Saturday, October 25, 2014

FREE on Amazon Kindle, Oct. 25: Fields of Satchmo

FREE on Amazon Kindle.




Stupid Faith

Fathers of serendoubtery flip the
wide universe, shred, compress,
serve it on BLTs.

This is your brain,
given for us.

Stars and quarks too
infinitous to upsell,
to venture-capitalize,
to shrink-wrap.

Actual ideas are extra-terrestrial,
aphrodisiac, cannot be made to
wear leashes and fetch tennis balls.

A tsunami makes a bare
ripple until it breaches a continent.
Open up the dish, lunar
peppercorns dance the celestial dome.

We live at the margins in the
ionized air, far from the
American hinterminds, the daily
radio script, the labcoat effigies.
The ones who deny evolution are
correct for they are not evolving.

Had breakfast with Benjamin
Franklin still grieving Tommy
Paine but fascinated by the
triple-syrup tray, the neon
lights, the waitress’s cleavage.

Life is the greatest
toy ever dreamed.
Don’t ever stop playing.

He took a bite of eggs
Benedict and nearly cried.
You could hear the
static behind his eyes,
crackling, red-hot, untethered.
                                                                                               

The Journal, Cumbria, England

Photo by MJV

Friday, October 24, 2014

FREE on Amazon Kindle, Oct. 24: Interplay, Finding the Keys to Creativity



FREE on Amazon Kindle

Meeting of the Minds

Get your bossy, literal-minded left brain in touch with its more creative counterpart.

First published in Writer’s Digest

When I was a teen, I asked my mother if I could clip a rose from her garden to give to a date. “Sure,” she said. “In fact, the more roses you clip, the more the plant produces.”

I’ve carried this metaphor around ever since, and thought of it recently when I noticed something about my paintings. Rather than “sapping” my creative juices, my afternoons at the canvas actually increased the energy and vividness of subsequent writing sessions. I began to wonder if there was something going on in my brain that would account for this cross-pollenation – and if this was something that other writers could use to invigorate their creative powers. The answer is a resounding yes, and it has everything to do with being in your right mind – at the right time.

Hemispheric Diplomacy

In the 1970s, neuroscientist Roger Sperry conducted studies on epileptics who had undergone “split-brain” operations – a severing of the corpus callosum, the bundle of nerve fibers that connects the two hemispheres of the cerebral cortex. The studies revealed remarkable differences in the ways that the two hemispheres process the world. The left operates in a linear fashion, piecing things together in a logical, sequential assembly of parts; it also contains the mind’s center for language skills (both written and spoken) and calculation. The right hemisphere operates through images, concepts and patterns; it possesses a much higher capacity for ambiguity and complexity, as well as a special aptitude for spatial relationships.
           
Sperry’s conclusions found an immediate place in popular culture; people began calling themselves “right-brainers” and “left-brainers” in the same way that one would say “Virgo” or “Republican.” Artists tend to jump on the right-brain bandwagon, which – especially for writers – can be an egregious misnomer (remember those left-brain language skills?).
           
In her 2004 book, An Alchemy of Mind, science-poet Diane Ackerman writes, “Mind isn’t a tug-of-war with the left brain on one side and the right brain on the other, but a collaboration, an open exchange.”
           
Thus, the secret for the creative writer is not to lean inordinately on one hemisphere or the other, but to manipulate the lively conversation going on between the hemispheres, through the corpus callosum.
           
In her 1983 book, Writing the Natural Way, Dr. Gabriele Rico brought Sperry’s findings to the field of creative writing through the practice of “clustering.” The writer develops an idea by writing a “nucleus” word, circling it, then quickly writing associated words around it, circling them, and drawing lines that connect back to the nucleus. The neat mental trick that this resultant spiderweb performs is to take words – generally under the purview of the left brain – and turn them into a piece of visual art, which taps into the pattern-seeking abilities of the right brain. And that is where innovation comes from.
           
“It is the right brain that processes all novel stimuli,” says Rico. “Whereas the left brain simply tunes it out. Any idea or exciting thought about character or plot has got to come through the right brain, because the left brain only recognizes what it has already learned.”
           
The biggest obstacle in the creative process comes from the left brain, which, with its flair for logic and its ceaseless yakking, is well-equipped to be bossy and overbearing. In a wacky family sitcom we’ll call Meet the Brainers, little Roger Right Brainer is a shy but imaginative daydreamer type, filled with ideas. Anytime he tries to express one of them, however, his literal-minded big sister, Lucy Left Brainer, says, “Oh, that’s just stupid,” or “What have you been smoking?”
           
The secret of clustering is to get Lucy to just shut up for a second and listen to Roger’s idea. The thing is, however, you’re going to need Lucy eventually, because at a terribly exciting moment that Rico calls the “trial-web shift,” you will identify the pattern contained within that cluster and need to call up those left-brain language skills in order to pin it down on paper.
           
“Risking an analogy,” writes Rico, “I might say that your (right) mind attends to the melody of life, whereas your (left) mind attends to the notes that compose the melody. And here is the key to natural writing: The melodies must come first.”

Child’s Play

“It takes a long time to become young again.”
                        --Picasso

Most creators know that a child-like sense of play is an essential element of the artistic process, but many may not be aware of the very real scientific basis for this idea. In early childhood, the corpus callosum is non-functioning, allowing the two hemispheres to develop independently. This great plasticity of mind allows infants to gobble up the world around them in large chunks, and to make associations in a highly imaginative, playful right-brain fashion. It also allows them to inhale language like little linguistic geniuses.

The hemispheres begin to specialize at age five, when most children have mastered speech. The corpus callosum achieves full function between the ages of nine and 12, and the left brain takes over with a vengeance. Suddenly that kid who used to draw purple grass and blue suns turns into a literal-minded peer conformist. The pattern is reinforced by an educational system with a decided left-brain bias (the best creative minds tend to score a rather pedestrian 120 to 130 on the IQ test), and a lot of people just get stuck there.
           
Like me. For 20 years, I gave up on visual art, because I couldn’t “draw” – that is, take an object from real life and reproduce it on paper. One night, I found myself at a restaurant with paper tablecloths and crayons, and began to draw random lines that intersected like roads on a map. When I began to see the outlines of faces, I applied eyes, noses and mouths, and suddenly I had a place setting of fantastical creatures from some sneaky, playful menagerie in my brain. Five years later, they’ve made their way onto large acrylic paintings, hanging on the walls of a coffeehouse in Tacoma. Naturally, they draw comparisons to Picasso, who seems to represent the playful, child-like artist in all of us.

Striking a Balance

So. Have I found the answer to my original question? Almost. In his 2001 book, Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot, neuropsychiatrist Richard Restak, M.D. posits the notion that the most effective brain is the one that achieves the best balance between the hemispheres. Consider your own writing sessions. Isn’t it much easier to focus while listening to instrumental music? That’s because song lyrics tap into the same left-brain language center you’re trying to use for your novel or poem, and jam up the works.
           
“As a practical application of your new knowledge of cerebral geography,” Restak writes, “look for ways of combating mental fatigue by switching to activities that use different parts of the brain.”
           
You probably do this already. When you’re writing, and you’re feeling tired, don’t you look up from the page and gaze at some distant object? You’re not just resting your eyes, you’re resting your left brain, by switching over to the right brain for a brief study of pattern and color. If you perform the same action when you’re searching for your next line, or looking for just the right word, you may be using that lamp or painting or barista (or the silver sedan I’ve been staring at for 20 seconds now) as a catalyst for your conceptual right-brain idea factory.
           
If you’re paying attention, you may now be experiencing a “trial-web shift.” (Feel free to say “Aha!” or “Eureka!”) If an author uses pattern play and visual imagery to find that next line, could he not use a couple hours of painting as a way of “priming the pump” for a writing session? Dr. Rico?
           
“Absolutely,” says Dr. Rico. “And people who don’t spend any time in the spatial realm of images will never get to prime the pump.”
           
Reinforcing this image-idea connection is the way that so many authors receive major plot-turns as mental Polaroids. Rico cites a recent interview with author Joan Didion, who says that she begins her novels with nothing more than a single visual image. The final scene of my own work-in-progress also arrived in this package – a freeze-frame of two former lovers meeting unexpectedly on a dance floor. How did they get there? What happens next? My left and right brains will just have to grapple with each other until we figure that out.
           
All of which brings us to softball (no, really). My best writing sessions of all come after my Wednesday slow-pitch league, when I adjourn to a café across the street and write my little head off. Which now makes perfect sense. Not only does a softball game flood your brain with oxygen, it’s an hour-long bonanza of pattern assessment and spatial study (consider the complex judgements involved in chasing down a fly ball, or striking a round ball with a round stick). Then, after writing, I decompress by playing pinball – yet another study of pattern, motion and space. As it turns out, my Wednesdays nights are a veritable, er, tennis match of left- and right-brain activities.

The Mind 2.0

Frankly, everything you’ve read on these pages is highly simplified; the brain is too marvelous and complex to contain in this modest article. But I hope I’ve given you a few ways for your brain to know itself. Perhaps the most important lesson of all is to know that your brain is an organism that is designed to redesign itself. If you’re feeling stuck, you don’t have to stay that way.
           
An astounding example of this comes from one of our experts, Diane Ackerman. Ackerman’s partner, Paul West, author of some 45 non-fiction books, suffered a stroke three years ago that left him aphasic – unable to speak, write, understand or even process language.
           
“But his creativity remained intact,” says Ackerman, “to be expressed in words, despite his loss of the language areas.” After “a colossal daily effort on his part, and mine, to recruit other areas of the brain for language use… he’s written an aphasic memoir (due out next year), short stories, a novel, and he’s midway through a second novel.”

Getting Into Your Right Mind

Whether you use them to develop a specific idea, or just to shake up the ol’ corpus callosum, the following are great games of “fetch” for your conceptualizing right brain.

The Classic Rico Cluster
           
Write a word. Circle it. Write an associated word nearby. Circle that word, and draw a line back to the original word. Keep going, building up a spiderweb of word-associations, until you see a pattern. When the “trial-web shift” hits, you’ll be dying to write it into an essay, story or poem.

Cagean Chance Operations
           
To achieve true randomness, stated composer-philosopher John Cage, ya gotta have a plan. Pick out your favorite book, go to every tenth page and write down the first full word on that page. Study your list of random words and see if any patterns come out. Nothing doing? Pick out your favorite and use it to start a cluster.

The Vaughnean Doodle
           
Draw a series of random lines that intersect like roads on a map (don’t think too much). When they begin to assume shapes, throw in some universal facial elements: eyes, mouth, ears, nose. Now study the creature you’ve created and write down who he is, what he’s been doing, how he’s feeling – or just use him as the main character in a story.

The Amazing Technicolor Dreambook
           
Keep a notepad and pen on your nightstand. Immediately upon waking, write down anything you can remember from your dreams. None of it has to make sense – this is just your right brain’s way of processing the day’s memories.



A Note: I was fortunate enough to work as a student assistant in the English Department at San Jose State when Dr. Gabriele Rico was teaching there, enjoying the success of her 1983 best-seller, Writing the Natural Way. Dr. Rico died of cancer in early 2013, and the world is a lot less interesting for her departure.

Photo by MJV

Thursday, October 23, 2014

FREE on Amazon Kindle, Oct. 23: The Grand Fool Double

FREE on Amazon Kindle.

Big John's Curse

from the novel The Grand Fool Double


One of the few happy circumstances in the history of the Memphis Blues is its name. Long before anyone knew the crucial role that negro music would play in the life of the city, the Blues were named for the color of their uniforms, in the manner of the Cincinnati Redlegs or the Chicago White Sox.
Interestingly, one of the first to recognize the appeal of the music was the team owner, Sal Withers, who began to bring negro musicians to his Bijou Hotel in the early ‘20s. Since he was already flouting the law by selling illegal hooch, Withers saw little added risk in introducing “race music.” When he discovered that the new music shared a name with his ballclub, he liked the idea even more.
The biggest draw among the blues players was Big John Spillums, a guitarist and singer from New Orleans. In 1924, three months after the Blues won their second straight World Series, Spillums played a full month at the Bijou and packed them in, every night. At the end of the month, when he went to collect his final week’s pay, he was told he wouldn’t be getting it.
“Excuse me?”
“Lodgin’ fees,” said the manager. “Meals, drinks, toiletries. Did you think these things came free of charge?”
“I was told specifically that they were,” said Big John. “I made you people a fortune.”
“Nonsense. Those people are here for the gin. We could have a string quartet, for all they care.”
“Now you know that ain’t true. I got people comin’ all the way from St. Louis to see me!”
The bartender, a big Irishman with a face like an old cheese, appeared at the manager’s shoulder, smacking a billy club against his palm.
“This nigger givin’ you trouble, boss?”
Big John, well-acquainted with white justice, decided he’d best be content with his three weeks’ pay. He was standing outside in the rain, planning his next move, when Sal Withers’ Pierce-Arrow pulled up.
“Mr. Withers!” said Big John. “There’s been a mistake, sir. They took out my last week’s pay.”
But Big John, whose size always made him look more threatening than he was, was standing too close for the liking of Withers’ driver, Jimmy Collins. Collins shoved Big John into the mud. What was worse, Big John landed on his guitar, smashing it to pieces. Sal Withers turned at the top of the stairs to admire Jimmy’s work.
Big John struggled to his feet. Seeing the remains of his beloved instrument, he turned to Withers and called out in a voice bolstered by years of singing in juke joints. It was said that half of Memphis could hear him.
“You done it now, Withers! That ball team o’ yours ain’t never gonna win again! You done messed with the wrong man!”
Withers laughed, and walked inside. Big John left his guitar where it lay and headed for the train station.
His words would have disappeared into the gumbo of history, were it not for Duffy’s Drop. That very season, Duffy Webster, the best oufielder in the league, dropped an easy fly ball that would have iced the pennant. The Blues lost their last two games, and the Boston Braves went to the Series. Such a horrific turn of events had to have a cause. When Memphis sportswriter Pops Caulkins dug up the tale of Big John Spillums, the bluesman with the voodoo powers, the fans ate it up like Crackerjacks.
The Drop was followed by Bob’s Big Boot in 1947 and the sixth-game collapse in the ’58 Series. In 1964, Teddy James took Skip Henry’s Doofus Pitch – a high, arcing slowball that had not once in ten years been hit over a fence – and homered to win a three-game tiebreaker. In 1983, a team-wide outbreak of the flu caused the Blues to waste a seven-game division lead in the last ten days.
In 1998, Memphis had what many considered its best team ever: Ted Fitzsimmons in center, Pasco Fernandez at short, Richie Campbell firing 97-mile-per-hour heaters from the mound. Memphis fans loosened up the scar tissue around their hearts and began to take a few perilous steps toward hope.
In the opening series, the Blues made short work of the Marlins, sweeping them in three games. In the championship series against the Cardinals, they quickly built a lead of three games to one, but lost the fifth game behind their weakest pitcher, Peter Kowalevski.
Still, things were looking good, because Blues manager Fred Silvestri had made an unusual gamble. In Game 4, the Blues opened a 9-0 lead after three innings, and Silvestri took the extraordinary move of pulling Campbell, letting his highly regarded bullpen put the icing on an 11-3 cake. Now, Silvestri was ready to cash in: a rested Campbell, all set to put the final touches on a Series championship.
Richie, however, was strangely off his game, struggling to find the tiny strike zone of home plate umpire Tony Canigula. The Cards answered with knuckleballer Augie Stephens, whose pitches were dipping and dunking like drunken mosquitoes.
The Blues managed to stay within striking distance, behind 4-2, and found their opening in the eighth inning. Stephens suddenly lost his touch, walking the first two batters, and they put in reliever Pedro Piñon. Piñon got the first out on an infield pop, then Brent McCarthy singled to score the runner from second. Cal Davis struck out, leaving the Blues behind 4-3, with two outs and men on first and third.
On the first pitch, Pasco Fernandez reached out and slashed the ball down the right-field line. It landed a foot fair, spun to the right, then struck the bullpen mound and took a high hop toward the stands.
Withers Field is a quirky old place, and there along the foul line the stands jut out at an odd angle. Through the years, a handful of right fielders found themselves in situations where they couldn’t throw home – because they couldn’t see home.
Seated at the high left-hand corner of this impediment was a Memphis jazz singer named Billy Saddle. Saddle was the only one of 45,000 fans who had a chance at this unusual ramp-shot. Sadly for Blues fans, he also had some skills, having played ball in college.
In a standard situation, once a ball has crossed the invisible plane between field and stands, all bets are off – and the spectators are free to pursue every fan’s dream of the ultimate souvenir. But Billy Saddle had not thought out the unique nature of his position. A careful perusal of the replay (one of the most-watched replays in baseball history) reveals the outcome. Saddle extends upward for a beautiful barehanded grab. He immediately clutches his prize and turns around – perhaps anticipating the pummeling often given to catchers of valued baseballs. From this vantage he can see past the back railing, down onto the field – which is precisely where the ball would have landed had he not interfered with it. Saddle’s face takes on an expression of shock and anguish that is difficult to watch.
McCarthy, the runner on first, was a speedster. With two outs, he was off at the crack of the bat, and would easily have scored the go-ahead run. The reaction from the hometown crowd was immediate and angry. As a squadron of security guards escorted Saddle from the stadium, fans pelted him with hot dogs, beer, chocolate malts and whatever else they could get their hands on.
The ground rule double left McCarthy at third. Fitzsimmons flied out to end the inning. The Cards scored in the top of the 13th to take the game, then beat the Blues 8-2 the next day to take the pennant.
Billy Saddle was the most hated man in Tennessee, perpetrator of a crime some radio host deemed the Grand Fool Double. Someone published his address and phone number on the Internet, and he received a steady stream of death threats. A regiment of six patrol cars was assigned to his house, and the FBI offered to place him in their witness protection program. The mayor of St. Louis offered sanctuary, as well.
There were some who came to his defense. His Little League team marched outside Withers Field with banners of support for their coach. Several Blues players called it a freak incident, and blamed themselves for not winning the game long before. Reporters noted that Saddle was a devoted fan who had gone to Florida the year before to watch the team in spring training.
Saddle did what he could to quell the uproar. He submitted an apology, declaring the incident “the most dismal, agonizing moment of my life.” He turned down interviews, book deals and requests for autographs – anything that might look like an attempt to cash in on his infamy.
It didn’t matter. The threats continued, Saddle was unable to leave his house, and he seemed to have no chance at regaining a normal life – at least, not in Memphis. By the time pitchers and catchers reported for spring training in 1999, Billy Saddle had vanished.
Today, Blues fans visit that right-field abutment – now called the Saddlehorn – as if it’s a tourist attraction. Saddle’s seat is covered with Blues stickers, perhaps one more attempt to drive away the curse of Big John Spillums.


Photo by MJV

Monday, October 20, 2014

FREE on Amazon Kindle, Oct. 21: Alcyone

FREE on Kindle.



Four

Audrey LaBrea

Spooked by the instinctive knowledge of the Pirate King and the Texas Belle, Scootie spent the next few weeks warding off thoughts of Juliana Kross. He was helpfully distracted by the Kabuki Troupe of Nagasaki, who had hired a scholar of dubious talent to translate their program notes. The ones who play (the players, Scootie guessed)  will aggrandize you with their marvel daring feats of do. Scootie spent hours trying to unwind such tangles into a workable text.
           
Still, there was no way to avoid the great adobe house that shadowed him on the way to the parking lot each evening. Thursday night found the Pleiades themselves lifting out of the chimney like a silver-blue cinder.
           
The light that Juliana watched was the square of window just beneath the Fetzle battlements – the one that lay at the back of Scootie’s office. She first noticed it on Monday, sharing a late cup of coffee with Virginia Mendheart. She took note of it each evening since, little knowing that she had lost both of the men in her life to the Japanese.
           
Scootie’s attentions gradually shifted southward. On Wednesday, he released the last of Audrey’s pigeons, and he knew what that meant. He woke up early Saturday morning, gathered his own pigeons from the coop behind his apartment, and started out for Big Sur.



Three summers before, Scootie journeyed from the LA suburbs of his childhood to his new job on the San Mateo coast. For a veteran of the short-lived theater groups of Southern California, a job with this much stability and prestige was a dream come true. The import of the occasion called for the scenic coastal route, but by the time he reached Big Sur the winding roads had worn him down.
           
The state park was full-up, but he managed to find an inexpensive walk-in campground a mile’s walk from the ocean. After pitching his tent beneath a wind-blown oak, he drove into town for dinner, but was immediately distracted by an import shop called Beatniks. He ventured in to find virtually every rhythm instrument known to mankind. He spent the next two hours applying his hands to every tabla, conga, shekere and berimbau in the place. He spent a full fifteen minutes on the dundun, or talking drum, from Kenya, taking in the delicious swoop of tone as he beat the head with a hooked mallet and pulled the skin tight with its outside laces. He was trying out an anklet of Peruvian sheep’s hooves, exuberantly stomping the floor, when the manager of the store appeared at his shoulder.
           
“Hi,” she said.
           
“Oh. Hi. Have I been taking too long?”
           
“Well,” she smiled. “The store did close a half-hour ago. But I hated to stop you. You’re so... devoted.”
           
Scootie smiled sheepishly. “I’m in love with sounds. You have an amazing collection. I’d buy the whole damn store, but I’m on my way to a new job right now, and...”
           
“No need to explain. I have no doubt you’ll be back. I’m Audrey, by the way.”
           
“Scootie,” he said, and took Audrey’s hand.
           
“Tell you what, Scootie. I’m headed next door for dinner. Would you join me?”
           
“Well... sure, I’ve been driving all day, and... well, yes.”
           
They were halfway out the door when Audrey turned and laughed.
           
“I think you might want to take those off first.”
           
“Scootie looked at the sheep’s hooves, still wrapped around his ankles, and said, “Oh. Right.”
           
Audrey LaBrea was a witchy red-haired beauty, product of a half-Jewish, half-Catholic household in Florida (“Guilt,” she said, “was the unifying concept.”). She was thirty years old and had just completed her third divorce. The latest ex was Tiger LaBrea, whom she met while working as a cocktail waitress in Vegas.
           
“They called him Tiger ‘cause he was a baseball fan from Detroit,” she said, picking over a salad in the woodsy Ventana Restaurant. “He covered the gambling beat for the Las Vegas Star-Press. Guy hits a jackpot, Tiger takes a photo in front of the slot machine with the oversize check. Some of the nasty stuff, too: casino fights, gambling-related suicides...
           
“I met him, in fact, because some guy I was serving drinks to, real estate agent from Chicago, lost a hundred thousand bucks at the craps table, then went back to his room and blew his brains out. Turns out he had marital problems, was looking to cash it in one way or the other. You get very jaded in that business, but Tiger was very respectful about the guy, and I found that very touching. I gave him my phone number, in case he had to ask me some more questions, and a week later, he asked me out to dinner. We dated for two months and then got married. In Vegas, things happen quickly.
           
“Thing was, as soon as we got hitched, Tiger lost his libido. Completely. Two, three times a month, if I was lucky. That’s a funny thing about me, Scootie – I like to have sex with the man I sleep with.”

Scootie surprised himself by feeling suddenly and intensely embarrassed.
           
“Scootie! You’re blushing! That’s so sweet. Are we getting too deep into Audrey’s sordid affairs?”
           
“Well,” said Scootie, fingering his breadstick like a cigar. “I guess it’s... well, we just met.”
           
“I’m sorry. But you know? After watching you pay such careful attention to my wall o’ percussion, I just knew you were someone I could talk to.”
           
“I’m flattered.”
           
“So where was I?”
           
“You were not screwing your husband.”
           
“Well! That’s better. So. We tried everything – marital aides, soft-porn, counseling, Kama Sutra. Nothin’. Six months ago, we signed the final papers. Cheers?”
           
“Congratulations,” said Scootie, clinking her glass. “But if it’s not too personal a question – what do you think caused Tiger’s mysterious lack of interest?”
           
“For a long time, I thought it was me – a natural response, given my religious upbringing. But I’ve got a theory. In Vegas, the idea of sex is so externalized. YOu can only take so many naked legs and tits and butts before you get a little bored of it all. And poor Tiger, he was right in the middle of it, every working day of his life.”
           
“So how did you get from there to here?” Scootie asked.
           
“Ah! Another of Tiger’s misfortunes. As soon as we signed the divorce papers, I took off on a rare gambling binge. In Vegas, smart girls like me never gamble – we see too much of what it can do to people. But that day seemed like a good time to break some personal taboos, so Katie McGregor and me took a thousand bucks that I was saving for a trip to Guadalajara, and we just went nuts! I was down to two hundred when I hit a hot streak on a roulette table, and walked away with ninety thousand dollars!”
           
Scootie let out a low whistle.
           
“And who shows up to do the story?”
           
“Oh, no,” said Scootie.
           
“The same poor sap who had just signed away any stake in his wife’s financial fortunes. Poor Tiger. I bought him a nice diamond earring for a going-away present. After that, it was straight to the coast. When I found a ready-made percussion shop for sale, I remembered all the Latin rhythms of my Miami childhood and jumped on it. Katie McGregor, I might add, is my assistant manager.”
           
They talked for four hours, all the way through dinner, a bread pudding dessert and three gin martinis. At a quarter to midnight, Audrey’s hazel eyes got big with ideas, and she took Scootie by the hand.
           
“What?” he said.
           
“There’s something I want to show you. Goodnight, Max.”
           
Max telegraphed a wink from behind the bar. “You take care, Audrey.”
           
Scootie had all kinds of ideas about where Audrey might be taking him, and every single one appealed to him. They climbed a twisting stairwell at the back of the percussion shop and came out on a rooftop deck. Scootie could make out a large shed-like form, covered in chicken wire, and heard a distinct baritone mumbling.
           
Audrey drew him to the door and ulatched it. “They’re so sweet when they’re sleeping. Very calm and unaware.”
           
She reached into a small wooden niche and pulled out the largest, most muscular pigeon he had ever seen. The bird opened its wide yellow eyes and burbled in protest as Audrey wrapped her fingers around its wings.
           
“A thoroughbred homer,” she said. “Raised for flight. A blue bar – you can see the stripes across his wings. Here. Hold him with one hand like this – make sure he can’t flap his wings – then hold him upside down and run your hand over his chest.”
           
Scootie followed her instructions with characteristic grace. After a couple of nervous struggles, the bird fell asleep in his hands.
           
“Just like I thought,” said Audrey. “You’re a natural.”
           
A shaft of moonlight lit up her lips, drawn to a devilish smile, and she came closer to kiss him, the way a thrice-divorced 30-year-old should kiss. Scootie lost his grip on the bird, who fell to the floor with a thump, then staggered back to his box.
           
Audrey laughed. “Okay. So maybe you’re not such a natural.”
           
Scootie took her downstairs and made love to her on a large taiko drum, then drove her home, two miles up the steep hillsides of Big Sur.



They spent the next night at Scootie’s hike-in campsite, in a field of sand-colored grass. Scootie roasted a marshmallow while Audrey talked about sex.
           
“Oh, and I understand this thing you men have about the doggie position. It’s an animalistic, tribal sort of thing, and you just love the way we look over our shoulders with that helpless look in our eyes. Not that I don’t like it – any new angle is a plus for a wise woman – but some of you guys get carried away, start smacking our cheeks and whooping like a bronc buster.”
           
Scootie jabbed his marshmallow into the fire, letting it torch to a bubbling black before blowing it out to consume the crispy skin.
           
“And it’s men like you – the ones who burn their marshmallows – who are the worst butt-riders of them all.”
           
“You’re wrong,” said Scootie, licking the mess from his fingers. “I prefer the female superior, so I can get my hands on all essential parts.”
           
Audrey sighed wickedly. “We’ll have to try that out – after a few more marshmallows. She retrieved her stick from the fire and extracted a marshmallow with a perfect Playboy-bunny tan, then popped it into her mouth. As she chewed, her expression grew surprisingly serious.
           
“My other weakness, Scootie, is that I like to talk with the men I have sex with, which contributed to my first and second divorces. They seemed to think that talking about it took the passion out of it. But what are we supposed to do? Read each other’s minds?” She turned her gaze to the orange breaches of the fire. “And I’m sorely afraid that once you hit that dream mansion, we won’t have any more times like this.”
           
Scootie began to protest.
           
“No,” said Audrey. “Let me finish. I am at least three, four, maybe twelve years from wanting to get involved with members of your particular gender. Nothing personal. But I have an idea.”
           
The idea was for Scootie to take a couple of Audrey’s pigeons to Hallis, breed them until he had a decent-sized flock, then release the original pair so they could fly back to Audrey’s. They would then exchange a dozen birds and use them to deliver messages to each other. They would write about sex, and the things they wrote would seem deeper and more real, because they would travel the long beaches and rocky coastlines of Monterey Bay on the leg of a beloved pet, arriving at the whims of airflow, weather and the inattention of predators. When the final pigeon was sent off, they would meet the following Saturday in Big Sur to replenish their troops and, if both parties were amenable, explore some of the issues brought up in the intervening weeks.
           
Which brought Scootie to the wide, uneven artichoke fields of Watsonville, zipping along under a bright, fogless sky. He recalled his and Audrey’s second night, when he stuck his head through the tentflap to discover a full moon coating the grass in silver.
           
The three years since had aged her not a bit – in fact, had taken a few years off, as she distanced herself from her failed marriages. They sat outside at a St. Patrick’s arts festival, surrounded by craft booths, kids splashing in a swimming pool, and an Irish folk band playing on the deck behind the Ventana (Scootie could swear he’d seen the same musicians playing polkas at Oktoberfest). The sun sparked off Audrey’s teeth as she bit into an ice cream cone.
           
“I love that thing you wrote about masturbation,” she said (a bit loud). “It’s the same with me. I’m constantly fantasizing about people I would have no business fucking around with. I think I even did my priest once. Or was that my rabbi?”
           
Scootie laughed. “Must be nice to have two religions to get you off. Being a born-and-bred agnostic, I sometimes feel like I don’t have enough taboos to break. By the way, that Xerox reduction technique is fabulous!”
           
“I was feeling guilty,” said Audrey. “My letters were getting longer, and the poor pigeons were listing on takeoff. Are they legible?”
           
“Yeah. I got one of those senior-citizen magnifying strips. I’ll see what I can do about using that technique myself. There’s a good copy shop in Half Moon Bay.”
           
“Why don’t you use the copier at work?”
           
“I’m deathly afraid I’m going to leave the original in the machine. My co-workers don’t need to know quite that much about me.”
           
“You’ve got amazingly small writing as it is. Good thing that’s not reflective of your other qualities.”
           
Scootie smiled and stretched his chest, still stiff from the drive down. “It’s not the size, honey, it’s how neatly you print.”
           
“Well, I was thinking,” said Audrey, getting that look in her eyes, “that since it’s so sunny, we can go to a secret cove I know of and chip into that outdoor-sex fantasy of yours.”
           
“That sounds dandy,” said Scootie, biting into his popsicle. “But I was thinking I might hold off this time.”
           
Audrey smiled. “Do we have a budding love interest?”
           
Scootie had no idea what the hell he was talking about. Was he intending to stay faithful to a married woman he might not ever...?
           
“Scootie? Are you all right?”
           
“Oh, uh, yes,” said Scootie. “Ya know? I think I’m being a bit rash about this. If you will forgive me, I’d like to recant my last statement.”
           
“And?”
           
“And fuck your brains out on a beach.”
           
“Now you’re talkin’!” Audrey placed a hand on Scootie’s ribcage and gave him a long vanilla kiss.
           
“And later on,” said Scootie, “we can try out that anal sex you were talking about. I still can’t believe you’ve never tried it.”
           
“I was always too shy to ask.”
           
“But not too shy to write.”
           
“The pigeons,” said Audrey, whacking Scootie on the butt, “are the couriers of truth.”



The next evening, sore all over, sunburned in new and unusual places, a dozen Big Sur homers mumbling in the back seat, Scootie passed the Santa Cruz Lighthouse to find the sun half-swallowed by the ocean. If a weekend of Audrey LaBrea cannot remove Juliana Kross from my head, he thought, I am in deep, deep trouble. He left the idea on a box kite over Natural Bridges, and returned to the highway for Hallis and home.