Michael J. Vaughn
John P. Rutledge, Editor
For my feminine side, Anne Gelhaus.
And for Robert S. Pesich, coyote laureate.
THIS LITERARY WORK WAS CREATED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, IS COPYRIGHT Ó 2001 BY MICHAEL J. VAUGHN (DEAD END STREET, LLC, EXCLUSIVE LICENSEE) AND IS REGISTERED WITH THE UNITED STATES COPYRIGHT OFFICE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. ALL COVER ART WAS CREATED BY HOLLY SMITH (BOOKSKINS.NET) AND IS COPYRIGHT Ó 2002 BY DEAD END STREET, LLC. THIS WORK HAS BEEN FORMATTED BY DEAD END STREETâ WITH THE AUTHOR’S EXPRESS PERMISSION.
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Your old life was a frantic running from silence.
The speechless full moon comes out now.
A Vague Egyptian Myth
I never should have gone to work that day. If the onset of my period were not enough, I arrived at my desk and saw all those pictures of Maisey and Tanner looking cuter than children should be allowed, attacking me with their weed-like youth. Especially the one of Maisey on her first soccer team, grinning loose-lipped at the photographer as she cradled one of those undersize pee-wee soccer balls.
Thus mesmerized by my own charming DNA, I was an easy setup for Derek, the sweet young intern from Santa Clara University, when he leaned into my cubicle, proffered a Van Dyck still-life of doughnut holes and asked, “Would you like one, Miz Lowiltry?”
That was when I lost it.
The signal making its progress through my forest of brain cells carried clear instructions: my mouth, vocal cords and related equipment were to produce the words, “Thank you very much, Derek,” after which I’d deliver one of my finest anchorwoman smiles, and my hand and arm muscles would gracefully extract two or three of the little fatballs for later consumption. These were simple instructions. But somewhere in the miniscule gap between the words “Thank” and “you,” my face began to rumble and quake like the Hayward Fault, a hundred little Richter tics that gathered into one humongous seismic wave. Right there in the office – my office – I began to gush tears and emit strange animal noises, smack dab in the middle of the nine a.m. foot traffic.
I ignored young Derek’s quickly fading smile and stumbled to the nearest possible refuge – the women’s room. Shielding my face from the four-basin-long mirror, I slipped into the handicapped stall, where I knew there would be hand railings should I need to drag myself up from the floor.
I settled onto the toilet lid, slid the door latch into its slot and reached into the black plastic dispenser for T.P. as flimsy as rice paper. It was enough, however, just to have something to apply to my leaking face. It was then that I began to reflect on the powers of visualization.
My company had sent me two months before to Akron, Ohio, where I took part in a seminar entitled “Visualization for Success.” The seminar leader was Hank Scallion, a tall, lanky Jimmy Stewart type with blinding horse teeth and long balletic fingers. With perfect Iowa diction, Hank instructed us to close our eyes and form a picture of our dreamed-of success. He then asked us to tuck that image away in our memories, so we could pull it back out whenever great anxieties or disappointments reared their malicious donkey-heads.
I do not imagine that my own inner hologram was the kind that Mr. Scallion had in mind. Mine was a high wall constructed entirely of thick glass bricks. The bricks were transparent but packed with deceptive little bumps and grooves, allowing my co-workers and colleagues only the vaguest image of my real self, an amorphous but polite, thoroughly professional woman. If they wanted to try and chip it away with vodka gimlets and insinuating questions at some cheesy fish-market restaurant with nets hanging from the walls and black-and-white photographs of guys named Oscar and Leon hoisting two-hundred-pound swordfish in Baja California or Gloucester, Massachusetts, well tough shit, Pocahontas. These bricks come down for no one. If they ever caught half a second’s reflection of the real Sandy they’d tuck it into their snide little brass-button Harvard blazers for future use. Forget it! My stuff on this side, your stuff over there, and just try to make me out.
There, on my porcelain throne, I stared into the moss-green neutrality of the stall door until it fuzzed out brick by brick into a solid column of crystal. After a few minutes, the blood stood back from my face and my breathing leveled out at a standard Tuesday morning in-out in-out.
“Sandy? Are you all right?”
The glass bricks rattled as Shanili tapped her knuckles on the opposite side. For a few seconds I considered the childish belief that if only I held my breath and slowly lifted my feet from the floor, perhaps she would give up and go away. But she’d probably gotten the whole story from Derek, and wouldn’t leave me alone until she was sure I wasn’t sawing away at my wrist with a car key.
Okay, I thought. This is where the real professionals hang tough. Think about it, girlfriend – a little sobbing fit, that’s all. It is still possible for you to save a little dignity here. Just dream up some goofy little story, like maybe your favorite cousin from Athens, Georgia got killed in a train wreck last week and it just so happens that she was absolutely nuts about doughnut holes. No, that’s not going to work. Let’s try an image. It’s you and Hank Scallion, and the two of you are sitting astride a pair of tall, lovely, snow-white camels in front of the Sphinx. While Hank tries to suck the spinach salad out of his big teeth you forge a connection with that graceful, serene stone face, pulling all those millennia of solidity and balance into your own expression. I am calm. I am enigmatic. I am unfigureoutable. Now smile for the camera, honey. Wipe your weepin’ eyes and o-o-pen that stall door.
I should have known better. A vague Egyptian myth had no business going up against Shanili’s chocolate-pudding eyes, possessed of more compassion than sixteen and a half Mother Theresas. At the first glimpse of her concerned expression, her artfully furrowing brow, I collapsed onto my throne and let out a torrent of oh-so-personal, oh-so-embarrassing minutiae. Expressed as a free-verse poem, it might have gone something like this:
Five years we were together
and we had so much
and we were going to get married
at least that’s what it seemed like
I mean, you don’t take a girl from thirty-four to thirty-nine
you don’t take her to the edge like that, Shanili
you don’t spend a hundred and three Sunday mornings eating French toast with a woman
He knew, right?
He had to know
the way I doted on my nieces
pictures all over the fridge
and the way I looked at big-eyed slop-footed puppies in pet-store windows
and smiled that special smile
at women pushing baby strollers
down Lincoln Avenue
And I said,
I hope our child has your eyes and my nose
and certainly your hair
because mine is uncontrollable sometimes
and I’ve tried that new henna conditioner but it just doesn’t
I mean, I know he’s a guy
but what does he want?
The Big Dumparissimo
and I am so alone, Shanili
I’m so alone
and I want to be a mother
I just want to be a Mom.
You get the idea. And I suppose I could have limited my space-shuttle launch to a single victim, but as word got out that a destroyed marketing director was conducting a full-gonzo emotional meltdown in the handicapped stall, an outbreak of urinational need swept through the female office population. Before I knew it, I found myself reciting my confessions to a dozen multi-ethnic faces gathered outside the stall, painted in expressions of sisterly sympathy.
I suppose I should have been grateful for all this Goddess-worship around my toilette du tears, but even as my feminine exterior filled up and smoothed out, my Wharton-educated, business-suited hardass self was back in Akron, conjuring one last bit of visualization with Hank Scallion. Hank was flossing now, the Sphinx had turned into Mount Rushmore, and there at the feet of my lovely snow-white camel lay the remains of my glass-brick wall, shredded into powder-light piles as a squadron of Mexican gardeners marched our way, leaf blowers in the ready position.
Hank chucked his floss at them, yelled “Gudyam!” (which I suppose was Egyptian for “Giddyap!”) and disappeared in a flurry of camel-hoofs. It seemed like a good idea, so I followed.
The Rare and Lovely Blue
The Bay Area offers a self-blindering, binocular existence, a life spent genuflecting to red-green onramp meters, a constant overriding sense that time is being squashed flat. This is especially true in Silicon Valley, where the famed Stanford Linear Accelerator is not smashing atoms at all, but minutes, hours, and days, until they resemble small scurrying ants.
On my morning escape from the hallowed bottomlands of Computerville, I considered the possibility that my imminent freak-out session lacked sincerity. Certainly, I had made some grand gestures. I had traded in my five-year-old Honda for a brand spanking new Mitsubishi Montero-Sport and had talked my supervisor, McNeal Conowith, into a four-week sabbatical that I planned to extend for as long as it took to heal my aching heart. (McNeal was quite understanding, having survived a freak-out of his own five years before that took him all the way to Juneau.)
My lack of intent came instead in the small things, the bloody little mosquitoes of hesitation. At each and every intersection, I imagined two or three forgotten, essential items. And then I stopped for a latte in Cupertino, ten whole miles into my trip.
Then there was my route: north up Interstate 280 through San Francisco. The eastern route through Milpitas and Fremont would have been quicker. Halfway to The City I spotted the lumpy cartoon statue of missionary Junipero Serra at the Hillsborough rest stop, pointing one long stony finger and scads of accusations in my direction:
Oh, Sister Sandra, I know where thou art headed – directly into a major metropolitan rush hour. Listen to me, hermana, and confess thy weaknesses. Thou art irrationally fond of carbon monoxide. Thou art tuned into the time compression, married to the stopwatch that never stops, the wrinkled cardboard beg-signs, the staticky mutter of talk-radio pundits as the man next to you shaves in his rear-view mirror while steering with his knees.
It was very pleasant, in any case, to cross the Golden Gate Bridge – that bright orange paint job never anything short of shocking, even after all these years, even with the towers cut off by a drift of morning fog. I treasured that one final slice in my rear-view mirror before drifting into the soft Irish spaces of Marin County, then across the swampy hood of the North Baylands and the 505 grassland shortcut out of Vacaville. It wasn’t until I hit the I-5 junction northwest of Sacramento that the almighty time-suck began to lose its grip, before my fellow navigators lost that hawkish day-planner ache for arrival, arrival, arrival.
I was soon whizzing my way along the high, snaky bridges over Lake Shasta, blasting the recently-deceased Frank Sinatra at levels he never anticipated. I made it to Grant’s Pass, Oregon before I surrendered my first day’s journey and checked into a motel.
The second day began with a French toast breakfast at a cheesy diner with mirrored walls and waitresses with names like “Jolene” and “Billy Sue.” From there I proceeded north to Eugene, then headed west through the underachieving Siuslaw Mountains. I turned north again at Florence, onto the lovely Highway 101, along the coast to Hirshfield, checking off postcard lighthouses as I went.
I crossed Hirshfield’s wide and graceful WPA-era bridge (reminding me of the strings of a giant cello) into a main and modern shopping strip. It took me three U-turns before I found Third Street, hidden between a discount shoe emporium and a warehouse-sized doughnut shop. I followed Third down a residential quilt of scattering children and trails of chimney smoke before I rolled into the Knickerbocker Beach vista point. There, to my left, I found the mariner-gray, four-story bulk of the Hotel Bel Canto, my destination and, I hoped, an escalator to salvation.
I rounded the corner through the Bel Canto’s vaguely British garden entrance (taking note of Gilda’s, a low-slung Italian bistro across the street) and entered its pleasantly musty lobby to find a ten-foot-high mural depicting the decadent opening court scene from Rigoletto. Knowing Hessie, this seemed about right.
As I strolled to the desk, one eye on the Duke of Mantua, I was passed by a quick-footed teenager who leaned across the front counter, gave the desk clerk a facetious smile, and said, “Are you aware that Jesus hates you?” then breezed on downstairs. As for the clerk, who had barely raised an eyebrow at the joke, he had to be Jeremy, a fantastical character pre-assembled for me in Hessie’s rambling letters. Up top he was completely bald – purposely so, I suspected – and he sported a goatee small and sharp enough for Cupid to use on one of his little arrows. He wore a big cream-colored Irish sweater, thick burgundy corduroy pants, and black Buddy Holly spectacles with tiny brass wings marking their upper corners. Around his neck he wore a snake – yes, really, a snake, a pearl white creature with a sleek little head like the hood of a Corvette, with pop-up eyeballs in mandala patterns of tiger-stripe yellow. Despite all of this, the snake seemed rather docile, even content, so I felt no hesitation stepping up to the counter.
“You... are Jeremy.”
“Ah, my reputation recedes me.” He let out a small but dexterous smile. “And who might you be?”
“I am Sandy Lowiltry.”
“Ah.” The smile again, slightly bigger. “Ms. Lowiltry. I have been blessed with instructions regarding you and...” Even bigger. “The Carmen Suite.”
Jeremy unwound his reptile friend and settled him atop a black bust of Richard Wagner. “Yes,” said Jeremy. “The suite is all yours.”
“At least, for the next three days. The Swensons from Long Island had to cancel. A death in the family.”
“That’s great! Oh, I don’t mean. Well you know...”
Jeremy raised a helpful finger. “Yes,” he said. “I do. In any case, Hessie said the first night is on the house, and she wishes you a happy convalescence.”
“Oh,” I said. “Does that mean that Hessie isn’t here?”
“Had some business in Portland. But she’ll be here later tonight. She said she’d call you when she gets in.”
“Oh, good. It’ll be nice to see her.”
Jeremy extended a clipboard with a couple of spots for me to sign, then handed me my key, attached to a small castanet.
“Go straight up the stairs, then turn right down the hall and it’s the third door on the left. Believe me, you can’t miss it. If you turn left at the top of the stairs, you will find our lovely, scenic listening room, stocked with tea, coffee, cheap cookies, fresh fruit, board games and the widest selection of operatic LPs on the West Coast. Anything else you’ll need to know?”
“Yes,” I said. “Does your snake mind being petted?”
Again, the small smile. “If Stinger were any more tame, she’d be marked ‘Made in Taiwan’ and sold in a novelty store next to the plastic doggy-doo. But, she prefers being held. It’s a body heat thing.”
“Naturally,” I said. Stinger extended her head from Wagner’s pate as I ran a finger along the narrow ridge behind her eyes. I found her scales surprisingly dry and pleasant to the touch. She responded by unscrolling her forked red tongue in my direction.
“Forgive me, Stinger, but I think I’ll wait for our second date before I try holding you.”
“I seem to inspire that same reaction myself,” said Jeremy, and smiled half-wickedly.
The Carmen Suite was just the amusing little wonder that I had expected – and, just as Jeremy had said, remarkably easy to find, what with the pearl-handled Spanish dagger embedded in the door, trailing a vivid little stream of blood into the suite number.
The room itself you could probably predict. Blood red and black everywhere, a canopy of black Spanish lace over the bed. An old rosewood secretary with artful black notches in the wood, holding a humidor full of cigars with Spanish names, and, just above, a gorgeous antique fan of black and gold, spread out against the wall like a peacock’s tail. The wall offered photographs of Spanish soldiers from various wars.
Along the opposite wall hung a complete toreador’s outfit – spangles of orange, yellow and gold covering the jacket and fringing a pair of black pantalones. The outfit was preserved in a narrow glass case, next to a crossed sword and sheath. Atop the nightstand were three decks of well-used Tarot cards with vivid illustrations and a weathered black Bible printed in Spanish. Further down in the corner I came upon a small bookcase holding all manner of operatic paraphernalia: a small white bust of Bizet, various scores, programs, framed letters, several recordings, and even an ancient copy of the source work – Merimee’s novella of the same name. A quick look up revealed that the curtains covering the northward windows were made from red bullfighting capes. The entrance to the bathroom was set off by a cascade of dangling gypsy beads.
And now, finally, I take you to the Carmen Suite’s main attraction: literally bursting from the northward wall above the false mantel, a huge, fierce big black bull, and I don’t mean just the head, I mean head, horns, shoulders, forelegs - even that big brass ring they put through the nostrils; all of this fearsome animal aggression charging wild-eyed and murderous right toward the bed.
I possessed enough road-weariness to grab a little nap, even with El Furioso tailgating my dreams, and woke up an hour later to find myself remarkably refreshed. I decided to check out the beach. I slipped on a comfy sweatshirt from Sedona, Arizona, my oldest pair of blue jeans and a pair of walking shoes, and made my way down a short trail to the sand.
It was a gloomy day on Knickerbocker Beach, but in a very real, physical way, I found it comforting. The fog was cutting in a hundred feet above the sand, just at the top of the cliffs leading to the Gerrymander Lighthouse, effectively sealing off the sky before it showed too much potential. It was a similar effect out to sea, the visibility winking out about a half mile from shore. But I was perfectly happy to see my new environment self-contained and horizonless, like one of those souvenir bubble-worlds that you turn upside down to make it snow.
Empowered by my limitations, I made off for the chunky rocks at the northern end. Walking on sand quickly tired me out, so I found a flat rock to rest upon and stared out to sea for a while. The late-afternoon surf seemed to be picking up, as I watched the waves strike a rock a few hundred feet away with increasing fury. The rock was about thirty feet high, shaped like the narrow end of an egg, and split down the middle, forming a tight channel between its two sides. When the water streamed into this gap, the waves would rumble around and build up pressure until they erupted in a long stream of spray out the top, much like a...
Had someone said that? I turned and found that yes, someone had.
“Whalespout Rock,” he added. “It’s a wonderful invention. I wish I had thought of it.”
I had no idea how he’d gotten so close to me without my knowing. He stood next to my perch, eyes level with mine, arms folded like a lumberjack, a professor, a scholarly lumberjack, a lumberjack who read Nietszche, an academic who felled trees between classes, a rather wiry young man about thirty-five or so who I’d have to place in the sub-species of elf. Very tall elf. Did I mention good-looking? A very attractive woodsy scholarly elf, standing there with his arms folded, like an attorney.
Do I seem confused? Let’s try particulars. He had small, sharp eyes, not beady, but perhaps avian, like a predatory bird, a head of close-cropped blond-wire hair receding from his forehead in an uneven manner. He had a sharp chin – almost too sharp, but balanced by a medium-sized, aquiline nose, a basic European model. A generous mouth, full lips, but not quite feminine, and his ears, they were elfin. Really, they were. I half-expected Vulcan tips tucked away beneath his hair.
It was his clothes, though – that was the thing, strangely immaculate given his surroundings, strangely bright given the overcast. He wore straight-seamed, indigo-blue jeans that looked like they should still have sales tags over the pocket; a braided leather belt, black with a hint of burgundy and a small brass buckle; earth-colored loafers, barely ruffled fringes over the tongue, a flash of argyle socks, squares of brown and red on a black background; and finally, neatly tucked over a baby blue, close-collared T-shirt, a brilliant white long-sleeve cotton dress shirt that looked like it had been ironed five minutes before. That was him, my logger/professor/lawyer/elf, and he spoke in a rumbling baritone, a barely detectable Scottish growl leveling in on the ground floor.
“Lousy glass day today.”
“Lousy what?” I answered.
He proceeded unchecked. “I call it a Flatiron Beach. Level as the Texas Panhandle and wet, not from the breakers, but from the water seeping up through the sand. It leaves the glass half-buried, and the green and amber look just like dark flat rocks. The clear is still a possibility, though. Amazing that I spotted this one.”
He handed me a piece of glass (Oh… glass! I thought). It was about the size of a guitar pick, an inch-long tab of cobalt blue, a squarish base with a small groove where the bottom of the bottle must have been, extending into a rounded, tongue-like edge. The surface was smooth to the touch, but if you looked close you could see tiny pockmarks like pores of skin. I took it and let my thumb settle into the groove, rubbing the spot like the hollow in a worry-stone.
“The rare and lovely blue,” he said. “So where do you come from?”
“Oh... well, I’m just up from...”
“Oh, look - dolphins.” His eyes turned to the water, honing in on a spot just south of the Whalespout. I followed in time to catch a single black fin knifing into the steel surface, then a breathless three seconds later a trio of them shot up at once, half-exposed bodies of slick black-blue in the dimming light. I had never seen such a thing. After they went back under I lasered in on their presumed path, praying for a reoccurrence. A minute later, I tired of the wait, and turned back to find that my elf had vanished.
“Have a good one!”
It came from above, a hearty shout followed by a jolly, contented laugh. I twisted around to find him forty feet up on a series of steps carved into the cliff. I gave a rather meager wave and he turned to go, his loose-jointed stride folding neatly into a grove of evergreens. After a moment, I dropped my gaze and found the rare and lovely blue still there, a dark island in the palm of my hand.
It was dusk when I began the trek back to the Bel Canto, although on a Flatiron Beach, the exact passage from day to night is hard to pin down. There, in the shadows above the bulkhead, I was surprised to see Hessie’s baby blue ‘65 Mustang. I cruised into the lobby to find her at the tail end of some joke she was telling to Jeremy.
“...a super-callused fragile mystic plagued with halitosis! Hah-hahahaha!”
No one ever laughed louder at Hessie’s jokes than she herself, which was nice because it took the pressure off her audience.
After she was done tailing her hahaha’s into a mud-spring giggle, she looked to her left and found my bemused smile (that’s what they tell me – bemused). She immediately dashed over and locked me in a bear hug.
“Sandy Sandy Sandy Sandy - Sandy! Oh it’s good to see you!” She telescoped me back to arm’s length and gave me a studied once-over. “You look fan-dipulous, bubbala! You’ve lost weight! And you’ve... oh, my. You’ve lost something else, too… haven’t you?”
Drop all deceptions major and minor when dealing with Hessie Nygaard. She can tell from a five-second scan whether you have, in the last month, locked your keys in the car, ordered something too spicy at a Thai restaurant, had illicit sex. It was no wonder she was twice-divorced; who’d want to live each day being read like a book?
Fortunately for me, Hessie had made a much more obvious change than I had, which afforded me a handy escape hatch.
“Jesus, Hessie! You look like Marilyn Monroe!”
Hessie’s hair was, in fact, done up in a disarranged pile of white-blonde, ribbon-like curls. They were not particularly suited to her, but they were definitely striking.
She twirled one of the ribbons around a pinkie and flashed a coy smile. “Thank you. I wish I had a body to match. I’ve been dating a stylist from Vancouver – heterosexual, no less – and he likes to... try things out on me. These little trinkets probably won’t stay more than a week, but it’s a nice trip while it lasts. Hey Sandykins, are you hungry? Jeremy tells me they’ve got some killer shellfish rigatoni left over from yesterday.”
Jeremy, hunched over a card file across the room but still listening, confirmed Hessie’s statement by whistling an affirmative downward glissando. Not that I needed any encouragement; my long walk on the beach had left me downright famished.
“Do you mind if I change first? I’m a little damp from my walk.”
“Tell you the truth, I wouldn’t mind a hot shower myself,” said Hessie. “That fucking drive from Portland gets a half-hour longer every time I make it. Come knock on my door when you’re all set. I’m in the Magic Flute suite.”
“You always were a sucker for that mystical stuff.”
Hessie fluttered her eyelashes in that superhuman way of hers (faster than a hummingbird’s wings). “I take whatever scraps the customers leave me, honey. And confidentially, that single floating Freemason eye in the shower really creeps me out. In any case, it’s 304, third floor, on the left, just past Boheme and Rosenkavalier. Look for a...”
“Magic Flute? On the door?”
“You are oh-so quick. ‘Bout a half hour?”
“Sure. That’s fine.”
We were done stuffing ourselves on rigatoni, my hands flying around in faux-Milanese gestures of glee every other forkful, and were finishing up a couple of vanilla flans with caramel syrup when Hessie finally arrived at the inevitable subject.
“So this thing that you’ve lost, Sandymysweet...” ( Hessie often speaks like a gay man.) “This thing wasn’t... George, was it?”
The Bel Canto dining room was situated downstairs from the lobby, a series of windows spread out like a poker hand on the oceanward wall. There wasn’t much to see out there tonight – just the amorphous blue-white of cloud cover – but I was glad nonetheless to have somewhere to direct my blank stare.
“To put it short, Hessie-pie... it was more like George lost me.” Uh-oh. Those familiar rumblings in my face. “Listen....” I managed to return my gaze to Hessie, whose perpetually bloodshot blue eyes were taking on that dreaded air of compassion. “I promise... sometime soon, I’ll give you all the gory details – in fact, I’m sure it’ll be cathartic when I finally do – but right now my tank’s getting close to empty and...”
Damn. More rumbling. No no no. No more helplessness. No more weakness. I pulled my new worry stone out of my pocket and began to click it nervously against the table.
“Sandy? Whatcha got there?”
The question didn’t quite register, but then I saw what I was doing with my hands and held my chip of glass to the candlelight.
“Oh, uh... a present. From...”
“You met Frosty!” Hessie beamed at me as if I had just won an Oscar.
“Frosted Glass Man. Oh, he is the star character of Knickerbocker Beach. And you met him on your first day!” She gestured at my hand. “May I see it?”
I placed the glass in her hand and she studied it with great curiosity. She seemed doubtful about something, then she pulled out a pen light attached to her car keys and held the glass in its beam. I half expected her to whip out one of those jeweler’s monocles.
“Oh, honey,” she chanted. “Honey honey honey. Little ol’ Sandy Lowiltry. Sandy Sandy Sandy...”
Fearing she might go on indefinitely, I gracefully interjected.
Hessie placed the chip in the center of the table. “The rare and lovely blue. You are a marked woman.”
This idea struck me as simultaneously preposterous and, well, intriguing. I pretended to believe only the former.
“What can you possibly be talking about?”
Hessie snickered to herself like a guilty Scooby-Doo, crossed her hands and waved them like an umpire signaling “safe.”
“No, no. No, precious Sandy. I leave the discovery process to you. But I will say this: you might be in for an adventure.”
I met Hessie Nygaard at a furniture-painting seminar in San Juan Bautista, California. It was my “self-awareness” period. I was signing up for everything – the more expensive the better. Aromatherapy, chakras, aboriginal drumming, yoga, meditation, crystals for weight loss, you name it. I even did a firewalking thing on New Year’s Eve. To this day, I have no idea what I was supposed to learn from that.
So I had this nifty unpainted stool sitting around, something I had picked up on an impulse at Home Depot, and the poor thing just sat there in my den for months, butt-naked and dejected. One day I received a flier for a workshop led by some guy named Miguel Allende, a folk artist from the Chihuahua region of Mexico. It said Sr. Allende taught this special layering technique, using all kinds of fiery Latin colors, and I thought what the hell, at least I’ll finally get to paint my poor, butt-naked stool. And they were asking a really large up-front fee, so I knew it had to be good.
I got there the night before, stayed in a beautiful little bed and breakfast across from the Mission, then woke up bright and early for some huevos rancheros at a place called Tia Margarita’s. By nine o’clock I was seated in a sunny loft above the San Juan Bautista Art Gallery, listening to Miguel Allende deliver his instructions in a clipped Shakespearean accent. It seems that three years after his birth in Chihuahua, his family moved to Manchester, England. I felt gypped already.
After about an hour, he left us to create, as he circled the room assessing each person’s work with a practiced repertoire of oohs, ahhs and hmms. I had lain down this bright mango base over the seat of my stool, and was feathering some jungle green around the edges, trying to get a feel for the patterns in my head. There was a rather boisterous woman with burgundy hair next to me, working a gorgeous labyrinth of rust and gray over an antique coffee table. Her personal energy had been lapping in my direction like water from an overfilled bathtub, so I wasn’t surprised when she struck up a conversation.
“You are an artist.”
I let out a shy laugh. “Well, I suppose we’re all artists.”
“No, no, no,” she said. “I mean Artist. Capital A Artist.” She aimed a red paintbrush at me. “I have known a lot of Artists, and I can’t explain it, exactly, but there’s something that sets them apart as a species. Even the way their bodies work, the angle at which they bring their arms to the canvas, the ligature of their fingers. It’s sort of an intuition, but it also takes in certain elements of meticulousness, intensity, attitude... moxy. You’ve definitely got moxy.”
With a continuing smile, I pulled out the flame red, dabbed it with a small, clean brush and worked a squadron of vees around the legs of the stool. Hessie saw what I was doing, confirmed her previous observation with a self-addressed “Oh yeah,” and returned to her coffee table.
It was the first time in a long time that anyone had detected anything artistic in me. Naturally, I was enchanted. At the mid-day break, we walked out of the studio together and found a little ice cream parlor just around the corner. Between bites of pecan praline, Hessie told me about the Bel Canto.
“I had just earned a completely useless degree in comparative lit from Willamette, and I took a little drive down the coast, just for kicks. I was checking out this used bookstore in Hirshfield, a couple blocks from the beach, when I wandered around the corner and peered up to find this gorgeous hulk of a building overlooking the ocean. Of course, physically, it looked like hell – it was built in 1922 and hadn’t been renovated since – absolutely falling apart, rotten beams, roof shakes dropping like leaves, peeling paint, smashed windows, gaps in the foundation.
“When I went back to the bookstore and asked about it, the lady there handed me the front page of the Hirshfield Courier, and right there it said that the old Hadley Hotel was due to be demolished unless a buyer showed up in the next two weeks. Well, I immediately looked up the realtor quoted in the article, and three hours later I wrote her a check – ten thousand dollars. Then I rushed right back to Portland so I could borrow enough money to cover it. My friends and family all thought I’d gone loony, but they also thought it was better that I work on some hotel than comparative literature.”
She extended her hands palm-up, as if she were balancing a pair of cantaloupes, and said, “You will note, class, that the D.H. Lawrence is quite light, at approximately one half pound, and has a rough rose-colored fabric cover faded in places by drool-stains. The Tolstoy, on the other hand, is a good three pounds and bound by a sturdy chocolate-colored leather.”
She laughed loudly and unselfconsciously, then continued with her story.
“The thing was, though, I had curated a lot of student exhibits for my artist friends in college, purely out of my love for their work, and I’d done a pretty damn good job, too, I must say. I even got one of them on the cover of the Salem newspaper – this crazy conceptual guy. He’d constructed cremation urns from costume jewelry and cigarette lighters and filled them with the ashes of burned flags from various countries. Created quite a stir. The real joke is that the ashes were actually taken from ashtrays in the student pub.
“One of these artists, Marta, became a good friend of mine. When I told her about the opera-hotel idea, she insisted on doing a room. She also spread the word. When I opened the door that Saturday morning, I got not one but a dozen of my favorite artists, willing to contribute their labor for pizza, wine and due credit. A year after opening, we got a big spread in People magazine, and the place has been packed every weekend, holiday and summer vacation since.”
It took me two years and a major emotional crisis before I actually saw the Bel Canto, and now Hessie was pushing me to visit her other creation, a cafe and classical music salon in Portland called – and I swear I am not making this up – the Rimsky-Korsakoffeehouse. She refuses to give me the tiniest description of the place, insisting that the only way to grasp its full glory is to go there in person.
With her schedule, Hessie had only two days to be with me in Hirshfield, so we made the most of it, whiling away our mornings on beach hikes, spending our afternoons at the various seafood places along the waterfront. As far as our nights went, we spent the first checking out some sappy chick-flick at the Hirshfield cineplex (two screens!) and the second at Gilda’s, where we enjoyed a long, sumptuous Roman meal and a few too many cocktails. Evidently, the place was brand-new, because it was the first time Hessie had eaten there.
It was a really nice place – lots of big bright paintings on the wall, stunning sunflowers and bowls of ripe fruit like cleaned-up Van Goghs and Vermeers. And the tables were intricate mosaics assembled from shards of broken china. A few of the shards were salvaged from those kitschy “collector’s plates” you see advertised in the Sunday newspaper supplement. Just under my silverware I spotted Judy Garland’s nose and the Cowardly Lion’s right ear, right next to Neil Armstrong’s right foot.
And the menu... the menu was to die for. Actually, to be tortured for, drawn and quartered for, to suffer a slow lingering demise for. I opted for another pasta/seafood combo, linguine with blackened salmon and a spicy Cajun sauce. Wow! This was followed by amaretto cheesecake, and after that a few rounds of Cosmopolitans. Done with her other tables, our waitress, a leggy Cyd Charisse brunette with the substantial name of Carlotta Catalani, was soon shanghai’d into our goofy conversation.
“So, Hessie,” said Carlotta, “I know you love the opera, but have you ever actually been in one?”
“Oh, no, I never had the nerve or the voice for that. But my son was in one.”
“Really!” I said. “You never told me about that.”
“Well,” said Hessie, pursing her lips. “Let us just say that it might not have happened had it not been for the artful conniving of Mama Nygaard. I’m on the board of the Portland Opera, yuh-see, and I got wind that they were recruiting youngsters for a production of ‘Carmen’ the following season. I said, Do not worry about this at all, oh good people and comrades – I will find for you a chorus of fine ragazzi. So I scoured the city and a found a pre-existing chorus at a Presbyterian church right there on the East Side, minutes away from the Rimsky-Korsakoffeehouse. I went to the director and said, ‘How’d you like to have your kids in the opera?’ And she said, sure, and I said, okay, but first you have to give my son Derek a tryout. Now this is a kid who was singing along with Luciano Pavarotti records at the age of three, so I knew he’d do just fine – and he did, and the chorus did just a wonderful job. And I... became a Presbyterian.”
Carlotta let out a crackling laugh. “You are an undiscovered politician.” Then she thought for a minute and said, “Hessie, I know you probably get screwy ideas like this all the time, but I was thinking just this morning that... oh, excuse me a second.”
Carlotta loped off to the register, where the manager, a young man half her size, asked her to sign a stack of receipts. Hessie, meanwhile, leaned in my direction, twirling one of those Seven-Year-Itch curls around her pinky, and whispered, “She’s right, you know. I hear every cockamamie notion in the Pacific Northwest. They figure if I can pull off the Bel Canto, I’ll... oh, here she comes.”
Carlotta came back our way and folded her hands in front of her apron.
“So okay, here it is, and don’t say I didn’t warn you. I have read that, in certain Indian tribes, when women get their periods, they are sent off to a special camp away from the main settlement, so that ‘the curse’ will not adversely affect the rest of the tribe. And I realize that this sort of thing sounds like a terrible, hostile, patriarchal thing to do, but then I got to thinking, Y’know, Carlotta, would you really mind disappearing for a while during your period? Would it really be that bad?’ I mean, if you think about it, my body is already hard at work on this terribly important biological function, having just everything to do with the very procreation of the species – why should I, at the same time, have to subject myself to the rigors of the work force? If, instead, I was sent away for a few days, I wouldn’t have to walk around in public trying to disguise the fact my female parts were hemorrhaging. I wouldn’t have to suppress all the moodiness that comes along with it. I wouldn’t have to be around all those men who don’t have the slightest concept what it’s like. Why, if I got a really bad cramp, I could just damn well rear back my head and wail like a coyote, couldn’t I?
“So I was thinking, somebody’s missing out on a fantastic business opportunity: a retreat for menstruating women. Maybe even a spa! Kind of like the Bel Canto, only with... a different kind of theme.”
The highly developed marketing portion of my brain (located just between the fight-or-flight instinct and prostitution) latched on to this idea like a badger and began to spit out details.
“Bidets in every room. Iron-rich menus – half-price Bloody Marys around the clock. Sheets, carpets and towels all in deep scarlet red, so you don’t have to worry about... accidents. Perhaps a pre-admission PMS lounge with tackling dummies, punching bags and heavy-firepower video games.”
Hessie’s eyes were growing. “And not a man allowed near the place – except... except for dozens of buffed servant boys dressed in nothing but loin cloths, walking around handing out hot towels and neck rubs.”
“The heck with loin cloths,” said Carlotta, pulling up a chair. “I’m thinkin’ tube socks!”
Hessie put a hand to her temple, conjuring a vision. “Oh! And for the piece de resistance... in the lobby... a reproduction of Michelangelo’s David done completely in chocolate.”
“With a removable penis,” said Carlotta.
For anyone else, this line of concept development would lie strictly in the area of joking, but not with Hessie. Her eyes shot back and forth like a tennis spectator as she made her calculations. Then her eyelids closed and rose back up – at the rate of an automatic garage door – and she smiled beatifically.
“And now for the fun part, my dears. What do we call the place?”
Carlotta gripped the edge of the table and said, “Oh! I’ve thought about this. You wouldn’t want the name to be too obvious, because you’d want to give your patrons the opportunity to slip away incognito. So I was thinking… the moon. Villa Luna, or maybe Villa Athena, after the Greek goddess of the moon… and wisdom, I might add.”
“Oh, honey,” said Hessie, shaking her head in disappointment. “You’re being much too cerebral. Besides, you’re spoiling our fun. I think we should do the exact opposite. I think we should be downright crass about it. No timid bleeders here, I say!”
“How about... Hotel Menses?” said Carlotta.
“There ya go!” said Hessie.
“I got it!” I said. “The Tamp On Inn. Or... Casa Kotex.”
“Chez Phlebotome’,” said Hessie, then quickly retracted. “No, no. Here you go...” She took thumb and index finger and drew out a sign in the air. “Cycles: A Spa.”
“Oh yes!” said Carlotta, and then glanced at the front of the restaurant. “Whoops. Hate to break up the fun, but my manager looks like he’s getting antsy to go home.”
We paid our bill, gave Carlotta a ridiculous tip and sisterly hugs, and were headed across the street when Hessie caught a glimpse of something out on Knickerbocker Beach and beckoned me forward. Once across the parking lot and down the stairs, she stopped and spread her arms to the dark sky. “Would you look at this low tide! Look at how wide this beach is!”
We aimed ourselves at the now-distant ocean and trod through the sand until we came to a huge rock shaped like the humps of a camel. Normally surrounded by water, there it stood, high and dry; I placed a hand on the leeward hump and said, “Are you really considering this spa thing?”
Hessie clucked her tongue. “No, not really. It’s a wonderful concept, but I am a hands-on manager. Between the cafe and the Bel Canto I’m already losing too much sleep. Besides, if you think about it, the spa has certain logistical problems. You’re consistently ruling out the large percentage of not-currently-menstruating females, so you’d have to have a large urban audience to begin with. And then, what do you do about reservations? I don’t know about you, but my period doesn’t always come as scheduled.”
“Good points,” I said.
We turned to watch a line of foam chugging in like a locomotive pulling freight. It stopped a foot in front of us and sank into the sand.
“Sandykins,” said Hessie. “I really hate to leave you here all by yourself. Are you gonna be all right?”
I felt the need for another visual keystone, so I scanned the sky above our covert ocean and found the reclining zig-zag of Cassiopeia’s Picasso throne. “Oh Hessie! The last couple of weeks, I’ve had a regular Mormon Tabernacle flying through my head. Maybe if I’m by myself for a while they’ll all spin away and leave me the hell alone.”
“I understand,” said Hessie. “And maybe when I come back next week, you can tell me some stories.”
“Sure,” I answered. “No promises, but... sure.”
Shape of a Human Ear
I was beginning to doubt Hessie’s predictions about me and Frosted Glass Man. Four days had passed, and I had yet to catch a glimpse of him. In order to keep myself in the target area for as long as possible, I extended my morning walks all the way to the waterbreak below Archer Bridge. I wasn’t gaining any male attention, but I was certainly losing weight.
I generally drove down to the waterfront in the afternoon, my appetite fully stoked for seafood. My favorite hangout was a little place called Snapper’s; they had a long counter with a built-in aquarium full of exotic salt-water fish. The best was a little rock-sucker I nicknamed Hal, a pale yellow telescope who would swallow spoonfuls of gravel and then filter them back out through his gills. If you ignored the basic cruelty of eating dead fish in front of their still-living colleagues, the place was quite nice, and equipped with a trio of hanging steamer pots purchased from the U.S. Navy. They steamed the fish right in front of you, in a white wine and garlic sauce that I would gladly lap up directly from the counter.
Seafood never failed to make me sleepy, so if the meal’s-end cappuccino was enough to get me back to the Bel Canto, I would head directly to my room for a nap (I had been moved to the Rosenkavalier Suite, adorned with silver roses, cityscapes of Vienna, a bust of Strauss, and pictures of famous middle-aged women like Gertrude Stein, Georgia O’Keefe and Queen Elizabeth).
Dinners at the Bel Canto provided a nice ice-breaker for unattached guests, in that one could always assume a common interest in opera. And thank God for that, as the dining room offered only large, 12-seat, cafeteria-style tables. This was also good for my soul, since, retreat or no, I began the week feeling like the most alone person on the planet. Even this temporal, shallow contact with other humans made me feel better.
It also gave me a kind of educational mission. I had certainly earned a balls-out, empty-headed escape, but a little cultural enrichment made me feel less like the tide was eating away on my bulkhead. Truth be told, before meeting Hessie my knowledge of opera was barely ankle-deep. I once took my nieces to La Boheme in Capitola just so I could make them cry for Mimi (which they dutifully did), and one time I inherited a couple of tickets to a lavish David Hockney-designed Turandot in San Francisco, courtesy of the boss of a man whose name I’d rather not mention. But that was it. Still, I felt no need to hide this dilettante status from my Bel Canto tablemates - and, in fact, found them quite receptive to the stupid questions I’d throw at them. The next day, I took their recommendations to the listening room, and by my fourth day of study I felt like I was getting the hang of it.
Most of the recommendations traveled along the reliable triumvirate of Puccini, Verdi and Wagner, with occasional side trips into Mozart and Strauss. Friday night, however, I shared a scrumptious swordfish dinner with the Margisons, an older couple from Chicago who regaled me for hours with plot points, musical highlights and favorite performances from the great Italian bel canto era: Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and anything else that sounded like you could have it on a sandwich with provolone.
I became absolutely enchanted with Bellini’s “La Sonnambula,” and for the most aesthetically suspect of reasons. It was the title. Such beautiful syllables. “Sonn” as in in-som-niac, son-orous – sleep. “Ambula” as in ambulance, ambulate, perambulate – amble? Walk.
On the following afternoon, freshly digested of a bowl of cioppino at a place called The Schooner, I dug up a Joan Sutherland LP from 1968, hooked myself up to the headphones and, halfway through the liner notes, fell asleep.
I can’t be sure what woke me, but looking back I’d guess it was the combination of a particularly refulgent cadenza (okay, I stole “refulgent” from the liner notes) and a shaft of sunlight cutting in through the oceanward windows. It was the first sunlight I’d seen since arriving in Hirshfield, so I decided to exploit it at once, rousting myself from my easy chair and adjourning to the tiny balcony outside the listening room (a precarious little perch the staff refers to as “the bucket”).
Sunshine or no, the breeze that hailed me on my exit was brisk enough to frost an Eskimo. Between that and the blinding, refulgent light (sorry), my senses were already prickling when I looked sandward to discover Frosted Glass Man, in the flesh, treading the surfline directly across from me, taking occasional curtsies to inspect something. As I watched the way he gently evaded the breakers without seeming to actually look at them, the long-hidden secret finally struck me: Of course! You idiot. When did you meet him? In the afternoon!
Descending on him just then would have seemed entirely ungraceful, and shouting from the bucket a little too operatic. Instead, I made a pledge to immediately transfer my beach walks to the afternoon. I went to the kitchen for a cup of green tea and returned to La Sonnambula a rejuvenated woman. A woman with plans.
My schedule switch went against every one of my morning-walk instincts, and with exciting possibilities in mind, the a.m. seemed to drag on forever. I ended up at some kind of defective-discount clothing barn on the main strip, trying on inch-thick plaid hunting shirts and discolored University of Oregon booster jackets. I would have stepped into the cafe next door, but there was some kind of step-aerobics class being conducted directly in front of the espresso machines.
By the time I got around to the mismatched luminescent-heel basketball shoes, I had worked up the courage to glance at my watch. Five till twelve. Thank God! I went for a New England clam chowder at the Shamrock Inn, down the block from the Bel Canto, took a completely superfluous shower and spent a half-hour in front of my antique Austrian mirror, picking out my hiking-wear. I reappeared in shocking white tennies, faded jeans, Cape Cod T-shirt, brown Land’s End corduroy overshirt, canary yellow mariner’s windbreaker and – yeah, I don’t know why – tortoise-shell La Dolce Vita sunglasses. Too much? Yeah, sure. But Frosted Glass Man seemed to have many facets to his personality, and I wanted to have an article of clothing for each.
I expected to wander for a while, presenting a slow-moving target in the best passive-aggressive female style, but egad, there he was, the moment I struck off on the sand, coming right at me, the two of us like team captains striding the fifty-yard line for a coin flip. I slowed to a stop as he kept coming, wearing a strangely intent look on his face. I prepared a nonchalant Noel Coward greeting; he came up and knelt at my feet. Worship? So soon?
“Green glass,” he said, holding a moss-colored potato chip to his eye. “You can spot these devils a mile away in a snowstorm.”
“Oh,” I said. He found my response charming (bless him), and let out a gorgeous mountain-man laugh, a skinny Orson Welles raised in the Appalachians.
“Take this,” he said, “in remembrance of me.” He opened my palm, slid in the glass like a secret coin, and folded my fingers over its edges. “Are you a collector?”
“A collector?” I said. Dazzle dazzle.
He ran a single fingernail over the arc of my shoulder and ducked down his head to peer at me from the tops of his eyes. “Are you a woman of glass. Do you seek the same treasures I do?”
(Say yes.) “Yes,” I said. Shimmer shimmer. Glow. “Yes, I... it’s one of my favorite things, frosted... glass.”
“Beach glass, sea glass, ocean sapphires, beautiful... litter. You picked a wonderful afternoon for it. It’s a ten-foot day.”
“A ten-foot day?” Shimmer echo dazzle (Oh God, stop!).
Frosty cocked his hip like a hammer on a gun. “Yeah. You can’t move ten feet without finding a piece. It’s the most common of holy days on the cosmological calendar of Frosted Glass Woman. Here. Follow me to the Path of Opportunity.”
He pivoted on the cocked hip and strode to the ocean. He was the most beautiful madman I’d ever met. I caught up with him at the edge of the breakers, where the waves had deposited a five-foot swath of small rocks, peppered across the sand like a five-o’clock shadow. I expected a guided tour, but Frosty had already pulled out a Zip-Lock bag and started down the path, bending at odd intervals. I tracked him carefully across the buckskin sand and watched his every move.
I soon realized that Frosty would have to let a few pieces through his radar or I’d be shit out of luck. Which was, obviously, what he was doing, as every twenty feet or so I found a white button, green pixie stick or brown poker chip.
Ten minutes later, I came upon a semi-circle of bluish-white, the color of Caribbean water on postcards, little rippled fragments worn away from the edges. I felt Frosty’s eyes all over me as I crouched.
“I was hoping you would find that one.” He unwrapped me with a broad gypsy smile. “That’s a special one. The glass gods use those for Frisbee golf.”
“It’s gorgeous,” I said, and smiled as sweetly as I could.
“Why don’t you take the lead for a while? I feel like a cad, hogging the frontier like this.”
“My pleasure,” I answered, and headed out for virgin sand. I hadn’t taken five steps before I came upon a trifecta of perfect isosceles triangles, each a half-inch tall, each a primary color. I almost hated to disturb them.
I continued on like that, cutting snake-like through the sand, quickening my step when a far-rolling breaker chased me up the beach. I feared, in fact, that I was being too efficient, but whenever I stopped to look back I’d find my guru bending to the sand at regular intervals, harvesting the pieces that had slipped my vision. Hmm, I thought. There are higher levels to this. After that, I went a hundred feet without a single sighting. It was like I’d hit a wall or something. Frosty was quick to notice.
“Let me guess,” he said. “Suddenly you can’t tell frosted glass from the Queen of England, and... you’re sort of losing your place on the sand. Feeling... disoriented.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That about describes it.”
He grinned. “You’re trying too hard.” When you begin... to lose... your sight... just rub the last piece you found… and listen… to the ocean.” To illustrate, he held up a broad square of grayish-green and rubbed it next to his ear, crooning like a dimestore Sinatra. “Come to me-ee, ooh! Glassy-glassy ba-bee, co-o-ome!”
Once I stopped laughing, I followed the guardrail of Frosty’s track and wandered forward, trying my best not to try so hard. Thirty feet on I began to lose heart, having failed to spot so much as a sliver, but then I recalled Frosty’s words and turned my attention to the ocean. Before the crash of wave number two, I came upon a curl of white in the shape of a human ear. I held it to my... well, to my ear, and proceeded to grip the glass against my palm as my fingers took turns rubbing harmonium notes against its shower-door surface.
A hundred paces later I had myself a nice little handful. Not realizing how much ground we had covered, I straightened up for a backstretch and was surprised to find Whalespout Rock directly to my left. It was, at that moment, earning its nickname, firing a spray of frigid water precisely in my direction.
“It’s different today,” said Frosty, hovering over my shoulder.
“Yah. Not sure how. Wait a minute...” He held up a hand and watched another wave rip through the slot. Frosty’s eyes became glazed, turning the slightest bit... animal, as he processed what he was observing. “Ye-e-es. The sound – it’s just a tad bit lower in pitch. I wonder what would cause that? So… you wanna come to my campsite for dinner?”
Normally, I’d have been caught off guard, but I was ready. I smiled coyly and said, “Yes.”
A Voice Like Hot Apple Cider
To borrow from the holiday song, it was over the cliffs and through the cypress, and across a field, over a creek and through some ferns and groves – to Frosted Glass Man’s campsite we went. The walk, while long, offered certain pleasantries – like Frosty’s butt. He led, I followed, and had ample opportunity to conduct a survey of his contours and elevations. I eventually concluded that, while a bit on the lean side, Frosty’s rear end possessed certain aesthetic universals first reflected in the ancient Greek sculptures – what present-day motor magazines might call “sporty lines.” (Hessie, on the other hand, would simply cry out, “Nice shelf!” and laugh that witchy laugh.)
I found further sporty lines in an unexpected place – Frosty’s campsite, which was lorded over by a burgundy Nissan 300ZX two-seater with a hatchback and a T-top. Hardly the scratched-up, Deadhead-stickered VW bus I’d visualized. I noticed that the inside of the hatch was covered by a crocheted quilt of chocolate, blood and black hexagons. The outdoor pantry hutch was draped with a lovely earth-colored Russian silk wrap. Frosty nudged the wrap aside and asked if I’d like some Turkish coffee.
“Sure,” I said. “I’d also like world peace, but...”
He pulled out an elegant little pot, about six inches high, four across. It was sky blue with silver flecks and a long handle the shape of a dowel rod. He filled the pot from the campsite water tap, dropped in two tablespoons of sugar, then fired up a propane stove and set the pot atop the burner.
“I’m afraid all I have are leftovers,” he said. “Some dolmas that evaded consumption last night – you’d be surprised, by the way, how hard it is to find good grape leaves this close to wine country. I also have some couscous, and stuffed peppers – but you must be careful… I got a really spicy batch.”
He cultivated a smile that exploded into an evil-scientist laugh. I, meanwhile, was dumbfounded at the menu. Was he serious?
He raced to catch the pot, which was boiling over.
“The trick,” he said, “is in the timing. You catch it right as it boils, and then you pour out a cupful... into... whoops!” He turned back to the hutch and found two tiny cups, demitasse-size, the same burgundy as his car, with rims of gold. “Okay. So,” he continued. “Now you pour off a cupful, return the rest to the fire, put in zee hoy-tee, toy-tee caffe and a tiny... touch... of cardamom. Then wait for it all to boil back up.”
I felt like I was watching a cooking show on public television, thinking, my oh my, if this buckaroo can be this delicate and attentive to two little cups o’ coffee, what might he be like with other, more intimate matters? (Shiver, shiver.)
The pot wasted little time before it Fed-exed a brown froth to the top. Frosty lifted it back up, poured in the previously boiled water from the burgundy cup, then carefully doled out two modest servings of potent-looking brown sludge.
“Be careful,” he admonished. “It’ll knock your eyelashes off. And you’ll look pretty stupid, walking around with no eyelashes.”
I took a sip, savoring the bitterness as it squealed along my tongue, then crunched a few stray grounds between my teeth. Were I a dead battery, I’d have been fully recharged. Frosty grinned at my satisfaction. “The Turks… they like a little soil in their coffee. Which reminds me… when you’re done, save your grounds. Then I’ll perform some badass mojo voodoo for you.”
With that, he ducked into a small tent on the other side of the hutch to retrieve his “leftovers.” (I, meanwhile, was conducting some logical calculations, wondering how often he had to replenish the ice in his cooler.) He reemerged with three plastic storage containers, forked the contents into a shallow pan over the stove, threw in a sprinkling of water and covered it with a lid.
A few minutes later I was creeping up on the business end of a spicy red pepper as I examined Frosty’s crow’s feet in the dying light. Frosty noticed the growing darkness as well, interrupting his dolmas to light up a stout vanilla-scented candle. Once he’d cleared his plate, he took my empty coffee cup, swirled it around like bar dice and turned it upside-down on my saucer.
“We have to let it sit for a few minutes while the juices run down. But there’s something else we can do while we wait.”
That sounded like a line to me, but then Frosty scooted to the other end of the table, unzipped the bag of glass he’d collected that afternoon and spread the pieces on the table. He sorted through them like a dominoes player picking through tiles, then landed on a thin, heavily frosted piece of white that curled in and out like an early-budding leaf. He held it up to the candlelight and ran a finger over its smooth edges.
“This is from the neck of some exotic, oddly shaped juice bottle, maybe an Orangina. Its final possessor was a professional man, thirty-five, thirty-six years old. He was on vacation with his wife. She’s a few years younger… I’m thinking thirty-one, thirty-two.
“Now, due to certain deficiencies in one of their reproductive systems – his, I’m guessing, slow sperm, uninspired sperm, sperm without the right building permits – this couple has been through a torturous three-year pursuit of impregnation by any means. Our hero is a patient, genteel young man, carrier of a well-paid but powerless administrative job that has taught him the value of sacrificing one’s pride in the interest of peace. These qualities have certainly come in handy. But the clinically timed intercourse, the demanding textbook positions, the drugs that make his wife fat and cranky, all of these have been sliced and diced into a lovely Irish stew simmering away in his stomach. He doesn’t think these petty frustrations and vague irritations merit the attention of a priest, psychologist or even a close friend. So he keeps his crockpot tightly covered. And with each progressive rap on his psyche the stew continues to boil until it resembles a thick Tex-Mex chili.
“This vacation of theirs has come in the late spring – May, perhaps – right after their latest disappointment at the doctor’s office. His sperm have mistaken her latest egg for a large, gelatinous television set and have gathered around with their remote controls in hopes of finding a soft-core porn channel. Given the lack of little kiddies upon which to foist her disciplinary tendencies, his beautiful-but-cranky young wife has focused her attentions on him, unlatching his psychic suitcase and picking apart each sock, sweater and necktie. How can you eat those runny eggs? Do we really have to listen to the Eagles again? I hate this road; all these curves are making me nauseous. God, these pills make me look like a fat pig!
“But he knows that her suffering is far worse than his, and what’s more, he knows it’s all his fault, his sperm now dawdling at her fallopian tubes, passing around a joint as they listen to Pink Floyd records. And so he keeps his complaints to himself, and the chili boils higher and higher in his stomach until it becomes a torrid Cajun gumbo.
“The morning after their arrival he wakes up early, leaves her snoozing in their hotel room and takes his cayenne belly out for a walk along the cliffs. He pauses at the very center of the clifftop to open a bottle of Orangina and take a swallow, and when he looks out he finds a brilliant morning, the sea stretching for miles to a sharp, cloud-stitched horizon. This infuriates him. How can this bright, limitless world exist while his own universe is so narrow and dark? The irritation bites at his temple, clutches his eyes. When it gets too much he feels the weight of the bottle in his hand, takes a last swallow and hurls it over the cliffs. The bottle spells out a 50-foot arc and lands on the temple of a large boulder, sending out a starburst of splinters, sparking yellow in the morning light.
“This is a man who has always played by the rules, who has never done a destructive thing in his life, and yet the sound of those shards tinkling through the rocks is like a set of wind chimes constructed by the young Mozart. For just a few seconds he feels really, really good. And he goes back to his hotel room, and he kisses his wife awake. She smiles at him, and in the way that young wives say such things when they are pleasantly puzzled by their husbands’ affections, she says, ‘What?’
“And that is... from whence came... this piece of glass.”
Frosty took his curled leaf, touched it to his lips and placed it on the table between us. His story had left me pleasantly mute, an empty vessel. I contented myself by picking up his little icicle and angling its waterslide curves toward the candlelight. I imagined a bowlful of these, with milk, for breakfast. The story had the opposite effect on Frosty; between that and the Turkish coffee, his wheels were spinning mightily. He proceeded quickly to his next trick.
“Your grounds should be about ready,” he reported, lifting my cup and turning it upright. “They call this ‘reading one’s earth.’” He scratched his chin, then aimed his pinky at the white ceramic skin inside the cup. “This side you drank from – note the lipstick stains – this side represents you, and your family, and this delta running down from where you drank, very rich and strong, a veritable New Orleans of tributaries. So that’s good, but the rest, you see, a very solid line across the top, unnaturally straight, with only two small breaks.
“Let’s back up here. The side opposite your lipstick, that’s romance. This area near the handle, that’s finance and logic. Opposite the handle, that’s the life of the spirit. You’ll note that you have two tracks here, one next to finance, heading in a jagged diagonal line toward romance – suddenly cut off. The other is a fountain springing up from the bottom, a straight line on the border of romance and the spirit, but, once again, suddenly cut off. Two half-rivers, no completion, no arrival. You don’t appear to be going anywhere.”
He was getting much too close, and the air around me was beginning to feel thin. My body sprung into action to give my heart a worthy defense. I ruffled a hand into the pocket of my windbreaker, clutched a fistful of glass and spilled it onto my plate, like that guy with his voodoo bones in Moby Dick. A green piece the size of a quarter landed atop my last remaining dolma, and that was good enough. I picked it up and began spinning my tale.
“There was this teenage girl, a freshman in high school – smart as a whip, pretty, confident – and she fell in love with a senior boy. She became enraptured by him, thought that he was the answer to every question in algebra class, that his name was inscribed in the capillaries of each autumn leaf that fell in the quad. They spent a year together, became so comfortable with each other that they barely needed to talk. It was like they were there to fill each other’s spaces, to give each other shelter from the harsh climates of adolescence.
“Very suddenly, a month before graduation, the boy came to her and said, I’m going to be leaving for college in the fall, and you’ll be staying here for three more years, so I can’t be with you anymore. And he told her goodbye, kissed her sweetly, almost as if they would be seeing each other the next day. But he never came back, and then he graduated and was gone. It wasn’t until a month later that she began to comprehend the depth of her loss.
“Her parents went away on a week-long vacation. They left the girl alone in the house because they knew she was very responsible and she’d take care of things. Three nights after they left, loneliness emanated through their home like heat from a woodstove, and the girl amused herself with her father’s antique radio, the one with the glowing green lights and funny German words. While she was scanning the stations she happened on an old jazz tune sung by a woman with a voice like hot apple cider. The voice seemed to wander around on its own, wrapping around the melody like an old sweater. When she got to the part where the two lovers said goodbye, the girl heard the automatic sprinklers go on outside her house, and the faraway barking of a dog, and she could feel a hole growing inside her body, a sense of everything, all at once.
“The girl left the house and wandered around the block until she came to a liquor store. There she talked a young man into buying her a six-pack of malt liquor – the kind in the green wide-mouth bottles, the kind you buy when you want to get drunk quickly. She walked down to the beach, where she found an abandoned fire. She threw some fresh driftwood on it, and started drinking.
“After three bottles, she looked up to find the Milky Way streaming over the cliffs like a spray of foam, and it was there that she located her sadness. She pulled her sadness down on a tether, wrapped it around her shoulders and began to cry warm, comfortable tears. But it wasn’t for the love of the senior boy that she cried. It was because she had not really loved him at all. She had merely been excited by his nearness to adulthood, his growing confidence and deepening voice, his oncoming escape into the big, wide world. And she had really, really wanted to go to the senior prom.
“When she was done crying, the girl emptied the rest of her fourth bottle into the sand and tossed it into the fire. And then she cried again, but these were not comfortable tears. These were jagged tears, tears that hurt her eyes and burned her skin – and these were not for feeling, but for lack of feeling; for love that had no purpose.
“Not knowing about these things, she had failed to notice that the bottle had settled against a hot coal. After a while the bottle heated up and burst into a hundred pieces. The girl felt her heart stop, and then, as she caught her breath, she discovered that one of the shards had struck her forearm, leaving a pencil-thick line of blood. She found this strangely pleasing, and prayed that it would leave a small scar.”
I looked up very slowly, as if recovering from hypnosis, found Frosty’s small, attentive eyes across the table and lifted my green chip into the air between us. “This piece,” I said.
Frosty pounded the table and let fly a thunderous “Hah!” as if he had just witnessed the invention of the telephone. I smoothed out his smile with a raised hand and a meaningful stare.
“Frosty,” I said. “Would you... help me... feel something?”
A Heavenly Saline Whanging
I woke up to tiny specks of light all over my body and the far-away whirr of a flying saucer. I also couldn’t move my head.
The whirring got closer, followed by a muted bass-drum thump and the sound of a skier unbuckling his boots. And still, I couldn’t move my head. And the little freckles of light all over my body.
Then somebody put a key into my left ear, and turned it, and the heavens slid back. Now I could move my head, and there was God himself, wearing a silly upside-down smile and holding a bag full of bagels. And God shook the bagels and said:
“Wakey, wakey, eggs and bakey!”
The revelation that God was, in fact, Frosted Glass Man brought reality crashing back down. And the reality was… I was still at Frosty’s campsite! And that warm chocolate-pudding sensation in my feminine parts was no plastic fantasy but the result of actual aerobic ministrations. I smiled sweetly and raised my lips for a good-morning kiss, only to be disappointed. FGM had already scampered off to the picnic table and begun laying out the goods. I cranked myself up on my elbows and squinted my eyes, trying to catch a glimpse of his ass. He was standing before a quartet of vivisected bagels, anointing them with cream cheese and thin slices of a pink substance marked with a faint, wood-like grain. Lox!
I pivoted around on my knees, coming close to ramming my head into the hatch. “Frosty?” I wheezed. “Did you go somewhere?”
“Sure,” said Frosty. “Velasco, little town about five miles north of here. Would you believe they have a Jewish deli, and the asphalt on the frontage road is as smooth as a sea lion’s butt. Which begs the question… does a sea lion have a butt? To which I say, I have no idea, but if he did, you can sure as hell bet it would be smooth.” He unleashed a laugh and continued. “Now put on your clothes and start eating before these things figure out we’re gentiles.”
I slipped into my corduroy overshirt, and found my tortoise-shell sunglasses dangling from a hole in the quilt. “You walked five miles?” I asked.
“No-no-no.” Frosty lifted up a big plastic boot lined with bright orange, bagel-looking things. “Blades!”
I stepped from the car – bare butt and all – and bent over in search of my jeans among the blankets. Frosty didn’t miss the opportunity to comment.
“Now there’s a Mona Lisa for any man’s morning.”
“You certainly got some good use out of it last night,” I mewed, slapping a buttock. I flapped out my jeans and took my good time sliding them on, as Frosty drizzled brown powder over two foam-covered beverages.
“You bladed five miles with cappuccinos?”
“Of course not – they’re lattes. And they come from Hal, a friendly park ranger who has in his possession an espresso machine. I bladed maybe a hundred feet with them, so please, no applause.”
“I’m still mighty impressed.”
Not that this should surprise you, but I found Frosty’s behavior during our ensuing kosher breakfast a little odd. The women out there will know what I’m talking about: the first time a man takes you to bed, the next morning there is very often a kind of caretaker instinct at work, as if in penetrating you he has, in fact, opened up a wound and is therefore responsible for your convalescence. Or, looking for the quickest avenue of escape.
The odd thing with Frosty was that he displayed neither of these. It was as if the acts of the night before had not occurred at all; he was just as verbose and friendly as ever, and certainly as given to flights of metaphor. It was actually kind of nice to treat sex as the natural, matter-of-fact impulse that it was, sort of liberating to not be treated like some kind of patient. But I did wish he would kiss me.
After an hour of brunch and lively conversation, Frosty directed me toward the camp showers and loaned me soap, shampoo and a towel. Upon my return, I found him all set for hiking; he handed me a Zip-Lock and jumped to his feet like a dog catching sight of a leash.
“Well,” I said, stalling. (Kiss me, dammit!) But then I thought, no, it wouldn’t be much good if I had to beg for it. Then I thought: Boy am I messed up. “Okay!” I exhaled. “Let’s go.”
It was actually sort of a pleasant afternoon, a light morning fog bleeding away in pockets of blue. A little more and it might be – God forbid – sunny. As we hit the trail along the clifftops, however, I noticed Frosty taking furtive glances at the water and mumbling disconsolately. Once we hit the sand, I could see why.
“The Path of Opportunity!” cried Frosty. “Vamoosed! Splitsville!”
Splitsville, indeed. Two or three token pebbles along the first hundred yards. After that, nothing. By the time we reached the Bel Canto a half-hour later, Frosty was nearly lifeless, having captured but a single white chip after a mile of beach.
“I have never seen a ten-foot beach disappear like that!” he said. “This is very, very strange.”
I walked a hand up the back of his neck, the first affectionate gesture I had proffered all day. “Would you like to do something else instead? Maybe we could check out a bookstore, or I could take you out for lunch.”
His answer came in the form of another of his mile-wide Russian laughs. “No, no, no,” he said. “I am Frosted Glass Man. My job is to look for frosted glass – not necessarily to find it. But I have to at least look. If I didn’t, whatever would become of Frosted Glass Woman? How would she ever come back to life?”
I was beginning to see that more than half of Frosty’s metaphors failed to land at my mental LaGuardia. So I let this one go on to Dallas/Fort Worth, with hopes for a connecting flight later in the day. We kept on hiking, trudging, almost two miles of damp sand with nothing more than a single inch-long rhombus of green – until we arrived at Hotel Row, a stretch of clifftop lodges at the final turn toward Archer Bridge. I swear I could see Frosty’s ears perk up like a coyote’s, and the hair stand up on the back of his neck. He turned and dashed behind me, cupping his hands behind my ears like bandshells.
“Hear that, Madame Stravinsky? A sound like a thousand castanets dumped out the back of a pickup?”
I waited until the next wave swept back and, sure enough, exactly as described, a rich deposit of rocks clicking and shuffling under the breaker.
“Apparently,” said Frosty, “our little friends have gathered in the union hall to take a strike vote. And our pieces o’ glass – our quarry, you might say – they are participating as captive subcontractors.”
“Can’t we get them?”
“Oh, no-no. Ve-e-ery frustrating. The Fly-Fishing Method. Good for desperate measures, but you wouldn’t like it.”
“Well Frosty!” I complained. “What exactly else is on your agenda today? We have already figured out that the rest of this beach contains absolutely nothing, so why not? Come on, bay-bee, show me how it’s done!”
Frosty placed a thumb on one side of his forehead, his fingers on the other, and brought them together like the mouth of a sideways sock puppet, then let out a one-syllable bark of a laugh. “Ha! Madame Schubert, I will show you how this is done, but I warn you: inside of fifteen minutes, you will be cussing a streak bluer than B.B. King.”
“Oh, come on. I’m a grownup. I have extraordinary patience.”
“After ten minutes of this, Mahatma Gandhi himself would be sparring with the seagulls, shouting, ‘Come on, asshole! You want a piece of me?!’ However, talking is no good. I’ll show you. Take off your shoes and roll up those jeans as far as they will go.”
Oh, shut up and kiss me, I thought. But I dutifully followed his instructions. I planted my shoes and socks a safe distance away on dry sand, then returned to where Frosty stood ankle-deep in the water. I followed, getting a little choke on my intake valves as the North Pacific wrapped its icy tentacles around my tootsies.
“Shee... gosh, that’s cold! Whew!”
“That’s Oregon,” said Frosty. “Now, basically what you’re looking for is that five-second window when the magnanimous Pacific allows you a gander at her treasure chest. Sort of like... excuse the analogy, but sort of like watching women in loose dresses on a windy day. So once the waves settle down and you see your chance, you need to tail that receding line of water back in, then immediately settle on a five-foot span of rocks and look for that familiar flash of color. If you don’t spot something right away, then fuhgettaboutit – back away into safer territory and hold on to your Amtrak pass. If you do spot something, bend down right away and nab it, but keep an ear out for the next wave. If you hear it comin’ in, just grab the whole fistful of rocks around the glass and skip backward – otherwise you will get yourself a heavenly saline whanging. Once there, you can pan out your diggings and see if you got any goodies. Now, if we’re lucky, I’ll be able to demonstrate.”
Frosty waited three circuits, then spotted a backwash strong enough to kill off the incoming breaker. He tangoed in, hands behind his back like a curious British bobby. His eyes flashed over a brief stretch of rockpile, detecting nothing at first. But then he struck, quick as a rattlesnake, and backed away with his prey as the following wave bubbled over his calves. He stood in the Path of Opportunity sorting through his wet handful for a small amber lightning bolt.
“Walla Walla!” he said, then aimed the bolt in the direction of the water. “Next dance?”
“My pleasure,” I said. But given his great tabloid warnings, I was a bit hesitant. I waited several go-rounds before so much as lifting a toe. When I did, however, I was rewarded with a half-circle of green. I took my motions straight from my guru, grabbing the whole handful in a pulling scoop and quickly retreating. Once the water caught up with me, however, it splattered me to mid-thigh, painting my baby-blue jeans in sprays of indigo. I stood there bubbling and stuttering like an overheated crockpot, Frosty’s hoarse laughter scraping in my ears.
“Oh, I... God... darn it! Shoot! Gol-lee!”
Frosty came to console me, hands together in a plea for forgiveness. “Oh! Sandy! I am so sorry. My fault. I forgot to tell you. When a roller speeds in like that, you have to lift one foot, like a stork. If you let the wave hit both legs at once, it climbs right up like it’s hitting a brick wall. I’m so sorry.”
Being a good sport, Frosty charged into the very next breaker, lifting one foot behind him. Watching the water strike his shin and stream past, I got the idea.
I was determined to win this little game, so I pocketed my green half-circle and braved my way back in – only to discover my next obstacle. Four times in succession I spotted different pieces of glass – white, white, brown and white – but I spotted each of them a second too late, and had to stand there helplessly as the water came and buried them in the rocks. At least I stayed dry, there on my one stork foot, but by number four the frustration of near-discovery was getting too much for me.
Convinced that the ocean was hiding its finer glasswares further in, I decided to wait for wider openings and venture into the belly of the beast. My instincts seemed correct; a five-minute wait for two extra steps brought me the divine vision of a quarter-size blue. When I went in for the attack, however, a double-crested breaker rolled in and took my cobalt baby from sight, only inches from my fingertips. Now I was being fucked with.
“Son-of-a bitch! Give me a fuckin’ break here!”
Once the structural integrity of the dam had been compromised, the curse words tumbled over the spillway like a drunken sailor with Tourette’s Syndrome. I had lost my bet, and, I am sure, sent Frosty into a fresh round of titters. But now I didn’t care. I wanted my fair share of glass.
My deliverance came with the reappearance of the quarter-size blue. This time, I left nothing to chance, jumping in like a linebacker going for a fumble, thunder echoing in my ears, then pogoing backward on my single stork-leg like a young Martha Graham.
What I failed to anticipate, however, was a curious tidal phenomenon which one might describe as a cross-wash. This occurs when one breaker overtakes another and strikes it at an odd angle, creating a forceful wavelet that shoots down the beach sideways. I was just lowering my stork-leg and going for the translucent treasure in my palm when the aforementioned cross-wash struck me across the knees and sent me flying. And, what’s more, sent the beloved blue right back into the drink. The next image was Frosted Glass Man, extending metaphorical balms in my direction.
“The Pacific is a jealous one,” he said, fighting back spurts of laughter. “She won’t let go of Frosted Glass Woman without a fight.”
Frosty extended a hand – and I didn’t miss my opportunity. With the power of a Brunnhilde I yanked him earthward, just in time for the next breaker to stamp all over his pretty-ass button-down shirt. He rolled over and over in the water, half-laughing, half-pissed. The next time his stomach came to twelve o’clock high I pinned him to the rocky sand and scoured out his mouth with the most Gallic of French kisses.
When I came up for air I spotted something pinballing down in the backwash. I burst into the waves like an otter going for a pickled herring, then came back to Frosty, lying on his back, convulsed with laughter. I tucked the quarter-size blue into his shirt pocket, slapped him twice across the chest, declared us even and headed up the beach in the direction of dry sand.
I begged off to take a shower in the Rosenkavalier Suite, then checked in with Jeremy and Stinger at the registration desk just so they knew I was still around. Stinger was taking a late-afternoon snake-nap in the outgoing-mail basket, resting his sleek white head atop a pile of postcards, but Jeremy seemed downright looney-tune – at least, for Jeremy. He seemed very excited to tell me the Carmen Suite was once again available, and crestfallen when I told him I didn’t need it. (I imagine he’d gotten word about my dalliance, and that my response effectively confirmed it.)
I left the Bel Canto feeling flattered that Jeremy would even care, and took a long, lazy stroll down Knickerbocker Beach, carrying nothing but a bottle of magnolia-scented massage oil. It was, in fact, the very last item I’d purchased for George, and it would certainly be a pleasure to use it on somebody else.
By the time I got to Frosty’s campsite, I was feeling pretty worn down by the day’s antics, and fortunate to have left the hotel when I did; those lush green groves were getting mighty dark. I found him perched at the picnic table, next to a boisterous campfire, hunched over a quartet of white plastic buckets.
“Kum-bay-yah,” I said. Frosty smiled, neglecting to rise and kiss me as a gentleman might, but at least he patted the spot next to him on the bench. I sat down and nibbled on his ear.
“Dividing the congregation,” he said. He took a handful of glass from a Zip-Lock in his lap and began doling out the pieces in suits of white, green, brown and... white.
“Why two buckets of white?” I asked.
“Pastels. Like that pale blue you found the other day. Plus the occasional oddball.” He lifted a clear-looking white that had a cross-hatch of wire going through it. “Some kind of security window. Pretty nifty.”
I gave the piece a once-over then handed it back. “So what’s for dinner, Jean-Claude?” I was looking to be serviced in one way or another, and I was genuinely famished.
“Wienie roast,” he said. “As soon as the fire burns down to coals.”
“Ah,” said I. “So you only keep up the gourmet shtick for the first date.”
He reached across the table and handed me a plastic-wrapped package. “Bratwurst, kielbasa and linguica. And, of course, a little sauerkraut, some Cole slaw, potatoes au gratin and, if you’re a good girl, a very special dessert.”
I was chagrinned but nonetheless pleased. I went for the bratwurst. Frosty took the linguica. We talked at each other with smelly breath, sipping glasses of grappa as the grease of gurgling pig-parts lullabyed our stomachs. After a while he reached into the hutch and extracted a bag of marshmallows.
“Even better,” he said. “S’mores. Adult s’mores.” He planted two white puffs on my roasting rod and set me to work. Once my sugar-bombs were nicely tanned, Frosty handed me the rest of my supplies. I laid my melting subjects out on a graham-cracker bed, then planted a square of chocolate in the middle of each, feeling my salivary glands well up as the corners melted into limp, gooey blobs. I wondered all the while what the heck “adult s’mores” could be.
I added the graham-cracker cap, patted it down, then balanced the whole between my thumb and fingers as I put it in my mouth. I was met with a sudden spray of liquid. I held a hand to my mouth to try and contain it.
Frosty answered my puzzled expression with two words: “Grand Marnier.”
“Oh my gawd!” I said. The liquor, the chocolate and the stringy marshmallow remains were lava-flowing all over my mouth. I swiped my index finger across my lips and licked it clean. “Fucking incredible!”
We took a half-hour sating ourselves and cleaning up our faces, after which we downed two more glasses of grappa, staring into the fire’s orange eyes. A question was approaching from somewhere, hovering in the woodsmoke, and it turned out to be Frosty’s.
“So this guy – your senior gone off to college. Nice guy?”
“Oh, yeah. Sure. George was, is, great. Exactly the kind of guy an intelligent woman should marry. Someone you’re comfortable with, someone you really enjoy being with. Stable. Consistent. I mean, he’s always going to be the same, easy-going George, whether it’s sunny, 2 p.m. on a beach in Fiji or raining, 2 a.m. fixing your clogged toilet. He wasn’t going to tunnel under the earth one day and come back out as a giant purple gopher. And that’s what I was looking for.”
“You wanted someone who wouldn’t become a giant purple gopher.”
“Is that so much to ask?”
“Yeah. Anthropomorphism is a terrible disease. So what’s he do for a living?”
“Ah… a stable musician. Now there’s an oxymoron.”
“He played cello with the San Jose Symphony, and he had a nice half-time professorship at Santa Clara University. About as stable as they come. And he would’ve been a great father.”
“Which is why you picked him.”
“Sure,” I said. “Is that a bad thing?”
“Pretty smart… if it works out.”
I selected a triangle from the white bucket and rapped clave beats against the tabletop. “That’s the problem, I guess. I was quite happy – almost relieved – to give up a little... passion in my life. Passion has this nasty habit of leaving me looking like a chewed-up adult s’more. I was ready to be a mother, and his stability was more important to me than how often he could float my boat.”
Frosty rubbed an earlobe, mulling this over. “I’m just guessing here, but... George didn’t agree, did he?”
(Ouch.) “Bingo!” I said. “I’m so-o-o stupid. I should have figured it out a long time ago. Like when he didn’t propose to me after three years, even though I made it obvious that I wanted him to. But no, I stretched it out because life was so damned comfortable, because George and I had rubbed each other down into fuzzy, soft, pillow-people. Because we liked having sex the same number of times a week and we loved Italian restaurants that use lots of garlic and hanging out at jazz festivals and taking drives up the coast.
“It was last month when he gave me the news. Very typically, he was kind enough to wait till a couple of weeks after our fifth anniversary. He made me a home cappuccino and delivered his announcement in a calm, considerate manner, as if we were discussing my taxes or the advantages of a cable modem. But the gist was, he had finally given up on the idea of settling for a woman who was... settling for him. He wanted chemistry; he wanted passion.”
“I’m sorry,” said Frosty. “I shouldn’t have asked.”
“No, no,” I said. “You’re about the only person I’ve been able to tell. Besides, I’m glad to be past the uncontrollable weeping phase and on to the cursing and swearing phase. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t mind a change of subject. So uh… what’s your story?”
“Ah, well…” he said. He paced to the fire to warm his hands. He had been so calm during dinner, but I could tell his mischievous side was about to return.
“I know what you’re expecting,” he said. “Some revelatory confession in the mid-century realistic vein of Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. How else would a guy end up sleeping in a hatchback on the Oregon Coast? World’s youngest Vietnam vet? Paranoid schizophrenic? Or maybe, when he was twelve, he jumped over a dirt ramp on his bicycle and didn’t see his six-week-old Labrador pup playing in the landing area and WHAM! Vivisection!”
Frosty paused for a moment, grossed out by his own vision, then ambled to the other side of the table.
“Well, no. And just to further distance ourselves from that notion – and because I prefer myths to reality – I’ll tell this one in third person. Let’s call our hero... Feisty. Feisty Brassman.”
I let out a sea-lion bark of a laugh – “Ort!” – then quickly covered my mouth, making a little show of pretended shame. Frosty ignored me.
“Feisty Brassman grew up in Flagstaff, Arizona, exposed on a daily basis to the vagaries of Grand Canyon tourists but otherwise relatively unharmed. His Dad could have been more affectionate, his Mom less protective. He couldn’t hit a baseball worth crap. He could’ve had better-looking girlfriends. He felt like a total freak during high school, but by college he understood that everybody else felt like freaks, too.
“Feisty had the good fortune of having a father who designed aircraft. But it wasn’t the aircraft he was fascinated with, it was the computers his father used to design the aircraft, computers he brought home for his quirky son to tinker with. Feisty eventually saw the shape of his future, and, after four years of computer science at Arizona State, he moved to Silicon Valley, where being good with computers is a highly rewarded trait.
“Feisty really enjoyed his work, saw himself as a bounty hunter in a cyber frontier, a made-up territory of electronic impulses where the ones fought the zeroes for domination. He rode that range for ten years, and wrangled up quite a passel of stock options. Being a bachelor, he applied his generous salary to all the latest sporting goods, the coolest video games, the sleekest audio and video equipment. After five years, he bought a nice old Victorian in Los Gatos, a couple blocks from the downtown strip.
“Feisty was at Candlestick Park the day the ‘89 earthquake sapped all the glory from the Bay Bridge World Series. There was a natural upside to the disaster – the pulling-together of hundreds of thousands of people against the darker forces of nature – but after a year of this, about the time that people began once again to trust the ground to stay put, Feisty began to notice some unsettling trends.
“He began to notice, in short, that every time he and his techie cohorts invented something, it would come back to eat them. They invented the pager; it turned them into little poochies on long electronic leashes. They invented the cellular phone, and opened themselves up to random interruptions, wherever they were, any time of day or night. It also ruined the sanctity of public places, where oftentimes half the people there were not actually there at all, but hooked up to someone else, some where else.
“And then came email, a beautiful instant messaging conduit quickly clogged with pestering advertisements and self-appointed town criers who found they could deliver dirty jokes and philosophical pap to thousands at the press of a button.
“The quantity that each of these Frankensteins fed on was the same substance they professed to save: time. With each passing year of the dying millenium, their weeks and days became increasingly fragmented by these interruptions, fissured like old rocks and cracked into pieces. The resulting internal dissonance cried for expression, and the mode for that expression became, oddly enough, a much older and more established piece of technology: the automobile.
“At a time when everything else could be delivered thousands of miles in the blink of an eye, the physically stodgy hauling of flesh from one onramp to the next seemed increasingly irritating. Add to this the ever-tightening traffic of a booming high-tech economy, and the roadways of Silicon Valley began to look like a war zone, a tragedy of manners.
“Feisty began to notice an edginess in the cars around him, found them whizzing by like nervous dragonflies as he cruised a mere ten miles over the speed limit. Many drivers would decline to pass at all, choosing instead to pull in on his rear bumper and force him ahead with the wall of air streaming off their grilles.
“Red lights on left-turn lanes became exercises in metaphysical thinking. I am but one link in this train of cars. If I have remained in this turn lane for one go-round of the stoplights, am I not entitled to pass through the intersection with the rest of this single unified body of drivers? And any time he wanted to exit the freeway, he had to check over his shoulder to make sure someone wasn’t using the offramp as an impromptu passing lane. After all, that’s open asphalt, baby, and it’s screaming for speedy habitation. If I were to make the mistake of letting you in ahead of me that’s one more fucking obstacle between myself and a punctual arrival, and my time is expensive, pal, and I have none of it left, and I have to work 60 hours a week now to make the world move faster, so get out of my way because I’ve got to get to the next place so I can leave there and get to the place after that and then back to the office to check my email because God forbid I should be out of touch for one fucking minute because SOMETHING IMPORTANT MIGHT HAPPEN, AND I MIGHT MISS IT!”
Frosty slapped the last four words against the tabletop. Then he saw what he was doing, and chuckled to himself.
“Forgive old Feisty, Mona Lisa. He’s a little passionate about this. So, back to the story. The more he noticed these symptoms of mass lunacy, the more Feisty felt like a visitor from Alpha Centauri. Further, when he mentioned these things to his colleagues, the reaction was disturbingly consistent. First they would laugh, and then they would spout their own recent transgression – in a prideful tone, as if aggressive, irrational driving were a badge of honor, a part of fighting the good fight.
“Even this seemed tolerable – but then came the Sport Utility Vehicle. The SUV. As though rocky streams had sprouted across Interstate 280, as though the turnoff onto Montague Expressway had been transformed into a wheel-rutted dirt road. But Feisty could see what was going on. Flush with cheap gas from the Persian Gulf War, Silicon Valley’s high-tech rich were now free to conduct their road wars from the elevated, air-conditioned cockpits of luxury tanks – alpha-male vehicles with hairy chests, big balls and room enough to carry small militias.
“In his already-sensitive state, Feisty saw this invasion as an open declaration of war, a perception that found its proof in a statistic: in fatal head-on collisions between SUVs and automobiles, 80 percent of the fatalities were the people in the cars. But he noticed the smaller things, as well. The headlights that seared into the rear view mirror of his low-slung sports car. Pulling out of a driveway with one of those monsters parked on the curb, obliterating the view of oncoming traffic.
“But mostly, it was the attitude. So far removed from the road, the SUV driver often had no clue the havoc they were causing to those below, had no idea what those massive grilles looked like filling up the rear windows of compacts as their powerful, polluting engines pulled up on their bumpers.
“Feisty began to see the SUV as the final farewell to civilized courtesies, and saw his enemies everywhere. It took him two hours to calm himself down after the morning commute. And now when he brought it up to his co-workers, they would stare at him coldly, wondering when it was, exactly, that Feisty would get with the program. If you don’t like it, they said, why don’t you get one yourself? And so he stopped bringing it up at all, and things got even worse.
“There was one morning, late in the spring. Feisty had just waited an extra five seconds for the caboose of the left-turn train to clear the intersection. He was on Interstate 85, heading south. A brown Jeep Cherokee passed him while he was still in the merge lane, shot into the lane to his left, missing his rear bumper by inches. Feisty was headed to a meeting at the IBM plant in Coyote Valley, the very southern tip of San Jose near the farmlands of San Martin. After easing into the center lane he fixed his gaze on the Diablo Range east of the city, soaring muscular mountains, layers of late-spring green and early-summer blond across his windshield. At the top stood Mount Hamilton, the clean white cap of Lick Observatory. Feisty thought of the drive he had once taken down the other side, long stretches of meandering streams and chaparral, gloriously vacant spaces so close to the packed-in city.
“The mountains disappeared when he came up behind a navy-blue GMC Suburban: big double door, muscular chrome bumper at eye level, a license plate BG MAMA with a ‘49ers frame. He looked to pull right but found a Ford Explorer there, a wide expanse of hunter-green metal and tinted windows closing off his view. Checking his rear-view mirror, Feisty found it filled up with a black Toyota 4Runner, a line of chromium ribs all the way down his horizon, headlights flashing at the moving roadblock.
“Feisty was beginning to lose his breath now, and looking to his last remaining exit, his left-side mirror, found a blood-red Nissan Pathfinder zipping up in the diamond lane. His heart was racing, then he was pounding on his horn, then he slammed his foot to the gas and shot into the diamond lane with inches to spare, rocketing off toward the green-blond mountains, the lights of the Pathfinder flashing at his back like shotgun shells.
“After that, he kept going, over the mountains, across the Central Valley, over the Sierras, kept going until he ran out of gas ten miles from Ely, Nevada and pulled to a stop in front of a sign reading “Highway 50 – The Loneliest Road in America.” He removed one of the panels from his T-top, lifted himself onto the roof his car, and sat there for hours, marveling at the vast desert. Halfway through the night a drizzle descended on the sagebrush, sending clouds of sweet spice rolling into his nostrils. A half hour later, a coyote came padding up to his car door, long ears erect with curiosity, peeing on his rear tire before bursting into the brush after some small creature.
“For Feisty, that night told him everything he needed to know, everything he’d been suspecting for years. When morning came, he hitchhiked into Ely, fetched some gas and took off on a purposeful wandering – up 95 through Elko, north past the Snake River into the Blue Mountains; up along the great buck-brown wheatfields of eastern Oregon, all the way west along the Columbia River; then south on 101 until he ended up in Hirshfield. There he began his time drain therapy by finding the simplest, most satisfying occupation he could think of – the pursuit and harvest of frosted glass. He liquified most of his assets – condo, time-share in Bear Valley, computer equipment, high-tech stock – and has been busily and peacefully occupied ever since.”
Frosty slapped a hand to his thigh. “And that is the story of Feisty Brassman. Any questions?”
I had about a million and 23, but I had a feeling Frosty would rather leave the story in its mythic state. I reached into my jacket for my special bottle. “Frosty, how do you feel about magnolias?”
A Tongue Withdrawn
Frosty said he couldn’t see me for a couple of days – something about an old friend coming to visit. Tell you the truth, I didn’t mind having some time to collect myself. For one thing, the beach walks, the late nights and all that sex had just plain worn me out. For another, I admit I’d grown a little attached to my exasperated victimhood. I was damn near ready to start writing country and western songs. So moving on with my love life wasn’t as easy as I’d have thought.
I woke up – egad! – at noon, and deepened my sin by taking a thirty-minute shower, allowing those Ninja spraylets to clobber my back and shoulders until I felt as loose and disjointed as a marionette. I didn’t dare step my tardy little toes in the dining room, so I settled for some cheese Danishes in the listening room. For my audio-feed I settled on Tristan und Isolde, figuring Wagner the optimal soundtrack for a day-long slumber.
The weather was looking gray and violent. Every few minutes the door to the “bucket” would pop open to let a blast of cold air sweep through the room. After about five of these, I gave up on sleeping and acceded to a little beach trip.
On the way to Archer Bridge, feeling more and more revived, I began to look around and take note of my surroundings. For one thing, the long edge of the water resembled a serrated knife, little half-moons cut out of the sand’s edge. Frosty had called it a “crescent beach.”
When I arrived at the site of my ill-fated “fly-fishing,” I noticed that the crescent was cut particularly deep. It was bound on either side by high, sharp fingers of sand, covered with the small rocks that had previously lain under the waves. Though curious about the possibilities of finding glass, I ventured no further, thinking it better to wait until Frosty and I could attack it together.
In order to deflect further temptation, I perched at the scoop’s beachward nadir and began to study the waves. At either end of the C, the two peninsulas would slice off the inrushing water and send it rallying around the banked edge like a racer at Indy, gaining power as the gallons stacked up. The wave would eventually ricochet into a north-south direction, resulting in two small, speedy flows running at each other from opposite ends of the crescent. You’d expect their meeting to be violent, but, being children of the same mother, they didn’t seem all that eager to fight. The clash resulted instead in a lovely three-tier blossoming: the initial splash a tennis net of white straight out to sea; the secondary motion a swelling hesitation, raised up like the spine of a large sea serpent; then the tertiary spending-out, as the twin waves went right through each other and flowered forth in transitory, parallel speed bumps. The ripples fanned out, forming a peninsula of water like the nose of a surfboard, and slipped back to the sea, a tongue withdrawn.
It didn’t take me long to figure that this was precisely what Frosty had done to me. Spat out by the same Silicon Valley, we had taken flight, struck our tracks of sand and somehow ended up racing directly toward each other. We collided, hesitated in a momentary merge, then passed on through. I sat there on a bank of sand, cleansed, ground out, newly polished but largely unchanged, free to slip back to the ocean if I so desired.
An hour later I hunched over clam chowder and a notebook at Gilda’s, listening to a guy playing classical guitar and discussing politics with an elderly lady.
“George? Yeah. Friend of mine knows the family, and he assures me that George is a moron. Certifiable. Oh, this? This is an old Spanish piece, based on a motet by Vittoria. Nice little melody, especially this part right here. I recorded it once with a choir and an organ. Can you imagine?”
I thought I heard someone breathing. When I raised up from my poet’s stance, I found Carlotta peering over my shoulder. Carlotta’s hair was now blonde. Was everybody turning blonde?
“Whatcha writin’?” she asked.
“You’re a poet? I didn’t know you were a poet.”
“I’m not. I haven’t written a poem since college.”
“So what’s the inspiration?” she asked. I had the sneaking suspicion she already knew.
“Just the ocean,” I answered, smiling and evasive.
“Okay, Carlotta. What do you know, and when did you find out?”
“Sandy and Frosty, sittin’ in a tree, F-U-C-K-I…”
“It’s all right. None of our customers know how to spell. Was it good?”
I tried my damnedest to stop it, but one of those sneaky, self-satisfied smiles sprouted across my face.
“Oh yeah,” said Carlotta. “I know that look – absolute… relaxation”
“How did you know?” I asked, feeling a bit overexposed.
“Jeremy was in here yesterday, four different shades of depressed. I asked him why, he told me his suspicions.”
“This town,” I sighed, “has a bored little citizenship.”
“Yes it does,” said Carlotta. “And Frosty’s our only bona-fide eccentric, so we keep close tabs on him. And we’re happy for him when he scores a good piece of womanflesh.”
I grinned. I had a question regarding Frosty’s sordid past, but like a good piece of womanflesh, I held it back. Carlotta cocked her head like a curious puppy.
“I like the new hair,” I said.
“She smiled. “Thanks. Hey – I gotta set up for my shift.”
She turned and trotted off to the kitchen, leaving me staring at my cold chowder and my seventeen lines, thinking, Wow. I’m a poet.
Grieving the Shmoo
I wasn’t completely sure that Frosty would set foot in a place as civilized as the Hotel Bel Canto. So much more the surprise when he arrived fifteen minutes early. I cracked open my door and smiled at him under my still-wet bangs. After two dreary, stormy days without, I was entirely too desperate for him. I knew I had to fight it.
“Frosty!” I said. “Come on in. Have a seat. I’m still about five minutes from perfection.”
“But you don’t under... . never mind.”
He sat on the edge of his chair like a sprinter in the blocks. I abandoned conversation for the roar of the blow-dryer, but I could see him in the mirror, jaw muscles tight as guitar strings.
“It’th jutht goh-jeth out theah,” I said, lisping around my lipstick. “I left the blinds open last night, and this morning the sun just about exploded me out of bed!”
After this bit of declarative puffery, I felt Frosty’s touch at three different places: a hand on either side of my waist, his mouth on my right earlobe.
“You wouldn’t believe what’s going on out there!” he whispered. “Frosted Glass Woman has scattered a full left arm along the rocks. Two kneecaps. A chin and both ears!”
Frosty was now touching me in four places. I wiggled my rump just to make sure it stayed that way.
“Unfortunately,” he continued, “I can’t afford to start anything right now. But do save these items for later.” His fingers sledded my half-moons, sending laser-shots all through my posterior regions – that is, until I registered what he was saying.
“Frosty,” I said, er... frostily. “If you don’t want to hear the song, perhaps you shouldn’t drop your quarter in the slot.” I turned to poke him in the ribs, but found him kneeling at my feet, desperate.
“Please oh please forgive me, Sandy, but there is enough glass out there to supply a Coca-Cola bottling plant and I GOT-ta HAV-va FIX, man!”
He began writhing on the floor, slapping his arm, looking for a vein. How could I not reward such bad acting? I lifted a foot onto his chest.
“I forgive the lowly addict. However, having juiced my oranges so early in the morning, young man, if you expect me to spend the day bending and harvesting like a migrant worker, this evening I expect you to apply that little kielbasa of yours to divine purposes. Got it?”
I didn’t bother waiting for an answer, but charged into the bedroom in search of my jeans. Frosty’s voice rose from the bathroom floor in a Calypso reverb.
“Lohr! What a woo-man!”
Minutes later, Frosty was nudging me to the point of a great rockpile, somewhere near our previous treasure trove. The diggings were so plentiful, in fact, that Frosty had assigned this date its own place on the sacred calendar of Frosted Glass Woman: The Day of Royal Crescents.
In any case, there he was prodding me forward as I dug in my heels like an underfed mule. So sue me – I had become nervous around breakers.
“You must go forward!” he commanded. “You have to go right to the edge or you won’t understand.”
“Understand what? Dampness? Sogginess? Pneumonia? I understand that very well, thankyouverymuch!”
After a few minutes of this pushme-pullyou, my spirit weakened and I edged my way forward, until my toes were fixed upon the crest. Looking down, I found a peacock’s-tail of rocks, possessed of that semi-gloss sheen denoting recent contact with the ocean. A wave bore down on me, curling over the top like a pompadour and landing smack! on the sand. I braced for the shock of cold liquid on my feet, perhaps up to my kneecaps, but then... a funny thing happened. The water struck the rocks and just... died. The pile soaked it up like a sponge. I looked back to find Frosty’s grin.
“Cool, no? Something to do with friction and inertia. The rocks create all these little explosions of water, and they basically kill each other off. And I’ll tell ya, it’s just about the most glorious glass-hunting perch in the world. Same technique as fly-fishing, only now it’s one step down, pick it up, one step back and you’re safe. And then the wave comes in and reshuffles the cards, revealing ever-more gems as you go.”
We spent the day ranging our sun-sated beach, prairie-dogging the royal crescents. Beyond the easy gluttony of it all, I noticed two interesting patterns. First, that in this environment, green was the most unnatural color and thus, easiest to spot. Second, that every fiftieth wave did, in fact, conquer the peak and splash you good. (These were, however, about as subtle as Godzilla, so they were pretty easy to evade.)
At the end of our six-hour traverse, we crowbarred our bodies onto my chocolate-colored rock and observed the unsettling pitch-change of the Whalespout. (I wondered if all those hours of opera were having an effect on my hearing.) We then dumped our respective Zip-Locks all over the surface of Mocha Rock, and piled through them like two kids with a new set of Legos.
“Pick out your favorite,” said Frosty, his eyes flashing.
That was easy. I had been admiring a marshmallow white that resembled the Shmoo – a storybook character from my childhood. I picked it out and placed it in Frosty’s hand. To my great horror, he proceeded to chuck it into the ocean, about halfway to the Whalespout.
“What the... what the fucking fucking fuck did you fucking do that for?” I was mad.
“A sacrifice to Our Lady,” said Frosty, quite seriously. “To keep absolutely everything from a Royal Crescent day would constitute unspeakable greed, and thereby desecrate the great name of Frosted Glass Woman.”
“Well, why the hell didn’t you tell me you were going to do that before... before you did that?”
“If I did, would you have picked out your favorite piece?”
“Of course not! But I also wouldn’t be experiencing this great desire to wring your fucking neck!”
Frosty sorted through his pile and handed me a glassine chocolate bar. I hurled it into the drink with great speed and efficiency.
“There,” he said. “You feel better?”
“Yes,” I said. It was a lie; twenty percent of me was still grieving the Shmoo. “But… how do I know that was your favorite piece?”
“Would I denigrate the sacred name of Frosted Glass Woman by offering less than the best?”
I had always figured these pseudo-religious comments as some kind of subtle, elaborate joke, but their consistency and fervor were getting to me. Before I could raise a question, Frosty pulled a pink stick from his pack and handed it to me.
“Salmon jerky. I’ve got some mango nectar to wash it down.”
After our marathon harvest, I was famished, so not even the powerful fishy smell could drive me away. Frosty, meanwhile, offered the next item on our agenda.
“There’s a trail near the lighthouse that winds down to a little-used cove. The sunlight hits there only in the afternoon – about now, actually. When was the last time you walked a beach in the buff?”
I tried to keep the blood from my face, but the look in Frosty’s eyes told me I was failing.
“Unless you allow for the possibility of previous lives,” I confessed. “Never.”
“Ah!” Frosty barked, wagging a finger. “Today we pitch another taboo into the Pacific!”
“So what was it like?” asked Frosty.
“Well, you know. You were there, too.”
Frosty chuckled. “It wasn’t exactly my first time, darlin’.”
“So, when was your first time?”
“I was nine. My parents were nudie dorkers.”
“Eck-skyuse me?” I said.
“Nudie dorkers. Naturists. One time when I was twelve I was hanging out buck naked in the back yard when the crusty old Serbian guy next door yells out, ‘Hey! Hey you! Nudie dorker! Yes, I see you. Put your clothes back on or I’ll call the cops!’ And I said, ‘Mind your own business or I’ll call the cops on you, you Peeping Tom!’”
“You evidently got your cojones at an early age.” I said.
“And not afraid to show them off, nee-ther. It’s a powerful thing, teaching your kid to be comfortable with his body. So… what was it like?”
“Damn! You are so well-tracked!”
“I’m a choo-choo train, baby!”
I folded my arms and feigned contemplation. “Okay. I’m vi-zhoo-uh-lizing. We’re at the cove, the sun is shining, and I’m unzipping my jeans – Oh! There it is. That classic Puritan American conflict. Utter shame and paranoia, mixed in with a definite sexual buzz. I’m picturing an old Irish pub in my head. Seated at a table in the center of the place are a fat, pinch-faced nun and a hooker with blood-red lipstick and huge tits. The two of them are carrying on this fierce shouting match over the immorality of public nudity.”
“What are they drinking?”
“Ummm, the nun has whiskey, the hooker is working on her third pint of Guinness.”
“Egad!” said Frosty, slapping the table.
“Never mind. I’ll fill you in later. So… what did you feel like afterward?”
“Well, gradually the whole thing became less and less shameful, and, at the same time, less sexual. The nun and the hooker had both gotten sloppy drunk and were staggering around the pub singing ‘Molly Malone.’ A breeze swept across me like a giant paintbrush, left shoulder to right buttock. Then I began to observe the way my body really works – not separate units mapped out by articles of clothing but all one fluid, immaculately designed machine.
“Ten minutes later, an astounding thing happened. I actually forgot that I was nude, just for a moment, forgot all the little flaws I was putting under the glare of daylight. I swept myself around and took in the seacliffs, the battering of the waves, the track of light across the wet sand. This’ll sound just godawful kozmick, but it made me feel very ‘at one’ with it all.
Frosty raised his hands and said, “The Moment of Eden.”
And I thought, Exactly. The momentary erasure of self-knowledge, the return to nature, the raised objection to Yahweh: Hey, ya big moron, you’re the one who made us like this – why should we be ashamed of our bodies?
Frosty smiled knowingly. “I’ve heard of it lots of times, but never really experienced it. I don’t have those fences to jump, I’ll never know that moment of… unexpected victory. It must be like a really good drug.”
“Yeah, that’s exactly what it was,” I said. “And thanks for dragging me into it.”
We huddled next to the fire, finishing off yet another culinary miracle: chicken curry salad, sourdough bread dipped in olive oil, steamed asparagus in a lemon herb sauce. The only flaw was dinnerware. In his eagerness to get to the glass, Frosty had skipped his morning dishwashing, so we ate off Frisbees. After a day like that, I wasn’t about to complain.
I soon discovered the reason behind that “Egad!”
Frosty extracted two, well… frosty glasses from the cooler, planted them next to the lantern, then cracked open two pints of Guinness and poured them. The lines of foam worked their way heavenward, dropping out flocks of maple syrup seagulls till both glasses were black with a half-inch cap of custard-colored foam. My first sip was rewarded with a spreading licorice calm – pot roast in a glass, someone once said. Frosty matched me sigh for sigh. Not a bad time to bring up a long-delayed question.
“Frosty, I don’t want to sound like I’m teasing you, but whenever you mention Frosted Glass Woman I get the funny feeling that you’re serious. Is it some kind of religion?”
Frosty took on a serious expression, scrunching his face until a crease spread across his forehead. He raised his index finger and posed a question.
“In the general progression of ideas and ideals, what is the level of thought directly preceding a religion?”
I took a sip, wiped the foam from my mouth and answered, “I would say… mythology.”
“And mythology is begat by…”
“Yes! And before that?”
“A search for meaning. A need to explain the universe, and one’s place in it.”
Frosty drew a finger down the length of his nose, smiling with my answers. “You’ve thought about this.”
I let out a muted snicker. “Lately, I’ve had to.”
“Good. Now, let me ask you this: do you think it would be possible to invent a religion?”
I considered this carefully. “No. You can certainly invent stories, and rituals. But I think it takes dozens of generations – and the mouths of a million people – before it takes on the shape of mythology. Then you’d have to have a few centuries and some kind of… organizing force to turn it into a religion.”
“Perhaps a well-equipped army?”
“And a well-equipped church,” I said. “With strong, charismatic leaders.”
Frosty looked a bit past me and rapped his knuckles against the table in a random pattern.
“Okay. Let me ask you this. Would it be possible for someone to invent a body of stories with the conscious intent of having them someday evolve into myth and religion?”
I had to let the idea swim a couple of laps through my Guinness. Was there some religifying property inherent in Irish ales? Would this explain the deep Celtic affection for both pagan mythologies and powerful religious traditions? And what the hell was the original question? Oh, yeah…
“Y-y-yes. At least, with that aim in mind. I wouldn’t guarantee the results.”
Frosty eyed me discerningly, took a deep drink, and then, as if talking to himself, announced his decision. “Yes. I think you are ready.”
And then he took off his clothes. I thought this amusing, but before I could deliver a wry comment, Frosty pursed his lips in a hushing gesture. He switched off the lantern, leaving us in leaf-lights of fireglow. He undid one of our nearly-bursting bags of glass, and then began placing them, as precisely as chess pieces, around the fire. Once that was done, he laid out a blanket, sat upon it, and asked me to get naked.
This being early October, I should have been freezing, but the fire, the memory of the afternoon sun and Frosty’s wolf-gaze lifted my blood to the surface. I stood before him as he rose to his knees, cupping my pubis in his hand like a goblet. With this kind of mysterious, ritualized foreplay, I didn’t need much of the real thing, and soon I was crouched over Frosty’s erection, feeling him part my lips and make his way inside.
I began to realize that this coitus was a means to an end – foreplay to mythology. Neither of us was bound to last for long. The branches of the trees flashed through my vision as I trembled into orgasm, the plates of my spine lining up like rivets on a beam. A minute later I recovered my muscles and began my work on Frosty, matching the motions of my hips with the expressions on his face until he, too, was overtaken, his semen painting streaks of heat across my womb.
We stayed that way for a few minutes, panting in counterpoint until our breaths linked up on level ground. Then he pulled out of me, placed me beside him, picked up an old Navajo blanket and wound it around our bodies. He took a glance in the direction of Cassiopeia (the imprisoned queen) and began his story.
Far away, in the birthplace of music and strawberries, there lived a race of beings with skins of glass. Not the brittle, breakable glass of Earth, but a kind of self-contained fluid, a substance that could heal almost immediately after being scratched or punctured. Their organs were made of metals – soft, organic versions of silver, copper and titanium. In order to hide these organs from view, their skin had developed an opaque, frosted appearance, much like Earth glass that has been tumbled in the ocean.
Because of these differences in their physical makeup, these glasslings lived much longer than humans, and were a highly evolved, creative race. Their greatest creativity came from their women, whose powers reached their peak during a psycho-physiological phenomenon known as a “blossomfire.” Considered events of great awe and mystery, blossomfires would begin appearing in glass women at the age of maturity – about a thousand Earth years – and would cease at the age of reverence, around 4,300 years. Blossomfires usually appeared every 200 years, and lasted only a few Earth days – in glassling terms, a very brief period. Occasionally, however, there came a glass woman who carried the capacity for much lengthier blossomfires; one who was able to cultivate heightened powers and ever-expanding levels of creativity.
Just such a being was Frosted Glass Woman, who for purposes of this telling we will call “Sandy.” Sandy’s first blossomfire lasted for three of our weeks. As she matured into young womanhood under the tutelage of a woman of reverence we shall call “Lowiltry,” her blossomfires lengthened into months and years, and her creative ventures grew ever larger and more complex. Her first was a process for distilling the elements of individual personalities into the form of perfumes. Her second was a kind of jewelry that changed shape and color according to the direction, intensity and pattern of a person’s gaze. Another time, she invented a form of music that she called “jazz,” but she had no idea what to do with it.
Nearing an age of 30,000 Earth years, Sandy realized that her powers were coming to a peak. For her next blossomfire, she settled on an unprecedented project: the creation of her own world. Her mentor, Lowiltry, warned against this. A project this expansive would extend Sandy’s blossomfire to dangerous lengths. Those attempting this kind of extension before had fallen into a state the glasslings referred to as “the hardening,” in which the fluid glass of the skin becomes hard and fragile like the glass of Earth. The condition lasted for a thousand years, during which time the victim had to be hung by wires over a bed of snowy egret feathers.
Shortly after this warning, however, Lowiltry was overcome by a sudden illness and began to rapidly deteriorate. At the very start of her student’s Great Blossomfire, she passed away, her elements rising to the sky in banners of copper, silver and white vapor. Spying this sad but lovely vision as she entered her creative trance, Sandy was more determined than ever to achieve her ends, if only as a tribute to her mentor.
Dipping a hand into the glassling world’s still-molten third moon, Sandy drew out a sphere of hot elements and blew it cool with her breath. As the crust began to harden she drew canyons and mountains with her fingers, and then outlined long gouges and wide depressions that she filled with her tears. She plucked out strands of her hair and formed them into trees, plants and seaweed, then molded small bits of the crust into mammals, fish and birds, animating them with drops of perspiration. She also found places for her previous inventions. The perfume she swept into the hearts of a million flowers. The jewelry she deposited just under the surface, where they awaited the wandering gaze, the searching hands. As for jazz, she hid that in the trunk of a tree on the plains of Africa.
Sandy completed her new world just as she felt her Great Blossomfire ending. But her creation was missing something, and she knew that this was something not even she could produce: living spirits, souls, intellects, sparks of self-knowledge. She felt great sadness, for what good was this new world of hers without some form of cognizant being to behold, observe and admire its beauty?
By the time she came to terms with her defeat, it was too late – the hardening had begun. Sandy felt great, sudden terror, not at the physical reality of her petrifying skin, but at the thought of spending year upon year suspended by wires as her creation sat there with no knowledge of its own existence.
Stumbling along on her stiffening limbs, Sandy drew herself down a path behind her home to the top of a great sea cliff. By the time she approached the edge, she could move only her left arm. But this was enough. With painful effort she pulled her green arms and face, her white torso and brown legs alongside the drop. She lifted her blue eyes in a final prayer to Lowiltry, then pushed off as her arm froze into place. Frosted Glass Woman hurtled avenues of air and fell to the rocks, smashing her skin into a million pieces.
Aware of their daughter’s wishes, Sandy’s bereaved parents spent the next three hundred years roaming the shoreline, gathering the pieces of their daughter’s skin and scattering them over her newly created world. As the pieces became more and more difficult to find, and finally disappeared completely, her father became overwhelmed by grief. One morning, in a burst of anger, he picked up his daughter’s world and hurled it into the vast recesses of space. The new world settled into orbit around a small, stable sun, and the pieces of glass took physical form, becoming that which we call women.
To this day, Frosted Glass Man wanders the shorelines of Earth, hoping one day to reassemble Frosted Glass Woman and bring her back to life.
I sat there in a daze, searching for words. But what do you say to a man who has just granted you the power to create worlds? I took the blanket from our bodies, eased Frosty onto the cold earth and placed our green, brown and white jewels along the contours of his body. Then I lay down beside him and cried rivers, lakes and oceans into the recesses of his skin.
A Righteous Slaughter
Two days later, I returned to the Bel Canto. I would have stayed longer, but my clothes were beginning to ripen, and Frosty had another visitor coming in. For a beach hermit, he certainly had a lot of guests. (I swatted the thought away before it made any trouble.)
Before I departed, we spent a nice afternoon of glass-hunting, punctuated with a kiss at Whalespout Rock that was sure to simmer on his lips for a while.
By the time I got to the Bel Canto, I was dragged out, but Jeremy greeted me as if I were Venus, entering on a seashell, holding a Frisbee. His scaly sidekick was nowhere in sight.
“Sandra! It’s good to see you.”
“Nice to see you, Jeremy. Where’s Stinger?”
“At the vet’s. Had a bad encounter with a stray cat last night.”
“Oh no! Is he okay?”
“Few stitches here and there. Snakes are pure muscle. Hard to kill ‘em.”
“What does the cat look like?”
“Ain’t much a boa can do to a cat. Too big and toothy to swallow. I guess most of the damage will be psychological. Oh, not to change the subject, but could we switch you to the Eugene Onegin Suite? We have an Austrian couple in for their honeymoon, and their hearts were set on Rosenkavalier.”
“What’s the Onegin Suite like?”
“Imperial Russian. Dueling pistols, dark lacquer folk art, big ol’ nutcracker on the dresser – used in an actual production at the Bolshoi. And a beautiful canopied bed with royal purple fittings.”
“I’ll take it!”
“Cool. You can move there in the morning – or tonight, if you’d like. Give me a ring if you need help.” Jeremy flashed a winning smile. (I believe he’d given in to my campsite affair, and was determined to be a charming loser.)
“Oh, and Hessie’s here.”
“Really? Where is she?”
“Downstairs at dinner.”
“God, I’d love to see her, but I gotta get cleaned up.”
“You’ve got time. Hessie’s in camp-leader mode – she’ll be down there for hours.”
“Great! Thanks, Jeremy. And give my best to Stinger.”
“He talks about you often.” And again, the Sheraton smile.
I trudged up the stairs thinking, Gee, you get used to that shaved head and Jeremy’s kinda cute... and just who the hell are you kidding, Sandy? He’s just a kid, for God’s sake. Not that the guy you’re hooked up with is any practical choice. The man collects elegant trash on the beach. Couldn’t that create problems later on? Like when you need to pay off a mortgage? Send a kid to college? Oh God, but he does tell a story, and he screws like nobody’s business. And you, dear Sandy, are so overanalyzing this thing that you ought to be charging yourself by the hour.
Sometime during this inner diatribe I showered, did my makeup and picked out my clothes, because suddenly I was stepping into the dining room. I spotted Hessie at the northernmost table, auburn tresses shaking about her shoulders as she turned from one guest to another.
“Sandy!” she cried. “Darling Sandy, my key lime pie, come over here right now and join our game!”
I gave Hessie a hug and whispered, “Crayola boyfriend got you again, huh?”
“At least he stays within the lines.,” she said, and laughed. “Do you like it?”
“It’s fabulous, Hessie. Whatever flavor you come in – fabulous.”
I sat to her right and faced a table full of excited strangers. “Her boyfriend’s a stylist,” I said, to no one in particular.
“We already knew that,” exclaimed a giggly brunette. “It was one of her truths.”
“Two truths and a lie,” said Hessie. “You have to tell two truths and a lie about yourself, and then we get to try and pick out the fib. Here, have some coffee while we finish up with Marjorie. Now, Marjorie, exactly how much wheat do they grow in Madagascar?”
Watching Marjorie’s interrogation, I came up with my stories, but first I made Hessie disqualify herself – too much knowledge. My truths were being on the crew team at Penn (which inspired years of back problems), and the fact that this very week I had collected more than a thousand pieces of frosted glass from Knickerbocker Beach. For my lie, I told them about the summer after high school, when I worked the snack bar on a Washington State ferry – the Seattle-Bremerton line, to be exact. Tragically, I was ensnared by misinformation. Gaetina Carreras, a young Puerto Rican who could’ve come from a multi-ethnic line of Barbie dolls, lived in Tacoma, and swore up and down that the Seattle-Bremerton line had no snack bar. She was patently wrong – I had taken that ferry six months previous during a business trip – but the more I denied it, the worse I looked. Five of my seven jurors nabbed me. The other two went for the crew team, leading me to wonder, just what is so bloody believable about a thousand pieces of frosted glass?
We all had a terrific time lying to each other, and then Hessie talked me into going bowling. We found an ancient set of lanes near the 101 – and immediately I had to wonder about Hessie’s choice, because she was the most godawful bowler I’d ever seen. She would carefully toe the third dot from the right, scurry to the line in six steps, then forfeit all momentum by coming to a dead stop and hurling the ball like a longshoreman tossing a bag of rice.
Hessie did, however, have an angle. She had talked me into one of those kiddie-lanes with inflatable cushions in the gutters. She generally struck the cushion at such an angle that it rebounded to the center of the lane and knocked down a crowd of pins. In fact, in the first game, she managed to beat me.
The second game was a different story, as my childhood rhythms began to return. Daddy was a devoted bowler, and took us to the lanes from a tender age. He figured out early on that I had just enough natural hook to be a cross-lane bowler, so he started me off at the rightmost dot and taught me to lay the ball right beside the gutter. I got pretty good, and developed an odd propensity for “Brooklyns,” strikes to the left side of the one-pin.
Remembering all this, I turned the second game into a righteous slaughter, 163 to 74. I must admit, it felt really good.
We adjourned to the bowling alley’s cheesy bar, equipped with table shuffleboard, fifty-cent pool tables and a national-broadcast trivia game on three screens. Hessie refused to get the little keyboard that plugged you directly into the trivia game, preferring to recite her answers during our conversation.
“Ummm... Tierra del Fuego. So how was your week, honey? Did Frosty come through? Are you feeling well-lubed?”
“Oh yes, Hessie! I have never been so thoroughly fucked in my life.”
She barked a laugh. “Hah! And quite a potty-mouth, too!”
“There’s no other word that quite expresses it, Hessie. You need consonants – loud, rude consonants.”
She pointed at the television. “‘Splish-Splash.’ Bobby Darin.”
“Why do smokers do that?”
“That.” She gestured at a young Springsteen in a motorcycle jacket, whacking a pack of cigarettes against his palm.
“I think it’s supposed to tighten up the tobacco,” I said. “Make ‘em smoke longer.”
Hessie huffed and raised her eyes. “I think they do it to attract attention.” She picked up an empty beer glass and slapped the bottom against her hand. “Got a bra-a-and new box-a cigs here! Yep – brand new! Gonna go outside now, gonna light one up! I know they’re bad for me, but you know – I’m a rebel! Committing suicide now! Lung cancer! Woo-hoo!”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or hide my face. Hessie had no volume control whatsoever.
“Umm, Hessie, I hate to interrupt, but...”
“I know, 1980 Winter Olympics...”
“Nope. Two-time Olympic sites. Los Angeles, too. I think.”
“Sorry. So…. Details?”
“Too many to say. It’s not that he’s a great... technician. But he’s so free with it.”
“And he cooks! God, he cooks like my Aunt Angelica. And how does he manage to dress like that, living out of a car?”
“Adlai Stevenson. So what would you say... was the most memorable thing of all?”
Hessie was hiding a smile, as if she knew the answer already. Was this a trivia question? Was this two truths and a lie? I took a private tour of the last two weeks and landed on the peak.
“He told me this incredible story. Sort of a creation myth.”
“Frosted Glass Woman,” said Hessie.
I looked over her shoulder at a TV screen, a picture of a large cormorant, and tried to do the math in my head.
“You... you know about it?”
“Yes,” said Hessie. “Being a little over-the-hill, I had to piece it together from outside sources, but I’m somewhat familiar with it. He apparently has certain… preparatory rituals I wouldn’t qualify for.”
The air was feeling thin. “So... how often do you... talk with someone Frosty has slept with?”
Hessie had the next trivia answer ready to fly, but she had the decency to swallow it. She gave me a look of concern, and placed a hand on mine.
“Oh, Sandy. I didn’t mean…. “
Oh God, I was crying again. I couldn’t answer or it would all burst out of me, and then I’d have to leave Hirshfield like I’d left San Jose, an exile from my own feelings.
“Oh, Sandy,” said Hessie. “If I had dreamed you would feel this way I wouldn’t have... Oh, shit, I thought it was just recreation, sweetie.”
And then it hit me. The fragments of Frosted Glass Woman’s skin… scattered over the Earth to take the physical form of women. And Frosted Glass Man… wandering the shorelines, harvesting the fragments of Frosted Glass Woman’s skin. I felt so stupid, but I tried to smile.
“What?” said Hessie.
I gestured at the screen. “Ted Williams. 1941.”
“Oh,” said Hessie, as she carefully smiled back.
The Eye of the Goddess
The next morning, we were consuming a late breakfast at Gilda’s. Carlotta, alas, was nowhere in sight. A passel of bourgeois ladies at the next table were conducting a debate about who among the latest crop of pop singers merited the label “diva.”
“Well, what about Melissa Etheridge then?”
“No, no. Melissa’s more of a rocker. For ‘diva-ness,’ you have to have a certain level of showbiz refinement, like...”
“Yes! Or Celine Dion. Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, that type.”
“What about Barbra?”
“Dahling! Barbra invented ‘diva.’”
Hessie could take no more. She made a beeline to their table and, with the approximate tone of an airline stewardess, delivered the following:
“Hi. I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation, and I just wanted to throw in my two cents. ‘Diva’ is a term originally created to describe, literally, goddess-like operatic sopranos. I might add that opera is unimaginably difficult to perform. To compare opera singers to the list of guitar-strummin’, shower-singin’ butt-shakers you have just described is like comparing my eggs Benedict over yonder to an Egg McMuffin. Thank you for your time, and please... have a delightful breakfast.”
Hessie departed as quickly as she had come, leaving a cloud of stunned silence in her wake. Finally, one of the divettes was heard to say, “Well, that was interesting.” They then discussed the latest offering from the Oprah Book Club, “The Tree, the River, the Shrub.”
Sadly, Hessie had to leave right afterward, to Portland and the Rimsky-Korsakoffeehouse – the usual problems with barista turnover. Carlotta arrived a few minutes later, delayed by some ill fortune at the auto shop – but of course she had actual work to do, so I figured I’d best forfeit my table to the lunch crowd. (Besides, my paranoia had grown in the night, and even Carlotta, with her mile-high legs, seemed like a potential rival.)
I spent the rest of the day simmering on full brood, using my vast visualization skills to picture Frosty in various positions with luscious women. This was exactly the kind of thing I never had to worry about with George, and Lord, did I hate it.
I gambled on the beach. I knew full well I might run into them there, but I craved the auditory massage of water hurling itself forward. Under a fog of jealousy, I found myself looking down at the ground with each step, noticing small things in my path. The sand, for one, was light enough that it would gather at the tip of each invading roller, leaving tiny ridges, a linear diary of the tide. Later, I passed a man with a silver beard and jogger’s build, standing over a dead seagull atop a small rise. The man’s expression was strangely vague. I couldn’t tell if he was sad about the seagull, scientifically curious about its demise, waxing philosophical about the life-and-death cycle of nature – what? Typical of a man to be so fucking hard to read.
After an evening of weepy Puccini in the listening room, and a decent night’s sleep, the fog of jealousy had thinned, and I could even carve out peepholes for myself. But I was still feeling guarded. When I met Frosty at noontime, he seemed as distracted as I was. We greeted each other and headed off down the beach with very few words.
The days of royal crescents were gone, our treasure points whittled down to nubs, the rocks reclaimed by the ocean. We passed the afternoon with few discoveries – until we reached that same spot on Hotel Row, where the point remained remarkably intact and populated. Climbing the peak, I found a lovely green bottle-bottom with stitchings along its edge.
“We won’t be giving that to Frosted Glass Woman,” said Frosty.
I answered in a perfectly vague tone. “I am not yet a convert to your religion, Frosty.”
“That’s okay,” he said. “Mine is not an evangelical cult.”
Fuck him and his humor, I thought. Here I was seeking open flesh for the incision, and he wouldn’t cooperate.
All the way back, I followed twenty feet behind, frustrated that he wasn’t responding to my distance. But it did give me time to think – mostly about the previous afternoon’s phone calls. Calling on the boss, I was greeted with the usual blissful assurances.
“Sandy, really. I know it doesn’t seem like it right now, but what you’re doing up there on that beach is far more important than any petty inconvenience on this end. Believe me, I know – if you don’t stay up there till you’re just dying to come back, these conflicts will eat you for lunch on a daily basis.”
What a wonderful man I worked for. And what marvelous lies he told. I got the truth from Shanili, packaged in that wonderful sideways phrasing of hers.
“Mister Conowith is having much trouble, Sandra. The company is very much wanting that he should do something about your... situation, and he is, how would you say? He is like a man on a busy freeway, trying to stop large trucks by throwing pebbles at their tires.”
“Not only that,” she added, a touch of embarrassment in her voice. “I myself... I am missing you very much.”
That last part got me. The thought that someone placed beneath you by the crapshoot of corporate hirings would actually miss you. That Shanili was a prize.
Even so, that was much easier than talking to sister Meg, who listed the many ways my nieces were being tortured by my absence, and made me promise to come home for Thanksgiving. She tormented me further by describing the costumes Maisey and Tanner were wearing for Halloween. They had developed this odd fixation with psychedelic rock, and were going as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.
For dinner, Frosty warmed up some leftover Chinese beef and broccoli. I tried not to consider the other female lips that may have touched it. I held off until the persimmon pudding, when questions began to leap from my mouth with the subtlety of bullfrogs.
“Is this glass-collecting stuff going to go on forever, Frosty? You have to do something... real after this, don’t you? And what are you going to do with all that glass, anyway? Don’t you eventually have to put it to some kind of use? And another thing I’ve been wondering – how the heck do you dress the way you do? Is there a dry cleaner around here, or do you iron your shirts with… stones warmed up by the campfire?”
My onslaught was met by a long silence, after which Frosty turned back from the stove, ladle in hand, and asked me a single, brief question.
“Are you done?”
We exchanged an uncomfortable stare, after which I gave him an even briefer answer.
Frosty, finished, er... frosting my pudding (with praline sauce, damn him), and set it before me.
“A common female technique,” he said. “Never ask the central question. Much better to unleash a cluster-bomb of wholly unrelated questions, in the hopes that the pivotal answer will be flushed from the shrubbery with the rest of the pigeons.”
He placed his hands on the table, attorney-like.
“Now. Would you like me to actually answer all these picky-ass interrogations, or would you prefer to get to the friggin’ point?”
“Okay, Frosty.” I took in an Eskimo breath and set my jaw. “Have you been fucking around?”
“Well, there!” He slapped the table and smiled. “Was that so hard?”
He stood and went to the stove, taking his good time dishing out a saucer of pudding for himself, then returned to the table and began eating.
“You’ll excuse me,” he said. “But I get the feeling I’ll need the strength. Now, tell me this. Without naming names, may I assume that you’ve been warned of my evil ways from someone in town?”
“May I further assume that I’ve been painted as something of a Don Giovanni? Dipping my pen in many inkwells? Leaving young milkmaids sobbing at the altar?”
“In so many words – yes.”
“Okay. In that case, let me begin by describing my actual sexual practices, and I will let you decide what’s what. If it doesn’t meet with your expectations, that’s fine. They are – like most things about me – rather eccentric.
“Now. Living the odd life that I do, I am sorely lacking for what you might call... sustained contact. People come to the beach, they stay a few weeks, they’re gone. I’ve learned to enjoy them while they’re here.
“I also, understandably, am taken to be something of a mystic – although I am uncomfortable with that term. Really, I just do what I need to do to get by. Nonetheless, this ‘mystic’ quality seems to attract a certain type of woman: between forty and fifty years of age, completing or just past her child-bearing years, feeling dispossessed by life and searching for new ways of looking at things. This is what I provide.
“I will not soften this up for you – sex is often part of the bargain. You will have to admit that, when handled with a certain degree of affection and tenderness, sexual intimacy provides a wonderful healing power.”
“Yes,” I said, through gritted teeth.
“Hang with me here, Sandy. I’m almost to the good part. These relationships don’t tend to last, because these women all have lives they need to get back to. Occasionally, however, I do manage to maintain long-distance friendships, and occasionally those friends do return for visits. But each time they leave, I offer the same caution. I am what you might call a serial monogamist. This is not inspired by some profound moral code, but rather from the basic impression that to divide one’s sexual focus is to strip it of all its magic and mutual respect. Besides, you women are hard enough to figure out one at a time.
“So now – to the endgame. These last two visitors were, indeed, women with whom I have slept in the past. But not this time. Because you, dear Sandra, are my current one and only.”
He was getting there, but “My Current One and Only” wasn’t the Broadway musical I had in mind.
“But wasn’t there...” I started, stopped, and then started again. “Besides just being available, and present, at that moment... was there, is there, something special about me?”
Frosty fished a piece of brown glass from his pocket and rubbed it between thumb and forefinger. He aimed it in my direction and answered.
“I generally accept the visitations of women the way I accept the pieces of glass swept into my path by the ocean. It’s a passive existence. Women come to me, needing something; I provide them with bright images and solace. In return, I receive the comfort of female companionship, the pleasures of sex, and a welcome respite from a lonely life. But I never took the trouble to actively pursue them. Until you.”
“Until me?” I said. “I find that hard to believe.”
“The blue piece is one in a million, you know. There’s something about the structure of cobalt glass that causes it to break into very small pieces. You just don’t find them that large and that perfect. I found that piece at the bottom of a cliff one day. I called it the eye of the goddess, carried it with me every day for six months. The moment I saw you, it was no longer mine.”
Shit. He had thrown me to the mat one more time. I am putty, I thought. Modeling clay, molten glass, waiting to be blown into small, cute animals and sold at Disneyland. I fought back the lump in my throat and eked out a question.
“Lights. Inside your head. To the practiced eye, Sandy, your radiant power is as visible as a beacon ten miles out on a clear, dark sea. I had no choice.”
The nerves at the back of my neck were shooting off like fireworks, and the muscles in my limbs went limp. The passion boiled through my body like steam, but it came out unexpectedly. I placed my hands on Frosty’s chest in preparation for the goddess kiss – then thrust my arms forward as hard as they would go. Frosty fell flat on his butt, inches away from the fire. He looked up at me, simultaneously stunned and amused.
“You fucker!” I growled. “You’re not off the hook yet. You told that goddamn gorgeous story to every woman who touched your dick!”
I paced like a caged tiger, trying to understand what it was I was asking, why I was being such a glorious bitch (and enjoying it so much). I aimed a kindergarten teacher’s finger straight at his nose.
“Show me something you haven’t shown a single damned one of them.”
Frosty scrambled to his feet, a look of thrill flashing through his eyes.
He pulled me along the dark road, up to the ranger’s cabin, where we ducked through an ivy-covered gate to a metal shed. Frosty pulled a key from his pocket and undid the padlock, swung the door open and yanked a light-string. My gaze was met by what I would guess to be one hundred white, five-gallon buckets, each of them marked with a large G, B or W.
“My God, Frosty.”
He shuffled to the rear wall and dragged out a single black bucket, placing it at my feet and popping off the lid, one small section at a time. He lifted it with a flourish, exposing five gallons of midnight sky.
I woke up halfway through the night, Frosty’s breath at my shoulder, a full moon poking stars through our macrame ceiling. I rubbed my eyes and tried to recall the dream I had just interrupted, a pair of great horned owls, silver-feathered, on a beach composed entirely of cobalt blue sand.
Snowy Egret Feathers
Sometimes, when I talked to him and he talked to me, I lost track of who was talking. We would begin a conversation as he lit a teepee of kindling, and I’d find myself falling through time like a dying leaf. A minute later I’d feel a chill and find whole logs reduced to embers, the night teetering off toward morning.
I’ve encountered this substance before, when the scent of a magnolia tree strikes me just so, or a burst of night air sweeps in through the car window – or an old jazz tune causes my insides to try and escape my body. It’s not easily describable. If I wanted to try, I’d take you to a broad plateau in a place like Utah, overlooking hills of lager-colored grasses, light up your father’s favorite brand of cigar and whisper an unknown combination of syllables into your ear. Call it “ineffable.” Call it “universality.” That was my steady breakfast, lunch and dinner there on the beaches of Hirshfield, Oregon.
Does anything matter unless it first passes from one person to another? Introspection is fine, even healthy, but it dies inside the body. What often passes for conversation is just introspection turned inside-out: your turn to speak is done, and now it’s my turn. “Discourse,” from the Latin “discursus,” to run about. “Intercourse,” from the Latin “intercursus,” to run between. (Stop that giggling!)
Okay, I’ve gone too far with this. Back to the story.
I found my greatest bliss in October and November of that year, wholly engraved by a man without a real name. Occasionally, when I had time to myself, I realized this was a golden time. Meaning, temporary. And I tried really hard not to think about it.
One day, wandering along a row of shops behind the waterfront, I happened on a gardening store called Carbon’s. There I found some spools of wire – the soft, pliable kind used for fixing floral arrangements. Right next door was a hippy-dippy bead shop called The Venerable Bead. Admiring the African trade beads along the back wall, I stumbled upon a basket full of hemp twine from Hungary.
That night, I appeared at Frosty’s campsite wearing the eye of the goddess around my neck. I had wrapped the wire around its opposing angles and notches, then worked the end into a loop and attached it to a length of twine. When Frosty praised my ingenuity, I pulled out my second necklace.
“The Shmoo!” he cried. “You found the fucking Shmoo!”
“Your goddess returned it to me yesterday,” I said, delighted at his response. “I slipped it into my pocket when you weren’t looking.”
“A resurrected Shmoo,” he said, holding it to the lamplight.
“Roughly equivalent to a rare and lovely blue,” I said.
“It’s gorgeous.” He leaned back to give me a kiss.
“Yes it is,” I said. “And if you ever throw it back in, you’ll be going in soon after. And you won’t be coming back.”
An hour later, roasting those orange marshmallow circus peanuts over the fire (an inspired thought that didn’t pan out in the execution), I felt an itch, and sent it quickly in Frosty’s direction.
“The road. My God, Frosty, how I’m dying to hit the road!”
“Okay,” said Frosty. “Where to?”
It took me a minute, but when the idea arrived, it seemed ridiculously obvious.
I took a couple days to chill out at the hotel. Sleeping under a hatchback can be a little wearing, and it was also starting to get cold, despite the human heat-generator who shared my bed. The first day I spent in the Carmen Suite – which had become my permanent residence, pretty much – and in the listening room, where I indulged a sudden fascination with 20th century composers like Benjamin Britten and Alban Berg. On the second day, I took a long, long walk, ignoring all small, colorful objects. It was overcast but relatively mild, and for some reason there were kids all over the place.
To an adult, a beach is a chance to take a walk, read a book, sleep, get a tan, drink a beer. To a kid, a beach is nothing but a mile-long construction site. Castles, tunnels, tiger pits, driftwood logs planted in the sand like dead trees. This particular day, the vogue was stick and sand etchings: flowers, hearts, romantic linkages, and in one case, a twenty-revolution spiral.
The prizewinner, though, was a series of small ridges built into concentric circles, with a notch at each oceanward nadir, and a shallow tunnel dug out like a driveway toward the breakers. Evidently, water would come up through the notches, swirl around each of the ridges, then run back out to the surf.
This image would have been the first thing I told Frosty the next morning, if it weren’t for the blood dripping from his hand. He cradled it and ran for the campsite faucet, cursing up a storm.
“Jesus H. motherfu… Oh! Hi,” he concluded, rather sheepishly. “Excuse me for not greeting you properly, but apparently this is the morning I have chosen to become an idiot!” He turned the tap and stuck his middle finger under the water.
“What the hell did you do to yourself, Frosty?” I knelt beside him, trying to ignore the Hitchcock streams of red mixing with the water.
“Well, that’s a complicated story,” he said. “Can you hand me that towel?”
I picked it off the clothesline and he pressed it to his finger. Then I went to his car for the first-aid kit. He explained the accident as he applied a Band-Aid.
“The folks who made my Rollerblades went out of business last year, and now I can’t find the right kind of brake – that little block of rubber that screws to the back. So what I do is, I buy the closest size brake I can find, then I carve it down so it fits the slot. Just now, I had the bright idea of holding the brake in my hand and running it up and down a hacksaw blade. I missed.”
A shudder shot through my spine, nearly collapsing me to the ground. Frosty laughed.
“I’m with ya there. I could cut off my own finger for all I care. But let someone else get so much as a paper cut…”
“Ooh!” I cried. “Don’t even say ‘papercut’ – it gives me the willies! Are you going to be okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. The only reason it’s bleeding so much is, it got me right under the fingernail.”
That did it. I fell backward onto the ground and let all that creepy energy flop me around like a landed halibut.
“Ooh! Ooh! Stop! Don’t tell me a thing more!”
“Okay. See – it’s all wrapped up now. Out of sight. The Band-Aid is your friend.” He extended his finger for my inspection, not realizing that he was now flipping me off.
“Well!” I said. “No need to be rude.”
It was warm enough that we could take off the T-top, and I never realized what a spiritual experience that could be. What’s more, Frosty had brought along my all-time favorite breakfast food, cherry, er… frosted Pop-Tarts. After that we lit up a pair of green-skinned East Indian clove cigarettes, feeling very naughty and exotic.
We were anxious to get to Portland before nightfall, so we made only two stops. The first was in Depoe Bay, a little strip of old-style storefronts across from a large seawall. The rocks below contained natural funnels leading to two blowholes; whenever a strong wave came in, it pushed the water up in great geyser-like spouts. They called them the Spouting Horns. I think I got more pleasure from Frosty’s childlike fascination than from the Horns themselves. I had to promise him a bag of salt-water taffy before I could drag him away. Our second stop was at the cheese factory in Tillamook. Frosty wanted the full tour, but I resisted, eager to get to a town with more than three stoplights. We settled on the gift shop, where Frosty bought about a year’s supply of Happy Cow snacks, and a small bag of delicious – though odd looking – cheese curds.
We arrived in Portland an hour before sundown and checked into the Mallory, a great old hotel recommended by Hessie. We dumped our bags and took a quick hike downtown, where the buildings were gloriously tall and sleek. I was beginning to understand the extent of my urban withdrawal. We found a store with Celtic folk art, then stopped to admire an old Presbyterian church. It stood across from a many-fountained park, occupying a strip between two avenues. A trolley squealed by, delighting me with its artificial breeze.
We got back to the hotel around seven, almost losing our way in the darkness, and then took a decidedly inefficient mutual shower. At eight-thirty, we were off to the Koffeehouse. Being a little skittish about city driving, Frosty let me take the wheel. (I noticed there were fewer SUVs in Portland, where they might have some actual use, than in Silicon Valley.) I managed to get us to the East Side, even to the right street, but I forgot the address, so we drove up and down for twenty minutes looking for a sign.
We stopped to ask this homeless-looking guy for directions, but when Frosty rolled down the window we were met by a burst of classical music. I looked past Frosty’s shoulder to find a red Victorian, its wide front window revealing a violinist and pianist, playing to a crowded room. It was then that I recalled an important fact about the Rimsky-Korsakoffeehouse: it had no sign.
Sign or no, the place was packed, about 50 people, most of them teenagers, drinking espresso, listening to Rachmaninoff. I felt like I had wandered into a parallel universe.
We were greeted by a bubbly hostess. “Hi!” she said. “You must be Sandra.”
“Y-yes,” I said, feeling famous.
“Thank goodness! I’m tired of swatting people away from the Brahms table.”
She had a single earring in her left ear, a baker’s dozen in her right, climbing the cartilage all the way around. I was surprised she didn’t keel over. We followed all that silverware to the Brahms table, which didn’t seem all that special. In fact, it was a little low to the ground, a long cherrywood coffee table with a glass cover. Under the glass we found a Brahms collage: a page from the First Symphony, a brief biography, and two portraits – one a photograph, the other a black-and-white sketch.
I excused myself to go to the restroom, noting the tables as I passed: Grieg, Mozart, Liszt, Dvorak, Copland – the usual suspects. I secretly lusted after the Rossini (a much happier soul than Brahms) and was surprised to find my recent discovery, Alban Berg, under a fringed lamp in the far corner.
At the stairway I was greeted by a sprawling, wall-wide collage of women’s faces, clipped from magazines, newspapers and books. I could name Golda Meir, Myrna Loy and Nancy Sinatra, but otherwise I was stumped. The bathroom was another thing completely, walls painted in a deep aquarium blue, fruit-colored fish streaming in and out between the fixtures. When I sat down, I found myself under the manic stare of a tuxedo-clad dummy, perched in a rocking chair cattycorner from the toilet. Was he a musician exiled after a poor performance? Whatever, he gave me the creeps. Avoiding his gaze, I discovered a small pier built into the top of the wall, a young fisherman dipping his line into the water, a phony hundred-dollar bill attached to the hook.
I returned to our table just in time for my Caffe Borgia and a violent mazurka. The teenyboppers began to clap along, so I had to yell to our hostess.
“Honey!” I said (that was her name, Honey). “How did you recognize us so quickly?”
“I told her to look for the most attractive couple she could imagine.” My answer came from Hessie, creeping up behind Frosty with a sly smile and a head of hair that had, amazingly enough, stayed the same color. She had, however, sprouted a large silver stud on her left nostril.
“Hessie! You’ve been pierced!”
“New boyfriend!” she said. “Tattoo parlor.”
I stood to give her a rambunctious hug. It occurred to me that she was the only woman I knew that I would greet this way. Her natural radiance demanded it.
“Hessie!” I said. “This place is so… it’s just…”
“Indescribable? You see why I never gave you the details? You have to see it for yourself.”
I remembered my manners and extended an arm toward Frosty, standing patiently behind me. “Hessie Nygaard, this is Frosty.” He greeted Hessie in the Continental fashion, holding her hand, not shaking it. Lord, he was good.
“I’ve heard innumerable things about you,” he said.
“Oh no!” said Hessie, laughing. “You’re the legend. This is like meeting Rasputin… or the young Elvis Presley.”
“Well!” said Frosty, his big Siberian bellow. “Sit down and I will tell you about the revolution. Or Jerry Lee Lewis, whichever you prefer.”
I hadn’t considered the kind of nuclear fission I was inviting, introducing two such brilliant eccentrics. I sat there for two hours, enraptured, as my companions swatted rhetorical tennis balls at each other, scrambling across a fruit salad of subjects: gourmet vegetarian pizza parlors, Coltrane versus Parker, the fallibility of utopian ideologies in real-life political practice, the calming powers of cedar groves in Washington State, the comparative aesthetic properties of mounts Hood, Rainier and Shasta. I felt drunk just following the conversation, and imagined the room was levitating.
Which it was, in a sense. As my friends began to lose their voices over the hum of violin, piano and chatter, Hessie flashed a Cheshire grin and asked Frosty if he noticed anything different about the Brahms table.
“Well. It’s certainly very… nice,” he said, lamely. “It’s a bit larger than the rest… umm, and the cherrywood is very… nice. Am I getting closer?”
“No,” said Hessie. “The Brahms table is built into a rather deceptive underfloor hydraulic system. Over the past two hours, it has gained precisely twelve inches in height.”
Frosty burst into laughter, drawing attention even in the Rimsky-Korsakoffeehouse. “Damn! Woman, you are a god-damned genius!”
In the afterglow of lovemaking, the lights of Portland performing cakewalks across our windows, I kissed my way along the freckled slope of Frosty’s shoulder and whispered in his ear. “Life… cannot get any better than this.”
“If it did,” he answered. “We would explode into tiny little pieces – and then maybe someone would make a world of us.”
“Amen,” I said, falling back on a pillow stuffed with – I had no doubt – snowy egret feathers.
Pass the Paradox
Our next project was teaching me how to Rollerblade. Watching Frosty cruise in every morning, blissed out from his jaunts to Velasco, had finally gotten to me. I took him to a shop on 101 and demanded he pick me out some wheels. We found a good intermediate pair, comfortable and big-wheeled for long trips, but not so fast that I would lose any limbs. Beyond the kneepads and wrist guards, the primary safety measure was learning how to brake. In order to scrape that rubber heel against the asphalt, you had to slide your right foot forward while angling your toes to the sky. A natural move for your average Hindu dancer, but not for me.
Thanks to a childhood interest in ice skating, I caught on to the rest pretty quickly, and was soon joining Frosty on his morning rides. He was right about the road to Velasco: it was gorgeous, a nature-bound avenue shaded by Douglas fir, cypress and big-leaf maple, the only sign of civilization the occasional seaside motel. It had recently been repaved, affording a surface as smooth as (dare I say it?) frosted glass.
During the course of these trips, Frosty and I learned to cultivate mutual silence. There was something so calming about the side-to-side sweep of the blades, that to break it seemed blasphemous. Besides, talking was difficult, the words flying off in our self-created breeze.
All the more surprise when Frosty interrupted our Saturday morning with a dozen questions about Frosted Glass Woman – and waited until we were cruising rapidly downhill to do it.
“Do you believe in her? Are you an apostle? Would you buy a bumper sticker? Would you vote for Frosted Glass Woman for President?”
“No! I don’t believe in her. Not in the flesh.”
“Do you believe in her story?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you believe in the power of her story? Do you think we would be better people if we took her sacrifice as an example?”
That seemed reasonable, but if he was going to force me to shout out my answers while flying along on three-inch circles of plastic, I was damn well going to make him work for it.
“Would you say that most people, religious or not, would point to Jesus Christ as a fine example of humanity?”
“Sure,” said Frosty.
“Okay. Wouldn’t you agree that a high percentage of people who follow Jesus use it as an excuse to behave like self-righteous assholes? To condemn those who disagree with them to eternal hell? Even slaughter them in Christ’s name?”
“Yes. But whe…”
“So how do you know those who take up Frosted Glass Woman won’t do the same? Inquisitions. Witch-burnings. Jew-killings. The production of phony relics using automated sand tumblers.”
“Whoa!” said Frosty. “You’re talkin’ crazy, now!” After he was done laughing, he took a long time conjuring a response.
“It’s my belief,” he began, “as a student of religion, that Jesus never intended to inspire an organized church. Look at all the time he spent battling the Pharisees and their ticky-tack rules. Incorporation creates bullshit, and I like to think that old Hay-Zeus would have preferred a direct God-to-worshipper phone line.”
“‘Religion,’” I quoted, “‘is spirituality in which the spiritual has been killed. Spirituality doesn’t lend itself to organization.’ Tom Robbins.”
“Hey!” said Frosty. “I’m gonna steal that one. So. Given that Frosted Glass Woman probably had no intent to inspire a spiritual movement – no real artist would – let’s decree that at no time shall her story be exploited for the formation of a hierarchical, tax-exempt bullshit religion, and that to do so shall be considered a crime – nay! a sin – against her very name. Do we have a quorum?”
“Yes!” I shouted.
“All those in favor?”
“Settled!” Frosty clapped his hands together in affirmation. He then restated the original question in the voice of a big-haired Southern gospel preacher. “Now TELL me… Do you BELIEVE… in the POWerrrr… of Frosted Glass WOMAN!”
At that very moment my left blade gobbled up a twig and lurched me forward. Fortunately, I had followed Frosty’s advice about always staying on one blade at a time. I made a rough landing on my right and recovered my balance without having to test my new wrist guards. Frosty slowed down to offer me a hand. Once I regained my breath, I granted him my answer:
He smiled broadly and squeezed my fingers. “Good,” he said. “Then you are ready for Mecca.”
The only thing he would tell me was that it was south of Eureka. I hoped that didn’t mean anywhere near the Bay Area. I dreaded what rush-hour exhaust and flashing lights might do to my soul. We took his Nissan, leaving my nasty SUV in Hirshfield, and spent the night in Gold Beach, at the world’s nicest Motel 6.
The next morning, I still had no idea where exactly we were going, but after we hit Eureka I could imagine our Mecca around each bend in the road. My favorite version was a little hot springs, a crown of rocky bathtub-size pools perched on a clear-water creek headed for the ocean. And two redwoods the size of the Space Needle. So much more the surprise when we crossed a bridge into Fort Bragg, turned right at a Denny’s, and pulled to the roadside across from a drab-looking industrial lot. Getting out, I noticed broken glass along the gravel, imagined it was some sort of teenage drinking spot.
Frosty pulled out a pair of white storage buckets. We took a long asphalt path parallel to a chain link fence, the land beyond guarded by several scarlet-necked vultures. The asphalt gave way to a trail of hard-packed sand, cutting through grass and clumpy shrubs to a narrow beach. The sand was vaguely orange, almost rust-colored, and the beach eventually transformed in to a series of gray-blue rocks extending into the water like beached whales.
Before I could step down the final shelf to the beach, Frosty slipped in front of me and took me by the waist.
“Here’s the deal. For the first half-hour, you are allowed to look, and to pick up individual items, but you are not allowed to put anything in your bucket. This place is way too much of a good thing. Once you’ve adjusted, I’ll take you to where the really good stuff is. Understood?”
“Not at all,” I said.
“In that case,” said Frosty. “Go for it.”
He kissed me on the forehead, like a kid on the first day of kindergarten, and sent me on my way. I proceeded with careful steps, noting the shiny flecks here and there in the odd-colored sand. Then I heard the shout of a child, and looked up to see three or four families near the water, picking through a pile of stones.
But that’s the thing. Those weren’t stones. I made my way ten feet further, then looked down to find I was traversing a kind of pebbly sand composed ENTIRELY OF FROSTED GLASS. A few feet further and the pebbles became stones, two to three inches long, everywhere. Holy shit. My legs began to undergo “the hardening,” too overwhelmed by abundance to make a move.
It’s easy to understand my reaction. Our daily hunts had trained me to react to frosted glass the same way a shortstop reacts to a ground ball: see it, pick it up; see it, pick it up. After a while, the conscious mind takes a sabbatical and leaves the muscles to do the job all on their own. See it, pick it up, hundreds of times a day.
So just imagine you’re standing at shortstop one day, and they hit you one hundred and twenty-three ground balls, all at once. You think you’re gonna catch a single one? No fucking way.
I stood there a full minute, trying to think myself into motion. Ah – Frosty’s instructions. No collecting. I took a first step and walked on in singular amazement, stopping occasionally to swipe a foot through the layers and thrill to the spark of green, brown and white. A minute later, Frosty came and handed me a piece of white with little numerals embossed in the surface – an old milk bottle.
“I think… that if you had you tried to describe this place to me… I still wouldn’t have had the slightest idea.”
“Much like the Rimsky-Korsakoffeehouse,” he said. “Follow me.”
He led me uphill to a small cliff overlooking a triptych of craggy formations.
“This is the junk section,” he said. “I generally avoid it. Check out those nasty-looking towers there and you’ll see some scaly-looking strata, a few pieces of metal, the occasional tire – even, if you know where to look, a full-blown kitchen appliance.”
He pointed to the far side, where an old kitchen stove dangled from the seawall.
“A dump!” I said.
“Yes. Long time ago, the rocket scientists of Fort Bragg decided to set up a dump right next to the ocean. The Pacific chewed right through it, pulling out all the glass and washing it back on shore all smooth and shiny. Later on, they evidently cleaned up the place (I hope) and reopened it as Glass Beach.”
We continued down the path, which ended at a small bluff overlooking a crescent-shaped beach. It was about two hundred feet long, covered stem to stern with white glass.
“I call it Crystal Cove,” said Frosty. “This is where you find the real humdingers. Watch your step!”
We slid down a stretch of loose dirt, then wiggled through a rocky notch to a boulder. Frosty invited me to take the lead. I launched myself. When I landed, my feet disappeared beneath the glass. I immediately sprawled on my back, waving my arms and scattering the chunks with a flurry of clicks.
Frosty landed over me in a push-up, caging me in a house of limbs. He rolled to one side and unsheathed a grin that threatened to crack his face.
“Isn’t this fucking incredible?”
I nodded in agreement.
“Okay,” he said. “I’m releasing you from your bondage. But keep this in mind. You have to set your standards extremely high or you’ll go nuts. Nothing goes in the bucket unless it’s extraordinary. Got it?”
I took my bucket and wandered off, leaning down to inspect the occasional standout. Frosty seemed content to sit and watch. His gaze settled on my shoulder blades, warming me as I knelt down at the far cliffs.
I began to notice things. The least interesting of the primary colors was green, which was also the scarcest. The best you could find was when the water had taken a thick bottle-bottom and worn it down to the shape of a natural pebble.
The browns were more interesting. The best were ancient pieces that had been gouged and gnarled until they resembled bits of tree root, so thick and dark that you had to raise them to the sun to make sure they were actually glass.
The rare and lovely blue was more available, but just as fragile. The largest was still less than one-third the size of the goddess-eye.
Oddly, the most intriguing color was the most common: white. Sheer numbers and antique thickness created a world of variations, and a pleasing heft. One piece looked like a railroad spike curved like a banana. Another was shaped like a section of orange; still another was curled around in a pencil-thin spiral. The milk bottles offered dates, company names, art deco ornaments, even an occasional pastoral scene. I was studying one with a log cabin under a many-rayed sun when Frosty ran a hand along my arm.
“Ready for a break?”
“Sure.” I looked up and found I was having a hard time controlling my eyes. Frosty’s face refused to come into focus.
“Ah,” he said. “Glassblind. Don’t worry. You’ll be seeing a little funny the rest of the day. It’ll be okay tomorrow.”
“That’s good to know,” I said, feeling drugged.
He pulled a bag out of his pack. “Here. I brought some mozzarella, and some ginger beer. Eat, and I will…”
“Tell me a story?”
“Hmmm… I’m getting predictable.”
“How could Glass Beach not have a story? Is it Frosted Glass Woman?”
“Frosted Glass Women,” he said.
I chewed saucily on my cheese stick. “Any preparatory rituals?”
“No,” he chuckled. “Piling through half the world’s supply of frosted glass is ritual enough. Here we go…”
In the earliest times of the Earth, when the second moon still hung in the sky like a purple marble, when the salmon were seven feet long and smiled, the frosted glass women had reached an impasse. Though they had been scattered about the planet, it took them only a matter of decades to follow their natural bond to the western edge of what we call North America. This reunion brought feelings of peacefulness and joy, but soon they began to take each for granted, began to pull apart in small but damaging ways.
The first division came along the lines of color. The whites disliked the browns, the browns (who preferred to be called “ambers”) detested the greens, and the blues, being the rarest and loveliest, took great pains to despise everybody. The second divisions came along the lines of anatomy, when one of the greens found a way to divine each woman’s origin on the sacrificed body of Frosted Glass Woman. This was fine if you were found to be a kneecap, a forearm or chin, but not so good if you were an armpit, or the space between two toes. The insults were not subtle.
Fortunately, none of this bickering led to physical violence. With their quick-healing skin, violence was useless, and they were destined to live as long as their glassling progenitors.
This was, however, a deceptive assurance. Unlike all the other creatures on Earth, the glass women had but a single gender, with no alternative means of procreation. They seemed to be doomed to a certain, albeit far-off, extinction.
The most brilliant of the glass women came from the tip of Frosted Glass Woman’s left index finger. We will call her Sandrina. This was no surprise, since the tip of the creator goddess’s strong-side hand contained more dexterity and muscle intelligence than any other spot on her body.
Sandrina’s entire being coursed with creative impulses, and she found many ways for expressing it. Once a week the glass women would gather in their crescent-shaped cove to build bonfires and watch Sandrina perform. She would begin by weaving a fanciful tale – often the adventures of Frosted Glass Woman on their legendary birth planet. Then she’d perform an intricate, graceful dance while singing in gorgeous, high-pitched tones. Her songs would strike the skins of her listeners and create wonderfully pleasing, empathetic vibrations. It was a sign of her talent and popularity that glass women of all colors would congregate for these performances, forgetting – for at least a while – their petty bigotries.
Sandrina did, however, have a dark, moody side. This was just as much her birthright as her creativity, for the tip of the index finger contains an enormous number of nerve endings – more, in fact, than any other part of the body… except perhaps the clitoris. (Embarkayada, who descended from that part, would begin to giggle uncontrollably if you got within ten feet of her.)
Being so sensitive is no guarantor of moodiness, but in this case it wasn’t so much the sensor as the thing being sensed. With every square inch of skin, Sandrina could feel the eventual death of the sisterhood. She spent long hours on a rock, facing the ocean, attempting to find a solution in the fabled powers of blossomfire.
Sandrina carried yet another dark secret, one that she could never manage to translate to her sisters. It was a painful sense of incompletion, a feeling that, despite their small differences, there was a sameness to the glass women that made their young world bland and stultifying. Without some other brand of intelligence, vastly different from their own, they had no way of seeing themselves from the outside. She envisioned this force as the rock against which they might strike their flints - a happy conflict generating light and heat.
During her lengthy vigils, Sandrina became intrigued by the life of the ocean before her, thrilling at the spouts of far-away whales, black dolphins hurling themselves into the air, pelicans taking their fierce dives at the water. She developed a special fondness for sea lions, whose rough-sounding barks and groans always seemed very close to speaking. Her favorite was a large male with a wide face and long gray whiskers. He arrived every day at the same time – late in the afternoon, a half-hour after Sandrina took up her meditations – and never tired of entertaining her by tumbling haphazardly through the water, bursting through the surface to bark and slap his fins together. These antics never failed to bring Sandrina out of her funks, at least temporarily, and soon she returned his kindness, bringing him colorful balls to play with, throwing him strips of salmon (which the sisters had learned to cure with smoke), and singing to him in her beautiful high-pitched tones. He was most fond of her singing, and would listen to her for long stretches, motionless in the water, his snout pointed in her direction. When she finished, he would splash the water with his fins and let out a series of merry barks. To Sandrina, his barks sounded like “Bort,” so that’s what she called him.
Over the course of the next year, Bort seemed like the only relief in Sandrina’s life. The glass women were more devoted than ever to her evening performances – and more oblivious of their underlying messages, returning to their colorist, anatomist ways the moment they set foot outside the cove. Sandrina, meanwhile, felt no closer to the powers of blossomfire than the day she had started. The darkest day of all was when the rare and lovely blues announced they were moving far away to the mountains. Though the rest of the women pretended that nothing would please them more, they knew in their heart of hearts that the loss of these few would leave a terrible cobalt void in their collective identity.
Upon hearing the news, Sandrina fled to her promontory in a panic. She knew that, for her people, this could be the end of everything. She stood there for hours, consumed by fits of sobbing, ignoring a gathering storm. She stayed even as the rain began to fall, as the wind grew more and more violent, as darkness fell over the coastline.
It was at her darkest, most fragile moment – the time when, oddly enough, she felt closer than ever to her goddess mother – that Sandrina heard a deep wooden sound from the waves, and found Bort pounding his flippers against the swirling waters. Despite the depth of her troubles, she found herself overcome by laughter.
As her laughter subsided, Sandrina experienced a wave of emotion deeper than any she had ever felt. She thought that it might even be the blossomfire, a sphere of orange warmth emanating from the cradle of her hips, rising to a spot just beneath her eyes. As she grew accustomed to it, she heard Bort again – only now she could trace the patterns of his barking, and she realized that he was singing to her! His brown baritone filled her ears, sank through the center of her body and joined with the blossomfire in a lovely sienna-colored fire. The message was too clear to miss. She could no longer stand the separation of rock and water between them. She rose to the edge of the promontory, smiled to the dark, cloud-swallowed sky and pushed off, flying into the turbulent waters.
Frosted glass women had nothing to fear from water – their skin enabled them to float remarkably well. Still, the tossing of the waves caused Sandrina much consternation. She could also see that she was in danger of being hurled against the rocks. It wouldn’t be fatal, but it wouldn’t be pleasant, either.
She felt something tickling the back of her neck, and turned to find Bort, whiskers playfully extended. Sandrina kissed him on the cheek, and was surprised to find that his coat, which looked so rubbery and smooth, was covered with coarse, sharp hairs that scratched her face. Bort wrapped a flipper around her waist and pulled her gently beneath the surface.
The next morning, Sandrina awoke on the crescent-shaped beach, just at the edge of the now-calm water. She thought she heard a high-pitched song – like the ones she had sung for her sisters – and stood to find the source. Instead, she heard a sound like the crackling of a fire, and found her skin breaking off in chunks all around her.
Passing a finger over her belly, she found that her body was covered with a new kind of skin, rubbery like Bort’s but without the coarse hair. She watched the sky brightening in a yellow line over the mountains, and knew that she had never felt so alive.
Sandrina’s new appearance horrified her sisters. But they cared for her nonetheless, and trusted that her stomach’s odd swelling would bring something fortuitous and critical to their existence. They were even more unnerved by the violence of her labor, and by the strange red and pink fluids that emanated from her body. But, when they lifted the strange new creature from her belly, with its one tiny flipper at the junction of its legs, they understood that life on the young planet would never be the same.
Once she had recovered, Sandrina told her sisters about the storm, the sienna fire, and Bort. The sisters saw it as nothing less than the long-rumored blossomfire, and descended on the promontory to dive into the surf and seek out sea lions for themselves. The next morning, they awoke in the crescent-shaped cove, rose to their feet and let their old skins crackle from their bodies. And that is how Glass Beach came to be.
Frosty signaled the end of the story with a self-amused chuckle, flitting his eyes toward the darkening waves of Crystal Cove. I could no longer hold in my own blossomfire, so I made my confession.
“I love you, Frosty.”
His answer was typical sea lion. “Wow… You do?”
I flashed on the old Sinatra song “…saying something stupid like…” but was snapped out of it by Frosty’s boyish grin. I guess that was answer enough.
“Come on,” he said. “Grab a bucket of mortality and I’ll buy you dinner.”
We jaunted over to a microbrewery across the street, where we salved our tired backs with the strongest double bocks they could bring us. Their menu revealed a selection worthy of the Cordon Bleu. I consumed a mouth-warming seafood jambalaya, while Frosty oohed and ahhed his way through a venison steak with walnut dressing. Halfway through God’s own crème brulee, I had a thought.
“Wouldn’t you rather say, ‘bucket of immortality’?”
“Why?” asked Frosty.
“Sandrina gave up her glass skin so that an entire species might live – thereby guaranteeing the immortality of her genes.”
Frosty stabbed a crème-coiffed fork in my direction. “Yes, you’re right. And so am I. Please pass the paradox.”
I waved down the waiter instead and ordered another double bock. All praise to the Goddess!
Perfect White Isosceles Skirt
On the way home, my synapses were firing on all cylinders. I fidgeted in my seat, unable to nap or read or just watch the scenery. When I took my turn at the wheel, it was worse. And those Oregon road signs! They greet you at the California border with the exact number of miles to Washington, and they count down every single friggin’ digit like they’re in some kind of hurry to get you out of the state.
I had an inkling as to what this feeling was: the Perfection Point Excess Syndrome. Let me explain.
Your average female brain tracks a relationship using two measures: the Expectations Quotient and the Fulfillment Factor. These numbers rarely meet – the average female being phenomenally adroit at raising expectations even as previous expectations are met. Occasionally, however, there occurs the equivalent of a romantic ambush. The male demonstrates a flash of psychology, writes a love poem that neither sucks nor rhymes, or creates a chicken casserole that is actually edible. This can result in the dreaded Perfection Point, causing the Vulnerability Index to go right through the roof.
The most effective strategy for avoiding a Perfection Point is a Relationship Conference, generally introduced by the words, “Honey, let’s talk about us.” This disorients the male, sapping essential energy from more important functions like fucking, video games and televised sporting events. The male thus becomes irritated, retaliates by pulling back on his previously gracious behavior, and Voila! The vital gap between Expectation and Fulfillment is restored.
The real danger comes when the Fulfillment Factor is allowed to exceed the Expectations Quotient, a phenomenon known as the Perfection Point Excess Syndrome. This generally occurs when a female with a critically low Expectations Quotient – say, a 39-year-old marketing director fleeing the detritus of an aborted five-year love affair – meets up with a guerilla romantic – say, an overdressed beachcomber with a rodeo butt and Dostoyevsky laugh. If this is followed by unexpected displays of wonderfulness – say, incredibly touching mythologies about women with skins of glass – she’s in for a shitload of trouble. The Fulfillment Factor obliterates the Expectations Quotient, completely undoing whatever powers of logic remain. Thrown so completely out of her orbit, the woman reverts to the only defense she has left: sabotage, immediate and devastating.
At Florence, the sun ducked under the marine layer and threw out a stripe of burnt sienna – the very hue of blossomfire. The Vulnerability Index pressed against an artery in my brain, sparking a laser-tight headache. I was going to have to think of something before I imploded all over the upholstery.
“Frosty, honey, um… I’m going to pull over at the next rest stop, okay?”
My peripheral vision picked up Frosty’s left hand invading my air-space, poised for a neck rub. I grabbed his wrist mid-flight, just above the console.
“Could you, um… Frosty? Could you do me a big favor and see how far it is to Hirshfield?”
“I think it’s about fifty…”
“Frosty.” (Whoops. Voice getting stern. Settle down, settle down.) “I can’t explain this to you right now, but I really need an exact number. Could you?”
A cloud of puzzlement passed over his face. “Yeah. Sure.” He found a map of Oregon in the glove box and ran his finger along 101. Good. I’m gonna make it. Three minutes later, the rest stop arrow never looked so good. I pulled in, squealed the tires to the curb and got out, trying with all my might not to look back at that concerned expression. I pushed on the perfect white isosceles skirt of the women’s room symbol and entered my haven.
I took three steps and burst into a flaming spiral of Navy-barracks cussing. God it felt good! I turned on the faucets and hand dryers to cover myself, but they were all on timers and I soon tired of jogging laps trying to keep them going. I took my foul mouth to the handicapped stall, flushed the toilet, sat down and rubbed my eyes with great fervor. I began my therapy with a traditional Hebrew chant.
“Oh my God. Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.”
My head began to bob back and forth like an autistic child, and I felt the onset of a good old-fashioned weeping. My marketing brain (fixed firmly between skullduggery and hypnosis) began scribbling out first drafts of plausible excuses for leaking mascara and bloodshot eyes. Meanwhile, the rest of my mind lay itself down on a couch and conducted a self-analysis, like one of those cartoons where Bugs Bunny plays both sides of a tennis match.
“Vhat zeems to be zee trubbell?” I asked.
“Skip the accent,” I answered.
“Okay. So what’s bugging you?”
“You know very well what’s bugging me. He’s the most incredible man I’ve ever met, and now I’ve gone and said something… dumb like ‘I love you’ and I’m getting all these fucking idiotic ideas like marrying and moving into a campsite and having little glass children.”
“Why are these ideas necessarily idiotic?”
“The man spends his working hours hunting garbage on a beach! Does that sound like husband-father material?”
“Well, maybe he’ll change once you…”
“Oh no. Stop right there! I’ve been down that highway before, sister, and it ain’t exactly a diamond lane, if you know what I mean. Nah-ah. This is the Goodwill Store of life – as is, no fucking warranties. It was getting so great. Why did he have to exceed the Perfection Point?”
“The Perfection Point?”
“Well, yes, you see, that’s when the Fulfillment Factor exceeds the… Wait a minute! You know exactly what I mean!”
“Sorry. Time’s up. I’ll see you next week, and meantime you’d best get your sorry butt back to the car. Stop by Marketing on your way out and pick up a barely plausible excuse.”
I went to the sink and washed out every bit of loose makeup – better natural than sloppy – then walked to the car, counting my steps. Twenty-two, twenty-three, okay, he’s going to ask if anything’s the matter, thirty-one, thirty-two, so be ready, thirty-five...”
“Are you okay?”
“Oh, I’m fine. Probably my face, huh. You know, sometimes I get these weird allergic reactions to bathroom cleansers. My eyes were watering so much I had to wash them out.” Now… switch! “Frosty? Could you take over? I’m feeling a little tired.”
Frosty was quiet and understanding, God damn him, and seemed content to drive the rest of the way, scanning the radio for country and western stations. I tipped back my seat and pretended to sleep. To my great surprise, I nodded off somewhere around Yachats.
“Honey? Sandy? Did you want the hotel tonight?”
“Mmmyeeaah,” I said, stretching. I was feeling unexpectedly affectionate. I played with Frosty’s shift-hand the last ten minutes home, and gave him a most grateful goodnight kiss. I suppose my dream state had canceled out my terrorist impulse. I watched him drive off, then dragged myself up to the Carmen Suite, where I found my raging bull (recently christened as Deniro) with a single red rose clenched between his teeth. Eleven more stood in books atop the dresser, angled my way like the guns in a firing squad. No card.
When it came to interrogations, Jeremy was a lost cause. His everyday demeanor carried all the sincerity of a Las Vegas car dealer, so any response he gave seemed like a lie. (“Jeremy, is that stop sign red?” “Well… certainly it is!”) When I asked him about the roses, he said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Strike one.
I got pretty much the same from Hessie, who was nonetheless intrigued by the possibilities. Her guess was Frosty, but I had already ruled him out. It wasn’t like him to let a dozen roses go two or three days without water. Before we could discuss it further, Hessie dragged me along on some errands. She took Highway 20 into the mountains, to a pile of scraps near a construction site. A nearby sign read FREE WOOD. We spent the next hour tossing two-by-fours and sheets of plywood into the bed of her pickup.
“I’m almost afraid to ask, Hessie…”
“No need to fear, honeykins. We’re having a bonfire.”
“Any special reason?”
“It’s a Tuesday,” she said. “We’ve got free wood, and you and I are members of a fire-loving species.”
I pulled an awkward discus throw on a small plank and relished the fleshy thwack! when it landed.
“Ya know, Hessie? I like the way your mind operates.”
Between the Mystery of the Roses and the still-lurking Perfection Point Excess, I hadn’t bothered arranging my next meeting with Frosty. I guess I wasn’t surprised when he arrived at the bonfire – he and Hessie were now bosom buddies. We were standing guard twenty feet from the Knickerbocker Beach parking lot, our fire licking the sky with a seven-foot tangerine tongue, when I spotted a form down the beach and recognized its rangy cowboy stride. I was surprised to find two other forms as well, a stout woman with gray-blonde hair tucked into a blue bandana, and a medium-sized man with a shock of straight silver, a broad Irish nose and a black leather suitcoat jacket.
Frosty greeted us with a grin.
“Hi honey!” he said to both of us. “Hope you don’t mind – brought the folks. Hessie, Sandy, this is my mom, Magdalena, and my dad, Jerry.”
You could’ve knocked me over with a stalk of vermicelli. It would have been easier to accept the appearance of Frosted Glass Woman herself than two such normal-looking people claiming to be Frosty’s parents.
There were cordial greetings all around, then they spent the next hour telling stories of their summer trip to the Canadian Rockies. Like lots of retired folk, they spent a lot of time in their RV. I was just biding my time till I could get some dirt on their son. Magdalena was sort of a dead end, tight-lipped on personal matters, but Jerry was downright gabby. My subsequent opening could not have been better choreographed by Balanchine. Hessie and Magdalena drifted to the subject of gardening – a mutual obsession – and headed off for a nighttime tour of the Bel Canto’s English courtyard. Frosty stood on the far side of the fire, swapping jokes with Carlotta, whom he had apparently never met before. Fighting back little bug-bites of jealousy, I attempted to steer the conversation with his father.
“When I left the job with McDonnell-Douglas ten, twelve years ago, Maggie and I really thought Sedona was the sticks – which was exactly what we wanted. Five years later, it seemed like every goddamned yuppie in America had a sweatshirt with the name of our town on it.”
I shared a guilty laugh, picturing that exact garment atop my hotel dresser. Then I went for the abrupt apropos-of-nothing.
“Forgive me for putting it this way, Jerry, but don’t you find your son’s current occupation a bit… unorthodox?”
Jerry unleashed a chocolate baritone laugh, not quite as Godalmighty as his son’s. He tugged at the collar of his turtleneck, as if it were one size too small.
“We have always found our son to be a bit odd, Sandy – because he is – but we have also learned that he has a… let me see, a sense for things. It’s never a good idea to bet against him. When he started fooling with those second-hand computer parts I brought home, we figured it was just a harmless hobby. Like Lincoln Logs. If you asked us about our preferences, we would have picked one of the more standard careers: doctor, lawyer, engineering like me. But if you saw the look in that kid’s eye the first time he made one of those parts actually do something – oh! Utter fascination. Well, like me, you would’ve just shut your damn mouth and let him alone.
“But then came the predictions. ‘Dad, one day there will be millions of homes with small computers in them, and they will all be hooked together through phone lines. People will do their banking and shopping and letter-writing through them, and some people… some people won’t even go into work anymore, they’ll just stay home and send it in to the office.’
“And monkeys will soar from my bee-hind, I thought. But I didn’t say anything. You know why? Cause he had that same look in his eye. So I trusted him – and damned if he wasn’t right about the whole package. He and his buddies in Silicon Valley made lots of trips to the bank, if you catch my drift.
“So now, I don’t know. He’s looking for glass on a beach. Sure it’s odd. I certainly don’t understand it. But just wait a little while, and don’t say anything, and somehow that David of mine will make it all come out okay.”
My eyes flashed. Jerry immediately saw his mistake.
“Oh shit! I’m in for it now.” He put a hand to his mouth and whispered, “He’s got a thing about the name.”
A half-hour later, Frosty broke off his tete-a-tete with Carlotta (about time!) and interrupted us, taking me by the elbow.
“Excuse me, Dad, I have something of a personal nature I’d like to discuss with Sandy.”
His dad’s laughter should have been warning enough. Frosty walked me to the edge of the firelight, dropped me into a tango-dip and kissed me for a lengthy period of time. I just couldn’t help my reaction.
Frosty lifted his face in mock anger. “Zat bassturd! He hass betrayed me!” He pulled me to my feet. “So. Are you surprised?”
“Normal parents? Happy family? That my eccentric lifestyle was in no way inspired by childhood beatings, or being dressed up as a little girl?”
I smiled and let my face fall against his, tracing my nose against his cheek. “Tell you the truth? Yes.”
“Well, there you go. I like my parents, and they like me. I know it’s freakish behavior, but you’re just gonna have to deal with it. Why don’t you come over for lunch tomorrow? My mom’s making deviled eggs.”
“I’ll be there,” I whispered. I felt the aphrodisiac rush of a man whose mother makes him deviled eggs, whose father believes in him. The Perfection Point had officially been obliterated. Had I been able to ditch the family and friends I would have ripped off his clothes right there and done that boy to a fine froth. Oh my.
A Long-Ago Planet Named Orpheus
Frosty’s parents stayed for another week. Through a consistent application of amiability I managed to break through Magdalena’s armor, causing her to leak a few embarrassing stories from her son’s childhood. One of them involved climbing bare nekkid to the roof of the carport at the tender age of two.
Mom and Pop soon headed south to the warmer climes of Huntington Beach (home of cousin Dixie), returning us to our couple’s paradise. If anything, thanks to Frosty’s solid, lovely family, my affections had grown deeper. (Alas, a peek at Jerry’s signature – after a meal at Gilda’s – failed to reveal their last name, as his penmanship was atrocious.)
This heightened feeling of union came with an unexpected by-product. Watching all these warm-blooded attachments made me long for my own family – most especially, my darling nieces. Lost in our little campsite hideaway, I managed to dodge the Christmas carols and Yuletide commercials, but December was getting old and my heart was pointing south. Then my sister phoned me at the hotel to pour on the guilt. (Perhaps the surrendering cry of “Uncle!” should be “Aunt!”) But how was I supposed to tell Frosty?
As if I weren’t being scrambled enough, the machinations of the cosmos had brought the moon closer to both the sun and Earth than it would be for another 133 years. It was due to turn full on the solstice. One immediate result was the lowest low tide I’d ever seen, turning Knickerbocker Beach into a junior Sahara and wiping any frosted glass clean off the slate.
Our afternoon hunts became useless meanders. At the peak of our boredom, we caught sight of a festival in the beach parking lot. After traversing the seemingly endless sand, we entered the Hirshfield Solstice Arts Festival, filled with all manner of benign wackiness. In this corner, a slim man in his late twenties juggling five white Frisbees, flicking one of them high into the air as he kept the others going. And here, a chunky man in his fifties performing dizzy revolutions on a skateboard. Lastly, a surly-looking septuagenarian keeping watch over a series of finely balanced stone piles, awaiting questions from his public.
The retail art was the usual collection of well-crafted dreck: ceramic sea otters and dolphins, color photos of inoffensive seascapes, kooky clocks framed by cartoon kitties. The exceptions were a woman who made wind chimes from antique silverware and a guy who assembled mosaics from cheesy collector plates (the same, in fact, who made the tables in Gilda’s).
The real find was the Hirshfield Art Center, which featured many-spangled creations from their glass-blowers, and a fascinating group project. They had decorated two thousand Japanese net floats (round glass bubbles that occasionally drifted all the way across the Pacific), and were going to spend New Year’s Day setting them afloat ten miles out to sea. Whatever came ashore was finders-keepers, no questions asked.
We got a basket of fried calamari and made our way back to the beach. As we neared the lighthouse, we found that the cliffs, which generally jutted into the sea, now sported a ten-foot collar of open sand! We took it, one wary eye to the water, and strolled around to our nudie-dorker cove.
We settled at the base of a caramel-colored boulder, my head on Frosty’s chest as he played with my hair. I watched the sun drifting behind the clouds, filtering a montage of salmons, roses and pinks through the overcast. This seemed like a good moment.
“I have something to tell you.”
“I know. You’ve been telegraphing.”
I curled sideways to watch his eyes. “Then…”
“You’re leaving. It’s Christmas. You have family.”
“Then… what do you… Oh shit, I don’t know – what do you think?”
Frosty nudged me out of his lap and stood, walking into the wake of sun.
“Sorry. If you want the truth from me, I have to be at least this far away. I have bad feelings about this. I’m really afraid that you have this terminal attraction to the city – the noise, the masses of people, the sense that things that happen there are more important. I saw it when we went to Portland.”
I tried to raise an objection. He stopped me with a look.
“I just want you to know that I will wait for you. But not forever. And you need to remember this: life and happiness are not constructed of popular opinion, or the achievements of corporations, or the gathering of money and approval. Happiness is a product you invent every day according to your own solitary definitions. This probably sounds strange, but…”
Frosty’s voice was shaking. He turned and stomped toward the cliffs, raising protests to an unseen goddess.
“Dammit! What’m I supposed to do? Fuck!”
I couldn’t bear not touching him. I raced across the sand and wrapped my arms around his chest. I was surprised to find him quaking, to feel a tear splash my wrist. He continued cursing under his breath, a pulse of consonants against my ribs. Looking over his shoulder I found a slice of light peering over the cliffs, the brightest moon in my lifetime.
“I read an article about the moon,” I said. “This new theory that a long-ago planet named Orpheus drifted into Earth’s gravity and collided with it. The impact was tremendous. Some of what used to be Orpheus became part of the Earth, while parts of both planets were sprayed into Earth’s orbit. The pieces eventually gathered together to form the moon.
“I may be going, Frosty, but I’m leaving a large piece of myself here.”
Frosty turned to me, tears streaking his face.
“Okay,” he said. “But you’re also taking part of me with you. So do well by me, dammit, because I want that piece back.”
I kissed his cheek, the tang of salt on my lips. “I will. I promise.”
I got to Meg’s house on Christmas Eve, and we ran off to Capitola Village to buy last-minute presents for the girls. In a way, I sort of enjoyed the challenge.
Maisey’s present was easy. In that way that adolescents have of embracing just about anything so long as it befuddles their parents, Maisey’s generation went all the way back to swing jazz. Maisey was deeply into it, had even signed up for a dance class. I didn’t trust those pimply-faced zoot bands on MTV, so I began a covert campaign I called The Program of the Three Louies. Her birthday had brought Louis Prima, this Christmas it would be Louis Jordan, and perhaps on Valentine’s Day I would deliver the capper, Louis Armstrong.
If Maisey’s mom tried any of this, she would be handed insincere thank yous and deadly eye-rolls. I, on the other hand, was Aunt Sandy, and anything I did was considered tremendously cool – especially when it was anything but. Teenagers may be a plague to their parents, but to bachelor aunts they are pecan pralines, the long-awaited payback for years of wedding gifts and baby showers.
At eleven, Tanner had not yet abandoned the Barbie-lovin’ girly phase. For her, I found a clamshell of pinks and whites, buffed to a pearly shine, trimmed with gold plate and fixed with a latch so it could serve as a change purse. I threw a twenty inside for good measure.
We conducted the gift exchange as early as the grownups could stand it. I received a navy blue sweater from Meg and a glittered-up musical-note necklace from Tanner. Maisey (who, thanks to a lot of babysitting, was enjoying her first self-financed Christmas) gave me a pendulum that swung in wacky, wayward patterns, thanks to movable magnets, both repellent and attracting, fixed to a metal base. An hour later, we were joined by Kathy, a nice masseuse who lived down the block. Meg fixed us omelets with curry and artichoke hearts, then we trotted down to the beach so the girls could try out some of their new toys.
The beach was dazzling and sunny; it’s no wonder the rest of the country hates us. After wearing out our bare feet on Tanner’s new soccer ball and heading for the parking lot to watch Maisey perform 360s on her new Rollerblades (an activity which had already cost her two broken bones the year before), we convinced the girls to take a long walk down the beach. A storm had kicked up smatterings of rocks, and I delighted in demonstrating my new skill at finding pieces of glass. Tanner started a decidedly goofy game of Follow the Leader, full of Broadway kicks and dizzy-making spins. We lasted a good ten minutes before the adults gave in to self-consciousness.
After dinner, the girls went downstairs to watch “Holiday Inn” (Maisey had a thing for Bing Crosby that went way beyond hip), and Kathy returned to her house to make some long-distance phone calls. Meg and I adjourned to the front balcony with mugs of coffee touched up with Bushmill’s. Meg stood at the railing, marveling at the intensity of the stars, then settled herself at the table and nailed me with a question.
“What’s going on with you, sis? You seem kinda… loose in the limbs.”
“Try going two months without working.”
“Hah! Not with my bills. But there is definitely something else. You love your job – there is no way you would stay away this long unless… Is it a guy?”
If the interrogation didn’t get me, I knew Meg’s dark eyes would melt me like butter on a sidewalk. So I ‘fessed up.
“You got me. It’s a guy.”
“Ooh! Does he have a name?”
Meg cocked her head like a curious poodle. “Are you making fun of me?”
“No, really. Frosty.”
“You’re dating a snowman.”
“No! It’s kind of a… nickname.”
“You’re an attractive, intelligent woman, sis. You don’t need to resort to these sick wintertime fantasies – lumps of coal, glowing red noses, long carrots…”
“Stop!” I cried. “No more, puh-leeze!”
I decided I was just going to have to tell her the whole friggin’ thing. About a half-hour later, she may have felt sorry for asking. But she was intrigued.
“Wow, Sandy. You’re in deep.”
“Yes I am.”
“So what happens to the career? Are you givin’ it up for this guy? Watch out, big sis. That’s how little sis got into this fix.”
“Living four blocks from the Pacific, with two adorable girls?”
“You know it’s not that simple.”
“I know. But wasn’t it worth it?”
Meg hid behind her mug and gave the question a good mulling over. “Yeah. Even though Franklin turned into such a mighty morphin’ dickweed – I sure like the kids we made.”
“Well, in any case,” I said. “I’m not leaping off any high-dives. I’m meeting with my boss Monday, and then maybe I’ll have some ideas. I’ve thought about making some sort of consulting arrangement so I could move to Oregon – telecommuting, occasional plane trips.”
“As long as those trips include visits with your nieces.”
“Always making a pitch, aren’t you?”
“We love you, and we don’t particularly enjoy it when you disappear for months at a time.”
“Well, don’t you worry. I’ll give you the full run-down Monday night. And you know Maisey and Tanner are high on my list.”
Tanner took just that moment to burst onto the balcony, singing “Boh-boh-boh-boh” in the Crosby manner, and attach herself firmly to my right shoulder (her nickname is “Barnacle,” and she rarely fails to live up to it).
“Aunt Sandy, you wanna play some cards?”
“Oh, no. I’m not falling for that again.” I appealed to her mother. “The little buggers like to explain the rules as we go – but never until I’ve worked myself into a deep hole.”
“Oh!” Meg agreed. “They’re terrible cheats!”
“Tell ya what, Barnacle. Go pick out a board game – and not Monopoly, ‘cause I’d like to get home by New Year’s – and the four of us will play it. Aunt Sandy, however, will hold the rules in her grubby little paws, and enforce a strict code of conduct. No hurrying the other players, no moving the other players’ pieces, and especially no un-asked-for advice. You got all that?”
Tanner composed her face into an expression of utter innocence. “Okay. I’ll get Maisey!”
She ripped around the corner, and her mother lent a smile. “If you get those two little shysters all the way through a civilized board game, I will personally nominate you for the Nobel Peace Prize.”
I was really enjoying being in the city again, although it could be I was getting an inaccurate picture, the traffic nicely spread out by the holidays. It was also a pleasure to wake up at my home in Willow Glen, my orchids still alive thanks to sisterly waterings, the morning light filtering through my antique windows to nudge me awake. The sunny weather, in fact, seemed to be permanent; when I arrived in Mountain View to meet with McNeal, the mica in the sidewalks was sparkling like diamonds.
I got to the bookstore early. The café was built on a loft overlooking the store, and I thought a few minutes of people-watching would ease my mind. Apparently, I wasn’t alone.
“That’s so funny!” said McNeal, landing at my table with a shot of espresso. “I thought I was the only one who did that.” He ran a hand over his hair, one of those close-cropped Caesar cuts. Maybe it was just in comparison to his years of post-divorce haggardness, but McNeal looked really good, dressed in blue jeans and a crisp white golf shirt. Owing to a smattering of Greek blood, McNeal was blessed with aerodynamic features – sleek, long curves, not a straight line anywhere – and a big, shy smile that seemed to come out of nowhere.
“You look so healthy, McNeal! What have you been up to?”
“Tennis, mostly. I made the mistake of watching Wimbledon, and I got myself hooked. Brian Stevens – in product development? – we play every Sunday, and we’re so evenly matched we run each other bloody ragged. You look pretty great yourself, Sandy. Almost as if you had spent three months on a beach somewhere.”
“I am so relaxed it scares me.” (I was determined to be pleasantly vague; not even for my corporate savior would I lower the glass wall.) “Living in earshot of the ocean is like a round-the-clock sonic massage; the sound is a lot like breathing. God, I’m getting poetic!”
“Expected.” McNeal unleashed that shy smile then consciously erased it. I wasn’t ready for any serious pronouncements, so I kept talking.
“I did want to thank you for single-handedly saving my tuckus. And don’t even deny it, because Shanili gave me the whole scoop. I just hope they haven’t been loading too much of my work on you.”
McNeal spread his hands on the tabletop. I hadn’t realized how large they were. He gazed at them thoughtfully.
“Sandy, after all the tuckus-covering that was done on my behalf a couple years ago, I owed it to the balance of the universe to expend that same energy for someone else. To tell you the truth, it felt really damn good. Did you know, after my wife decided to become my ex-wife, that I tried to become an alcoholic?”
My boundary alarm went off. I countered with a bemused, neutralizing chuckle in McNeal’s direction. Unfortunately, he took that as a cue to go on.
“My plan was to buy a six-pack of beer every night, and drink it before I went to sleep. It seemed like the logical reaction to a guerilla divorce. But I had the wrong physiology for the job. I would fall asleep before the fourth beer, wake up three or four times a night to pee, and all that grain gave me terrible heartburn – not to mention causing me to fart non-stop. The old open-door policy was not just a matter of worker relations – it was a necessity!”
I was trying really, really hard to hold on to my façade, but how could anyone not laugh at that?
“What I realized, in the end,” he continued, “is that I possess not one addictive bone in my body. So I gave up, and that depressed me even more – because now, in addition to being a failed husband, I was a failed alcoholic!”
I tried my well-rehearsed business-laugh, used in many a staff meeting, and kept it up longer than the story deserved. I almost didn’t notice when McNeal’s expression returned to serious.
“What?” I said. “What’s the matter?”
He wiped a hand down the side of his face. “I tried real hard, Sandy, but I’m afraid it’s a lost cause.”
“You mean… me? The company?”
“It was all I could do to hold them off till after the holidays. Unless you come back full-time by January 15, they’re going to cut you loose.”
I bought myself a little time by watching a little Japanese boy outside the front door, looking up in awe at a life-size cutout of Ernest Hemingway. On the verge of being dumped yet again, I realized how much I loved that damn job, how it constantly prodded me and left my brain humming like an engine after a long drive. And here I was, all or nothing, a handsome guru silently lobbying for my vote one state to the north. The Japanese boy was gone now, and I suppose McNeal expected a response.
“I would guess then,” I said, “that this doesn’t leave me much in the way of negotiating?”
“You mean consulting? Share-timing? Telecommuting?”
“Yes. Consulting, actually.”
McNeal put a hand over his mouth, figuring, blue eyes shifting back and forth. “Is this just… pardon me for asking, but is this more in the mode of additional… recovery time, or is there something else going on?”
Oh, man. I was going to have to show my cards, and honesty right now was about as appealing as sleeping in a dumpster. Oh. McNeal just said something.
“I’m sorry. What was that?”
“Oh. I said, please don’t take this as self-righteousness, but the company is bound to be more forgiving of someone going through a messy divorce than someone breaking up with a long-time boyfriend. There’s just, you know, there’s more on paper.”
“Sure,” I said. I was just going to have to spill it.
“McNeal, this is going to sound odd, but…”
“Personally, I’d prefer it if you just quit.”
“Better yet, just hold out until they work up the nerve to fire you.”
What the holy everliving fuck was he talking about? McNeal leaned over the table and let loose that big, shy smile.
“Sandy, can you keep a secret?”
That’s how I found myself at McNeal’s house in Los Altos Hills, a sprawling Frank Lloyd Wright number with slate walkways, foyer fountain and a Chinese gong for a doorbell. It sat in horsey country, right next to Interstate 280, and served as a kind of Home for Wayward Executives – another recent divorcee lived there too, plus an engineer too geeky to get married in the first place (like I should talk). We climbed a set of wide hardwood steps to a surprisingly modest bedroom. McNeal booted up his computer while I gave the place a cursory scan: a blue and gray Navajo rug over the bed, a gorgeous metal sculpture on the dresser (two bars rising to a cluster of spikes), and a picture of him and a compadre on mountain bikes, covered head to toe in mud.
“Okay, here it is. Check this out.”
I sat before the monitor, which displayed – in a letterbox image – the wide front lawn of Stanford University.
“It’s a 360-degree image,” said McNeal. “Just click the mouse on either end to scan.”
I clicked to the right and coasted to the front entrance, rough sandstone buildings with a set of steps rising to a plaza. McNeal took the mouse and shifted us back to the parking lot.
“Just wanted to show you my car,” he said. “Right over there, next to the blue pickup. Now, shift back to the front steps and move around till the arrow turns into a set of red crosshairs.”
I aimed at the steps and the mark appeared.
“Okay, now double-click on that.”
My click conjured a brand-new photo, taken from the front steps. Going one direction I could look back at the lawn; going the other I could see the triple arches marking the passage to the courtyard. Under the center arch I found another set of crosshairs and clicked.
Now I was in the courtyard, just in front of Memorial Church, surrounded on all sides by Richardsonian Romanesque archways. Cruising to the right I found a jovial-looking Asian man and his college-age son, both of them peering into the son’s shopping bag. I got the magnifier from the on-screen toolbox and tried to zoom in on the bag, but before I got close the image pixeled out to a four-square of white and gray blocks.
“Sorry,” said McNeal. “It’s not especially high-definition right now. But you get the idea, right? It’s a search engine for the physical world.”
“So, for instance,” I said. “Potential students could take a tour of Stanford without even leaving their rooms.”
“You know, that’s funny,” said McNeal. “I’ve been so obsessed with the technical side that I hadn’t even thought of that. Yes! That’s a natural. But even more, Sandy. Our plan is to photographically document every square inch of a particular region, then to sell the service, on a subscription, per-use, or advertising-supported basis, to companies or individuals that could make use of it. Think of real estate. An out-of-town buyer could check out an available house, then take a walk around the neighborhood, check out the local schools, see where the 7-11 is. Or a travel agency. Considering a trip to New Orleans? Jump on this and check out the French Quarter for yourself!”
“You could hot-link it to a map engine,” I said. “That way, they could download street directions, then go to your site for visual landmarks.”
“Exactly! This is why I need you, Sandy. I’m leaving the company in two months to start this up. I’ve got a tech team and $10 million worth of investors. All I need is to put together a prospectus, and you are the perfect person to do it. And then, to head up the marketing department. I’ve got three photographers on a pilot program, which should be ready in two months. It’s a great opportunity, Sandy. What do you think?”
I was feeling a little… flooded. “I… I don’t know… I’m so…”
“No, listen. I don’t want to rush you. You’ve got other… stuff going on. But why not just do the prospectus? It would be a month, two tops, and afterwards you’d have a better idea about the marketing job. Don’t even give me an answer just now. Tell you what, let’s go eat. I know a great Cajun place in Palo Alto.”
The phone rang in the dining room. McNeal shot down the stairs to answer it. I went back to the computer and tried to figure out what that Asian kid had in his bag.
Naked Vice Presidents
One of those days, I was walking with Maisey and Tanner down the beach, and Tanner broke into a burst of giggles. I touched the top of her mouse-brown head and asked, “What is it, sillygirl?”
“Look at that dopey dog!” she exclaimed. She pointed fifty feet landward, where a young couple rested beneath a rise of sand. On top of the rise, their chocolate Labrador was digging a hole, completely enveloped in the joy of his effort. He scooped the sand like a center hiking footballs, working his way down till there was nothing left of him but a wagging tail.
That was me, so wrapped up in the rush of my actions that I didn’t understand their relative unimportance. Lord knows, my distractions were compelling. McNeal’s product had absolutely no pre-existing market; the challenge of it sent a 24-hour rattle and hum through my business bones. It also kept me at work till late at night, and I stationed an electronic notepad on my nightstand, just in case some new idea should arrive in my dreams.
But it wasn’t just the challenge; it was the product. The physical world search engine was, even beyond its functional uses, a mesmerizing gizmo, possessing the addicting qualities of a good video game or (so I’ve heard) Internet porn. About once a week, McNeal would bring me a new photo-tour and I would cancel everything else on my agenda, bouncing along his cyberchrome streets like a ping-pong ball. Later, while standing on the actual, physical streets, I felt disoriented, wondering where all the familiar faces had gone, why the sun was on the wrong side of the sky.
One of my favorites was downtown Palo Alto, a natural sequel to the Stanford pilot. Like any urban setting, downtown PA was filled with all kinds of goofy oddities. I liked to pretend that these photographs were, in fact, ultra-realistic paintings, that even the most arcane detail carried some sort of conscious intent. My job? Interpret them for posterity.
In one photo, taken at the intersection of Ramona and University, you can look past the marquee of the Stanford Theater (an Astaire-Rogers double-bill) and find a young black man in dreadlocks, his figure neatly bisected by the corner of the building. He wears a dazzling African shirt of orange and brown stripes. His one visible eye carries a look of intense concentration, the muscles of his neck tense with effort. His left hand is flung back in a throwing motion, but the projectile is lost in the blur of his hand, his intended target blocked by the building. The rest of the story, then, is entirely up to the viewer. Is he chucking a pebble at a road sign? Playfully tossing his gum at a friend? Pitching a wadded-up sheet of paper to his little brother, who stands on the sidewalk with a cardboard tube for a bat? Or perhaps he’s hurling a pocketknife at a squad of ninjas who have chased him all the way from Redwood City? You see how far this goes.
There seemed to be at least one of these cryptic figures in each and every shot. I scanned them for hours, fishing for mythologies. (There was this one elderly woman walking her Shi-Tzu on Forest and High, dressed in a long pink coat and a despondent look. I’d give anything to ask her what was concerning her at that exact moment, what she was thinking as she heard a faint click and saw a man with a strange-looking camera.)
With this level of enthusiasm, I naturally wrote a superb prospectus. The subsequent meeting with our venture capitalists brought us enough cash to set a release date for the following February. McNeal’s immediate goals were to set up a statewide pilot program, due for demo capability on July 15, and to sign me up as Vice President of Marketing.
The name of the company was Panosys. I thought it sounded a little too much like Penises, but I did appreciate the etymology: “Pan” connoting both the panning motion of the camera and the Latin root for all-inclusiveness, and “sys” for systems. Whatever, everybody seemed to like it.
My next assignment was to come up with a job description for the VP position, which was primarily…
You couldn’t give a rat’s ass about any of this, could you? You want to know what I was doing about Frosty. Actually, you probably want to strangle me.
Frosty being such an elusive character, we made some creative arrangements regarding correspondence. I would write a letter once a week and send it to Jeremy, who would hold it for him at the Bel Canto. I sent three. I was about to mail the fourth, some time in early January, when I decided to wait till I could give him a better idea of when I would return. I never sent it.
Instead, I tunneled into a mound of marketing strategies and digital imagery that seemed all too real. Then I took a few brief moments to enjoy the fruits of my labor, planted my paws at the bottom of the hole, and did what came naturally – all the way to China, wagging my tail so the passers-by would know I was happy.
McNeal left his job in late January, and once he got his sizable claws into Panosys, things began to happen quickly. Our tech team was going full-bore, and I had the surreal pleasure of stealing Shanili from my old company. By the end of April we had begun the patent process, filed our service mark registration application, secured our domain name, and filed all the necessary licenses and DBAs. McNeal thought it was time for a party.
But not just any party. McNeal confided in me that he’d blown his final paycheck on the thing. The bachelor mansionette was loaded up with enough catered goodies for six Italian weddings, kegs of ale from six different microbreweries, a deadly rum punch whipped up by his housemate Isidra, and a sheet cake about a yard square, iced with a map of Silicon Valley. He had also rented out ten PCs so his guests could try out the photo-tours.
About two hours in, as the house began to fill up, a blues band called the eDawgs cranked up from the dining room. When they started into “Hey Bartender,” McNeal pulled me onto the dance floor. He’s no Arthur Murray graduate, but he did have a knack for taking me into spins, telegraphing his moves with his long fingers. For a girl of my generation, a guy who can lead at all is priceless.
I didn’t mind, either, when we stayed around for the slow song, “Angel from Montgomery.” He held me like a gentleman, one arm around my waist, the other cupping my fingers like a good poker hand. Despite my best efforts, I was feeling charmed.
“Are you enjoying yourself, marketing goddess?”
“God am I. Whoever knew a bunch of geeks could have so much fun?”
“The fun is just starting,” he said. “Once our guests drift off to Interstate 280, my vice presidents and I are going to get butt nekkid, jump into the hot tub, smoke large cigars from countries that produce excellent shortstops, and sip from huge snifters of brandy. Care to join us?”
“I like just about every part of that, but do I really want to get naked in front of the executive committee?”
“Consider it a team-building thing.”
“Easy for you. You can hide all your goodies under the water.”
“Well, don’t say I’m not a thoughtful man. I sent Shanili out yesterday to get you a bathing suit. I also asked her to join us so you won’t feel like the only tuna in a tankful of sharks.”
I had to smile. “Aren’t you the thoughtful one?”
“For those who deserve the thought, yes. Speaking of, I hope you enjoyed the roses.”
“Yeah. I was up in Eugene on business, so I drove over to Hirshfield to look you up. You were off on some road trip, so I had to leave the flowers with your pet bull. That kid with the snake was much too easily bought off. If he had so much as looked at me cross-eyed, I’da slipped him another twenty.”
“Jeremy! I knew it. But… well, I hate to be picky, McNeal, but why didn’t you leave a card?”
McNeal cocked his head to one side, looking off toward the band, then let loose that shy smile. “I don’t know. I guess it seemed beside the point.”
He took me into a slow spin, then braced his front leg and lowered me into a dip.
“To let you know that someone cared about you.”
He brought me back up, and we stopped to listen to the end of the song. The drummer lifted a backing harmony, suspended it like a bird on a wire, then slipped it back by steps to resolve at a comfortable third (my afternoons in the Bel Canto listening room had paid off).
“Well… thanks,” I said, and breathed.
“I gotta go,” McNeal said. “Papken Der Torossian has not been properly buttered up. I know we have his money already, but it never hurts.” He walked away, shooting his words with a thumb-and-finger pistol.
“Brandy… cigars… nude men…”
The rest of the party was fairly unremarkable. A couple of cops showed up, but just to get somebody’s car out of the neighbor’s driveway. I suppose hot-tubbing with five naked vice presidents was nothing ordinary, but it was actually quite civilized. I was roundly scandalized, however, when Shanili shucked her clothes as casually as Huck Finn at the swimming hole. The VP’s were a little cowed, as well, not having noticed before how busty my assistant truly was. My obvious discomfort caused her to burst out laughing.
“Oh do not look at me like that, Sandra Lowiltry. If you had not noticed this thing before, yours is one of the few cultures in which public bathing is considered anything more than what it is. There is no trouble to be skinny-dipping with friends, is there?”
The other cause of discomfort was McNeal, whose bod was a bit more appealing than I had imagined. His chest was covered by a smattering of fine, dark hair, and his pecs kept flexing every time he made a gesture or passed a cigar. I worked hard not to look like I was trying to get a peek under the water (which I was, of course), finding some helpful distraction in a sky absolutely packed with stars. The hill next to the house cut out most of the light pollution, making it easy to spot my favorite constellation, Canis Major, a tall-torsoed doggie nipping at Orion’s heels.
Once the executive council had dried off and said goodnight, McNeal and I conducted a preliminary cleanup, roaming around in bathrobes, picking up enough half-empty cups to hydrate the entire Boston Marathon. I was just about done with the dining room when I happened on a piece of art that I’d noticed several times before. It was a series of concentric hardwood slabs, edges cut with the shapes of jigsaw puzzle-pieces. The outer ring was trimmed in a band of gold paint. I was about to ask McNeal about it when he appeared at my shoulder.
“That one was a real bitch. I was never very good with a jigsaw. At the time, however, I was determined to throw myself into the biggest challenge I could find. Whatever gave me the most trouble – that’s what I wanted. I had to be incredibly careful. One bad stroke, one false move, and I’d cut through a knot and the whole thing would be…”
He wasn’t looking at the sculpture anymore but a mile past it, some far-off ridgetop where an owl coasted the pines like a feathered eclipse. McNeal swallowed and kept on, his words unnaturally clear and precise.
“I made this when I got back from Alaska, after… Rochelle. I had to re-train my mind. I had to find something else, something close-up, something to focus my energies. I’ve thought about doing a bronze cast someday, but I haven’t really…”
This time he stopped because of me, the way I was looking at him. I placed a hand on either lapel of his red bathrobe and climbed my way to his dear, sad face, chanting, “McNeal… Would you…? Would you…?”
The overriding tone of my relationship with McNeal was normality – which isn’t such a bad thing to shoot for. We spent our office time suppressing displays of affection, then on weekends blew the self-control out of our systems with lots of sex and highly typical yuppie excursions: trips to the wine country, kayaking in Monterey, hiking in Yosemite, boogie-boarding at Stinson Beach.
We worked very hard – the norm for a start-up – but, much to our benefit, not always together. I was off creating product identities and marketing strategies, while McNeal handled product development. The separation was distinct enough to keep things fresh between us. I planted some “hers” toiletries at the House of Three Bachelors, and often woke up to a Saturday sun poking through the window above McNeal’s desk, or the insistent kitty-biscuit pawing of Balzac, a gray long-hair McNeal had rescued from the adjacent canyon.
I suppose the normality was so entrenched that it was bound to be knocked awry by small, subtle changes. There were two of them, and they arrived in early July, our third month together.
The first was professional. The marketing person can only get so far ahead of the actual product before she ends up, essentially, marketing air. So, as the tech team continued to grind away at the physical world search engine, I was left to tread water. Although I found myself feeling guilty about not “doing my part,” I realized that my time for martyrdom – specifically, the product release campaign – would come soon enough. With this in mind, as well as the desirability of keeping my slothful self out of view, I returned to the world of seminars, venturing to La Jolla, Las Vegas and Fresno to feed at the troughs of various marketing gurus. I also used these as opportunities to mentor Shanili, who was cranking out her MBA at a professional night school (plus, come on, how can you go to Vegas without a girlfriend?).
McNeal, meanwhile, had his nose so hard to the grindstone that he would soon be, well… noseless. He would come home exhausted and grumpy, and not especially pleased by the sight of his well-rested girlfriend. He knew the reasons for the disparity, but nevertheless fell prey to fits of snippiness. The worst was the night after Shanili and I had gone to a photo exhibit in San Rafael. I’ll admit that the connection between Panosys and desert-landscape nudes was sketchy, but it was McNeal’s project, after all, that had sparked my interest in the medium. We traded curt little pseudo-barbs all evening until I just up and left. We made up two mornings later when he showed up at my door with lox and bagels, but the damage was done.
The second change was medical. Just after the Fourth of July, I began to develop strange red splotches on my right calf. At first, I thought it was poison oak– from a backwoods hike at a picnic near Salinas. But then my calf began to ache as well as itch. Turns out I had phlebitis, an inflammation of the veins. It’s a pretty mild ailment, but you have to be careful, because the causational blood clot can travel up to the heart or lungs and wreak all sorts of havoc. The doc gave me some anticoagulants, and also suggested I stop taking birth control pills. He added that “for a woman of my age” (now there’s a term you could learn to hate), getting off The Pill was a good idea, anyway, as it could cause hormone problems in the years to come.
He also told me to avoid strenuous exercise until the splotches disappeared. That was when I realized how many of our weekends depended on just that -- physicality. McNeal seemed wholly disinterested in any activity that didn’t offer some sort of competitive challenge, some test of stamina. Faced with a girlfriend who needed to stay home and keep her legs elevated, McNeal would take off with the boys for long days of rock-climbing, mountain-biking or the ever-popular tennis match.
I found this level of inflexibility completely unattractive. Would you enjoy driving a car with only one gear? During my long afternoons of forced leisure, I came across a story about the “workification” of daily life in Silicon Valley, and found it distressingly to the point. On wine-tasting trips, McNeal would always bring his Palm Pilot and take notes on bulk pricing, growing seasons and alcohol content, as if he intended to start a chain of liquor stores. On hiking trips, he would spend his first half-hour scanning the trail map for the toughest route, then attack it like an Olympian, arms pumping, not seeming to care whether his girlfriend was ten feet behind or three miles back with a pulled hamstring. (He dismissed beach walks entirely, pronouncing them flat, dull, and unchallenging.)
This tendency also turned up in our sex life. McNeal is one of those “desensitized” guys – a common trait among our circumcised American boys – and once I was off The Pill he had a hard time adjusting to condoms. You would think a woman would like nothing more than a man who takes a while to ejaculate, but at times our lovemaking resembled a torturous aerobic workout. I would offer to release McNeal Junior from his latex confines and bring him off in other ways, but McNeal Senior possessed an inordinate alpha-male fondness for “finishing the job.” And that’s how my body became one more battlefield for McNeal Conowith, wrestler of dark angels. I made an appointment to get an IUD.
My final grievance was McNeal’s obsession with his physical world search engine. That sounds funny coming from me, the grown woman who would cruise his photo-worlds into the wee small hours of the morning. But McNeal was constantly mulling over the finer points of the project with me, and I began to cherish those moments when I could get him off the subject. His ideas were intriguing the first time around – say, his decision to establish franchises to maintain certain geographical regions of the system – but he’d repeat them constantly, more interested in polishing his concepts than in being an entertaining companion for (ahem!) yours truly.
Believe it or not, I would still consider these complaints to be trivial, were it not for the unsettling events of the Thursday after Labor Day. That was when I ran into George during a bagel-run to Lincoln Avenue. You can hardly run into an old friend without arranging a session of catch-up, which is how I found myself at La Sangria Restaurant, having the living frijoles bored out of me.
I once believed that, if you ever had the red-hots for someone, you would still feel that buzz in your stomach, that over-awareness of your breathing, even if you saw them many years down the line. Half an hour later, you would recall what a schmuck he was, and that terrible thing he did to your cat, and thank God that you’d managed to escape. But still, at first, you would feel the buzz.
From George, I felt an immense quantity of nothing. George was the same, his life was the same. I won’t recount the details - because I, unlike some people on this planet, have a little signal that goes off in my brain when I realize that I’m boring the living shit out of somebody. I spent the rest of the day sitting in my office, staring into the parking lot, wondering if I would continue to pick male companions for their external niceties, ignoring the murky, enigmatic chemicals that cause real, saline affinities.
I met McNeal that night and made him a shrimp casserole. He spent two hours talking about the franchising plan.
The next day, I needed a nice, slow walk down a beach. They certainly didn’t need me at the office, so I called Shanili, asked her to come up with an appropriate fib, then climbed into my Mitsubishi and headed for the ocean.
My sister’s beach would have been too tame, so I hopped on 84 through the rolling coastal farmlands of the Peninsula to San Gregorio. The beach’s southern stretch was narrow and isolated, dead-ending at a rocky point buried by waves. In order to get there, I had to remove my socks and shoes and splash through a shallow creek.
The waves on the exposed San Mateo coastline are nothing you’d want to mess with, rolling in three or four to a pack with a constant, invigorating thunder. They also leave piles of driftwood, plenty of raw material for sculptures, lean-tos, benches and forts.
I came upon one of the latter just across the creek, a rickety refuge near the base of the cliffs. The entrance was cordoned off by evenly spaced poles, dug into the sand and beribboned with yellow caution tape. I entered to find a throne at its north end, carefully constructed from four tree stumps. Perching there like a queen, I saw a long hall to the south, formed by poles leaning against a central beam. I ducked its low ceiling and continued to a curved exit dodging off toward the cliffs. Just outside, I discovered an ornamental garden, comprising a replanted palm branch, one-half of an old surfboard, and a large stalk of Saguaro cactus. Looking back to the grand hall I found a sign reading, “FOR KIDS ONLY!!! This Palace Built by Cameron, Jackie and Chimp.”
For kids only. Those three magic words brought to mind the night before, when, just after again recounting his franchising plan, McNeal said “The one thing I truly regret about how things came apart for myself and Rochelle is that I was really looking forward to having children.”
Egad! I thought. How big of a diamond would you like, darling? Paris for dinner? Let me give you a neck-rub. But what narrowness of vision, what vanilla life, in exchange for that package of re-created DNA, that wonderfresh baby smell?
I left the works of children behind me and continued south, the cliffs growing taller as the waves grew closer. Collie-size wads of seafoam scudded by me like earthbound clouds, and I noticed a lone seagull, oldish and gray, dragging his wings in the sand. Were they broken? Was he fated to make do as a landwalker? How endlessly sad. This was not the kind of vision I had hoped for.
I drifted unconsciously toward the cliffs, where I thought I saw a smattering of rocks. I realized my old glass-hunting instincts were taking over. Wasn’t much there, though: chips of driftwood, chunks of styrofoam, flakes of blue plastic. I found a couple of browns, but they were pretty thin and unimpressive.
Five days before, late afternoon, McNeal bounced into my office with a CD and a sneaky grin.
“What are you so smiley-faced about?”
“Oregon,” he said.
“It’s a nice... state,” I said, expecting more.
“It’s on this CD,” he said. “Oregon, that is.”
“No! The pilot! I didn’t even know which state it was.”
“I didn’t tell you. I wanted to keep it a surprise.”
I gave him a congratulatory kiss, and suggested we ramble through the great Northwest together.
“No-no,” he said. “Absolutely must have dinner with the Smittersen folks tonight. Our first franchisee! But I did want to drop this off for you.”
I must admit, that CD scared me. Considering all the hours I had spent on lil’ ol’ Palo Alto, what would a whole state do to me? I paced myself by starting with the obvious: the Willamette River near Eugene, the main drag in Medford, the Shakespeare complex in Ashland. I even managed to track down the Rimsky-Korsakoffeehouse in Portland, where a bedraggled blond fellow paced the front porch with a flute case.
Even with these careful first steps, the utter cyber-acreage was overwhelming; at three o’clock in the morning, I was still at it. I was clicking my way down the coast, completely wired, when I found myself in Hirshfield, following Third Street toward the Bel Canto. Before I knew it, I was perched on the Knickerbocker Beach parking lot, middle of the afternoon, scanning north for Gerrymander Lighthouse when I found a bunch of Latino kids digging a moat around a lumpy-looking sand castle. I grabbed the magnifier to get a closer look (the tech team had really worked wonders with the image quality). Just past the ten-year-old with the blue shovel, I spotted a figure off in the distance. He stood to the left of Whalespout Rock, holding a small object to the overcast.
It was him.
There’s a color of paint called Midnight Oil – just a tablespoon of nightsky blue mixed into a straight-down pitch black. When I saw that small grouping of pixels, I felt that color working its way into my veins. Months of chocolate-covered denial had turned Frosty into a pleasant ghost and yet there he was, working the beach while the Sanchez kids reconstructed Macchu Pichu. I sat there, staring, for another half-hour, then dragged my bones off to bed. I pulled myself into a tight little ball, fearful that the pixel god, an ogre made up of colored blocks, would invade my dreams.
But my sleep was dreamless. In the morning I switched off the computer before its screensaver could blip away and reveal the incriminating evidence.
By the time I reached the end of San Gregorio, my right leg began to cramp up. I was not fully recovered from the phlebitis, and had probably walked too far for my own good. I rested on a coffin-shaped ledge of sandstone, dangling my feet as I watched the breakers hammer across a curving wall of rock. The overcast seemed to drop closer to Earth, shrouding the way back in silvered mist, and I noticed that no one had ventured this way but me. You could walk the entire two miles back to the car and not meet a soul.
A large wave rolled in just then and caught me off-guard, striking a rock ten feet to my left and covering me with a thick, cold spray. I laughed with surprise, slapping the water from my hair and face. As I watched the bubbling backwash, I spotted a curious green-blue orb tumbling back down the sand. I jumped from my perch and ran after it, stopping its progress with the instep of my shoe. Once I was sure it wasn’t some kind of jellyfish, I took it into my hands, smooth, wet and cold to the touch. It was a Japanese net float, perfectly round, little bubbles frozen into its walls like fossilized soda pop.
That was the last message I needed. I went back to my ledge and folded my damp clothes into a neat package inside my sweatshirt. I knotted the sleeves into a handle, and began a spirited naked stroll down the beach, the tingle of breezeworks playing piano against all of my parts. I held the net float to one eye, turning the world aquamarine and circular, and vowed to re-clothe myself only when the image of some wide-eyed beachcomber fell within the arc of its fizzy walls.
As I curled my Mitsubishi around that first southward hill, I was entering a new kind of fog. I remember very little about my drive – a jarring set of railroad tracks outside Davenport, the old Ferrell’s Doughnut Shop on the west side of Santa Cruz, and the long offramp to my sister’s street. All the rest was drowned out by the hum of pregnant brain cells. The thoughts weren’t coming in one at a time anymore, it was like a river of many-colored paints, interweaving but not mixing, so vivid I could taste them.
Nobody was home at Meg’s, so I found the electronic frog under the pink ground cover and retrieved the key from his mouth; he let out a manly “Braaaapp!” as I triggered his radar. I went immediately to the garage, and looked under a pyramid of boxes marked “Tanner, third year,” “Maisey, sixth year,” to find my treasure. It was a white five-gallon bucket, my name scrawled across its lid in Meg’s neat block lettering. I grabbed the handle and hobbled my way up the stairs to the balcony. A ragged-looking American flag meandered back and forth from the railing (probably left there from Labor Day).
I gripped the base of the bucket between my tennies and loosened the three-inch pie slices of its notched lid. After the last of these, I left the lid to sit there, stretching my fingers and asking myself if I really knew what I was doing.
“Of course not,” I said out loud, and lifted the lid anyway, revealing a tossed salad of glass. I tunneled my hand into the center, feeling each little nose nubbing my skin, then lifted a handful and let them cascade in a chorus of clacks and scrapes.
I tried to recall how this Glass Beach booty had come to be here. I suppose I had planned to bestow them on Maisey and Tanner. More likely I was just hiding it from myself, preparing for my dive into self-distraction. How did I get so good at lying to myself?
The tricolor flash brought back images that floated pleasantly in my memory. As I skulled around for interesting geometries and markings, I swear I could feel the ridgelines of Frosty’s fingertips. I found the piece of milk bottle from Glass Beach – the one with the sunny country farm – and buried it deep in the bucket, lest it drill a hole through me. I took out some of the other pieces and set them on a little glasstop table next to my chair. About twenty minutes later, I looked up from my diggings and noticed what a pleasing effect these made, how the light filtered up through the table and turned the pieces into a stained glass window. It was then that I felt my second self taking over.
My second self was apparently six years old and rude. I was soon back in the garage, digging like a badger through Meg’s things, scattering hammers, boxes of woodscrews, bags of plant food. I didn’t know precisely what I was looking for, until I opened a little yellow toolbox to discover a tube of silicone adhesive. I added a cloth rag, a couple of old newspapers and a diet cola, and I was set for the afternoon.
I thought I should maintain the luxury of randomness, so I made no firm decisions regarding color. Since I had such a wealth of raw materials, I chose pieces on the basis of flatness and consistent thickness, hoping to optimize surface contact while maintaining the functionality of the table. This would also guarantee the readiest passage of light through the pieces. I also wanted to accentuate the flaws and rough textures – like a photographer seeking out the lined faces of cowboys and farmers.
Precision was not a must, but I did envision a spacing of about a quarter-inch between pieces. This made it something like assembling your own jigsaw puzzle, which lengthened the process, but also lent an invigorating challenge. I decided to work from the center out, leaving the tougher three-side matches to the more accessible outside edges.
The silicone adhesive was perfectly clear, which hid the edges of my dabs, and also took two hours to fix into place, allowing me to “cheat” my way through difficult matches by nudging pieces this way and that. I was working a final dozen pieces around the edge when I heard footsteps and found my sister peering through the balcony door.
“Sandy! It is you! What the heck are you doing here on a...” She stopped at the sight of the table. “Wow! What’s this?”
I was too lost in my creative buzz to assemble an answer, so I simply tipped the table in her direction. She knelt next to me and gave it a fascinated study.
“Damn, sister! That is gorgeous! Whatever gave you the idea?”
I thought of all the things I couldn’t tell her – public nudity, Japanese net floats, boyfriends with insensitive dicks – and then recalled the several permissions I should have asked for.
“Oh, Meg. I’m so sorry! Your table – I...”
“Eh! I haven’t got a piece of furniture in the whole house that couldn’t use a makeover.”
I gave an admiring, maternal look at my creation – then thought of something else. “When do the kids get home?”
“Not for another three hours. Mister Schmuck picked them up for karate practice. I think he’s training them to kick my ass.”
“Good,” I said. “Oh, I don’t mean…”
“Honey, believe me, I wouldn’t try to assemble a paper airplane with those two around.”
I ran a hand over the tabletop, relishing the percussion of the bald little pates against my fingertips. “Meg?” I said. “Is there a hardware store around here?”
Meg knew an opportunity for sibling bonding when she saw one, so she drove me to one of those cavernous home improvement clubs on 41st Street in Capitola. I’m afraid I wasn’t much of a participant in the conversation, being so fixed on the task at hand. But she seemed happy just to have my ear.
Once at the store, I hurried to the wall-repair aisle and found a box of tile grout, flecked with just enough beach-like beige to suit my vision. Back at home, Meg fetched me a plastic tarp, which we slipped beneath the table. My next bit of selfishness was the toughest yet.
“Would you mind, um… leaving? For some reason, this seems to take every bit of my concentration, and I…”
“Well fine then,” she said, laughing. “Break into my house, vandalize my furniture, and then…” She waved it off. “Just kidding. I need to round up some dinner for the little monsters, anyway.”
Fortunately, I had taken part in some actual tile work two years before when George had redone his bathroom. I poured the grouting mix into a milk carton, laced it with some water, and stirred it to the texture of thick pancake batter. Then I scooped it up in my fingers and squeezed it into the gaps between the pieces of glass, not minding how much I splatted on their little faces. After letting it set for a few minutes, I doused a large sponge in the water and drew it across the top, pulling away the excess grout and revealing the colors underneath in their damp intensity – just how they had looked on the beach in Ft. Bragg. The grout left a residue, so I had to clean the sponge and repeat the process a few times, simultaneously using the water’s sedimentary draw to smooth out the grout between the pieces. The edges worked out beautifully; the table’s hunter-green frame made a perfect match with the height of the frosted glass, leaving an even quarter-inch rim of grout all the way around.
Following the instructions on the back of the box, I waited a half-hour as the grout hardened and left a powder-like film over the surface. Then I fetched some paper towels and worked my mosaic one nugget at a time, patiently wiping off the powder and buffing the glass to a matte-like sheen.
Once I was sure that I had hunted down each stray molecule, I gave my work a final appraisal, then re-entered the house to find my nieces perched before bowls of macaroni and cheese in their white karate uniforms. They watched me cautiously, not entirely certain that this grout-stained, bedraggled figure was, in fact, their Aunt Sandy (little arch-conservatives, these kidlings – no capacity for change whatsoever).
Being the praise-monger I am, I interrupted their meals to take them outside and show off my handiwork, answering all and sundry questions about its creation. Meg positioned a flashlight beneath the table, turning their faces to speckled amphibian skin and causing great laughter and finger-pointing.
After a pudding dessert, Meg ushered the tikes off to bed, but not before Aunt Sandy agreed to tell them a story. A half-hour later, the adults were bivouacked on the balcony, equipped with the now-traditional Bushmill’s and coffee. Our positions, however, were reversed. Meg sat at the table, unable to remove her gaze from its technicolor surface. I, having completely worn out my vision, sought my reprieve next to the American flag, collecting stars of my own in the night sky. I ignored the obvious form of the Big Dipper for the more satisfying Ursa Major, its big snout extending from the front of the Dipper’s cup. Sit, big bear, sit.
“I can’t quite get over this, hermana,” said Meg, grinning foolishly over her coffee mug. “I’ve never pictured you as an artist. So… enraptured, so raggedly focused. You should have seen what you looked like when I got home, like some half-crazed female Van Gogh. And that bedtime story – geez! – did you just make that up? It was so sad and beautiful, the way she threw herself over the cliff like that. Women with glass skins – I just can’t get over that. It’s so…”
I would’ve liked to answer her, but Ursa Major had fuzzed out to a big, blurry polar bear, and my eyes were leaking water like home-repaired plumbing. I wasn’t sobbing, though – at least not until Meg came and pulled my face to her shoulder.
“There, there, little one,” she whispered in her Mama-voice. “You forgot something in Oregon, didn’t you?”
I nodded my head against Meg’s blouse. Later, when the words had come back to me, I told her that I was sorry, but I was going to have to take her table with me.
Girl Scout Epiphanies
On a map of the United States, the drive from San Jose to Hirshfield is a tall stork with excellent posture, its feet planted in the South Bay marshlands, its shoulders arching westward from Ashland, then due north to Corvallis, where it stretches seaward to dip its bill into the Pacific. But the map is not where the traveler takes account of her journey. This happens in the watercolor landscapes, the cognitive blinks of gas stations, rest stops, offramps, restaurants – and the wildfires going off in my brain.
The buzz gripped me early in the morning, an alchemy of acrylic paint, typewriter ribbon, and the varnish scraped from an old guitar. The sun was barely tapping at the windows when I popped from sleep like a piece of toast, and just about ran in place during my shower. Five minutes later, I was descending the driveway, carrying my mosaic wrapped in an old comforter. I heard a step behind me and found my poor sister, bleary-eyed and quizzical, dragging forward for her farewell embrace.
“You’re really… sure about this?” she asked, fighting back yawns.
“Does it seem to you like I have any doubts, little sister?”
She gave me a kiss on the cheek, then turned and sleep-walked to her porch.
It was early enough that I got over 17 without much traffic. After a hurried session of packing at my house, I raced into a tight but flowing Silicon Valley rush hour, settling into the vibration of distance passing beneath my feet (oh that sweet song of mileage). It wasn’t long before I was greeted by my thought-attendant, pushing a silver cart of accusations.
“Today we’ll be driving at a height of three feet,” she said. “May I remind you to please keep your seatbelt fastened at all times. If you look to the right of the cabin, you’ll notice the six-month portion of your non-renewable life that you threw away on computerized illusions and a man who heals his deepest pains with power tools. Should you find yourself unable to proceed directly to the Oregon Coast, a mask will descend from the overhead compartment with a fresh supply of cyanide gas. Have a pleasant flight, and thank you again for flying Rodeo Butt airlines.”
I obviously needed a little distraction. I flipped on the radio, hoping for some station that I couldn’t usually get. At the apex of the Benicia Bridge, over the wide, calm mouth of the Sacramento, I found a jazz station from Modesto, kicking into a session of Rat Pack favorites. Dino, Sammy and Frank provided the exact brand of chutzpah I needed to face down the sins of Hirshfield. They sang me to Redding, where the sky was blueing. I stopped at a too-modern gas station and was greeted by a thick wall of heat. I suppose I had been wussed-up by my air conditioning, but the temporary sauna made my skin go all a-tingle. Once I climbed back in and revved up to the standard mile-per-minute, the temperature shift brought on a whole new bevy of thoughts.
Most of the thoughts centered on a clear-eyed rundown of my own bad behavior. What, in short, could I possibly have been thinking? This brought me back to the Perfection Point Excess Syndrome. Had I, in fact, been hoping that Frosty would fail in his courtship? Was I just a little disappointed when his alarmingly sane parents showed up to nail my heart to his dartboard? Frosty was clearly going nowhere that didn’t have sand or waves, and true love meant giving up my addiction for Silicon Valley’s self-aggrandizing mythologies.
Failing to find a fatal negative in Frosty, then, I had been well-prepared for an alternate positive. Then along came handsome, successful McNeal and his intriguing packages of photocyberadventure. Whoosh! There goes the Silicon Girl, right into the trap of her own making.
That got me through the green spiderlegs of Lake Shasta and around the queen mountain herself, cruising the high plateau to Weed, where the thought occurred to me, Why would you call your town “Weed”? Why not just call it “Shithole” or “Stinkwad”?
Just about then I was coursing through Yreka and heard a radio spot for a bakery. Yreka bakery – my favorite palindrome. Fueled by wordplay, I slanted up the desert-dry Siskiyous and down the green Oregon luge run to Ashland, where I could feel those Panosys-generated Shakespearean theaters off in the foothills. Just beyond Medford, the sun laying its thumb atop the hilltop indent of the freeway, I scanned the dial and picked up a high school baseball game. A high school baseball game! And then I saw a billboard proclaiming that the Pope was the antichrist. And then one team beat the other on a suicide squeeze, and I stopped for gas in Grant’s Pass.
It was getting well into night, but I was determined to let my body go as far as it would take me. This plan lasted as far as the Seven Feathers Indian Casino in Canyonville, where I avenged Custer by extracting three bucks from the nickel slots. Even this, however, could not save me from a growing drowsiness, so I checked into a rest stop at Myrtle Creek. I curled up on a futon in the back of my Mitsubishi and ventured quickly into Dreamland.
I woke to the chatter of children, from the camper next-door. My eyes fuzzed into focus on the sycamore leaves parasoling my window, turning a pleasant yellow-brown with the early autumn.
After splashing my face in the ladies’ room and applying talc and deodorant to strategic locales, I dove back into the freeway, but was soon distracted by a little town just off the road. On my way out of a log-cabin general store, I spotted a smoke shop and ventured in, retrieving a pack of cigarettes with a Native American theme: no additives, grown under the philosophies of one-ness, approved by the Great Spirit. Cruel people, these Indians, pretending to be killed off by the white man only to instigate the greatest self-inflicted genocide of all time. I laughed at my little joke, lit one up and watched the white effluent as it scuttled across my windshield. Onward.
The next chain of thought struck me on the west end of Corvallis, as I loaded my chambers for the final run over the coastal mountains. It was about my childhood, a subject that doesn’t come up much because it was, well, unremarkably pleasant.
We all run inventories on our personal skills and traits, and many of us can say that we are a Mom’s child or a Dad’s child. Not me. I am an absolute dichotomy, a woman sectioned off by two equal streams.
My mom was a born-and-bred bleeding heart with an irrepressibly creative mind and a life-long love affair with color and spark. She was always writing little rhyming poems for us, leading our Girl Scout troops through one ingenious crafts project after another, doodling whimsical creatures while she talked on the phone. I was rifling through her files one time, looking for an old National Geographic, when I discovered a novel she had started: first chapter, last chapter, nothing in between. Her sewing room was piled with baskets of buttons, zippers, thread, patterns, stacks of magazines full of never-accomplished projects. She also loved buying kitschy two-dollar shoes at the thrift store and then bragging about them – pride being nothing compared to good bargain-hunting.
Her capacity for empathy was so great that I feared it would kill her off. She would sit and watch the evenings news, and every time they reported the standard accident, killing, or house-fire, she would wince and cry “Oh my!” like each one had happened to a dear friend.
”Mom!” I complained. “You can’t take that much responsibility for the whole world!”
She also translated that empathy into action. She had a deep compassion for adolescents, and once Meg and I hit college, she took a job at a center for troubled teens. Former gang-bangers, children of wife-beaters, crack addicts, and even murderers. One of the counselors was killed by a kid with a kitchen knife, but even then, she wouldn’t think of leaving. She kept working there, and she kept crocheting blankets for all her friends, and she kept adding baubles to a gypsy dress that she wore to work every Halloween.
Dad, on the other hand, was discipline personified, a former Air Force mechanic. He would fix your bike for you, but not unless you stayed there with him and observed each slow, careful step. That way, the next time, maybe you could fix it yourself. Sitting in one place for such a long time was sheer hell, but over the years we began to notice that the things Dad fixed, stayed fixed.
Dad also had a thing about instruction books. He considered the use of a newly purchased appliance not a right but a privilege, one that you earned only by reading the instructions front to back. Dad didn’t want simply to open cans with his new can opener, he wanted to understand how the can opener opened cans, why it opened cans. He wanted to be the Zen master of can openers.
He assembled sentences in the same manner, pausing between subject and predicate like a pedestrian stopping at the island of an intersection, in order to attach the most precise ending possible. To hyper teenage children, waiting for Dad to finish a sentence was the cruelest form of torture. And it was always a bad idea to try and supply the ending yourself, lest you catch the wrong end of that dark military stare. One day, when he was doing it every other sentence, I started counting off the pauses in my head: one Mississippi, two Mississippi... Seven seconds. If you don’t think that’s a long time, try it out on your friends and see if they don’t interrupt you.
This caution also came through in his politics. Dad was one of those irritating Republicans who insisted on backing up his opinions with logic and reason. He had a great sense of humor about it, too. One day, he spotted my mother and me outside the polling place and declared, “Well! That cancels out my vote.”
One last thing. My mom’s handwriting was the most beautiful cursive you have ever seen; if you planted it in your garden, it would sprout graceful little violets the color of ink. My dad’s cursive was indecipherable, so he wrote instead in sharply drawn block letters. You could use their edges to shave your legs.
In high school, I possessed a great degree of playfulness. I sang in the chorus, performed in a couple of musicals, and hung around after school with the ceramics teacher, Mrs. Koepcke, who taught me how to make calm-looking, strangely anthropomorphic birds. Mrs. Koepcke said that I was genuinely talented, that I should consider art school – but I was also good in science, math and English. Once I hit college, my father’s river grew strong in the rain of impending adulthood, leading me to my MBA at Wharton.
I have been happy and successful in my father’s river; navigating its currents has made me a strong and sharp-minded woman. But sometimes I long for my teenage self, sculptor of wise-looking bluebirds. Now, given the chance to stand on a sandbar and gaze leftward toward my heart, I was astonished to find my mother’s river still there, fed by tributaries of fancy and whim, awaiting my return.
One primary attraction to motherhood is the chance to revisit our own childhoods, to rediscover the joys and adventure of play. We tell ourselves that we are doing this only to cultivate our children’s minds, but isn’t it nice to play again? Isn’t it nice to have fun? I think of that silly game of follow-the-leader with Maisey and Tanner. I felt my mother’s artfulness just then, pumping through my limbs, lessening the pull of gravity.
Sailing through the little green towns of Highway 20 – Burnt Woods, Eddyville, Chitwood – following the straight-edge walls of evergreen sheared away by loggers, I realized that part of my decision had already been made. Whether or not I shared my life with a man named Frosty, his bottle-shards had worked their way under my skin, leading me to a couple of hearty resolutions. First, to swim in my mother’s river, and second, to stop waiting for the appearance of children before I allowed myself to play. I rounded a bend in the road to find Archer Memorial Bridge, hunching its concrete shoulders over the rivermouth. I held my breath and drove on. I wanted this man so much it made my muscles ache.
Driving up the waterfront to 101, I contemplated the various strategies running through my head and realized I couldn’t have any. Showing up at the campsite after six months was bad enough; showing up with a prepared speech would be obnoxious. I deserved only to present myself and take whatever abuse I had coming.
I descended Third Street in the mandarin-orange twilight of a surprisingly clear day. If I was looking for signs, that was pleasant enough. No way I wanted any notice from the folks at the Bel Canto (I had forgone postcards to Hessie, as well), so I parked my Mitsubishi at the farthest corner of the Knickerbocker Beach parking lot. I took a back-alley route along the mom-and-pop motels, and then descended a cobblestone path to the state park’s southernmost trail. This climbed back to the wide grass field along the path to Frosty’s.
The failing afterglow lit up the well-worn path like a sidewalk, but once I crossed the footbridge, the lush forest was pitch dark. I stumbled into a clump of ferns, and realized I had to slow down and feel for the packed dirt beneath my soles.
The evening wind coursed in from the ocean, rustling the leaves above me, and I found my head rumbling with thoughts. I tried to recall the last time the force of sheer anxiety had made my heart beat so fast. I had to go all the way back to fourth grade, when I read a piece of scripture at my church. The problem was, Pastor Price booked my reading right after the sermon, and that sermon went on forever! He had this way of fading off into what sounded like conclusions, then taking great Old Testament pauses (much like my dad’s) before launching yet another tangent. About the fifth time he did this, I was ready to proclaim myself an atheist.
But all this pain did teach me something. Every time the pastor headed into a windup, I could feel my heart accelerate, my mouth dry, and my breathing become shallow. The more familiar these sensations became, the more I could control them, and lessen their effect.
This served me well in my career. I eventually became the best speaker in the company, and was often called on for crucial presentations. I drew on this power as I neared the campsite, and saw firelight seeping through the trees. I measured the quickening of my pulse, the twitching in my limbs, the fireworks in my nerve endings, and gave myself an important final command: you don’t want to surprise a grizzly bear in the wild, so you’d best enter talking. I swung around the madrone tree at the end of the path, proclaiming as I went.
“Wonderful weather you’re having. I’d always heard Oregon was more of a rainy…”
What I saw by the dull orange light was a fleshy spider atop the picnic table, eight limbs, two faces. The one facing me, marked by a small, vee-shaped goatee, was Frosty’s. The other, turning in surprise from a pedestal of two cheeks and a long, curving question mark of spine, was Carlotta’s.
The shock reduced me to animal instincts – fight or flight – and I flew. I squeaked out a few random vowels and sprinted back down the trail. The foliage rushed by on either side, lashing me with sharp fingers. I heard the thump of my shoes on the footbridge, then dashed into the field without stopping to find the trail. This cost me soon enough, as I struck a log and went sprawling, landing on my right knee. The pain only served to spur me on; I bounced up, found the path to the clifftop, then scampered down the stone walkway to the beach.
I leapt to the sand, just missing an outgoing roller, then sped past Mocha Rock in search of refuge. In the faint light I spotted what looked like a hovering seagull - then it morphed into a flag, tied to a pole atop a high mound. On closer inspection, the flag became a ragged T-shirt, knotted to a piece of driftwood. Behind the mound lay a deep trench – probably dug out by some kids.
That was good enough for me. I jumped in, landing with the side of my face against the cool, damp sand. It was a soothing sensation, but I knew it wouldn’t last. I rolled sideways to rest my back against the slope and found my old friend Ursa Major poking his snout into a bank of low clouds. I ducked my little-girl head, waiting for the sermon to end, but it was just me and the Pacific, out there rumbling around, and that really was what I had seen up there, Frosty and Carlotta, naked on a tabletop. My grief and shock were too bundled up in my own stupidity to allow me to cry about it. What gave me the right to make plans, anyway, to read palms, to plot my horoscopes – to assume that the outside world gave one half of a shit about my Girl Scout epiphanies?
My self-loathing demanded physical expression, so I flung myself against the sand. I discovered it’s very difficult to hurt yourself on sand, so I settled for hard language, cussing blue streaks as I threw my fists against the bottom of the trench.
“Fuck you, you fucking MORON, Sandy! You fucking IDIOT! What were you thinking, you stupid piece of shit? You drop in after six months without so much as a postcard and everyone’s supposed to kneel in your path and lay down fucking gardenias? God DAMN you, Sandy! God DAMN you…”
In flinging my limbs about, I began to notice the damage I had incurred during my flight, scratches on my face and hands, a big gash on my right knee, maybe even a broken toe where I had tripped over the log. I delighted in my wounds, I wanted more of them, more pain to bite at me and let me know I was still alive.
But maybe that was the problem. I was alive. The ocean called to me, ready to wear away the rough spots, make me smooth and beautiful, wash me into the path of some kindly beachcomber. I crept to the top of the bunker to gauge the ocean’s intentions, and found half of Whalespout Rock missing.
“No!” I cried. “No!” to the Big Bear, crooking his head around the fog bank. Can’t I have just one fucking thing? Can’t one fucking thing stay the same?”
“Would you like to hear a story?” said the Bear. I slumped into the trench to find Frosty looking down at me. I might have crawled out and sprinted down the beach, but my limbs were useless now. Real or mythological, Frosted Glass Man was here, and I would just have to listen.
He settled on the back of the trench, dangling his feet over the edge, rubbing his goatee.
“A thousand generations after Sandrina Fingertip gave birth to the human race, there remained only one who remembered her story. This one man wandered the beach every day, hoping to reassemble the pieces of Frosted Glass Woman and bring back the glassling race. One day, he was returning from his harvest when he saw a beautiful glass statue of a woman perched on Mocha Rock. As he came closer, however, he realized it was a woman with ordinary skin and flesh – but one who bore the same features as the image of Frosted Glass Woman he had kept in his mind.
“The woman saw divinity in him, as well. She joined him in his daily journeys, and at the end of the day they would sit on Mocha Rock and tell each other stories. Now, as anyone can tell you, all things that pass from one lover to another leave a residue in the air. So, every evening when the man and woman talked, the grains of their words drifted out from Mocha Rock and settled at a spot a hundred yards out to sea. After many months, the lovers found that their words had risen from the sea in the form of two great rocks. The ocean would rumble between these rocks and shoot out silvered breaths, much like the spout of a whale.
“One day, the woman left to see her family. She promised the man that, while she was gone, she would send her words to him, and he could read them to the ocean, and that way their beautiful rocks would continue to grow. But the woman did not send her words. After a time, her story rock began to weaken and crumble, until one day a storm came and swept the rock completely away.
“The sight of his rock standing alone in the ocean brought the man great pain, and his tears fell into the ocean. They drifted to an island just past the horizon where the spirit of Frosted Glass Woman resides, in the form of a brightly colored tropical bird. Frosted Glass Woman recognized them as the tears of her only remaining follower, and she breathed her spirit into them, changing them into spheres of glass. She dipped her feathers into the ocean and used them to paint the spheres in extraordinary colors, then placed them back in the water and returned them to their source.
“When the man began to find his transformed tears along the shoreline, they brought him much comfort. He vowed that, should he find fifty of these small planets, he would release his memory of the woman and send his grief drifting into the ocean, never to return. Two months later, when he did, indeed, discover the fiftieth orb – an eye-shaped spot of indigo surrounded by rings of green and white – he kept his vow.”
At the end of Frosty’s story, the ache in my muscles drifted out to sea, as well, and I took my first full breath in days. I wiped my hands down the sides of my face and found him there, a clear-eyed statue of glass, gazing at the remaining half of Whalespout Rock.
“So that strange vibration we heard…”
“Yes,” he said. “The old rock was giving way all the time. Would you like to come to the campsite and warm up? You look a little roughed up. We’d better clean up those scratches.”
I wasn’t sure how to phrase the next question, so I reduced it to a word. “Carlotta?”
Frosty let out a little burst of laughter. “That’s… a very interesting story. I’ll tell you later, but don’t worry – she’s not up there. Here…”
He extended his hand to help me out of the ditch. I allowed myself a minute of shelter in the hollow of his shoulder, and then we started slowly up the cliff.
After dabbing my wounds with disinfectant and bandaging my knee, Frosty stoked the fire and heated up some mulled wine. He handed me a mug and wrapped me in a blanket, the combination of which had me feeling immensely warm and better. Frosty fell unbidden into the story of him and Carlotta.
“Do you recall your tale of the moon’s creation?” he asked. “When Earth and Orpheus collided?”
“Yes,” I whispered.
“The same theory holds that, before the collision, this proto-Earth was covered completely in water, populated solely by aquatic creatures. One of the consequences of the meeting with Orpheus was the creation of land masses, which enabled the Earth to foster the growth of reptiles, mammals, plants, birds and humans.”
He perched on the picnic table and placed his feet on the bench.
“You, Sandy, are my Orpheus, the catalyst for my evolution. Before you arrived – let’s face it – there was a reason I was consorting solely with tourist ladies. They all had imminent expiration dates.”
“That was pretty obvious,” I said.
“I thought it might be. Until you came along. For the first time in years, I was faced with the idea of working on something deeper. It was scary – but good. I guess what I’m getting at is that, even though you broke my heart, you left me with new Orphean terra firma to work with. Even, maybe, with a local girl, someone who wasn’t going anywhere.
“The details were all your fault, too. Week after week, I would hike to the Bel Canto for that elusive California postcard. The third time it failed to arrive, I decided to console myself with a hearty breakfast at Gilda’s. I knew Carlotta from before, of course – that big bonfire when my folks were here. Over my weekly therapy breakfasts we began to talk, and flirt. Later, once I found net float number fifty, we began to date. Despite her anxieties regarding the ghost of Sandy Lowiltry – the messiah who would rise again – she and I have traveled to great ocean depths.”
“Oh God,” I said. “Meaning tonight’s interruption was Carlotta’s worst nightmare.”
“Sorry to say – yeah,” said Frosty. “But it shouldn’t matter. It’s awfully frustrating when a woman refuses to trust your affections. I told her many times that it wouldn’t matter if you came back. So here you are, and it still doesn’t matter.”
I studied the spices floating in my wine, feeling a little stabbed in the heart. “You love her a lot, don’t you?”
Frosty gave me a purposeful look. “Yes. I do.”
“Well, that’s too bad,” I said, then shot back a look of my own. “I’m sorry, but it’s true.”
“That’s all right.” He hopped down to poke at the fire and refill my wine. “So. How’d you like to tell me your story?”
I didn’t relish confessing my sins of self-delusion, but I think it was good for Frosty to hear the list of remarkable events it took to keep me away. It was a long story, and in the course of telling it we drank two small pots of mulled wine. After that, Frosty pulled out some wicked homemade plum brandy. Apparently, neither one of us wanted to be sober anytime soon. Lord knows, we had our justifications. Mine was a punishment more harsh and sudden than even I deserved. As for Frosty, my reappearance had caused a flaming row between him and Carlotta, leaving him feeling generally persecuted by the fickle psyches of the female gender.
“What I am being punished for,” he said, flouncing one of my Chippewa cigarettes like a gay actor, “is my innate desirability – or rather, my innate repellent-ness, depending on how you look at it. Now, Sandra Lowiltry – SHE finds me so fucking irresistible that she pitches boyfriend, family and fancy-shmancy job on the off-chance that I might take her back.”
I raised my glass to interject, but was driven back by Frosty’s big Hungarian laugh (it changed nationality by the hour).
“HAH-hah-hah-hah! On the other hand, were she really, truly, even half-assed fond of the boy, perhaps she would not have waited six goddamn months to ditch the yuppie schmuck and get her fine white ass back to Oregon! Why, it must have been one of those – what do you call them? – epiphanies?”
He took on an expression of indigestive reverence and lifted his palms to heaven.
“But, well,” I stammered. “It sort of was, Frosty.”
“Of COURSE it was! Each and every member of the female species is required to have an epiphany regarding his holiness Frosted Glass Man. I didn’t ask for the job, but yes indeedy there it is. If you are a forty-year-old, good-lookin’, spiritually deprived turista lady you are required by the federal tax code to report to Hirshfield with your Technicolor homophonic Freudian slide projector and find that Frosty!”
He was working up a good gospel rant now. He waggled a finger and went right on.
“But epiphanies don’t last, young lady. They are the mayflies of the metaphorical Scala Naturae, present on this earth only long enough to fuck and die – the same fate as my darling lube-job flings. They screw, they talk all night about their feelings, and then they disappear. Touch the magic penis and be healed, I say! And take home some lovely glass souvenirs.”
He wandered over to the fire, and then turned to me.
“I had a neat little convenience-store arrangement. And then you came along. I was like… the best goddamn singles hitter in the world – look for that outside pitch, slap it into left field, steal second, wait for one of the big guys to drive you in. You’re the best, man, because you know what you do well, and by damn, you do it!
“But then, one day, our singles hitter – let’s call him Frosty Gwynn – he’s got two strikes on him, leading off the bottom of the tenth, and he reaches inside just to foul off an inside pitch, but somehow he drops the bat-head on it and that sucker flies over the right-field fence, just inside the foul pole. Lo and behold, what manner of magic is this? The fans roar, the teammates jump around like Rockettes, the sportscasters burst forth in adjectives – and you, Frosty Gwynn, are a big fat fucking hero!
“Or so you think. Because now, the evil drug of hubristamine has entered your system, and you start looking for that inside pitch every time you come to the plate. And the pitchers don’t earn all those millions for nothing, pal. They see what you’re doing, so they slide them sliders off the outside corner – and you take a lot of lonely walks back to the dugout. And hey, guess what? You are no longer the best goddamn singles hitter in the National League, buddy boy, you are… you are…”
He jumped to the top of the picnic table, sending a wineglass smashing to the bench.
“You are the most mediocre power slugger wannabe in God’s creation!”
Frosty jumped back down, fished in his cabinet for a replacement glass and filled it up with brandy. He sat next to me, took a big swig, and let out a happy breath.
“Well, maybe,” I said. “Why are you so fixated on the idea that your relationship with Carlotta is now a failure?”
“Because… because…” Frosty knelt on the ground at my feet, wearing a manic, Shakespearean-jester expression. “Because every time Carlotta and I get naked, she can see a tattoo on my left butt-cheek that says, ‘Property of Sandra Lowiltry.’ She has this completely worthless streak of sisterly devotion.”
He stood and circled the fire, working his way back to a rant.
“I mean, excuse me, Sandy, but as a card-carrying member of the female gender, perhaps you could tell me: don’t I get a little credit for getting my ass dumped by thee? I am definitely the victim here, but Carlotta still sees me as the strong one, the guru. That’s why she told me, that if you ever returned, she and I would be instantly splitsville. Because you, to use the high school phrase, still had ‘dibs’ on me.
“Can you understand the complete untenability of my position? I am simultaneously too desirable AND too undesirable, too faithful and yet somehow too unfaithful, to be considered for a long-term relationship. I am the puppy who is praised for peeing on the carpet, punished for shitting in the back yard, and so here I am, going through life with my teeth bared and my tail wagging. In short, I’VE GOT COGNITIVE DISSONANCE UP THE YIN-YANG!”
Frosty pulled a pratfall and ended up flat on his back, his head next to my feet.
“Could you pass my brandy?” he asked. I did so, and took a solid belt from mine before asking the next question.
“So Frosty. Are you still in love with me?”
Frosty wagged a finger at me.
“Ohno! You cannot rent that video here, young lady. I don’t ping-pong around between romances like you women.”
“Frosty, may I remind you that, at this very moment, your face is in an excellent position for stomping? Seriously, give me a real answer. I promise I’m not going to play games with it. I’m just… trying to figure something out.”
Frosty tried to take a sideways sip of brandy, with little success.
“Yes,” he replied. “I retain my affections for you. I’m not going to do a damn thing about them, but yet, the feelings are still there.”
“A buzz in the stomach?”
“An over-awareness of one’s own breathing. Yes.”
I gazed at the coals in the firepit, pulsing like the buttons on a rocket-ship.
“In that case,” I said. “I would like to give a rebuttal… to your assumptions… about our assumptions… about you.”
“Hah!” said Frosty. “Good luck!”
I positioned my tennis shoes at either side of Frosty’s head. “It’s time to go for a walk, honey-bunny. And for God’s sake, bring some more booze.”
It was an odd sensation, treading our much-traveled beach, stomping down ridges of sand that we ourselves may have kicked up months before. I felt like I had been tossed into a tumbler, had my skin scraped all over but managed to come out all right, as I sidled along in my loose, nicked-up limbs. The night was cold, a clear sky punctuated by a pie-crust of day-old moon. The walk was warming me up, though, along with Frosty’s fifth of vodka, and the flow of wild honesty that had become our lingua franca. I took a bracing slug of booze as we passed the ruins of Whalespout Rock.
“Pah!” I gasped. “Ooh boy, that hurts good. I always knew that bitch Carlotta had her eyes on you. You can’t trust a woman.”
“Tell me about it,” said Frosty, and I didn’t even care to take it personally. (I think, in fact, that I was turning into a guy.)
“Yeah, those Cyd Charisse legs, cute pixie-bob hair, that wide-ass bedroom smile – lotsa artillery, and she certainly was foisting it on you at the bonfire.”
“Carlotta had her eyes on me long before I met you,” said Frosty. “She used to watch me from the break room upstairs at Gilda’s. Had all kinds of fantasy profiles worked up. The world’s youngest retired America’s Cup yachtsman. A burned-out rock star, recovering from the break-up of his band. A once-famous poet who has renounced academia, declared himself the founder of a new ‘Star Wars’ branch of Zen Buddhism, and retreated to the Oregon coast in order to get more in touch with ‘the force.’”
“That’s just silly!” I declared.
“Not much sillier than goddesses with skins from Coca-Cola bottles.”
“Yeah, okay. So get us back to Carlotta. Was she not flirting with you at the bonfire?”
“She was flirting, but without intention. She was extremely loyal to you.”
“And practical. One does not begin strong relationships by stealing one’s lover away from someone else. There’s always the lurking sensation that the same fate will be returned upon oneself. Very smart girl, Carlotta. And yes, Cyd Charisse legs. Thank you for that painful reminder.”
I responded by handing over the vodka with a coy smile. Frosty took a mighty pull. You could tell he was sincerely torn up about Carlotta. But God, how I still wanted him. I was much less wise than she.
“There’s a certain extremism about Carlotta, though,” said Frosty. His steps were growing sloppier, kicking out sprays of sand as he walked. “You ever pay a compliment to someone only to have them dismiss it? ‘Oh no, it was nothing.’”
“Seems okay, but when you think about it… it’s a bit insulting. Taken to the extreme, that person is basically saying, ‘You have no idea what you’re talking about. I sucked and we both know it!’”
“Bingo!” said Frosty. He flicked the words off his fingertips and over the Bel Canto, which was now looming on our left. “It’s even worse when you tell someone you love them, and they refuse to believe you. After a few dozen occurrences, it gets downright irritating, and then, when the old girlfriend shows up, she goes chickenshit and disappears. You gotta wonder how often that kind of thing is going to happen, how many times life is going to throw you a curve ball. And where will your life partner be just when you need her most? I’m tellin’ ya, it rips me up inside. No matter how much I want her, Carlotta and I may not make it.”
I believed him, because his words were ripping me up inside. I was relieved when we arrived at the Knickerbocker parking lot. Frosty settled with his back to the seawall, the same wall that had held those balancing rock sculptures the week before I left. I unlocked the tailgate of my Mitsubishi and handed Frosty the blue-green net float. He studied it like a gypsy searching a crystal ball.
“Evidently,” I said, “one of your teardrops was heading for Disneyland.”
I sat down beside him, aware by the near-emptiness of our vodka bottle that we both must be very drunk. I smiled with stupid amusement, slapped Frosty on the knee, and started my story.
In the lovely orchard lands of Oregon’s Hood River Valley, in the shadow of the diamond white volcano, there lived a proud and prosperous grower of pear trees named Esteban Ochoas. Esteban possessed a generous, joyous spirit, but one forever marked by the loss of his wife, Lucia, ten years before. Lucia had perished in a car accident, forced off a snowy mountain road by an out-of-control big rig. Ever since that morning when the sheriff had come to Esteban’s door, his soul had been touched by shadows.
Rather than seek the miracle of marital bliss a second time, Esteban chose to focus his attentions on his farm, and on his lovely daughter, Angelina. The love between father and daughter was so strong that, after Angelina earned her business degree at a college in Portland, she passed up the big glass buildings of that city in order to return to the farm and keep her father’s books. Doubly blessed by his daughter’s business sense and his ability to speak with his migrant workers in their native tongue, Esteban built the most successful family-owned orchard in the valley. The old man’s happiness knew no bounds.
Intent on keeping their jobs with such an excellent and kind boss, the farmworkers took note of the bond between father and daughter and drew in any thoughts about Angelina. There was one, however, who had more trouble with this task than most.
Pedro Poncilla had arrived at the farm ten years before – in fact, soon after the death of the boss’s wife. He was an illegal immigrant from Guadalajara with a sharp mind and a great desire to prove himself as a worker. He was profoundly moved by the grief he saw in the farmowner’s eyes, and resolved to care for the orchards as if they were his own.
Even through the fog of his loss, Esteban Ochoas knew a remarkable young man when he saw one. He rewarded Pedro’s unfailing labor by helping him obtain a green card, and then his American citizenship, and, finally, by promoting him to the job of foreman. Pedro thus became one of three workers who remained on the farm year-round, in a clean little cottage next to the south orchard.
From his front window, Pedro could look across the front lot of the farm and see the large window of Angelina’s office, where she sat late at night reviewing the farm’s paperwork. This ready vantage of the prize he could not have – her pillowed lips, cave-dark eyes, hair that shone like blackbird’s wings – was not particularly good for Pedro’s health.
Five years into his torment, Pedro thought about leaving. He could always hide his real reasons by making up some fib about an ailing grandmother in San Bernardino. He was soon granted a reprieve, however, in the person of Gustavo, a bespectacled migrante who was always spending his breaks and lunches with his nose buried in a book. Curious, Pedro asked Gustavo what was so compelling about these books. Gustavo handed him the volume he was reading just then – a collection of poetry by a man named Miguel Hernandez – and said, “Why don’t you read this, and then you can tell me.”
Reading at his front window that night, the halo’d vision of Angelina across the yard, Pedro could not believe the things that he discovered in the pages of Gustavo’s book. Why, these were not normal Spanish words at all – they were like tropical birds the colors of Christmas ornaments, scrambling around in his head and taking him to wild, impossible landscapes. And all the next day, working in the orchards, the words of Miguel Hernandez continued to burn in his limbs, investing every small action with the goldenrod aura of new knowledge.
After consuming the dozen volumes in Gustavo’s collection, Pedro took off each Saturday morning to pedal his squeaky old bike to the biblioteca in Hood River and gather more: Cesar Vallejo, Juan Ramon Jimenez, Una Muno, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Soon enough, Pedro found that he, too, carried the poetic impulse, that he, too, could make his language fly like birds – though at lower altitudes, and with feathers much plainer. Still, he found that he could use his rough new skills as a way to tap off his irresolvable feelings about Angelina. He found a café near the biblioteca where he could spend hours reading his latest discovery and then translating that same sort of magic into his own writing, filling notebook after notebook with tributes to forbidden love.
Alas! Just about the time that Pedro had come to terms with his plight, he left the café one Saturday to discover Angelina’s red truck parked across the street in front of the grocery store. The following week, he noticed the truck’s arrival, and all the next month he made a study of Angelina’s deeply entrenched routine. She would park outside the grocery just before eleven, walk down the street to do various errands, and then return at about one o’clock to do her grocery shopping.
This two-hour window was too much for Pedro to ignore, for here lay the opportunity to express his love directly, and yet maintain his anonymity. He would arrive in town at ten o’clock and carefully lock his bicycle out of sight, next to a tree behind the café. At noon, he would go next door to the florist shop, where a kindly old Anglo woman named Mabel would sell him a single blossom - a carnation one week, a rose the next, always changing. Then, while Angelina was off doing her errands, he would walk as casually as possible across the street to clip the flower under the driver’s side windshield wiper on Angelina’s truck.
He was too afraid to observe Angelina’s return (the delivery itself made his strong workman’s hands shake with anxiety), but that night, Angelina would turn on the lights in her office to reveal a small yellow vase on her desk – and in the vase, Pedro’s flower!
This went on for a year, and still Pedro would feel a thrill when he spied his flowers on Angelina’s window, still his hands would shake like a teenage vandal’s when he made his deliveries. Eventually, however, even this was not enough to quell Pedro’s longings, and once again he began to consider leaving the farm. This time, he had a concrete offer, a cousin at an apple orchard across the river in Washington who said he could get him a job whenever he wanted.
Pedro awoke one Saturday morning in early March to find the sky over Mount Hood like a perfect oil painting of cerulean blue. The orchards outside his bedroom window had just, in the previous eight hours, achieved the peak of their blossoming, a hazy field of snow-white flowers dripping here and there like the tears of angels.
Pedaling toward Hood River through this paradise, Pedro felt strangely overwhelmed. When he arrived at the café he wrote a poem about a man who camped out in a pear orchard. The man bedded down beneath a bower of blossoming pear branches, and in the morning a crew of workers discovered him dead, having literally asphyxiated himself in a pile of white petals.
At the florist’s shop, Mabel (who had long ago figured out the object of Pedro’s purchases) presented him with a white orchid, the most beautiful flower Pedro had ever seen. She sold it to him at a price that was much lower, he was sure, than its real cost. Still, even with the thought of the lovely orchid that would appear that evening in Angelina’s window, he returned to the café feeling like a condemned man. He composed poem after poem about men killed by the terrorizing forces of beauty: a hunter clawed to death by an eagle with feathers of gold, an Alaskan explorer struck by a bolt of lightning from the heart of the Northern Lights, a teenaged boy so distracted by a passing bonita that he walks into the path of a speeding bus.
Two hours later, Pedro applied a final period to this gorgeous genocide, slapped his notebook shut and trudged from the café, too weighed down to even say goodbye to his pals Louis and Jake, hunched over their daily chess match. At the very moment of dropping down that last dot of ink, in fact, Pedro had resolved never to write a poem again. Once he escaped to the apple-fields of the north, he knew that the magic of words would conjure up Angelina’s face at every stanza. His determination was so concrete, in fact, that he left behind a volume of poems by Federico Garcia Lorca atop his usual windowside table.
So it was that, with heart and feet turning steadily to iron, Pedro Poncilla rounded the back corner of the café to find a most unusual sight: his old bicycle, angled against the tree, covered from handlebar to rear fender in pear blossoms, whole branches of them, fixed to its metallic limbs with loops of white ribbon. It looked like a kind of two-wheeled float, dressed up for an Easter parade.
Frozen in place in the alleyway, Pedro could feel the beauty that had always been outside of him, now asphyxiating him, filling his lungs and mouth and muscles, inflating him to a man three times his former size. He knelt next to his bicycle, running his hands over its new tissue-paper skin, then untied the branches one by one, wrapping them in a sheet of butcher paper he got from Mabel. He tied the bundle to the center rod of his bicycle, and carefully placed the ribbons in his pocket. Then he rode home like a demon, questions flashing through his mind like the sparrows whipping past him in the wind.
He pulled into the farm to find father and daughter Ochoas standing next to the red truck, beaming in amusement and admiration, Angelina holding the white orchid in her hands. As Pedro pulled to a stop in the loose gravel of the drive, he could feel the tug of one last anxiety: how in the world could he explain himself? His concerns were shattered by the booming laughter of his boss.
“Señor Poncilla!” he shouted. “I see you have brought us more pear blossoms. I am so relieved; I was afraid we were going to run out!”
Esteban Ochoas stepped to Pedro’s side and gave him a warm handshake. “I was wondering, Señor Poncilla, if you would do us the honor of having dinner tonight with my daughter and myself. I would like to discuss your apparently great interest in floral horticulture.”
Pedro smiled shyly, afraid to look at Angelina’s face lest it cause his heart to burst. He caught his breath and said, “Yes, by all means, Señor Ochoas. I… I would be honored. Yes.”
Frosty had shifted around until he sat before me, cross-legged like a kindergartner, wearing the kind of expression I imagine my Pedro had worn at the sight of his bicycle. There were words approaching his lips, but I sealed them shut with a fingertip.
“My story is not quite done,” I said, and then rose on vodka-weakened legs to swing open the tailgate of my Mitsubishi and carefully extract my treasure. I settled it at his feet and lifted either side of the blanket to reveal my mosaic, taking careful note of the glint in Frosty’s eyes as he wandered his fingers over its surface.
“This is your epiphany,” he said. “This… is your…”
“My second self,” I said, then knelt down to bring my eyes level with his. “You brought me the blossoms, Frosty – the fruit of your labor. And this is what I have made with them. I wanted to thank you.”He had even
Coyote on a Leash
I could tell you that I didn’t intend to sleep with Frosty that night. I’d be lying. Let’s face it – I saw a weak, frustrated man, I drank with him, I told him stories about travelers suffocated by pear blossoms, I got naked. I seduced about as well as anybody ever has.
Not to worry – my guilt was short-lived. I woke up on the floor of my Mitsubishi, the gray light of overcast seeping in through the windows. Thank God it wasn’t bright, because I had one helluva hangover. I undid my origami body to a Catholic kneel and scanned the windows. Not much doing at the Bel Canto. No one at Gilda’s yet. Good. A note taped to my steering wheel.
You already know what was in that note. Frosty was in love with Carlotta. A round of blotto boinking with the old flame was not about to change it. Frosty being Frosty, of course, he put it much more gracefully.
My mind had been sparking like a nuclear reactor since my boring lunch with George, but now I felt calm. And focused. I fired the engine and headed for the Waterfront. Once there, I slipped into a homey little coffeehouse for a change of clothing, a splash of water on my face, two Extra-Strength Tylenol and a double cappuccino.
Thus fortified, I drove to the entrance of Knickerbocker State Park, paid my day-use fee, and then left the Mitsubishi in the parking lot and took the old trail. As I neared Frosty’s campsite, I took a deer-trail through the bushes and ventured a peek, finding that Frosty and his car were both gone.
I raced back to the Mitsubishi and drove the narrow, looping road to the ranger’s cabin, finding that he, also, was gone. I parked in the road near Frosty’s secret entrance and snuck into the backyard, bringing along my lug wrench. The lock on the shed looked pretty sturdy, but I walked the perimeter and found the aluminum walls to be downright flimsy. I discovered a seam at the back where I could insert the chisel end of the lug wrench and pop the sheeting right over the rivets. After removing several along the bottom and a few up the seam, I took the corner with both hands and folded it back, creating a sort of tent-flap opening. God! I thought. I’m pretty good at this.
I quickly grabbed three white buckets marked B, W and G, and set them outside the shed. Then I noticed two yellow buckets and one black, so I took those, too. By the time I lugged all six down to the Mitsubishi, my muscles and joints were in full revolt. Still, I managed to give the on-duty ranger a smile and a wave on the way out.
I was tempted to pull over in Depoe Bay and revisit the Spouting Horns – especially when I spotted an Internet café just across the street. But I was on a mission from Frosted Glass Woman, so any delays were out of the question. I waited out a dozen stoplights down the long thoroughfare of Lincoln City, passing the Chinook Winds Indian Casino’s large billboard, boasting of Bobby Vinton.
A few miles north I saw a sign for Highway 18 to Portland, and decided it was time to escape the Pacific Ocean. A few miles past Otis, zippering through thick deciduous forests knifed off at the roadside like boxwood hedges, it finally occurred to me to ask my newly placid mind where the hell it was taking me.
I suppose my dogleg could be explained by Hessie’s gravitational pull. But I knew it wasn’t time to see her yet. Just then the woods to my right disappeared to reveal a soaring, broad-shouldered mountain, and at its base, what looked like a Silicon Valley shopping mall.
It turned out to be another Indian gambling joint, Spirit Mountain Casino, crouching in a small sea of parking lots. The casino was a pillow of terra cotta, wearing a headband of bright geometrics, like the patterns in Indian jewelry and the logos of high-tech corporations. I found myself entirely charmed, and fished around the parking lots until I found a space.
I wandered into the plush interior, relieved to know that not a single soul here gave an even-odds goddamn about my hovering spiritual predicaments. I purchased a two-dollar ticket and looked for the simplest nickel slot I could find. The winning candidate was a country and western number with payoffs for different cowboy combos: a double-x branding iron, a broncin’ buck, a white Stetson, snakeskin boots, etc. My plan was to kill an hour or two making pathetic little five-cent bets, but in my weary state I misfired, pressing the “Bet 40” button and somehow failing to hit on any of eight possible lines. Just like that, my two-dollar ticket was gone (Crazy Horse snickering in his grave).
Strolling through the surrounding slots, I noticed that almost everybody was tethered to their stations by little plastic curly-cords. I was dying of curiosity, so I queried an old guy wearing a navy squadron cap. He seemed pleased with the chance to explain something to a youngster.
“Coyote Cards,” he said. “They give bonus credits – the more you play, the more you get. The little wire is just so you don’t forget and leave it in a machine somewhere.”
I thanked him and moved on, thinking Cripes! (No, really - cripes.) You can’t put a coyote on a leash!
I moved on to the gift shop, where I saw a basket of used craps dice and playing cards that were drilled through the middle with small, clean circles. A redheaded girl with braces asked if she could help.
“These are sacred, you know,” I answered. “These are the tools of a wounded people, used in the service of their redemption.”
Oh God, I thought. I have become a crazy person.
The girl, who must have been used to weird people in casinos, smiled and said, “Yes, you’re right. I like that!”
Bless you and all your DNA, I thought. May you have many boyfriends who are terrific in bed and always bring extra condoms.
“I’ll take two decks and four dice,” I said. I was relieved to find that my thought balloons were not yet leaking into my speech balloons.
As she was handing me my change, Redhead Girl told me I could find other sacred items down the hall, where a gathering of native artisans were hawking their wares. I checked it out, but found their jewelry, ceramics and moccasins to be ruthlessly predictable. Exiting their meeting room, however, I found a grove of trees to my left. Suspecting hallucinations, I ventured over to inspect.
No, they were trees all right – genuine fake trees. It was a dark hallway, twenty feet wide, twenty feet high, forty feet long, between the casino and the lodge. A sign at the entrance read, Hall of Legends. The trees were lined up at either side, their trunks disappearing into a black ceiling spotted with stars. Behind the trees were realistic, woodsy murals, to the right a deepening forest, to the left a brook bordered by patches of snow. The dirt in the center was made over like a campground, peppered with fir needles and carefully set tracks of deer, raccoon and coyote. Hidden speakers played a soundtrack of crickets, breezes and coyote cries.
The only obvious man-made device was a light beam extending from the base of a cedar like some kind of security device. I was willing to bet that something would happen if I tripped that light, and I wasn’t disappointed. The thunder thundered. The lightning lightninged. Fortunately, the rain did not rain. A stern-looking Indian appeared on the trunk of the cedar – broad forehead, proud tomahawk nose, granite cheekbones – and commanded my attention with roaring baritone syllables.
“Come! Hear the stories of my people. Hear the legends that whisper in the land. Listen for the sounds of spirits in the forest.”
The face faded away, and I noticed that the bark underneath was formed into smooth echoes of his features. The crickety silence returned, then a second projector clicked on, conjuring a heavy-set native woman on the wall behind me. She set herself squarely on her feet and addressed her hidden audience, speaking in spare, clean syllables, telling how it was that Coyote, The Trickster, deceived the Frog People into liberating their hoard of water so that all the creatures of the forest could use it freely.
My next visitor was a tall, broad-shouldered man who appeared over the brook, his features sharper, more aquiline than the cedar man. He wore his hair in two long braids and held up his hands like a punter receiving a snap from center. Speaking between them, he told of Coyote’s love of the moon, how one time the moon tricked Coyote into allowing himself to be lifted into the night sky. The moon ignored Coyote’s pleas for release until he had traveled to the top of the heavens. When he finally let him go, the impact of the fall sent Coyote’s blood flowing upon the land in a great river. And that was why, ever since, the sons of Coyote would perch on the ridgelines and let out howls of anger and grief at the bright villain who murdered their father.
Just as the tall man was nearing the end of his story, poor Coyote dangling from the end of the crescent, two grandma types barged through the double doors from the lodge, chatting full-volume about someone’s fucking wedding in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. I nearly slapped them silly, but I figured I’d best not exhibit any further signs of insanity. Curiosity eventually shushed them and drew them to a spot behind my shoulder. “My,” said one. “He’s quite handsome, isn’t he?”
I stayed for a couple more stories (How Coyote Created the Stars, Why Dogs Sniff Each Other), then wandered through the doors to the lodge, finding a long hallway painted the colors of autumn. The walls hosted a gallery of framed landscapes engraved with the shapes of leaves; and the carpet held the familiar patterns of Navajo blankets. At the end I found a lobby centered on an outcropping of boulders, a water fountain cutting between them to a pond littered with gamblers’ pennies. Standing guard at the pond was a bronze Coyote, nose to the wind, eyes slanted, one paw lifted, ready for flight. I placed a weary hand on his head, searching his keen metallic eyes for some sign, a lucky number, a hint of my direction. Then I went to the desk to check in.
I had a beautiful room at the southwest corner, its windows facing a high, barren hill and, just over its western shoulder, the casino’s namesake mountain. All right, I’m guessing, but it certainly looked like a Spirit Mountain, its peak rung about with clouds, dancing like ancestors at a pow-wow.
The furniture was made of bulky, rough-hewn wood, comforting and muscular. The blankets and covers were a continuation of the Navajo patterns in the carpeting, and the walls carried three more of those warm landscapes with the leaf-shaped etchings. All very homey, and if that didn’t work, there was a huge grandfather spirit of a television with all kinds of premiere movies (including a soft-porn channel, which the bellhop, a toothy redhead kid, seemed a bit too eager to point out).
Fending off a combination of paranoia and fatigue, I brought in the buckets one at a time, at random intervals (I didn’t want anyone thinking I was running a meth lab). On a jaunt to the nearby town of Sheridan, I found a hardware store with lots of tile grout and a furniture store with several glass tabletops.
Over the course of the following days I dove into my work, taking time-outs for meals in Coyote’s Buffet, five-dollar slot sprees and visits to the Hall of Legends, where I lifted my eyes to my spirit fathers and mothers and learned their dozen stories by heart (including How Coyote Built Willamette Falls, which inspired the sculpture in the lobby). And yeah, you’ve probably figured this out by now, but Coyote was exactly the guy I was in love with: the Trickster, the Man of Glass, transparent and evasive as ever.
My creative visions flew in all directions. I began with the primary colors, exploring different patterns and groupings. For the first of these, I got very precise, using blue painter’s tape to divide a circle of glass into three stripes, then taping it across the middle to give myself six sections. I filled the center stripe with nothing but white. I did the top left section all in green, then covered the section below in a rough checkerboard of green and white. I did the same to the stripe on the right, only with brown instead of green. The results were pleasingly symmetrical but not overly so, as the randomness of the material guaranteed a certain organic-ness.
For my next piece I spun a large green spiral, its emerald gyres cut off by the table’s square edges. With this one, the thrill was all in the beginning; filling in the remaining spaces with a mottle of white and brown was much less exciting. The effect of the whole, however, was quite satisfying, in a primitive, unified sort of way.
I jumped from this into something more evasive, marking off an oval table with cave-drawing figures – antelopes, sea lions, coyotes, poodles – then scattering the letters S-A-N-D-R-I-N-A among them. I filled in the remaining spaces by complete chance, effectively turning my symbols into subliminal rebels. A person could own this mosaic for years before discovering its menagerie, and I expected the letters would forever remain a mystery.
With my artistic bravado mounting (and my flat pieces dwindling), I abandoned functionality for form, selecting a long, narrow rectangle for the crags, nuggets, corners and bottle-threads I had previously set aside. The end-product carried two elements I adored: the added dimension of contour, and the unmistakable Bronx attitude of “Hey! Don’t put your glass down here. I’m a fuckin’ piece of art, okay?” It also gave me an almost sexual thrill when I ran my hands over its Badlands surface.
Finally, after six days of frenetic creativity, I unloosed the yellow buckets. The first contained nothing but pastels – clear pieces with the faintest hints of blue, green and purple. The approach here seemed pretty obvious: simply place the pieces and let their subtle variations dance the rumba. I chose a square tabletop framed in straw-colored wicker, giving it a nice Caribbean vibe.
The second yellow bucket surprised me, because it didn’t contain glass at all. What it held were sea-worn fragments of brick and porcelain, likely gathered at Glass Beach. This spoke to me of great artistic possibilities, so I set it aside and waited for some wild inspiration.
I had already recalled what lay in the black bucket, but the sight still lifted me out of my shoes: a whole U.S. Mint of the rare and lovely blue. This demanded no ingenuity at all – the beauty being right there in the raw materials – but it did demand patience. Being cobalt, the pieces were all rather tiny, and the smallest of my two remaining tabletops – a smoked circle with beveled edges – was still rather large. The placement of the pieces alone took two days, and the grouting was sheer hell, necessitating dozens of passes with the sponge in order to fill in all those little nooks and crevices. By the time I finished the buffing, my back was killing me, but the pain lessened immensely when I held the finished product to the sunlight. It looked like the entire left eye of Frosted Glass Woman.
I rewarded myself with a long breakfast at the Legends Restaurant and a thorough reading of the Portland Oregonian. I was drifting by the gift shop afterward when I saw the Redhead Girl, Sylvie, refilling the sales-basket with craps dice. Red dice, white spots – Sh-boom! There was my inspiration. I bought all the dice she had and headed back to my studio.
I taped off the back of my last tabletop – a grand Thanksgiving-dinner oval – dividing it into four neat sections. At the center of each section I applied an ace from my deck of holy playing cards. Over these I glued a ten-by-ten square of craps dice, paying no particular mind to their numbers. Toward the center of the table, however, I used DNA groupings of dice to count out my home phone number, my high-school locker combination, my best-ever bowling score, and the exact date and address of my deflowering.
I marked off the circumference of the oval with an inch-wide band of porcelain, then a two-inch band of brick, then another band of porcelain. I peppered the remaining surface with an even spray of red and white. As you might have imagined, the end results were fabulous. I celebrated by entering the Hall of Legends just in time for my favorite story, Coyote plummeting the cobalt sky to pour out his brick-red blood on the hard Earth.
And my time was up. I drove to a drug store in Willamina and made my purchase. For something so monumental, the device was alarmingly simple, sort of a magic wand with a tip of stiff, absorbent material like the filter on a cigarette. All you do is squat over the toilet, hold the tip in your urine stream for five seconds, then watch the little windows – a small circle and a slightly larger square, cut into the white plastic handle.
Step 2 of the instructions tells you that a little blue line will appear across the circle to signify that the test is working. Which it did. Step 3 says that if a second blue line appears, this one across the square, that means that you’re pregnant.
Which it did. And I was. And it was time to go see Hessie.
Not Climbing Mount Everest
The route to Rimsky was chipped into my vision; I had been mentally videotaping its confines all through my week at Spirit Mountain. I didn’t drive there so much as track my way in, like a homing pigeon following his radar. I had, however, forgotten the Koffeehouse’s unusual hours – they didn’t open until seven p.m., and it was just three-thirty when I arrived.
I didn’t want to sleep curbside like some homeless person, so I went for a walk. It’s a good thing I had my artist-mojo going, or I might have felt intimidated, a middle-aged white woman strolling through little groups of surly-looking ethnic teenagers in East Side Portland.
I ended up at the water, on a bridge overlooking the Willamette. Large towers rose up on either side, rigged with cables and gears so they could raise the entire middle section for passing boats. A slice of sunlight cut through Portland’s resident cloud cover to turn the water a gorgeous jade green, scribbled here and there with marble-like swirls of eddy and current. The park on the west bank looked lush and inviting, but I realized I hadn’t eaten since breakfast - and I was eating for two now, wasn’t I? I never imagined myself saying things like that.
I went back to my car to fetch my jacket, then headed south in search of food. It was a long walk, but I kept my focus until I found my treasure, an actual Mexican taqueria. I can’t remember the name but it translated as The Happy Skeleton. The walls were painted in bright colors only someone with Aztec blood could get away with, and there were also red-pepper Christmas lights, Pancho Villa news clippings and, of course, grinning skeletons. The surest sign of authenticity, though, was that the guy at the counter could barely speak English. He seemed pleased when I tried to order in my weak, high-school Spanish, and soon I was happily consuming a chicken tostada and tamarindo soda at a table of artfully scratched-up, bleached wood.
I got back to the Rimsky just after opening, but still I missed out on the hydraulic Brahms table - or the rotating Dvorak table. I settled for Puccini, tucked away by the kitchen door. The staff was evidently still setting up, as no one seemed in any hurry to take my order. I took out my holy Indian casino cards and laid them out in a seven-tiered pyramid, a brand of solitaire that was almost impossible to win. After my third failure, I was greeted by a slim waitress with short chestnut hair, large black-rimmed spectacles and the kind of resounding whiskey voice you might hear in a Jersey diner.
“Hi,” she said. “Sorry I took so long. We’re a little weird and erratic around here.”
“That’s fine.” I found myself a little shaky about conversing with a fellow being. I assembled the next sentence in my head, just to make sure.
“Is there any chance I might be able to talk to Hessie tonight?”
The waitress smiled; I had uttered the magic words. “Oh! Are you a friend of Hessie’s?”
I was pleased that my first foray had brought such a jackpot. “I’m sort of a… postulant… at the Convent Bel Canto.”
“Pauline,” she said, extending a hand.
“Sandy,” I said, shaking that hand.
“Any friend of Hessie’s is royalty around here. Although it’s a lesser kind of royalty, considering all the friends she’s got. Oh, and to answer your question – Hessie usually does swing by on Thursdays, so I’m guessing she’ll be around.”
“That’s very good news,” I said.
“So what would you like?” Pauline asked with a smile.
“Could I have a nasty double Mexican mocha with whipped cream and cinnamon on top?”
“Oh-hoh! A serious aficionado. And a dessert?”
“Frozen lemon cheesecake.”
“You’ve been thinking about that one for quite a while,” said Pauline, slipping me a wink. “I’ll be back in just a minute.”
I suppose it was the elation of imagining a talk with Hessie that made the subsequent drop such a rib-cruncher. Pauline pranced up to my table with a Mexican mocha and a newsflash.
“Hessie’s in London! She won’t be back for two weeks. She apparently picked up a copy of the London Times at Powell’s bookstore, saw some new play she just had to see, and headed straight for the airport. I love that about Hessie – she does the kind of things the rest of us only talk about.”
My face must have dropped a couple inches.
“Ah, man!” said Pauline. “You were really looking forward to seeing her, weren’t you? I’m sorry. I’ll be right back with your cheesecake - maybe that’ll help.”
I tried to take some focused pleasure in my mocha, but my taste buds refused to participate. What the hell was I going to do now? I hadn’t even thought of making this decision alone.
I played solitaire. I sipped my mocha. I ate my cheesecake, a delicacy I used to think was the next best thing to orgasm, but then it was orgasm that got me into this fix in the first place, wasn’t it? The coffeehouse filled up a little, but sadly there was no live music scheduled – just some Chopin over the P.A. What’s a girl to do?
I had just lost my pyramid game by one lousy stinking card when my table erupted with a kind of industrial raspberry, and shook so hard that my mocha staggered away like a drunk. Startled, I let out a shriek that sounded like a crow being run over by a tractor. Then I began laughing at my own reaction with great cackling Phyllis Diller peals. The rest of the coffeehouse, having processed the rude secret of the Puccini table, joined in, creating a crowd-size wave of merriment. All this excitement proved too much for my tattered nerves, however, and I found to my utter dismay that my laughter was turning into spasmodic coyote-like sobs. The more reasonable portions of my brain were signaling desperately for a time-out, but then my eyes welled up and I was gone for good. I dropped my face to the smooth, cool glass of the tabletop, fuzzing out Puccini’s fine-boned face.
The rest of the coffeehouse had gone utterly silent. I was shaking now, and I think that my left arm was sort of flailing, like a wounded seagull. I felt a hand on my back, the space between my shoulder blades, and opened my eyes to find Pauline’s concerned brown pupils.
“I am so sorry!” she said. “I thought maybe you could use a laugh, you looked so down, and this table’s sort of our new toy… Are you gonna be okay?”
I had no resource but absolute truth. “No,” I said. “I’m not.”
“Oh goodness.” She sucked on her teeth, thinking. “Tell you what… let’s get you upstairs. I’ve got a place you can rest for a while.”
She lifted me by the elbow and guided me up the steps, past the thousand-woman collage, and then we were in the hallway. The doors were posted with Alice-in-Wonderland signs like “Not this room,” “Certainly not this room!” “This room? Are you kidding me?” and “Now why the hell would you be wanting to look in this room?”
This last one, oddly enough, is exactly where we went. It was completely dark inside, and Pauline seemed to prefer it that way, mumbling something about not wanting to give me any further shocks. She guided me to a futon against the back wall, then scuffled around in a closet and brought back a crocheted blanket.
It seemed like an odd thing for a nearly complete stranger to do, but I was grateful when Pauline leaned over to touch my hair and kiss me on the forehead.
“Just stay here and sob it all out, Sandy. I’ve got to get back to work, but I’ll come back later to check up on you.”
I heard the scuff of Pauline’s footsteps, then the click of the door behind her as the shaft of light closed up. I found a big, soft pillow and pulled it toward me like the last good thing on God’s green earth. I intended to soak it with tears, but my old, pregnant body had had enough, sending me into a liquid indigo free-fall of sleep.
What I awoke to I can barely describe. It began with a thunk and clatter, and then the visuals kicked in. I blinked my eyes and made out a wiry hermit with a beard and dark hooded eyes. The walls behind him gave off a rainbow shimmer, crystal cockroaches that squiggled around the room when I moved my head. The hermit scratched his beard and put a hand on either hip.
“Who the fuck are you? Goddammit, I told Hessie to keep this room locked up.”
He knelt next to a plastic bag and sorted through its contents, lots of small objects that he clacked around with relish, no doubt enjoying their effect on his drowsy intruder. I raised myself on an elbow.
He gave me an annoyed look. “No shit, Shirley.” And went back to his work.
I reached under my quilt to make sure I at least had clothing on, then ran a hand along the wall behind me. The reflectors were lined up seven-deep, triangles, circles, squares, rectangles and ovals in orange, red, green, yellow, blue, even purple, coating the walls in a jungleburst of color. The whole room was done up this way, even the windows and doorjambs, which were trimmed in fire-engine red. The morning sun shot through a side window and lit up a swath of amped-out sparkle, like citric acid made visual.
Hermit-guy sat on his haunches, having sorted out a dozen orange triangles, and took a good long study of me.
“So what’s your story, futon-girl? Too many frozen lemon cheesecakes? Triple-mocha heart attack?”
“The Puccini Table.”
He let out a rough, squeaky laugh. “Ah-haha! I told them that fucking thing was trouble. Liabilities, man! Lie-uh-bilities.”
“So,” I said, sweeping a hand at the room. “Is this one of Hessie’s preposterous notions?”
“This,” he said, “is my preposterous life’s work. The canvas, yes, was provided by Madame Nygaard, as was a seriously sweet commission. Hessie is a goddamn artist’s wet dream, and although this setting does lack a certain mobility, it will get much more exposure than some fussy millionaire’s living room.”
I looked at his triangles. “So are those for the orange cross-hatches behind you?”
“Ah, futon-girl has an eye! Yes, although I intend to fade them out along the top, just to be a prick, and then I will weave some snaky yellow ovals to steal away the symmetry.”
“That’s good,” I said.
“Approval is nice,” he said. “But it’s not what I need. What I need is to not give a flying fuck about what anyone thinks until I’m done, which is why I wanted this room locked up. Nothing worse for clouding the vision than worthless fucking mid-work commentary. Afterward, you can love it, hate it, throw dog shit on it, so long as I’ve reached the point where there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.”
“Could I tell you it’s one of the most gorgeous things I’ve ever seen?”
Hermit-guy stood and clapped the dust from his hands. “Now that,” he said, “is the kind of generalized ass-kissing that a guy can deal with.”
“Oh, it’s not ass-kissing. I’m an artist myself.”
He delivered a theatrical slap to his forehead and looked to the ceiling. “And she was doing so well. So. How long have you been an artist?”
I was not about to actually speak the words “three weeks,” but my expression gave me away.
“How many apartments have you been kicked out of?” he said. “How many credit cards have you run into the ground? How many lovers dumped you after the three-month excitement of dating an artist wore off and she realized you were broke? How many times… have you purchased gas for your car… with the pennies rolled up from your coin jar?”
“You get the point, Gladys? You use that word ‘artist’ around some of my long-suffering friends, and we might have to glaze your white yuppie ass and stick you in a kiln.”
“Oh yes. No one ever thinks they’re a yuppie. Look at that perfect coiffure, sister. Check out that Sedona sweatshirt. You may as well be wearing a Three Tenors baseball cap, for Chrissake. And I’ll bet anything you drive some junior SUV with a CD player and removable seats.”
All true, of course. But I would have given anything if he could sense my sincerity, if he could understand the month-long rebirth of my eyeballs. He seemed to reconsider, scuffling a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair.
“Oh, I’m sorry already. I’m just a bitter old artist. Feel free to stick around and watch. Quietly. You like jazz?”
“Okay then! That’s a start. Name’s Jonathon.”
“Sandy,” I said.
Jonathon grunted and switched on a tape deck covered with smears of black and gray. Out came Sarah Vaughan, that funny pseudo-British lisp, a swingy version of “I Feel Pretty.” I loved watching the track of his thoughts, a little bullet that traveled from eyes to head to hands, then burst forth in matador sweeps as he dabbed a reflector with adhesive and fixed it to a perfect spot. After an hour, I had to let out a question or I would burst.
“So how long?”
“Isn’t that kind of personal?”
“How many years,” I scolded.
“Twenty-three torturous, impoverished, glo-ree-uss years.”
“Any big successes?”
“Every single thing I’ve ever made. Every time I ignored some flat-head who told me I should do something more practical. Including the painters, I might add. They hate this shit.”
“Sold a piece in Seattle last week… a ten-foot sunrise of yellow, orange, little flakes of red. Ten thousand dollars.”
“Wow!” I exclaimed, a bit too much like a cheerleader.
“And three years ago the Grand Ronde tribes commissioned a bunch of huge-ass geometric things.”
“Ohmigod! The Spirit Mountain Casino?”
That was the first thing I had said all morning that seemed to make an impression. He stopped and scratched his beard. “You’ve been there?”
“Yesterday morning I woke up there. I was sort of… working on my vision.”
“Oh, Jesus,” he sighed, and turned back to his triangles. “I’m sorry, but you forty-year-old women and this Native American thing…”
Okay, now he was pissing me off.
“Native American craps dice?” I asked. “Native American playing cards?”
“What about them?”
“I use them in mosaics.”
He thought about that. “Okay. What else?”
“I love sea glass,” he said. “It’s so…”
“Random? Organic? Fusion of man and nature?”
“Say! There may be an artist in there after all. Y’got any slides?”
Having passed through such fierce gauntlets, I took this as the highest of compliments. “I’ve got the actual mosaics,” I said. “They’re just outside, in my… SUV.”
“Oh-hoh!” he roared. “Yuppie girl! Yuppie girl!”
“Yeah, yeah, so I got money. All the more reason for you to kiss my ass, honey. Let’s see…” I counted the points on my fingers. “Loaded yuppie lady, crazy about art, crazy about your art, might want to pay ridiculous sums of money for your art…”
“Stop right there!” said Jonathon. He stepped down from his footstool and rubbed his hands on a rag. “What do you say we head outside for some fresh air?”
Jonathon had some blunt critiques – the pastels could have been manipulated more carefully, the six-section piece was much too anal-retentive – but when he got to my craps-dice, his eyes lit up. “If you’d really like to be an artist,” he said, “you can start right here. Such sly humor!”
We were both feeling like some exercise, so I took him to my raisable section of drawbridge, where we watched the Willamette’s glacier-like course. Jonathon evidently had a thing for bridges, because he gave me a pretty impressive rundown: Hawthorne Bridge, built in 1910, one of the oldest lift bridges in the world, both feared and beloved by the locals for its rickety steel-mesh roadways. I was almost disappointed when he brought up his wife, a painter who created real-life scenes populated with primitive, cartoon-like figures. She took the narratives from a childhood of incest and molestation.
“When I first saw her works, I was in such a state of awe – the sheer bluntness, the incredible courage it took to portray such ugliness. It made me feel like my own work was too… I don’t know, decorative, socially irrelevant. But then I took her to my studio, and she loved it! She said she was amazed by its imagination and humor – in fact, she saw in my work what was perhaps lacking in her own. Our personalities fit into a surprisingly common pattern: the intense artist who’s incredibly easy-going, the humorous artist who can be a real prick… as you found out this morning.”
He fell silent for a moment, lost in the river. I played a little game, testing my vision.
“I love the water here,” I said. “It reminds me of…”
“Green marble?” he said.
“Exactly.” I wrapped my hands around the railing, smooth and cool in my grip. “So do you and Marta have any kids?”
“No. Marta wanted to cut the string. Not that she was concerned about herself – she’s the gentlest person on the planet – but the very act of child-bearing would bring back too many shadows. It also gave her a chance to pull the drain on a very toxic gene pool. She was their last chance.”
“Do you ever feel like you’re missing out on something?”
He edged up to my shoulder. “There are a lot of things I’m not doing. I’m not climbing Mount Everest, I’m not swimming with dolphins in the Virgin Islands, and I’m not playing mid-striker for the Argentinean World Cup soccer team. If you think too much about the things you’re missing, you’re apt to miss out on the things you’re not missing. Look at that room I’m working on. I’m getting good solid American currency to revel in color and light on a daily basis.
“No.” he continued. “Rather than giving the earth more children it doesn’t need, I will leave behind lovely radiant works of art. That room at Rimsky’s? His name is going to be Jerry. He’s a terrific little kid… and once I’m gone, he’ll have all kinds of friends who come to visit and ooh and ahh at the very sight of him. Are you all right?”
I couldn’t help myself. That same slice of sun was knifing over Portland to sow Jonathon’s beard with a ring of sparks. I reached out to gather them in.
“Who are you, Jonathon, who do you work for, and how is it that you know all the answers without knowing the questions?”
Jonathon broke up his beard with a toothy grin. “I’m nothing all that much,” he said. “I’m just the reflector man.”
Surfing the High Breeze
On the day that I saw Frosty again, Knickerbocker Beach was full of small delights. I had spent a rainy night in the Manon Suite (The Carmen Suite was taken), but the morning brought bold sunshine. I was a hundred yards out when I found a little heart outlined in the sand with pebbles. No names or initials, just a sort of community valentine.
After Jonathon’s rave review of my craps table, I was tuned in for brick, so when I registered a spot of red I ran right over to investigate. Closer study revealed a ladybug, looking a little bit lost. I corralled the little sucker onto my fingertip, and tried to remember the game we played when we were kids. Was it maybe, if the bug flew off your finger (“Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home…”) that you could get just about anybody to be your boyfriend? Kids have such weird ideas.
This particular ladybug was an acrophobe; she wasn’t going anywhere. I contented myself with counting her seven spots and flicking her into the air. She fell to the sand like a tiny pebble, flopping around on her back till she could extend her wings and right herself.
I walked all the way to the breakwater near Archer Bridge. On my way back, I was alarmed to find a ladybug flattened against the sand, as if she had been stepped on. I picked her up and was strangely relieved to find only six spots.
One of Jonathon’s patrons was an abortion doctor in Beaverton. I was relieved that I didn’t have to ask Pauline, because now that I had come to my decision, I didn’t want Hessie to know about it. What’s more, the clinic was very out-of-the-way, so it didn’t tend to attract protesters.
The whole issue has become so monopolized by extremists that the average person doesn’t get much of a say. Was it difficult? Did I feel guilty? Damn straight. Every time I listened to that story about Coyote and the moon, I was forced to consider the possibility that I might soon be taking a life. Or at least, preventing one.
The decision was difficult – but not the action. Once Jonathon’s words had lifted me up the remaining ten steps, I wanted the whole thing to be over with. And except for that harrowing, noisy three minutes, the procedure itself was straightforward and pretty much painless.
Beforehand, however, I was still shopping for reassurance. The clerical staff was wary of discussing philosophy with a patient, but not my doctor, a stocky, fiftysomething who definitely fell into the category of “tough broad.”
“I don’t mean this in a negative way,” I said, “but just because I’d like to know. How was it… that you came to choose this particular field of medicine?”
She laced her fingers together, the way doctors like to do. “It was in med school. Our OB/GYN professor informed us that the female body performs dozens of natural abortions during our lifetimes. The egg is fertilized, everything’s ready to go, but for some reason the body says ‘No.’ Not the right time, not the right mix of DNA – sometimes for no good reason at all. Somewhere a switch goes off, the egg fails to implant, and the next menstruation kicks it out.
“To me, this was quite a revelation,” the doctor continued. “It changed my entire view of the birth process. I began to form the opinion that we, as intelligent beings, should have at least as much say in the production of new life as our bodies do, that we should not have to live our lives as slaves to biology. Does that help?”
“Yes,” I said. “A little.”
“None of this,” she added, “means that you’re not going to have moments of doubt, probably for the rest of your life.”
“Yes. I know.”
I found a Victorian bed-and-breakfast in Sheridan with a view of the Yamhill River, and spent a week recuperating. By the end of my stay, I decided I was still a little short on atonement. I needed to repair the damage I had done to Carlotta and Frosty. After stopping at Spirit Mountain for more dice, I headed on to Hirshfield.
I had planned on Frosty being out on his usual rounds, but there I was at Mocha Rock, a bank of stormclouds hanging over Whalespout Ruins, and not a sight of him. (I was not about to pop in on his campsite.) I was just about to head south in defeat when the Gerrymander Lighthouse began rapping on my vision. I realized I had not once paid a visit to Gerrymander, so I ascended Frosty’s Steps and took a left.
Making my way further into the Pacific, I passed the little deer-trail that led to Nudie Dorker Cove, and then I cruised by the visitors’ center (which was closed for the evening) and on to an overlook with illustrated displays of bird species. The lighthouse itself was pretty much what I expected, a big ghost-pillar tapering from its broad base to a lamphouse with cubist-looking gears and reflectors a hundred feet in the air. Sort of a letdown, actually – although I did enjoy the “1923” carved over the door. I walked around the base, a circular lawn covered in hardy, broad-leafed grass, and became intrigued by the steep hill behind the parking lot, very lush and Irish-looking. I had never noticed it from the beach. The hill was criss-crossed by a narrow path, so that’s where I went.
By this time, the clouds were kicking up a wind, and the hillside was feeling very Wuthering Heights. The trail required four traverses, two through knee-high brambles, two through calf-high grass, then a brief ascent along the ridge. When I got to the top I found a dead end, the far side being a sheer drop to the visitors’ center. As much as I hated backtracking, I had no choice.
On my first step downhill, I spotted a hawk, still as a kite, surfing the high breeze. He stayed there, frozen, for thirty breathless seconds, then turned a feather and skated along the point, speeding sideways toward the lighthouse. And there was Frosty, standing in the trail.
“Frosty!” I nearly hurled myself down the hill to hug him. Frosty laughed and reeled me out at arms’ length.
“Sandrina Fingertip! You have this great habit of surprising the hell out of me.”
“I could kiss you a hundred times,” I said. “But that’s not why I’m here. I’m here to get you and Carlotta back together. I’m so sorry for what I did, it was so selfish of me and…”
“We are back together.”
“In fact,” said Frosty, “we’re married. In fact, Carlotta’s pregnant. I wanted to send word to you, but Hessie’s been out of town, and… well, quite frankly, I’ve been kinda busy.”
My reaction was the same as my reaction to the Puccini table: a shriek of recognition followed by wave after wave of laughter, only this time the laughter stayed on. It was one of those uncontrollable fits where every time you stop, you think of the thing that made you laugh in the first place, and off you go again. And every time Frosty tried to say something, it was like throwing plutonium on the fire.
Ten minutes later, I was flat on my back in the calf-high grass, sore in the ribs, sore in the mouth, my eyes red from watering. Frosty knelt behind me, massaging my temples to keep me calm. I looked up and saw three more hawks, raking the gray sky.
“I’m really sorry for taking all that glass,” I said.
“‘Salright. Lot of that glass was yours, anyway. Just wish you hadn’t ripped up the tool shed. Did you use them for mosaics?”
“Can you handle some more news?”
“I have to tell you anyway. Did you ask for the Carmen Suite last night?”
“Yes,” I said. “They said it was taken.”
“Do you know who took it?”
“Jerry Lee Lewis.”
That got my attention.
“He’s been looking for you everywhere. He wants you back.”
I would’ve started laughing again, but I didn’t have the energy. Frosty finished his thought.
“For his business.”
Profoundly Pale Polar Pestle
One day, during the loftier stretches of our romance, Frosty and I were out on our rounds, and I had let him wander on ahead. I was near the creek in front of Hotel Row when I found a small bank of rocks just under the breakers. What I saw then was amazing; it looked like a white pestle, about four inches long, ready to go under a wave. I’m guessing it was a punt, the part of a wine bottle that extends inside from the bottom.
Being a veteran of the frosted glass wars, I understood that there was no reason to panic, because a piece that big was not about to get buried by a single breaker. But I was wrong. The water rolled back and the pestle was gone. I waited there for breaker after breaker, but it refused to reappear. I pulled off my shoes and socks and waded in, digging frantically at the rocks and sand. Then I became enraged, cussing blue streaks all over the Pacific for this gross injustice, this jealous withholding of its treasures.
Oh, and I know what you’re thinking. You’re way ahead of me on this, and have already written up some endings. She finally gives up, continues her walk down the beach, and two hours later, on her way back, she discovers the pestle lain out on the sand, gleaming in the sunset. Or perhaps, a bunch of kids have built a sand-man, and are using the pestle for its nose. In either case, the waves of the Pacific will have conspired to reward Sandy for her acquiescence, for her patience, and now the profoundly pale polar pestle provides the centerpiece for her most wonderful mosaic.
Well, you’re wrong! Here’s how it really happened. Once I gave up on the pestle, once I excused myself from the rage and let go of my fondest desires, that was when I looked just beyond the creek and found a starfield of smaller pieces, tiny flashes of green, brown and white punctuation, so many that Frosted Glass Man himself could not gather them all. Everywhere I looked, small, unimpressive delights, there for the taking.
Live your life by life’s rules. You want the lesson, there it is. A few things you should know, however. Nobody knows what the goddamn rules are, nobody knows what language they’re in, and some goofy bastard comes along every night and changes them.
As for my own freaky self, I have learned the hard way that I have no control whatsoever over my own life. When it comes to the lives of others, however, I seem to provide a powerful conduit. My spiderweb has grown to amazing proportions, beginning with Silicon Valley. Panosys could not quite function without me, so McNeal staked odds against a third flake-out by hiring me as a half-time consultant. He also found out, through his accidental introduction, that Frosty could write code – and, what’s more, had a brand-new family to support.
As for Carlotta, about the same time she missed her period, Gilda’s went out of business. The Knickerbocker neighborhood was just not busy enough to support a restaurant. It might, however, support an art gallery, which is exactly how Carlotta convinced Hessie to front her the cash for the space. The inventory began with the bright realist paintings that were (conveniently enough) already hanging in the restaurant. The store eventually embraced Oregon’s glass-art community, including decorated net floats, free-standing sculptures and hanging wall-vases, as well as frosted-glass mosaics made by some chick in Portland.
Sandrina Fingertip has settled into a big live-work space in East Portland, mere blocks from the Rimsky-Korsakoffeehouse, where she lives with her hyperactive standard poodle, Java. Her tables have become all the rage among Silicon Valley’s post-dot-com set, providing her with additional excuses to visit her darling sister and nieces. She has also had some chances to spread the wealth; if you walk into McNeal Conowith’s Los Altos mansionette, you’ll find a five-foot-high, twenty-foot-wide artwork composed entirely of blue and red bicycle reflectors.
Hessie and I are the best friends that we were always intended to be, and I continue to take lessons from her fearless, sometimes foolish way of living. Every few weeks, I drop Java off at Pauline’s house and Hessie and I head for the Bel Canto, where I check up on my works at Carlotta’s, take long walks on the beach, and visit the Waterfront for large doses of seafood. I have also learned to take advantage of Jeremy’s long-simmering affections. (That’s the thing about these younger men – they’re great with condoms.)
I am careful not to intrude too much on Frosty’s family, but once in a while they invite me to a bonfire, where we roast hot dogs and then gather around while Frosty tells tales. If I needed any reassurances, they came last year, when four-year-old Grace began calling me “Aunt Sandy.” I kid Frosty that his daughter’s name sounds like an Asian immigrant trying to say “glass.” Frosty responds, “I have always been of the opinion that glass is very close to grace.”
As for the fetus that would have become our child – that knowledge will never see the light of day, but will remain as a small, permanent crease on my heart.
Also by this Author:
Fifty-year-old Bill Harness is on a strange but seemingly benign journey, rambling across the country in an old Pontiac and anonymously leaving large checks with promising young opera singers. His fuel, however, is sorrow, and it isn’t until he arrives on a small island outside of Seattle and befriends Gabriella Compton, a phenomenally talented soprano, that he is able to address the three great tragedies of his vocally gifted family.
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we present Chapter One of GABRIELLA’S VOICE…
“Una voce poco fa: Qui nel cor mi risuonò.”
(“I heard a little voice just now; it has marked my heart!”)
–Rosina, “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” Rossini
One day she woke up screaming.
She wasn’t sure why she screamed, but the screaming gave her pleasure, small vibrations gathering force in her tiny frame and throttling out into the too-large world, seizing territories of the air by their very resonance. Soon her mother came to comfort her, and she quickly made the connection. When her mother left the room, she began to scream again, and this time her father came. She’d found her occupation.
For years, the screaming continued. At the slightest irritation, the little girl would lift up her large walnut-colored eyes, suck in the air with a great sobbing breath and set the beast free, ringing the room in ever more blood-curdling tones.
From the psychologist they received the fashionable comforts – dramatic tendencies, an elevated need for self-expression – and so they were forced to ignore it. They sent the screaming girl upstairs and trained themselves not to hear the spearing glissandos shaking the sheetrock. They also learned to negotiate the questions put to them by friends and relatives, the most common of which was, “What is that child doing?” which always seemed to carry the converse accusation, “What are you doing to that child?”
“Oh, don’t worry about her,” they would say. “She is our screaming child. Screaming is her hobby. She’s really quite good, don’t you think?”
One day the screaming child realized she was being ignored and opened her window to set the beast flying into the neighborhood, a gargoyle on the wing. She screamed for five hours. Her neighbors two doors to the south suspected child abuse, and called the police. When she saw the flashing lights pulling into the driveway, the little girl stopped screaming and smiled, proud of the growing reach of her voice.
The next day, her mother sat with her at the piano and opened up a tattered book of Italian art songs. She told the little girl that the dots on the page stood for notes and she could play them on the piano, or sing them with her voice. These notes stood for small divisions of time, she was told. And these divisions were called rhythms.
Blessed with a voice strengthened by screaming, an ear conditioned by the songs her mother played on the stereo or the piano, or sang over the kitchen sink, the little girl learned quickly. By the end of the morning she had memorized an entire song filled with bouncing foreign syllables, and that night she hummed it to herself as she faded off to sleep.
After the little girl had learned the songs in her mother’s tattered book, her mother brought home a music teacher, a woman who wore brightly colored scarves and spoke like a character in a movie. For her first lesson, the little girl learned a song by a man named Monteverdi. The teacher was impressed by the speed of the girl’s learning, by the power of her voice, and decided, much to her mother’s consternation, to teach her a more difficult piece, an aria by Puccini called “Vissi d’arte.” The title of the aria meant “I gave my life for art,” said the teacher, and came from something she called an “opera.”
* * *
When I was six, my mother and I moved north and east to a new state. My father would join us later that month. After the movers had finished loading the furniture into our new house, my mother found me playing inside an empty packing box and said, “Billy! Bundle up. You’re going to meet your grandmother.”
We drove to a tall church near the center of town where they were holding a talent show. My mother and I sat in a pew near the back while the pastor, Ralph Tompkins, read a poem about his Irish setter, Mister Bones, and four men from the choir sang “The Old Mill Stream.”
I was beginning to fall asleep when my mother nudged me in the ribs. I opened my eyes to find my grandmother standing at the altar in a flowing silk kimono the color of the jade elephant my father had brought me from San Francisco. She wore a jet-black wig pulled into a bun, and her face was powdered white like a clown’s, with cat-like rays of mascara slanting out over her eyes.
The organist settled her hands on the keys and rang down a storm of chords, falling by stairsteps into a conversation of two small birds. My grandmother was the sun slanting through the clouds, and when she held her wide sleeves to the wooden ceilings and opened her mouth, the sound filled the hollow of my ears, made my nose itch, ran through my mouth, my head, down the length of my spine and into my legs.
That this extraordinary voice could be contained by the single human frame of my grandmother did not occur to me. I considered it a magician’s trick, and waited for doves to fly from the jade-green sleeves. When she was done, everybody applauded, and my mother whispered to me that my grandmother was a butterfly. That seemed a very strange thing to say.
Later that year, my mother got a job as a waitress, and during the times when my father was out of town, I would spend my evenings with my grandmother, listening to records of women who sang with the butterfly’s voice, of men who shouted like barking dogs, and other men who rumbled like the legs of the kitchen table when you scooted it across the floor.
After my grandmother went to the kitchen to prepare dinner, I would sit on the sofa and look at the album covers, the big-chested women in gowns that fell like curtains to the floor, and chunky gold necklaces like the ones in pirate treasures, and powdered wigs piled up on their heads like loaves of bread, their hands held out to the air, their mouths forced apart like they were trying to make funny faces. And I wondered why my grandmother was not there, too, with her white face and cat’s eyes and butterfly voice.
But that is why I am here, desert wind whistling the broken seal of my driver’s side door as my borrowed Pontiac pours its rusty-mufflered baritone over the Western landscape. And though I know these canyons and mesas are supposed to elicit sweeps of Aaron Copland brass, or rustling copper flamenco, or Irish fiddle music, all I hear are sopranos.
The poker-deck riffles of grass north of the Big Horn Canyon in Montana bring me the spun honey of Kiri Te Kanawa, “La Rondine,” Doretta’s Song. The gray stegosaur scales of the Tetons call up Licia Albanese, the turtle dove deathbed sighs of “Addio del passato” from “Traviata.” In Logan, Utah, under the longbox tent of Wellsville Mountain, I hear the cake-frosting mezzo voce of Montserrat Caballé from “Turandot,” “Signore, ascolta!” And all across the dry shepherd hills of Eastern Washington, a fold of the map from the hunter green/frost white promise of the Cascades, I hear Renata Tebaldi’s heart-inflating triple sixteenths from “La Wally,” “là, fra la neve bianca” (“There, amid the white snow...”).
I am a child of the soprano voice.
* * *
At the end of my quest for the Puget Sound, I crossed the floating bridge over Lake Washington at sunset, driving square into an orange sun, found the ramp for Interstate Five and rolled uphill then down into the star-map windows of downtown Seattle.
I took the first likely-looking skyscraper exit and wound up on Pike, where I stumbled onto the Seattle Sheraton and decided to look no further. After check-in and a nice shower, I found myself strangely restless, and decided to make things worse by seeking out some good espresso. The kid at the registration desk suggested I follow Pike back over the freeway to the very hip Capitol Hill district . When I got to Broadway, though, I was distracted by a cool old-fashioned neon sign for a place called Cafe Trademark and decided that this called for inspection.
Slipping past the Parisian windows and in through the glass door, I found the interior dangerously clean, but equipped with just enough concert posters, gritty urban artworks and mismatched garage sale dining tables to seem at least marginally sleazy (in cafe terms, this is a good combination). A brass plaque next to the cash register explained the name: the place used to be called Cafe Paradiso, but some big firm back east wanted to use the name for a retail chain. The big boys threatened to sue, so naturally the little guys had to back off, but not without at least poking a little ironical fun with their new moniker.
While awaiting my caffe brève, I sorted through the stacks of weeklies next to the window (Seattle statutes apparently require one alternative publication per ten-block area). In the listings of something called The Stranger I found a production of The Barber, “Il barbiere di Siviglia,” just across the sound on Bainbridge Island. The State Ferry Opera Company – just the kind of obscure little group that makes up my current mission in life.
On the way out the door I paused to study two metal-faced boys at the counter – some of these Capitol Hill bohemians sustain enough piercings as to seem almost android – when my eye drifted to a canary-yellow flyer taped to the window. “The Barber of Seville,” State Ferry Opera Company. “Just three blocks from the Winslow Ferry!” The State Ferry publicist was certainly earning his or her keep.
* * *
The following evening I paid a visit to the Pontiac in its clean garage spot, offered reassurances that I would be giving it a few days off, and opened up the trunk to slip the red leather checkbook from its bank-box niche. It occurred to me that I should give a name to this car – Escamillo, perhaps, after the toreador in “Carmen,” or maybe Mistress Quickly from “Falstaff.” I put the idea in my pocket next to three Susan B. Anthony dollars and headed for the street.
Seattle hardly seemed like the Seattle of myth without rain and cold, but it was August, after all. Under eighty degrees of humid sunshine I sought out the shady side of the street and tried to breathe slowly, feeling the sweat gathering in my shirt sleeves and looking forward to the breezes over the waterfront. The natives all around me seemed to have the exact opposite idea, burbling and rattling their skyscraper canyons with a fierce, joyous energy, agendaless and sun-charged, knowing it could rain tomorrow, and the day after that, and so on ad nauseam.
I am a born mariner, though never an actualized one, and once on board the ferry I was drawn inexorably to one of the twin prows overlooking the car deck. I started out aft so I could watch the tangerine flame of the sun as it charmed each spire of the gray and brown skyline, the waterfront shrinking to postcard size as the Walla Walla’s big engines churned the waters of Elliott Bay to an evergreen milkshake.
I gradually turned my eyes to the Duwamish Head of West Seattle, feeling the pulse of envy as I sighted its clifftop dwellings, imagining the view from each window. Circling the deck to the bow, I found the Olympics throwing jagged outlines over the unassuming green loaf of Bainbridge. The ferry turned to port and slowed, sliding past the mainsail forest of Eagle Harbor and into the dock, where the captain churned the reverse engines until the bow settled into its cushioned pilings.
One of the crew asked me to stand back as she lowered the passageway and locked it to the prow. Once set loose, my fellow footmen and I paced up the long, cattle-chute corridors, passing a gaggle of weary Seattle-bounders before we broke out into the parking lot and chose our separate electron paths up the broad sidewalks into Winslow.
I ventured from the throughway of the ferry road and jogged left into town, where I found a sleepy strip of restaurants, antique shops and bookstores, refreshingly patchwork in style (no civic master plans at work here). I stuck the Streamliner Diner into my mental Rolodex – if only for the silly rhyme and the laminated menus Scotch-taped to the front window – then took another left, downhill toward the waterfront. On Bjune, a block away from the harbor, I spotted the Bainbridge Theater, a vaguely suburban assemblage of organic curves and archways all lit up for the big night, and split the wide front doors, handing over my cash to two smiling elderly ladies at the ticket window and settling into my seat a mere two minutes ahead of the overture.
I have become a student of tiny regional opera companies, and have learned to revel in their often-predictable faults. The State Ferry Company afforded several.
The orchestra, a cut-down squadron of fourteen, attacked the famed overture as though they were regulars at La Scala, but would fail to be half as good or aggressive for the rest of the evening. The reasons were simple enough: that overture had rung through their heads since the age of three, pounded into place by college recitals and symphony pops concerts, whereas the rest of the score was a strange, dark neighborhood haunted by the unruly presence of singers.
Another unruly presence was their conductor, a thin, stately septuagenarian sporting an antique white tuxedo and an extraordinarily stilted manner. He began with his baton aimed skyward some three feet over his head, as though he were pointing out Corona Borealis at the meridian, then delivered his downbeat with all the subtlety of a spiked football. He followed with thrashing sweeps to the left and right, broad calisthenic strokes worthy of Jack LaLanne, then geared back skyward for another go-round, passing out silent reprimands all the while over tempo differentials – none of which, apparently, were his fault.
The set designer, meanwhile, had assembled a quite reasonable plywood-and-stucco facsimile of Dr. Bartolo’s Spanish villa, but had perhaps gone a step too far by installing a small, fully operational three-pronged fountain in the courtyard. He had failed to anticipate the theater’s fluctuating water pressure, which caused the trident spray to grow or shrink depending on how many of the crew were flushing the johns backstage.
The theater itself turned out to be a converted film house, and though its vaulted ceiling afforded some amazingly crisp acoustics, the low concrete walls at left and right were a mite too enthusiastic. I discovered this when the company’s Figaro, a slim, stern-looking baritone who seemed to be singing through his chin, turned stage left at the climactic point of “Largo factotum” (the passage that I remember singing to my little brother as “ci-ga-rette, cigarette, cigarette!”) and suddenly appeared to be singing three inches from my right ear. At first I suspected body mikes – unheard of in legitimate opera – but figured it out a few minutes later when Count Almaviva pulled the exact same trick stage right to ear left.
Fifteen or twenty minutes into the first act, Count Almaviva and Figaro hover at Bartolo’s front door, waiting to discover the effect of Almaviva’s serenades on Bartolo’s beautiful young ward, Rosina. (The Count has assumed the identity of a poor student, Lindoro, as operatic noblemen are wont to do.) A womanly silhouette appears at the balcony, parts the gauze white curtains with slim, red-nailed fingers, and muses to herself in a voice I cannot quite believe. So, in truth, I met Gabriella’s voice before I met Gabriella.
“Non è venuto, an cora?” (“Has he not come yet?”) Then, interrupted by someone inside the house, she offers a plaintive aside: “Oh, che ver gogna! vorrei dargli il biglietto.” (“Oh, how provoking! I wished to give him this note.”)
This was no more than a recitative, and, after a few more lines, an exclamation of surprise - “Ah, che vita da crepare!” (“Oh, what a scolding life I lead!”) - and she was gone, never having ventured past the white drapes. I could not quite take in what I’d just heard, so I set it down to another acoustical trick, perhaps a steel beam set into the ceiling above Rosina’s apartment. No Bainbridge Island soprano could possibly be this good.
Rosina turned out to be Gabriella Compton, a tall, almost willowy young woman somewhere between twenty-five and thirty years of age, possessed of a thick stream of burnt umber hair descending halfway down her back. Her face was sharp, almost cat-like, with a slightly upturned nose, a smattering of freckles across high cheeks, and marquis-cut eyes the color of walnut shells. She rolled them upward in the universal expression of teenage girldom as her guardian (who had designs on being her husband) scolded her for her scandalous behavior.
Though certainly pleasing, the exterior paled in comparison to the instrument, a living object for which I already lacked superlatives. I rummaged the world of nature for similes. Lighter than a slice of beeswax. Sharp as any number of spices: nutmeg, cinnamon, oregano, bay leaves and cayenne pepper. Tangy as molasses, or lemon drops. (On a cold day. In New York City.) It was getting ridiculous, so I dropped the process entirely and made myself dumb, a hollow vessel, recording device, acoustic tile, as Gabriella punctured Bartolo with snappy Italian phrases.
And, of course, I knew what was coming. My grandmother’s schooling had included innumerable interpretations of “Una voce poco fà,” Rosina’s cavatina (or introductory aria) – even a scratchy old 78 of Lily Pons with the Paris Opera. I knew each phrase, every nuance, and several of its traditional cadenzas. I could likely sing it myself, but to apply my sickly baritone to notes such as these would smack of sacrilege.
And this is how the scene is set. Bartolo leaves Rosina to consider her several sins, locking the door on his way out to make sure she doesn’t commit any more. At the very turn of the key the girl rushes to Bartolo’s desk and writes her new beloved a secret letter, musing out loud as she composes. “I heard a little voice just now; it has marked my heart!” All during the long, stately introduction, and even these first perfunctory phrases, I am here in my seat making simple calculations. I take this concrete object, Rossini’s elegant, immortal aria, and this smooth sheet of terra cotta paper, which is all that I know of Gabriella Compton’s gorgeous, barely describable voice, and I wrap the one in the other. I balance the package in my hands, measure its weight, roll my finger under the yellow ribbon, read the calligraphed card, and am about to take one Scotch-taped seam and tear when I open my ears to find I am wrong. Utterly wrong.
Rosina rises from Bartolo’s desk, hits upon the name of her beloved student (“Si Lindoro mio sarra,” “And it was Lindoro who hurled the dart”) and takes flight, climbing the scales of her initial cadenza like turbine escalators to the top of a department store, then turns like an overcharged child and leaps the steps three at a time back down, each brief landing a bell-like staccato chime that would not normally be attributed to a human voice.
A dozen measures later she lands on a rare Rossini sustain and pulls a trick I have only heard from Tebaldi, on a recording of “L’altra notte” from Boito’s “Mefistofele.” She sets herself into a slow trill, then speeds it up like a racing motor, simultaneously gearing back on the dynamic, mezzo forte to piano, three times, then drops it down to nothing and directly into the following phrase, more rapid Rossini patter - and all of this without a breath, not till the end of the phrase! Any other singer would have passed out.
And it goes on like that, cadenzas raining down like a pyrotechnic display in a wealthy city, sprouting from phrases where I’ve never heard them before, each as individual and inspired as a snowflake. This Gabriella Compton is singing out of her century, reading from the great tapestry of 18th and 19th century virtuosi sopranos who took the score into their heads and etched signature embellishments all over its margins, each of them striving to create ornaments that no other could duplicate. (Adelina Patti once gave an inordinately florid reading of “Una voce poco fa” at one of Rossini’s salons, and was afterward met with the composer’s polite inquiry, “Very nice, my dear, and who wrote the piece you have just performed?”)
The treble meter of “Una voce” gives way to the rolling four-four of “Io sono docile” (“With a mild and docile air”), but not before the inexperienced audience breaks matters up with a burst of applause. Gabriella smiles and calmly sings them back down, pulling her distracted conductor along with her, and soon commences to further vocal displays.
The phrase “mi fo guidar” (“If none provoke or chide”) traditionally rides an exaggerated rolled “r” to the conjunction “ma” (“But...”), serving to introduce the business side of Rosina’s sweet personality (the lioness inside the angel). Gabriella turns this transition into a showpiece, riding that “r” like a frisky Palomino and piercing her “ma” with a bright staccato no heavier than a paper clip.
The device draws unexpected laughter - but perhaps not unexpected by Gabriella, who repeats the phrase a minute later in a spot where it has not previously existed, and throws in a practiced pout of her fluid red lips for extra measure.
I cannot tell you any more. It would bankrupt all that I know of singing and opera, and I would have no bread to live on tomorrow. Let me just say this: the remainder of this “Barber” was mere transport, a ferryboat cruise along watermarks of plot and music, that brought whoops of “Brava!” at the closing of the final curtain. I followed the murmuring crowd into the lobby, simultaneously exhausted and reborn, the panels of my skin worn smooth as beachward glass by the tides of glorious sound.
My glory turned quickly to anxiety, however, as I realized that a few more minutes might bring Gabriella Compton in the flesh, and words not sung but spoken from those lips. I was not prepared, this soon, to pierce the sacred separation provided by the proscenium arch. Besides, I felt like a high school freshman at his first dance, a mental state that could not possibly make a worthy impression.
Thus fixed on my plan, I drifted to the edge of the waiting mass, a tossed salad of perfumes and musty suits, and discovered a fishbowl holding entries for a raffle. I took the red leather checkbook from my shirt pocket, scrawled out a check to the State Ferry Opera Company, and folded it into the slot.
Satisfied, I escaped out a side exit into the water-crossed night, slipping through the pockets of a tree-shadowed park to the lights of the ferry station and the dark, noiseless water of Puget Sound.
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