bed. “Claudia, you are fucking awesome.”

“And awesome fucking. I’ll call you later.”

“Thanks.”

He gets up to peer through the curtains. The sun is rising in the east.



“Do you just assume that all gay people are into this campy shit?”

“I…”

“Well I am! God, I love the cheesy saddles.”

“In my defense,” says Skye, “this is the only diner I know in the Boulder region.”

“Well this Amarillo omelet is fantastic,” says Thad.

“Do you know that ‘amarillo’ means yellow?” says Charlie.

“Ergo,” says Thad, “all omelets are amarillo.”

“Unless they’re horribly burnt,” says Charlie. “I’m so glad we could see you before you left.”

“And prove that I’m not always a blubbering idiot,” says Thad.

Skye chews on his ranchero bacon. He’s tempted to tell his new friends about the offer on the scroll. The news is so huge, he’s afraid that holding it in will cause internal bleeding.

“How’s the ex-wife?” he asks.

“I’m a little concerned,” says Thad. “She went all incommunicado on me, and then her father told me she took off to Silverton, Oregon. Moved in with an old college pal, Kathy Goon.”

“Go on!” says Charlie. “Goon?”

“Unfortunate name. Came to the wedding. Did not like me one bit. Which leads me to believe she’s a perceptive woman.”

“I’m so glad I never knew you as a latent,” says Charlie. “You must have been an unholy prick.”

“A holy prick,” says Thad.

The Charlie/Thad repartee is vastly amusing. Skye feels like he should have been charged admission. The three of them share a teary farewell, then Skye decides to work off his pancakes with a stroll around the block. He stops at a jewelry store window to admire a set of opal rings.

“I want that one, and that one, and especially that one.”

If the accent doesn’t give her away (so close to birdsong), certainly the coffee-cream skin and the stylishly long nose do.

“Well hello!”

“So you remember me?”

“Who the hell would not remember you?”

“Aye, so he’s a charmer, too.”

Skye laughs.

“What?”

“You went kinda leprechaun there.”

“Yeah. I do that when I’m flirtin’.”

“So you’re flirting.”

“Who wouldn’t flirt with a charmer like you? Name’s Chitra. Art student, U of C. There’s a pub around the corner. Can a lass buy ya a Guinness?”

“A lass can.”



He wakes in Chitra’s room, four blocks from campus, and wonders if he’s tempting fate. He’s got the best insurance policy ever – the next-day departure – and Chitra seems to understand the arrangement. He gets up to study a series of old movie stills on the wall.

“What’re ya lookin’ at?” she asks.

“Are you a big Bollywood fan?”

She blinks her dark eyes. “Notice anything familiar about those photos?”

“Well. Um… this rather lovely young woman. And…” He looks back to the bed. Chitra flips aside the blanket, putting her body on exhibit.

“She looks like you. With clothes.”

“Me sainted mother. Anjali Divakaruni. A rising star in the Indian film industry, until she met an Irish actor and moved with him to Dublin. Tres romantique.”

“So what’s your full name?”

“Chitra Flanagan.”

“Begorrah!”

“Yeah. That and the accent are my primary weapons. Blows people’s minds. Gets my questions answered at art openings.”

“Ah-hah!”

“And that answer you gave! Devastating. It made me tremendously hot.”

“Seriously.”

“I’m what you would call a sapiosexual. I’m turned on by intellect. And I knew, if I ever saw you again, I would do whatever I could to get you into bed.”

“Well done. So what do you want from me?”

“Pardon?”

“Lately, everybody wants something from me.”

Chitra develops a witchy look, and snaps her fingers.

“I want you to take me to dinner. And I want the liberty, over the next few months, to pelt you with questions, because I intend to write my master’s thesis on the subject of Rachel Grossman.”

“That seems ridiculously fair. May I ask something in return?”

“Ask away.”

“I’m traveling tomorrow, so after this dinner, I would like to drop you off and spend the night alone in my hotel room.”

She smiles, very slowly. “It’s such a pleasure to hear one of you men admit it.” She catwalks across the room and wraps him up in her limbs. “However, if that’s the deal, let’s make it a late dinner, and see what we can do about getting this apparatus back in working order.”

She slides downward, planting kisses as she goes. Skye looks to the ceiling and says, “Chitra Flanagan.”





Photo by MJV

Monday, July 21, 2014

Nature Boy, Chapter Twenty-Nine: Hot and Dead

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Hot and Dead

Skye likes to think he can pick out ethnicities, but Carolyn Kendrick presents a particular challenge. With a moon-shaped face, defined cheekbones and long, dark hair, she might be Filipino, or Guatemalan, or Mexican. Her speech is no help: wholly unaccented English – in New Jersey, a rare quality.

“Okay,” he says. “I give up.”

“Native American,” she says. “Muscogee.”

“It shows.”

“Thank you. I think.”

“Definitely a compliment. So. What’s the story?”

“Well, as I told the folks at the gallery, I was about to give up. No payment for three months, phone disconnected, no response to our letters. We were about to go in there and throw everything out when I picked up a copy of The New Yorker.”

“Thank goodness. Any idea what’s in there?”

“Nope. She was a regular visitor, nothing unusual, boxes and bags.”

She detaches a key from Rachel’s file and takes him down a long white hallway lined with doors. A middle-aged Puerto Rican woman sits on a milk crate, sorting through a box of magazines. Carolyn stops at door 63 and jiggles the key into a padlock. She slides it free and offers Skye the honor of first entry.

The unit is the size of a walk-in closet. He pulls a light chain, revealing five wooden dressers lining the walls. Skye goes to a top drawer and slides it out. Inside are rolled-up sheets of paper, the size and thickness of posters, each of them tied with a piece of string.

“Holy shit, Carolyn.”

Another dresser, another top drawer. This one holds two stacks of card-stock rectangles, separated by sheets of wax paper.

“Holy shit, Carolyn.”

He tries a third dresser but the drawer won’t open. After a little tinkering, he discovers that the top opens up, like the lid of a toybox. Looking inside, he finds a scroll, nearly as big as the scroll of the missing fingers.

Carolyn grins. “Fantastic!”



Claudia wears blue jeans and a black T-shirt, leading Skye to worry about her state of mind. They are using the white rug in Mickey and Maddie’s living room as a kind of sorting area. The smaller pieces appear to be beginner studies, although they certainly show signs of the whimsical interpolation that would show up later. One piece presents Louis XIV dining with Samuel Johnson, a gorilla, and three gherkin pickles. The rolled-up works are precursors to the spatial studies. Skye detects The School of Athens in an arrangement of flowering bushes.

“I don’t see it,” says Claudia.

“Take the two rose bushes in the center. Here, the most prominent blossom is pointed upward. That would be Plato. Here, pointing downward: Aristotle.”

She shoots him a sideways grin. “You are decidedly wacked. How did the heiress react to your sudden departure?”

“Hard to read. I’m sure she’s a woman who’s used to getting her way. But she also has a certain devotion to Rachel.”

“Just watch out, tiger. She’s a woman. The heart beats the brain every time. And, she’s got a thing for you. And, your little weekend was in the Post.”

“I hope you’re kidding.”

“Artist widower boyfriend seen canoodling in East Hampton with the vegetable princess.”

“No way!”

She shoots him with a finger. “Celebrities are like bowling pins. They are only set up to be knocked down. Personally, I would gladly accept it, if only to have my name in the Post. You bastard.”

“But you are in the Post, Claudia, for I am your creation.”

“Nice try.”

He scans their black-and-white ocean. “So what do we do with all of this?”

“We sell them. Frame them, pretty them up and sell them.”

“Yikes. The very idea breaks my heart.”

She taps his knee. “Artists create works so that they may butterfly their way into the world. Let them go, let them propagate – now, while Rachel is hot.”

“Hot and dead.”

“A technicality.”

He runs a finger along his lips. “If we did sell them, what would we do with the money?”

“We would do math. I get a cut, the gallery gets a cut, and you get what’s left.”

“No, I couldn’t. I’ll give mine to the shelter.”

She shoots him a look, which is intensified by her reading glasses.

“Give some to the shelter. Keep some for yourself.”

“I don’t deserve it.”

Claudia puts a hand to her forehead. “You have rescued your girlfriend from the eternal damnation of obscurity, and you have given her a legacy. That is a tremendous thing. Besides, it is the nature of dead people that they are incapable of using money. She would want you to have it.”

“But what does that look like? Am I using my girlfriend’s suicide to make money?”

“If you really were a whore – which is what you seem to be saying – wouldn’t you be off nailing the broccoli princess? And isn’t it time we open that big scroll?”

Skye looks at the log-like shape next to the piano. “I am experiencing some trepidation.”

Claudia stands. “In that case, your agent will do it for you.” She tries and fails to pick it up. Skye comes over to grab an end. They place it at the far wall and Claudia rolls it across the room. What appears is the same dense mashup of imagery as the first scroll, only this time occupied by figures who are male and drunk. Red-nosed drunks, smelly drunks, driving drunks, creepy drunks, enraged, murderous, rapists, mutilators, abusers, shouters. The carnival is cheered along by a team of Pans, Dionysuses, Bacchuses and Satans.

“Wow,” says Skye.

“The first scroll was the mother,” says Claudia. “This one’s Daddy.”



Skye stacks the art in a corner. Mickey and Maddie will return this evening from a symphony gig in Philadelphia (Mozart’s Requiem), and he’ll want to have it ready for display.

His phone has been going off all morning. Chelsea is a mad texter, and has clearly latched onto Skye as her latest repository.

Making great headway on the living room, sans your burly assistance. How does she do it all by herself?

Will be in the Apple tomorrow for a meeting. Join me for a drink?

Had to cover a sharp edge on the mirror wall. Don’t know how that got past me!

Your surfboard misses you. So do I. XXOO

He answers as cleverly as he can, but fears he’s feeding a fire he doesn’t intend to stoke. These are the kind of unbalanced correspondences that make completely worthwhile women (and men) look clingy and desperate. What he really feels like texting back is Me: wrong tree. You: barking.

He has just settled down to a roast beef sandwich when his phone vibrates yet again.

“Jesus! Get a life.” But it’s not Chelsea. It’s an unidentified sender, from the area code 303.

Dude! It’s Sigh. Hey, not to be a starfucker, but I C U R now famous and I want in. Send me your email and I will forward details. Thx!

If anything, it gives him a respite from the Chelsea campaign, so he sends off his email and heads upstairs for a nap. An hour later, he comes back down and boots up Mickey’s computer. He finds Sigh at the top of his inbox.

Okay! Here’s the deal: I am in love with Rachel’s scroll (and I am so sorry about her!). In addition to the power of its story, I think it carries a great deal of social significance. Which is why I think it could benefit from what I can offer: a thorough academic treatment.

My position as program director extends to the university gallery. If you brought the scroll to CU, I could hook you up with my art department director, Candace Stalignan. Candace would conduct a deep analysis of the work and arrange a symposium to go along with the exhibit, including a panel discussion featuring a psychology prof (the cathartic/therapeutic aspect), a feminism studies scholar addressing the imagery, and a sociologist to speak on the issues of abuse and alcoholism.

That’s my pitch. I think we could really help to confirm Rachel’s place in the art world. But mostly, I just want to see this gorgeous work at my gallery.

PS I bet you had no idea I was this deep;-)

Indeed. Skye reads the email a second time and concludes that he needs to give it at least two days of thought. He switches off his cell, grabs a remote and surfs the TV for a brainless sitcom.



For some reason, Mickey and Maddie have brought home a lemon meringue pie. After a thorough perusal of the new pieces, they sit around the kitchen counter and dig in.

“That settles it for me,” says Mickey.

“Settles what?” asks Maddie.

“I thought perhaps our girl was a one-hit wonder. That drunken scroll is almost as powerful as the pinkie scroll – and much scarier. Which makes me even sadder about our loss.”

Skye’s phone buzzes. “Oh god. The heiress is getting desperate.”

“Oh Skye,” Maddie sing-songs. “The man’s a ladykiller.”

“I have run out of clever responses, and now she thinks she has done something to upset me. Bad enough she’s got me in the scandal sheets.”

“Ooh!” says Mickey. “Details?”

“A mention in the Post. Art widower plays footsie with cauliflower queen. I paraphrase. Do you ever get this treatment?”

“A little bit,” says Maddie. “When I brought Studmuffin back from California. They really got into the golddigger angle.”

“Which is absolutely true,” says Mickey.

“It’s as if I were marrying beneath my class! They obviously had me confused with the royal characters in my operas. Is this not America? Was this not the reason for the Revolution?”

“Whatever you do,” says Mickey, “don’t respond. They can only hope to keep the drama going if you agree to participate.”

“This pie is tremendous,” says Skye.

“Case in point,” says Maddie. “I mentioned in an interview how much I love lemon meringue. A marvelous old lady from Scranton baked this up and brought it backstage.”

“So what you’re saying,” says Skye, wiping his mouth, “is that the press, which spends so much of its time spreading lies and innuendo, may also be used for obtaining baked goods.”

“Exactly.”



Three days later, he and Mickey pick up Maddie at a rehearsal and cruise down to Chelsea. They enter the main gallery at the Amadeus and find a frazzled-looking man with spiked blond hair, nursing a glass of red wine as he studies a wall filled with collages. He sets the glass on a small table, walks over to nudge a piece to the right, returns to the table, takes a sip, then goes back and nudges the piece to the left.

“Are you Henrik?”

“Yezz. You are Skye?”

“Yes. You do amazing work, Henrik.”

“Tanks.”

“I can’t believe you got all of these done so quickly.”

Henrik gives a lopsided grin. “I haff a treeful of elves who do my work for me. Claudia drops by every day to motivate them.”

“Oh, she can be very motivational.”

“Like a dah-mee-nay-trix.”

“Henrik, this is Mickey Siskel and Maddalena Hart.”

“Oh! A pleasure to…” Henrik lowers his spectacles. “You are the opera singer?”

Maddie smiles. “Some people think so.”

He raises a hand as if he’s taking an oath. “Your Manon… the most beautiful thing that has ever crossed my eardrums.” He extends a hand. “May I?”

She places her hand in his and he kisses it.

“I have kissed the hand of the goddess. I may now die in peace.”

Even Maddalena, receiver of compliments by the hour, can’t help but be charmed. She giggles like a schoolgirl.

“I hate entering a room when no one’s talking about me.”

It’s Claudia, once again wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt, although this time she has added a bomber jacket.

“I swear,” says Skye. “Sixty seconds ago.”

“Not good enough. And as much as I appreciate the extra pub, I feel that you are impinging on my turf.”

“I’m… sorry?”

Claudia studies his face. “You mean to say that you don’t know? Oh, this is too good. I’m just going to savor this.”

“Um… okay?”

The room goes strangely quiet, until the timer in Claudia’s head finally goes off. She reaches into her bag and pulls out a folded newspaper. “Here ya go.”

At the sight of the surfboard, he knows exactly what’s up.

“Skye!” Maddie meows. “Nice butt.”

“How do they even know that’s me?”

“Well,” says Claudia. “I certainly knew. Check the caption.”

Butt Out: Manhattan’s rising professional art widower, Skye Pelter, turns out to be a model as well, in a photo reportedly taken by vegetable heiress Chelsea Kormit. Pretty cheeky, Mr. Pelter!

“Nothing like the Post for sophisticated commentary,” says Mickey.

“A nice shot,” says Henrik. “Ziss Chelsea, she has a good eye.”

Skye would like to be James-Bond cool, but he can feel the heat rising to his face. “I think I need some wine,” he says, and leaves the room.



The day after Christmas, he calls Anna at the New Yorker. She agrees to meet him at Caffe Liberté, across the street from Lincoln Center. She shows up fifteen minutes late and equipped with an edgy aura.

“Okay, Skye. Do not think that you are going to use me as your personal P.R. firm. Before I even consider writing about you again, I am going to grill you until you are melted cheese. Understood?”

“Yes. I’m a journalist, Anna. I understand the rules.”

Anna purses her lips and pulls a small device from her writing case. “I am going to record this. Is that all right?”

“Sure.”

She places it on the table and hits a red button.

“Are you having sex with Chelsea Kormit?”

“No.”

“Then why were you at her place in East Hampton?”

“She seems to like me. And she loves Rachel’s work. She thought I could use some time off. We spent most of the weekend working on her house.”

“The nude photo? Is that you?”

“Yes.”

“And how does one end up naked on a surfboard?”

“Ms. Kormit is very persuasive. She also has a rather whimsical artistic vision. You must admit, it’s a rather well-done photo.”

Anna fights a smile and loses. “And cold. How did you stand it?”

“Extreme focus.”

She folds her hands and regains her edge. “You have feelings of affection for Ms. Kormit?”

“Yes.”

“So why didn’t you have sex with her?”

Skye takes a moment to search for what he really wants to say.

“If it wasn’t for Rachel’s work, I might have. I knew Rachel only a brief time. Under normal circumstances, one might expect the mourning period to be brief, as well. The problem is, Rachel’s work is so powerful that my feelings for her to continue to grow, even after her death. It’s an odd situation, and it’s magnified by this astonishing public reaction to the scroll. I am damaged goods, and I couldn’t imagine being intimate with someone else. Chelsea knows this. Perhaps the nude modeling was a substitute of sorts. A flirtation.”

Anna seems to soften. “If this is so hard on you, why are you doing it?”

Skye takes longer than before. It’s a good question, and he wants to do it justice. He gazes out the window.

“I’ve spent twenty years interviewing performers and artists. I am absolutely fascinated by the creative process. I also know that great talent does not necessarily lead to public success. It’s an extremely fickle process, and when you get a window like this one, it doesn’t stay open for long. I’ve had a psychologist tell me that I could not have prevented Rachel’s suicide, that she was determined to take her own life, but I will always feel like I could have done more. Now I have the rare chance to win for her an artistic legacy. If I have to suffer a little invasion of privacy along the way, then so be it.”

“Will you make money from her work?”

“Yes.”

“Is that right?”

“I debated that myself. I do sometimes feel odd about this. But Rachel has no family – you know about that – and perhaps the money I make from her work will enable me to promote her work that much more. Also, I’ll continue to give a percentage to the East Village Women’s Shelter.”

“Aren’t you a bit angry at the woman who runs that shelter?”

“Doesn’t matter. That shelter stands for everything that Rachel’s scroll is about. Also, the facts aren’t in on Ms. Kormit. I don’t know how that photo got out.”

Anna takes this in, then shifts in her seat and chews on a pen.

“Okay. I get it. I believe you. Mostly. But you realize, this isn’t a story. I’m not going to write a rebuttal to the Post.”

“Good. Then we can get off this bullshit and on to something relevant. Rachel had a storage unit in Jersey. They were about to empty it out when they saw your story and gave me a call. What we discovered was an enormous cache of artworks, including another scroll, arguably as powerful as the first.

Anna’s eyes light up. “Okay,” she says. “Now we’re talking. Are you planning an exhibit?”

“Opening January Second.”

“May I see them?”

“Do you have time?”

“I do now.”

“Okay! Let’s grab a taxi.”



Mickey takes another look at the article and clucks his tongue.

“I don’t get it. How do you do this?”

Skye laughs. “Nothing disarms a journalist like someone who tells them the truth. Besides, Anna loves Rachel’s work. So I knew I could trust her.”

“You take your clothes off on a public beach and you’re a freakin’ folk hero. If I did that, the cops would be there in five minutes.”

“Honey!” Maddie waltzes in with a glass of wine. “I often reward your for taking off your clothes.”

“Don’t change the subject, woman! I’m not through pouting.”

“Just keep those lips pouted till midnight and I will kiss them.”

“Another martini, nudy boy?”

“Why yes, maestro.”

“How’s the conductor doing, diva?”

“A little shit-faced, frankly.”

“Any entertainment for zero hour?”

“I’m sure the cast will think of something.”

Claudia bursts into the room in a silver jumpsuit, see-through panels down either side.

“Claudia!” says Skye. “It’s good to see you in something ostentatious. I was worried.”

“Y’got more’n that to be worried about. Chelsea Kormit just showed up.”

“Oh shit. Why didn’t you just tell her to go away?”

“Because she’s Chelsea Kormit.”

“Oh hell. I’ll be in the garden.”

“But it’s snowing!”

Skye grabs somebody’s coat from a kitchen chair, wraps it around his shoulders and heads for the table with the parasol. He stands there feeling the buzz of New Year’s, an entire city waiting to go off. The door slides open. He turns to see her, in a long black dress and a snow-white overcoat.

“It’s my publicist,” says Skye.

She crosses the patio and stops three feet away. Her eyes are swollen with crying.

“I can’t let this year pass without apologizing. I was using some photo software at the offices for the shelter, on a computer that’s used by several different people. It was very stupid of me. And believe me, we’re on the lookout for whoever leaked the photo. Welcome to my life, Skye! I’m working in a fucking women’s shelter, and still I can’t trust anyone, still it’s a big game of gotcha with the vegetable queen. I’m sorry I dragged you into it. But you’ve been famous for three weeks. I’ve been fighting this shit all my life. Meanwhile, why were you ignoring my texts?”

“I wasn’t ignoring you. I was paying attention to Rachel. And frankly, honey, you were laying it on a little thick.”

She flaps her arms downward. “I will not be treated like this! I am never treated like this. You could have told me.”

“You know why you’re not treated like this? People are afraid of you, that’s why. You can buy and sell every one of them, so their only option is to kiss your ass. I am a fucking goldmine for you. I’m making money for your shelter, and I happen to know you love my girlfriend’s artwork, so I know you won’t do shit to me, and therefore I can tell you exactly what I think of you. Look, I had a good time, I’m grateful. But when the subject is Rachel Grossman, everybody else in the world, including the vegetable queen, can just take a fucking number.  Also, it would be nice if you could keep my naked ass out of the papers!”

He stops. He’s breathing hard. Chelsea is frozen in place, hugging herself against the cold. Down the block, a driver pounds on his horn. Another ten seconds bleeds away from the year. He turns away.

“What do you want from me?”

Five seconds. “I want you to forgive me. Also, at midnight…”

She starts to cry. Skye tries his best not to turn around. She hiccups and finishes her thought. “I want… someone to kiss me.”

He takes a breath. “You are forgiven. That stupid photo actually got us some…”

“Don’t.”

“What?”

“Don’t call it a stupid photo. It’s beautiful.”

“Fine. As for the kiss, you have got to be fucking kidding me.”

This is what he hears: a gasp, a sob, a series of footsteps. A sliding door. Happy New Year’s Fuckin’ Eve.

Eventually, the cold is too much. He heads inside, returns the coat to its chair, then grabs a bottle of gin from the counter and gives it a long pull. The liquor scorches its way down and the room begins to fuzz out.

A minute later, he’s jolted by a burst of sound from the living room. He stumbles over to find a dozen big-time opera singers around the piano, throttling the drinking song from La Traviata. Someone takes his hand and pulls him across the room. It’s Maddie. She takes him to a door, kisses him on the cheek and smiles.

“Happy New Year, darling.”

She nudges him into a room with computers, bookshelves, a globe. It’s Mickey’s den, and Chelsea’s asleep on an armchair, buried in her white coat. Skye leans over to study her face, then touches her cheek. Her eyes flutter open. He holds out his hands. She takes them, and he pulls her to her feet. Having no better idea, he leads her into a dance that has no relationship to the drinking song. After a few unsteady turns around the room, he stops, places a hand on the side of her face and brings his lips to hers.

“Happy New Year, vegetable queen”

Chelsea sniffles. “Can we dance some more?”

“Sure.”



He wakes in the guest room – his room – and finds that she is next to him, wide awake and fully clothed.

“Happy New Year.”

“Good morning,” he replies. “I have news.”

“Yes?”

“I’m going to Colorado.”

She swallows. “You go wherever you have to.”

“Thanks.”



Photo by MJV

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Nature Boy, Chapter Twenty-Eight: The Opposite of Death

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The Opposite of Death

Skye understands that driving Long Island in winter is tricky, but the opportunity is too good to pass up. He almost feels guilty, as if he’s cheating on his truck, abandoned and neglected in its California parking space. Still, the drive up 27 is lovely and refreshing: long, rolling hills covered in snow and housing, fingers of smoke rising from the chimneys. Farther along, the hills flatten out, he boards the lower jaw of the alligator and the Atlantic makes cameos out his passenger window.

The village of East Hampton looks like the little towns his mom would assemble on the coffee table at Christmas. Christmas! A week away, and no indication that he’ll make it home. But perhaps this is a luxury he has purchased with his erratic behavior. He has lowered the expectations of his family. This could be the year that he sees Christmas in New York.

He manages to spot Liza’s Tea Shop at the end of the strip and turn onto the narrow road just beyond. He punches his trip meter, and a precise 1.7 miles later finds the old bridge that signals his final turn. His expectation of Gatsbyan spires and infinite lawns is magnified by the approach, a long, straight shot between sentry lines of elm, their barren, powdered limbs weaving a canopy of white lace. The partial shelter has kept the road-snow at a moderate level, but Skye sticks to the basics, a nice even roll to avoid slippage. He slows further as he comes into the open, slushing his way onto a circular driveway.

The house is the expected size, but surprisingly haggard, the paint listless and old, the shingles torn off in patches. The feeling is offset by small amusements, a circular tower, a widow’s walk. Skye brings his bags to the porch and raps on a knocker dangling from the mouth of a brass lion.

Chelsea looks a little haggard, too, in torn jeans and a plaid shirt, her hair peeking out from a Yankees cap. She is covered in a film of white, like a scrubby phantom. She smiles.

“What’s the protocol here? Are we still kissing cousins?”

He laughs nervously. “Yes, I…” He kisses her. “Are you baking something?”

“No, why?” She looks at her hands. “Oh! Sorry. I forget what I look like when I… Goodness! Is that yours?”

He follows her gaze to the driveway.

“Oh, um. No. That’s Mickey’s. He insisted I drive it here, and I said yes before he could take it back.”

“Well! We’ll have to drive it into town so I can show off.”

“I would think anyone in this town could afford one of those.”

“Don’t mistake wealth for style, hon. Here, let’s get your bags inside.”

She takes the small bag, he the large, and they settle them in the front parlor, a room of deep red walls and black furnishings. She takes his hand and leads him back across the entryway into what looks like a construction zone. The high ceiling and stone hearth would seem to indicate a living room, but the floor is covered in plywood and the walls are nothing but studs and wires. The far corner sports two neat rectangles of sheetrock.

“Ah, so you are white with gypsum.”

“I planned on greeting you in a cocktail dress, but I finally finished the framing and I couldn’t resist the chance to cover some walls. Are you hungry? Come on, let’s make you a sandwich.”

They adjourn to a spacious kitchen/dining room. Skye sits at the table and looks through a large window at snow-covered dunes with patches of straw-colored grass. The water beyond is flat and gray. Chelsea digs into the fridge for turkey and mayo, settling them on a large island. The kitchen walls are covered in brick-size tiles of marble veined in black and gray.

“Your kitchen is astounding.”

“Thank you. Took forever. You have to be ridiculously precise. And if you find a flaw, you just have to tear it out and do it over or it’ll drive you nuts.”

“Is it hard to find a tile guy who will work to those standards?”

Chelsea gives him a puzzled look, and then snaps out of it.

“Oh! I’m sorry. I didn’t explain. I do everything myself. I call this place The House of Amateurs. Believe me, my family thinks I’m nuts.” She picks out a leaf of romaine, arranges it atop the turkey, then adds three thin slices of cucumber. “There’s something about working with your hands. Something primal, and sacred.”

“Can I help you? With the sheetrocking?”

She delivers his sandwich on a plate. “Lemonade?”

“Sure.”

She fills a glass from a European-looking bottle.

“Do you know anything about sheetrocking?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Good. Are you capable of following orders.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Excellent. Too many of your kind consider themselves general contractors by right of gender. Still, isn’t this supposed to be your vacation?”

“Hey, I’ve been inside my own head for two months now. Some mindless labor sounds fantastic.”

“Okay. But you tell me when you get tired and we’ll take a break.”

“You got it.” He attacks his sandwich.



As it turns out, Skye is just the help Chelsea needs. He holds the large panels in place as she drills them to the studs, each screwhead forming a dimple in the paper surface. Her true skill is revealed in the way that she carves the openings for the light switches and outlets, carefully measuring, penciling the cutout, slicing into the gypsum with a box-cutter then punching out a hole that fits perfectly, every time.

“You’re an artist.” He holds firm as she fetches the drill. She takes a moment to smile at him, a smudge of white powder striping her cheek.

“Summer after college. Habitat for Humanity. I just wanted to pound nails, but they forced me to try sheetrocking. I must have screwed up twenty cuts, but after I got it I was their most valuable volunteer.”

“So the sheetrocker is king?”

“Drywall covers a host of sins.” She sets a screw and hits the gun.

One panel further and they’ve hit the end of the wall. Chelsea eyes their work and claps the powder from her hands. “I’ve got a rule. Don’t do any one thing so long that you get bored. Come on. I’ve got something special for you.”

She stops for two beers and takes him to the garage. The spaces are occupied by a large truck, a silver Audi and a pair of sawhorses holding an old door with an inset mirror. Chelsea takes a swig from her beer and eyes the patient.

“Got this at an estate sale. A beautiful antique door with a beautiful antique mirror. And what are we gonna do with it?”

“Paint it? Strip it?”

She shoots him a grin. “Smash it!”

“Isn’t that seven years’ bad luck?”

“Not if you do it on purpose. Now. Grab one of these and do what I do.”

She hands him a heavy duty plastic bag, then takes one for herself and wraps it around the top half of the door. Skye covers the bottom. Chelsea goes to the tool bench for two rubber mallets.

“Now. I don’t think you need to hit it too hard. Just punch it every few inches.”

She holds her mallet a foot from the surface and delivers a firm strike, then peeks under the bag to reveal the smash, irregular triangles emanating from the center.

“Okay. That’s about right. Go to it.”

Skye feels for the edge of the inset and places his punches. After a couple of minutes, they slide away the bags to reveal a field of jagged silver.

“Beautiful!” says Chelsea. She pulls out her cell phone and takes a few photos of the surface. “Stay right there. I want a cubist portrait of Skye.” She shows him the result, five noses, seven eyes, a chin, three ears. Then she hands him the phone so he can take a shot of her.

She gives him a pair of heavy leather gloves and a plastic bucket. “I want pieces about an inch to three inches. If they’re still too big, put a piece of the bag over it and give it another punch. Oh, and definitely these…”

She hands him a pair of safety glasses and dons a pair for herself. They spend the next fifteen minutes collecting their booty. Once they’re done, she uses a shop vac to get the microshards.

“Here. Hold up your bucket like you’re a prospector who’s just hit it big.”

Skye puts on his best rascally smile. Chelsea takes the shot.

“Okay! Bring yer booty and walk this way.”

He follows her up a broad staircase and leftward to a bedroom with walls of Tuscan orange. Across the way is a bathroom with one wall covered in primer.

“Have a seat,” she says. Skye looks around and sits on the edge of the bathtub. Chelsea picks up a plastic container and pops the lid, revealing a cream-colored paste.

“This,” she says, “is tiling mastic. There’s a village named Mastic just a few miles from here, isn’t that funny? Anyway, what I want you to do is pick out a piece of mirror, completely at random, place about a teaspoon of mastic on the back of it, and hand it up to me. Here, use this putty knife.”

He takes a piece and slides some mastic on it like peanut butter on toast. Chelsea dabs a little off with her finger and wipes it on her jeans.

“Just a little less.”

“Okay.”

She places a footstool at the right-hand edge of the wall, and places the shard at the topmost corner. This gives Skye an excellent opportunity to study Chelsea’s ass. She arches her back to give him a better look.

“Much as I appreciate the appreciation, you might want to use this time to pick out another piece.”

“I apologize for nothing,” says Skye.

“I don’t want apologies. I want another piece.”

He laughs at the dominatrix tone and gets to work. Chelsea builds a two-foot stripe across the top, talking as she goes.

“The thing is, I want the idea of mirrors without the obnoxious extra reflection, so I’m leaving a little more space than usual between the pieces. Half inch, quarter inch, and purposely irregular.”

She arrives at the left side and dispenses with the footstool, working another stripe at eye level and then a final one from a kneeling position. She has covered the wall in an impressive hour and a half.

“That,” says Skye, “is one hell of a wall.”

She stretches up to give him a kiss. “And now, I will reward your obedient assistance by taking you to dinner. Your bedroom is across the hall. And, could you wear the red jacket?”

“Glad to.”

His room is coolly colored, an accent wall of deep blue, a soft green comforter with gray paisley blossoms, an impressionist seascape over a rough-hewn antique dresser. He indulges in a long bath and conducts a thorough cleaning, wearing the red jacket over a white shirt, a pair of blue jeans and burgundy cowboy boots. He finds Chelsea in the hall, wearing a dress of kelly green and a lavish white overcoat.

“You are a gorgeous hunk of day-laborer.”

“Got the calluses to prove it,” she says. “Now let’s see what that Cadillac can do.”



Driving through town is unnerving: overpriced cars on every curb, waiting to be struck by a neophyte winter driver. Skye steers like a ship’s captain, hands glued to the wheel. Nearing the woodsy darkness at the northern edge of town, Chelsea points him toward a blocky-looking structure on the left.

The name is the Acorn Sweet, offering a pub-looking interior of thick walls, long stripes of wood varnished in deep cinnamon. Chelsea greets the host and makes a whispered request. He smiles and leads them to a back room with a hearth of large blue stones. The walls here seem even sturdier. They’re shown to a table that’s intended for four. Chelsea offers some guidance on the menu.

“They dabble in frilly foods – salads, pastas – but what you really want is meat. These people are highly skilled carnivore ninjas – venison, too.”

Skye gets the chops, and he’s not disappointed. They are virtually buried in mushrooms and caramelized onions, with sides of broccoli with cheddar sauce and rosemary potatoes.

“So I gotta ask,” he says. “Where did you pick up all this home improvement?”

She chews a bite of venison, holding a hand in front of her mouth.

“Being filthy rich, my parents felt the need to always be building things: extensions, pool houses, bathroom renovations, atriums, fountains. From an early age, I saw the troops invading the estate and I was intrigued by the things they were doing. So I ventured out and asked questions. Bless their hearts, they were very patient with me, and almost seemed to enjoy the chance to share their knowledge with someone. I found out later that my father gave them small bonuses to indulge my curiosity.

“Sadly, I ended up with a business degree. It did afford me the skills one needs to, for instance, run a non-profit in the East Village, but I never lost the bug for construction. Anytime a friend had a project going on, I would find some excuse to drop by and pester them with questions. I occasionally even scandalized my social circle by inviting individual workers to dinner so I could pick their brains. Eventually, I began to talk my friends into letting me do their projects, with the understanding that I would probably pay for the supplies myself.

“As my parents grew older and less able to tell me no, I set my sights on the family estate. My father mostly approved, but he worried that I was depriving the local tradesmen of gainful employment. Finally, last year, a month after he passed away, I saw this fixer-upper for sale and I grabbed it. My therapist says I’m using it to work through my grief, and I heartily agree.”

“The opposite of death is creation,” says Skye.

Chelsea stops eating and looks at him. “I think that sentence is breaking my heart.”

“I’m sorry.”

She smiles. “Honey. Hearts should be broken on a regular basis.”

“I find your affection for your father to the be the opposite of heartbreaking.”

“I wish you could have met him.”

“I wish you could have met Rachel.”

Chelsea holds a hand to her heart. “I can’t tell you the effect that scroll had on me. I think for women, there’s a point where sadness goes so deep that it becomes sexual. It opens you up, and wounds you, and leaves a mark.”

Skye has grown a little weary of sadness and discussions about sadness. “So. Tomorrow we grout?”

Chelsea’s green eyes flash in the firelight. “More beautiful words have ne’er been spoken.”

“Hear, hear.”

“By the way,” she says. “There’s a reason I brought you to this room. This room represents the entirety of the original restaurant, which was built in 1823 and constructed entirely of surplus rail ties.”

Skye studies the wall next to their table. “The rest of the building, too?”

“Yep. The insulation properties are fantastic. Warm in winter, cool in summer.”

“I see a rail-tie rec room in your future.”

“Hey, don’t give me ideas. By the way, I highly recommend the huckleberry crumble.”



He wakes in the cool green sheets, feeling cozy and content. Out the window he sees the beach,  covered in a fresh blanket of snow. To a Californian, the intermingling of sand and snow is a wonderland. He takes a long shower and heads downstairs in his work clothes. A lone plate sits on the kitchen counter, piled with pancakes, sausage, eggs and a note.

Morning, Sleepystud. Following are your instructions:
1.     Mangia! (Microwave behind you, juice in fridge, coffee in coffeemaker.)
2.     Get your lazy ass to my bathroom.

Love from Generalissima Contractor

He tries to savor his breakfast, but he’s a little distracted by what might be going on upstairs. He arrives to find two upturned buckets, each underside lain out with identical sets of tools and supplies. Chelsea comes in from the balcony and gives his butt a slap.

“Morning, slave boy. Let’s get you rolling. Now. This morning, we’re going to play a game of monkey see, monkey do. And your part is?”

“The monkey?”

“Good boy!” She gives him a kiss. “Now. Watch this.”

She pours a box of gray powder into a cottage cheese container, adds water from the sink and uses a small stir-stick to mix it up.

“Go a little dry at first. You can always add water. We’re going for a thick mixture, like cookie dough.”

“Gotcha.”

After giving the thumbs-up to Skye’s batch, Chelsea dons the same leather gloves as the day before, boards the footstool and squeezes a wad of grout around the top corner shard.

“Be messy. Overdo it. Grout is incredibly forgiving.”

“Aren’t we going to mess up these gloves?”

“Better these gloves than your fingers.”

“Right.” Skye sets aside the footstool and stretches up to start the top row.

“Goddamn tall people,” says Chelsea. “Don’t fuss it too much. As long as you’re generous it’ll fill in.”

“Okay.”

She works the same thirds as before: ladder height, standing height, kneeling height. She finishes before he does and sits on the carpet just outside the door.

“So who’s staring at whose ass now?” he asks.

“I like the way it flexes as you work.”

“Thanks. I practice that.”

“Want some coffee?”

“Yes!”

He finishes up just as she returns with two mugs.

“I gave you a little milk and a little sugar.”

“Perfect.”

He takes a sip and follows her to the balcony.

“Sleep well?” she asks.

“Best in months.”

“My guests say that a lot. Something about the waves, the cold air that surrounds the house.”

“What’s the next step?”

“A long, dramatic kiss.”

He sets his coffee on the railing, lowers her into a dip and spends the next thirty seconds engaged with her mouth. When he brings her back up, she says “Yowza!”

“It couldn’t have been that good. You held on to your coffee.”

“But honey, it’s fresh ground,” she replies, and he completely understands. She turns and gazes over the water. A boat cruises past, a few miles out.

“Now those people, they’re cold.”

“And insane.”

She twitches her lips. “I realize…” She stops, and starts again. “I realize you’re in a no-fly zone, Skye. Skye Pelter. But we could really be good together.”

“Lord knows, we grout well.”

“Mmmyes. Skye and Chelsea Groutwell. Let’s have a son and call him Gregory.”

“And a girl named Greta.”

“This is beginning to sound like a children’s book. Anyways, I think your wounded unavailability just makes you that much more irresistible. But I’m trying to be a good girl.”

“Thanks. And even from my blurry mindset, I can see that you’re a rather amazing woman.”

“Thanks.”

They stand at the railing, arm in arm, and allow a minute to pass in silence. Chelsea finishes her coffee and heads inside.

“It’s time.”

Their next tools are oversized car-wash sponges. She fills a bucket with water, dips a sponge and applies it to the top row, smoothing it along the grout.

“Let the water do the work. Don’t press down too hard. It’s all right to leave a film over the mirrors – we can clean that later. It’s a little tricky, because you want to take the grout down to the level of the mirrors but you also want to make sure it covers those sharp edges. Watch me a while.”

He sits and picks up all the tricks: smooth, single-direction passes, frequent trips to the sink for clean water. Eventually, the grout between the shards levels out. She touches up a few spots before moving to the middle third. Skye dips his sponge and reaches.

Twenty minutes later, they’ve got it all smoothed out. Chelsea hovers along Skye’s half and dabs at a few spots.

“You… have got a touch. I shouldn’t be surprised. Now, we need to let it dry all the way, and meanwhile I have devised a little adventure.” She heads into her room and returns with a pair of swim trunks. “Change into these.”

“Seriously?”

“Absolutely.”

Skye feels puzzled – having seen no sign of a hot tub – but he does what he’s told. When he comes downstairs, she’s wearing a floor-length parka and snowboots. She points him toward a similar pairing draped over the couch. The parka ends at mid-shin; the snowboots are too sizes too big.

“I don’t like the looks of this.”

She picks up a camera and gives him a practiced glare. “Dissension in the ranks?”

“No, no. Never.”

They head outside and she gestures to the right. “Be a doll and carry that surfboard.”

This is a rather astonishing request, but by now his default setting is full obedience. He hooks a hand under the edge of the yellow board and follows his mistress into the wild. They turn at the side of the garage and take a path toward the beach. Skye is surprised to find that the parka and boots are actually keeping him warm, except for the three-inch gap between them. They cross the dunes and the straw-looking grasses and come out to the sand and snow. The breakers are quiet, edged with little ridges of slush.

“Okay,” says Chelsea. “Put the board on the snow, parallel to the water, then sit on top of it and look out to the ocean, like you’re a dejected surfer waiting for the end of winter.”

He does as he’s instructed but draws a disapproving look.

“No, honey. Ditch the trunks.”

He looks up. “Naked?”

“Yes. With the trunks, you’re just a surfer. Naked, you’re art.”

“Art with a surfboard?”

“Why not? Oh, and make sure you set your clothes out of the frame.”

He looks at her, stunned, but eventually sees that he has no choice. He steels himself and lowers his bare buttocks to the board’s icy surface. The cold is so shocking that it doesn’t hit him right away, and Chelsea allows him a few minutes between poses to cower in his parka. She shoots him from behind, one hand on the board, as if he’s about to hit the waves. Then he spikes the board into the snow/sand (the snand?) and stands in front of it, a classic surfer pose; holds it over his head, then a strategic shot with the board hiding his junk. Erection is no problem; in fact, his penis seems to be headed in the opposite direction. After a final scenario, standing atop the board as if he’s actually surfing, she invites him to re-trunk.

“I hope I’m getting union scale for this.”

She ignores his joke and shows him the settings on her camera. “It’s fairly automatic, but you can zoom with this and use these to adjust the focus, then when you’re ready just hit the obvious red button.”

She hands it to him. He is, once again, puzzled. Puzzlement is all he’s got.

“Well you didn’t think I wasn’t going to offer a little turnabout?”

Chelsea unzips her parka and kicks off the boots, leaving not a stitch between her and the North Atlantic.



He’s barely inside the house when she says, “I think you need to take a hike.”

“You’re kicking me out?”

“I mean this literally, darling one. You need to actually take a hike. There’s a great little trail along the back of the dunes.”

“All right if I wear actual clothing?”

“By all means. Oh, and Skye?”

“Yes?”

“Nice bod.”

“Likewise.”



He heads in the general direction of England, streaks of sun cutting through the clouds. And he understands why she told him to scram, because immediately he thinks of Rachel. Not in specific, cerebral terms – more of a slideshow. He stands downhill as she snowboards toward a jump, her face lit up with anticipation. The strangeness of entering her in her zombie-like funk, the layer of desire beneath the deep-lidded eyes. The moment at Half Dome when those eyes finally opened.

It occurs to him that he never asked her age, and he wonders how many years she stood over that lightboard, slicing the pinkies from ink-born women, before her life became tolerable. He nears the edge of an inlet, ribbons of ice left on the sand like frozen ropes. He crunches one of them under his boot and begins to cry.



The walk is longer than he expected; he’s glad he followed the beach, where getting lost is a near-impossibility. The day is solstice-short, and he walks the final mile in near-darkness. He finds Chelsea in the living room, working a trowel over the drywall.

“Mudding!”

“How cute, he knows the lingo.”

“I pick up what I can.”

She wipes her hands on her jeans and gives him a kiss. “Man, when I tell you to take a hike, you take a hike. I was getting a little worried.”

“You were right. I had a lot of mental digestion to do.”

“Well,” says Chelsea. “I must admit, I was jonesing for a little alone time as well. But it would be a shame if you didn’t take advantage of the contemplative powers of our beach. Come upstairs, I have something to show you.”

Skye snickers. “That is such a line.”

Chelsea makes a show of switching on the light. There it is, a flock of metallic planets against a gray sky. The grout has smoothed out and taken on a dull sheen.

“Chelsea Kormit, you’re a fucking genius.”

“Thank you, kindly assistant. I put some sealant on the grout. Now, let’s try the candle test.”

She lights a large candle and switches off the overheads. The wall is a firelight ballroom, a hundred small flames.

“Planning on romantic dinners in your bathroom?”

“No. But…” She crawls up his chest and kisses him. The kiss grows furtive, her hands wander, her spine serpentines, her hips gyroscope. Skye grabs her arms.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “That wasn’t fair of me.”

“That’s not entirely it,” he says. “I have to go.”



Photo by MJV