Thursday, July 31, 2014

Frosted Glass, Chapter One: A Vague Egyptian Myth


Frosted Glass

 

 

a novel

 

 

 

 

 







 

by

 

 

Michael J. Vaughn

 

 

 

John P. Rutledge, Editor




For my feminine side, Anne Gelhaus.

And for Robert S. Pesich, coyote laureate.






FIRST EDITION
2002

 

 

ISBN 1-929429-75-4


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.

THIS LITERARY WORK IS ENTIRELY FICTION.  NO SIMILARITY TO ACTUAL PERSONS, LIVING OR DEAD, IS INTENDED OR SHOULD BE INFERRED, UNLESS SUCH PERSON(S) IS/ARE EXPRESSLY IDENTIFIED BY NAME.  NO ONE IS INTENTIONALLY DEFAMED OR EXPLOITED IN THIS WORK IN VIOLATION OF ANY RIGHT OF PUBLICITY LAW.  LIKEWISE, NO INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHT OF ANY PARTY WAS INTENTIONALY VIOLATED IN THIS WORK.  THE AUTHOR AND PUBLISHER ARE WILLING TO CONSIDER AMENDING THIS TEXT TO ERADICATE ANY UNLAWFUL LANGUAGE, DESCRIPTION OR CONTENT.

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  NO PART OF THIS LITERARY WORK (AND/OR ANY ACCOMPANYING ARTWORK) MAY BE REPRODUCED IN ANY MANNER WITHOUT THE EXPRESS, WRITTEN CONSENT OF DEAD END STREET, LLC (EXCEPT IN THE CASE OF BRIEF QUOTATIONS EMBODIED IN CRITICAL ARTICLES AND REVIEWS).  FOR INFORMATION OR CONSENT, PLEASE CONTACT:

John P. Rutledge, CEO & General Counsel
DEAD END STREET, LLC
813 THIRD STREET
HOQUIAM, WA  98550
jrutledge@deadendstreet.com

DEAD END STREETâ is a registered service mark of Dead End Street, LLC.

Buy the book at Amazon.com




Your old life was a frantic running from silence.
The speechless full moon comes out now.

–Rumi




Chapter One

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
five years
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
and then

He knew, right?
He had to know
(gasp, gasp)
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?
Billboards?
Cue cards?
Infomercials?

A-a-a-a-and

(gasp, sob)
Dumped!
El Dumpo!
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.


Photo by MJV

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Nature Boy, the Complete Novel

Buy the book on Amazon Kindle.



Nature Boy

a novel by Michael J. Vaughn















Copyright © 2014 by Michael J. Vaughn

 

Dragonfly Press

Publisher:   Dr. Albert J. Lowe
Executive Editor:  Calder Lowe

P.O. Box 746
Columbia, CA  95310
Website: www.dragonflypress-ca.com/
Logo © 2014  Dragonfly Press

 


For Joe Urban





Amaryllis Asphalt

Jacaranda snows are a lovely thing if you can find them, splitting the narrow sea of Highway 5, wondering if your hand will slip from the wheel, if life holds more for you than three-minute eggs and a waitress named Jolene.

The Texas rain does you large favors, curtaining off the horizon before it swallows you up. Western states do not stop for passengers, and morning waits like a dial tone on the rail fences outside Dallas.

The only thing better than being here is being three miles from here, three minutes from now.

And nothing so good as a rest stop blackbird, picking crumbs off the pay phone shelf.



First published in The Montserrat Review






Backlit by Nostalgia

Skye pushes uphill, planting his claws, kicking out asphalt, sweat slick on his temple. He passes a houseboat, a breeze of vacationers laughing over grills.

An hour later, he arrives at a sprawling rental and steals upstairs, rinses off in the shower and puts on some clean clothes. He’s tossing everything into his bags when Rosa appears in the doorframe.

“Are you leaving?”

He pauses to settle his voice. “Yes.”

“Oh.” Her response carries a lift of surprise, but she’s wise enough to continue downstairs.

Skye tosses the bags into his truck, is ready to escape when he remembers.

“Shit.”

His head feels tight, overstuffed. He slips back inside, feeling the press of time. He’s in luck – his dad is napping. The book sits on the nightstand: Traitors. Later, he might enjoy the irony. He takes it, gives his father’s face a regretful look, and returns to the driveway.

He heads north, retracing the route of his angry hike. Nearing the restaurant, he extends a middle finger in the general direction of his little sister, and climbs the western edge of the lake. The jailbreak is complete.

Still, his anger presses on his eyelids. He stops at the first casino past the border and slips a five into a slot with Arthurian faeries and nobles. He cashes out with fifteen, and hopes that this is the first notch in a positive trend. He takes a last look at the blue spread of Tahoe and turns toward Carson City.

The long, lazy stretches of 395 feel deliciously otherworldly, the sun drifting low over the barren backsides of the Sierras. His plan takes shape: a first-ever tour of Mono Lake, followed by a drive over Tioga Pass and in through Yosemite’s back door. But first, a place to sleep. He exits a long, lunar canyon and finds a grassy plain peppered with cows. Californians do not expect to see the color green so near to Nevada.

The surprise deepens as he rolls into a town called Bridgeport, a charming strip of old-school storefronts and country homes. Skye spots a motor court – a long white ell nestled around a park of lawns and shade trees. He checks in at the desk, tosses his bags into a comfortably cheesy room (thick floral curtains, paintings of ducks) and takes a shower to scrub away the road.

His last decent outfit includes a button-down shirt featuring a golden eagle and a red sportcoat he bought for a Halloween devil outfit. He passes a stout, historic-looking building: clean white paint, arching doorway, sprawling oak. A library. The day’s gathered warmth magnifies the scent of the flowering hedges. Skye feels his lungs releasing their grip. He sees the word PIZZA and almost gets zinged when the sprinklers come on.

Mae’s Pizza is a boisterous chaos, yard-sale relics nailed to the walls, bunting left over from the 4th of July. The preponderance of truckers’ caps, plaid shirts and three-day beards indicates a hunting crowd. He’s grateful for the barking chatter; despite his clothes, he’d love nothing more than to be swallowed up by the crowd. He orders a sweaty microbrew, a slab of London broil, and a baked potato with every possible condiment.

Finishing a slice of apple pie, Skye notes a redhead with a man-like beer belly, fine-tuning a stack of electronic components. She opens a laptop, presses a button on a nearby television, and reveals herself: Peg o’ My Heart Karaoke. Skye smiles.

He waits until a handful of regulars have sung (bluegrass, country ballad, Southern rocker) and whispers a request to the KJ. He takes the mic and waits for the song screen, feeling a pleasant buzz of adrenaline.

He once talked a voice magazine into a story about yodeling, and arranged an interview with Ranger Doug of the cowboy trio Riders in the Sky. “First,” said Doug, “Drive your truck into a field far from people and small animals and roll up the windows.” The trick was to manipulate the flip-point between normal singing and falsetto. Skye learned a few of Ranger Doug’s solos, and now could apply the yodel-flip to artists like Dwight Yoakam, whose “Guitars, Cadillacs” had become one of his go-to songs. His venture earns a rowdy applause and a few freelance comments (“You sound just like ‘im!”). The approval makes him a little self-conscious, but it’s another notch toward his restoration.

Skye orders another beer and spots a newspaper at the next table. He reads up on the Giants – who are mired in a slump – and is surprised when he hears his name. He approaches the station.

“Quick rotation.”

“Classic drunky-oke,” says Peg. “Most of ‘em won’t sing until beer number four.”

“How ‘bout Nature Boy, Nat King Cole?”

Peg punches a few keys and smiles, revealing a missing tooth. “You’re on.”

It doesn’t make much sense to sing such a quiet song in such a loud room, but Skye is playing a hunch. By the end of the first verse the ringing debates have cut back to scattered comments. He notes an old man at the bar, a smile backlit by nostalgia. Skye applies the magical coda and returns to his table, massaged by applause.

It’s tempting to stay for more, but he’s wary of pressing his luck. He downs his beer, folds the comics into his pocket and finds the old guy hovering over his table.

“I can’t believe that someone sang that song in this bar.”

Skye smiles. “I suspect you have some history with that one.”

He spins a chair and sits on it backward. “Possibly my all-time favorite. How’d a youngster like you come to know it?”

“I was doing a story on Harry Connick and I heard his recording. I tracked it back to Nat King’s version, and that was a revelation.”

“Do you know about the guy who wrote it?”

Skye has a passing thought of his cozy motel room, but it’s clear that this old dog has latched on to a bone. He doesn’t have the heart to spoil his fun.

eden ahbez (who felt that upper-case letters should be reserved for God and Infinity) was a former bandleader who moved to Los Angeles and founded the Nature Boys, a group of vegetarian proto-hippies who wore robes, beards and sandals. In 1947, at the prompting of songwriter Johnny Mercer, ahbez found Cole’s manager backstage and offered him the music to “Nature Boy.” Cole performed the song to great acclaim, but couldn’t record it until he located the man who wrote it. They finally found ahbez camping beneath the first L in the Hollywood sign, and his song was number one for eight weeks in the summer of ’48.

“What’s interesting to note,” says the old dude, “is that eden may have obtained that haunting melody from a piano quintet by Dvoràk, or a song by a Yiddish composer who sued him and settled out-of-court for $25,000. A settlement, of course, is not an admission of guilt, and ahbez insisted he heard the song ‘in the mist of the California mountains.’”

His name is Sarge McCollum, and his passion for jazz is profound. Sarge has a thatch of silver hair that flies around as he talks, and sharp brown eyes behind small-framed spectacles. He’s also a master of gesticulation, as if he’s conducting his sentences.

“Bobby Darin was so talented it was hard to believe. I saw him once at the Copa. Keely Smith was in the audience, and Darin needled her mercilessly. Finally he waved his band into one of those jumpy Louis Prima vamps and sang a whole song in phony Italian. Y’know, Prima was that close to creating rock and roll. I’ve got this recording of ‘Buona Sera’ that could have been done by Little Richard.”

Skye slaps the table. “Yes! That sax solo where the drummer kicks it double-time.”

“Sam Butera. What a sound he had. Like roast beef.”

The bartender interrupts them. “Okay, Letterman and Leno. Time to break it up.”

“Sorry, Mae. We profoundly apologize.”

They walk outside as Sarge fishes for adjectives for Nat King Cole’s voice. “Velvety, but pure. Rich but clear. Like a cigar with no smoke. No! Like a kiwi fruit. Ah, crap. You’re the writer.”

They stop at the corner.

“Sarge, it’s been vastly entertaining talking to you.”

“Or listening to me. Honestly, I don’t usually go on like this. But jazz, for me, it’s like meth. Hey, I don’t know how long you’ll be in town, but I have an enormous collection of LPs, and I’d be thrilled to show it off.”

“Sure,” says Skye. “That sounds great.” It’s a phony answer; he has every intention of seeing Yosemite and going the hell home.

Sarge hands him a card. “Give me a call if you’d like to come by. I’ll send someone to pick you up. It’s a hell of a drive, and I wouldn’t want you to mess up your car.”

“Wow. Thanks.”

“Take care.”

“G’night.”

Skye sets off toward the motel. A breeze ruffles his hair.

One Weird Thing After Another

The next morning is beautiful. Skye gets into his truck smelling of almond oatmeal soap, visions of Mono’s mysterious tufa formations rising through his head. What follows is silence. And silence.

“It’s your solenoid.”

Skye answers with silence.

“Your starter.”

“Oh.”

Rex the mechanic follows with that sigh that no driver wants to hear. Part. Carson City. Closed till tomorrow.

Skye checks back into his motel. Two hours later, he finds himself watching senior women’s golf. Something is sticking out of his wallet: a business card, whose entire contents are Sarge’s name and Sarge’s number. He punches the digits and gets a woman with a vaguely Asian accent.

“Sarge McCollum.”

“Oh. Hi. This is Skye Pelter.”

“Skye! Sarge said you might call. Did you want to come up?”

“Sure.”

“Half an hour okay?”

“Sure. I’m at…”

“The Whitehurst. Look for a black SUV with a very small driver.”

He thinks he hears a giggle. “Okay.”

“By-ee!”

Lethargy overtakes him. He’s still rooted in his armchair when a knock lands on the door. Annika Sorenstam knocks in a putt.

The man is six inches taller than a midget and dressed in a black chauffeur’s outfit. He looks Japanese but speaks with precise British diction.

“Greetings! I was sent to drive you to Mister McCollum’s.”

“Oh. Sure.”

Skye grabs his jacket and follows the man to a black Escalade. The exterior is surprisingly clean – and wet. He notices a nearby garden hose, still dripping. The man climbs into the driver’s side, which is equipped with a child’s seat and extensions on the pedals and steering wheel.

“My name is Bubba Yoshida. Feel free to buzz me anytime during your stay at the Springs. I have taken the liberty of sending my number to your cell.”

Skye finds it difficult to respond, given the rate at which they are advancing through Bridgeport. Bubba manipulates the shift like a NASCAR veteran, and rips them sideways toward a wall of ivy. Somehow the ivy gives way, and they’re cruising a dirt road along a river.

“Bubba?”

“Yes, Mister Pelter?”

“No. That’s the question. Bubba?”

Bubba chortles in a lordly baritone. “I daresay that is the question. My father’s unfortunate dalliance with a Texas cheerleader. She agreed to let him take me to London, on the stipulation that she get to choose my Christian name. Hold on, please.”

The road takes a banked turn to the right, but Bubba takes them right over the top. After two or three seconds, the Earth rises to greet them, and they dive into a wood of spidery trees.

“Please forgive my haste, but Mister McCollum insisted on seeing you as soon as possible.”

Skye tries hard not to whimper. They barrel from the wood and straight up the side of a mountain, not a road so much as a series of gaps between boulders. Bubba dodges them as if he were playing a video game. After ten interminable minutes they lift onto something resembling a drive. A leftward bend brings them to a modest-looking mountain home surrounded by bristlecone pines.

Skye gets out, attempting to regain his land legs, and sees something blue and familiar. Sarge trots the steps, holding a cigar.

“Skye! So good to see you.”

Skye’s too out of breath to answer.

“Ah. Sorry for the Grand Prix. I’m an impatient man, so I hired a fearless driver. Don’t worry, we’ve only ever lost one guest, and nobody much cared for him, anyway. Come on in! Let me give you the tour.”

Skye looks back down the drive, where Bubba is hosing down the Escalade.

Sarge follows his gaze. “I’m very insistent on the car looking its best.”

“No,” says Skye. “Beyond that. Is that Half Dome?”

“Eagle eye! One of many perks here at the Springs. A remarkable series of gaps in the mountains that allow me a view of Yosemite.”

“Wow.”

Sarge takes him across a porch guarded by twin rocking chairs and through a door of rough-hewn planks. Directly inside is a black stone floor and a large table pushed against a picture window. The chairs are fashioned from branches with the bark still attached.

“Have a seat,” says Sarge. “Care for some coffee?”

“Always.” Skye turns a chair and takes in the view, the green valley, the scramble of trees and rooftops that signifies Bridgeport, and the red-dirt mountains of Nevada. The table reveals wine-dark swirls of grain, and he realizes it’s a slice of redwood burl. Sarge returns with two foam-topped mugs.

“I took the liberty of upgrading you to a latte.”

“Fantastic.”

He sits down, takes a dreamy sip and blinks his eyes. “Are you well-fortified?”

“Sure. Stopped by Mae’s for some breakfast.”

“Mae’s Pizza and everything else – at least during hunting season. Well. Just wanted to make sure you had some energy.”

“I thought this was just your jazz collection.”

“Yes, but… well.” Sarge runs a hand over his chin and gives Skye an oddly direct look. “Do me one favor, Skye. Don’t ever ask me about my money.”

“I’ll make you a deal: don’t ask me about my family.”

“Why?” says Sarge. “What’s wrong with your family?”

“Oy,” says Skye. “Don’t ask.”

Sarge stands. “Follow me. Feel free to bring your latte.”

They cross the black floor to a hallway with hunter green walls. Forty feet later, they arrive at the hall’s only object, a door of hammered copper. Sarge looks into a small screen and the door slides open.

“Iris recognition,” he says, but Skye is on to other fascinations. The room is vast, thirty feet across, twenty high, and seemingly endless in length. The carpet is a tan berber, the walls lit up in deep blues and greens. At either side stand a town’s worth of mannequins, but a closer look reveals that they are silhouettes, cut from wooden slabs stained a deep burgundy. The first gathering is a quartet in a close vaudeville pose. The only anomalies are silver circles attached to their hands; the tallest holds the circle to his mouth.

“That’s the Hi-Los,” says Sarge. “Those are their pitchpipes.”

A curvaceous silhouette perches on a stool, a metallic flower in her hair.

“Some clever fellow rescued one of Billie Holliday’s gardenias and had it bronzed.”

A cluster of thin men wearing blue bowties.

“Sinatra’s original singing group, the Hoboken Four.”

Cab Calloway’s zoot suit. Ella Fitzgerald’s basket. Django Reinhardt’s guitar with its D-shaped soundhole, next to Stephane Grappelli’s violin. Hoagy Carmichael crouched over an original draft of “Skylark.” Thelonius Monk’s glasses. Louis Armstrong’s handkerchief. Gene Krupa’s drumsticks. And, not surprisingly, eden ahbez’s robe and sandals. The collection goes on and on, until they reach a purple curtain. Sarge waits for Skye’s full attention, then pushes a button. The curtain parts from the center, revealing a stage and a scattering of small tables. The silhouettes number five, and they all have instruments.

“I’m going to let you guess this one,” says Sarge.

The group could be almost anyone: two trumpets, saxophone, standup bass, drums. But one of the trumpets has a raised bell.

“Diz!”

“And your second trumpet?”

“Miles.”

“Sax?”

“Bird.”

“Drums? Bass?”

“No freakin’ idea.”

“Ha! Max Roach and Ray Brown.” Sarge pauses to take in the ensemble. “Frankly, I can’t be certain that this lineup ever existed. But they all jammed with each other, in New York, in the bebop era. Call it the dream combo. Oh! And the tables are from the Village Vanguard.”

Skye boards the stage and studies each instrument up close. When he’s done, he finds Sarge wearing a sneaky smile.

“There’s more? Jesus! You’re going to kill me.”

Sarge laughs, holding a hand to his solar plexus. He waves his guest to a door under an illuminated EXIT sign. The lights come up as they enter, revealing three tiers of figures. In this case, the object is not the instruments but the outfits: sky blue tuxedos with silver stripes down each pantleg. They stand before black felt podiums bearing the letters DEO. The centerpiece is a white grand piano. A silhouette hunches over the keys, wearing a silver tux and top hat, plus a gold ring with a large sapphire.

“Any idea?” says Sarge.

Sky is thrown by the word DEO, Latin for God. He holds up both hands.

Sarge answers by whistling “Take the A Train.”

“Yes!” says Skye. “The Duke Ellington Orchestra.”

“Give the man a prize.”



Skye appreciates a hamburger that you can eat without feeling like you have to unlock your jaw like a python. He also likes the grilled red pepper, the slice of heirloom tomato, melt of gorgonzola, and an edge to the meat that he can’t quite name.

“What’s the…”

“Elk,” says Sarge.

Skye lifts an eyebrow.

“That’s how we eat in hunting country. Much better for you, too. Not some cow standing around like a sofa with hooves. This meat had a life!”

A burger is the last thing Skye should be curious about, but everything else is a little overwhelming. He sits on a granite chair, at a granite table, next to a granite wall, perched upon a shelf carved into a granite cliff. Five feet away, a stream settles into a pond occupied by a dozen white koi, then continues over the cliff in a lacy spray.

“You do make an impression,” he says.

“Not my intention,” says Sarge. “But thank you. This is my second-favorite spot.”

Skye takes another bite and wipes his chin. “So your jazz museum is built into the mountain?”

Sarge nods. “Had a head start. A failed silver mine. The insulating effects are marvelous. Especially during our horrendous winters. You should see Bubba drive through the snow.”

“No thank you.”

Sarge chews on a shrimp. “So. A journalist. What kind?”

“Performing arts. A weekly in San Jose.”

“Ah! Which explains your interest in jazz.”

“I’m sure the interest would be there regardless. But the access is good.”

“Any big names?”

“Joshua Redman. Branford Marsalis. Bobby McFerrin. Herb Alpert. Al Hirt.”

“Love Al Hirt.”

“Al was great. My dad played cornet in high school, worshipped the man. So I snuck him backstage at intermission. Al was larger than life, big ruffly tuxedo, big ol’ stogey, big rolling laugh. My dad brought an old album for Al to autograph. He said, ‘Damn! I haven’t seen this one in years.’ I swear, my dad looked about sixteen years old.”

“Fantastic.”

“Y’know, though, that’s not the funny story. Harry Connick, Jr. was engaged to a Victoria’s Secret model. Jill Goodacre. She showed up at the concert to surprise him, but they didn’t have anywhere to put her, so they put a couple of folding chairs next to the orchestra pit. The manager, Sam Nuccio, came to me and said, ‘Hey, we don’t want Jill to sit up there all by herself.’”

“No!”

“I said, ‘Sam, sometimes you ask entirely too much of me.’ It was kind of strange, though. Very visible, a few feet from her fiance, and the last thing I wanted was to be one of those overfriendly celebrity-whores. So I sat there like a stiff. And eventually, of course, Harry decided to sing a song to his girl. And it all got very romantic, and they brought in the tight blue spotlight, just Harry and Jill and Who the hell is that guy?”

Sarge shakes his head. “Fantastic. Hey, are you up for some exercise?”

“Sure. Not really dressed for it.”

“No problem. Follow me.”

They enter a triangular opening in the granite and board a moving walkway that seems to go on forever. It ends at a well-lit portico lined with shelves. Sarge points them out. “Shirts, shorts, shoes, socks. Changing room.”

Skye returns in white shorts and a blue golf shirt, and finds Sarge similarly attired. He hands him a tennis racquet and leads him through another triangle.

The string of remarkable rooms continues, this one the size of a small gym. The ceiling is a chunky, scraped-out gray, looking exactly like the roof of a mine. The roughness continues down the sides until, at ten feet, the walls turn into buffed granite, long planes of light gray with freckles of black. The floor is a tennis court, royal blue with white borders. At least, until it hits the net. The far court is weirdly murky, with lines that glow in the dark.

“I’m almost afraid to ask.”

“You strike me as an old-school guy,” says Sarge. “Borg? McEnroe?”

“Ha! The vastly underrated Pete Sampras.”

“You got it.” Sarge goes to a square on the back wall and punches a few buttons. Skye hears a low hum and finds a dot of light spinning into life at the far baseline. The dot supernovas into a ghostly incarnation of Sampras, bobbing from one foot to the other, spinning his racquet.

“Don’t worry,” says Sarge. “I’ve got him at warmup speed. Well don’t be rude. Hit Mister Sampras a ball.”

Skye bounces one and hits it into the net. He laughs and gets the next one over. Sampras dances rightward and chips it back. Skye hits it into the net.

“You’re not exactly lighting up the place.”

“I’m a little distracted,” says Skye.

“Here. Let me join you.”

It’s obvious from Sarge’s form that he does this regularly. He places his feet with care. He waits till the ball is on top of him and sends it back with short, even strokes. Playing two-on-one, they produce long rallies and run their faux Sampras all over the court. Sarge hits another button and they play a set, losing by a respectable 6-4.

“Had enough?”

Skye is feeling the effect of yesterday’s angry hike. “Yeah. I think so. Any chance you can explain to me what’s going on here?”

“Sure. The hologram was compiled from about a thousand hours of videotape. As for the rest, I’ve got a handy little demo setting.”

He punches a button. Sampras blips out, and the lights come up. The court looks fairly normal, except for subtle lines marking the surface like graph paper.

“Go ahead. Hit a ball.”

Skye strikes a lazy shot toward the middle. A series of pipes rise from the floor just beneath the arc of the ball. When the ball reaches the apex of its bounce, the final pipe spits a ball toward Skye, then all of the pipes drop back to the floor. Skye catches the ball and gives Sarge a look of vast amusement.

Sarge smiles. “The trigger is the point at which the hologram racquet intersects the ball. The return is effected through air pressure. The spent balls are funneled to a collection device, which loads them back into the pipes. The lighting – or lack of same – serves to hide what’s going on, as does a noise cancellation device. I don’t entirely understand it myself, but it’s a great workout.”

Skye uses the ball to wipe his forehead. “All this fabulosity is wearing me out. You got anything normal we can do?”

“How ‘bout a smoothie?”

“Sure.”

He follows Sarge through a sliding door into a well-lit room with a set of booths like those at a diner. An air conditioner kicks on, and Skye finds himself in the path of the ventilation.

“Oh! That’s beautiful.”

Sarge hands him a fresh towel. “So what manner of smoothie do you prefer? We have a berry blend, strawberry lemon, mango pineapple…”

“Stop right there.”

“A tropical man. I’ll have the berry.”

He says this as if they’re speaking to a waitress. Skye feels a moment of dizziness, which he assigns to exertion and altitude. Sarge lifts his gaze to the end of the room, where a woman enters with two frosty glasses. She is short, pleasantly rounded, with coffee-colored skin and a shy smile.

“Andorra! What took you so long?”

“It takes a long time, you know, picking all those berries. One of them bit me!”

She hands Sarge a glass of purple, Skye a cup of sunshine.

Sarge takes a sip. “I believe you two have spoken.”

“Mister Pelter.” Andorra offers her hand. “It’s a pleasure.”

“Enchanté.” The touch of her fingers jogs his memory. The woman on the phone, the subtle Asian accent. He’s guessing Filipina, or Hawaiian.

“I hope you’re enjoying the tour.”

“One weird thing after another.”

“Mister McCollum enjoys astounding people. He tires of keeping his treasures all to himself. Well! Enjoy your drink.”

“Thanks.”

Andorra returns from whence she came. Skye sips at his smoothie and gives it a curious look.

“What the…”

“Secret ingredient. My best guess is lemongrass, but Andorra refuses to divulge.”

“Unbelievably tangy. Kind of a raw edge.”

“Watch out. It might be heroin.” A console at the counter lets out a beep. Sarge stands. “We’re there.”

“There?”

“The other side of the mountain. My personal subway system.”

“We’ve been moving? Geez, let a guy know.”

“You heard Andorra. I love a mystery. Off we go.”

Skye takes a sip and follows. The doors slide open to blinding sunlight.

They stand on a graveled vista bordered by a stone wall. Skye braces his hands on the top, looks down and continues to look down. Far, far below, a ribbon of whitewater cuts the bottom of a V-shaped canyon, the walls a lunar landscape of rock and dirt. A ridge cuts off the horizon in a line just beneath the sun.

Sarge joins him, wearing a pair of aviator sunglasses. “Straight ahead is Tioga Pass. Just over the ridge is Tuolomne Meadows. That river actually ends up in Bridgeport. Heavy snowmelt this year. Listen.”

He holds up a hand. Skye hears the low thunder of the water.

“Well!” says Sarge. “If you will follow me.”

A trail heads off to the right, narrowing to a one-person strip along a sheer wall of granite, a cable strung along its outer edge. Tiny streams drip from an overhang, creating a small rainstorm.

“Just about there,” says Sarge. They enter a long hallway cut into the granite. When they come out the other end, Skye sees three lines of white Christmas lights.

“Be careful,” says Sarge. “These steps are a little irregular.”

He hits a switch, firing a series of theater-style lights embedded in the rockface. Beneath each lamp is a granite slab, two or three paces across, descending in an extended ess. Sarge stops at the final slab and reaches for a brass post. A golden light fills the back wall, revealing a high, shallow cave cut into the rock like a bandshell. The focal point is a pair of rocky pools, sending plumes of steam to the ceiling. The Christmas lights outline a bar with a glass counter and brass fittings, next to a table constructed from an enormous natural crystal.

“The Springs,” says Skye.

Sarge strips off his tennis wear and jumps into one of the pools. He sees Skye’s startled expression and laughs. “Sorry. Should have told you I was going to do that. Come on in. It is unbelievably delicious.”

Skye is no prude, but he does find it reassuring that he gets his own private pool. He slips over the edge and is relieved to find that it’s been outfitted with smooth seats. The water carries a hint of sulfur and has an effect on his muscles like a thousand leprechaun masseurs.

Sarge settles on a seat where the two pools adjoin. “Skye, check this out.”

Skye shifts to the adjacent seat. He follows Sarge’s gaze to the ceiling, where a diamond-shaped opening offers a view of the sky, peppered with an army of tiny pink clouds.

“I don’t think the agent was going to show me this spot. I suppose he was going to save it for himself. But then I began to hesitate. Once he showed me this, how could I say no?”

“Smart man.”

“What kind of martini do you prefer?”

“Is that a philosophical question?”

“Why don’t you find out?”

“Okay. Gin, straight up. A little dirty.”

“Cigar?”

“Once in a while. Poker games, bachelor parties.”

Sarge looks to the pink clouds. “Let’s have a CAO Brazilian pour moi, and for Monsieur Pelter, a La Traviata.”

He’s doing it again – ordering from the invisible waitress. A minute later, Andorra appears with two martinis. She wears a tight-fitting tropical dress, lava orange with yellow hibiscus. Sarge takes a sip and sets his glass into a circle etched into the rock. Skye finds a matching circle for his. Andorra extends two cigars, like someone performing a magic trick. She inserts them into the side of the pool and pulls them back out, their ends neatly clipped. She hands Sarge a dark torpedo. He taps a button and a flame appears next to his martini. Skye turns for his cigar and finds Andorra lighting it for him, twirling the tip as she works it into a flame. The flame dies into an orange cap, and she hands it over.

“Thanks.” He gives it a draw, pulling in a flavor like an earthy sherry, with a rumor of pecan praline. When he looks up, Andorra’s gone. Next to the bar, a gas flame starts up a teepee of quartered logs.

Sarge sends a cloud of smoke into the steam. “These interview stories. Do you have a favorite?”

“Of course.”

“Care to tell?”

“Of course. I’m in college. San Jose State. Arts editor for the school paper. Ray Bradbury comes to town. I head to the library for some background, and I discover that Bradbury and Carl Sagan are having a debate over something called the Lamarckian theory of evolution. Lamarck posited the idea that a species could wish itself into adaptation. A short-necked giraffe looks at the high leaves and thinks, Man! If only I had a longer neck. This desire registers on his DNA and Voila! He produces offspring with long necks. His kids eat the high leaves, they survive to reproduce and Shazam! more long-necked giraffes. Lamarck’s theory was pretty much consumed by Darwin’s, but Bradbury argued that modern technology has returned him to legitimacy. Through the development of information processing, humans have consciously expanded the intellectual grasp of future generations, and thereby played a part in their own evolution. Because they wished it so. Ergo, Lamarck. To which Sagan said, Clever, but hogwash.

“So I go to Bradbury’s speech. He’s an optimist. Human potential. Inspiration. Creativity. The power of the mind. A little corny, but he’s entitled. Afterward, I head backstage, where Bradbury has been cornered by three broadcast majors asking brilliant questions like, ‘So, what’s it like to be a famous author?’ Bradbury looks bored out of his mind. I let this torture go on for a few minutes, then I step in and say, ‘So did you and Sagan ever resolve that debate about the Lamarckian theory of evolution?’

“His eyes just lit up. He spent the next ten minutes outlining the argument. The radio guys looked on like two cows in a field.”

Sarge rolls his cigar. “Fantastic.”

Skye sips from his martini and clears his throat. “The sad part was, I was not yet confident enough to use that story in the article. I wrote up the speech in a competent but pedestrian manner. But I’ve been telling the Lamarck story ever since. And, just for the record, I do tend to agree with Bradbury.”

“I will second that.” Sarge lifts his gaze to the diamond sky, where Cassiopeia has made her appearance. He hums a tune in a low baritone. Skye makes it out as “Send in the Clowns.” Sarge comes to the bridge and stops.

“Do you like Andorra?”

“I love Andorra.”

“That’s good to hear. I will be candid with you: I hired that girl for illicit purposes. But she proved so proficient at everything else – notably the procurement of jazz artifacts – that I have found it wise to keep our relations platonic. She does get lonely, however, and once in a while she meets a guest who piques her interest.”

The lights dim. Andorra enters naked, an assemblage of sienna arcs, semicircles, radii. She slips into the pool, settles next to Skye, and brings his hand to her breast. Skye feels a flush of self-consciousness, but glances over to see Sarge occupied with a white-skinned Japanese girl. The cave goes dark. The music comes up. Piano. Thelonius Monk.



Skye wakes up underwater. Also, under surveillance. He is hovered on all sides by eyeballs, mouths, fins. He stretches sideways and discovers the eyes he likes best: smoky brown, wide-set, marquis cut.

“Good morning, wonderboy.”

Her lips taste like mint. She brushed her teeth just to wake him up.

“You’re a marvel.”

She cups her breasts. “What makes you say that?”

“You have internal muscles that American girls seem to lack.”

She rolls her eyes. “American girls think the job is over once you open your legs. Filipinas are instructed by their mothers in the ways of pleasing men.”

Skye laughs. “You’re mostly right. I have had the good fortune to meet some exceptions.”

“No doubt raised by Filipina nannies.”

He falls back on a coven of pillows and looks around: a dome-shaped bedroom wrapped entirely in fishtank. The contents are decidedly tropical: a foot-tall angelfish with streaks of mustard warpaint, a leopard shark, a green boxfish with black spots.

Andorra curls beside him and inspects his penis. She lets it drop with a disappointed expression.

“Jesus, woman! What do you expect?”

She peers through her bangs. “I was hoping for one more ride before you leave.”

“Why would I ever leave?”

She pats him on the belly. “Sarge is a very generous man. For example, he built this room based on a single account of a snorkeling trip I took as a child. But he also has his rules. You arrived at one o’clock yesterday, you will leave by one o’clock today.”

Skye finds this thought to be terribly sad. Still, he wouldn’t dream of pushing his luck. He gives his dick a slap.

“Wake up! Bastard.”

Andorra giggles and kisses him on the forehead. “You’d better hit the showers. In the bathroom, you will find your clothes from yesterday, cleaned and pressed. Meanwhile, tell me your fantasy breakfast.”

Skye recalls a creekside restaurant in Ashland, Oregon. “Marionberry pancakes. Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon. And guava nectar.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

Skye works his way to his feet and scans the room.

“Oh,” she says. “Stand on that copper circle and say the word ‘Down.’”

He finds the circle at the foot of the bed, but pauses to watch naked Andorra walk toward the angelfish. She says “Open” and the tank slides to the right, revealing a meadow dotted with crocuses and stalks of purple lupine. A picnic table stands near a fountain, with a fresh tablecloth and two settings.

“Down,” says Skye. He sinks into the floor.


Andorra escorts him to the front room – the modest farmhouse – and leaves him with a quick kiss. He steps outside to a dark sky, and to Bubba Yoshida, hosing down the Escalade.

“Precisely on time. You would be surprised how difficult it is to get people to leave this place.”

Skye is still alarmed at the Orson Welles voice coming from the marionette body. “After the best day of my life,” he replies, “I like to get the hell out of town.”

“Ah. Before the complications set in.” Bubba opens the passenger door. “Sarge would have preferred to send you off himself, but he has a rather important conference call.”

Skye buckles himself in and takes a Zen breath. Bubba proceeds at an absolutely normal rate of speed. He notes Skye’s expression and reveals a bright smile. “I thought you might like to enjoy the view this time.”

A good half-hour later, they pull up to Skye’s room at the motor court. His truck is parked out front, looking amazingly clean.

“Please,” says Bubba. “Come inside. We have one final matter to discuss.” He enters the room and waves Skye into the armchair. Bubba folds his hands. “Again, Mister McCollum thanks you for joining him yesterday. He had a splendid time.”

“My pleasure. Absolutely.”

“Now, the sad realities of modern life. As you may have guessed, Mister McCollum is strongly protective of his privacy. In consideration of the entertainments he has provided for you, he asks that you sign a non-disclosure agreement.” He pulls a fold of papers from his jacket and hands it to Skye. “Essentially, you agree not to discuss Mister McCollum, the nature of his residence, or, especially, the location. And especially not to the press. Should you break the agreement, Mister McCollum’s squadron of soulless amphibian lawyers will make a considerable degree of trouble for you. One the plus side, if you do sign it, you will receive a generous cash incentive.”

Skye takes a pen from his writing case, flattens the paper on his nightstand and signs it. “Mister Yoshida, your employer found me after one of the most depressing fiascos of my life and threw me the world’s most glorious lifeline. I should be paying him.”

Bubba laughs and takes the paper. “I hardly think that Mister McCollum…”

“I’m sorry. Mister Who?”

Bubba stops, then points a finger at Skye. “You’re good.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“All right, Olivier. Here’s a copy of the agreement for your reference. Mister Pelter, I regret that I may not ever see you again.”

Skye remains seated as he accepts his handshake. “Thank you, Bubba.”

“As my father used to say, Sayonara, cowpoke.”

Skye watches the little man stride from the room, and listens to the crunch of gravel as the Escalade rolls away.



Skye awakens to a Spanish-language novela. A family of gorgeous, quick-talking women gather at the bed of an ailing uncle, breasts spilling from their dresses like eager puppies.

It takes Skye a few minutes to understand that the dream with the granite cliffs and Pete Sampras and the fishtank was not a dream – and to regret, just a bit, that he has given away the right to talk about it. He spies the word Traitors in his writing case and has a Spanish paroxysm: Aye! Que lastima! He pays a quick visit to the bathroom, grabs the book and paces into town, where he finds the miracle of a post office with fifteen minutes till closing. Traitors is the book he abducted from his father’s nightstand. It’s a World War II aviation tale, wonderfully sharp and fast-paced. He loaned it to his dad – a retired Navy pilot – for the Tahoe trip, but now it must go to Cincinnati. Skye earns generous amounts to screen entries for a novel competition at a writer’s magazine. Traitors is one his finalists. He hands his package to the clerk and allows himself to breathe.

Outside, the clouds have dissolved their union, allowing the orange sunset to play along the aisles like kids at a matinee. He stands in the middle of the street as they drift in his direction. A headlight snaps him into motion, and he finds himself at Mae’s Pizza. He enters a room half-filled by hunters and orders the namesake product with pepperoni and mushrooms. When he gets the bill, he hits the little barside ATM, wincing at the $3.50 service fee. A few minutes later, he finishes his beer and spies the young Clint Eastwood riding across his television. Skye takes out his wallet. Is this Pale Rider? Pulls the ATM receipt from its spot next to his library card. Nah. Gotta be one of those Italian movies. Angles it to the light. If I could just hear the soundtrack. His account appears to contain an extra hundred thousand dollars.

Jingly Thunder

He flushes the ATM receipt down the toilet and spends the night staring at television shows. At six he gives up, takes a shower, packs his bags and walks to the registration desk. His room has already been paid for.

The driver’s-side door of his truck has been locked into place since June. He opens the passenger door, kneels backward on the bench seat, closes the door then spins into place behind the wheel. The interior is just as clean as the body; they must have detailed it.

Mono Lake is a drab-looking place, but the desolation lends itself to morning light. Skye wanders a spiderweb of dirt roads before stumbling onto a visitors center and finding that he is on the wrong side of the lake. A few miles south, he turns onto a long gravel road and follows it to the tufa formations, ghostly figures built from fresh water bubbling into salt water and depositing layers of minerals. The formations are not awe-inspiring in the way of a Crater Lake or Grand Canyon, but an excellent example of nature’s sense of humor. The trail ends at the shore, where the largest formations rise from the lake like phantom ships. He takes out his vidcam and catches a group of kayakers drifting past on the flat, still water.

He’s about to repeat the kneel-spin when the hood of his truck catches his eye. Twenty-six summers had baked the burnt orange paint to a murky brown and created pockmarks like acne scars. Gone. They repainted it! And did a damn good job of matching the color.

He fills up at Tioga Junction, a little unsettled by the chaos of tourists prepping for the drive into Yosemite. This is not what he wants. Finding an oversized map next to the restrooms, he decides to return to the north side of the lake and head east into the wild nothingness of Nevada.

The landscape past Mono is thrilling: spreads of raw red and brown, as if someone has torn the skin right off the planet. He climbs a barren ridge, driving into the sun. It’s eleven o’clock, already 95 degrees, and he’s got no air conditioning. Whose brilliant idea was this? The downslope reveals water. When he reaches it – Walker Lake – he pulls over, takes off his shirt and tries to vibe a breeze off the mountains hugging the westward shore. He coaches himself: Don’t worry. It’s worth it. You’re seeing a thing you’ve never seen before.

The day that the driver’s-side handle came off in Skye’s hand, he also managed to get his seatbelt stuck in the door. It still reaches far enough for function, but once in a while he tries to open the door in order to free it up, and curses himself for his forgetfulness. This time, the door opens. He sits there, stunned, then gets out to inspect his shiny new handle. The kneel-spin is history.

A half-hour later, Skye rounds the tip of the lake and enters the Walker River Indian Reservation. He is no longer heading into the sun, but it continues to beat on the roof, and his brain is turning into a Denver omelet. He is forced to consider the Conundrum of the Fan. Turn on the fan and you get immediate relief. Followed, a minute later, by the realization that the wind on your face is the same hot air that’s baking you alive.

But it’s not like he has anything better to do. He hits the switch, feels momentarily better, and waits for the air to heat up. But it doesn’t. Which can only mean one thing: Skye’s ’86 Toyota pickup, purchased from his father two years before, a vehicle that has never previously had air conditioning, now has air conditioning. He rolls up the windows and drives north, composing hymns of praise to Sarge McCollum.



His northward route, Highway 95, is a straight shot through nondescript scrublands, though something called the Carson Sink has left a residue of white across the pan. Soon enough, he reaches 80 and heads east, next to a long shelf of hay-colored mountains. He feels the current under his wheels, the pull of an interstate that ends at the Atlantic Ocean.

He enters Winnemucca, and remembers how much he likes Winnemucca. How much he likes to say “Winnemucca.” He passes beneath an overpass, hits the main strip of fast food and gas stations, spots a cemetery on a southward rise. The casinos show up at the east side of town, adjacent to a high hill bearing a W assembled with painted rocks.

The casino that he likes best is Winners, barely changed from its ‘70s origins. A glitzy yellow marquee arcs over the parking entrance, announcing $6.99 sirloin and a Led Zeppelin tribute band. The interior seems unchanged, as well, a broad field of slots and tables. The audio, however, is vastly different. On his first visit in the late eighties, the soundtrack was metallic, the jingly thunder of quarters smacking steel pans. Now it’s all digital, the whirring and beeping of a thousand different songs, an electronic aviary.

He scopes the aisles like a punt returner, looking for a lane, a story. It’s not enough to risk money and maybe win money. He needs a narrative something whimsical, unexpected. His favorite is Lobstermania, where the bonus round brings a boatman with a New England accent, providing a running commentary as he pulls point-valued lobsters from their traps (“wicked lahge one theah!”).

He settles on Big Kahuna, which features various surfer-movie types: goofy blond surfer, studly Hawaiian lifeguard, daffy redhead beach bunny, the fat guy who runs the snack bar. When you line up three big waves, you get to choose from three Tiki gods and get a certain number of bonus spins, which play out in a high-speed autopilot. The surf-music soundtrack helps (Jan and Dean, The Ventures), and also the fact that he’s winning. (Now that he doesn’t need it, he’s winning.)

Skye glances around for a waitress and is caught by an unusual sight. A red poker chip wheels around the corner, dips into a spiral and settles at his feet. A woman in a red floral dress trots the aisle, chewing on a finger as she mutters “Oh, oh, oh, oh.”

“Ma’am?”

She stops.

“Red chip?”

She nods.

He bends down and holds up the escaped prisoner. She scampers over, places her hand on the chip and leaves it there. For Skye, the visual information is coming fast. Pale blue eyes. Plump lips in a natural pout. Plentiful dairy-white cleavage. She’s the hottest deaf-mute he’s ever met.

“Thank you I don’t know what’s wrong with me I’m a Mormon and I shouldn’t be gambling in the first place but at least you would think I could hold on to a stinking chip. That’s a cute machine you’ve got there.”

He waits to make sure she’s finished. “Yeah. It’s fun. Generous, too.”

“I’ve always wanted to go to Hawaii.” She twirls the chip in her fingers. “I was playing blackjack.” She pushes the chip into her bra. “I’m Lindsy.”

“I’m Skye.”

“Skye? That is so cool what a great name were your parents hippies?”

“My dad was a pilot and my mom liked Guys ‘n’ Dolls.”

Lindsy seems to switch off for a second, then she bursts into laughter. “Skye Masterson! He’s the one who makes a bet that he can screw that religious lady that sounds kinda like a good idea.”

She takes his hand and gives him a look that is dreamy but also glazed-over.

“Mormon girl?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Been drinking?”

She shakes her hair, a thick pile of sandy blonde, touch of strawberry. “Those James Bond things.”

“Martinis?”

“Shaky, not stirred. Haha! The waitress kept offering, I kept… They’re free, you know.”

Skye hits the cash-out button and takes his voucher. “Buy you some dinner?”

She smiles, a flash of white that disappears into anxiety. “I could pay for mine. My husband hasn’t turned off my card yet.”

Skye holds up the voucher. “This one’s on the Big Kahuna.”

“Yay!”

He folds his fingers into hers and walks her to the casino restaurant. Skye spots them in a mirrored wall, looking oddly like a married couple.



Lindsy is an impressive eater: sirloin, baked potato (all the trimmings), a side salad and a slice of lemon meringue pie. Toward the end of her meal, she seems to have returned to something near sobriety.

“I grew up in Salt Lake City as a Methodist, a perfectly lovely upbringing. I fell for a Mormon boy. After a year, he proposed. I said yes. We were married at the temple. My family was not allowed to attend. What followed was a polite, slow-moving mudflow of patriarchal fucking bullshit. Geez, I’m sorry. My language gets worse and worse.”

“It’s all right,” says Skye. “You’re angry. Swearing gets the anger out.”

She gives a pert smile. “Thank you. Still, I’ll try to save it for special occasions. It’s not that Thad was a bad husband. And his parents were nice enough. But the whole church had this creepy air of obedience about it, everybody trying oh-so-hard not to put a crack in the façade. And what a façade! I snuck out to a library computer and dug into it. The entire creation of the church was clearly a scam that exceeded all expectations. They gave up polygamy only so Utah could win statehood. It took them till the 1970s to allow a black priest. And they shipped forty million bucks of our tithe money to California to fight gay marriage. I hadn’t really thought of it before, but if you’re against gay marriage, then don’t have one!”

She takes a last bite of pie and tries to re-track her story.

“Being a Methodist was like having a weekly checkup with God. ‘How’m I doing? Am I being Christ-like? Cool.’ With Mormons, it’s all-encompassing, and the women are always on you, talking about babies. When are you having babies? How many babies do you want? Do you want girl babies or boy babies? You and Thad would have such beautiful babies babies babies babies BABIES!”

Lindsy manages to startle herself, then smiles when she realizes they’re the only customers left in the restaurant.

“And it wasn’t working. I was not getting pregnant. Thad began to develop this edge, like a parent talking to a child who’s come home with a bad report card. He asked if we should visit a fertility clinic. We’re still young, I said. Give God a little more time to bless us.”

The waitress comes by, and Lindsy orders a coffee. Skye tries not to say anything. When it arrives, she gives him an embarrassed smile. “I’m sorry. It’s been so long. What would you recommend in the way of condiments?”

“Do you like bitter foods?”

“Not really.”

“Try two packs of sugar, and I’ll handle the cream.”

He gives it a stir and slides it over, feeling like a pusher.

“Mmm. Yes. A little bitter. I used to drink it all the time at the Methodist church. Hell, coffee was our religion. So. A couple days ago, I happened to express a little sympathy for the gays. Thad was tight-lipped, in that lovely passive-aggressive fashion of his. That happened also to be the day he took my car to the garage, which was down the block from his office. Sometime during this transaction, he looked into a compartment behind the driver’s seat and discovered my birth control pills.”

Lindsy widens her eyes, because she knows what a devastating plot twist she has just dropped. Skye dutifully slaps the table and says, “Holy shit.”

“I could have handled the big Italian fight. Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. What I got was the entire female population of my church, assembled at my home to conduct an intervention. I walked right past them, packed my suitcase and hit the road. Because, because…” She sings the word, a prelude to her summation. “I may have been stupid enough to marry into that wacko religion, but I was smart enough not to have children in that wacko religion, and I certainly wasn’t going to apologize for it. God, I really like this coffee.”

Skye sips from his beer, a good hoppy microbrew. “How’d you end up so far away?”

Lindsy freshens her lip gloss and smiles. “I always heard that Mormons who want to bend the rules – Jack Mormons, we call them – drive the salt flats to Ely, Nevada, just across the state line. But then, when I got there, I realized I was still surrounded by Mormons! So I kept going. How did you end up here?”

“Family vacation.”

“Ha! So where’s the family?”

“I took a vacation from the family vacation. I’ll tell you the story as soon as I figure it out myself.”

“Okay.” She places her elbows on the table and cups her doll-like face with her hands. “So how does this work? Do we go to some room and have wild animal sex?”

Skye gives the question some thought. “Can I take you to a movie first?”

Lindsy bats her eyes. “What’re ya, chicken?”

He grabs her hand and kisses it. “Allow me the luxury of being a gentlemen.”

Lindsy winces. “Damn! That is so not fair, you being all charming and shit.”

He takes her to a theater he spotted on the way in and they see a British film about a teenage girl corrupted by an older man. Perhaps not a good choice, but he indulges, nonetheless, in the romantic choreography – holding hands, increasingly forward kisses – that he missed in the rush of Andorra. Also popcorn, which he loves with a passion.

He gets them a room at Winners – a room with two beds. Lindsy sits on hers, wired on coffee and Coke, and pouts.

“Why don’t you want to fuck me? I’m on the pill.”

“Why do you want to fuck me?”

“Because you’re a sexy hot man.”

“Wrong! Try again.”

“Because I’m a nymphomaniac.”

“Again!”

“Birds do it. Bees do it.”

“Again!”

“Because I hate my fucking husband!”

“Bingo.”

“You know, most men would…”

“I am not most men. Also, I’m exhausted.”

“Well I’m not. Damn devil caffeine.”

“Here. Watch something.”

He tosses the remote and turns over. Minutes later, he’s riding big waves with the daffy redhead beach bunny.

Renegade Rooster

By the time Skye returns from the hotel’s business center, Lindsy is out of the shower, her hair wrapped in a towel. She gives him a broad smile, which he takes as absolution from last night’s withholdings.

“Hi,” she says.

“Hi.” He bends over to give her a kiss, then leans back against the wall. “One of the first things you told me was how you always wanted to go to Hawaii.”

“Sure. That corny slot machine.”

“So would you?”

She unwinds the towel and takes a brush to her hair. “Sure. Someday.”

He slides a fold of papers onto the nightstand. “Boise to Kona Kailua, six a.m. tomorrow.”

She narrows her eyes, working the ethical calculations, then slaps the bed. “Yes.” Then slaps it some more. “Yes. Yes. Yes-yes-yes-yes!”

Skye smiles. “I like the sound of that.”



The barren terrain of Nevada has long ago lost its charm, but as they near Boise they begin to encounter trees, grasslands, hills covered with vegetation.

“No offense to your lovely suspension-free truck, but I’m not getting why we left my car in Winnemucca.”

Skye assembles his story. “Recently, a mechanic friend gave it a once-over, and he threw in a lot of extras. I keep discovering things.”

“Oh. Okay. Mind if I plug in my iPod?”

“Ha! Good luck.”

Lindsy unwraps a white cord and slips the tip into a jack next to the radio. A song by Coldplay fills the cab with lush stereo sound, from speakers that did not previously exist.

Skye unrolls a hand. “There you go. Right there.”

“Damn! Nice mechanic.” She lies back and takes his hand.



They check into a hotel next to the airport. This time, the excuse is easy. With Hawaii in their near future, he wants to wait one more night. Lindsy works that pout, but the word Hawaii slips its way in like an aspirin, and soon she’s lying next to him, giving him a neckrub.

The question that Skye can’t seem to answer is, Why is he making excuses? But then, he’s Nature Boy. He goes whichever way the road takes him.



The approach to Kona Airport is a forbidding field of black-brown lava, and soon they’re standing in one of several courtyards that make up the terminal. After temperate Tahoe and dry Nevada, the humidity of a Hawaiian August is striking, and he fights off the rental clerk’s offer of a sporty convertible for the insulated comforts of an SUV. They drive across the lava fields (apparently a flow from ’87 that took out the old airport) and dip downhill into a cozy-looking beachfront town.

“Here’s Kailua, honey.”

“Ooh!” says Lindsy. “He calls me honey.”

“Do you mean, in the forty-eight hours I have known you, I had not yet called you honey?”

“Yes, and it was killing me! Hey, let’s check that out.”

They park next to a flea market, two dozen tented vendors glommed together into a single organism. Skye stops at the entrance to smell a large papaya.

“Now that takes me back.”

“Back to where?”

“My dad was stationed on Oahu when I was seven. And we had papaya trees right out front. I used to climb onto the garage roof to get the fruits. So I’m expecting a few smells to transport me to second grade.”

“I love how smells do that. Did you get to the Big Island?”

“Yep. Took a flight out here. All I remember is the volcano park, lava flows, steam rising from the ground.”

Skye gets the papaya and leads Lindsy into the market, where the primary challenge seems to be sorting the genuine local stuff from the tourist crap shipped from China. A general lack of quality drives them back to the parking lot, where they find a renegade rooster, a bit of rope still tied to his foot. Skye stops and looks around.

Lindsy puts a hand on his ribs. “What?”

He fetches a glossy white blossom from the top of a lava-rock wall and holds it to his nose. The smell is thick and tropical, a grain short of too sweet. He hands it to her. “Plumeria. They use it for the leis.”

The fragrance drives her eyes skyward. She holds it to his nose as she kisses him. It’s a good combination.

They check into the Kona Beach Hotel, an old-school, big-building resort with a fifty-foot outrigger in the lobby. Skye hands Lindsy his debit card and sends her to the gift shops. He’s just done showering when she makes her entrance in a lemon sundress, printed with white silhouettes of plumeria blossoms. And a fake-plumeria hairclip. It smacks of trying too hard, but when she turns to walk to her suitcase the fabric twitches against her ample ass, and Skye thinks it best to shut up and enjoy himself.

They stroll the beachfront hand-in-hand, the street lined with torches, and stop beneath an oversize banyan tree, its branches stretching over the road in a sinewy jumble. Their destination is the Royal Kona, a hotel built to resemble a cruise ship, and the wide spread of lawn next to its waterfront. The object is a luau, and although Skye is perfectly prepared for a big fat Hawaiian cliché, the program turns out to be entertaining and insightful. Burly Hawaiian men dig up an earth-roasted pig, serve its mouthmelt flesh with a native buffet and top it off with dark rum mai-tais.

Their island band seems better than most, ranging from slack-key jazz to high-voiced folk songs in Hawaiian. The after-dinner show is a dance troupe, taking a narrated voyage through Hawaii’s founding cultures: the frenetic hipshake of Tahiti, a Maori spear dance accompanied by grotesque face-making, and the flawless grace of hula. Skye enjoys a visual meal of the wide-hipped waihine, their stomachs framed by dance-toned parentheses. Lindsy takes in the muscular warriors, crotches barely covered as they take assertive postures, thump their chests, and work a leg-wobble that doesn’t quite bridge the cultural gap.

The lead male is a buffed, dark-haired demon whose strenuous solos paint a glimmer over Lindsy’s baby blues. The showstopper, however, is a Tahitian fire-dancer who licks his torches, the flames playing across his face, then passes them under his legs (very close to his privates), before proceeding to a mind-bending display of spins and throws.

Between the mai-tais, the dancers and the tropical warmth, Skye feels suitably worked up, and takes all opportunities to glance at Lindsy’s moon-white breasts, barely contained by her thin-strapped dress. They stop beneath the banyan tree to indulge in an old-fashioned makeout session.

Which makes it that much more surprising when he lands on their bed and, pleading the long day, hands her the remote. He’s not sleepy, but the flesh is clearly unwilling, and he is determined to follow all roadsigns. He eventually drifts off, feeling the heat of frustration from the other side of the bed.

Aquamarine

Lindsy sleeps fitfully, wound up on flaming loincloths, mai tais and banyan trees with their sexually suggestive branches. In her dream, she’s being tag-teamed by Skye and the solo dancer as a roasted pig gallops around them singing “Little Brown Shack.” When the men pull out, their dicks have turned into tiki torches.

At two o’clock she’s wide awake, watching Shark Week on The Learning Channel, and this is where she has landed: she’s a woman on the run, a Jezebel, a harlot. Running into Skye was a roll of blank dice in a blacked-out casino, but she has the unsettling feeling that she has stumbled her way into something special. He has a quiet humor, a gentle intelligence, and the way his smile raises that dimple at the right side of his mouth is driving her insane. When he finally lifted his hand to her breast under the banyan, she just about shot out of her shoes. She wants so much more, but the nature of their meeting has typecast her as a wanton woman. She doesn’t want him to see her this way, and that’s why she’s been taking these weird turndowns so meekly.

Oh, who are we kidding? she almost says out loud. I am doomed to be the slut in this situation, so I may as well shove it into overdrive. Make the sex good enough and he’ll be unable to resist. She resolves, at first light, to deliver the world’s best wake-up call. Her blow jobs, after all, were one of the ways in which she landed the lovely Thad. Having made a decision, she relaxes just enough to finally drift off.

First light comes with a narrator, muted and echoey, sounding like Skye. He’s in the bathroom, talking to someone on the phone. Bastard!

She gets up too fast and the bloodrush knocks her for a loop. She stops to let it pass and catches a few phrases of eavesdrop.

“So what did you do with the children? Oh! Yeah, I love that part. They’re adorable, but not too much.”

Now her blood is boiling. She gives the bathroom door a solid pounding.

Skye sings out. “Kinda busy right now.”

“Who is that? Is that your wife? Is that why you won’t fuck me? ‘Cause you feel guilty? Oh, you fucking dick. Does she know you’re off in Hawaii with some Mormon bimbo? I’m fucking your husband, lady!”

She’s about to pound the door again when it opens. It’s Skye, in shorts and a T-shirt, holding a cell phone.

“It’s for you.”

Lindsy is too stunned to refuse. She puts it to her ear. “He… Hello?”

“Hi. Who’s this?”

“Um. Lindsy? Lindsy Charrish?”

Hi Lindsy. This is Molly Ringwald.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Molly Ringwald? Star of stage and screen?”

“Sixteen Candles Molly Ringwald?”

“Bingo! Anyways, I’m doing an interview with your… with Skye, and the thing is, I’m on a really tight schedule. So, could you yell at him in about fifteen minutes?”

“Um. Okay.”

“Thanks.”

“I’m so… sorry.”

“Hey, he’s a guy. He probably deserves it.”

Lindsy gives a halfway laugh and hands the phone back to Skye. He kisses her, whispers “Thanks” and returns to his interview. “Sorry ‘bout that. Yeah. So did you find inspiration for the child characters in your own kids? Uh-huh…”

Twenty minutes later, he thanks Molly for the interview, hangs up, and rounds out the final few quotes in his notebook. When he enters the bedroom, he suspects that Lindsy has run outside to dive into the ocean, but then he sees a crack in the sliding glass door.

She’s on the balcony, wrapped in a bathrobe, looking out over the waterfront: a few early risers strolling to breakfast, a dozen fishermen prepping their boats. He takes her thick mop of blonde and runs it through his fingers, like a stylist mapping out a ‘do.

“I am really sorry about that. She’s in Seattle on a book tour, and the only time I could catch her was nine in the morning – which seemed like a reasonable time until I flew to Hawaii.”

When she spins, Skye braces for another attack, but instead she pushes her face into his chest and starts to sob. She lifts one hand and squelches out words.

“…such a fucking mess I… Molly… so embar… no idea…”

He puts a hand on the back of her neck and gives it a rub. “Shh… now. I suspect you will never see Molly Ringwald in the flesh. Besides, I think she found it very amusing.”

Lindsy slaps him on the shoulder, which is precisely the reaction he was going for.

“Maybe she’ll use it on the Leno show.”

This time, a fist. He’d better stop before he gets a knee.

“Listen. I’ll shower up, then you shower up, and we will have breakfast in the lovely restaurant downstairs. I suspect we have some things to talk about. Okay?”

Her response is a two-note “okay” expressed entirely in m’s.



“She was on a tour of ‘Sweet Charity.’ Not much on dancing, but she grew up singing in her dad’s jazz band in Sacramento. The thing that intrigued me was her interest in literature. She had divorced one novelist, was engaged to another, and had begun to write book reviews for the Hartford Courant. I wrote one book myself – a collection of interviews with performers. And I swear I only mentioned it as a preface to a question, but before I knew it Molly Ringwald was interviewing me. But the interview had a time limit, and I had to get some material for my article, so I had to say a very painful thing: ‘Molly, can we go back to talking about you?’”

Lindsy sets down her coffee and releases a laugh that sounds like a carnation of birdsong.

“So when her book of short stories came out, I was not at all surprised that it was good. She has a sincere passion. I’m the first to decry the transformation of the publishing industry into a celebrity whorehouse – the very word ‘author’ is a joke – but Molly seems to be an exception. So I called her agent, and arranged for her to entirely piss you off this morning.”

He has overshot. Lindsy’s face turns pink and she bears down on her breakfast, a mini-buffet of sausage, eggs, toast, bacon and fruit. The restaurant is cavernous, its oceanward wall open to a spotless lawn. Skye finds a fascination with the little yellow birds that shoot in and out of the patio tables, scrambling for crumbs.

“Californians are not used to colorful birds. The most we…”

“Oh for God’s sake, would you tell me something!?” It’s a whisper, but it seems louder. Skye looks around, but no one’s seated near them. He takes a sip of guava nectar.

“Lindsy, this may surprise you, but I think you’re luscious.” He tries to outpace the expected eyeroll. “Believe me, you’re not the only one who’s been confused by my recent behavior. But I think I may have figured it out. Recently, I came into a lot of money – family thing, dying uncle, trust fund, very complicated. Doing what I do for a living, I have always been strapped for cash. Surrounded by the rich nerds of Silicon Valley, I have always felt second-rate, and I have a history of attracting women with major baggage. As if I was settling for leftovers, because I knew I couldn’t compete.”

Lindsy’s looking testy, squinting her eyes.

“Now you have to admit, a drunk woman in a casino, fleeing the entire Church of Latter-Day Saints, is a baggage handler’s nightmare. But the package was so luscious, I had to take her to Hawaii. However, somewhere over the Pacific, my subconscious began to send in the toxins: there you are again, settling for damaged goods. ‘You’ve got money now. You don’t have to settle. You have the power to say no.’”

The squint softens, and she collapses into crying. She starts to get up, but he grabs her hand.

“For a man who’s been castrated by poverty his entire adult life, do you know how intoxicating it is to say no to a luscious woman?”

She shakes her hand free, give him a hard look and stalks away, around the corner, out of the restaurant. Skye considers the corollary: You’ve got money now. You have the power to tell the truth.

Oh well. It’s an island. I’ll find her eventually.

Skye empties his bread plate onto the lawn and watches the yellow birds go nuts. He signs the bill to his room and leaves past the swimming pool, senior tourists gathered around the tiki bar. He’s surprised to see football on the television.

He finds her in the lobby, next to the outrigger, staring at a painting of a Hawaiian princess. Some relation of King Kamehameha, she stands straight-backed, sharp cheekbones, obsidian eyes, a robe of bright feathers.

“She looks so strong,” says Lindsy. She turns to look him over, estimating if he’s worth the trouble.

“Let’s go to the beach.”



The lava flows stretch for miles. Lindsy watches the roadsides, where the locals use white rocks to spell out messages on the black canvas: RIP Shorty, T.S. + M.L., Izzy Lives!

“Well,” she says to the air. “Lot nicer than spray paint.”

The landscape greens up and Skye spots the sign for Hapuna Beach. He suspects it may be the weekend, because the parking lot is pretty packed. They cross a lawn of spongy grass and take a paved trail down to the white sand. Skye heads for a spot near the shore’s only landmark, a clump of lava rocks poking just above the water. He’s surprised to find Lindsy’s hand in his. After their traumatic morning, she seems remarkably mellow, as if all the emotional erosion has worn off her rough edges.

They unroll their towels and make their revelations. Skye takes off his T-shirt, annoyed at a stomach that responds to crunchies by sticking out further. Lindsy removes her shorts and shirt to unveil a green one-piece that spirals across her midriff, leaving narrow triangles of white flesh. Now that he has cleared his mind of psycho-crap motives, Skye only hopes his tongue isn’t hanging out. It’s apparent that he has transmitted his appreciation, nonetheless, because Lindsy’s wearing a flattered smile. She hands him a spray bottle.

“My national colors are white and sunburn, so I want you to cover me in this stuff.”

She lies on her back and covers her eyes as he sprays her head to toe, then she flips onto her stomach. He pretends to have some trouble with the bottle as he admires her ass, which is both generous and marvelously rounded. Even in a culture of stick-figure models, there are certain geometries that a man cannot resist.

The coolness of the spray makes her hum. “Mmm. Any for you?”

He lies on his stomach, partly to hide his excitement. She gives his back a full dose.

“Nothing on your front?”

“Not just yet. I’ve got a pretty good base from my summer hikes.”

She lies on her back, eyes closed. “You ruddy boys are much better at taking the sun. I envy you.”

Skye doesn’t last long before the sun bakes him out. He kisses Lindsy on the back of her neck and heads for the ocean. Finding a gap between the lava-rock snorkelers and the boogie-boarders, he works his way in, dreading that moment when the water hits his chest and takes away his breath. Compared to the icy waters of Santa Cruz, however, it’s a cakewalk, and soon he’s bobbing with the waves, taking brief swims underwater.

The color of the water is unreal. He recalls a gemstone by the name of aquamarine, the palest blue, and imagines that it has taken liquid form. A wave comes in at eye level, breaking into a thousand facets.

The next color is green, disappearing into the breakers, coming toward him like a manta ray. She tickles her way up his leg before breaking the surface with a breathless laugh. When she opens her eyes they are precisely aquamarine.

“Impressive.”

“Well we don’t have an ocean in Salt Lake City, but we do have a Salt…Lake.”

It’s meant as a joke but it dies off when she sees the look in his eyes, a look she’s been craving for days. He cradles the back of her neck and kisses her. A wave lifts her feet from the sand.



Even with the superspray, Lindsy is looking a little pink, so they roll up their towels and cross the wide beach. At the top of the stairs, they find a low-lying building that appears to be a shower room, but a sign on the door delivers the bad news: Closed for Repairs. Lindsy gives the door a frustrated slap, and is surprised to find that it’s open.

“What the hell! Well, I just want to get rid of this bathing suit, anyway. Can you stand watch for me?” She pats him on the chest and slips inside.

An afternoon of visual saturation has left its seeds, and finally the proximity of a disrobing woman is too much. He sneaks inside and finds her standing at the mirror, running a brush through her hair, an Athena in white marble.

She knows he’s there. She leans forward, pretending a stray eyelash, standing on tip-toes to give him a full presentation. She’s not surprised at the hand between her legs, but when he slips his finger inside she loses her breath.

“If you are starting,” she pants, “you had better be finishing.”

He fills her up. Her head crackles with light.

Infinity Edges

They walk beneath the banyan tree and Skye traces a branch, amazed at how it weaves and rambles. You. You’re the one who started this. Lindsy is stitched to his side, sheltered in the frame of his collarbone. During the 36 hours after their shower room romp, they did not actually leave their room. They even indulged in room service, and ate mango ice cream off of each other. Then washed each other off in the shower, then messed each other up again, then took a bath. The tactile overload was hallucinogenic, and now, walking the main drag in the most random rainstorm ever, they are sharing a happy stupor. A raindrop smacks Skye on the forehead.

“Raindrop,” he reports.

“Mmm,” she responds.

“What is that, seven?”

“Mmm.”

He spots a row of flags – Mexico, Hawaii, Washington state, Canada – and conjectures that there may be some kind of restaurant up there. They come to a sign next to a staircase: Poncho and Lefty’s – Sorry, We’re Open. Skye stares at it for fifteen seconds before he gets the joke.

“Ha! Candidate?”

“Mmm.”

Some sort of wormhole takes them to a table at a railing. Like half the restaurants on the strip, this one has a seaward wall open to the elements. In a theater, they would call it the fourth wall. Lindsy orders huevos rancheros, Skye a stack of macadamia pancakes. Both plates are empty in three minutes.

Lindsy rubs the inside of Skye’s knee. “So that’s what it was. I thought I was just tired from all the fucking.”

Skye lets out a snort. “Mormon girl.”

“I think we kinda shot that notion to hell.”

Skye gazes at the face of George Washington, and flashes on Lindsy’s instructions (hour 23). Once in a while, I want you to fondle my boobs in a public place.

The waitress returns. She’s a spunky brunette talker-type, running her tables like she’s doing stand-up. Skye is in love with her.

“Somebody’s on a eatin’ holiday! Let me guess: you didn’t get a speck of food at the reception.”

“Precisely.”

She grins, revealing a snaggletooth. Skye loves her even more.

“Honeymooners are always so cute, sittin’ on the same side of the table.”

Lindsy interjects, sounding a little breathy, like she’s holding back laughter. “Could we have the mango ice cream? And two spoons?”

“You got it.” She spins away.

“I love her.”

Lindsy smiles. “She is awfully friendly.”

He runs his index finger all the way down her left arm. “Have enough energy for a drive?”

“I do now.”

“Excellent.”

“Anything in mind?”

“Volcanoes, beaches, waterfalls. It’s a big island.”

“It is.”

Brunette waitress arrives with a metallic bowl holding one big scoop of sorbet. Skye rests his middle finger on the frosted base, letting the cold transmit to his skin.

“Thanks so much. Here’s the bill. Let me know if you need anything else.”

“Mahalo,” says Skye. As the waitress turns away, he slips his hand into the back of Lindsy’s shirt, reaches around her waist to cup her breast, and applies his middle finger to her nipple.

Lindsy shudders, then melts. “Mmm.”



The day turns into a circumnavigation, beginning with a stop at Hana Hou, “the southernmost bakery in the United States.” Skye is eating a guava sweet roll on the patio when he spots a grass-green gecko with red markings and baby blue eyelids.

From there they head to Punalu’u black sand beach. Lindsy takes a picture of her white feet against the coal-black sand and shows it to Skye, who gets ideas. They walk the length of the beach, which is lined with coconut trees like a Hawaiian postcard with bad color, and find a private cove on the far side of a boat launch. Lindsy strips down inside the wrap of a beach towel, then lies on the sand in an elegant pose. Skye whips away the towel, snaps a few photos, then covers her back up, scans the area for interlopers, and removes the towel again. Only as they’re leaving do they notice the dozen highly amused surfers working the waves a hundred feet up the shore.

The volcano park is sadly dull, just a huge hole and a plume of steam, so they proceed up the eastern side of the island to Hilo and Akaka Falls, a ribbon of snow-white water bisecting an emerald cliff. By the time they finish the long crossing through Waimea and over the dry brown foothills of Mauna Kea, they have only enough energy to rinse away the day’s sweat and fall exhausted into bed.

Somewhere in the tunnel of night, Skye awakens from a sex dream to find that he is inside of Lindsy, in the spoon position. Skye takes a mental flight to the top of the room and marvels at this thing that human bodies can do to each other, almost of their own accord. He explodes inside of her. Their breathing tracks together and slows. He sweeps a lock of hair from her forehead and looks into a single blue eye.

“Guten morgen!”

“If you’re sleeping with Morgan, we need to have a talk.”

He kisses her shoulder blade. “You are fucking sexy.”

“Shall I compare thee to a summer slut? She walks in beauty like such a totally hot babe.”

“So it’s poetry you want?”

“Nah. Fucking Sexy is a title I will proudly wear. I wish my husband agreed with you.”

“He doesn’t?”

“That’s why you were pissing me off earlier. Once Thad got baby fever, he would only fuck me when I was ovulating. As if sex for recreational purposes were a preposterous notion.”

“So I was hitting you smack dab in your insecurities.”

“Don’t worry. You’ve done a lot of making up.”

Skye lies back and puts his forearm to his temple, trying to add something up. Sleeping with Morgan. The church lady intervention. Baby fever.

“Thad’s gay.”

Lindsy laughs. “That’s an ancient ruse. ‘Any man who won’t do you must be gay.’ I appreciate the effort, though.”

Skye takes away his forearm, revealing an earnest expression.

“You’re serious.”

“Think about it.”

They slide the spoons back together. Skye traces a hand along her shoulder. A minute later, she speaks the phrase out loud. “Thad’s gay.”



In the morning, Skye begs off to the hotel coffeehouse to scratch out a first draft of the Ringwald story. He is hardly in the right mood for work, but once the game of collage kicks in – snappy quote, biographical tidbit, theatrical factoid – he gets it all down on paper, which is, he knows, the primary skill keeping wannabe writers from stealing his paychecks. Once it’s on paper you have vanquished the void, conquered the chaos. All the rest is rewrite and polish, which lacks the something-from-nothing terror of the blank white page.

Now, he can relax. He slides his notebook into his writing case, drinks the last of his latte, and is about to march off in search of his woman when he finds her.

The coffeehouse offers a perfect peeper’s view of the swimming pool’s southeast corner, and this is precisely where lies Lindsy Charrish. She tilts back upon a chaise lounge, queen of the infinity edges, the igneous fountain, the Kilauea hot tub steam. Her breasts are twin moons in pockets of green, her blonde tendrils stolen from mermaids, teasing the frames of enormous ‘70s sunglasses, pink lips shiny with gloss. A parasolled drink waits on a glass table (an orange colada, the house specialty). Waits, like Skye, to be consumed.

There’s your poetry. Skye sits there for a long minute, stunned by his good fortune. Saddened at the prickings of ethos that will force him to give her up.

Olivine

They spend their last day on a drive to the north, all the way to the end of the road at the Pololu Overlook. The view is astounding, a narrow valley surrounded by steep mountains, everything green, green, green. In the distance, they can see lush ocean cliffs, one of them striped with a hanging waterfall.

Lindsy reads the dozen warning signs at the trailhead and begs off, recalling the ankle she blew out two years previous on just such a trail. Skye marches double-time, skiing the muddy spots, tightroping the rocky margins, and descends to a rivermouth bordered by shady pine groves. A low branch carries a board swing dangling by ropes, looking out on a gray-sand beach.

Marching back is an Olympian effort, and by the time he gains the top he is lusting after air conditioning. He finds Lindsy up the road, stretching at an odd angle to feed a hank of grass to an old horse.

“Why are you being so careful?”

“Last time, he went after my boobs.”

“My kinda horse.”

“I told him they are reserved for human fondling only.”

They stop in Kapa’au and find a row of stores that seem to have escaped the tacky-gift syndrome. Lindsy gets a bottle of plumeria body lotion. Skye buys himself a puka shell necklace and gets Lindsy a necklace of tiny white shells interlaced with grains of olivine, the same semi-precious gem that fills the green sand beach at Papalokea. They drive off into the sun, past tracts of housing that look like they were shipped in from suburban California.

Skye keeps thinking he should bring up the inevitable, but Hawaii is too beautiful. He will save the real world for the contiguous 48.



“He was coming to San Jose for a production of his musical, based on the song ‘Copacabana.’ I told him that my friends and I refer to ‘Copacabana’ as the Liquid Paper Song. If we get an obnoxious song stuck in our heads, we simply sing the first few lines of ‘Copacabana’ and it cancels out the previous song. And he said, ‘I’m sorry.’”

Lindsy murfs out a laugh.

“He was very sincere! And I said, ‘No! We use “Copacabana” because it’s a good song.’ And he said, ‘I’ve been accused of writing songs that are a little too infectious.’”

“You’re so lucky getting to talk to these people. What are you working on now?”

“A story on creative writing and brain function.”

“Really? I’m impressed.”

“I’m shocked they went for it. They usually do stories like Ten Tips for Writing Knockout Endings, which sounds exactly like Ten Sex Tricks that will Drive Your Man Crazy.”

“Any celebrities?”

“Diane Ackerman. A remarkable poet who writes best-selling books on science.”

“Haven’t heard of her.”

“That’s why I tell Barry Manilow stories and not Diane Ackerman stories.”

She stretches cat-like on her seat and puts a hand on his thigh. “It’s getting mountainous.”

“Almost Winnemuccan.”

“So what now? Will you take me to California?”

“Don’t you think you should go back to Salt Lake?”

She swats him on the arm. “You want to get rid of me? Fuck ‘em and leave ‘em?”

“Don’t you think you need to figure out what to do with your marriage?”

“Fuck my fucking marriage.”

“Fine. So end it. But you need to resolve it one way or another.”

“You’ve got a lot of fucking nerve.”

Thus, the playful argument turns ugly. And silent. She stares out the window, smoldering, for the last fifty miles. That’s okay. He expected as much. Ugly truth is not romantic.

Still, he’s surprised at her dedication. When they arrive at the garage, she pays the fee, tosses her things into her car and drives into Nevada.

Skye sits in his truck a long time, with no idea what to do next. He settles on the obvious first step – ignition, and turns left onto the main drag. When he sees Winners Casino he considers the possibility of a good old-fashioned brain-drain. The digital aviary crowds out his thoughts, and quite naturally he ends up at the Big Kahuna slot machine.

This time he’s losing. Not that it matters. By the time he finally hits a bonus, he’s down a hundred bucks. The machine goes into its automatic spins and he lets his eyes drift, to a presence he assumes is a cocktail waitress.

It’s Lindsy, eyes red from crying. Skye stands and wraps her up, inhaling her almond smell.

“One more night?” she asks.

“Of course.”

Typical Asianality

They spend the morning in a dance of kisses, each a little closer to the last. Very soon, Skye is standing on a curb in front of the casino, watching her car fade off down the road, a period at the end of a clean gray sentence. His lips feel chapped and dry.

Dry. Through all the heartbreaking drama, he promised himself that he would remember one practical item: his truck is an oil-burner, and he needs to give it a fresh quart. He walks a block to a convenience store and finds an overpriced 10W-30. When he returns to the casino lot, he flips the hood and just stares.

His engine is blindingly shiny. It takes a minute of memory scan before he figures out what he’s looking at: a genuine 1986 Toyota pickup motor that has never been used. He checks the oil, finds it full, and begins to laugh.

He can’t possibly go through Salt Lake, so he cuts south to Highway 50, where the markers read Loneliest Road in the U.S. It proves to be true, an infinity of scrublands, dry creekbeds and graveled mountains. On a long, empty straightaway he gets out and pees in the middle of the road. As he zips up, a drizzle of rain passes over, flushing his urine and kicking up the smell of sage from the roadside. He finds a motel in Delta, Utah, sits under a tree and lights up a cigar that Sarge’s minions stashed in his glove compartment.



He drives over the Wasatch Plateau in a lightning storm. The strikes are thrilling and a little terrifying. He tries to recall practical bits of science – will the plastic steering wheel insulate him from a strike to the chassis? He wouldn’t be surprised if Sarge’s mechanics installed a lightning rod. Four hours later, the rain is falling in blinding sheets, and he decides to give his nerves a rest.

He recalls the town of Glenwood Springs, Colorado from a train trip. Viewed from the station, the town looked bucolic and inviting, rows of old-fashioned storefronts on a tree-shaded main drag, the Colorado River running between the town and a rocky, fir-treed mountainside. He later realized it was a way-station to Aspen, which explained the prosperous atmosphere.

He’s now driving that very drag, and stops to park when he sees the word “coffee” next a dangling bicycle. The Kickstand Café. He orders a latte at the industrial copper counter, and hears what sounds like live music seeping through the back wall.

“Something going on back there?”

The barista gives him a dead-eyed look. “Oh. Uh. Songwriter night? In the back room. Costs like three bucks.”

“Oh. Cool.”

She flicks her eyebrow ring. “It doesn’t entirely suck.”

After this kind of testimonial, how can one resist? He shakes a little cocoa on his latte, pays his three Washingtons to a girl at the door (like the barista, practiced in the art of minimum enthusiasm), and enters a dark room full of brightly painted tables and terrifying artworks. He sits next to a painting of a blue Satan holding a pitchfork on which he has shish-kebabbed an American family: mom, dad, teenage daughter, golden retriever and a blond toddler about to be dipped in a deep frier. Is there something in the water of Glenwood Springs?

A slim fiftysomething with a Grateful Dead beard and a red mandolin adjusts the mic stand and smiles beatifically.

“We have a visitor from the cultural hinterlands of San Francisco, who is in the midst of a cross-country tour of funky coffeehouses. I listened to the stuff on his website, and I think you are going to be blown away. Would you please welcome Peter Chung!”

Peter is a slim, tall twentysomething with attractively angular features and a clean-cut look: button-down shirt, new jeans and a corporate haircut. The sole bohemian clue is a silver necklace with a Celtic knot pendant. Any thoughts of typical Asianality are dispelled when he speaks: a scratchy baritone that ought to belong to a cowhand or a carnival barker. In the way of all good performers, he addresses the obvious.

“I know what you’re thinking: shouldn’t this guy sound more Chinese?”

The gothed-up teen audience, all geared up to be aloof, can’t help but snicker.

“Story is, I was abducted in Beijing and raised by a pair of black gay auto mechanics.”

Bigger laugh. Peter waits a beat (he’s obviously done this routine before) then puts a hand to his forehead.

“I’m so confused!”

By now he’s done with his tuning. He stings a high note, slides it low and pulls it to a jackhammer strum. His singing is back-porch rough, invested with crackles and barks, a brown timbre that cools to a tender indigo. His playing is blues-based but eclectic, ranging into single-note arpeggios, wiry rock solos and the ukelele swing of the recent happy-pop. His lyrics center on love, with a wry wit and surprising flashes of sincerity. He finishes with a stop-and-start Chicago blues, “Don’t Let a Vampire Drive Your Car,” and finally releases a smile under the rain of applause.

Hippie-dude retakes the mic and announces the opportunity to purchase Peter’s CDs at $10 per. The next act, a trio of banjo, mandolin and standup bass, takes the stage and begins the business of plugging in. Skye heads for Peter’s table and hands him a Benjamin.

“Oh dude. I don’t think I’ve got change for…”

“Ten, please.”

“Well, yes, they’re ten apiece.”

“I would like ten CDs.”

Skye has flapped the unflappable. Peter develops another smile.

“Seriously?”

“Not that a man should have to justify anything when he’s handing you a hundred bucks, but yes. You’re an awesome singer, and I’m going to make sure all my friends know about it.”

“Well that’s a deal!” He sorts out ten copies and hands them over.

“Thanks.”

“What’s your name?”

“Skye.”

They shake hands. “I’m… well I guess you know who I am. You have made my night, Skye. Hell, my week.”

“No problem. Keep up the good work.” He turns to leave.

“You’re not staying for the bluegrass?”

“Nope. Little tired from driving. Take care.”

“You too.”

Skye doesn’t really know why he’s leaving, but the idea takes shape as he walks to his truck. A ridiculous show of generosity should be followed by a quick exit, lest the recipient feel uncomfortably indebted. He slips Peter’s CD into his stereo and heads out in search of a motel.

A Hike to Valhalla

Skye is barely under way when he discovers Hotel Denver, a big red block of a building, and checks in. The king-size bed is magically comfortable, and he falls into a deep, dream-filled snooze – so deep that he wakes the next morning feeling a little woozy. He suspects that he’s also suffering Lindsy-withdrawal, all those sex-triggered chemicals seeping out.

Out of lifetime habit, he dismisses the hotel restaurant as too expensive, and then recalls the digits in his checking account. He sits at a window that looks out on the street, and gathers from the serious expressions of the natives that it must be a weekday. He orders a breakfast steak with eggs and home fries, feeling decadent. Sipping at his coffee, he envisions Lindsy’s return to Salt Lake and guesses at Thad’s reaction. Thorny self-righteousness? Calm forgiveness? Morose ambiguity?

The sun is out and frisky, making it feel like the last day of summer. Glenwood Springs looks so appealing he’s tempted to stay, but his inner gyroscope is pushing him east. It could be the magnetic pull of curiosity, the 15th century explorer standing on the shore of Portugal wondering, What’s out there? Or the promise of all that shiny metal under his hood.

He’s had enough of barren landscapes, and enjoys the sight of trees, rivers, wooded lakes. He clears the Vail Pass and takes an abrupt northward elbow at Copper Mountain, passes Dillon Reservoir and enters the Eisenhower Tunnel. The tunnel is fantastically long, one mile, two. When he finally re-emerges, the light is blinding. He fumbles for his sunglasses, and has just put them on when he sees the word BOULDER on the back of a guitar case. Skye is not usually a proponent of hitchhiking – has seen too many horror movies with untoward consequences – but the musical element eases his anxieties. Through the dustcloud appears a tall, surprisingly well-dressed man in a yellow windbreaker. He opens the door and slides in, framing the guitar case between his knees.

“Wow, man, thanks, I… holy shit!”

Skye laughs. “I was about to say the same thing. Why don’t you slide your guitar behind the seat there.”

Peter twists around to settle the case over a sport bag, then buckles himself in.

“Wow, this is so weird. But… I’m sorry. I can’t remember your name.”

“Skye. Don’t worry. It’s unusual.”

“Yeah, but you bought ten CDs.”

“True.”

Skye watches his left-side mirror, waiting for an opening, and enters the roadway, kicking out gravel. “Don’t tell me you’re hitching the whole tour.”

Peter lets out a theatrical groan and rubs his forehead. “My Beetle! I stopped at a McDonald’s in Vail and I couldn’t get it to start. Tried to jump it – nothing. So I left it there and stuck out my thumb.”

Skye takes a moment to enjoy the mountain on their right, a gravelled spine with traces of snow. Gray’s Peak.

“I admire your determination, but aren’t you being a little drastic?”

Peter lets out a horse-laugh, a sound that will never match his face. “I’m not completely nuts. An old school-buddy got me a sweet gig at the University of Colorado. A five-hundred-dollar check on the other end. Which I’ll probably spend on my damn car so I can get back to California. Okay if I smoke?”

“Sure.” Skye slides out the ashtray. Peter takes a drag and eases back in his seat, shedding a couple layers of stress.

“Were you actually going to Boulder? I don’t want to mess up your plans.”

Skye takes a moment to recall his cover story. “Nah. I recently inherited some money, and I’m taking a joyride. Going wherever the wind and hitchhiking guitarists take me.”

Peter smiles and closes his eyes. “That sounds awesome!”

“It is.”

Peter crushes out his smoke, watches the mountains roll past and falls asleep. Skye drives on toward Denver, working out the jigsaw puzzle of Peter’s troubles.



Skye is wily enough to skirt the big city, taking 93 through Eldorado and up to Boulder. Peter wakes up in time to guide him to the university, the sun tippling the Flatirons, the triangular formations that loom over the town. They park near campus and hustle through the red-roofed buildings, checking at map kiosks until they reach their destination. Built in 1876, the Old Main Chapel projects a regal bearing, a red brick exterior lined with tall, narrow windows, capped with a hexagonal belfry.

They talk their way inside, where a willowy guitarist with straight brown hair accepts an applause and describes her next song. A tall white man with a tremendous orange afro embraces Peter and takes them into a small hallway.

“Skye, this is Sigh Cavalier. Sigh, Skye. Skye, Sigh.” He lets out a snort. “Sorry. I’m a little punchy.”

Sigh takes Skye’s handshake and flips it into the soul shake/clinch combo. He grins with lips that never seem to stop moving, like a shaky stop-motion animation.

“Thanks for savin’ our asses, dude. Really not cool to book your friend and then have him disappear in the Eisenhower Tunnel.”

“Got a place I can tune?” asks Peter.

“Yeah, let me take you backstage.” Sigh taps Skye’s shoulder. “Um, try the balcony. There’s always an extra seat somewhere. And here.” He hands him a business card. “If they give you any trouble.”

Skye climbs the stairs and finds a seat on the far left. The Old Main’s auditorium is a gem, maybe two hundred red theater seats before a small stage. The front of the stage features alternating bands of blonde and reddish-brown hardwood, and the sound – at least as produced by Katie Garibaldi – beats the hell out of the Kickstand Café.

He worries that the classy setting will give Peter a case of nerves, but his first instincts about him prove correct. After the sound-more-Chinese schtick, Peter recounts his day.

“So I pull into a McDonald’s in Vail, Colorado and I’m thinking, Wow, there’s a McDonald’s in Vail, Colorado? The guy at the counter wore a top hat and tails. The value menu includes foie gras, and they call the french fries pommes frites. They have cloth napkins folded into the shape of Mayor McCheese, and an attendant in the men’s room.

“So anyways, after eating a McSmoked Salmon McPannini, I go out to the parking lot and my Volkswagen is absolutely dead. So I hitchhike to Boulder like Woody freakin’ Guthrie and here I am. So if I seem a little flustered… it’s because I’m a little flustered. This first tune is a bitter love song. If there are any women in the audience, I apologize.”

Nothing ingratiates an audience like humorous confession, and the rest is easy, because Peter’s talent is obvious. Afterwards, they take a hike to Valhalla, a biergarten on Boulder’s main drag, and sit at a broad-timbered picnic table hoisting oversized steins.

“To our guardian angel,” says Sigh. “And to Peter. Dude! You sound even better than I remember. Which is good, because if you sucked I mighta lost my job!”

The eventual goal of a toast – to actually drink – has been lost, so Skye takes a quaff on his own and studies the scene. The garten features two dozen tables, brimming with yammering, laughing students. The yard is bisected by an actual creek, guarded over by three German-looking sprites that Skye takes as Rhinemaidens. He soaks in the post-adolescent energy and smiles, feeling like somebody’s cool uncle. When he returns his gaze to the table, he finds Peter looking suddenly somber.

“I guess this is my last hurrah, man. I’m glad it could be at your most excellent theater.”

“My honky ass!” Skye exclaims. “Where’s your next gig?”

“Coffeehouse in Denver,” says Peter. “Two days from now.”

“Okay then. Assuming the mayor of Boulder here can get you a ride to Denver, I say he and I head for Vail and rescue your car.”

Peter waves a hand. “No, no, I couldn’t.”

“You could, and you will. Listen, I’m doing this strictly for my own amusement, and I’m playing with house money. Please allow me to help you.”

Peter takes a sip and slowly grows a smile. “I am going to have to take you up on that.”

Sigh, who cannot hold it in anymore, doesn’t.

“Road trip! Hahahahahaha!”

Soul Annoyed

Skye and Sigh take off first thing in the morning. By noon, they’ve got Peter’s VW at Spotless Auto, a garage with perfect white walls. They are greeted post-diagnostic by Piper, a mechanic with a vanilla jumpsuit and a schoolboy wave of frosted blond hair. He taps his clipboard like a doctor reading test results, and twitches his lips.

“Mmm. Not good at all. Your Beetle has blown its water pump.”

“Aiee,” says Skye. “So why wouldn’t the engine turn over?”

“Computer,” says Piper. “Shuts everything off so you don’t drive into the Rockies and fry your engine.”

“Ah. I drive an ’86 pickup. Not a high-tech vehicle.”

“I saw that! How is it running?”

“Better than you would ever dream,” says Skye.

“I tell you, eighties Japanese pickups…”

“I get regular offers from Mexican gardeners. They see that extra-long bed and start salivating. So, I hate to ask, but…”

“How much! That is the pivotal question. Give me a second here.” He scratches figures on the clipboard, humming the math, then twirls the pen and gives it a double tap. “Twenty three eighty.”

Sigh has been keeping quiet, chewing on a maple bar, but the number makes him gasp.

“How much if we want it by tomorrow?” Skye asks.

“Twenty five even,” says Piper.

“Cool. Let’s do it.”

“Okay. Sign here and… phone number there. We will have it for you by three tomorrow.”

“Fantastic. Thanks.”

Sigh follows him out the door, snickering. “Damn, dude! Will you adopt me?”

“No, but I will buy you off, if we tell Peter this was a four-hundred-dollar solenoid.”

“Soul annoyed,” he repeats. “Buy me off how?”

They arrive at the truck. Skye unlocks the door. “Where would you like to spend the evening? And night, and morning?”

Sigh flashes a grin. “I have just the place.”



Skye sits in the corner of the largest pool he has ever seen. On the far side stands a grand lodge constructed from rough-hewn blocks of sandstone, and it’s as if the street that might usually run past such an edifice has been scooped out and filled with water. From what his companion tells him, it’s the size of a football field plus a hundred feet. Past the lodge, a herd of cirrus clouds feathers a modest ridge of rocks and evergreens.

Sigh sighs. “Doc Holliday.”

“Annie Oakley,” says Skye.

Sigh proceeds unhindered. “Doc Holliday came to Glenwood Springs to take in these very waters. But these waters do not cure leukemia, so he died.”

“Poor Doc.”

“Do you know there are a million gallons in this friggin’ thing? They diverted the Colorado River so it would run right through this pool.”

Skye stretches his arms. “Not that I don’t appreciate the renowned Glenwood Hot Springs – it’s very relaxing – but who made you the chamber of commerce?”

“I deal with touring musicians. I like to tell them intriguing places they can go.”

“So where would you like to go for dinner?”

Sigh tugs at a snag in his ‘fro. “I think I know a place.”

“I suspected you might.”



Backtracking makes Skye feel itchy, and now he’s back in the first floor of the Hotel Denver, at the Glenwood Canyon Brewing Company. The place is clean and airy, with a chatty, boisterous crowd. Skye indulges in an onion-glazed pork chop with garlic mashed potatoes. Sigh is ignoring a half-consumed New York steak in order that he may lean back in his chair and chat up a redhead at the next table. The girl is laughing and twirling her hair – both positive signs – but she stops when a large, gruff-looking man appears across the room. Sigh clears his throat and returns to his meal.

Skye picks up his cell and sends a text: Boyfriend?

Sigh reads his iPhone and punches back: Father!



They manage to land a family suite, which provides the much-desired feature of two separate bedrooms. After the long soak and three amber ales, Skye is ready for an evening of drowsy television. His roommate is feeling the opposite, pacing about like a caged tiger.

“Gotta be something to do in this town.”

“Get a massage,” says Skye. “They’ve got a full-service spa.”

“Oh I’ll get a massage all right.” He stops and sniffs the air, then heads for the balcony. Seconds later, he dashes through the room, holding a raised index finger, and reappears in his bathing suit. “I’ll be right back.”

Skye discovers the film “Office Space” on channel 32 and settles back against his pillows. He wakes to the sound of suppressed giggles and a tap on his shoulder.

“Mmmyeah?”

“Get thee up, sleepyhead.”

He turns over to find a wide smile under a red planet.

“Greetings, Mister Pelter. I don’t know if Mister Chung informed you of this, but I have mad skills.”

“Urrh?”

“I can score women like nobody’s business. I don’t quite understand it myself. It’s either the afro or the ten-inch dick. The thing is, you’ve been so awesome to Peter, I thought you deserved a reward. Right now, she’s taking a shower.”

Skye rubs his face, trying to process Sigh’s meaning.

Sigh taps the bed. “You’re welcome.” And leaves.

Skye sits up in bed and slaps his cheeks, fairly certain that he looks like hell. A minute later, he is greeted by an odd vision: a young girl, maybe four feet tall, equipped with the hips and breasts of someone much older. Wrapped in a bathrobe, she picks her way through the room, inspecting a magazine here, a painting there, until she arrives at Skye’s bedside and gives a shy smile. The elements of cuteness are overwhelming: a pug nose, smattering of freckles, dark doe eyes and straight, long, jet-black hair.

“Hi. I’m Mandy.”

“Hi Mandy. So you met my friend Sigh?”

She giggles. “Yeah. He’s funny.”

“He is.”

“So, um, he said you might like to…?”

She leaves the sentence unfinished, so he has to make assumptions. “Yes, I would. But aren’t you a little young?”

Her eyes flip upward. “I’m short. That’s all. Very short.”

She gives a furtive sideward glance, on the verge of crying. Skye’s not buying it.

“I’ll need to see some I.D.”

“Oh very funny.”

He gives her a flat look. “Not really kidding.”

The eyeflash-dropmouth combo is pretty convincing (she’s a fine actress). “But it’s all the way back in my room!”

“I’ll wait.”

She tightens the sash on her robe and stomps off. Skye considers the possibility that she won’t return. But after the Ringwald Incident, he understands his motives. Not only is this the smart thing to do, it’s kind of a buzz. Five minutes later, she stomps back in and serves up an Illinois driver’s license.

“Have a seat, Mandy.”

She plops into an easy chair, arms crossed, feet dangling. Skye puts on his reading glasses and gives the license a going-over. It appears to be legit.

“What’s your address?”

Mandy twitches her lips. “One-thirty-three Napier Drive.”

“Date of birth?”

“February 21, 1993.”

Skye smiles. “A full twenty years!” He leaves the bed and kneels on the floor in front of her. “I’m sorry, Mandy. You’re quite lovely. But I’m a cautious man. Now. How many times have you had sex?”

She flushes red, which multiplies the cuteness. “Three times. My… the dwarf thing scares them off.”

“Boys your age?”

“Yeah.”

“Was it good?”

She puts a hand over her eyes. “Um, I guess? But… but I…”

“Out with it, Mandy.”

“My friends tell me about this thing where you sort of… lose your head. Like a drug trip. Like the best thing ever.”

“Did your boys give you foreplay?”

She creases her forehead. “No. There were only three.”

Skye tries hard not to laugh. “Okay. I want you to pay close attention to what I’m about to do. And I want you to demand that your boyfriends do the same.”

He opens the flaps of Mandy’s bathrobe and works his way up.



Skye wakes at first light and finds Mandy grinding at his side.

“What’s up, lovely girl?”

“Again,” she murmurs.

“Again?”

“That thing you did last night. Again.”

“Wow. Okay.” He rubs his jaw and slides down the bed to get to work. Mandy seems more responsive this time – and aggressive. She grabs the back of his head and pulls him tighter. Her legs begin to twitch and flail and she lets out a muffled scream. Catching his breath, Skye notices a tattoo of Tinkerbell just above her bikini line. He rides her out, wipes his mouth on the bedsheet and slides back up to find her smiling wickedly, eyes on the ceiling as she savors the comedown.

“So who exactly are you?”

She extends a hand. “Hi. I’m Brandy.”

“Mandy’s twin sister.”

“Sorry.”

“No offense taken.”

“We had a little conference in the bathroom, and she had great things to say about your work.”

“I’m flattered.”

“We’re not completely alike, you know.”

“How so?”

She grabs his head and inserts her tongue in his ear.

“I’m much nastier.”

She kneels on the bed and works her way down.



The next time he wakes, it’s the red planet, sitting in the easy chair, smoking a joint.

“Sigh! You magnificent bastard.”

Sigh releases a cloud of smoke. “Using my talent for good.”

“That was quite a switcheroo.”

Sigh stops mid-toke. “Beg pardon?”

Skye barks out a laugh. “They switched.”

Sigh drops his arms, flabbergasted. “No!”

“One of them had a Tinkerbell tattoo.”

“Wow! I really have to pay more attention. Oh well – just makes for a better story.”

“You’re going to tell the story?”

Sigh smiles. “To every single person I’m not sleeping with.”

“Limited audience.”

“Ooh!”

Skye gets up and slips on his jeans. “So where are the evil twins?”

“Having breakfast with their parents.”

“Really?”

“Don’t worry. They’re staying in separate rooms.”

“Oh well that’s reassuring.”

Sigh takes another drag. “Yaknow, come to think of it, there was something different about morning Sandy. Very touchy.”

Skye enters the bathroom, stops, and then leans back out.

“I’m sorry. Sandy?”

Fangs at the Ready

The Serpentine is a single golden door between two of Denver’s ugliest skyscrapers. The only thing approaching a sign is an Arizona sidewinder in the shape of an S.

“That’s it?” says Skye.

“You don’t like?” asks Sigh.

“What is says to me is, We’re so fucking hip we don’t even have to tell you where we are.”

“And that’s a bad thing?”

“Yes!”

Sigh opens the golden door and leads him inside. The first long hallway is painted deep purple. The right-hand wall features a silver-blue anaconda, thirty feet long. A jog to the left offers a yellow hall with a gold-brown Burmese python. To the right, a lime-green straightaway hosting an army of dark-green garter snakes. Another left: burnt orange, seven cobras, standing at attention before a charmer. A right turn into a set of switchbacks, each corner marked with a single snake and its identity: water moccasin, gopher snake, copperhead, black samba.

Pacing the turns, Sigh calls back. “Okay, at this point I think they’re just fucking with us.”

Finally, they arrive at another golden door, with another sidewinder. Sigh pulls it open to reveal the most surprising thing of all: fresh air. The Serpentine is a perfect square of open space surrounded by the backs of four buildings. The left half features an awning of galvanized steel, sheltering an espresso counter with a bright aluminum façade. The end of the counter makes a U-turn into the dining space, a silvery zig-zag that breaks here and there into benches and tables.

The right half is open to the elements and populated by black tables that are supposed to look like wrought iron. A series of concrete steps rises to a broad stage. The wall behind the stage features a frieze of a rattlesnake, ten feet high and coiled, fangs at the ready, as if it’s about to spring from the wall.

“Okay,” says Skye. “I gotta admit, I’m intrigued.”

“Whattya want?” asks Sigh. “Latte? Guinness?”

“No,” says Skye. “I’ll get it.”

“Yo, brotherman. You get the big stuff, I’ll get the small stuff.”

Skye laughs. “You already got me a Brandy.”

“Or Sandy. Or Mandy.”

“Hi guys,” says Peter. He sets down his guitar and gives them a once-over. “Oh, I get it. Y’all had a great time without me, didn’t you?”

Sigh wraps him in a hug and lifts him off the ground.

“Peter, Peter, Peter. I have a great time regardless.”

Peter regains his footing and gives Skye a handshake. “So now you know Sigh Cavalier.”

“He’s a great provider,” says Skye. Sigh snickers.

Peter holds up a hand. “Okay. Stop right there. This has the markings of a long story, and I’m running late. How’s my car?”

“Soul annoyed,” says Sigh.

“The starter,” says Skye. “Had the same thing myself three weeks ago. Didn’t cost much at all.”

“Good,” says Peter. “I am going to pay you back.”

“You are so not.”

“Yeah. You’re probably right.”

Sigh butts in. “Gentlemen? Drinks?”

“Cappuccino,” says Peter.

“I’ll take that Guinness,” says Skye.

By the time Peter sets up, a dozen Friends of Sigh have settled at the stagefront tables. Twenty non-listeners are scattered towards the awning, hovering over laptops, chatting over drinks, snacking on pastries. Sigh takes a seat behind the mic and smiles.

“Hi. The folks at the Serpentine are shy, so they asked me to make the introduction.” He takes a deep breath and rubs his chin.

“When I first met Peter, he was a tiny green caterpillar. And now he’s not. Would you please welcome my best friend in the world, Peter! Chung!”

Peter begins, as always, by addressing the elephant in the room. As he’s tuning up, he takes several glances at the rattlesnake behind him, and finally yells toward the counter.

“Excuse me! Is this thing supposed to make me feel welcome?!”

And he’s in.

From there it’s the usual excellence, but Skye finds it hard to concentrate due to a singularly beautiful woman at the front table. She is gloriously Latin: glossy black hair in straight bangs over wide-set cat’s eyes and a sharp, generous Aztec nose. She reminds Skye of some fifties actress, perhaps Ava Gardner, and spends large portions of the concert sending smoky glances toward the stage. Twice, Peter breaks character to smile back.

Skye leans toward the red planet. “Who’s the hot muchacha?”

Sigh gives a self-satisfied smile. “Remember how I procured for you – a man I barely know – a pair of lusty dwarves?”

“Of course.”

“For my best pal Peter I got Molly Santiago, a woman so hot she scares me. Really I just asked her to give him a ride to the gig, but let’s just say I was playing a hunch.”

“You are the world’s best wing-man.”

“I like to think so.”

After the concert, Peter and Molly sit together selling CDs. The crew from CU sticks around, coalescing into a post-performance shindig. One of the workers wheels in a Mexican chiminea in the shape of the winged serpent Qetzlcoatl, and lights a fire in its belly. Skye joins the circle around Sigh and consequently meets every good-looking woman in the coffeehouse. He takes a break to hit the restroom and passes Molly and Peter in the hallway, deeply committed to a liplock.

He’s waiting at the counter for another Guinness when Peter comes up and grabs his shoulder.

“Skye! Hey, thanks again for saving my Bug. I’m gonna do something big for you. I’m gonna name an album after you.”

Skye wraps an arm around Peter’s shoulder. “You just keep singing. That’s my payback.”

Peter turns and waves across the courtyard. Molly smiles and waves back.

“Thing is,” says Peter, “I think I’m in love. I was thinking I might stay around Boulder a couple weeks, maybe hit the Eastern U.S. some other time.”

Skye laughs. “What are you, crazy? You can’t flake out for some chick.”

Peter’s expression goes serious. “She’s a little more than some chick.”

Skye holds up his hands. “Hey, I am not averse to a fine piece of ass, but…”

“Are you fucking kidding me, man? Who made me a fucking monk for the arts? I’m sick of being dead-ass broke and lonely and getting all these pricktease promises that turn into shit.”

Skye puts his hands on Peter’s arm. “No! You have to keep going. You’re too talented. I won’t let you do this.”

Peter shakes off Skye’s hand and steps back. “I’ll do whatever the fuck I want. If you’re gonna be a dick about it, just take my fucking car back to Vail.”

The crowd around the stage is now staring at them. Skye lowers his voice. “You’re being an idiot.”

Peter gathers his breath, trying to stay calm.

“Get the fuck out.”

“Gladly,” says Skye. “Fucking ingrate.”

He follows the snakes all the way out and sits in his truck, waiting for the anger to even out. He is sorely tempted to drive all the way to Kansas, but he spots a motel in Aurora and thinks it best to catch some sleep.



He wakes to a rainstorm and turns on his cell phone. It buzzes with a text from Sigh.

Dood! Sorry abt last nite. B4 u leave town, let me take u to bkfst.

He suspects that a negative response will result in several more texts, so he just says yes. He showers up and reports to a cowboy-theme diner a couple blocks from the U. He finds Sigh and Peter at a corner booth underneath a bullwhip. Sigh pops up from his seat.

“Well! I’ve done my job. Now you two fuckers have a civil discussion. I will be at the counter, and I swear, if I hear any yelling I will call the fuzz.”

Sigh trots off. Skye and Peter avoid looking at each other. Skye sits down and picks up a menu.

“Whatcha havin’?”

“Denver omelet,” says Peter.

“Being ironic?”

Peter laughs. “Dude, I am so sorry for being such a dick. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“I do.”

“Okay.”

“Molly Santiago. And I do not blame you. She’s fucking hot.”

Peter flares his fingers. “Right?”

“And generosity does not buy one the right to run someone else’s life. I’m kinda new at this money thing.”

“And really, I am so thankful for what you did.”

The conversation eases into normalcy and soon Skye is telling the sordid tale of Glenwood Hot Springs over a pile of Buckaroo flapjacks.

“So we are not completely certain that we were not, in fact, dealing with triplets.”

“Oh my God!” Peter exults. “That Sigh, he’s my hero.”

“Mine too, but don’t let him hear us.”

Skye stirs a sugar into his coffee and notices a bookstore across the street.

“When I was younger, I wrote a book about performers and I sent it around. It was unanimously rejected, so I signed up for a subsidy-publishing deal and I lined up readings at 25 bookstores across the country.”

“Awesome!” says Peter.

“A month after I got back, I found out the whole deal was a scam. The publisher was using on-demand printing technology. They would promise to print five thousand copies, but in fact would only print copies as orders came in. The two owners took the authors’ payments to Vegas and blew it at the casinos. That’s how they were caught. They’re both in jail now, and I have not received one red cent. My only consolation is that my tour forced them to print a thousand copies of my book, so I was probably their least profitable author.”

Peter chews on a hash brown, waiting for an ending. “I’m sorry. Is this story supposed to inspire me? ‘Cause I’m not really feelin’ it.”

“Oh!” says Skye. “He wants a Disney movie. Nah. Just this: I do not regret it at all. That tour was a magnificent adventure. I learned a lot. And I will never be young enough or stupid enough to do it again.”

Peter smiles. “I see what you’re doing there. You’re describing me.”

Skye takes a bite of his Buckaroo flapjack and gives him an index-finger pistol shot.

Flirting with a Firebird

The problem with the West is its essential interminability. The eastern half of Colorado is at least colorful – golden grasslands, great mountains in the rear-view. And Kansas starts out all right, blacktop running the long hills like a self-serve rollercoaster, patches of green prefiguring the onset of the Midwest. And then flat. A cornfield! And then flat.

On the map, Kansas looks innocent, a homey rectangle. On the road, however, it’s a lo-o-ong rectangle. And Skye lives in a new world now. He envisions the tops of skyscrapers, lit up from the gargoyles, sailing the clouds like the tallest of tall ships. At the next rest area, he digs into the stash of maps behind his seat and discovers a plug-in GPS. He uses it to locate the Kansas City Airport (three miles off of I-70) and leaves his pimped-out Toyota in long-term parking. He strolls the concourse, window-shopping the ticket counters, and ends up at United.

“Hi. Looking for the next flight to New York.”



The plane tracks a gentle semicircle over the metropolis, affording a view of the night’s treasurebox, half the lights in the civilized world. He grabs his carry-on, catches the shuttle to Pennsylvania Station, and finds himself hailing a cab across the street from Madison Square Garden. It seems like five minutes ago he was peeing in the middle of a Nevada highway. He jumps into a cab and greets an extremely thin driver, Puerto Rican or something like it, a silver lightning bolt dangling from his right ear.

“Where ya headed?” He smacks his chewing gum, loud enough for percussion.

“You know a good after-hours jazz joint?”

“Kinda mellow?”

“Yeah.”

He smacks his gum a few more times. “Matthew’s! Greenwich Village.”

“Let’s do it.”

He alights at Bleecker and 6th Avenue, before a big black door and blue neon letters in Helvetica font: MATTHEW’S. Inside, it’s a little too nice to seem genuine, but then he’s heard all the real hipsters have fled to the East Village. The tables are stained white wood with inlays of black onyx, over a black tiled floor. Skye ducks to the back, sliding onto an upholstered bench and stashing his suitcase under the table. He orders a Manhattan and receives a visit from a pale, dapper man with moussed blond hair.

“Excuse me,” he says. “Are you by any chance a member of the homosexual class?”

Skye blinks twice. “I’m sorry, no.”

The man gives him an embarrassed smile. “Sorry. It’s late and my gaydar is all effed up.”

“No problem.”

The band creeps into an intriguingly slow version of “Cotton Tail.” A large grizzled black man steers the piano, accompanied by a tall, thin black man on bass and a curiously small Italian-looking dude on a cocktail drum kit. They pick it up into a slow swing. Skye is just settling into the groove when a stunning woman sits across from him and slides a checkered case under the chair.

“Mind if I join you?”

“Not at all.”

She turns sideways to watch the band, listening carefully. She’s wearing a red cocktail dress with white arrowhead spangles. The hem settles at her knee but it’s clear that her legs are extremely long. She has thick red hair, falling in waves past her shoulders. Her face is cat-like: sharp brown eyes, a small nose, thin, pliable lips. The band chatters to an unresolved ending, and she unleashes a Broadway smile.

She claps loudly and shouts “Yesss!” The piano player searches the room and gives her a wave. The bassist hits a walkline that morphs into “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby.” The pianist throws a chiming chord, then another. The redhead drinks it in, then turns to Skye.

“So, Mister Guggenheim. How many minutes have you been in town?”

“Twenty-seven. Is it obvious?”

“Suitcase under the table?”

“Well you’ve got a case.”

“My case is different.”

“How so?”

“It’s magical.”

She speaks precisely, taking care to strike all the consonants. Skye lapses into a long thought that takes a brief time: if this is going to be something, he’s going to be painfully honest. He folds his hands, a dutiful witness, and testifies.

“I’m a journalist from San Francisco. I came into a lot of money, so I took off on a road trip. Kansas was boring the hell out of me, so I hopped a flight to New York and asked the cabbie to take me to a good late-night jazz joint.”

She gives him a studied look, reading his intentions, and then smiles. “I think you and I could have an interesting time. What’s your name?”

“Skye Pelter.”

“No, really, what’s your name?”

Skye chuckles. “Yeah, I get that a lot. What’s your name?”

“Delilah Coswell. Of the Tampa Bay Coswells. Are you able to cede control, Skye? To let someone else drive?”

Skye thinks about it, rolling his knuckles along the tabletop. “I think that might be nice. I’m assuming you would be the driver?”

The conversation is turning otherworldly, two lawyers haggling a prenup. Delilah combs her fingers down either side of her hair, stopping at the ends to give a subtle tug.

“I would be… the stage director.” She looks toward the trio, which has slowed into the haunting intro of “Stardust,” and raises a finger. “’Scuse me. And don’t you dare leave.”

She rises and takes a precise walk to the stage, settling on a chair next to the bass player. Her case contains a silver trombone. The band repeats the intro, the pianist tossing out speckled variations, as Delilah assembles the slide and makes a few quiet blows into the mouthpiece. They reach the end of the intro and leave it dangling, the drummer feathering the snare with his brush. Delilah climbs three notes to the melody and is joined by the rhythm section as the pianist plays little bits of birdsong. Delilah plays it straight, a warm brown tone, and gives the lines a beautiful shape, clipping here, extending there.

One time through is all she requires. She receives the traditional soloist applause and holds her trombone across her lap as the pianist takes one more go-round, wrapping the progressions in rollercoaster scales. He climbs to a high trill and fades it off like an oceanbound seagull. Two dozen late-nighters give a bleary applause.

“The lovely Delilah,” says the pianist. “Our favorite dropper-inner.”

Skye is still applauding as she approaches the table. She gives a deep Shakespearean bow, holding her trombone like a bouquet, then sits down to sort the pieces back into her case.

“A leftover from high school,” she explains. “It’s sweet of them to let me play.”

The drummer mixes up a samba, striking the clave beats on the rim of his snare as the bassist plays “The Shadow of Your Smile.” Delilah slips onto the bench next to Skye, opens his palm and traces the lines. Satisfied with her reading, she folds her fingers into his and watches the trio. He has known her, so far, for twelve minutes.

A short cab drive later, they’re in Tribeca, at a warehouse-looking club with a brick façade and a line stretching around the corner.

“Oh man, that doesn’t look promising.”

“There are no problems when you’re with Delilah.”

They head for the back of the building, where a man in jeans and a black T-shirt is muscling beer kegs into a service elevator.

“Hi Ziggy.”

He nudges the keg into place and looks up. “Hey there, Delilah.”

“Ooh!”

“Sorry. Going down?”

“Yes. Please.”

Ziggy slides the accordion gate, and the elevator’s gears grind into action. They descend for a very long time.

“Club at the Center of the Earth?” Skye asks.

“Just about,” says Delilah.

Finally, they klunk to a stop. Delilah takes Skye into a dead-end hallway and gives him a kiss that goes on for a while. She releases him with a smile. “Sorry. Just had to know how that felt.”

“Apology accepted.”

She flattens a hand against his chest. “Here’s the agenda. I will take our cases to a nice hidey-hole. Your assignment is to go through that door, get a drink and keep yourself amused. You can even do a little flirting if you like. I am not the jealous type. You will be seeing me in about a half hour.”

She slaps his ass and walks away. Skye watches attentively, amazed at the grace of her locomotion. The mystery door reveals a short black hallway and a young-looking bouncer who eyes him warily.

“Hi. I came in with Delilah.”

The bouncer gives a knowing smile and waves him through. What greets him first is the music: Indian, tribal, with a techno background. The bass shakes the floor; the drums are surprisingly crisp. The basement is three stories tall, painted black. A web of luminous pipes and wires covers the walls like foliage, breaking here and there into shapes: fern, tree trunk, green panther, blue snake, an oversized flower bursting with red wires. A bar runs the leftward wall, sheltered by palm trees dotted with low-level white lights.

The front wall offers a stage, and the stage sports a volcano of a dozen different greens, twenty feet tall, magma flowing down its sides in streams of orange, red and yellow. At its left stands a circle of percussionists, augmenting the music with conga, bongo, djembe, doumbek, tabla and hand chimes, plus a sinewy black dancer in African garb with bells and goat’s hooves tied to his ankles, waist and wrists.

At the foot of the volcano stand two DJs in green camo jumpsuits, massaging a trio of turntables and associated electronics. Directly before them is a wide dance floor, covered with what looks like a jungle of trees in a high wind. Despite all the illuminated objects, the dancers remain in darkness, caught here and there by a strobe or squares of roaming colored light.

The final touch is a quartet of birdcages dangling from the ceiling, occupied by dancers in bird-like body paints. Skye likes the idea that they’ve divided it evenly (near as he can tell) between men and women. He manages to shout out an order for a beer as the nearest cage is pulled up through a hole in the ceiling.

The beer is ten bucks, which would have killed him a month ago. He finds a railing spot next to the dance floor and studies the hoi polloi.

“Kind of intimidating, isn’t it?!”

He turns to find a cute Jewess with a thick head of black, wavy hair.

“Pardon?!” he half-yells.

She smiles and pulls up to his ear. “I’d love to dance but I might not make it out alive!”

Skye would like to say something devilishly clever but all he’s got it, “Yeah, me too!” Brilliant.

She’s got eyes that are jet-black and luminescent at the same time, and a Girl Scout smile that’s just killing him. Clearly, she had to work up some courage to try this.

“What if I acted as your bodyguard?!”

The smile widens. “Sure!”

He takes her hand and leads her into the mob, which sucks them in like quicksand. Skye has never been a clubber, but he can see how it serves to knock down inhibitions. The ratio of bodies-per-square-foot guarantees a certain number of tactile accidents, and the only way to keep track of your partner is to grab hold. His Jewish friend is wearing a black sequin halter top over buoyant breasts, and is forced by the crowd to press them into his chest. He tries to brace her by settling his hands at her waist and is pleased to find taut muscle. The music shifts to Brazilian, a little slower and tastier. The fourth birdcage has reappeared, descending slowly from the ceiling.

Skye leans to his partner’s ear. “Had enough?”

She laughs. “Oh God yes!”

They squirm their way off the dance floor and discover the miracle of an empty table. Skye leaves to get some drinks. As the bartender grinds up his mai-tais, he checks out the occupant of the fourth birdcage: a tall woman painted in swirls of red and orange, circles of yellow around her eyes and a plume of black feathers descending from her head to her waist. Watching her movements, he catches the strategy of dancing in a confined, non-anchored space: plant your feet and let your torso do the work.

Great, now he’s flirting with a firebird. He picks up his mai-tais and runs the gauntlet back to date number two.

“Thanks!” says Jewish girl. She takes a sip. “I love mai-tais! My name’s Rachel!”

“I’m Skye! Hey, what’s the name of this place?!”

“The Jungle!”

Skye laughs. “That’s a little on the nose!”

“A little what?!”

He puts a finger on his nose. “A little obvious! It’s a writing term!”

“Did you come by yourself?!” She slides a hand onto his knee.

“No! Came with a friend!”

“Oh! Is he off dancing?!”

Skye considers his recent vow of forthrightness and decides that it is all-encompassing.

“It’s a she!” This small bolt of confession acts like a border collie, herding random bits of information into a useful realization. “That’s her in the cage! The firebird!”

The slump in Rachel’s shoulders is both flattering and guilt-making. He gives her credit, though. She bulls on through in order to remain pleasant.

“She’s good! How long have you known her?!”

Truth. Shit. “Two hours!”

Another slump. A simmering annoyance. “I have no idea how they do that! I would be scared out of my mind! So are you traveling?!”

Skye takes the offramp with pleasure and gives her a sexless account of his adventures. This gives Rachel the chance to finish her mai-tai and make a graceful exit to reconvene with her friends. In the real world, Rachel would be a much more reasonable woman for him to go out with. When he returns his gaze to the birdcage, the real world can go to hell.



They cab it to Chelsea, to an all-night diner covered with French images: mimes, Gerard Depardieu, the Tour de France. The salt and pepper shakers are Eiffel towers. The menus are in English, but still confusing.

“Am I not getting something?” asks Skye.

“Pour quoi?”

“We have petit, moyenne and le mangnifique. But of what?”

“Oh!” says Delilah. “Excuse-moi. This place serves pommes frites, and nothing else.”

“French fries?”

“Non! Pommes frites! And twenty-seven different toppings.”

Their waitress arrives, dressed as someone from Les Miz. Delilah orders four-cheese Alfredo; Skye, Thai peanut sauce.

“I hate to admit it,” says he, “but this is tres bien.”

She smiles in the Cheshire fashion. “Something about the Jungle makes me crave carbs.”

He swipes a spot of red paint from her neck. “You were fairly amazing up there.”

“Not bad for someone with a fear of heights.”

“Seriously?”

“A friend of mine took me to that club and said, ‘Oh! You could never do that.’ What she didn’t know was, I am completely unable to resist a dare.”

“Has it lessened your fear?”

“Not much. But now I’m better equipped to control it. Once in a while, I still get this inner voice saying, Delilah! What the fuck are you doing up here?”

Skye lets out a laugh that turns into a yawn.

“Poor baby!”

He stretches his arms. “Woke up in Colorado.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll get you to bed as soon as Mama loses her adrenaline.”

He rubs his eyes and finds that he can’t re-open them more than half-way. “So is this a thing? Are you a Renaissance woman?”

“I am the world’s biggest dilettante.”

“No!”

She bats her eyelashes. “Do you know the etymology of ‘dilettante’?”

“Absolutely not.”

“In Italian, it is the present participle of the word ‘dilettare,’ which means ‘to delight.’”

“Well you certainly do that.”

She smiles more brilliantly than a person should at four in the morning. Skye takes a moment to rest in her brown eyes.

“Does this pattern continue? Are you also a drum major? Tightrope walker?”

Delilah holds up a trio of freshly Alfredo’d frites. “We’ll just have to see, won’t we?” And chews them up.


Spangly Remnants

He wakes to an iron railing, to pedestrians in the sky, to Delilah’s voice.

“…me this, Jerry. Do you have the social networking lined up? Tell me you have the social networking lined up. Do not make me one of those people who goes around stating the obvious. You checked out the targeting, right? You have a killer niche, Jer, but you have to hit it hard or it’s nothing.”

Skye swings his legs off the couch and finds a tall woman in blue jeans, a teal blouse and long black hair.

“Okay. Call me tomorrow and we’ll run your honey-do list. I need my daily dose of kicking your rear-end around the block. Thanks, sweetie. Ciao!”

The woman with the black hair slides her phone onto a table, sees her guest and smiles.

“Well! It’s my morning Skye. Sorry about the sidewalk view. That’s the price for a basement apartment. If you are still on the program, I will need you clean and pretty in half an hour.”

Skye creaks to his feet, fighting the vertigo, and wanders into a tiny bathroom. Once the shower has activated his cerebellum, he slides the tiny window and sees a street sign that says Christopher, which sounds like the Village.

At a time approaching noon, they hop the 1 line to Columbus Circle, promenade along Central Park South, turn right on Fifth Avenue and loop around to the Museum of Modern Art. Delilah takes him to the entrance.

“Delilah!” says the guard. “Come on in.”

“Are you Holly Golightly?” asks Skye. “Are you Auntie Mame?”

“I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

They stop in front of a Klee drawing. Delilah taps a finger against her nose.

“I’m going for best effect.” She takes his hand and walks him along the hall. “I want you to amuse yourself with the exhibits until one-thirty, at which time you will go through that tangerine door, find the third room on the right and enter very quietly. Got it?”

“Check.”

She musses his hair. “Such a good boy.” She gives him a kiss and leaves him with the enviable task of watching her walk away.

An hour at MOMA is eminently killable. Skye follows a thousand Haring figures to the third floor, where he finds himself surrounded by the gargantuan canvas of Monet’s Lilies. Soon thereafter, he skids to a halt at Picasso’s Damoiselles d’Avignon. The next room offers one of Duchamp’s fountains (which seem to be at every museum in the world) and a Chagall, a breathtaking portrait of two lovers checkerboarded in yellow and blue.

He keeps making discoveries until he spots 1:32 on his cell phone and dashes downstairs. When he slips into door number three, he finds an airy, brightly lit studio and a circle of painters, hemming and hawing at their easels. Delilah kneels naked on a cushioned platform, reaching back to hold an ankle in each hand. She gives Skye a hint of a smile.



Somehow they are in the Rainbow Room, finishing their BLTs. Dark-haired Delilah chews her last bite and reapplies her lipstick, very much like a woman who’s about to leave.

“I know I promised to lead you around by the nose, but could you get lost for a couple hours?”

“May I say something first?”

She considers the question and nods.

“You have a magnificent body.”

She smiles, but not deeply. “It was a gift from my parents.”

“But I don’t mean as just an object. It’s the way you carry yourself. I have yet to see you make an ungraceful move.”

Now he gets the real smile. “Damn you, you’re being original.”

“I apologize. And yes, I will get lost. In fact, that’s the reason I came to Manhattan.”

“Thank you. My next venture happens to be my day job, so I need to be serious.”

“What about that conversation this morning?”

“With Jerry?”

“Sounded like a day job.”

“No. In a previous life, I got a business degree. I still have some associates who like to use me as a sounding board.”

She folds her hands together. “Gotta go. You – wander. I will text you with instructions.”

He buys a bag of hot cashews from a street vendor and strolls toward Fifth Avenue. He’s enjoying a paint-bucket drum crew in front of the Plaza Hotel when he spots F.A.O. Schwartz. The greeter is a twenty-foot-tall robotic Tyrannosaurus Rex with steam coming out of his nostrils. After wearing himself out with a virtual Frisbee game, Skye relaxes on a bench bordering the park. He’s checking his Facebook page, replete with messages regarding his disappearance, when a text buzzes in.

I am back on the road. Molly insists that I leave her and infest the eastern U.S. with my shitty music.

Skye texts back: You have found yourself an angel.

He checks Peter’s website to see where he’ll be in three weeks. Another text rolls in.

Radio City Music Hall. 7 p.m. Ticket in your name at will call. Meet me after at entrance.

He has exactly ten minutes. He power-walks around the corner, nabs his ticket and lands in the third row precisely at curtain. The orchestra begins with a sultry reading of “Summertime” that kicks into “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” There’s always a strange sameness to the dancers – tied-back hair, pseudo-military outfits – but judging by height and leg-length, he’s fairly certain that Delilah is the third Rockette from the right.



It’s a brief show. Skye heads out to 51st. He imagines he’ll have to wait for a while, but then he gets a text: Get a cab. Now!

He executes a fair impression of an actual New Yorker, and quickly lands a taxi. He’s instructing the cabbie to charge him for the wait when Delilah comes flying out of the entrance. She whips off her overcoat and slides in.

“Lincoln Center, the opera house, back entrance on Amsterdam. Thanks.”

“You’re still a Rockette,” says Skye. The cabbie pulls into traffic.

“Not for long.” She unzips the side of her skirt and pushes it down her legs.

“Hey,” says the cabbie with a Pakistani accent. “What is going on back there?”

Delilah responds in a voice full of Brooklyn. “You’re complaining about a woman taking off her clothes? Seriously?”

The cab driver smiles. “You make an excellent point. But no hanky-panky!”

“Haven’t got time.” She rolls down her panty hose. “Skye, be a dear and hold my coat over my coochie. Wouldn’t want our driver to lose his license.”

Skye follows his orders. “I get the feeling this is some sick boyhood fantasy come to life.”

“Well, if you’d like some more, unzip me in the back.”

He does, and she whips off her top, revealing small breasts spiced with nutmeg freckles. The cabbie laughs and turns right onto Tenth.

“Hey, watch the road!”

“So sorry.”

Delilah brings her coat up to her neck like a blanket, then pulls Skye’s hand underneath to a nipple. He gets the idea and gives it a roll.

“Ooh!” She takes his hand back and gives it a kiss. “More later. I promise. I knew I was crazy to try this – but then, I think you’ve figured out I’m crazy.”

“So far.”

They pull into a loading zone behind the opera house. Delilah wraps herself in her coat and hands him a plastic bag from Sak’s Fifth Avenue.

“Please gather my Rockette clothes, pay the cabbie and I’m sorry I have no time.”

She kisses him and trots off to a backstage door. Skye gathers Delilah’s spangly remnants and pays the cabbie, including a healthy tip for his troubles.

“Thank you! You are a lucky man, sir!”

“Thanks.” He stands on the wide walk to gather his breath. A minute later, he realizes he will have to find some way inside if he wants to know the end of the story. He skirts the southern wall of the opera house, comes out onto the grand plaza and heads for the box office.

“Hi. I need to get in.”

The clerk, a weary-looking woman with white hair and spectacles, gives him a discerning look. “You realize that I will have to charge you full price.”

“Yes.”

She gives him a slow blink and scans her monitor. “I can give you standing room, or… we also have a lower balcony cancellation.”

“How much for the balcony?”

“Three hundred.” She expects a reaction; he gives her his card. She swipes it through and hands him his ticket.

“Do hurry, sir. Second level, go left off the staircase, all the way to the end.”

“Thanks!”

The intermission crowd is nearly gone. He jogs the grand staircase and heads up the left hallway. They’re just about to close the doors when he dances through and shows the usher his ticket. His is the last seat in the front row. He is dangling over the lip of the stage, with a bird’s-eye view of the string section. The conductor strolls out to accept his applause, and Skye turns to the elderly woman in the next seat.

“I’m sorry. Could you tell me which opera this is?”

The woman gives him a look halfway between offense and laughter, but decides to simply show him her program: Aida.

“Thanks.”

The music is huge, dazzling, a bed of magic, but he’s too distracted to truly enjoy it. A couple of small scenes are followed by a grand processional for the returning general, Radames. The parade is enormous, with all the trimmings of a circus: jugglers, gymnasts, trumpeters, stilt-walkers. He expects to see Delilah among the dancers, but he can’t seem to find her. The procession ends with an elephant led onstage by a quartet of burly men. Straddling the elephant’s back is a woman with caramel skin. Her legs are covered by diaphanous veils draped from a spangled belt. Her breasts are covered by nothing. She holds her free hand above her head, waving it back and forth like a palm in a slow breeze, and she wears a Broadway smile.



He meets her at the fountain. She’s clad in a white pantsuit, made from light material that settles around her body as she moves. She greets him with a kiss, very pleased at her little stunt.

“You keep extra clothing backstage at the Met.”

“Ha! No. A lovely gay wardrobe assistant rousted this up for me.”

“So part of the naked arrival was so they could body-spray you?”

She smiles. “Not just nude – efficiently nude! Are you hungry?”

“God yes.”

“Splendid! We’ve been invited to a soiree.”

They stand to go. Skye looks back at the water.

“You know, I almost proposed to someone at that fountain.”

“Really?”

“Perhaps if I had, she would have said yes.”

Delilah takes his hand. “Perhaps that’s why you didn’t.”

“Good point.”

They cross Ninth and Broadway, and proceed east on 64th. They pass an awning that says O’Neal’s and take an elevator to the fourth floor. The door to the party is open; Delilah takes him into a high-ceilinged living room centered on a large stone fireplace and a grand piano. The room has a human center, as well: an elegant middle-aged blonde commanding a ring of admirers. She stands in the crook of the piano, exactly where a singer would stand during a recital, wearing a pair of bronze corduroy pants and a white cardigan that falls to the floor. She spots Delilah and gives her a charmed smile, her eyes flashing a remarkable green.

“Elephant girl! I have no idea how you do what you do.”

“It’s a hell of a lot easier than what you do! Allow me to introduce Skye Pelter. Skye, this is the whitest Aida I know…”

“Maddalena Hart.” He takes her hand. “Your Song to the Moon makes me weep. And I’m not even Czech.”

“Thank you,” she replies. “It’s a good thing that song is so difficult. Otherwise I might get tired of it.”

“Maybe that’s true of things that we love.”

Maddalena gives him an offstage smile. He has broken through to the second level.

“Didn’t realize you were dating poets, Delilah.”

Delilah takes his elbow. “You can’t have him.”

Maddalena releases a taffeta laugh that fills the room. “That’s all right. I’ve got one of my own.”

A trio of newcomers approaches, and Maddalena shifts her focus. Delilah takes Skye to the kitchen, where they find a table covered in sandwich makings. She slaps together a pair of turkey-provolones and hands one to Skye. He is grateful that a diva would serve real food. They hide at a small table in the corner and eat in silence. At their very last bites, they’re joined by Betany, a bright-faced mezzo.

“What does it feel like, having all that power beneath you?”

Delilah gives Skye an appraising look. “I haven’t really found that out yet.”

“Delilah!” Betany scolds.

They’re joined by a man in a leather jacket. He has soulful blue eyes and patches of gray at his sideburns.

“I hate to break up the Benny Hill skit, but I heard we had a cigar smoker in our midst.”

“That would be me,” says Skye.

Delilah jumps in. “Skye, this is Mickey. Go smoke with him while we talk about you.”

“Yes, ma’am!”

He leads him through a sliding glass door to a rooftop garden, lined with tall cypresses along the railing. To the left lies a vast darkness that can only be Central Park.

“Maddie likes to compare this with the garden scene in Figaro. I don’t recall that one having pigeons.”

He pulls two dark wands from his jacket and clips their ends into a rosebush.

“Excellent fertilizer. That’s a thing I like about stogies. You are smoking a leaf – no plastic, nothing artificial. These are maduros. Do you like maduros?”

“Good, but strong,” says Skye. “If I start to feel dizzy, I may have to quit mid-cigar.”

“No problem.” He fires up what looks like a tiny propane torch and lights Skye’s cigar, then sparks up his own and sends a stream of smoke toward Times Square.

“So I hear you’re a journalist. I did a little of that myself, before I became a professional husband.”

“What’s it like being married to a diva?”

“I am always in a bit of a shadow, and that’s exactly how I like it. It’s one hell of a ride, but I imagine men with larger egos couldn’t handle it. Sort of an extended version of your situation.”

Skye chuckles. “I haven’t had five minutes to consider my situation. Not that I’m complaining.”

Mickey leans on the railing to look out over the street. “Delilah is a marvelous creation. I love her passion, her daring, and she is never, ever boring. However. You strike me as a balanced soul, and I think you’ll know when it’s time to get off the carousel. Perhaps when you start to get dizzy.”

Skye eyes his cigar. “I’ve never smoked an analogy before.”

“Did you read the label?”

He angles it toward the light. “La Traviata.”

“The Fallen Woman.”

“Delilah wouldn’t like that. She’s afraid of heights.”

“No shit!” Mickey looks inside, where his wife has joined Betany and Delilah. Maddalena laughs and holds her ribcage, as if she is literally trying to prevent her sides from bursting.

“Do you know that my wife’s actual job title is ‘drama queen’?”

Skye laughs. “I know a girl from Utah who does that for free.”

Mickey’s gaze is stuck on his wife. Skye indulges his friend’s distant worship by focusing on his Traviata, which possesses a lovely caramel edge. Looking away from the park, he realizes that he can see the most leftward arch of Lincoln Center.

“So what’s the next item on our agenda?”

Mickey tips his ash into a brightly painted vase. “Oh no. Half the fun of being a hostage to Delilah is the surprise. But I will give you a hint. If that cigar is a Traviata, our next stop is Bohème.”



At some magical tick of the clock, the remaining six members of the party begin to pull on their jackets. Delilah seems to have found a fur coat of some silver-pelted creature. They pile into the elevator and watch as Mickey inserts a key into the control panel.

“It’s just like Willie Wonka,” he says. “Only we’re not going through the roof.”

They descend for quite a while. Delilah titters with nervous energy. The door opens, and they exit into a garage containing a black limousine.

“It’s a 1940 Cadillac,” says Mickey. “Used to belong to the owner of O’Neal’s Bar. When the bar went belly-up, we bought the limo and the parking space.”

“It’s great for shuttling guests around the city,” adds Maddie.

Diva and husband take the front seats as their guests pile in behind. The back area offers facing bench seats as big as living room couches, the interior panels done up in perfect white upholstery.

Mickey works the motor to a baritone rumble and looks back. “Everybody in?”

“All set!” calls Delilah.

“Okay. Don’t be alarmed.” He presses a remote, causing two things to rise: the platform beneath the limo, and the wall behind them.

“It’s the Batmobile!” says Skye.

Maddie smiles into the rear-view. “We don’t generally try this at peak hours. The limo drivers of Manhattan should all get medals.”

Mickey backs the limo along an alley all the way onto 65th. He heads for the park, takes two orbits of Columbus Circle before settling on Broadway, and soon they’re pulling into Times Square. Delilah and Betany stick their heads out the moonroof, and Betany decides it would be an excellent idea to sing the Habañera in the voice of Ethel Merman. A pothole sends them tumbling back in, each woman landing in the lap of the other woman’s date.

“What the hell is going on back there?” roars Mickey.

Mickey takes a right on 42nd, tools around the block and ends up at the Barrymore Theater on 47th.  Maddie skips along the running board into the embrace of a beautiful Asian woman.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Suzy Nguyen the Vietnamese princess, and she has agreed to be our coyote.”

“Okay, you troublemakers,” says Suzy. “You will follow me and you will behave yourselves, or I will force you to see ‘Cats.’”

Betany’s husband, Joseph, delivers a not-so-secret whisper to the others: “It’s like she knows us!”

Suzy takes them into a hall that runs the left side of the theater, then downward into a backstage room with racks of wardrobe. She splits a pair of British redcoats to reveal a narrow door.

“Okay. Be very careful. These steps are old and eccentric, and the lighting is not good.”

The steps are concrete, but look like they were erected by trolls. They run beside a concrete wall, edge to the left along some ancient brickwork, then take another left into open space. The last flight offers a rail, fashioned from pipes, but the way is lit only by a dim yellow bulb in a wire cage.

Maddie tries out a Dickensian cockney: “Is this where the Phantom of the Opera lives?”

“Yes,” says Suzy. “And he eats sopranos for breakfast!” She aims her cell phone toward the darkness. “Oh God, I hate this part.”

Suzy disappears through some kind of portal. The sound of a pulled chain brings a flood of light. The visitors pass through, one by one, to discover a room fifteen feet by ten. The walls are smooth concrete, painted a glossy white and covered by dense graffiti. A large black pipe runs along the ceiling. Maddie’s the first to give the graffiti a closer look.

“Autographs!”

“Yes!” says Suzy. “But please don’t look at them yet. First, I want you to know where we are. It’s called Pandora’s Box, and in the mysterious subterranean infrastructure of Manhattan, we don’t really know its original purpose. Subway storage? Power station? Jail cell? Whatever it was, it was adopted by the performers as a retreat, makeout spot and, most importantly, a sacred location for opening nights, closing nights, weddings, wakes and retirement parties. It became customary for star performers to autograph the walls. I now release you to play treasure hunt.”

The guests scramble to different sections, chattering and yelling out discoveries.

“Patti Lupone!” calls Delilah.

“Alec Baldwin?” asks Betany.

“Streetcar Named Desire,” answers Suzy. “In the nineties.”

“Arthur fucking Miller!” sings Maddie.

“Michael Crawford!” says Mickey.

“Jerome Robbins!” says Joe.

Skye stands in a corner, frozen. Delilah comes up to his shoulder.

“What’s the matter?”

“I just… Holy shit.”

“Well you’ve got to say it.”

Skye takes a deep breath and rumbles like a ring announcer. “Richaaarrd! Rodgerrrrs!” The rest of the group gathers around him like chickens after seed.

“Children!” says Suzy. “Settle down. If you settle down, I will show you two that you missed.”

They sit on a low bench of concrete along the right-hand wall. Suzy pulls a plastic crate from the corner and stands on it.

“Right here, next to our lovely black pipe, you will see the shy, unassuming signature of one Katharine Hepburn.”

“Ooh!” says Maddie. She turns to conduct the rest of them. “Ooooh!”

“What a bunch of hams,” says Suzy. “The next one is even sneakier.” She pulls aside a thin metal plate screwed to the ceiling, revealing a signature in bold, looping cursive. “That is our namesake, Ethel Barrymore.”

“Aah!” says Maddie, and the rest say, “Aaaah!”

Suzy returns to the ground and folds her fingers. “Now’s when I get my revenge on you jokers. For it is written, that all first-time visitors to Pandora’s Box shall present a brief performance in a genre that is not their specialty. The order of performance generally goes from oldest to youngest, so…”

Maddie jumps to her feet. “I am the queen cougar! Also, I came prepared.” She pulls a piece of paper from her coat. “My husband is a poet, and I can only hope that some of his talent has rubbed off on me.” She reads in a half-song, giving the words a precise attention and diction.

How to Sing

Speak.
Catch the vowel, plastic wonder.
Extend. Spin to the realm of
vibration, incarnation of breath,
trick of tone

Pop the consonant, Shakespearean
neutral, crack another egg,
open to the lips, toothcarve,
tongueshift, ceramic wind,
sonic floret, bouquet, filigree

Puzzle the syllables into streams,
meander, slice the clock into
boxes, lay them inside.
Push the edges. Swing.
Sustain. Work the quiet.
Erupt. Goof around.

Reasons we do it:
erectus matesigh,
a shout carried long,
a sob lifted.
It seems to make us
human, takes the prison of
self and flares it
across the landscape.

It’s possible to connect the
song to a thing we miscall
the heart, but you need to
close your eyes and
briefly give up your life.

Have a drink. Have two.
Fill your lungs with sky.
Draw the spectrum across your
larynx; you are a stringed
instrument, gorged with overtone,
rimmed with bellstrike, a
cellular call to the
oscillating world.

One day, when the green flash
gives way to a blue moon,
you may find that the
song is singing you.
You may then call yourself
a singer.

After a round of glowing adjectives, Mickey stands and clears his throat.

“I give you the natural rebuttal: the singer writes, the opera critic sings. Or at least tries to.”

Mickey lifts his eyes to the heavens and releases a workable baritone – a nervous flutter here and there, but otherwise resonant and vested with feeling. The piece sounds like an Italian folk song, adorned with balletic leaps. Skye catches the word “donne,” the word “cor,” which he takes for “women” and “heart.” He finishes a second verse and closes with a smile, but abruptly cuts off his applause.

“No! This is your chance to boo an opera critic. I insist that you boo me.”

He is greeted with a veritable windstorm, which fades off just as Maddie shouts, “You suck!”

She pats him on the shoulder. “Nothing personal, honey.”

Mickey winds up his voice like a game show host: “And now for the melody we go to our trombone player!”

He points to Delilah, already bouncing in her seat. “Oh! Oh! Gershwin! Um… ‘But Not For Me.’”

“Yes! And the lyrics? Joseph?”

Joseph touches his fingers to his thumb, like someone doing figures in his head.

“The health of your marriage could depend on it,” says Mickey.

Joseph mutters a line of Italian and says, “Cherubino! Marriage of Figaro.”

“Yes! ‘Voi che sapete.’ An aria that your wife sang last night, I might add.”

Betany gives Joseph a kiss on the cheek and he pantomimes great relief.

Suzy looks around. “I’m guessing… Skye?”

“I should hope so,” says Delilah.

Skye stands. “Do we have any rocks? I need three rocks.”

“What size?” asks Suzy.

“Doughnut hole? Tangerine?”

She goes to a corner of the room where the concrete gives way to a strip of gravel and returns with several candidates.

“Thank you,” says Skye. He narrows it down to a trio and works them into a standard juggling pattern.

“Well!” says Maddie.

“This is what you learn when you’re second string on the baseball team.” He works the pattern to the outside, then flips one high, almost to the ceiling, creating a delicious pause as it comes back down. Betany and Maddie begin scatting some kind of circus song as he works the circle into intentional chaos, every pass a near-disaster.

“And now,” he says, “the big finish!” He swings his right arm behind his back, flips a rock over his left shoulder and fetches it back into the flow. This brings shouts. He calls “Two!” flips a rock behind his back, then another, and keeps the circle going. More shouts. “Three!” He flips one, then two, then misses the third as all three clank to the floor.

He raises his hands as if to say “Ta-da!” and accepts a mixture of laughter and bravos.

Delilah stands and pulls a piece of paper from her jacket. “I keep this on hand just in case a poetry slam breaks out.”

The difference in style from Maddie is not surprising: smaller, her voice fringed with quiet emotion.

Fishing

Hector stands on the water,
thinking of Carmella,
who never quite came back.

She could pick a strawberry like
Segovia fixing harmonics.
She loved him, but only once.

He arrives at the pier,
ties his board to a piling and
climbs to his favorite table.

Carmella brings him a smile in
the shape of a rhombus,
a chowder that verges on majesty.

She says, Ask the question.
He says, Ever?
She says, No. Never.

Hector thinks back a tear.
Why do you do this?

She sets her hands on
his java shoulders.

On a night when the
moon was one-third gone,
three men took my youth.
My only sweetness is
telling you no.

He traces the outline of her
blood-red lips. In that case,
I will take the chowder.

The rhombus widens out to
one third of a moon.

A pelican bombs the harbor,
comes up empty.                       
Hector says,                           
Yes, it’s like that.

Maddie holds a hand to her heart. “Oh, Dee! Heartbreaking. Beautiful.”

Delilah mouths a “thank you” and takes Skye’s hand. A tear tracks her cheek.

Suzy waits an appropriate pair of beats and says, “Youngsters?”

“Can we do ours together?” asks Betany.

“Certainly,” says Suzy.

She and Joseph perform a tango that they learned for their wedding. The space is problematic, maintaining the requisite intense expressions nigh-on impossible, but all in all it’s an excellent finale. The non-dancing four contribute a hummed melody that turns out to be Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.”

“You have passed the test,” declares Suzy, “and are all honorary Pandorans. Now get the hell out of here!”

They stumble out, drunk with history, and exchange farewells at Mickey’s batcave. Skye finds himself at Delilah’s apartment at the moderate hour of three a.m. He returns from the bathroom to find her naked on the bed. She extends one leg in a ballet pointe.

“Woman, you are always naked!”

“Yes, but this time you get to play with the goods.”

Skye hurls all his clothing aside. Delilah smiles and hands him a bottle of lotion.

“Why don’t you begin at my feet?”

“Yes ma’am!”



At five a.m., he is two inches into dreamland but still talking.

“That poem. Devastating.”

She runs a finger along his ear. “Don’t put too much into it.”

“But… crying.”

She kisses her finger and taps it to his lips.

“That’s because I felt it.”

“Still…” And that’s all he has left.



At eight o’clock, he hears clicks and scrapes, followed by a hair dryer. He starts to get up but Delilah puts a hand to his shoulder. She’s dressed in a royal blue business suit.

“Don’t worry. Sleep in.”

He rubs an eye. “What are we doing?”

“Not we. Me. I’m dying.”

“You are?”

“I’m shooting one of those forensic-detective TV shows.”

“Wow! What’s the role?”

She snickers. “For about thirty seconds, I’m a stripper. After that, I’m a corpse.”

“Yeesh.”

“No! It’s actually pretty cool. They made a life-cast of my body and added about thirty stab wounds. Anyways, I’ll…”

She trails off, gazing out the window, and kneels next to the bed.

“Remember when I asked if you could let someone else drive?”

“Sure.”

“This is where you get off.”

He stares.

“I’m sorry, honey. My life doesn’t have much room. You had a good time, right?”

“Yeah.”

She rolls a hand over his hair and kisses him. “I’ll be gone till late, but sometime today, please leave. And… thank you.”

She stands, walks to the door and passes through. The lock clicks. He has known her for thirty-three hours. He lies back against his pillow, but he doubts very much if he’s going to sleep.

Every Seventh Capillary

He sits in the park near Sheep Meadow, one of those only-in-New-York creations, a bench that goes on for a block. The day is clear and gorgeous, but he’s receiving some alarming signals. A distinctive snap in the air, flavor of cinnamon. A lone maple at the fringe of the lawn, its crown marked by a beret of red leaves. Has he run into autumn? He envisions the date circled on his calendar for Tahoe, adds the days and weeks for Bridgeport, Hawaii, Denver and Manhattan, and finds that he is well into September. Then he calls Peter.

“My man!”

“Hi Peter. Where the hell are you?”

“Covington, Kentucky! Across the river from Cincinnati. And where are you?”

“Manhattan.”

“Awesome!”

Skye takes a breath. “I have had adventures that you would not believe.”

“What’s her name?”

“Delilah. Who unceremoniously dumped me this morning, but I think I will realize it’s for the best.”

“Did you get inside?”

“Pardon?”

“I’m in mixed company. So, did you get inside?”

“Yes. I did some spelunking.”

“Excellent!”

A rollerblader floats past, wearing the kind of black spandex leggings that take all the guesswork out of mental disrobing. She is a medium-thick girl, with the exact curve ratio that plugs into his sockets. A cascade of thick black curls streams from the back of her helmet.

“I am amazed,” says Skye.

“At what?”

“My own insatiability. This girl at the park.”

Peter laughs, a bluesy husk. “You are a randy puppy!”

“Okay. She’s gone. Those painted-on black leggings.”

“I know, right? How’s a guy supposed to concentrate?”

“Okay,” says Skye. “Let us begin zee interrogation.” He crosses his legs so he can balance a notebook on his knee. “So when did this music thing first attack you?”

“Excellent phrasing, because that is exactly how it felt. I was a kid, watching TV, and this group came on. Pearl Jam…”



“No! I am deadly serious. I think it forces the point-of-view out of this narrow, me-centric tunnel. You have to tap into the empathetic force.”

Skye catches up on his notes. He learned this early on: when you identify something unique or original, you need to get the entire quote on paper. Otherwise, you will end up with useless fragments. The trick is to realize that you are not obligated to hold up your end of the conversation. In fact, the silence often prods the subject into expanding his point.

“His name is Oskar. And… he’s a black labrador.”

Skye stops. “You are fucking kidding me.”

“Hey!” Peter complains. “Would you talk to Dave Matthews like that?”

“Let me know when you get as big as Dave Matthews.”

“Oh, you’ll know.”

Skye does a quick count of his pages. “I think I’ve got enough.”

“Yeah, yeah. You’re just tired of me.”

“Never!”

“Hey, seriously, thanks for doing this.”

“This is what I do. I find great performers, I write about them. See you on Cape Cawd.”

“Awesome! See you then.”

Skye pockets his phone and works backward through his pages, rounding out quotes, clarifying his sloppy writing. Cutting the interview short is another trick – long interviews for short articles are a waste of time. One time, he had Stephen Schwartz on the phone – Godspell, Wicked, the third best-selling composer in Broadway history. Schwartz seemed to be enjoying himself, but Skye only had 400 words, so when the world-famous composer asked, “Do you have more questions?” he said, “No, that should do it.” It felt like turning down a date with Jennifer Aniston.

Or even better, the rollergirl, fresh-faced, her breasts pushing at a purple sweater. She flashes a smile, her eyes hidden by sunglasses, and speeds past.

Skye tries out his psychic abilities. You are experiencing an irresistible urge to turn around. She stops. All these years. If only I had known! She takes a look down the cross-street, then back at him, shading her eyes. She pushes off and heads in his direction.

Come to meee, babeee…

She kicks up her right skate, dragging the brake, then flops onto the bench and takes off her glasses.

“Hi.”

It’s Rachel.



Rachel takes a sip of her berry smoothie and smiles. “Mmm. I can’t tell you how good that is! ‘Specially after a workout.”

Skye takes a draught from his mocha and leaves a whipped-cream mustache.

“Nice look!”

He goes to his napkin. “Thank you. Now, I saw you twice. Does that mean…”

“An entire lap around Central Park, yes.”

“Don’t you worry about cars?”

“They close off the streets every other Sunday.”

“Is it Sunday?”

They’re sitting at Third Avenue and 66th, a patio next to the sidewalk. Rachel laughs, then chews on a fingernail, giving him a hard study.

“Did she wear you out?”

“God yes!”

“Jesus, pal…”

“No, no. I mean… she’s sort of a non-stop party. I couldn’t quite keep up.”

Rachel eyes him some more, dissecting his intentions. “Did you shtupp her?”

“Yes.” He immediately regrets answering so quickly.

She pats his hand. “Hey, relax. I saw that girl. I mighta shtupped her myself.”

“I am really sorry about… my timing. I had just gotten into town, and she was kind of a human tornado.”

“Don’t be sorry. I bet you got a great story out of it.”

“Several.”

Rachel takes a bite of her salad. A double-decker bus rumbles past, whipping up a breeze.

“Back there, in the park, I had a choice. I could have kept going. You’re just some guy I met in a bar. But, I don’t know. I thought you might be worth my while.”

“Well. Thank you.”

The dark eyes are driving him crazy. There’s no end to them. And eyebrows. Sharp, a little avian, notches at the outward edges that move with her thoughts.

“Spit it out,” she says.

“Unfiltered?”

“It’s New York. The world capitol of candor.”

For a Californian, this is a challenge. He rakes a hand through his hair.

“You have great eyebrows. They send off sparks of intelligence. People overlook eyebrows.”

“Most people underlook eyebrows.”

“Number two: your eyes are driving me crazy. They go on forever.”

He stares until the faintest bit of blood comes to her face. Every seventh capillary – a New York blush. The surprise is a single tear, dropping from her left eye. “I guess it was worth stopping for you.”

Skye feels like he’s involved in a three-way conversation. He sips at his mocha and tries to enjoy its dark edge. Nature Boy. Savor the present tense. He is still recovering his balance after too much time on Delilah’s gyroscope. Across the street, four floors up, a man stands at a window in a drab gray T-shirt, smoking a cigarette.

“So what are you doing today, Don Giovanni?”

“Absolutely nothing.”

“Want to go on a treasure hunt?”

He looks back down. Rachel has recovered herself, is messing with her bangs.

“Currently,” he says, “I do nothing else.”



They take the 6 line to St. Mark’s Place. Because he has no idea where they’re going, he is put in the position of following, and the black spandex is driving him insane. Her buttocks are two loaves of bread, beckoning him forward. Climbing the steps to the street, his face is inches away.

They traverse Cooper Square and enter an enormous used bookstore. Rachel marches in like she owns the place and greets a tall, bearded man with spectacles.

“Jam!”

“Oh, hi Rachel!”

“You texted me?”

“Yes. I have treasure for you.” He raises a finger and follows it through a pair of swinging doors. Rachel follows, and Skye follows Rachel. They arrive at a back room, and a broad table covered with cardboard boxes.

“Estate sale,” says Jam. “Body isn’t even cold. They were extremely anxious to move into the apartment, and did not seem to notice that grandma had excellent taste in books. Wine box. Center.”

The box is from Krug. Napa Valley. Skye feels a pang of homesickness. Rachel slips her thumbnail into a slot and slides away a thin wooden panel. The cover is an elderly monarch on embossed leather, cradling the body of a young woman in a purple dress. He is most assuredly King Lear. Rachel lets out a gasp. “The Illustrated Shakespeare! Oh Jam, I love you I love you!” She flips through the pages, taking in the smell. Every other flip reveals a finely detailed scene: the Merchant holding a scale, Rosalind in hunting clothes, Falstaff raising a mug.

“Eighteen eighty two?”

Jam smiles. “It’s an oldie.”

“How much?”

“Five bucks.”

Rachel slaps him on the shoulder. “No! That’s criminal.”

“I really shouldn’t sell them to you at all. Vandal. But that look on your face kinda makes my day.”

She stands en pointe to kiss him on the cheek. “Thank you, thank you. You are too nice to me.”

“Hey, don’t worry about me. I’ll make a fortune on the rest. Shit! Gotta go. We’re short a cashier.”

Jam flies through the doors, leaving them flapping. Rachel kisses the Shakespeare, tucks it into the wine box and then discovers Skye standing there.

“Sorry. Should have introduced you. Would you mind carrying my blades?”

“Sure. Where are we going?”

“Upper West.”



He would call a cab, but he’s enjoying the scenario, carrying Rachel’s skates home from school. They pass the Washington Square arch in late-afternoon sun, the trees showing patches of color, a bronze here, canary there. Old men walk past with newspapers tucked in their jackets. Skye is beginning to fatigue when they arrive at Sheridan Square. He discovers the street sign for Christopher, a block away from Delilah’s apartment. Not that she’s there. Delilah’s busy being dead.

They take the 1 all the way to 96th and Broadway, watching the tiled markers that roll up at the stops. Rachel takes a seat and strokes the wine box as if it’s a young labradoodle. He has dated bibliophiles before, but this one borders on fetish.

He follows her downhill through stone canyons. They turn on West End, a broad sidewalk, whispers of the Hudson River, and slip into an awninged entrance. An old black man gives them a bored wave and they enter an ancient elevator. A tag in the corner reads, Safety permit on file in office.

“Did you notice the address?” she asks.

“No.”

“Six-sixty-six.”

“No shit!”

“And yet,” she points to the buttons, “no thirteenth floor.”

They get off on the fifth floor and travel a dim hall to Rachel’s door. She turns her key in three different spots and opens the door to reveal a kitchen sink.

“Welcome to the apartment of bizarro feng shui. Sink, fridge, futon, operating table.”

The last is an angled white board, placed before two small windows. Rachel flips a switch and it lights up, revealing an intricate motley of black-and-white images on a taped-down square of white paper. The ensemble includes a magnifying bar, plastic rollers, X-Acto knives, and two cans of spray adhesive. Skye sets down the skates and walks toward it but Rachel cuts him off, leaving them in the beginning posture of a tango.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “That one’s not finished. I have a thing about that.”

“Do you have… finished ones?”

“You’re in luck.” She hits a wall switch, lighting up two works next to the futon. And then she leaves to the bathroom.

He drifts to the first work. The lightboard, the X-Actos, the Illustrated Shakespeare and Jam’s comments come together all at once. Collage. The images are line drawings, late 19th/early 20th century, pieced together in wild combinations. The left edge is a fusion of four waterscapes: a lily pond, Niagara Falls, a rocky coastline, a full bathtub. The right side presents a scatter of trees: sequoia, coconut, a witchy oak split by lightning.

At center foreground, a commedia dell’arte clown stands erect, smoking from a floating hookah. A woman stands next to him in the sharp regalia of an 18th century French uniform, holding over her shoulder a preposterously large calla lily. Closer to the water, an Indian chief reclines on the grass, next to an alligator.

Rachel re-enters in jeans and a plaid shirt. Skye is relieved – the struggle to disguise his ogling is wearing him out.

“Do you know how artists like to tell you there’s nothing to ‘get’ about their work?”

“Sure.”

“There’s something to get about my work. They are puzzles. Intentionally obscure. The key is in the spatial relationships, which are taken from iconic paintings.”

Skye takes another look. “Like La Grande Jatte?”

Rachel turns into one of George Segal’s statues. Six seconds later, she blinks away the surprise.

“How?”

“My favorite painting. I went to Chicago once and stared at it for half an hour. Water on the left, trees to the right, the central couple, the parasol as a giant flower, the fisherman as Sitting Bull, the labrador as alligator.” He folds his arms and regards it in full. “Fucking brilliant.”

“What about the other one?”

Skye puts a knee on the futon and gives the second work a study.

“I am absolutely shooting from the hip, but… Guernica?”

Rachel lets out a squeal and covers her mouth.

“How? How?”

“Dominant central figure. The screaming horse. The Jabberwock.”

She comes beside him and runs a finger along the dragon’s tail. “When I was five, my grandmother gave me an illustrated copy of Alice in Wonderland. I was a goner.”

She wraps an arm around his back and they spend another minute on number two. She begins to speak twice, but only breathes. Her third breath comes out in words.

“Do you know how rare it is for an artist to be understood? Do you know how scary it is? I either want to kill you or have your children.”

She sits on the futon and wipes her hair clear of her brow. Skye sits on the floor at her feet.

“I love artists,” he says. “That’s why I write about them.”

“You do?”

“Sure. I’m a freelance journalist. I was interviewing a songwriter when you bladed past. His imaginary writing partner is a black labrador named Oskar.”

Rachel laughs. “I’ll give that a try, next time I’m blocked.”

Skye is overtaken by a yawn that stretches his arms to either side.

“I’ve worn you out!” says Rachel. “Do you want to take a nap?”

Skye manages a smile. “Maybe a short one. Then I was kinda hoping we could go to my place.”

Rachel’s irises shift from one side of her eyes to the other – another gesture designed to drive him insane. “You have a place?”

“I’m staying at the Plaza.”

Her smile grows. “Jesus, pal. You are a long series of surprises.”



“People call my stuff ‘derivative’ and they think they’re insulting me. Of course it’s derivative! That’s why I love it so much – the treasure hunt, the element of discovery. But I’m stuck in a squeeze between those who create from raw materials and those who interpret the works of others. I’m in my own little ghetto, and I am ruthlessly ignored. Give me another hotel on Park Place.”

Skye shakes his head. “I bring you to the Plaza, I lavish you with room service and champagne, and yet you seem determined to drive me to the poorhouse!”

Rachel gives him a close-mouthed smile. “Hotel, please.”

Skye places a red plastic building on Park Place’s growing subdivision and rolls the dice. He ends up on Marvin Gardens – which, naturally, belongs to Rachel. He hands her a hundred. “Refill?”

“Sure.”

He goes to the kitchen to fill their empty flutes. It’s a modest suite, but it’s a suite, with a tenth-floor view of the park and a nice big coffee table for board games. He hands Rachel her champagne and receives a warm look.

“My little sister listens to toxic radio stations, and has developed the theory that celebrities who complain about America should not be entitled to stay here. Sean Penn, the Dixie Chicks, Green Day, George Clooney. And Clooney had just written and directed a film about the McCarthy hearings.

“The latest eruption came at a family vacation at Lake Tahoe. My dad was talking about the living conditions of different countries that he visited with the Navy. The next day, at a restaurant, my sister was getting stupid on wine and declared, ‘I can’t believe that people complain about living in the United States. If they don’t like it, they should just leave.’

“’If the Founding Fathers hadn’t complained about living here,’ I said, ‘we would be pledging allegiance to the Union Jack.’

“Naturally, drunk Angie thought I was joking. She giggled. She fucking giggled. So I stood up, said, ‘Try to use your fucking brain, Angie,’ and I walked out.”

Rachel laughs. “Yikes.”

“Here’s the thing, though. We had car-pooled to the restaurant. To get back to our rental, I had to walk four miles, uphill, on the shoulder of a busy highway in ninety-degree heat. Then I showered, packed my bags and drove off, and I didn’t stop until I ended up in the Plaza Hotel with a hot Jewish collage artist whose only fascist tendency is the way she plays Monopoly.”

Skye takes a breath, letting the long-held anger seep away. Rachel takes his champagne, sets it on the B & O Railroad, and slides onto his lap. She stares him down with endless eyes, traces a line from his earlobe to his mouth, and dots the i with a kiss. A while later, she pulls away and slowly smiles.

“Do you know my favorite part of your story?”

“No.”

“‘Hot Jewish collage artist.’”

“So you pretty much ignored the rest.”

She gives the traditional Yiddish hand-flap. “Tahoe, sister, George Clooney, yada yada.”

He kisses her neck. “Roll the dice. Robber baron.”



Some time in the blue night, a siren calls him awake. He is seated on the couch. Rachel lies with her head in his lap, eyes hidden by a wandering tress. Her skin glows dully in the scattered light.

Skye worries that he is punch-drunk on women. But he suspects that this one is different.



Kicking the Box

In architectural terms, Skye has toured the house of Rachel, has seen her bay windows, her crown moulding, but has also found a single dark room in the back, its door firmly locked. They will be at a concert, on a ferry, in a bookstore (often in a bookstore), and he will find the black eyes sparkless, the brows immobile, her hands dangling in space. She kick-starts at his voice, seemingly unaware of her previous state.

Long Island aims its alligator snout along the undershelf of New England. A hundred miles away, Massachusetts turns its back, crooks an elbow and gives Great Britain the finger. The fingernail? That’s Provincetown.

If Rachel is, at times, an interior, the autumn sunshine of P-town turns her inside out, throwing tendrils, dealing blossoms. Her curls are contained by a gray knit cap that brings her broad-cheeked face into radiant clarity, laughing at each small amusement of the sea-shantied street. A squadron of blond children slalom the tourists like a New Year’s dragon, squealing like seabirds. A man painted completely silver stands on a crate, perfect as a statue until a dollar in his hat triggers a dance. They pass a long display of flowers, and Rachel demands a single purple aster.

Skye goes for the tease. “You want it so bad, buy it yourself.”

“It has to be a gift.”

“Says who?”

“The immutable laws of poetry.”

He makes the purchase and hands it over. She snaps the stem with her teeth, feels for a tiny hole in her cap, and inserts the aster so that it perches over her right ear.

“That is pretty fuckin’ stylish. Oh! I smells garlic.”

She raises her nose. “Absolutely.”

“Bruce told me I would smell the restaurant before I saw it. There!” He nods at a shack on the bay side, next to a long counter of diners on stools. A worn blue sign reads BUCKETS.

“Don’t look now,” says Rachel, “but one of the natives is waving at us.”

The native in question has a thick head of salt-and-pepper hair, a Mediterranean hawk’s-nose and an animated grin. He walks their way on limbs that seem to carry independent charters.

Skye calls “Bru-u-uce!” and storms over, ignoring his extended hand and wrapping him in an embrace that sends his arms flying out like a squished spider.

“Hey buddy,” he says. “Good to see ya.”

Skye turns to make the intro. “This is Rachel, a genuine New York City artist.”

“An artist!” says Bruce. “What medium?”

She answers with some hesitation. “Collage.”

Bruce’s voice has a nasal quality, like an old-time sportscaster. When he’s excited (which is often), it gets high and breathy.

“Collage! I love collage. One time, in high school, I covered an entire wall with all my favorite rockers. The problem was, I glued them on with some serious shit, so when my parents re-did my room, it took off half the drywall. Ha!”

Rachel giggles. “I, too, have done damage. I used to cut up my mom’s magazines before she had a chance to read them.”

“Did your mom say anything?” asks Bruce.

“No.”

“Ha-ha! That’s a mom.”

The exchange hits a sudden speed bump, so Skye jumps in.

“I’m famished! Shall we make to the bucket?”

The gimmick is fairly straightforward. They settle at a round table, each of them fitted out with a bowl of melted garlic butter, a small baguette and a bucket of steamed shellfish.

“Okay, so the artiste got razor clams and oysters, I got clams and mussels. What did you get, Bruceski?”

Bruce answers in song: “In Dublin’s fair city, where girls are so pretty…”

“Cockles and mussels!?”

“They’re not just for Saint Patrick’s Day.”

Rachel uses a shred of baguette as a pointer. “So how long have you scoundrels known each other?”

“College paper, twenty years ago. Bruce was the effete rocker, so naturally he was the sports editor.”

“And the high school jock,” says Bruce, “was the effete arts editor.”

Skye laughs. “The ironies continued after college. The seemingly stable arts editor has had a gazillion different jobs, whilst the overtly weird sports editor has had precisely one employer.”

Bruce raises a finger. “The Provincetown Monitor! Wrap your fish in nothing else.”

“And a lovely wife and three girls. A bas-tee-ohn of Cape Cod society.”

Bruce releases the machine-gun laugh. “Heh-eh. Which provides the perfect cover for my secret life as a pervert. By the way, the wife still hasn’t forgiven you for the bachelor party.”

“Damn.” Skye dips a clam and chews it down. “Mmm. Anyway, Bruce graciously hired me to write an article on Peter.”

“Hey buddy, any chance to get your golden prose into my rag. So am I gonna like this guy?”

“Yes. And here’s why. Awesome sense of humor.”

“Excellent.”

“Great musician.”

“Superb.”

“Primary influences are Neil Young…”

“Yes!”

“Bobbie Dylan…”

“YesYes!”

“And John Mayer.”

“Ew.”

“Hey!” says Skye. “This calls for a disappointment high five.”

The two of them raise their arms while producing a tonally ascendant chatter about all things good: Peter, Neil Young and Bob Dylan. They thrust their palms forward but stop inches apart. Their hands drop back down to disappointed mumbles, ending with Bruce’s phrase “…the general suckage of John Mayer.”

Rachel laughs so hard that she has to spit a razor clam into her napkin.

“Geez, Rache,” says Skye. “Company.” He turns to Bruce. “I really must apologize. She rarely gets out of the city.”

Bruce answers Britishly. “Oh! No bother.”

Rachel raises a hand and tries to talk. “You two… should charge admission.”



Their destination is Drift, a coffeehouse at the very tip of town, looking out over the calmer waters looped in by the Provincetown Spit. The main room is disappointingly orthodox, but once they sit down with their drinks, Skye spots an oversize copy of his article on a back door. What he finds on the other side is pretty astounding. Three broad tiers descend to a small stage, each of them hosting several tables. A window runs behind the stage, revealing the blue layers of sea and sky. The walls and ceiling are covered in tentacles of driftwood, bleached white by the sun, creating the impression of a living, breathing interior. Skye leads his trio to the front-center table. Peter arrives a minute later, looking roadworn but excited.

The crowd is different; Peter is different. An unfamiliar performer breeds skepticism, cautious patrons dipping their toes into the room. But Peter has been legitimized by newsprint, by a writer who had the luxury of saying, Yes, I’ve seen this guy, and here’s why he’s good. With his sense of humor, Peter comes off well in print – particularly the bit about the invisible labrador. The impression was furthered by an excellent photograph, Peter belly-laughing in Denver, the photo credit a revealing M. Santiago. Given a lively writer and a legit paper, the masses are easily led – which is why Skye only goes this far out on a limb when he knows he’s right.

The energy of the crowd feeds Peter’s ego; he responds by performing with confidence, and letting his wry humor spill into silliness. He sings half a song with the mic against his throat, just to see what it sounds like. He composes an impromptu blues tribute to Lady Gaga. (“I would rather sing in Raga / write an Ice-a-landic saga / sail a boat to Nicaraga / than mess with Lady Gaga.”)

At the end of two hours, the room has filled with a toasty enthusiasm. The audience stomps the floor until Peter delivers an encore: he thanks Bruce with a cover of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl.” Bruce raises jazz hands like a testifier in church. Skye is so rapt by the festivities, he worries that he is neglecting his date. When he glances her way, Rachel is just as involved as he is, eyes wide, drinking the music. She catches Skye watching her, smiles and takes his hand under the table.



The post-concert festivities are in Truro, a few miles down the finger, where Bruce lives in a rather amazing stone house. They’re greeted by his wife Marit, a slim, sharp-witted redhead, and three blonde teenagers who are terrifyingly (from a father’s point of view) good-looking. They take a quick tour of the house (Skye roundly disappointed that the interior is not also stone) and retreat to the back yard. A long path takes them to the edge of a modest wood, where stands a genuine New England barn. Bruce gives a game-show wave and declares, “If you vanna buy da vatch, buy da vatch. If you don’t vanna buy da vatch, get avay from da vindow.”

Rachel turns to Skye. “I’m sorry. What?”

“It’s Bruce’s all-purpose non sequitur. He’s been using it since college.”

“Of course.”

The rough exterior – aging shakes sauteed in white paint – gives way to a surprisingly modern interior, featuring a ping-pong table, beanbag chair, daybed and full musical setup: upright piano, Stratocaster guitar with amp, microphone and stand, and an old beater drum kit.

Peter’s eyes light up. “May I?”

Bruce laughs. “Heh-eh-eh. That’s why we’re here!”

Peter fires up the amp, straps on the Strat, checks the strings and rips into the intro for “Roll Over Beethoven.”

“Yeah!” yells Bruce. He hits another amp and waves Skye to the microphone.

Skye says, “Oh no I couldn’t possibly…” as he races to the stand, arriving just in time for the first line. Bruce reaches the upright on the second verse, pounding out chords in a wave of Jerry Lee Lewis eighth notes. Marit grabs a tambourine and smacks it on her thigh. As he finishes the chorus, Skye hears a drumbeat and turns to find Rachel flailing at the skins. Peter drops to his knees and heads into a guitar solo that is bound to last and last.



Four bottles of wine later, Bruce perches on a stool with an acoustic, finishing an old joke. Skye knows all six verses of “Miss American Pie.” The joke is to watch everyone else try to sing along as the lyrics get more and more obscure. They generally end up resorting to nonsense syllables. But Skye keeps going, and Bruce interjects the identities of the rock stars hidden in Don McLean’s words. “That’s Mick Jagger.” “Janis Joplin – duh!” And laughs like Woody Woodpecker.

When finally they reach the end, everyone applauds. Marit says, “Please! Honey! We need to sleep.”

“The man is a human jukebox,” says Skye. “More than once have I seen him play on the back porch of some frat party until he was quite literally bleeding.”

“Ha!” says Peter. “Take that, George Harrison.”

Marit rises to a teacherly posture. “If you want, you may simply sleep out here. There’s a small bathroom next to the piano. That little red door beyond the ping-pong table leads to a cozy bedroom.”

“Thanks, Mom!” says Peter, who seems content to pass out on the beanbag. Rachel heads for the bathroom. Bruce sings “Goodnight, buddy!” and wanders toward the main house. Marit takes Skye by the arm.

“How long have you been with Rachel?”

“Two weeks.”

“There’s a pond between here and the golf course – out the door, trail to the left. Take her there.” She lowers to a whisper. “It’s enchanted.”

And she’s gone, replaced by Rachel, who wears a devilish look.

“Is Bruce’s wife hitting on you?”

“Quite the opposite. Put on your coat, dollface.”

“Okay, Bogey.”

They follow the path, pressing each other for warmth, and come to a pond ringed by cattails. They stand on a small pier and find lily pads in the trail of a full moon.

Skye grips Rachel by the waist and lifts her onto a wooden storage box. They scour each other’s mouths like a pair of teenagers; Rachel’s hand wanders south.

“Wow! I must have this.”

She undoes her coat, hikes her dress to her waist and opens her legs.

“Honey! You are underwearless.”

“No shit. Now off! Off with your pants.”

He is barely unzipped when she grabs his dick and pulls him inside.

“Oh! That is… Wow.”

Skye laughs. “Your eloquence astounds me. But not as much as your drumming. My god I love a woman who drums.”

Rachel is lost in the stars over Skye’s shoulder. “Garage band… high school. Love your singing.”

“In a really weird way, my singing is what got me to New York.” He ends his sentence with a thrust, then laughs. “Kicking the box.”

“Huh?”

“Beginning Shakespeareans learn to speak all the way through their lines by placing a cardboard box on the stage and kicking it on the fifth… beat!”

He finishes with a thrust and Rachel squeals. Skye slows the pace. Rachel gazes up at him, the moon melting in her eyes.

“You are… the best thing I’ve had… in a long time.”

“That’s one of those rare sentences where you can call someone a ‘thing’ and turn it into flattery.”

Skye senses the presence of the locked room but pushes on past, determined to give Rachel as much pleasure as possible. He speeds up. She kicks her legs into the air, a rider spurring a horse, and punctuates her arrival with a howl. As she drifts back down, Skye hears a rustling. He knows exactly who it is.

“Bastards! Sneakpeeks!”

Bruce and Marit burst from a nearby bush and run, giggling all the way.

“Scoundrels!” yells Rachel, and laughs deliriously. “Ooh! It’s even better when I laugh.”

Skye works back to an easy pace. “These two gynecologists walk into a bar…”

“Do you always talk this much?”

“When I’m happy, yes.”

She scoots forward. “Talk all you want.”

“Hypothermia here we… come!” he says. And kicks the box.

The ferry dock at New London, Connecticut makes an impressive setting. The harbor is pencil-thin, banked by a high, long ridge. The ridge is covered in rich lawn and a line of trees showing their October best, particularly a tall ash on the point, bathed in yellow.

Skye exits the ferry’s interior with two cups of hot chocolate. He pauses at the sight of Rachel at the railing, staring into the icy gray overcast. It’s the locked door, the single dark room, and he wonders if he has earned the right to ask about it. He stands just behind her until the smell of the chocolate brings her around.

“Oh! You kinda snuck up on me there. Gimme.” She takes a careful sip. “Mmm. So where’s our friend Peter today?”

“Headed to Baltimore, then on down the coast.”

“No New York?”

“Couldn’t get any interest.”

“Idiots.”

They stand for a while, exhaling trails of vapor.

“Rachel?”

She turns with an amused smile. “Skye.”

“I have noticed that your attentions sometimes go to a faraway place. Is there something troubling you?”

First, nothing. Then a twitch of the lips, a promising intake of breath. Then she stops.

“Every artist has a dark side. I believe it’s required.”

She concludes the subject with a return to her hot chocolate. The ferry grinds forward, sending them both into a stumble-step.

“Back to New York,” says Rachel. Skye lifts her hand and kisses it.



They’re on 495, cruising the long stretches near the eye of the gator. Skye finds it fairly amazing that a place so close to a world capitol could be so devoid of people.

“When I was a sophomore in high school, my friend Maurice told me that I was not cool enough to be in the men’s glee.”

He waits for a response. “Okay,” she says. “Are you going to explain?”

He smiles. “If you insist.”

“I do.”

“The glee club had 125 members. Half of those members were on sports teams. Half the varsity football team was in men’s glee. We used to perform at other schools – one time in Reno, Nevada – to encourage the boys at those schools to sing. Along with the women’s glee, the choir and the orchestra, we gave Christmas concerts that included 600 performers out of a student body of 1500.”

“So you went to school at Disneyland.”

“That’s how it seemed. The director of the men’s glee was Mike Patterakis, a wiry little Greek guy who could be alternately high-strung and supremely cool. With the glee club, I think he realized that, just by their numbers, the group was already impressive. So he kept it simple. Broadway tunes, folk songs, Sinatra’s ‘My Way,’ would you believe, with maybe one or two harmony parts. He didn’t sweat the small stuff, and he tried to keep it fun.

“The ultimate example was our rendition of ‘Winter Wonderland.’ Over the years, the guys slipped in a number of references to sex and drugs. The final verse was…” He stops to remember the lines and bursts out in song. “‘Later on, we’ll get higher, as we drink by the fire, to face unafraid the chicks that we laid, walkin’ in a winter wonderland.’”

Rachel laughs and slaps the dash.

“Brilliant wit, right?”

“Oh! Give ‘em a Pulitzer.”

“But here’s the key. With our murky diction, the audience was none the wiser, and Mr. P was too busy on the piano to play bad cop, so he let it slide. He would slyly admonish us not to sing the naughty version, we would enthusiastically ignore him, and afterwards he would smile and wag a disapproving finger. And once in a while, a friend would ask, ‘Is there something different about that song?’”

“I didn’t come from a terribly musical family. If it weren’t for that freakish high school, and that amazing men’s glee, I might never have been drawn to my life’s work. I might never have learned the great old songs. I might never have sung one of those old songs in a pizza parlor in Bridgeport, California, and I might never have met the spectacular Rachel Grossman.”

Rachel’s expression is a combination of flattered grin and puzzled squint.

“Not quite sure I’m getting the part about the pizza parlor.”

“Oh, um… Met a guy there who convinced me to drive across the country.” He stops to recall the end of his story.

“Last spring, I got an invitation to a wake, at a Greek restaurant in Modesto, which featured the subject of the wake. Mr. Patterakis had terminal cancer, and he wanted to see some of his old students while he could still get around. He was atrociously skinny, but he still had that sparkle in his eye, that lightning grin.

“I found myself in an odd position. I was nothing special in high school. I doubt if I ever even had a full conversation with Mr. P. But I’m sure that teachers understand this idea about their students: you plant a lot of seeds, but some of them don’t germinate till years later, and the size of the blossoms might surprise you. So I sat down with him for maybe thirty seconds, offered a simple thank you, and gave him a copy of my book – a book that was dedicated to him.

“At the end of the party, they handed out scores, fired up a recording from one of our old Christmas concerts, and sixty of us stood up in this Greek restaurant and sang the Hallelujah Chorus. A couple hours later, driving home into the sunset, I imagined what that must have been like for the other patrons, eating pasta with your wife when the freakin’ Hallelujah Chorus breaks out. I like to think I would have been delighted. For us, of course, it was enough to see the look on Mr. P’s face. He was glowing.”

Rachel finds the spot where Skye’s neck meets his collarbone and gives it a rub. She realizes that they’re driving into the sunset, and wonders if this is what triggered Skye’s story.

“This morning, while you were in the bathroom, I got a text from an old schoolmate. Bill. He was the drum major. Built his own recording studio. He specialized in a capella groups, became very successful, and last year he won a freakin’ Grammy! How’s that for…”

The sudden stop indicates a man who is trying not to cry while driving into the sunset. Rachel takes his hand and kisses it. They drive in silence, until the lights of Manhattan sprout from the night like a diamond tiara.

Connecticut

Rachel has been pursuing her sudden romance courtesy of piled-up sick days at a job she refuses to describe. Skye has decided not to press the issue. Given the ironclad contract with Sarge, he has his own secrets, and hasn’t even bothered to offer the rich-uncle cover story.

So every morning, he is kissed awake by a sexy Jewess in smart, preppy-looking clothes: plaid skirts, colored stockings, clean white blouses and delicate sweaters. She is the graphic designer for an off-Broadway theater group; sales rep for an art gallery; receptionist for a small publishing house. All he really knows is that she enters the downtown station for the 1, 2 and 3 lines, and that she gets back at six.

Skye’s occupation is walking. He has never experienced a city that inspires so much pedestrianism, and he notices how much leaner the natives are than in supposedly health-conscious California. He enters the park past a batting practice with 40 fielders, crosses the Great Lawn to the Met museum, descends Fifth Avenue, golden leaves dripping from the trees, and ends up at Rockefeller Center, where he finds a café overlooking the soon-to-be ice rink. He opens his laptop and discovers an email from his favorite source, the science writer/poet Diane Ackerman. The assignment is a story about the right brain-left brain connection for Writer’s Digest. One of Diane’s books is about brain science, but recently the subject has become more personal. Her husband, also an author, suffered a stroke that caused a complete loss of his language skills. But now he has regained so many of these powers that he is working on his next book. Diane attributes the recovery to the brain’s astounding plasticity. Other regions of his brain have apparently re-wired themselves to cover for the damaged area. He’s about to type in some follow-up questions when his phone goes off.

“Hello, sweet thang.”

“Wow. Seventies flashback.”

“Dynomite!”

“You card. Hey, could you meet me at St. Mark’s Place in an hour?”

“Umm, okay.”

“Fantastic. Another treasure hunt. Call me a wuss, but I kinda need an escort.”

“No prob. See you there.”

Skye knows he’s close to the 6 line, but the overcast looks harmless and once again he’s walking. He takes Park Avenue and tries not to look too touristy as he scopes out the Chrysler Building.

He finds Rachel in a sunglass shop, trying out various levels of funkitude. She wears a checked black-and-white coat that makes her look so sharp he can’t stand it. The destination is Alphabet City, which, he has to admit, kinda gives him the creeps. He straightens his posture, thinking bodyguard, Secret Service.

The store is Alphabet Books, East Sixth and Avenue C. The interior carries the distinctive rotten-beer smell of an old saloon. Their contact is Squilly, a Jamaican beauty with the cheekbones of an Egyptian princess. She leads them to a corner piled high with moving boxes.

“How could I not tink of you, dawlin? Drama books – set designs, drawins o’ costumes. It’s a gold mine!”

Rachel digs in like a badger, flipping lids, fanning pages. She shows Skye a sketch of Lady Macbeth in a purple gown, standing before a dark stone castle.

“How much, Squilly?”

Squilly fixes her hands on her hips, long nails done up in a sparkled green.

“I hate to ask anytin, what wit dat look in your eyes. Five dollah book?”

“Okay.” She turns to study the pile and run her calculations: how much in the budget, how much they can drag onto the subway.

“How much for all of it?”

Skye takes some pride in the response: four dark eyes, all of them surprised.

Squilly extends her nails toward the boxes as if she’s casting a spell.

“Tree hunred.”

“Sold.”

He has delighted his woman; he has also condemned them to hard labor. They lug five boxes to the curb. Squilly comes out with some masking tape to reinforce one of the lids. It takes twenty minutes to hail a cab. Then they have to carry the boxes into 666, into the elevator, out of the elevator, into the apartment. Skye sets down the final load and collapses onto the futon next to Rachel. She leans her head against his.

“The bad news is, I no longer have room for you.”

“If I were not so tired,” says Skye, “I would be laughing uproariously.”

It’s been raining all night, and Rachel’s wakeup kiss acted more like a snooze button. He wakes to silvered light and the scent of damp air, fairly certain that the day is already half-spent. The exit from bed takes a little more effort than usual, Rachel having lined the edge of the futon with book boxes.

He enters the bathroom to find a wrapped package. What it’s wrapped in is pretty intriguing: a ‘60s-vintage centerfold spread from a Playboy magazine. The subject is a perky, milk-fed blonde, back when white girls were white. Were it not for the lack of clothing, she could be a Lawrence Welk dancer. Along the curves of an over-the-shoulder shot, Rachel has inscribed a commentary in her sleek handwriting, like a tattoo along Debbie Ray’s backside: Behold! A little surprise from yesterday’s purchase. It’s all right if you visualize Debbie Ray while we’re screwing, but keep in mind that she’s probably 80 by now. Mwah! –R

She has managed to wrap his gift using strategic tabs of masking tape, so it’s easy to disassemble the photo spread without inflicting damage. The object inside is a biography of George Gershwin. A post-it note reads, For the lover of old songs, a hidden treasure from the Alphabet trove. Thank you for feeding my crazy muse. X X O O



A rainy day is not necessarily the best time for a trip to Ellis Island, but Skye is feeling the need to set his feet somewhere off of Manhattan. Most of the tour is inside, anyway – particularly the grand admissions hall – but the most striking moment comes outside in a full downpour. He stands under his umbrella, scanning the list of names on the waterside walls, and the names become voices, a cacophony of foreign dialects filling the great hall.

Across the gray-blue water, the buildings go on forever, their tops slipping in and out of the clouds. The new World Trade building knifes out of the downtown gap. Having stepped this little way off, he wonders what the hell he’s doing. Sarge’s money doesn’t change the fact that he’s a Californian, that at some point he will need to return to his apartment. But what is he supposed to do about Rachel? He can’t just pack her up and take her with him. But he’s not sure if he can leave her, either.

By the end of his long subway ride, he concludes that he is the victim of rainy-day morbidity, and vows to enjoy his adventure two more weeks before returning to a logical existence.

His timing falls into the cracks: late, but not so late that he needs to text. He reasons that Rachel probably doesn’t mind some alone time after work. He opens the door to the overwhelming sweetness of narcissus, and now understands the correlation of myth to plant – that flower is so into itself. He makes a mental note to throw it out before they both go crazy from the scent.

Rachel is a small series of hills under a green comforter, fast asleep. The rain must have dragged her down, too. Skye makes himself a sandwich and watches an old sitcom with the help of some headphones. He makes a covert study of Rachel’s latest work, a spatial parody of The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. The work makes use of every fairyland character imaginable: sprites, ogres, nymphs, the big bad wolf, even Tinkerbell, who is ringleading an orgy involving Hansel, Gretel, Jack, Jill and Icarus.

After another sitcom, Skye comes to the conclusion that Rachel has embarked on an all-night snooze. He picks up the Gershwin biography and sits in a small armchair to read. The city outside sends waves of traffic noise to accompany the steady drip of water against the window pane.



He wakes in the armchair and finds that the small green hills have not moved. Her half-melted Salvador Dali clock reads ten, which cannot be good. He slides next to her on the futon and nudges her shoulder till she rolls over, wearing a drowsy, blank expression.

“Rachel? Honey? You overslept.”

Still blank.

“Are you sick?”

After a long pause, she nods.

“Do I need to call in for you?”

A barely discernible shake. She rolls back over.

“Okay. Sorry you’re sick.”

“Hm.”

Skye performs a lengthy toilette and puts on his rainwear. He watches Rachel’s breathing and concludes that she’s not asleep.

“Going for a bagel, honey. Bring you an Asiago?”

“Hm.”

He’s found a lovely little place on Broadway, Hiram’s, that offers bagels fresh out of the oven, strong coffee, and a counter at the window, perfect for writing and the occasional pedestrian-watch. This is, in fact, an element of the article he’s writing. When a writer is stuck for a word or an idea, he will often look off in the distance. This is usually seen as an attempt to rest his eyes. But the right hemisphere of the brain, which generates new concepts, is also responsible for handling visual imagery. So, in looking for an idea, the writer massages that portion of his brain by seeking visual stimulation.

For the coffeehouse male, this can be a hazardous maneuver. The male brain latches onto what it likes, and sometimes the unfocused idea-gaze turns into an unintentionally rude stare. Skye is occasionally tempted to rush across the room and say, “I’m sorry, your ass was helping me to find a word.”

The other distraction is endemic to the denizens of uptown Broadway. Manhattan women are, on average, much better-looking than most, and even in a rainstorm they’re dressed to the nines. A Russian-looking brunette struts past in a black-and-white checked coat, bringing a thought to the surface. Rachel didn’t look sick at all. But her eyes were sealed off, like the locked door. Like the dark room.

He orders an Asiago bagel to go, and makes his way back.



He pops the Asiago into the toaster, hoping that the pungent aroma will bring her to life. When the toaster pops, Rachel rolls over, pulls up her legs and stumbles to the bathroom, barely giving Skye a look. He puts the bagel halves on a plate and spreads the cream cheese.

A half hour later, she’s still in there, but at least she’s running a bath. Skye finds Ordinary People on the TV and settles in. A few minutes later, she wanders out, naked. She sees the bagel next to her light table, takes a bite, and drops the rest into her wastebasket. Skye takes her by the elbows.

“Rachel? What’s wrong? Is there something wrong?”

Still the locked door, but she manages a word: “Cold.”

“Honey, you’re naked.”

She looks down at her body, then goes to the corner to pull on a pair of sweats and a T-shirt. She returns to the bed, and he’s lost her again.

After the movie, he goes to the corner for Thai food, and manages to feed her two bits of chicken curry before she pushes it away. He feels like he’s dealing with a sleepwalker, and he’s afraid to wake her up. After ingesting a crime show and another chapter of the Gershwin bio (his early career as a producer of rolls for player pianos), Skye gives up, turns off the lights and curls up next to Rachel to see if he can force himself to sleep.



Connecticut.

Someone’s running a finger along his ear. He wakes to find Rachel kneeling over him.

“Stratford… Connecticut.”

She stops between the two words to take a breath, as if the effort of speaking is exhausting her. Then she lies back down, curled against the wall.

Skye rubs his eyes into focus and reaches for his phone, balanced on a bookbox. He pulls up Google and types it in.

--Stratford, Connecticut

Residents of this peaceful seaside town were shocked to learn of the shooting deaths of orthodontist Marcus Grossman and his wife, Shelly Graysen Grossman, late Monday night.

Police have only begun their investigation, but did report that the Grossman residence showed no signs of forced entry. Records show that Dr. Grossman has been the subject of several reports of domestic abuse, although no charges were ever filed.



He finds himself across the street from a dark, heavily gabled apartment building. He’s fairly certain that this means something. A man in a tweed fedora stops beside him.

“The Dakota Apartments. Where John Lennon was killed.”

“Just my luck.”

The man starts laughing, which serves Skye right. He starts laughing as well, then stops.

“Mickey?”

Mickey tips back his hat and smiles. “Delilah’s boy! I’m sorry…”

“Skye.” They shake hands.

“With Delilah, I tend to lose track.”

“Absolutely.” He looks back at the Dakota. “I don’t know if I’ve had a more disheartening night in my life.”

“Oh! But you can’t take Delilah’s rejections personally. She is the human incarnation of ‘La donna è mobile.’ I would guess that…” Mickey performs a theatrical self-hushing, clamping a hand over his mouth. “You’re talking about John Lennon, aren’t you?”

Skye nods.

“Well how long were you going to let me ramble on, for God’s sake?”

Skye smiles. “As long as it took.”

Mickey pats him on the shoulder. “I think I need to buy you a drink.”

“I think you do.”



He expects another visit to Mickey’s apartment. What he gets is a rambling trek past Lincoln Center to a tiny bar on 58th and Ninth called Cavalleria Rusticana. The interior is dark, full of archways, the red walls dotted with framed photos of opera singers. Something old and Italian plays from the P.A. The man behind the bar is built like a teamster, with a neatly trimmed beard and a head of thick, dark hair. He sees them and smiles.

“Mick!”

“Buongiorno, Pietro!”

The man lets out a gravelly laugh. “It’s not fair – your Italian is so much better’n mine.”

“Mi dispiace, signore. But you got dat Bronx thing.”

“Been workin’ on it all my life.”

“Gimme some grappa. Due, per favore.”

“I’m gonna assume you mean two.”

“Yes, please.”

Mickey hands Skye a tumbler and takes him to a corner booth with the requisite dark varnish and black upholstery.

“That man at the bar is Peter Mascagni, great-great grandson to Pietro Mascagni, who wrote the great verismo opera Cavalleria rusticana. Which translates as ‘rustic chivalry.’ Which is a great name for a bar.”

Skye takes a sip of the grappa, which offers the same fumey quality as brandy. “Y’know, most guys go to bars to get away from their wives.” He nods at a photo of Maddalena Hart in 18th century dress, braided blonde hair, a Spanish wrap.

Mickey looks at the picture and sighs. “Micaëla, from Carmen. I could tell you a story about my wife and Micaëla that would make your ears rotate.”

“Menage?”

Mickey gives a devilish chuckle. “You are not far off. But enough. Basta! Continue this story of yours. The Jewish girlfriend, the bottomless funk.”

“Yes. Um… a few nights ago, she managed to produce two words: Stratford, Connecticut. So I looked up Stratford, Connecticut and found a murder-suicide involving a Mr. and Mrs. Grossman.”

Mickey looks sincerely shocked. “Her parents?”

“Her parents. Her father had a record of domestic violence; her mother had a record of not pressing charges. And there’s another thing. In the short time I’ve known her, Rachel has shown this tendency for brief disappearances into dark places. I call it the locked door.”

“So she expected this.”

“I think so. And now that it’s happened, she has checked out. She rarely leaves her bed, eats just enough to stay alive. Her longest sentences are two words. Frankly, I don’t know how long I’m obligated to play nursemaid – or whether she’d be better off in more qualified hands. Someday, I probably need to go home.”

Mickey takes a sip of grappa and rolls it around his mouth. “I wonder… if there is a place where your needs and Rachel’s needs might overlap. Is she dangerous?”

“Not at all. A kind of hibernation.”

“No calls from the police?”

“No. Sadly, it was a pretty open-and-shut case.”

Mickey’s eyes shift around the room, as if he’s working some kind of mathematical formula. “So you live in… what? San Jose?”

“Yes. But I need to go through Kansas City.”

“Whatever for?”

“I have a pickup truck in a parking garage.”

“Naturally.” He rolls his fingers on the table. “I had a friend in California who grew up in Boston. She left Boston when her brother was murdered. She has come to realize that the recovery process has been easier on her than on the rest of the family, because she’s not faced with the physical reminders: the old school, the old house, the liquor store where he was shot. So perhaps, at least in the short term, you should do the same for Rachel.”

Skye gives it a thought. “I can’t see taking her on a plane, though. She’s halfway to a zombie.”

Mickey looks distracted, his eyes scanning the ceiling.

“Sorry. Peter always slips in something by Maddie. That’s ‘Casta diva’ from Norma.”

Maddalena’s voice rises by slow steps over a bed of strings, then blossoms in a crown of tones. Mickey closes his eyes and smiles.

“You absolutely worship that woman.”

He chuckles. “The amazing part is that she worships me.” He rubs his hands together and says, “So!” And stops.

“What?”

“Hold on. One last run-through.” He touches his fingers to different points in the air, as if he’s conducting his thoughts. He literally gives a cutoff – a sweep of the hand, thumb and fingers coming together – and says “Yes!”

Skye laughs. “Share with the class?”

Mickey bolts his final swallow of grappa and sucks his teeth. “Yes. But you’re going to have to believe in the power of impulsive action.”

Skye laughs again. “You have no idea.”

A Wolf, a Bison and a Grizzly

“We’re not particularly pursuing a straight shot, are we?”

Mickey cranks down the perpetual opera. “Did you enjoy the Delaware Gap?”

“Yes.”

“Virginia?”

“Gorgeous.”

“Following the arc of my logic?”

“This is not the efficiency tour so much as the… postcard tour.”

“Smart man!”

Skye watches as a billboard for cheese approaches and disappears. “Are you certain that this is all right with the diva?”

Mickey gives a sly smile.

“You didn’t even tell her, did you?”

“Maddie and I have an agreement that we will, when the opportunity presents itself, live large. Inherent in that agreement is an obligation on my part to occasionally surprise the hell out of her. She’s in London this week, after which I’m supposed to meet her in San Francisco for Otello. Imagine her surprise when her husband pulls up in the family limo.”

“You’re an evil genius.”

“‘Bout time you figured that out.”

They’re headed southwest on 81 toward Knoxville, Tennessee, having spent the night in Bristol, Virginia. The road takes a sudden sweep to the right, crossing over a river. Mickey pulls into a turnout.

“How’s our patient?”

Skye peers into the back. “Snoozing, as ever.”

“I’m working on a twenty-year memory, but I seem to recall that the next ten miles are fairly incredible. Why don’t you prop her up so she can see?”

“I don’t know,” says Skye. “I hate to wake her up.”

“Skye. Our entire mission is to wake her up. Stop being so nice. Is an alarm clock nice?”

“God no.”

“But if the alarm clock doesn’t do its job, you’re screwed.”

“Yes.”

“So. Do your job.”

Skye tightropes into the back, where they have fitted the Caddy’s spacious interior with a small mattress. He kisses Rachel into the shades-half-drawn stare that passes for wakefulness, then pulls her up to the bench seat. After belting her in, he gives Mickey the high sign.

The road enters a narrow canyon, framed by walls of blue rock, and snakes back and forth over the river. The water runs like glass through the channels, simmers along the shallows, and boils white over the rockfalls. Skye cradles Rachel with her face toward the window, in the hope that some of it will get through.



He manages to get Rachel interested enough in St. Louis to kneel on the mattress and see the Arch, but soon she’s back to horizontal. They call it a day in Columbia, Missouri, at an intriguing hotel called Samuel’s Inn. The namesake turns out to be Clemens – the Mark Twain Forest is just out of town. The exterior is full-on log cabin, and the lobby centers on a fireplace fashioned from beige river rocks. The opposite wall features the taxidermied head of every imaginable North American mammal, including a wolf, a bison and a grizzly.

Mickey handles the arrangements while Skye sits with Rachel on a cowhide couch. Getting her to their room is surprisingly easy, no worse than propping up a drunk. She quickly disrobes and heads for the clawfoot tub.

Skye settles into a burgundy leather armchair to continue the Gershwin biography (the Girl Crazy pit band included future stars Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Jack Teagarden and Jimmy Dorsey). He turns the page to find handwriting. His initial response is anger – who would mark up such a beautiful book? But then he spots the vandal’s signature: Gershwin. Followed by three measures of handwritten music.

“Holy motherfucking shit.” He phones Mickey.

“I’m sorry. The chauffeur has retired for the evening.”

“Mickey. Seriously. I have got to show you something.”

“Okay. Lobby, ten minutes?”

Mickey arrives with two beers. Skye waits on the cowhide couch, like a hen sitting on a golden egg.

“What’s up?”

Skye shows him the cover of the book. “Biography of Gershwin, a gift from my zombie girlfriend. Published 1931. Could you please set down that beer?”

“Sure.” He takes a sip and sets his bottle on the coffee table. Skye opens the book and hands it over. He watches as Mickey’s eyes scroll the page and get big.

“Jesus Mary fucking Magdalene.”

“Right?”

“‘Dearest Emily: Cannot thank you enough for your constant encouragement and inspired library services. You are an angel. Cheers.’ George freakin’ Gershwin. Where the hell did she get this?”

“A bookstore in Alphabet City. Any idea what the music’s about?”

“There’s music?”

“Bottom right.”

“Holy crap. Well, there’s a way to find out. Hold this.” He hands him the book, takes a swallow of beer, sets down the bottle, takes back the book and heads for a upright piano in the corner.

“You play?”

“I forage.” He sets the book on the music holder and feels around for the notes, throwing out the bad ones, starting over, a half, pair of triplets, a series of tied eighths descending in an offbeat staircase. Finally, he runs off all three measures at a steady clip and smiles.

Skye taps a hand on his temple. “God! I totally know that. What is that?”

“That,” says Mickey, “is the opening theme to Rhapsody in Blue.”

They finish their beers and try to have a casual chat, but the book sits there, glaring at them.

“Perhaps tomorrow,” says Mickey, “we can find a suitable holding case.”

“Absolutely.”



Skye returns to the room. Rachel lies on the bed, looking much more peaceful than in her daytime haze. He takes a ring of her hair and runs it around his thumb.

“Darling, that book you gave me is much more than you imagined.”

Her long, slow breath fills the room.

“Good night, Rachel. I know it’s hard, but I hope you come back someday.”

He turns off the light and tries to visualize sleeping. The book glows white on the nightstand.

Persephone

Mickey and Skye stand between the Caddy and the stealth pickup.

“I sort of wish I could tag along with you. On the other hand…”

“You want to be Nature Boy.”

Mickey searches the data banks. “Nat King Cole?”

“That’s the one.”

“Yep. No offense to she who will not be named, but it’s nice to come to a junction and go right or left without a conference. Maybe even do something stupid, with the luxury of nobody knowing about it.”

Skye chuckles. “Feels like I’m passing the torch.”

Mickey looks toward the truck. “You will definitely have to let me know what happens. Lots of pain in that girl. Should I tell her goodbye?”

Skye kicks a stray pebble, is surprised when it clangs against a pipe. “At this point, I’m going by what they say about coma patients: you never know what’s going to get through so you may as well say it.”

Mickey approaches the window. Rachel is curled against the headrest, one hand wrapped around the seatbelt. Mickey ducks inside to kiss her on the cheek. She stretches, cat-like, then resumes her position.

“Come back, Persephone. We need you for the spring.”

He turns and gives Skye a hug. “Best of luck, Captain. Send me some updates.”

“Thanks, Mick. And thanks for the preposterous idea.”

“Anytime.” Mickey climbs into the Caddy and fires it to a baritone rumble. He hits the horn, producing the theme from Beethoven’s Fifth, and rolls away.

Skye gets into his new-old truck, pulls out a map and considers his future.



His initial thought is of icons – the icons in Rachel’s collages. Perhaps a spark of recognition will help to bring her back. He heads north along the Missouri River, Lewis and Clark’s river, Nebraska whispering just across the water. On the way to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, they enter a rainstorm, and Skye sees thousands of leaves drifting across the road.

“Look, honey, isn’t that odd? Why would wet leaves be blowing around like that?”

The running narration is something he decided he needs to do – although it does feel a bit silly.

He pulls over to get some gas, and notices something strange on his bumper: a dozen green smears, like guacamole constellations. The connection doesn’t take long to land: those weren’t leaves. Those were frogs, tens of thousands of frogs migrating across the road. He can only imagine how many went under his tires.

He finds a radio station and sings along to an old Roger Miller tune, “Chug-a-lug,” hoping to mask the shadow of death, but suspects he has failed when Rachel takes his hand. Still, the feel of her fingers is nice, and the roadway is clear of amphibians.

They head west on I-90, and wake up in a motel in Mitchell. He guides Rachel into a diner and gets her to share some of his pancakes. The day is brilliant, and the coffee has had its effect, so Skye sets out to tell his entire life story. Somewhere along age eleven, he lands on a relevant subject.

“We were stationed in Monterey, at the Naval Postgraduate School, and then my dad got orders to San Jose, about 60 miles to the north. It being summer, we decided to cover that 60 miles via Yellowstone Park.

“I loved Yellowstone! The hydrothermal stuff was mesmerizing. The mudpots like boiling buckets of paint, that great rotten-egg smell. We got back to California a day early, so we parked the camper in the mountains overlooking San Jose. And naturally, our cat gets out and disappears into the woods, and looking back I have to say, We took a cat to Yellowstone? Are you fucking kidding me? Oh look, honey, we’re crossing the Missouri.”

To which Rachel responds, “Hm.” And buries herself in her blanket.

The rest of the day is one icon after another, beginning with the Badlands. Thinking of the alarm clock, Skye pulls Rachel to a bench at the overlook, and holds her head in his hands so she’s forced to look: hundreds of yellow, orange and red mounds, topped with snow like mineral desserts.

Driving through Rapid City, Skye spots a pack of dinosaurs on a high ridge and wanders the streets until he reaches them. At a park, the lights of town stretched out beneath them, he lifts Rachel’s hand to the metallic belly of a brontosaur.

They make Mt. Rushmore after nightfall and find the presidents lit up by spotlights. This being the icon of icons, Skye forces himself to stay with Rachel and stare for a good twenty minutes. He’s actually a little disappointed – Rushmore looks exactly like it’s supposed to look. Driving away, he lands on a rockabilly surf tune and hears a phrase pinging around his head: To see Abe Lincoln glowing in the cold arena light. He recites it a dozen times as they snake through the Black Hills.



They wake up in Gillette, Wyoming and stop in Buffalo for Chinese food. Climbing into the Bighorn Mountains, Skye breaks into the leftovers and is still noshing as they pass a sign that reads Powder River Pass. He repeats the phrase several times, then sees what he’s eating and expands it to, And still we eat our snow peas on the Powder River Pass. Then recites it twenty times as Rachel occasionally grunts.

At sunset they arrive in Thermopolis, a hot springs park with all the subtlety of a children’s pizza parlor. Skye manages to get Rachel into shorts and shirt, and walks her to a hot tub that smells of rotten eggs. A curious yellow triceratops peers over their shoulders as an afterglow paints the lunar hills. He dips his hand into the water and dabs it on her face.

“Rachel, I’m trying real hard here, but I gotta admit, it’s getting a little frustrating. I would be thrilled to meet your real self before we get to California.”

“Hm.”



Once again, the West is wearing him out. Once they reach I-80 at Rock Springs, he finds himself on an old track, and he’s too tired to finagle his way out of it. He gets through Salt Lake City as quickly as possible, and spends the remainder of the day conquering the Salt Flats. The graffiti on the roadsides, black rocks against white salt, is the exact opposite of the Kona lava fields. It’s just now that he realizes he drove almost completely across Utah without thinking of Lindsy.

They enter the Jack Mormon paradise of Wendover, Nevada, and are greeted by Wendover Will, an illuminated 63-foot cowboy. Skye gets them a room at a casino and takes Rachel to the main floor to absorb the merry chaos of the slots. He settles at a penny machine featuring yodeling goats, and enjoys the feel of Rachel leaning on his shoulder.

“Where are we?”

It’s the first three-word sentence she’s produced since the shutdown began. He fights the urge to over-react by keeping his eyes on the screen.

“We’re in Nevada, honey. We’re playing the slots.”

“Hm.” She runs a hand into his hair. He hits the Spin Again button.



The three words give him the idea that he’s headed in the right direction, so he bullets across the state, picking up sandwiches at truck stops and driving on. The shadow of Lindsy reappears at Winnemucca. He drives on. As they near Lovelock, curtains of snow drift across the roadway. Rachel comes awake to watch them, and smile.

Speed is essential, so he sticks to the interstate, all the way into Reno. He takes Rachel into a casino for a five-dollar slots refresher, then courses south through Carson City, onto the sweeping curves of 395. They arrive in Bridgeport at midnight. Skye pulls into the same motor lodge, and, because it’s the off-season, gets the same room he had before. He feels the loop of his travels clicking into place.

Mona Lisa

He wakes to find the little motel park covered in snow. This could be problematic. He was hoping to eventually take the Tioga Pass into Yosemite, but this time of year it’s a sketchy proposition.

He takes a leisurely bath, a meticulous shave. Rachel has apparently taken the snowfall as a signal to hibernate. He wonders how it is that a person can sleep this much.

He grabs his ski jacket and takes to the main drag. The flakes are sifting the air, ticking across his shoulders.

He passes Mae’s Pizza, the center of tonight’s spy games, but it’s much too early to make an appearance. The shop next door, Auntie’s Sal’s, offers a selection of country home products. His entrance jangles a string of bells on the door. A woman stands at the counter, squat, a stripe of silver running one side of her dark hair. She looks up from a crossword puzzle.

“Mornin’. Let me know if you need help with anything.”

“Sure. Thanks.” Maybe it’s because he’s got a whole day to kill, but he’s oddly certain that there’s something in this store that will give him an answer. Mailbox with nautical sails, whirligig painted like a chicken, birdhouse painted like a barn, and then a sudden burst of fragrance: lavender soap, citrus lotion, cinnamon candles, vanilla massage oil.



It’s not that he hasn’t earned her trust, but the power granted him by her passivity is a little unsettling. She may as well be a mannequin, he a window-dresser. He rolls her onto her stomach, places a pillow under her head and massages every square inch. The smell of the oil is perfect, sweet but not sickly. After a half hour, he turns her onto her back, skirting erogenous zones, ignoring his erection. His arms begin to wear out, so he stops and wipes her down with a bath towel.

After an hour of channel-surfing, as he’s dozing off, Rachel rises from the bed. She pauses at the entrance to the bathroom and looks back, scanning the room like a ship’s captain looking for land.

“Thank you.”

She goes inside and starts the bath.



He dresses just after dark, kisses his undead girlfriend and ventures out. The sky has cleared, leaving a breathless starlight over the white courtyard.

Skye crunches along the sidewalk and finds Mae’s Pizza sparsely populated. A week of sympathetic underfeeding has left him feeling famished, so he orders what amounts to half a chicken with a mountain of mashed potatoes. A petite redhead arrives to tinker with the sound system, which gives him hope.

In the spirit of his rather questionable plan, he begins with “Nature Boy,” as if he could conjure the old man like a hunter with a duck call. The hostess seems pleased with his performance. The rotation contains five other singers: an old dude singing classic country, his thin, nervous wife trying her best at musicals, a bearded biker on the southern rock highway, a tall, long-haired kid with a Bowie fixation, and a bald 60-year-old with an unusual talent for Radiohead. Skye is determined to fill the air above Bridgeport with as much Nat King Cole as possible: “Mona Lisa,” “Route 66,” “L-O-V-E,” “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and “Answer Me My Love.” He decides it’s best to remain aloof in his corner of the room, but he gets some nice applause and increasingly fetching looks from the hostess, Leticia.

Last call comes at midnight. He dials up his favorite, “Stardust,” chasing the nocturnal, pitch-perfect call of Cole’s lush baritone. His effort wins a minor ovation. He chats with Leticia as biker dude starts into “Gimme Three Steps.”

“Karaoke tomorrow?”

“Yep. Same time. You comin’ back?”

She’s got a smattering of freckles across her cheekbones, and a clipped country accent from the Midwest, maybe Indiana.

“I think so.”

“Good. You’ve got a beautiful voice.”

“Thanks.” He drops a ten in her tip jar.

“Thank you.”

Skye nods to the other singers on his way out. The 60-year-old gives him a fist bump. A three-quarter moon lights up the rimed street like Hoagy Carmichael’s fondest dream.



In the morning, he walks in the opposite direction and finds a coffeehouse that looks like a wedding chapel. He spends a coffee’s worth of time polishing his brain-function story, then buys a poppyseed muffin in the hopes of feeding some of it to Rachel. The weather has lost its charm, a white slate ceiling producing nothing but cold.

He repeats the full-body massage, and at one point Rachel lets out a contented hum. Anything. He’ll take anything. He goes back to sleep, his limbs wrapped around her vanilla body. When he wakes, he tries to watch some television but the inactivity is driving him nuts, so he hits the narrow strip of open carpet for crunchies and leg lifts. He finds a deck of cards, plays a couple dozen hands of solitaire and, much to his relief, finds that he has killed off the long, dreaded day.

At the parlor, he orders a large combo pizza, imagining he can stow the leftovers in his truck and use them for breakfast. He’s indulging in a hot fudge sundae when Leticia rolls in to set up her equipment. She gives him a smile.

It’s Friday, and it looks like it’s going to be a healthy crowd. This may, in fact, be one of the few entertainments in town. The beginning rotation is a full dozen, and he’s a little bit relieved that he won’t have to come up with so many songs. He decides to go with Gershwin: “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “They All Laughed.” Soon after, the mic is taken by an Asian lady who delivers a kittenish reading of “Fever.” She’s all the way to the verse about Captain Smith and Pocahontas before Skye realizes it’s Andorra. She accepts her applause and takes a seat at his table.

“You’re good,” says Skye.

“I’ve got three songs.”

“More than some people.”

She takes a sip of beer. “You’ve been having one hell of an adventure.”

He smiles. “And you know that because…?”

She taps his knee. “Nothing evil. We were tracking your purchases. Five years ago, one of our beneficiaries went to Vegas, blew all his non-disclosure money and was so depressed about it he threw himself off a building. Money is a powerful drug. You, on the other hand, have made excellent use of your windfall – until now. What are you doing in Bridgeport?”

Skye sips from his martini, feeling like a poker player. “I would like to take my girlfriend Rachel on a tour of Sarge’s estate.”

Andorra delivers an artful pout. “And here I was thinking you had come back for me.”

“I half expected you to show up somewhere in my travels. I was kinda hoping you would. But now I have to behave myself.”

She nudges her coaster like she’s moving a pawn. “You signed an agreement, and were handsomely rewarded for it. This request is distinctly out of bounds. We are not a goddamn amusement park.”

Andorra operates at such a calm baseline that it’s hard to know if she’s really angry. This thought is interrupted by Skye’s turn at the mic. The choice this time is “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” He’s grateful for the break, and also for the familiarity of the song, which allows him to deliver it despite the hundred thoughts flying through his head.

He returns to the table, where Andorra is still clapping. “Sarge was right. You’re very smooth.”

“Thank you.” Skye crosses his legs and smacks his lips. “A couple weeks ago, Rachel’s father shot Rachel’s mother, and then he shot himself.”

Andorra winces.

“Terrible,” says Skye. “Awful. Her reaction has been this state of shocked hibernation in which she has almost zero interaction with the world. I’ve tried just about everything to spark her back into life, and I have a hunch that the Springs might just do the trick.”

“Okay. That’s… admirable.”

“That’s my motivation. Here’s Sarge’s. I have a biography of George Gershwin, signed by George Gershwin. The autograph includes a handwritten rendition of the opening theme to Rhapsody in Blue.”

“Where did you find it?”

“A bookstore in Manhattan. Rachel uses illustrations from old books in her work as a collage artist. I bought her five boxes of books for three hundred dollars, and this book was part of the collection.”

“Amazing!”

“All I want for the book is two days at the Springs.”

Andorra runs a finger along her lips. Skye’s trying hard not to find this distracting. She points a finger at him. “Can I see it?”

“Of course.”

He waves to Leticia (who looks disappointed), grabs his pizza box and walks Andorra down the street. She perches on the bed next to a dozing Rachel.

“Poor thing. She’s really knocked out.”

“Yes.” Skye pulls an aluminum briefcase from the dresser and sets it on a small table. Inside is the book, fitted into a Styrofoam cutout. He opens it to the autograph. Andorra gives it a long study, then uses her iPhone to take a picture of the autograph and the cover.

They stand on the wooden walkway that connects all the rooms. The moon is struggling through a bank of clouds in the eastern sky.

“No promises,” she says. “I’ll call you before noon to let you know.”

“Thanks.”

Andorra starts to leave, then turns back. “We… confirmed your presence in Bridgeport by the dinner you purchased. But our first hint was when you sang ‘Nature Boy.’ A few months ago, Sarge gave Leticia a new soundboard for her birthday. What she doesn’t know is that it’s rigged with a transmitter so he can listen to the singers from home. I thought you might find that amusing.”

Skye smiles. “You have redeemed my faith in magic.”

She kisses him on the cheek, slaps his ass and says, “Good.” Then walks off down the drive.

Cotton Blend

Fueled by anticipation, Skye gets up at seven and realizes right away that he’s not going to get back to sleep. When he switches on his cell phone, it shakes with a text: You’re on. Pick you up at ten. He sends back OK and heads for the bathroom.

In times previous, Rachel was at least pliable. Today she’s a lead weight. She spits out her breakfast pizza, and contributes nothing to her exit from the bed. He ends up treating her like a life-size doll, scrubbing her down, brushing her teeth, putting on her clothes. When Bubba rolls up in the Escalade, he has to lift her to the seat and buckle her in.

Bubba wears an enormous Russian hat that makes him looks like a furry ice cream cone. He lines himself up behind his extended pedals and grins.

“You lead an intriguing life.”

“So good to see you, Bubba.”

He rolls the Escalade out of the drive at a pace that’s downright civilized.

“I see that look,” he says. “I must admit, a female passenger has a distinct effect on my speed. Much more a damsel in distress.” He takes a look in the rear-view. “I was very sorry to hear about the… situation.”

“Thank you, Bubba. I only hope it works.”

He takes a left through the wall of ivy and comes out along the river, just as he had two months before. Skye slaps his seat.

“Dammit! I drove down the street five times looking for that ivy.”

Bubba smiles. “It is quite the enigma.”

They pull up to the final rise in a calm snowfall. The house looks smaller than ever, a tiny rectangle on a mountain of white.

“Occasionally we have to use a snowcat for this last part. But I have found a new make of snow tire that grips the earth like an Irishman holding on to a Guinness. Ho! Sorry. That’s a hazard of growing up British.”

“Given your unique qualities,” says Skye, “I’m sure you took your fair share of abuse.”

“Constant comparisons to fire hydrants. Highly unoriginal.”

The Escalade conducts a smooth grind and pulls up to the front steps. Sarge himself comes to greet them, looking spry in a red corduroy hunting jacket.

“Nature Boy! Welcome back.” He gives Skye a hearty handshake.

“Thanks. I’m sorry if I was… pressing my luck.”

“No! I completely understand. The things we do for love. I was actually hoping you would show up sometime. I’d like to hear about your adventures. But you understand, we billionaire hermits have to put on a fierce face. Now! Let’s get you up to the house for a hot chocolate. Bubba, could you take their bags to the Louis and Ella? Oh, except for the book. I’m rather eager to see that.”

Skye fetches the aluminum briefcase and helps Rachel down from her seat.

“Sarge, this is Rachel Grossman, obscure New York collage artist.”

“And a lovely one at that,” says Sarge. He takes her hand in both of his. “It’s good to meet you. I hope you’ll enjoy your stay.”

Rachel stares at her shoetops, her face hidden in the hood of her parka.

“Yes, well. I hope we can talk later.”

They are soon seated at the same long table, enjoying a view that has become even more spectacular with the white trimmings. Andorra enters with a cart holding a silver tea service. She pours a dark liquid into silver goblets and sets them on the table.

Sarge takes a sip and closes his eyes. “Mmm. Venezuelan. The darkest chocolate in the world.”

Skye tries it. The chocolate has a bitter, woodsy edge. “That is almost sexual.”

Sarge looks at Rachel, still as a statue, one hand on the table.

“It’s best not to expect much,” says Skye. “And you never know, maybe the smell is getting through. My approach has been to feed her as many sensory variations as possible. That’s why I thought of you.”

Sarge wipes his mouth. “I do have some new toys we can try out on her. Meanwhile, may I take a gander at your prize?”

Skye hands him the briefcase. He takes it to a counter under a hanging light and snaps it open. “Nice! I love the packaging.”

“We carved the inset from the lid of a liquor store cooler.”

“Fantastic. I don’t see the autograph.”

“Inside. Page 124.”

He flips through the pages, then pulls out a pair of reading glasses. “Wow. That does appear to be Gershwin. And there’s the Rhapsody.” He hums the clarinet intro. “Magnificent! Thank you so much for thinking of me.”

“Who the hell else was I going to think of?”

“You make a good point.” He sets the book back into the Styrofoam and clicks the case shut. “All right if I pass this on to Andorra for analysis?”

“It’s yours. Unless, of course, you’d like to kick us back into the snow.”

Sarge laughs. “Not on your life. Now, enjoy that chocolate, and then I’ve got some immediate amusement for you. Unless Rachel needs some rest?”

Rachel’s hand has wandered to the base of the goblet, but her expression remains blank. Skye recalls a sci-fi story in which the hero enters a rapid time continuum, leaving those around him to move at a glacial, nearly imperceptible pace.

“I think Rachel has had enough rest to last her through New Year’s.”

He’s tempted to ask for a wheelchair, but reminds himself that Rachel’s legs are perfectly functional. Sarge leads them to a familiar triangular portal and they board the moving walkway. They exit into the same auditorium-like space, ringed by polished granite. The floor looks different – emptier.

“No more Pete Sampras?”

“Sorry,” says Sarge. “I got bored.” He leads them to a set of theater seats. Skye guides Rachel to the upper row. She sits down and buries her face in his shoulder.

“Honey,” says Skye. “You need to pay attention. I think we’re going to have a show.”

“You are,” says Sarge. He punches a button on the arm of his seat and the lights go down. A purplish glow fills the floor like a tule fog, and suddenly everything snaps into focus. What appears is a green oval, ringed by brown. Skye can see fences, a small tower, beds of flowering plants in a decorative pattern. A man in red silks leads a horse along the back turn.

“A horsetrack!”

Sarge smiles. “Golden Gate Fields, near Berkeley. The owner is a friend of mine. He allowed me to install cameras at the track for my little experiment. What you are seeing is a live holographic broadcast. Not purely holographic – not in the Star Wars fashion. The process involves reflective smoke and projectors. It’s been used at music festivals to bring rap stars back from the dead.

“Yes!” says Skye. “I’ve heard about that.”

“I have this crazy Silicon Valley inventor who likes to use my money to come up with things like this.”

A line of riders and trainers appear at the right, leading their horses toward the gate. To the uninformed eye, the horses would be about the size of chihuahuas, and actually do appear to be walking across the floor of Sarge’s theater.

“Next item,” says Sarge. He flips a switch, causing screens to rise from the backs of the seats in front of them. Skye’s screen offers a list of names and odds.

“Is this for real?” he asks.

“Along the right-hand edge you will find a card slide, directly connected to the racetrack. I would simply give you some wagering credit, but I find that using one’s own money is much more exciting. Do hurry, though. We’re about five minutes to post.”

Skye slides his card and orders up a hundred dollars’ worth of credit. He picks a horse named Fraudulent at 7-1 and lays down twenty. Then he slides his card along Rachel’s screen and signs her up for the favorite. He holds the nape of her neck and speaks in her ear.

“Your horse is Cotton Blend, Rachel. Three to one. The green silks. See? Over there.”

He imagines that she glances in the direction of the track, but even the verbal grunts seem to be gone now. He worries that she has gone even further into the hole.

A man in a red jacket strides across to play the starting call on a bugle, and the riders settle their mounts into the gate. The bell goes off, and the horses thunder along the track. The three horses that they have bet upon sprout colored numbers that float above them as they run. As they charge along the back stretch, Sarge begins to holler encouragements. Skye joins in, as does the Golden Gate crowd, rising to a fevered pitch as they take the final turn.

“C’mon Pinafore! Get ‘em, girl! Take the rail yes take the rail! Catch up Fraudulent! Oh! Check out Cotton Blend, honey, look at ‘im pick it up! Hold on, Pinafore!”

Cotton Blend loses the lead to Pinafore, then surprises them all by taking it back at the wire.

“Woo! Honey, you won!” Skye slaps Rachel on the shoulder.

Sarge lets out a barking laugh. “She’s a natural.”

“You people are insane.”

“Uh-oh, cheese it,” says Sarge. “Mom’s here.”

Andorra pushes a cart up to the seats. She hands Skye a tub of popcorn and two lemonades.

“Thanks, Andy,” says Sarge. “Will you join us?”

“I’ll be back for the wieners.”

Skye assumes she’ll be bringing them hot dogs, but it turns out to be the Wienernationals, a series of races for dachsunds. After each horse race, they roll out start and finish lines a hundred feet apart. The dog owners work in pairs – one to hold their dachshund at the starting line, the other to stand at the finish line and call them forward, with the help of some treat or chew toy.

Skye discovers, to his great surprise, that he can place a bet, and puts five bucks on a long, light-colored wiener named Jasper. At the starting bell, he bolts from the line, takes a sweeping diagonal toward the crowd, arrives at the finish dead last, then eludes the grasp of his owner and runs all the way back to the starting line, making the most of his moment in the sun.

After that, Skye sticks to the horses, and does quite well – for Rachel. She wins four of the seven races, and winds up 58 dollars in the black. At the end of the final race, Skye kneels in front of her.

“You did great, honey!” He searches her eyes, looking for anything, then pulls three twenties from his wallet and folds them into her hand. “Look! Look! You won sixty dollars.”

Rachel’s hand flops open. The bills fall to the floor. Skye remains on his knees, defeated. Sarge comes over to pick up the bills and help Skye to his feet.

“You know, I’m a little worried about you. You’re taking on a lot of stress. Andorra, can you take these two for a massage? And make certain they get separate rooms. I think our caretaker needs a time-out.”



He’s absolutely right. Between the general stress of coaxing Rachel back to the real world and the physical challenge of driving from Kansas City, Skye is one big knot. He lies face-down on a massage table as a large Russian man performs feats of prestidigitation on his back. It almost seems that he is able to sort out individual fibers and slowly untangle them.

Afterward, Skye is shown to a shower room with racks of clothing. After cleaning up, he assembles a suit of khaki pants, a cream-colored knit shirt and a red blazer with a gold insignia over the pocket. He proceeds to a waiting room and finds Rachel in jeans, a black frilled blouse and a suede gray jacket. Her makeup is heavier than usual, and the dark red lipstick reminds him how plush her lips are. He walks to where she’s sitting and kisses her on the cheek.

“You look beautiful.”

She looks at him, and then at a mirror across the way. It’s the first sign he’s had all day that something’s getting through. Andorra appears in the hall, wearing a royal blue gown that makes good use of her cleavage.

“Hi. Ready for dinner?”

She takes them to an elevator. They rise for perhaps three floors and come out to an extraordinary room. A long, curving stripe of window looks out on the mountains to the west, illuminated by a half moon. The floor is covered in large tiles of beige marble with veins of brown and sienna. The centerpiece is a table, six by forty feet, of white marble. The near end holds four table settings and a silver candelabra. The inside wall is covered in a blue-silver substance that shimmers like an oil slick. Skye runs his hand along the surface.

“Labradorite,” says Sarge. He enters in a black suit with a vest and a mother-of-pearl bolo. The jacket features shoulder patches in a geometric country-and-western pattern.

“I was touring a mine in Nova Scotia and I saw labradorite ‘in the wild.’ I swore that someday I would have a whole wall of it. Ah, here’s our food.”

The Russian masseuse enters with a cart of dinner plates. Seeing Rachel standing at the window, Skye walks over to lead her to her seat.

“I hope y’all like meat,” says Sarge. “On accounta it’s steak night. Grass-fed beef, from one of our local ranches.”

“That sounds fantastic,” says Skye. The meat proves to be leaner and more flavorful than the grocery-store standard. The sides are baby Yukon potatoes with parmesan cheese, spinach salad with wild mushrooms, lentil soup and a mouth-warming cabernet from Sonoma County.

Skye speaks between chews. “Having lived on truck stops for a week, this is paradise.”

Sarge gives him a quiet smile. “Glad you like it. Do you suppose Rachel will partake? Rachel honey, would you try some dinner? To please an old man?”

Rachel stabs a potato and chews it down. This constitutes a minor miracle. Skye turns to Sarge and whispers a thanks.

“The senior request is a powerful force.” He sips from his cabernet and lets it soak into his mouth. “By the way, I have news. Your gift was more generous than you imagined. Andorra?”

Andorra hands him a half-sheet of paper. It’s a photograph of a woman in a floppy white hat, circa 1930.

“That’s the recipient of the autograph, Emily Strunsky Paley,” he says. “She is the sister of Ira Gershwin’s wife, Leonore. She is also the woman who gave George a novel by DuBose Heyward titled Porgy.”

“Porgy and Bess?”

“Yep! That autograph is a genuine piece of musical history. And for that, let me say that you are welcome to stay as long as the lovely Rachel requires.”

“That may be three years, but thank you, regardless.”

The Russian man – Gregor – appears yet again, holding a silver serving dish.

Sarge rubs his hands. “This you won’t believe. It’s Andorra’s creation: a tequila mango pie with a gingerbread crust. It sounds atrocious, but it’s shockingly good.”

Gregor lifts the lid, releasing an exhalation of steam.



After dinner, Sarge takes them to another walkway. This one is tremendously long, and features an S-curve, as well as occasional Broadway posters (Kiss Me Kate, Sweet Charity) to break up the monotony. After a five-minute ride, they arrive at a circular room with blood-red walls and a spiral staircase. Sarge climbs to the fifth step and asks his guests to join him.

“We haven’t quite worked out the bugs, so Skye please keep one hand on the rail and another on Rachel.”

Skye follows orders, Andorra hits a switch. The staircase emits a low, steady hum. They begin to rise.

“A spiral escalator,” says Skye. “You’re the Wizard of Oz.”

“Thank you,” says Sarge. “Designed it myself.”

Skye marks this statement as the first time that Sarge has hinted at some kind of occupation. They rise perhaps four stories. The constant turning is a little disorienting. The escalator clunks to a halt, and Sarge asks them to climb the remaining steps. They enter a room with a domed ceiling.

“Are we all in?” asks Sarge. “Okay. Stand still.” He hits a switch and sends the room into darkness. Skye wraps a hand around Rachel’s waist and waits for his eyes to adjust. He begins to see a pattern in the ceiling and realizes that it’s the constellation Scorpius.

“Are we… outside?”

“This dome sits on an enormous granite cap. In better weather, you can even go outside and walk around. Tonight, we will have to settle for the night sky.”

Skye tilts Rachel’s head. “Look, honey, it’s every star in the universe.”

His eyes are fully adjusted. The sky is packed. He imagines Georges Seurat on a ladder, applying points of pure light to a blue-black canvas. Skye finds the Pleiades in the crosshairs of Orion’s bow, the seventh sister a faint but clear presence at the crook of the handle.

“If you’d like,” says Sarge, “Andorra has Jupiter lined up in the telescope.  Just head for that blue circle to your right.”

The circle is the base of the instrument. Skye locates the eyepiece and leans over. The telescope is hugely powerful – he can see the striations of the planet’s gases, the ragged oval of the Red Spot.



Skye is beginning to suspect something geological as the source of Sarge’s fortune. The Louis and Ella room is named for two magnificent photographs of Armstrong and Fitzgerald mounted over the dresser, but the real treat is found across the way, a wall covered in some kind of pale green mineral. He recognizes it from the jewelry of his Hawaiian trip: olivine.

Skye lies on a circular bed under a paisley comforter of golds and greens. He is almost ashamed, in this billionaire funland, to be watching football highlights on a TV. He is surprised to find Rachel relatively awake, her dull eyes turned toward the screen, her breasts settled upon the fringe of the comforter.

He reaches over and cups one, takes her small, beige-pink nipple and rolls it between thumb and finger. Her expression remains blank. He returns to his highlights.

The quarterback rounds the corner and sprints for the end zone with gazellian strides. Skye feels a feathery touch on the back of his wrist. Rachel takes his hand and guides it back to her breast.

Heaven’s Necktie

Finally, they arrive at the familiar: Sarge and Skye, soaking at the springs, drinking martinis, smoking cigars. Andorra sits at the crystal table, carefully braiding Rachel’s hair. Shafts of sunlight land at points all around them. A squadron of patio heaters fights off the October chill.

Sarge has been occupied with business matters, but still has made time to introduce some amusements. Skye’s favorite was a mining tunnel converted into a lawn bowling golf course. The track included mini-golf novelties like ramps, spirals and fountains. At one point, Skye had to roll up his pants to rescue his ball from a water hazard. They also went to a private theater to watch Bird and Lady Sings the Blues, and later played with an interactive music machine. One could change elements – samba to bossa nova, sax to trumpet, fast or slow tempos – by placing tokens on an illuminated table. The next day, Sarge and Skye jogged on a pair of treadmills with a 360-degree video screen. They ran through the Champs Elysee, then Angkor Wat and Mount McKinley. Their meals were one bonanza after another: Scottish haggis, oysters on the half-shell, Cajun jambalaya with hush puppies. Last night, they sat in a small boat, anchored in Sarge’s swimming pool, as remote-control tugboats motored their way with plates of sushi.

Sarge lived an imaginative life, and a single day at the Springs offered more sensations than the average person took in during a month. Still, nothing worked. With one surprising exception, Rachel was more of a blank slate than ever.

They are smoking cigars with green wrappers. Sadly, the effect is strictly visual – they smoke and taste exactly like their brown brethren.

“I could swear,” says Skye, “that those two have become sisters.”

Sarge attempts a smoke ring and gets a pretzel. “You are more on the mark than you know. Andorra lost a little sister to cholera. They were very close. I imagine that this is very good for her.”

“And it couldn’t hurt Rachel.”

“So you’re the expert on Rachelosophy,” says Sarge. “Any changes?”

Skye takes a deep drag, considering how much candor their friendship can withstand. “Last night she… took liberties.”

“No!”

“It was sort of a matter of preparing the equipment and hopping on board.”

“That is very surprising.”

“She appeared to be asleep. I would guess that she was able to access those desires at the level of dreaming, which is one of the few levels still open to her. I was not thinking this at the time, of course. I was thinking, Aren’t I a lucky boy.”

“You certainly were. And if I were more of a cad, I would say that a woman who has sex with you but refuses to talk is pretty much the perfect mate. But of course I’m not a cad, and I would never say something so callous.”

Skye gives him a conspicuous once-over. “You are an evil man. But there’s more to this thought. I have known people who, directly after losing someone close, become incredibly horny. It’s a natural response. You fight off the power of death by tapping into the power that creates life.”

Sarge takes a thoughtful sip. “Perhaps that explains the popularity of horror movies. If you take your date to see all that death and gore, perhaps she’ll have the same reaction.”

“Write up a thesis. I’ll see if I can get it published in a journal.”

“I’ll put it on my list.”

The steam from their tubs drifts into a beam of sunlight, creating drifts of golden fog. Andorra is applying a curling device to Rachel’s eyelashes.

“She’s like a doll.”

“Yes,” says Skye. “And I wonder if I should be more afraid of what happens when she comes out of this.”

Sarge waits a long time before responding. “Because you’re in love with her?”

“Yes.”

“Tomorrow, my friend, I pull out the secret weapon. An adventure you will not soon forget.”

“Because it’s you, Sarge, that statement scares me a little.”

Sarge laughs. “It should.”



They breakfast in the back garden that Skye recalls from his first visit. A few days of sun have melted the snow, but a fresh front of clouds are gathered in the west. Sarge seems determined to fortify them with hearty foods: an array of sausages with hash browns and a spinach omelet. He has also supplied them with hiking clothes. He sits at the head of the table, blowing steam from a mug of Nicaraguan coffee.

“So,” says Skye. “You’re going to remain mysterious about this.”

“Have to,” says Sarge. “Otherwise, it would lose all its charm.”

“Well, whatever it is,” says Skye, patting his parka, “it’s going to be rugged.”

“Helicopter skiing? Rugby? Who knows?” He stands. “Are we all nourished?”

Rachel hasn’t been nourished for weeks – is, in fact, beginning to show ribs – but Skye’s in the mood to be optimistic. “Quite nourished! Sir!”

“Excellent, private. I recommend a pee-break all around, and then we venture forth.”

He takes them to the horsetrack auditorium and all the way across, to a non-descript door that may as well lead to a janitor’s closet. The other side reveals a long tunnel, granite carved away in scallops, bright lights positioned overhead at regular intervals. Upon a pair of tracks sits an unusual vehicle: a red metal cube with wedges of black at either end, like the front halves of two minivans welded together. The doors slide back in the fashion of an elevator, and they walk inside.

The interior offers a U-shaped bench covered in black leather, surrounding a sleek gray coffee table with cup-holders and two stationary iPads. Along the back stands a black cabinet with beer taps and a coffeemaker.

The black wedges turn out to be tinted windshields. Each end of the vehicle is equipped with two captain’s chairs. The interior is tall enough that you can stand without ducking your head.

Sarge goes to the cabinet. “Drinks, anyone?”

“I’ll have white wine,” says Andorra.

“I’d like another coffee,” says Skye.

After distributing the beverages and taking a beer for himself, Sarge joins them on the couch. “Ready for launch?” He gets no answer. “I’ll take that for a yes.”

He turns on one of the iPads and punches a series of buttons. The doors close, the interior lights go down and the vehicle slides forward, producing a barely audible hum. The ride is tremendously smooth; the only hints of movement are the tunnel lights flashing past.

Sarge sits down and takes a swig. “I think this is my favorite toy of all.”

“How fast are we going?”

“Not too. Maybe forty. Join me on the bridge?”

Skye takes his arm from Rachel’s shoulder and nudges her toward Andorra, who pulls her close and smooths her hair.

The view at the front is a bit over-stimulating, what with the full frontal windshields. Skye keeps expecting patches of sunlight, perhaps even a brief passage to the upper world, but they remain resolutely underground. The overhead lights are a little hypnotizing.

“She’s electric?”

“Yep. Piped in through the wheels. I guess you’ve noticed, I’m a little geeky about technology.”

“Duly noted.”

“This tunnel is a tremendous bit of luck. It is built almost entirely of pre-existing silver mines. Still, it took ten years to finish.”

“Wow.”

“But definitely worth the wait.”

“And you’re not going to give the slightest hint where we’re going.”

“Okay, you’ve got me. There’s a ‘Niners game today; we’re on the fifty yard line.”

“Right.”

“It’s a tremendously long tunnel.”

“Wise ass.”

“Okay. But wherever it is, we’ll be there in ten minutes.”

After a long straightaway, the vehicle slows to a halt at the tunnel’s end. They pile out and do a little stretching at the side of the tracks. Sarge proceeds to a door just as non-descript as the first, pulls out a key and undoes a padlock. They climb a flight of rough metal steps and come to a set of rungs fixed to the wall. Sarge reaches for the ceiling, hits a latch on a circle of metal and pushes it open.

“This is the tricky part,” he says. “One of these days, I’m going to find a grizzly up there.”

He pushes through. The hatch swings to one side and lands with a thunk. Gray light filters into the stairwell.

“Aha! No grizzlies.”

Sarge climbs out, then spins around to peer back in. “Why don’t you send Rachel first?”

Skye nudges Rachel upward, while Sarge takes her hand and pulls her through. Andorra and Skye follow.

They’re standing in a blanket of ferns, under a stand of Douglas firs. A light snow trickles through the canopy. Sarge lowers the hatch and covers it with leaves. He claps the dirt from his hands and walks toward a narrow trail. Andorra follows.

Skye takes Rachel’s hand. “Time for an adventure, honey.”

The trail skirts a jumble of granite boulders and crosses a small field. Next to a small creek stands a tree with ochre leaves, half of them fallen. They cross into another stand of evergreens, trying to keep up with Sarge’s pace. A hundred feet on, Skye sees the light of another field. By this time, Rachel is running.

Andorra and Sarge turn just in time for Rachel to dash between them. Skye comes soon after.

“Rachel?! What the hell!”

He’s amazed that someone who’s been so dormant can move so fast. The cold air is burning his throat, but he’s afraid to let up. Rachel stops halfway across the field and drops to her knees. Skye jogs to a stop and lands behind her, wrapping her up. She’s shaking, breathing in ragged huffs, and staring at something across the field.

Skye follows her gaze and finds a monstrous block of blue-gray stone, like a mountain that’s been split in two. The frame of snowfall gives it the feel of a dream, but it’s real, and it’s Half Dome.

“It’s beautiful, honey, but for God’s sake, you didn’t have to take off like that.”

Her breathing slows. Snowflakes stick to her hair. Skye hears the hurried footsteps of Andorra and Sarge.

“I design clothes for Barbie.”

He shuffles around to look her in the face. The lights are on.

“The day job. I don’t know why I didn’t tell you. I’m a fashion designer for a toy company.”

Skye says nothing.

“What’s the matter?” she asks.

He kisses her on the cheek. “It’s good to see you.”

“Is that really Half Dome?”



They end up in the grand dining hall of the Awahnee Hotel. As if nothing extraordinary has happened. As if none of them has recently returned from the dead.

“And how’s the asparagus?” asks Rachel. “It’s not overcooked, is it?”

The waiter is a stick-thin college boy who seems incapable of taking offense.

“They are especially careful of that. Just the right bit of crunch. I promise.”

“Wonderful. Thank you.”

The waiter heads off and the table grows quiet. Rachel reads the pause and keeps talking.

“Don’t you love the beams in this place? It looks like someone carved them with an ax. I’ve seen photographs of Ansel Adams here, performing in amateur skits.”

She stops. Nothing.

“Do I have a large insect sticking out of my forehead?”

Skye takes a sip of water. “Do you remember much from the last few weeks?”

“You know those stories about people dying on the operating table, floating above themselves, watching the doctors try to save them?”

“Out-of-body?” asks Andorra.

“Just like that. I was living in this world where I felt normal, but everyone around me acted like I wasn’t. And I remember everyone. I remember Mickey and his crazy Cadillac. I remember Sarge, who’s been so gracious, and Andorra, who’s taken such good care of me. And Skye…”

She stops and looks at him, and then she takes his hand.

“You’ve been so good to me. I don’t know what I did to…” She picks up her napkin and dabs at her face. “I’m sorry. I get a little emotional.”

Skye feels his body filling up with light. “Not lately.”

Sarge laughs.

“No,” she says. “I guess not.”

The food arrives. They dig in as if they had not, just two hours earlier, consumed an enormous breakfast. Rachel seems to be making up for lost time. Halfway through his salmon, Sarge wipes his mouth with a napkin.

“Well let me say, Rachel, now that you’re back with us, how sorry I am about… your parents.”

Rachel stops mid-bite. “I didn’t realize you knew about them.”

“Well, yes. Skye told me.”

She takes a bite of her chicken and chews it down. “I do miss my mother sometimes. But that’s the sad reality about abused women. You tell them to get away, you cajole them, you threaten to call the cops. Then you call the cops. You threaten to leave them forever, and then one day you realize you have to make good on that threat, too, if only to save yourself. I keep hoping one day she’ll show up on my doorstep.”

Skye shares a glance with Sarge and takes Rachel’s hand under the table.



They cross the valley floor in dying light, Yosemite Falls dangling above them like heaven’s necktie. Sarge uses a scanner to home in on the hatch, and is soon escorting them into the tunnel.

Skye feels a little cursed, so pleased to have Rachel’s legs draped over his lap on the ride back, so burdened with what she doesn’t seem to remember. He receives his reward that night. Rachel’s body is electric, her nerve endings packed with energy. She smiles, wrapped against him, her eyes half closed.

“Okay,” she says. “Now I’m tired for a good reason. Thanks, Big Skye.”

“I like the sound of that. Very Montana.”

“Did we get to Montana?”

“Missed it by fifty miles.”

“Damn shame. Next time.”



The next morning, their breakfast is interrupted by Sarge, who is wrapped up like an Arctic explorer.

“You are going to love this!”

Rachel laughs. “Are we?”

“Bubba used the snowcat to make the world’s most awesome toboggan run.”

“Sarge!” says Skye. “You are too old for these shenanigans.”

“Yes, probably. You’ll find winter wear in the closet next to the front door. I will expect you in ten minutes.”

“Yessir!” says Rachel.

They finish their coffees and troop upstairs to the above-surface house, where they find enough skiwear to stock a resort. Not only has Bubba groomed the snow, he has cut a path into it, ten feet across, with banks on either side. Sarge arrives at the top, trailing a toboggan behind him.

“Did I tell ya? It’s paradise. Just one safety note. At the end, there’s a huge pile of snow. When you see it, you need to stop – swipe it to the side, fall on your butt, whatever you have to do. Otherwise you’ll end up in Reno.”

Rachel’s already gone, bouncing off the sides, squealing with delight.

“Oh shit,” says Skye. “She’s a pro.”

“You’d better catch up,” says Sarge.

Skye takes a more conservative approach, controlling his speed with his feet until he’s learned the track. But Bubba’s done a fine job, and by the end he’s going for speed. A sudden drop sends him into the air; as soon as he lands, he sees the pile. He abandons any notion of schussing and simply wipes out, sliding and tumbling until he’s made himself into a snowman. He’s greeted by cackling laughter.

“No style at all!”

“Who claimed to have style?”

“It’s cause you’re a wussy Californian. In Connecticut, you pop out of the womb and they hand you a sled.”

“Unfair!”

She yanks him to his feet and licks the snow from his face.

“We had this place just behind our back fence, a little into the woods. Dynamite Hill. Every kid in town sledded that hill. My dad was the only adult, and he was nuts. He would stand on top of his toboggan and ride it like a surfboard. There was really no good way to stop, so he would simply launch himself into a snowdrift. One time the drift was so deep that he just arrowed in, and the only things sticking out were his feet. You okay?”

Skye realizes he’s staring. “Oh. Yeah. I’m fine.”

Rachel looks up the hill. “Now for the long trudge. It’s unfair that the fun part goes by so quickly.”

They hear an approaching rumble. A snowcat pulls up to the side of the run.

“Bubba!” says Rachel. “You rock!”

They grab their sleds and run.



Skye wakes up in the middle of the night to Louis and Ella but no Rachel. He gets up to conduct a search, wanders into the long hallway, reminiscent of those found in sci-fi space stations. He hears a faint sound and enters a small room, where Rachel sits reading a book. She looks up and smiles.

“Hi.”

“Hi.”

“It’s a library! Couldn’t sleep. Found a book on Edward Gorey. I love him.”

Skye feels compelled to sit on the floor and play with Rachel’s toes.

“Well that’s not going to get me to sleep.”

“I’m pretty sure I don’t care.”

She fights off the ticklishness as long as she can and then bursts into giggles.

“Skye! Stop it!”

She curls her feet beneath her on the easy chair. Skye wanders off to scan the bookshelves – not surprisingly, most of the titles are about musicians and artists.

Rachel closes her book. “What are we doing?”

“You are sitting in a library, somewhere east of Yosemite. I am here on a mission from my home planet, Klytorg.”

“Why do home planets always have names like that? Why can’t you be from the planet Johnson?”

“So be it. Although it will be hard to keep a straight face, because Johnson is a big planet.”

“Ho ho ho. Back to the question? In the broad picture?”

Skye picks out a book on Miles Davis and studies his dark, dark face. “I’ve been pretty focused on getting you back from zombieland.”

“Well I’m back.”

“Why don’t you spend the holidays with me? You can meet my family. Hopefully my sister won’t say something stupid.”

“You need to forgive her.”

“I was thinking of writing her off.”

“Don’t do it for her. Do it for you. Give yourself the luxury of forgiveness. Take a weight off.”

He might agree with her, but the irony is killing him. He rehearses a question seven times over, but still it comes out ragged.

“Rachel, are you aware that… Do you realize…”

“My father killed my mother. Then he killed himself. My mother is like a chain smoker who dies of cancer. You feel sorry that she’s gone, but you realize that she’s the one who stuck those things in her mouth and lit them. I accepted this eventuality the moment I left. My mother accepted it a thousand times. I won’t be forgiving them, because what they did to me was not forgivable.”

Rachel’s voice is calm, as if she’s not discussing a murder-suicide but last night’s baseball game. She’s beginning to scare him.

She unfurls her legs and extends them in his direction. “Now this time, why don’t you try massaging my feet?”

Deer Something



They’re back at the racetrack, and Sarge is cleaning up.

“What’s that?” says Skye. “Five out of six?”

“Yessirreebob.”

“How much you up?”

“Forty three.”

“That’s all?”

“Thousand.”

Skye holds his palms to the heavens. “Dayum! You and I live in different universes.”

“Let’s just say that my senses have been dulled by money, and that I have to bet a larger amount to get the same rush. Here, let me credit you a thousand so you can bet it on the next race.”

“A true gentleman might turn down your offer. It’s a good thing I’m not one of those.”

The digits pop up on his screen. He finds an 8-1 named Contraband and can’t resist. Sarge takes a bite from his salmon carpaccio and washes it down with India pale ale.

“You know, Skye, I got most of my money by being born. If you compared the money that you and I have actually earned, I’m sure we wouldn’t be that far apart.”

Skye is hesitant to respond. Sarge laughs.

“I know. I asked you not to bring up my finances. You didn’t. I’m offering it freely. And I will speak in non-specific terms. I was raised filthy rich, and I came to understand that my parents were obligated by their wealth to be civic leaders, to entertain an infinite lineup of ass-kissers who would hit them up for contributions to their causes. Even as a kid, I saw this situation as a rather elegant prison.

“Thankfully, my particular skills and interests led me in another direction. At the age of eleven, I began to prepare meals for my parents. At sixteen, I was catering their parties. I went to a culinary academy, and two years after graduation I took a loan from the family fortune and opened a restaurant in Sacramento. Three years after that, I paid that loan back. I even like to think I made my parents proud of me. Not that they weren’t supportive. I think they were just puzzled that I didn’t want to play the acquisitions game with everyone else.

“After catering my mother’s funeral – two years after my father’s – I was ready for some rest. After a couple of years of fending off the moneygrubbers, I took my inheritance and found this place. I’ve got maybe a dozen friends who I can trust to be real with me, and they certainly enjoy coming here. So I feel like I did a pretty good job of figuring things out. You, by the way, are now one of those dozen – otherwise I wouldn’t be telling you this story.”

“Thanks, Sarge. That means a lot to me.”

“I sorta had an idea you would end up in the inner circle. I enjoyed the way you handled my little cash incentive. You found ways to enjoy yourself and help other people at the same time. That luscious blonde in Hawaii. That story you wrote about the songwriter in Provincetown. I apologize if I know too much about this.”

“I sort of expected it.”

Sarge chuckles. “Andorra had more than the usual interest in your case. But of course, my rough estimates of your good nature were confirmed by the lengths you’ve gone to on behalf of Rachel. And bringing me that Gershwin – that was impressive. You’ve got a flair, Skye. You are Nature Boy.”

Skye smiles. “That’s what I’m shootin’ for.”

The miniature bugleboy reports to his post and delivers the call.

Skye takes a bite of his moose cheeseburger. “Now I know why the food here is so good. Does this little confession mean that I’ll have to sign another non-disclosure?”

He gives a wink. “With another cash incentive?”

“Nah, I’m good. Soon as Contraband wipes out the field.”

“Aha!”

The bell goes off. Toy horses charge from the gate.



Bubba has taken a rolling slope around the far side of the mountain and carved out a ski run. Skye is comfy on skis, but Rachel opts for a snowboard. She’s a terror, snaking esses down the mountain, running up the steep banks, splitting the top of a snowbank to catch some air. She is, in this way at least, her father’s daughter.

Bubba drives a track alongside the run so he can meet them at the bottom and take them back up. Too soon, the sun drifts toward the western ridges, and they take a final run. They wait at the bottom, looking out over a long canyon, the rocky cuts frosted with snow. Skye gives Rachel a long kiss, and Bubba honks his approval. He greets them with a secret smile.

“Are you hungry?”

“Boy howdy!” says Rachel.

Bubba looks at Skye. “Does that mean yes?”

“I think so.”

“Thanks for the skiing, Bubba,” she says in her sweetest voice.

“You are certainly welcome. If I should ever lose this job, I think I might apply at a ski resort.”

“Let me know if you need a letter of recommendation.”

He turns onto a snowed-over fired road that takes them through a grove of pines. They end up at a flat clearing lined with boulders, a Stonehengey aura. Bubba heads for an A-framed structure at the center of the C and lets them out.

“I’ll be back in an hour. Enjoy!”

Skye takes Rachel’s hand and leads her to the shelter, whose walls are constructed of half-cut logs. Inside they find a table with two settings of china and silver, surrounded by serving dishes. A woodstove radiates heat. A lifting of various lids reveals asparagus with gorgonzola, sauteed mushrooms in white wine and olive oil, fresh-baked country bread with whipped butter, a pot of mulled wine, and crème brulee. The entrée is roasted quail with walnuts, pecan and a honey basil sauce. And a note: From the master chef.

Skye is about to dig in when he spots an arrow at the end of the table, composed of five butter knives. He seats himself at the tail and follows it into the far distance until he finds a familiar shape, a shoulder hunched against the setting sun.

“Half Dome.”

Rachel sets her chin on his collarbone and follows his gaze. “This place never runs out of surprises, does it?”

“Nope. And now I’m gonna eat.”

“Me too!”

It’s hard to top the food they’ve been consuming all week, but there does seem to be an extra level occupied by master chefs who own restaurants. The mushrooms toe a perfect line between moist and fresh, with a surprising touch of yellow curry. The gorgonzola has been fused into a sauce with cream, horseradish and bits of chive. The quail disintegrates on their forks in just the way it’s supposed to; the skins carry hints of lemongrass and brown sugar. The shelter fills with the oohs and ahs usually reserved for fireworks.

“I don’t know if the old man is just showing off, but he has won my approval.”

“Mmmph,” Rachel concurs.

A minute later, Skye butters a slice of bread. “Does Half Dome mean something extra to you?”

“Why?”

“Because it’s the thing that snapped you out of your trance. At the time, I thought it was simple familiarity.”

She pours more wine and takes a sip.

“When I was twelve, we drove across the country. Yellowstone, the Tetons, Idaho, and ended up at Yosemite. It was great. Mom was a pretty bad driver, and all those hours at the wheel kept Dad pretty focused. But then, when we got to Yosemite, we camped next to a couple of Arkansas shitkickers, the Timmsons, who coaxed Dad over with beer and horseshoes.

“My dad is the worst drunk on the planet, and you could chart the disintegration of events from the moment his lips touch that first beer. Having fun with the Timmsons reminded him of the basic inequities of life, the unwanted obligations – that would be us – and he returned to the campsite ready to balance things out between him and the unjust world. He picked and ranted and tormented; my mother gave back timid answers that only fed the flames. The only thing that could pull the plug from the drain was one of us meeting with his fist, his elbow, occasionally his boots. Once, when I was eight, he broke my jaw. Which was about the time my mother turned into the Secret Service, eager to take bullets on my behalf.

“And so, after the fucking inbred Timmsons filled him with brew and drunk-talk, the rest was a fait accompli. He threw a dozen baseless accusations at my mother, and then he threw a right hook. It fractured her left cheekbone and sent her sprawling backwards. She tripped on a log and fell, landing with her head in the campfire.

“He yelled at her. ‘Get up, you stupid bitch! What the hell are you doing?’ When she stood up, her hair was fully aflame. When I saw that, I realized the central truth of my existence: someday, my father was going to kill my mother. What he saw was his own idiocy. He ripped off his sweater and used it to smother my mom’s head. The Timmsons ran to get the ranger as my father cradled my mother’s ravaged head and launched into the usual litany of weepy apology and meaningless promises. Even then, it was all about him: his great sorrow, his shame, his pledge to conquer the beast that dwelt inside. Pussy.

“In all the hubbub, I was forgotten. I wandered away and found a spot in the middle of a field. I sat there crying for a long time, and then I noticed an astounding thing: the very cap of the moon sitting atop Half Dome like an egg yolk on a frying pan. As it lifted into the sky, I could see that Half Dome had a kind of face, and I decided that the two of us could be confidantes. I told him all my darkest secrets. I told him that I hated my father terribly, even though my mother told me that such feelings were wrong. I swore to Half Dome that someday I would run away from home and hitchhike across the country so that he and I could be friends forever. I suppose that, when you and Sarge took me to Yosemite, when I opened my eyes and saw my old friend, I had to run and greet him.”

Skye reaches across the table and takes Rachel’s hand. “You’re pretty amazing.”

“Thank you.”

“And amazing women deserve crème brulee.”

“Damn straight!”



Skye wakes to the olivine wall, playing host to a square of dull light from the window. He stays there in its green embrace, reluctant to break with the comfort of sleep. He turns over and sweeps his hand along the bed, hoping to gather up Rachel, but comes up empty.

A few minutes later, he rousts himself and heads for the bathroom. As he’s urinating, he notices an open pill bottle on the counter. He washes his hands, picks up the bottle and finds a strange-sounding name, but the instructions seem to fit sleeping pills. Three of them are scattered on the counter, next to a half-filled drinking glass.

“Rachel? Honey?”

Nothing. He slips on a pair of pajamas and a sweatshirt and heads for the hallway, thinking of the reading room, but no one’s there. He continues down the hall.

“Rachel? Honey? Where are you?”

He sees a rectangle of light at the end of the hall, snowflakes drifting through the open doorway. He runs, pauses outside, waiting for clues. It’s a shallow slope covered in drifts. A steady downpour of flakes blurs his vision, but he can see a low stone wall, a gap that seems to indicate a path. He follows it, his bare feet crunching in the snow.

A hundred feet on, he sees a structure, white, Greek, an open dome on pillars. Deer something. Belvedere. He kicks into a run. He can’t feel his feet. He finds a body, curled into a fetal position on the belvedere floor. He can’t find his breath. He reaches for her neck. The body shudders awake, the dark eyes surrounded by red skin. He scoops her up and marches up the path, toward the open door.

“I couldn’t,” she sputters. “I tried but I couldn’t. I…I…”

The mutterings fission into shrieks, wild, hysterical. Skye ignores them, sets her on the carpet and finds a red intercom on the wall.

“Hello?”

“It’s Skye. Rachel’s poisoned herself.”

“Where are you?”

“Our bedroom.”

“I’ll send someone right away.” Female voice. Andorra. He picks up Rachel and paces the hall. She has screamed herself out and is crying. He lays her on the bed, strips off her clothes and wraps her in a comforter. Gregor enters the room, carrying a red bag.

“You said poison? What kind?”

“Sleeping pills.”

“Hers? From the medicine cabinet?”

“Umm, yes.”

Gregor smiles. “Excellent.”

Skye finds this response puzzling, but tries to stay out of the big man’s way as he checks Rachel’s pulse, listens to her breathing. He checks her eyes and stands from the bed.

“She’ll be fine.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Placebos.” Sarge appears in the doorway. “When you arrived, I asked Gregor to go through Rachel’s bags and replace her pills with placebos.”

Rachel spits in Gregor’s direction. “Bastard!”

Sarge runs a hand over his beard. “Gregor, run the young lady a bath. She might have a little hypothermia. If that doesn’t calm her down, perhaps a sleeping pill.”



The care and feeding of Rachel has now gone back to Andorra. Rachel is back to being sleepy, but has added steady fits of weeping and rage to her repertoire. It seems clear to Skye that she has begun the arduous work of battling her father’s ghost.

“Don’t feel bad about taking some time for yourself,” says Sarge. “That girl is a lot of work right now. And I think she feels awful for betraying you.”

Skye watches the steam coming off the water and thinks of the pond on Cape Cod.

“It occurs to me that she was passing on parting thoughts, preparing to make her exit. She told me to forgive my sister.”

“I hope you’ll join in on the counseling sessions – and take some yourself.”

“Jack Teagarden?”

“He’s the best.”

“Just can’t get over the name. Did you do that on purpose?”

“Nope. Let’s just say that it increased my interest. Imagine finding an accountant named Miles Davis. A plumber named Billy Holiday. Jack’s the best. Very straightforward. No B.S.”

“Thanks, Sarge. And thank you for swapping those pills. Sheer genius.”

“You are certainly welcome.” He takes a sip from his martini and sighs. “I’m going to miss you, Skye. You come back as soon as Rachel’s ready. I will take you on a balloon trip you wouldn’t believe.”

The room fills with Middle Eastern music. A trio of belly dancers enters, a cloud of bangles, veils and hips.

“Don’t worry. The show’s for me. But you can watch if you want.”

“How many veils are coming off.”

“As many as possible.”

“Well. If Rachel does feel guilty, I will consider this my just recompense.”

“Good man.”



He double-checks the motel room, gets into the truck and starts it up. Rachel is solidly asleep, her worn face smoothed over by Andorra’s magic lotions. He takes himself back to the Jungle in Tribeca, distracted by Delilah’s disappearance and suddenly this embodiment of cuteness talking him into a dance, the ineffable formulae of attraction, generous eyelashes, a babyish pout to her lips, a dimple on her left cheek that appears in moments of anxiety, a precision to her mouth when she speaks, as if she had learned to talk in a charm school or diplomatic academy. Not defined until later, but all of them present at introduction, slipping in like an IV drip, planting their seeds for later, when she would roll past in those magnificent leggings, slick sunglasses, killer smile. This is the package as delivered, a sexy girl with faulty wiring, and how he has learned to hate her father.

He stops at the churchy coffeehouse, gets a breve latte and checks his map. Highway 108 offers a smooth shot through Twain Harte, a town named for two authors, then to Sonora, Modesto, Santa Cruz. After a seeming eternity of adventuring, he is one day removed from the Pacific Ocean.

The Game of Madness

Skye knows the neighborhood well. A long downhill street with a grassy meridian, clean suburban houses on banked rises to left and right. The spiked hair of cypress and, just before the turn, a glimpse of the ocean.

They’re just a bit early, so they check in to a coffeehouse. At midafternoon, the place is vastly empty. Rachel, alert but quiet, takes her latte with a look of gratitude.

Skye takes a sip and relishes the bite of the espresso. “I don’t really know anything about this guy, but Sarge swears by him.” He stops and gives her an intent look. “It’s a long journey, Rachel. But I’ll take it with you. It may not seem like it, but you’ve got good days ahead of you. I promise.”

She takes his hand and holds it to her lips, her eyes wide. Skye know the equation: if he can’t do this, he’s a failure.

The shopping complex centers on a village fountain, the walkways neatly cobbled, the buildings a pleasant jumble of polygons. Skye takes Rachel into a clapboard canyon and finds a staircase next to a small sign: Teagarden and LaBrea, Counselors. They climb the steps and enter a small reception area with a painting of the Monterey waterfront. Skye sees a small cage near the window and is surprised to find it occupied by pigeons. A red-haired woman enters from an adjoining room.

“Hi! Are you Rachel and Skye?”

“That’s us,” says Skye.

“I’m Audrey. Follow me.”

She takes them into an office with a large window overlooking the center and the ocean beyond. The afternoon sun paints a swath of golden fishscales across the water. The man standing at the desk looks a bit devilish – shaved head, goatee – but his demeanor is anything but menacing.

“Rachel, Skye, I’m Jack. It’s good to see you. I hope the drive wasn’t too hard on you.”

“We stopped at a motel in Manteca,” says Skye.

Jack waves them into a pair of chairs.

“First of all, you should know that Rachel’s treatment is being paid for. Anonymously.”

Skye laughs.

“Inside joke?” asks Jack.

“You might say that.”

“Okay. Secondly, I wanted to tell you how we operate. Rachel will stay at one of the cozy townhouses behind this center, and will be rooming with Audrey. Skye, you’re free to go.”

Skye blinks, twice. “I am?”

“Rachel has some serious trauma to work through, and a lifetime of feelings. In order to help her, we have to reduce the number of roles she’s playing. Including girlfriend.”

“Oh. Okay. It’s just hard to…”

“Yes, it is. But from what Sarge has told me, you could probably use some rest. And don’t worry. We will likely have you back within a week for a visit.”

It appears that they are the final clients of the day. When they return to the main area, Audrey is sorting files and cleaning up her desktop.

“Ready to go?” she says.

“All ready,” says Jack.

They stroll past a pizza parlor where children are flying around like monkeys. Jack and Audrey hang back as Skye fetches Rachel’s bags from his truck.

“This is odd,” he says.

“I know,” says Rachel. “You’ve become my Siamese twin. Don’t worry. I have a good feeling about these two.”

She starts to cry, and Skye takes that as his cue. He kisses her.

“Goodbye lovely girl. See you in a week.”

“Bye.”

She takes her bags and walks away. The three of them follow a sidewalk that climbs toward a row of townhomes. Just before a large bush, she turns back, looking a little lost, and disappears. Skye gets into his truck and does something he hasn’t done in a long time. He drives home.



Skye lives on Union Avenue, a pleasantly wooded strip of apartment buildings in Campbell. His building, Villa Montecito, offers a well-tended garden courtyard that does a good job of blocking out the surrounding city. He trudges to his first-floor porch, feeling as if the entirety of his two-month adventure had just jumped on his back. He opens the door to find everything largely unchanged, except for a pile of mail nearly blocking his entry. He leaves it there, tosses his bags on the floor and dive-bombs the couch. Twelve seconds later, he’s asleep.

He wakes in the dreaded late evening and determines that he must get out somewhere. This is fairly easy to do – it’s a rather modest walk to the Pruneyard, an old-school outdoor mall shadowed by two sleek black office towers. His target is the Coffee Society, a comfy espresso house with a bevy of lively neighbors – pizza parlor, pub, moviehouse. Skye is greeted by Courtney, his guardian barista.

“Where the hell have you been?”

“I couldn’t begin to tell you.”

“Yes you could.”

“Okay. Tahoe, Hawaii, Denver, New York, Cape Cod and Yosemite.”

“You are either jerking me around or you’re a freakin’ rock star. Latte?”

“Breve.”

“Ooh. Living dangerously.”

She punches in a number that is half the actual price.

Courtney is a fascinating jumble: beauty queen/nerd, sometime law student/former professional snowboarder, millionaire’s daughter who works at minimum wage. Her lithe figure and cat-like features have inspired thoughts, but Skye fears befouling his favorite haunt.

He sets himself up near the window, next to a dozen old-guy regulars playing backgammon. The patio hosts a breed of spastic AA members producing clouds of cigarette smoke and random rooster-like outbursts. Agamemnon has returned from Troy and yet, nothing has changed. Skye opens his laptop and pulls up the Writer’s Digest worksite, where 1800 poorly written short stories are lined up at the gallows. The first is titled (Yikes) “Reflections.”

“Breve!”

Espresso-foam art became all the rage the previous spring, when a moonlighting chef displayed an ability to create peacocks and Indian chiefs from milk and coffee. Courtney’s latest is more of a pinwheel with a smiley-face.

“Nice! Thanks.” He surrounds it with shakes of chocolate powder and sets to his work. The job of extracting twenty winners out of so many entries is savage, and he has learned to sniff out the easy kills: first-sentence typos, page-long descriptions of the weather, any opening involving the protagonist regaining consciousness. To maintain his ruthlessness, he accompanies his rejections with mental iterations of pop-culture dismissals. His favorite is “No soup for you!”

When he hits fifty – and one surprising acceptance, written in a language resembling actual English – he feels the need for a ginger snap, and hits up the ATM for a pair of twenties. As he arrives at the counter, he checks his receipt and sees that his balance has grown by two hundred thousand dollars.

“Holy shit.”

“I’m sorry,” says Courtney. “All we have is secular shit.”

“Oh, I… ginger snap.”

“You got it. Oh! By the way, someone left you a note. It’s been sitting by the register for a couple days.”

She hands him an envelope with his name on it, in Lindsy’s handwriting.



A half hour later, Skye is reading the local alt weekly, trying to glean advice from the brilliantly vague horoscope. He is apparently supposed to turn himself into a turtle and swim toward the nearest Denny’s. Swimming brings to mind the digital equivalent of dipping a toe into the water: the exploratory text message.

How you doing?

The response arrives in a matter of fifteen seconds, indicating a certain eagerness.

Out here for a friend’s wedding! I deleted your number in Elko (sorry) but I remembered that coffeehouse you talked about.

Uh-oh. He’s dealing with a rapid typist. He’s trying to reply when she buzzes in again.

I leave for Colorado in the morning. Would love to see you before I go!

Oh, Jesus. He is venturing into a tar pit.

You were absolutely right about taking care of my marriage, she continues. Well – my future ex-marriage.

Exhausted by interruptions, he awaits the next message.

Please?

He types quickly: At the coffeehouse now. Meet here?

Yay! Half hour.

Skye settles on the patio of alcoholics, next to a tree encased in strings of light. How does the tree feel about this? Flattered? Embarrassed? The cover band at Boswell’s kicks into “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” featuring a singer who is clearly sleeping with the lead guitarist. He tries to scan another story, drowning in pluperfect, but his brain is a labrador surrounded by squirrels playing tennis. He glances up at anything having a one percent chance of being a luscious blonde. He’s considering an escape to the sporting goods store around the corner when she appears, marching his way in a flouncy white dress and feral cleavage. She’s lost weight, the curves a little more sleek. He is beginning to fear for his life.

He stands. She flings her arms around him and pulls tight, as if she’s trying to use her tits as branding irons. He hopes that Courtney’s watching, that she will report to the staff that Skye is not the creepy loner they have always suspected.

Lindsy backs away and studies his face. She can’t stop smiling.

“I can’t believe it’s you.”

He says nothing until nothing gets awkward and so he has to say something.

“Sit down! Tell me all about your impending divorce.”

She sits and arranges her dress. “Somewhere in Temple Square, there is a silver bullet with your name on it. The only Salt Lake Citizen who doesn’t hate me is, strangely enough, my future ex. He was very accepting. It really surprised me.”

“I suppose he saw your determination.”

“Yes. And when he got word about my trip to Hawaii with Satan – that would be you – I suppose he saw me as damaged goods. I’m certain that all those Mormon housewives could read on my face all those nasty hours of island sex, and after ducking into their basements for their stashed vibrators and illicit fantasies of sex with Presbyterians and Episcopalians and dirty Catholics they had to cover up their guilt by hating me even more. Whew! I’m sorry. Is it hot out here?”

“No, but you certainly are.”

“Tell me about it. It is fucking awesome coming out as a slut.” She breaks into laughter and has to catch her breath before finishing the thought. “I’m a slututante!”

Skye laughs along, but is running out of replies that aren’t dangerous. Lindsy picks up on his discomfort.

“So tell me all about your adventures, Ramblin’ Man.”

“Well, let’s see. Post-Winnemucca, I ended up in Glenwood Springs…”

“Oh! I love it there. Did you do the pool?”

There’s a lot to tell, so they stay for an hour, wired on espressos con panna. Skye recalls his recent windfall, and reasons that he should share the wealth, this being Lindsy’s last night in town. They convoy to the San Jose Fairmont and sit in the enormous circus-ring lobby, drinking exotic cocktails. When the trio strikes into “Misty,” he asks her to dance. The nearness stirs up the nostalgic potions of Hawaii, strawberry hair tickling his cheek, familiar gardenia perfume, eyes the color of the water at Hapuna Beach. The overtones from the piano fill his head.



He wakes to the wail of a siren, and imagines that he’s in his apartment. But the sheets are silk, the air is ringed with potpourri, and an empty champagne bottle sits in a bucket of water. When he opens the window, a 747 cruises past at eye-level. He looks down onto the fountains of Cesar Chavez Park.

He tractors himself out of bed, feeling dizzy, and braces himself on a small table. The centerpiece is a pair of white silk panties, next to a note on hotel stationery.

To Skye, the best plowman West of the Mississippi. Thanks again for my liberation. If you come to Colorado, you had better call.

--Lindsy

He hits the power button on his cell phone. He has three messages from Rachel.




“Your place seems nice.”

Rachel smiles but doesn’t answer.

“Isn’t it?” he asks.

“Oh, sorry. Jack has this idea about slowing down the brain. About examining our thoughts. So when you asked me about my place, I was taking a moment to visualize it before I answered.”

“Oh.”

“It is nice. Cozy. They bought it from an old lady who’s owned it forever, and they decided to keep all the beachy knick-knacks. It sort of gives the place a history.”

They come to a dirt trail that passes beneath a train trestle, an imposing jumble of timbers soaked in creosote.

“Speaking of history…” He stops.

Rachel takes his hand. “Yes?”

“It’s pretty depressing.”

“I am well-versed in depressing stories.”

“Okay. I spent a couple summers here, just after college. Had a little quartet I hung out with: Les, Chuck, Scott. All of them better-looking than me, which is not a very good strategy for meeting chicks. We would drink beer, and listen to Les’s boombox, and play Frisbee for hours.

“Les was dating my cousin Shannon, which was its own weird little story, so on the day of the incident she was there, as well as Les’s little brother, Andy. Andy was a wild man, a bodybuilder who was always pulling crazy stunts. One time he took a ride on the hood of a friend’s car, fell off at thirty miles an hour and broke his jaw.”

“Ouch!” says Rachel.

“That day, Andy was imbibing pretty heavily, and he took a mad dash into the water. When he jumped into his dive, a wave knocked him off-balance, he entered the water absolutely vertical, hit his head on the bottom and broke his neck.”

“No!”

“He was flopping around, yelling for his life, and we all assumed he was just messing around. Fortunately, some off-duty lifeguard down the beach took him seriously and pulled him out. Next thing we know, we’re huddled in a hospital waiting room and they wheel him in with one of those cages that they screw into your skull. Andy had this bemused look on his face, like this was just another of his goofy stunts. And he’s been a paraplegic ever since.”

“God,” says Rachel. “That is sad.”

“Whenever I see my cousin, she asks me if I’ve heard anything about Andy, and really I have no idea. We were never close, and my summer quartet eventually drifted apart. But I guess that was a traumatic experience for her, so she always asks.”

The path ends at the top of a long set of stairs. The beach below is socked in by fog.

“I’m sorry. But I think of that story every time I come here.”

“That’s okay.”

She precedes him down the steps. When she reaches the bottom, she takes off her shoes.

“Isn’t it a little cold?”

“Another Jack thing. Leave no sensory pleasure unpursued. Like sand between your toes.”

“You make a good point.” He unties a shoelace.

They cross the wide beach and arrive at the damp sand near the water. It’s a clean shoreline: a sand dollar here, crabshell there. The breakers roll toward them in low-key six-packs.

“How have you been?”

“Well,” says Rachel. “Audrey is a little nuts, in a fun way. They’re married, you know.”

“Really.”

“Yep. And Jack… He and I have been working on re-wiring my head. So many children of dysfunction end up carrying on the bad patterns of their parents. He’s trying to get me to slow down my thoughts so I can better understand what’s going on in there. We’ve just started into my childhood. My stories. It’s a long process.”

They walk a long way without talking. Skye is gazing at a stand of eucalyptus on the clifftop when he finds that Rachel has stopped in front of him. She wraps her arms around his waist and gives him a thorough kiss.

“There.”

Skye laughs. “There?”

“Your job is done. So stop treating me like I’m fragile. This part is up to me. In fact, I’d like it very much if you roughed me up a little. Audrey and Jack are off in their townhome, so I think, after this little hike, that you should take me home and bang me silly.”

Skye feels the blood rushing to his dick (a body part that never gets enough) and doesn’t know what to say.

“Say ‘Yes, mistress.’”

Skye reaches around and applies a healthy slap to Rachel’s butt.

Rachel smiles. “That will do, also.”



Thirty minutes post-coitus, as Skye boards the footbridge to sleep, he is jostled awake by birdsong. Rachel answers her iPhone.

“Mmulloh? Oh, sure. Yeah, that sounds fun. Half hour? Okay.”

Skye works himself up to an elbow. “You have friends in California?”

“I have friends next door. Which is how they know when I’m done having sex.”

“I guess I won’t be so loud next time.”

“I’m sure that Audrey thoroughly enjoyed it.”

“In that case, I’ll expect a gratuity.”

“They’ve invited us over for a board game. I’ll shower first so you can snooze.”

“Thank you.”

The condo next door is identical, albeit bereft of seaside tchotchkes. The living room is ringed by eight TV trays, each of them hosting a popular board game. At the center of the room stands a Vegas-style wheel of fortune bearing the numbers 1 through 64.

“What the hell?” says Skye.

“Welcome to the Game of Madness,” says Jack. He’s wearing a purple smoking jacket, which gives him the air of a ringmaster. “May I obtain for you a beer?”

“Sure,” says Skye. “Whattya got?”

“IPA? Lager?”

“IPA.”

“Am I allowed?” asks Rachel.

Audrey bursts into the room holding a blue pigeon. “Two beers. And no fisticuffs.”

“Yes’m,” says Rachel. “Is that Apostrophe?”

“It is. Skye, would you like to rub Apostrophe’s head?”

“Sure.” He strokes the downy cap, feels the bones of the skull underneath. Apostrophe actually coos, just as pigeons are rumored to do.

Audrey laughs. “No surprise that a pigeon would like the Skye.”

“Yeah yeah,” says Skye. “Never heard a joke like that before.”

“Sorry. Had to be done. Rachel? Do the honors?”

“Yes!” She takes the bird in both hands, careful to wrap its wings, and tosses him out the back door. She turns to Skye, who looks like he’s expecting an explanation.

“Audrey raises homing pigeons. She’s got an awesome coop on the balcony.”

“I don’t usually let them out so late, but Apostrophe was dying to meet you.”

“Okay,” says Skye. “Why ‘Apostrophe’?”

Audrey smiles. “He’s very possessive.”

Skye accepts his IPA from Jack. “Thanks. So, what is this thing that we are attempting to do?”

“I think we should just talk you through it,” says Jack. “Why don’t you give the wheel a spin?”

“Okay.” Skye sets the wheel in motion. It clacks to a stop on 23.

“Now,” says Jack. “You have two choices: Table 2 – the game of Life – or Table 3, Scrabble.”

“Oh, Scrabble, by all means.”

“Have at it.”

Skye draws seven tiles and places FECUND over the center star.

“Uh-oh,” says Audrey. “We’ve got a ringer.”

“Well, I am a writer.”

“Fortunately for us,” says Jack, “nobody keeps score. And once we introduce the sinsemilla, no one cares.”

Audrey hands Skye a loaded pipe and a lighter. Rachel spins an 8, takes the Monopoly race-car token, rolls a five, ends up on Chance and receives $200 for winning a beauty contest.

Skye laughs. “You could see that coming.” Rachel rewards him with a smooch.



Rachel and Skye take a time-out to stand in the backyard. Skye is pointing to a spot in the western sky.

“See? Those three right there. Jupiter, Venus and Mercury. It’s very rare that they’re so close together.”

“They’re almost as close as my therapists.”

Skye peeks back inside, where Audrey and Jack are making out on the couch.

“They’re like newlyweds!” says Rachel.

“Nice to have happy therapists.”

“It is. So how are you doing?”

“Let’s see, I’ve got three kids in college, two slices of trivia pie, and I successfully removed the patient’s funny bone.”

“I meant how are you doing in Life-not-the-board-game.”

This question makes him nervous. “I am hacking my way through a jungle of short stories and… Oh! doing an arts roundup for one of those tourist books that they put in hotel rooms. Sort of an annual gig. One of the theater groups is doing a musical version of Reefer Madness. Is that not just beyond cool?”

“Okay,” says Rachel. “So how are you doing?” She puts a hand on his chest. “In there.”

He thinks about it, mapping out the land mines. “I worry about you constantly. But I’m glad you’re in good hands. And I’m a little nervous about Thanksgiving, and having to explain my little shit-fit to my family.”

“Hey!” It’s Jack, leaning into the yard, one hand hooked around the doorjamb. “For some impenetrable reason, we seem to have the munchies, so I’m going next door for some pizza.”

“Oh,” says Skye. “May I go with?”

Audrey reacts theatrically. “No! Don’t leave us, Skye!”

“Honey,” says Jack. “Clearly he’s looking for a chance to talk shit about you women.”

Skye kisses Rachel and heads for the front door. The night is heavy with mist, the road framed by pines. Skye realizes he’s not quite ready for confession.

“So how did you start this little enterprise?”

“Unique circumstances,” says Jack. “My former boss was a womanizer who pushed his luck until he woke from a drunken stupor and found that his victims had scrawled his sins all over his body in permanent ink.”

“Yowza. Every man’s nightmare.”

“I helped him with his reform, and he paid me back by setting me up with an office and three condos. Our innovative little project developed from there.”

They turn into the parking lot. “At one point in my life, I came within a few inches of throwing myself over a waterfall. Thanks to a talented life coach, I came to see suicide as the selfish, wasteful act that it is, and I decided to do whatever I could to prevent it.”

“Wow,” says Skye, and decides to leave it at that.

They enter the pizza place, where a trio of old dudes sit at a bar, watching football. Jack orders a large combo, and they repair to a booth with a couple of beers.

“So. Jack.”

“Yes?”

“I do have sort of something to ask you.”

“I sort of thought you did.”

“I, oh geez, how do I say this?”

“With as few words as possible,” says Jack. “We’ll expand from there.”

Skye clears his throat. “I slept with another woman.”

Jack looks at him blank-faced, as if he’s fighting off an immediate reaction. “When?”

“Last Friday.”

“The night you dropped Rachel off.”

“Yes.”

“Okay.” He pauses again, looking out the window. “Jesus, Skye. Nobody’s better at being non-judgmental than me, but Jesus! You couldn’t keep it in your pants?”

“I know. I feel like absolute shit. A former fling, leaving town the next day, throwing herself at me. And alcohol.”

“Hmm. A devil’s brew. Especially the next-day departure. But tell me – do you do this often? And don’t bullshit me, or I can’t help you.”

“Serial monogamist. I can barely handle the administrative duties of one woman, much less keep track of the lies I’d have to tell to two.”

Jack takes a sip from his beer and taps his finger against the table, sorting out the elements of the situation.

“How long have you known Rachel?”

“Maybe… a month.”

“How long before the homicide?”

“Two weeks.”

“Okay. Yeah. I think I get it.”

“You do?”

“This is not a normal relationship. You barely know this woman. And the extreme nature of her situation threw you into a role more suited for a husband or a close relative. On Friday, when you were at least partly relieved of this duty, I would bet that you felt a strange rush of liberation.”

In fact, he remembers the exact moment: crossing the county line at the top of the Santa Cruz Mountains. He had ascribed it to homesickness.

“And then,” Jack goes on, “this tremendously convenient situation comes along. Call it microwaveable sex. The portion of your brain most directly connected to your dick says, This isn’t fair! I’m doing all this work that I am not obligated to do, and now I have to give up a free fuck just because some crazy bitch wants to kill herself.”

“Well, I wouldn’t…”

“This is your dick-brain talking. He’s very crude. And so, you seek a little temporary amnesia in a glass, and things proceed. I’m not saying what you did was right. I’m just saying that it’s understandable.”

A group of teens comes in toting long skateboards, hailing their friend who works in the parlor. Skye pats the table in a steady beat.

“So. Do I tell her?”

“God no! Look, I know it’s tempting to cleanse your conscience, but frankly I don’t give a shit about your conscience. I’ve got a young woman who’s looking for any excuse to off herself, and unlike a lot of my clients, she’s got a lot of perfectly legitimate reasons to do so. I assume you’ve heard some of her stories?”

“Yes.”

“Yes. So do me a favor and don’t hand her the bullets. You are going to walk around with that dirt on your soul, you are going to be the world’s best boyfriend, and you are going to keep that penis locked up unless you’re using it on one Rachel Grossman. That is your penance, and from what I know of Rachel, that’s really no penance at all.”

Skye feels enormously uncomfortable, because he knows he deserves this lecture and so much more. Jack gives him a studied look.

“If it makes you feel better, I can also make you do some pushups.”

“Thank you, father.”

Jack leans in confidentially. “Here’s the tricky part. You have to push the guilt aside. It’s not going to do her any good.”

“Will do.”



A streak of moonlight cuts through the window. Rachel’s eyes are open. Skye traces a pattern on her forehead.

“There. I just spelled out S-L-E-E-P.”

“Not working,” she mumbles.

“I’m sorry, Rachel.”

She looks up. “For what?”

“For you having to go through so much shit.”

“Not your fault.”

“I apologize on behalf of the universe.”

“I forgive the universe.”

He slides next to her, reaches along her side to take her hand.

“My mother had only nine fingers.”

“Born that way?”

“My father chopped off her pinkie. In front of me. To teach me a lesson.”

Having released this image to the universe, Rachel falls asleep. Skye watches the moon until it crosses the window.

Flashing

Brother Carl lives in a pocket of suburbia between the freeway and the San Jose airport. The house is modest but lavished with care. Carl has done so many improvements he could be a contractor, and enlisted Skye’s help in covering the front porch in slate.

Skye’s arrival is well-timed. Most of the family is already there, watching the last of the day’s football games. Carl’s wife, Rosa, sits at the dining-room table, conducting a panel discussion on the educational system. The crucial element is a rowdy chatter that makes Skye’s entrance a low-key event.

“Uncle Skye!”

His nephew Stan, he of the linebacker build, wraps him in a hug more closely resembling a wrestling hold. Skye makes the rounds from there, hugging his brilliant nephews and nieces (headed for college or buzz-sawing their way through middle school), then continues to his dad, who engages him in an impassioned discussion of the baseball Giants. Skye’s family is impressively immune to drama, and busy enough with their own lives not to be too nosy about his. There is nary a hint of concern about his maniac behavior in Tahoe, and for this he is vastly grateful.

Rosa carries a bit of the Martha Stewart flair, and has dressed out the table with elegant appetizers. Skye attacks a plate of jalapeño brie with sesame crackers, and is content to eavesdrop on several conversations. Before he’s really ready, he finds himself next to Angie, who seems happy to maintain the low-key approach.

“So I heard you went on some wild trip.”

“Yeah! I swear, parts of it, I still think I was just dreaming it up. I ended up in New York, and I brought a woman back home with me.”

“Well now! Are we gonna get a chance to meet her?”

“I’m sure you will. Maybe Christmas.  I didn’t want to subject her to our merry chaos quite yet.”

Angie scans the bustling room and laughs. “We’d probably scare her right back to New York.”

Skye chews up another cracker of brie, holding up a hand. “Um, Angie, could you… Follow me, wouldja?”

They slip into a hall lined with pictures of Carl’s daughters.

“Look, I wanted to apologize for Tahoe. I had no right to yell at you like that. I guess I just overestimated my ability to deal with so many relatives for so many days. Makes me realize, I lead a pretty solitary life.”

“That’s what we figured. We’re all so used to the craziness that a few extra bodies didn’t really matter.” She waves a hand. “And forget about the fight. It was silly. Besides, you’re my brother and I love you.”

That’s Angie’s superpower: she is able to say things like that and be absolutely sincere. He gives her a hug. “Thanks, sis. And I gotta say, my little blow-up turned into quite an adventure.”

She wiggles her fingers, voodoo-like. “Ah, so I am your inspiration. Well, stick around. A few more glasses of wine and maybe I’ll say some more stupid shit.”

“I wouldn’t care if you did.”

A moderate rumble emanates from the next room, meaning it’s meal-time. They re-enter to a lavish spread of all the classics: green beans covered in onion fries, baked beans with brown sugar and bacon, and sweet potatoes with marshmallows. Skye’s only dilemma now is dark meat or light.

The post-dinner entertainment is anecdote roulette, and Skye realizes just how good his siblings are at storytelling. They were raised on their father’s pilot stories, often compelling but bogged down with details, and have all developed internal editors. Carl is the best – should probably run for office – his narratives threaded with sly wit and honed by his uber-verbal job as a business consultant.

“So basically I was being an idiot, because the loop I chose was an 18-mile hike, with one sandwich and a single bottle of water. I had just made it to a dirt road, a half mile from my car, when I saw a bear with two cubs. Well, I’m not that much of an idiot, so I hitched a ride with some guy in a jeep. And that is how one avoids being eaten at King’s Canyon.”

Skye’s phone vibrates in his pocket. He expects it’s a text from Rachel, but then it goes past the usual three buzzes. He pulls it out and sees that it’s Jack.

“Hi, Jack. Wait a sec, wouldja?”

He picks his way through the room and ends up outside on the slate porch.

“Hi.”

“Skye, listen. Can you get over here? It’s Rachel. She’s missing.”



The rain is getting heavier, and Skye makes a measured effort to keep his speed down. Highway 17 is treacherous enough when dry, and the cops will be out for the holiday. What is not helping is his stomach, which is loaded down with turkey, pumpkin pie and Rosa’s appetizers. But the small anxieties are consumed by the big one, which is what the hell is Rachel doing? She made her escape by slipping out of her window onto the garage roof – not the kind of maneuver that would indicate benign wanderlust. He angles onto the straight, wide drag of Highway One and pushes the accelerator.

When he pulls up to the townhouse, Audrey is standing on the porch, looking collected but focused. She marches to the passenger door and knocks on the window. Skye lets her in.

“You know the path by the train trestle?”

“Sure.”

“Go there.”

He cuts around the shopping center and pulls up across the street. Audrey’s out, holding a flashlight. He catches up and they jog in a single file, down the dirt path to the overlook. Audrey scans the beach, twitching her lips.

“He said he’d be out here.”

“Did someone… report something?”

“No. Just… logic. The beach. Look, two people, two directions. I’ll go that way. Cell phone?”

He taps his pocket. “Yes.”

“Okay, go. Run.”

They trot the long staircase and hit the sand. Audrey veers left toward Monterey. Skye angles along the cliffs, where he and Les were playing catch when Andy took his neck-breaking dive. He cuts across the damp sand near the waves, then turns toward Aptos, a low set of hills sprinkled with lights. Two of them flashing.

He takes off at a sprint. A set of houses stretches across the beach on an elevated block. A police car and an ambulance are parked at the end of the road, flashing red and blue. A trio of palm trees. His shoes slap the sand, the food churns, he keeps going. The heat builds up under his jacket, raindrops smacking across his face. When he finally arrives, the cold air chapping his lungs, he finds three men in dark jumpsuits, carrying a gurney near the clean, curved seawall. Something atop the gurney.

“Ho! Settle down there.”

A tall man in a paramedic suit holds him by the shoulders. Sculpted features, a blond mini-mohawk.

Skye pushes for voice. “Girl? Young woman? Dark hair?”

“Yes. Are you looking for someone?”

“Fiancee. She’s missing.”

“Okay. Okay.” Mohawk takes a nervous look toward the gurney. “Look. Would you like to make an ID?”

Skye looks past his shoulder. The gurney holds a dark plastic bag.

“Apparent drowning,” says Mohawk.

“Jesus.” Skye can feel his knees shaking. He presses a foot into the sand. “Okay.”

Mohawk puts an arm around Skye’s shoulder and guides him to the seawall. “It’s okay,” he tells the others. “Possible family.”

Mohawk unzips the bag. It’s Rachel, a strand of hair across her forehead. She is wet, ghostly pale, but unmarked. It seems that she could wake up and they could walk away, laughing at her misadventure, but he knows the look in her eyes. It’s the dark room. The locked door.

“Rachel Grossman. New York City.”

“I’m sorry,” says Mohawk. “Look, we’re going to take her to the morgue. Let me get your info. Are you all right?”

No. “Yes. I can… do that.”

“Okay. Your full name?”

“Skye Pelter. S-K-Y-E…”

The cold bureaucracy calms him down. He watches the ambulance drive away. Stands there for a minute, listening to the silent neighborhood, the crackling mutter of the breakers. He turns around to find Audrey, her face a mess of tears and rain. He wraps her in his arms and says, “Come on. Let’s go home.”

They walk along the water, his arm around her shoulder. The rain lessens to a heavy mist. Halfway there, they see a form that looks like a sea lion, waving his flippers toward the water. It’s Jack, on his knees, scooping ruts into the sand. Audrey kneels at one side, Skye at the other. Jack is chanting to the swing of his arms.

“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

A Witchy Mess

Skye stands on a square of lawn atop the townhouse. He sets his ball on a tee, pulls out a driver and gives it a solid thwack! The ball sails over the train trestle and toward the beach.

He turns to find Jack standing behind him, wearing a grin that flashes on and off like a strobe light. Jack sprouts red hair, his eyes turn green and he morphs into Audrey. She purses her lips and blows with such force that Skye falls off the roof. Expecting some kind of impact, Skye goes limp but finds that he is being borne aloft by a flock of pigeons. They carry him over the shopping center, the trestle, the evergreens beyond and set him carefully on the beach.

He’s next to a fire pit, one of a dozen maintained by the Seascape Resort for the use of its guests. Skye unties a sack of logs and stacks them in the pit, then watches the sun set in high speed. When the sun reaches the logs, they burst into flame. The guests at the other pits are eating s’mores, so Skye puts a marshmallow on a stick and lowers it to the flames. It catches fire, but when he blows it out it turns into his golf ball. He runs across the beach and throws it into the water.

A figure appears on the horizon and moves steadily toward him. It’s Rachel, wearing the sweater, leggings and sunglasses she wore the day he saw her in Central Park. Her Rollerblades have become two small hovercraft. She surfs the breaker, hovers his way and hands him his golfball.

“Litterbug.”

“Sorry. Since you died, I’ve become a rebel.”

“I didn’t die. I killed myself.”

“What’s the diff?”

“Control.”

Skye takes a bite from the golf ball. It tastes like teriyaki steak. So. Drowning. What was it like?”

“Scary. But then I began to numb up. And I went under the surface, which was peaceful. And I told my body, you must accept this, because this time I am not going back. And I inhaled the water. And the water filled me up. And from there it all faded.”

Skye feels tears coming to his eyes. “I’m going to miss you.”

“Thanks.” She pulls out her cell phone. “Shit! I’m late. Just one more thing.”

“Just one?”

“Just two.”

“Two?”

“Yes. Two.”

She takes a deep breath and turns a variety of colors: maroon, chartreuse, vermilion, sienna.

“Take a ride.”

Rachel pops like a balloon, trickles toward the water in her several colors and drifts away like an oil slick. Skye sticks a finger into his mouth and blows, producing a sound like a clarinet, sliding slowly upward, striking the top and fluttering back down. He turns to find that the hotel guests are holding cellos, French horns, bassoons - and playing beautifully. A piano rises from the beach, played by a balding man with the nose of an eagle. He flails at the keys, sand flying from his tuxedo.



Jack takes a bite of his bagel and lox. “That is a freakin’ awesome dream.”

“Not too… strange? Creepy?”

“You’ve had a strange and creepy week, my friend. Your brain is working it out. But in a very imaginative way.”

“Any interpretations?”

Jakc smiles. “Oh! You think I’m one of those witch-doctor types. You’re a sharp cookie. Figure it out yourself. Like, the Audrey monster blowing you off the roof.”

“Um… loss of control?”

“Sure. Even with the pigeons, you’re flying, but you’re passive. And the talk with Rachel?”

Skye rubs his forehead. “Weirdly natural. Like conversations we had all the time.”

“So what’s the crucial point?”

“I… I wanted to know what it was like, drowning. I was hoping it wasn’t too bad.”

“You’re a good man, Skye. You have a strong empathic sense.” He takes a sip of coffee, reviewing the story. “The part that gets me is the golf ball. You keep trying to get rid of it, it keeps coming back, and finally you eat it. Teriyaki. Genius.”

They sit in silence. Jack finishes his bagel, then wads up his napkin and fires it into a waste basket.

“I am awfully sorry. I realize this approach we have entails a certain amount of risk, but our failures are brutal. I’m so sorry that she fooled us, but I guess I don’t believe in keeping someone alive just so they can be kept prisoner.”

“She fooled you?”

“Yes.” Jack furrows his brow and chews on a fingernail, two actions that have increased in the week since Rachel’s death. “I recall you saying how angry she was when Sarge fooled her with the placebos. It makes me believe that she was looking for an exit, no matter what, that she was just going along with our therapies until she saw her chance. She was a good actress.”

“It’s my guilt,” says Skye.

“Pardon?”

“The golf ball.”

“Don’t you dare carry that around with you. For one thing, I am certain she didn’t know about your… dalliance. For another, when you compare one slip-up with the extremities you pursued to keep that girl alive, it means very little.”

Skye feels tears coming on, which surprises him. He grabs a napkin and wipes them away.

“Good,” says Jack. “You’ve begun. Grief is a process that makes us more human than just about anything else. You have the time and the money to indulge that process.”

Skye clears his throat. “So… hem! So, where do I start?”

“Start with the obvious. Go from there.”

He takes a walk on the beach, going much farther than usual. When he returns, he heads for Rachel’s old room – which Audrey and Jack have graciously afforded to him – and takes a nap. When he wakes, his eyes settle on the window, the one she used for her escape. It’s now a square of twilight blue, gathered around the silhouette of a ceramic urn, its sides flared upward like the shoulders of a jazz-age jacket.

Take a ride.





The overhead lights are a little more mesmerizing. But then, this time there’s no suspense about the destination. The urn sits at the center of the table, clamped into a holder designed for pitchers and vases. Sarge sits across the way, looking spent. He takes off his glasses and pinches the bridge of his nose.

“It’s beautiful.”

“They’re made by a shop in Mexico. I thought she would like that.”

“So young,” says Sarge. He’s unable to say more.

Skye studies the pattern of white lines on the urn’s torso, realizes it’s the petals of an immense flower. Perhaps a hydrangea.

“I don’t mean to sound like I’m complaining, but two hundred grand?”

Sarge gives him a blank look. “Two hundred… Sorry?”

“In my checking account.”

“Ah. That was the appraisal on the Gershwin. And yes, I know you considered it the admission price to my magic kingdom, but Rachel was your admission. Oh God, Skye, this is not easy. I am such a romantic idiot that I imagined having your wedding up here. I really thought she was going to make it.”

“We all did.”

The transport slows to a stop. They stand and assemble their snow wear.

“Pretty fierce?”

“Arctic fierce,” says Sarge. “The winds were howling last night.”

“I suppose that’s good. I’m not sure this is entirely legal.”

They struggle to lift the hatch and burrow through the snow. The drifts make for tough hiking, the flakes fall thick and wet, but the stretches of evergreen offer a respite. Sarge guides him to the field where Rachel had her awakening and stands in the shelter of a boulder as Skye ventures forth.

Half Dome is nowhere in sight. He finds a rise in the snow that might be the spot where she fell to her knees. He thought of doing something creative – artist as medium – but as soon as he casts the first handful it’s whited out by snowfall. He casts another, watches it disappear, and this is how Rachel Grossman returns to the earth, in strata. Come spring, the snow will melt, she will feed the grasses and when the blades rise up she will have her long-awaited conversation with her best friend. He leaves a single handful in the urn and heads back.



They are barely off the transport when Andorra runs to Skye and clamps on. She is sobbing. Her hair is a witchy mess. Sarge comes over to peel her off.

“Andorra. Our guest is probably very hungry. Why don’t you go take a long bath and come join us in the lab. Okay?”

She nods, reaches up to kiss Skye on the cheek, and walks away. They stroll across the racetrack auditorium into a long hallway.

“It’s the sister thing,” says Sarge. “As if she’s lost two now. I hope it doesn’t last too long. She’s wearing me out.” Sarge laughs, then covers his mouth.

“Never swallow a laugh,” says Skye. “For God’s sake, if we didn’t have humor, how would we get through this shit?”

They enter an elevator ringed by blue mirrors. Sarge pushes a button.

“You ever see a flock of geese flying in a vee?”

“Sure.”

“Ever notice how one side of the vee is always longer?”

“Um, yes?”

“You know why that is?”

“No.”

“More geese.”

Sarge’s deadpan breaks up and he slaps a leg.

“God I love that joke. It’s so…”

“Stupid?”

“Precisely.”

They exit into the dining hall, the one with the labradorite wall.

“Oh!” says Skye. “The lab. I get it.”

“Yes. Got tired of saying ‘lab-ra-do-rite.’ I thought you might like to watch the snow while we ate. It gets very dramatic up here.”

Sarge hits a switch, triggering a series of lights outside the long window. The only visible color is white, curtain after curtain of snowfall.

“Wow.” Skye stands and watches, hypnotized. Then he smells something. He turns to find the table already set, their plates topped with slabs of steak.

“Teriyaki?”

Sarge scratches the back of his neck. “Orders from Jack.”

Skye takes in the aroma. “It’s my dream supper.”



They’re finishing up a pair of blueberry crumbles when Andorra enters the room. She has tied up her hair, put on makeup, and is wearing the orange dress she wore when Skye first met her.

“You’re beautiful,” says Skye.

She sits next to him, takes his hand and gives him a searching look.

“I loved her.”

Skye kisses her on the forehead. “So did I.”

Late that night, he lies in the Louis and Ella room, feeling the dull glow from the olivine wall. Andorra comes to the bed and slides in next to him, wrapping her arms around his torso. In the morning, she’s gone.



Skye stands in the top house, drinking the last of his coffee.

“You’re all set?” says Sarge.

“Skye Pelter, chaser of ghosts.”

Sarge gets up and grabs his shoulder. “I’m sorry we couldn’t save her. You come back any time you want.”

“You take care of Andorra. I assume you’ve put her on the placebo program? Sorry – bad joke.”

“Yes,” says Sarge. “We have already switched out her pills.”

“Smart man.”

Skye opens the door and is a little surprised at the ferocity of the wind. He feels his way to the snowcat and slips inside.

“Bubba! We have got to stop meeting like this.”

“Back to the motel?”

“You got it.”

Turandot’s Riddle

After much jiggling, the key unlooses something, and the door cracks open.

“Thank goodness!” says Mickey.

“This won’t much surprise you.” Skye reveals the fridge opposite the door.

“That there is Manhattan feng shui.” Mickey follows him inside and migrates to the right-hand wall. “Love these! So whimsical.”

“That’s a spatial study on Seurat’s La Grand Jatte. Step back a little and you’ll see the similarity.”

Mickey rubs his beard. “I often see this kind of polarity in artists. Such a tragic life, and yet such a sly sense of humor. My wife is the same. Her Lady Macbeth scares the crap out of me, and then five minutes after curtain she’s telling fart jokes.”

Mickey laughs, but it dies quickly.

“Such sad business. I’m so sorry, Skye.”

Skye crosses his arms and studies Rachel’s work for the hundredth time. “I’ve begun to think of this as the heartbreak tour. I am the messenger everybody wants to shoot. Thanks for the storage space. I wanted to send everything to the Salvation Army, but I fear that would be a mistake.”

“I think you’re right. Actually, Madame Diva might get a little use out of this light board. She’s been messing around with visual art. She has no talent whatsoever, but I think she enjoys dabbling in creative pursuits where the stakes are not so high. The last thing was tapdancing. I love the way it makes her boobs shake.”

Skye slaps him on the shoulder. “Scoundrel! Horndog!”

“And? So here’s the deal. Let’s get the futon, the light board and the dresser into the truck – I have to have it back by five – and then we can come back in the Caddy for the small stuff.”

“You are a worker.”

“Don’t let the gigolo act fool you. When Maddie met me I was working for a contractor in the Santa Cruz Mountains.”

They’re fortunate – Rachel’s possessions are few. The hardest part is packing the clothes. Skye spots the dress from Cape Cod, the sweater from the Plaza Hotel. By ten at night, they’ve got everything downstairs in the Caddy. They come back up to sweep the floor and examine the interior for any small, important items. Mickey leans over a spot on the futon wall and fingers a tiny knob along the moulding.

“Ornament?”

“It looks vaguely functional.” He jiggles it one way, then another, and suddenly it slides. A three-foot section of the wall hinges open, revealing a shelf that holds what looks like a roll of carpeting. Mickey folds back a corner and sees the face of a geisha.

“My goodness.”

“What have you got?”

“I think it’s a scroll. A collage.”

“A scrollage?”

“That’s good. Here, grab this end.”

They lift it out, set it next to a window and unroll it across the room. It’s a three-foot strip, covered with a black-and-white sea of women. Illustrations, no photos, and not a shred of space – a continuous field of the feminine. Skye sees Queen Elizabeth, Cleopatra, a can-can girl, a flapper, Venus, a faerie, Colette, a belly dancer, a medieval milkmaid.

“It’s endless.”

“Yes,” says Mickey. “And we’ve only seen half of it.”

They walk up and down both sides, taking it in, a sea of faces, breasts, hands, legs, buttocks, hips.

“All women, all…” Mickey drops to his knees and studies it up-close. “All…”

“What?”

“Something. There’s something in there.”



It’s 2 a.m. Maddie’s in Chicago for a Tales of Hoffman, so Mickey is indulging his night-owl tendencies. They sit at the dining room table, drinking vodka gimlets, listening to an LP of Sutherland, Caballe and Pavarotti in Turandot. Every few minutes, one of them strolls to the living room, where they have rolled out all 23 feet, four inches of Rachel’s scroll, and studies a bit more of it. The entirety of the work is hard to grasp. Skye is convinced the images contain a narrative thread, keeps waiting for a light bulb over his head. He returns, sits down, rolls a bit of gimlet around his mouth.

“Something going on in there. Something subterranean.”

“Yes,” says Mickey. “I’m seeing it as a spiderweb, linking all the pictures. And I know it’s something great. I think we are dealing with a masterpiece.”

“But why was she hiding it?”

“Fear. Daddy was the Mafia. You don’t rat out the Mafia.”

“Even after he was dead, he killed her.”

They sit in silence. Caballe is singing “Signore, ascolta,” pleading for her master’s life. Mickey clicks his glass to the tabletop and pulls out his cell.

“Who the hell are you calling?”

“Trombone player.”

“Huh?”

“Elephant jockey, cage dancer, Rockette.”

“What the hell for?”

“A female set of eyes. And, Ms. Coswell has recently added art dealer to her list of occupations.”

“I won’t even pretend to be surprised.”

“Hello! I’ve got a stunning work of art for you to peruse. How long? Splendid!”

Skye gives an inquiring look.

“She will play ‘Lush Life,’” says Mickey, “and then she will come here.”

Delilah enters an hour later, wearing a pantsuit of crushed purple velvet and a white blouse with buccaneer frills. Her hair is a platinum blonde that verges on white.

“Delilah!” Mickey gives her the continental double-cheek kiss.

She responds in a sandpaper whisper. “Please! Claudia.”

“Of course. Claudia, you remember Skye.”

“Boy do I.” She takes both his hands and kisses him on the lips. Skye keeps it short, feeling the presence of Rachel’s art.

“But who’s Claudia?”

“Just another me. Claudia Jesuit. Someday, if you get me very drunk, I will write down all my names and we’ll see if I can remember which one I was born with.”

“So how did this new occupation come about?”

She flashes a Broadway smile while accepting a whiskey-rocks from Mickey. “One of the men from the MOMA studio. Brilliant painter, but a caveman when it comes to marketing. So I told him to let me try it. Within two days, I placed seven paintings of my very own naked body in a SoHo gallery. So what is this treasure I’ve come to see?”

Mickey heads to the far wall. He tucks the end of the scroll under a cushion and rolls it across the room. Claudia’s eyes widen.

“Spectacular!” She starts at one end and tip-toes to the other, taking in chambermaids, farmgirls, Amazons, equestrians, Emily Dickinson. She stops and holds her hands together. “Tell me about the artist. In a paragraph.”

“Rachel Grossman, Connecticut Yankee, Manhattan artist. I met her at the Jungle while you were dangling from the ceiling, and met her again the day you booted me out. Her father shot her mother and then himself, Rachel went into shock, I took her to California for therapy and she drowned herself in the Pacific Ocean.”

A miracle: Claudia is speechless. She kneels to touch the face of Susan B. Anthony.

“Her father was abusive?”

“Violent alcoholic. She tried to get her mother to leave, but finally had to abandon them both.”

Claudia holds a hand to her mouth and scans the collage. A tear tracks her cheek. “My God, the pain in this thing. But there’s something I’m not seeing.”

Mickey and Skye look at each other. Mickey speaks. “Our thought exactly.”

Claudia wipes a hand across her cheek. Skye realizes she’s wearing white evening gloves.

“I have got the perfect spot for this.”




The perfect spot has to wait for the following evening. Mickey and Skye grab a taxi to the Chelsea district and find themselves at 26th Street and 11th Avenue, a bricky building called Galleria Amadeus. They step inside and are greeted by a trio of piano, violin and cello, very appropriately working their way through some Mozart. The room hosts a dozen tables whose glass tops are cut in the shapes of animals. The walls are adorned with paintings in brazen sweeps of color. At the back stands a bar of gleaming brass, shadowed by shelves of wine bottles.

Claudia enters in a pleated gray skirt, a white work shirt and purple hair. Mickey laughs and gives her the continental greeting.

“You know, honey, when you’re meeting someone somewhere, it helps if you look something like yourself.”

She gives him a crafty smile. “Really, Mickey, how many people do you know who would wear purple hair?”

“Well, it is Chelsea.”

“And make it look this good?”

“Touche.”

“Hi Skye.” She gives him a peck on the cheek. “This is the very delightful wine bar. The gallery is further back in the building. What we are concerned with is what connects one to the other.”

She takes Skye’s hand and pulls him toward the left of the bar. They pass under an archway and into a long, straight hallway with brick walls.

“They’ve already got track lighting, so it won’t take much to add a few lamps and get the right look. My man Henrik is making a plexiglas frame that will protect the piece without taking away the texture. Every bit of gallery traffic goes through this hall, so you can’t beat the exposure, and of course it’s an obvious walk-across piece to begin with, with all those… Skye?”

“Hmm?”

“What do you think?”

“Oh. Yes, it’s great. But how do you… I don’t mean to sound like a rube but, how do you price it?”

Claudia looks about as serious as Claudia ever gets. “You don’t. Because you’re right. There’s something about this piece. We have to wait and see what that something is. Speaking of, the gallery owner is financing all of the prep work, based solely on the pictures I showed him.”

“You are good.”

“Why you would ever think otherwise is beyond me. Now come on, buy the dealer some wine.”



Skye walks to Sheep Meadow, layered with fresh snow. He follows the long, curving bench and tries to find the exact place he was sitting, the second time he saw Rachel Grossman. He reaches into his pocket, pulls out a bag containing the last handful of her ashes, and spreads it across the white. He doesn’t believe in talking to the dead, so he keeps it in his thoughts.

I hope I’m doing right by you. I feel like you may have wanted to keep this hidden away in that wall. But I am convinced that the world needs to see it. So please forgive me. Also, I wish very much that you wouldn’t have left me.

She rolls past in a long white coat, wearing skates that operate like miniature snowmobiles. He wipes his eyes and walks toward the Met.



Three days later, Maddie arrives home from Chicago, where she played Antonia, a young woman who literally sings herself to death. She’s pretty dead tired after the trip, but Mickey insists that she take a shower and come with them. He seems very excited about something, so she forces herself to try. He hands her a turkey sandwich for the cab ride. They arrive just before closing. Mickey drags her through the front room.

“Mickey! Why are you taking me past a perfectly good wine bar?”

“Later, later.”

They arrive in the hall. The lighting isn’t quite finished, but Henrik’s frame job has Rachel’s scroll frozen in mid-air, two inches off the wall, a dreamcloud of monochrome femininity. Maddie releases her best operatic gasp, covers her mouth, and inches her way along the images, mesmerized. Five minutes later, she reaches the end and turns to Skye.

“This is your girlfriend, the one who…”

“Killed herself, yes.”

She covers her mouth again and her eyes well up. Mickey hands her a handkerchief.

“This piece,” he says, “will launch more tears than Madama Butterfly.”

Maddie recovers quickly. “Skye? One thing I don’t understand. The fingers.”

“Yes?”

“The women. They’re all missing a finger.”

Mickey and Skye hurry to different sections of the scroll. Where one hand is shown, they have four fingers. Where both are shown, they have nine.

“The pinky,” says Skye.

“That’s it,” says Mickey. “The something extra.”

“The something less.”

“But why?”

Skye is tired of passing on brutal information, but there’s no getting around it.

“To teach Rachel a lesson, her father cut off her mother’s pinky.”

Mickey looks stunned. His gaze follows the scroll down the hallway. “That is terrifyingly beautiful.”

He feels a tapping on his shoulder. It’s Maddie.

“May I inquire?”

He kisses her on the cheek. “You are the solver of Turandot’s riddle.”

“Wonderful! Any chance you could tell me what the hell you’re talking about?”

Mickey smiles. “Let’s get you that wine.”

Holly Go Fucking Lightly

A saloon girl pops out of the scrollage, fires a rubber band and hits Mary Magdalene in the nose. Mary looks around, cursing in Aramaic. Within seconds, every woman on the scroll is bickering and complaining, primarily about their missing fingers. A few resort to fisticuffs and hair-pulling. The hallway fills with a high-pitched cacophony.

“Stop it!”

Rachel storms from the wine bar in a harlequin outfit. She crosses her arms and stomps a foot.

“You are inert, two-dimensional objects! Please act like it.”

“But it hurts awfully so,” says Jane Austen.

“Jane! Hush.”

“Sorry.”

Rachel turns to Skye and smiles. Her eyes are stars, Betelgeuse and Vega. “This is what happens when you don’t use a fixing spray. What size shoe do you wear, honey?”

“Ten and a half.”

She taps him on the nose. “See that it stays that way. What’s that?”

“The Foo Fighters.”

He’s about to explain that it’s a ringtone when he finds himself awake, scrambling for his cell.

“Mmeh?”

“Charming. Are you asleep at eight p.m.?”

“No. I’m not.”

“You have got to get down here.”

“Here being…?”

“The Amadeus! And hurry. I don’t want you to miss it.”

“Ooooh-kay.”

He flashes through the shower, pulls on assorted items of clothing and hails a cab, one eye out for harlequins. He arrives at the gallery to find a line at the door, as if the place has become a nightclub. The man in charge is a skinny busboy in a parka.

“Are you here for the scroll?”

“Yes, but…”

“It’s okay. He’s with me.”

“Oh,” says the busboy. “Sure, go on in. Two more, please.” He waves an older couple into the wine bar. They join another line coming out of the hallway.

“Vince?” asks Claudia. “How many?”

He checks his counter. “Three hundred twenty-one.”

“Thanks.” She takes Skye’s elbow and walks him to the bar. “That’s only since six.”

She’s dressed in a baby blue, 18th-century waistcoat with white embroidery, a powdered wig, blue jeans and silver pumps.

“I didn’t get the invitation,” says Skye. “Is this a costume party?”

She smiles. “Life is a costume party.”

Claudia orders a pair of dessert wines that taste like Easter in a glass. “Mmm,” says Skye. “So what the hell is going on?”

She runs a hand along his lapel. “You are the uncle of a sensation. Which makes me the stepmother. Do you know how this happened?”

“Full-page ad in the Times?”

“This is the genius part. Yesterday afternoon, I parked myself at the bar and waited until someone became engrossed in the scroll. I pretended to be a fellow customer and engaged them in conversation. Then I said, ‘You know what I heard? I heard the artist’s father was abusive, and one day he cut off his wife’s pinky finger, and that’s why every woman on this scroll is missing a finger.’ I would guess that I told that story to twelve people. Twelve, tops. It took off like wildfire. The hallway eventually got so crowded that we had to pull Vince from his dishwashing duties and make him a bouncer.”

They hear applause from outside.

“Well would you look at that. Manny got a lute player for the folks in line. But, but…” She slaps her forehead, trying to keep her focus. “We’ve got a phenomenon here, buddyboy. I mean, I thought we had something, but I thought I would have to work at it. I always considered ‘word of mouth’ to be a fairy tale told to marketing students.”

Claudia takes the last of her dessert wine like a shot.

“Anyways. Anyways. I need you to be ready because the fucking New Yorker is on to this, and they want to talk to you. Like, ten in the morning.”

Skye takes a shot just like Claudia’s. The sugar scatters over his mouth.

“What size shoe do you wear?”

“Seven.”

He smiles. “See that it stays that way.”



The writer is Anna Cowling, a surprisingly young black woman with a clipped, no-nonsense way of talking. When he gets to the part about the homicide, her eyes focus intently, as if she’s attempting to think herself inside of Rachel’s pain. Skye tapdances around any mention of Sarge, using the standard uncle inheritance to explain his financial independence.

“Isn’t this an odd position for you?” Anna asks. “You’re handling the artistic legacy of a woman you barely had a chance to know.”

Skye stops to consider his answer. He forces himself to speak slowly.

“I didn’t have time to fall in love with Rachel, but I certainly admired her, and I saw firsthand all the pain she went through after the murder. Second is the work itself. It’s immensely powerful, and that power is magnified when you understand the story behind it. Third is my occupation. I have spent a large part of my life meeting and writing about artists, and I’ve gained a deep respect for the creative process. Given the chance to go a step further and actually take part in bringing a masterwork to the world, how could I possibly walk away?”

Anna takes a long time with her note-taking. Skye knows from his own habits what that means: this is the killer quote. She puts the cap on her pen and gives him a professional smile.

“I think that gives me plenty. I’ll call if I need to double-check anything. If you don’t mind, could I have a few minutes to look at the work by myself?”

“Sure. Well, a few minutes, anyway.” He looks to the door where a dozen cold New Yorkers are lined up for the opening bell.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen anything like it,” says Anna. “Broadway openings, Springsteen concerts, Apple products. But a single work by a little-known artist…”

Skye allows himself a smile. “It makes me very proud of her.”



Three nights later, Claudia comes to Mickey and Maddie’s for late-night cocktails. Their hosts head off to sleep, but the guests are too wired to stop. They adjourn to the balcony, where they sit beneath a tent, watching a light snowfall shift and spin under the streetlights. Claudia takes a puff from a joint and passes it his way.

“Tomorrow, your life changes.”

Skye takes a long drag and lets it go. “I always pictured myself writing for the New Yorker, not being a subject.”

Claudia pats his knee. “I’ve got the same feeling about you that I had about that scrollage. I really like saying that, by the way. Scrollage. Rachel’s story is incredibly deep and fascinating, but your part in the story is also fascinating, and I believe it’s our friend’s intention to use you as the sunshine.”

“I’m… not sure what you mean.”

“You can’t drill people with all that tragedy without offering an upside. That’s you. Noble boyfriend carries on legacy of suicidal artist. Not that you were unattractive before, but you are about to be as irresistible as George Clooney crying over a sick puppy. I would fuck you right now.”

“Well… I…”

Claudia clamps a hand over his mouth. “Don’t you dare finish that thought. I am not about to be trumped by a dead woman. I am merely saying, you’re going to get some strange responses from the female public. Just be ready for it.”

“Oh. Okay. Sorry.”

Claudia takes a drag, pushes the smoke out her nose and sucks it into her mouth. “The question is what the hell do we do with all this?”

“I suspect the fire marshal would want us to move the scroll out of that hallway.”

“Done. Two days ago. It’s in the main gallery.”

“Well!”

“You’re working with professionals, buddyboy.”

They listen to the rustle of landing snowflakes, the crunch of tires from the street. Skye closes his eyes and indulges the mental drift of cannabis. He pictures a sea of pinkies, marching on Washington, demanding reparations for their pain and exile.

“What do you want?” asks Claudia. “Do you want money?”

He folds his fingers over his stomach. “For once in my life, no. Also, it wouldn’t be right.”

“You’re entitled.”

“No, it’s just… I want more. A fundraiser! Let’s make something happen.”

“Okay. For what?”

“The obvious. A women’s shelter.”

“Brilliant. I’ve got a friend…”

“Of course you do.”

Claudia smiles. “I’m a popular girl.”

“You’re Holly Go Fucking Lightly.”

Claudia snorts. “Excellent porn name. Now. Let’s go further. A wine tasting. I’ll ask Manny to pull up some reserves. And I’m sure he can come up with some entertainment.”

A light comes on in the kitchen. Maddie in a red silk robe, pouring a glass of water, humming scales.

Skye smiles. “Let’s go further.”

Skye stands on 26th, in front of a dry cleaner, smoking a cigarette that he bummed from Claudia. He normally doesn’t smoke cigarettes, but the enormity of the evening has him on edge. A cop drives past and gives him a suspicious look. He finds this oddly reassuring.

He is wearing a candy red suit jacket. Claudia bought it for him. When he blanched, she insisted that he was now an artist-by-association, and had a responsibility to do weird, dramatic things. He catches his reflection in a window and enjoys the contrast with his black pants and shirt. He’s striking. A wave of crowdbuzz bounces from a bank across the street.

What he loves about the New Yorker is that they allow their writers to lace their reportage with poetry. Mr. Pelter gives the impression of someone who has found himself in a strange land but who seems determined to make the best of things. Romance and tragedy have conspired to make him a spokesman for art, and he is right to stick with it. Ms. Grossman’s work is almost as heartbreaking as her story.

Anna began the article with the very last thing Skye told her: “It makes me very proud of her.”

In this way has he been fashioned into an heroic figure; in this way have Claudia’s predictions been made real. As if they had been handed instructions at the door for seducing the widower boyfriend, each of six beautiful women has handed him her business card – graphic designer, lawyer, dogwalker, chef, physical therapist, stock analyst – and recited a variation of “in case you’d like someone to talk to.” He is aware that now, before the bronze has taken on a green patina, he could sleep with any one of them. He also knows that using Rachel’s art to get laid would torment him no end. Still, he keeps the cards.

The woman he most admires is already taken: Maddie, who has delivered her contribution to the evening in an extraordinary manner. In order to maintain the flow of the party and keep the focus on Rachel, she has forsaken an extended performance for something more casual. At random moments, she simply steps into the crook of the piano, nods to her accompanist and silences the gathering with that magnificent voice. The first was “Un bel di” from Madama Butterfly. The second was the poison aria from Romeo et Juliette, the third an excerpt from Ophelia’s mad scene in Thomas’s Hamlet. (Skye is not this much of an expert on opera; he’s getting his info from Mickey.) By the third piece, the theme becomes clear: she’s performing songs by suicides.

What drove him outside was social claustrophobia. As it turns out, celebrity is hard work. He’s never had so many meaningless conversations, and his mouth hurts from fake-smiling. Good cause, he reminds himself. Rachel. The scroll. The shelter. And proceeds to another person whose name will go right through his brain and into the Hudson. He reaches the end of his cigarette, drops it to the sidewalk and grinds it under his shoe. Why do smokers do that? Afraid of setting fire to the sidewalk?

“Hi.”

He looks into a pair of green eyes, flashing in the streetlight, short black hair in a tousled cut, nose slightly upturned, lips set in a matter-of-fact line. They break into a smile.

“You’re the boyfriend, Skye? From the New Yorker?”

“Yes.”

She moves so smoothly that he can’t react. Her lips press into his. She slips to the side and speaks into his ear.

“What you’re doing is wonderful. I wanted to show my appreciation.”

She turns and walks away.

“Wait! I…”

“Left pocket!”

He digs into his jacket and finds an oyster shell. Inscribed across the inside is the name Chelsea and a phone number.

The crowdbuzz disappears. In comes the piano, and then the extraordinary voice, liquid gold along the streets of the west side. This one he knows: “Vissi d’arte,” from Tosca. “I gave my life for art, I gave my life for love.” He returns the shell to his pocket and returns to the gallery, preparing himself for another few hours of smothering.



Mickey slithers through the crowd and hands him a glass of Pinot Grigio. Skye has a passing thought that Mickey must be accustomed to these situations. The gallery is a large, high room, completely white – even the exposed vents near the ceiling. He glances sideways to see that the scroll is enjoying a larger following than he is. This is reassuring.

A Long Island Italian with big blonde hair says, “So what’s the title of this thing?”

“You know, we haven’t figured out if Rachel actually had a name for it. I know the New Yorker called it the Grossman Scroll, which seems apt. The true discoverer of the piece, my pal Mickey, came up with the word ‘scrollage,’ which I rather like.”

“This story about the pinky,” says a tall British man. “That’s all true?”

“Sadly, yes.”

“Goodness.”

The sound of a jazz band filters in from the wine bar, joined by a familiar voice.

“Apparently,” says Mickey, “my wife is singing Gershwin.”

“I think we’d better check this out,” says Skye. He’s not the only one to have this notion. The brick hallway resembles a chute at the Chicago stockyards. At the far end they find Claudia’s jazz combo, accompanying Maddie in “Summertime.” She holds the final note in a shimmering diminuendo that quiets the packed room.

Maddie smiles. “We thought that would get your attention. We had a few things to tell you. First, to thank you for coming, and then to thank a few other people. Let’s begin with Anna Cowling of the New Yorker, for writing such a beautiful piece on our friend Rachel.”

Anna, in jeans and a blazer, waves from a table near the front window.

“Manny Aldrude, owner of Galleria Amadeus, for giving Rachel’s work such a beautiful home.”

The magnificently bald Manny salutes the crowd from behind the bar.

“And of course, the orchestrator of this entire phenomenon, the magnificent Claudia Jesuit.”

Claudia, clothed in a tight-fitting white sheath dress, blows a kiss from behind the band, where she is prepping her trombone.

“It is also my happy duty to report that tonight’s little shindig has raised for the East Village Women’s Shelter, more than twenty three thousand dollars!”

Maddie waits out the applause.

“We have the director of the shelter here tonight. Please welcome Chelsea Kormit.”

A woman in a black skirt and jacket takes the stage and delivers a calm smile.

“Good evening. I…”

At this point, Skye’s audio switches off. It’s the woman who kissed him outside. After a minute, she returns the mic to Maddie. Maddie takes a moment to let the room settle.

“As an artist, you can only hope that, once you pass on, someone will come along to take care of your legacy. I did not know Rachel Grossman, but I do know the young man who has taken such great care in bringing her work to the world. She could not possibly be in better hands. Please welcome Skye Pelter.”

Skye should have seen this coming, but he didn’t. He shoulders through the applauding crowd, his head whirring with rough drafts. He passes Chelsea, who gives him a guilty smile. Skye stares at the microphone, a gray mesh planet engineered to extract all remnants of his composure. Then he thinks of Rachel.

“When I first saw Rachel’s work, I was dazzled. That someone so beautiful, so touched by joy and humor, could have such intense vision. The odd thing about collage, as opposed to other media, is that it absolutely demands empathy. You have to love, and respect, and understand something very deeply before you decide to make it a part of your own work. Our first date was a subway ride to a bookstore, where the manager had discovered an old volume of illustrated Shakespeare and saved it for Rachel. I will never forget the way that she looked at those illustrations, such enchantment and affection. I could only hope that someday she would look at me like that. I’m happy to report that, a couple of times, she did. I guess I wanted you to know that, amid all the violence and tragedy evoked by this amazing scroll, she did have some happiness.”

He pauses to scan the crowd, in the hopes that more words will come his way. He’s surprised at how intently they’re focused on him. Go with that.

“Frankly, I am bowled over, and honored, and a little intimidated to be in the position of representing Rachel’s art. I did not know Rachel Grossman one-hundredth, one-thousandth as much as I hoped to know her. That will be one of my greatest disappointments, for the rest of my life. As for the beneficiary of tonight’s event, I cannot think of a more perfect cause, because if Rachel’s mother had been brave enough to take that first step and go to a place like the East Village Shelter, I have no doubt that Rachel would be here today.”

It’s a profound thought, but he fears that he has left his audience in a black hole. He needs a bit of sunshine for the story.

“Excuse me a moment.”

The crowd whispers and buzzes as he confers with the pianist, Jordan. He returns to the mic as Jordan plays a series of brooding chords. Skye says a silent prayer, opens his mouth and sings “Nature Boy.”



Skye finds a white leather couch facing a large window. He sits down and looks across the street at the Chrysler Building. Chelsea sits beside him and hands him a martini glass. Three flakes of ice float on the surface. The taste is sharp and beautiful.

“Wow! Wowwow.”

“Like it?”

“Yah.”

“It’s a lemon drop martini without the drop. That is, minus the suffocating sugar.”

“Nice.” He takes another sip. “I can’t help but notice you live across the street from the Chrysler Building.”

“Yeah. Ain’t it great?”

“How does one obtain an apartment like this?”

She hesitates. He may have asked too much.

“What’s my last name?”

“I heard it was Kormit. Like the vegetable company.”

She smiles.

“Oh! The vegetable company. Your family?”

“A hundred and nine years. I’m disgustingly rich.”

“And yet, you care about abused women.”

“Yes, I do. And no, I have not one personal reason for it. But everyone hears the stories, everyone has a co-worker who comes in with mysterious bruises. And being an heiress, I have the freedom to do what I want.”

“Damn noble.”

“Noble as a man who dedicates himself to the art of his late girlfriend.”

“I’ve done very little. That scroll is a tsunami. In fact, I’m starting to feel like a graverobber.”

Chelsea lifts a leg en pointe and crosses it over the other.

“Often I have been at a wake, or a funeral, and I notice that the guests who, in fact, least knew the deceased are the ones trying to make him into a saint. Because the dead person, being newly dead, is a kind of celebrity, and these people are trying to intensify their connections with the corpse because we are all, at heart, starfuckers.”

“Yes! I have seen this in action.”

She kisses him on the cheek. “You are the opposite.”

He takes her hand and looks outside. The world is an endless field of illuminated squares.

“So… So…”

“Yes?”

“Being the director of the shelter, you eventually would have met me. So why the curbside attack?”

She smiles and glances down, revealing a small vee-shaped dimple at the corner of her mouth.

“I didn’t want you to meet me as the director of the East Village Women’s Shelter. I wanted you to meet me as the hot brunette on 26th Street.”

“Mission accomplished. But how did you know I’d be worth your time?”

“I never said I was completely averse to starfucking myself. But a specific kind of star. That story in the New Yorker. God. It was like porn for middle-aged women. But mostly, I was operating on instinct. And I was right. That speech about Rachel. Written beforehand?”

“God no.”

“See? That speech was so heartfelt. I was somewhere between crying and levitating. And then you sang that song. God. Like something from a movie. Are you for real?”

He stands from the couch, straightens his pants, and leans over to kiss her.

“Yes.”

He moves closer to the window to take in the panorama. Yellow corpuscles of cab speckle the arteries below. Chelsea takes his arm and tucks her head against his shoulder.

“I once met a woman named Chelsea,” he says, “Outside a dry cleaner’s in Chelsea.”

“Not a coincidence. I was conceived there.”

“At the dry cleaner’s?”

“In Chelsea!”

“No shit.”

“My mother was a waitress. My father walked in and wham! She hit him like a ton of bliss. He nearly proposed to her right there.”

“Nice.” He taps on the window and lets out a sigh. “At the heart of everything, Ms. Kormit, I am a lonely, lonely man.”

She squeezes his hand. “That’s how grief works. You’re having a relationship with someone who refuses to talk back.”

“What’ll I do?”

“You’ll come to my place in East Hampton. Spend a few days. Be lazy. You had a glorious week, but keep this in mind: this magnificent scrollage is also a twenty-three-foot reminder of your loss. You’ve done your job; you’ve launched it. Now, let it sail on its own for a while.”

He turns and kisses her, harder. When he releases her she says, “Shew!”

“So,” says Skye. “What’s your loss?”

“My dad. A year ago last week.”

“Give me a couple days to take care of some things. After that, I believe East Hampton will be lovely.”

“Excellent.”

A burst of soprano laughter flies in from the kitchen.

“We’d better rejoin the squad,” says Skye. “Before the rumors begin.”

“Don’t kid yourself. Every fourth person in New York has a rumor about you.”

He follows her across the room, holding both martinis.

“She kissed me quite well, and gave me a shell, that said, For a good time call Chelsea.”

“Ha!” she laughs. “That is goodly awful.”

“I love you too, darling.”

The Opposite of Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He follows her gaze to the driveway.

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah, so you are white with gypsum.”

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

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

“Your kitchen is astounding.”

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

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

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

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

“Can I help you? With the sheetrocking?”

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

“Sure.”

She fills a glass from a European-looking bottle.

“Do you know anything about sheetrocking?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Good. Are you capable of following orders.”

“Yes ma’am.”

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

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

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

“You got it.” He attacks his sandwich.



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

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

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

“So the sheetrocker is king?”

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

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

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

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

“Paint it? Strip it?”

She shoots him a grin. “Smash it!”

“Isn’t that seven years’ bad luck?”

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

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

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

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

“Okay. That’s about right. Go to it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just a little less.”

“Okay.”

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

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

“I apologize for nothing,” says Skye.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Glad to.”

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry.”

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

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

“I wish you could have met him.”

“I wish you could have met Rachel.”

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

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

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

“Hear, hear.”

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Love from Generalissima Contractor

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

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

“The monkey?”

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

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

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

“Gotcha.”

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

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

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

“Better these gloves than your fingers.”

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

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

“Thanks. I practice that.”

“Want some coffee?”

“Yes!”

He finishes up just as she returns with two mugs.

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

“Perfect.”

He takes a sip and follows her to the balcony.

“Sleep well?” she asks.

“Best in months.”

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

“What’s the next step?”

“A long, dramatic kiss.”

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

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

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

“Now those people, they’re cold.”

“And insane.”

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

“Lord knows, we grout well.”

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

“And a girl named Greta.”

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

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

“Thanks.”

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

“It’s time.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Seriously?”

“Absolutely.”

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

“I don’t like the looks of this.”

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

“No, no. Never.”

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

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

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

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

“No, honey. Ditch the trunks.”

He looks up. “Naked?”

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

“Art with a surfboard?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

“You’re kicking me out?”

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

“All right if I wear actual clothing?”

“By all means. Oh, and Skye?”

“Yes?”

“Nice bod.”

“Likewise.”



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

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



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

“Mudding!”

“How cute, he knows the lingo.”

“I pick up what I can.”

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

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

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

Skye snickers. “That is such a line.”

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

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

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

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

“Planning on romantic dinners in your bathroom?”

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

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

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

Hot and Dead

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

“Okay,” he says. “I give up.”

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

“It shows.”

“Thank you. I think.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Holy shit, Carolyn.”

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

“Holy shit, Carolyn.”

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

Carolyn grins. “Fantastic!”



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

“I don’t see it,” says Claudia.

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

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

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

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

“I hope you’re kidding.”

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

“No way!”

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

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

“Nice try.”

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

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

“Yikes. The very idea breaks my heart.”

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

“Hot and dead.”

“A technicality.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t deserve it.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Wow,” says Skye.

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



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

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

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

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

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

Your surfboard misses you. So do I. XXOO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

“That settles it for me,” says Mickey.

“Settles what?” asks Maddie.

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

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

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

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

“Ooh!” says Mickey. “Details?”

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

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

“Which is absolutely true,” says Mickey.

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

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

“This pie is tremendous,” says Skye.

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

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

“Exactly.”



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

“Are you Henrik?”

“Yezz. You are Skye?”

“Yes. You do amazing work, Henrik.”

“Tanks.”

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

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

“Oh, she can be very motivational.”

“Like a dah-mee-nay-trix.”

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

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

Maddie smiles. “Some people think so.”

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

She places her hand in his and he kisses it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m… sorry?”

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

“Um… okay?”

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

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

“Skye!” Maddie meows. “Nice butt.”

“How do they even know that’s me?”

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

“Sure.”

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

“Are you having sex with Chelsea Kormit?”

“No.”

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

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

“The nude photo? Is that you?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

“Extreme focus.”

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Will you make money from her work?”

“Yes.”

“Is that right?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Opening January Second.”

“May I see them?”

“Do you have time?”

“I do now.”

“Okay! Let’s grab a taxi.”



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

“I don’t get it. How do you do this?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Another martini, nudy boy?”

“Why yes, maestro.”

“How’s the conductor doing, diva?”

“A little shit-faced, frankly.”

“Any entertainment for zero hour?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Because she’s Chelsea Kormit.”

“Oh hell. I’ll be in the garden.”

“But it’s snowing!”

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

“It’s my publicist,” says Skye.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you want from me?”

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

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

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

“Don’t.”

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Happy New Year, darling.”

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

“Happy New Year, vegetable queen”

Chelsea sniffles. “Can we dance some more?”

“Sure.”



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

“Happy New Year.”

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

“Yes?”

“I’m going to Colorado.”

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

“Thanks.”

Focus, Focus

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

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

“I’ve never had the sense that she…”

“…magnifications of the Cinderella complex…”

“…occasionally someone with a paycheck?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sandy?”

She rolls her eyes. “Mandy.”

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

“Sigh.”

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

“Oh yeah.”

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

“May I…?”

“Oh, yeah. Sure. Sorry.”

She enters and climbs into an armchair.

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

“White?”

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

“So how are you? How have you…”

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

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

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

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

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

He undoes the sliding door that leads to the balcony.

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

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

“You could have just said no!”

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



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

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

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

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

“Oh, sure. Excuse me, Dr. Espinoza.”

“Certainly.”

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

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

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

“So… why are we doing all of this?”

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

“Sandy?”

“Brandy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s probably for the best.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry. Media…?”

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

She stops to allow Skye a guess.

“Icks?”

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

“Oh! Nine.”

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

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

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



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

“Mandy! Sandy!”

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

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

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

“Not necessary,” says Brandy.

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

Brandy purses her lips. “Proceed.”

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

Mandy smiles. “Thank you.”

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

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

“Okay. You two behave yourselves.”

“You’re leaving?” asks Skye.

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

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

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

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

“You’re definitely different, though.”

“Yep. Brandy’s the boss.”

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

“Oh stop already.”

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

“Are you joking?”

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

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

“Definitely.”

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

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

“Thank you,” he says.

“I had a… good time,” she says.

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



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

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

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

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

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

“You need to leave me alone.”

She gives him a blank look. “Sorry?”

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

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

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

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

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



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

“What’s up?”

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

Sigh blinks thoughtfully. “God, Skye…”

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

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

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

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

“I owe you ten.”

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



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

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

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

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

“Ah. I was raised in Dublin.”

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

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

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

“Are you Skye Pelter?”

“Yes.”

“From San Jose?”

“Sure.”

“A player of the slot machines of Winnemucca?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You see why I love him?”



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

“Day’s over, champ. Gotta close.”

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

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

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

“And it also turned you into a douchebag.”

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

“Hard to believe.”

Skye takes another draught and looks at the scroll.

“Nine. She’s a beauty.”

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

“A femme fatale.”

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

“Oh, I wouldn’t want to keep you.”

“I think it’ll work out okay.”

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

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



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

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

“Yeah. Hard to believe.”

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

“Don’t know. Anonymous.”

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

“I don’t know if I can accept it.”

“Why?”

“I didn’t earn it.”

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

She sprouts wings.

“But it’s your money.”

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

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

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

“Gracias. You know, you look like…”

“Yeah. I get that.”

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

“So what do you want?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t you ever change your ringtone?”

Skye rolls over and grabs his cell.

“Hi Claudia.”

“You got my message?”

“Yep.”

“So what do you think?”

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

“Damn. You sure got a pair.”

“Gracias.”

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

“Jesus.”

“You’re welcome.”

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

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

“Thanks.”

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



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

“I…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’s the ex-wife?” he asks.

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

“Go on!” says Charlie. “Goon?”

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

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

“A holy prick,” says Thad.

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

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

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

“Well hello!”

“So you remember me?”

“Who the hell would not remember you?”

“Aye, so he’s a charmer, too.”

Skye laughs.

“What?”

“You went kinda leprechaun there.”

“Yeah. I do that when I’m flirtin’.”

“So you’re flirting.”

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

“A lass can.”



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

“What’re ya lookin’ at?” she asks.

“Are you a big Bollywood fan?”

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

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

“She looks like you. With clothes.”

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

“So what’s your full name?”

“Chitra Flanagan.”

“Begorrah!”

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

“Ah-hah!”

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

“Seriously.”

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

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

“Pardon?”

“Lately, everybody wants something from me.”

Chitra develops a witchy look, and snaps her fingers.

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

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

“Ask away.”

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

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

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

Manhood Personified

Amtrak is the perfect antidote. He places himself at the mercy of the rails and watches the western United States roll past his window. Also, he naps. His limbs resonate with Chitra, and he fully understands the psychology. The woman who freely invites him to forget her will be the one he remembers. Her image is interrupted only when the train rolls into Glenwood Springs, and he recalls the artful pimping of Sigh, who delivered two sex-dwarves in a single night and is now paying the price. He will have to make it up to him.

The Rockies are thick with snow, but just before Grand Junction the alpine look is replaced by the raw geology of the desert west, hoodoos and buttes framing the rails, their faces etched in white. The swamps and flats of Salt Lake lull him into a half-sleep, and he wakes to a sunrise over Elko, Nevada. He switches on his cell, which buzzes with a text message divided into seven parts. The gist is that the buyer has not only agreed to regular exhibitions, the first of these is to be at the Whitney Museum.

Skye sits through breakfast pretending to listen to his tablemates as his brain spins. He’s returning to his seat when he hears the ten-minute call for Winnemucca, and decides that he needs to get off. He scours his seat for hidden books and gizmos, then yanks his carry-on from the overhead, extracts his rollaway from the downstairs bin and finds himself on the platform, watching the train roll away as he tries to figure out why he has done what he has just done.

A beat-up, baby blue taxi rolls to the curb, and a black man with a large mustache gives him an inquiring look. Skye gets in and waits for some kind of destination to come to his lips.

“Car… rental?”

“Sure. Enterprise okay?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Cause that’s all we got. Ha!”

The drive lasts for exactly one Hank Williams song. They end up on Potato Road, before a neat-looking store and a small lot lined with shiny new cars. Skye musters the requisite social skills to get an SUV and arrange a drop-off at San Jose Airport. He stops at a McDonald’s for driving food, then finds himself on Interstate 80, headed toward Reno. An hour later, he spots the sign for Highway 95 and heads south, though he has no idea why. As he enters the Walker River Indian Reservation, a signal goes off in his head like a tiny Christmas-ornament bell. And then, on his left, a lake.

Walker Lake. This is where it started, where he stood in the arid heat of Nowhere, Nevada and decided to drive across the country. The rocky, flat ridge of mountains to the west, lined with snow. Near the end of the lake, before the road rises to the pass, he spots the turnout and pulls over. The sun lurks just behind the ridge, lighting up the horizon like a hidden lamp. Skye walks to the water’s edge, takes off his jacket, and then his shirt. It’s very cold, but it’s not enough. Off come shoes, socks, pants, boxers until he is naked in the middle of a frozen solitude. Stars begin to seed the darkening sky. He waits for an answer. The answer comes.



When Skye pulls up to Mae’s Pizza, he expects the usual secret-agent rigamarole: the Nat King Cole song, followed by a night at the motel and, hopefully, a morning visit from Bubba. What he gets is Sarge himself, sitting at the bar, taking in a basketball game with a pair of bearded mountain men. He turns, lowers his spectacles and smiles.

“Skye! What the hell.” Sarge clambers down from his stool to offer an embrace.

“Were you just in the neighborhood?”

“I wanted to thank you.”

“Well you’re welcome. What for?”

“For buying Rachel’s scroll.”

“Scroll? Oh, the… um…” He looks around at the mostly deserted bar, then at his two companions. “Gonna take a smoke break, fellas.”

He takes Skye outside. They stand next to a bricky hardware store. Sarge pulls out a cigarette and lights it.

“Subterfuge. I don’t actually smoke the things, but I find that pretending to be a smoker gives you unlimited license to disappear. Now, what are you on about?”

“Did you put in a bid for Rachel’s scroll?”

“I read about that! I’m so proud of that girl. I had no idea she had that in her.”

“Listen, I understand about the anonymous thing. But you can tell me, right?”

Sarge flicks an ash. “I guess I’m a little embarrassed that I didn’t. I didn’t even know it was for sale.”

“It wasn’t. But someone offered three million.”

“Wow!”

“I know. And naturally, I thought it might be you.”

“Nope. You want to come up to the house?”

“Here, let me help you with that.” Skye takes the cigarette and gives it a puff. “Thanks. I don’t know who’s running things today, me or my brain.” He watches a truck come and go down the main drag. “No, I guess I’m going home. A night at the motel, maybe. Just needed to check in with you.”

“Can an undercover billionaire buy ya dinner? You look a little ghostly. And I’m pretty sure you’ve got some stories to tell me. We’ll get a table away from my companions, and we need a cover story. Let’s see, you’re my nephew, from…”

“San Jose?”

“Brilliant! If lacking in imagination. Come, nephew, let’s get you a steak.”



Skye sets the infrared heater on the door and waits, glancing out the window at the buildings stacked like poker chips on Russian Hill. Each of a thousand windows holds a salmon sunset. Maddie emanates from his Kindle, singing bel canto classics.

White smoke rises from the door. Skye grabs the handle, sets the heater on a nearby section, and picks up a triangular scraper. He’s in luck – the paint has lifted like a balloon, and it comes off in a clean swipe. He waits for the next section, for the white smoke, feeling like a cardinal awaiting the selection of a pope.

He’s not really sure why he’s here. For once, he doesn’t need the money. But he finished judging the short story contest and the structureless days were getting on his nerves. He expressed this concern to his friend Joe, who answered, “I have just the right dreadfully boring job for you.”

Joe and his wife, Carye, purchased the apartment above theirs, and Joe is indulging in an engineer’s fantasy: stripping the place to the bones and starting from scratch. One exception is the set of vintage doors he salvaged from the old place. It is Skye’s job to strip them, perfectly and meticulously, a task custom-made for a new millionaire with too much time on his hands.

And just like that, Skye has his structure. He rises in San Jose and spends midday at a coffeehouse in Palo Alto, the latest landing spot of his favorite barista, Courtney. After that, he adjourns to a miniature golf course in Redwood City for a round in the batting cage and a jazz tune in a karaoke recording booth (the song uploads to a website, and he dutifully sends the URL to Sarge). He stops at Joe’s shop in the Bayview district to pick up bundles of floorboards then crawls along Van Ness to Pacific Heights, just in time to watch the day shift (today, a sheetrocking crew) head home.

The thing that surprises him about “Pac Heights” is the sharpness of the class distinctions. After receiving “the look” from several rich residents, he learns to wear a clean set of clothes for parking and walking, waiting till he’s inside to change into his grubbies. It’s almost as if a colony of East Coast elitists have staked out a beachfront on the Pacific. The feeling is seconded by Joe’s neighbors, who react to any stray molecule of drywall as if it were a sign of the apocalypse.

But then, money is on his mind these days. Because he has it. He studies the issue through the lens of gender and comes to the conclusion that women are fucking awful. His history is scattered with females who were intrigued by his career and intellect, but who jumped ship once they figured out his income. (Or worse, stayed on a while to hector him about it.)

Equipped with Sarge’s cash and Rachel’s celebrity, he proceeded to have more sex in six months than in the previous ten years. Certainly, he took full advantage of this new status, but now he is disturbed by its implications. The sale of an artwork for a ridiculously large amount of money is not necessarily headline news, but word has trickled out, and women who previously saw him as an entertaining eunuch are popping out of the woodwork to say hello. A high-school classmate pursuing a post-divorce singing career (previously too busy to manage even a coffee date). The poet who dated him only so she could quiz him about his wealthier best friend. The soprano who goes five years without returning emails, but who turns up when she needs a story written for some piddly-ass newspaper. They appear by the dozens in his email inbox, on his Facebook page, like ads for erectile dysfunction.

Without the starfucker motive, does Chelsea Kormit even talk to him? Does he score a woman like Chitra Flanagan? Does Mandy go all Madama Butterfly when he asks her to lighten up? Who is the real Skye Pelter, and who is the woman who will love him for his true enigmatic essence?

Skye scrapes another section. No inflation this time. He’ll have to go back over the trim with a custom scraper blade that Joe crafted on one of his diabolical machines.

He thinks of Joe and Carye, two well-off professionals who earned their dough at the meritocracy, and his grip on his bitterness begins to loosen. And Delilah/Claudia, the seeming golddigger who turned out to be his shrewdest advisor. Maddalena Hart, who married a man impoverished by divorce because she liked the way he wrote about opera.

And then there’s the curious case of Rachel Grossman and that enormous soul of hers, hollowed out by unspeakable trauma, drawn to a strange man in a club who looked self-assured despite being utterly lost. She fell for the enigmatic essence, was tickled by Plaza Hotel board games but more so by the used bookstores of Manhattan. He worries that he has begun to canonize her. Distance has a way of blurring the imperfections, and he wants her to remain human.

And what of Lindsy Charrish?

“Hey, man, go home already!”

Joe’s thin silhouette appears between stacks of sheetrock and joint compound.

“Have to finish this door.”

“Okay. Just don’t want to disturb the tender sensibilities of my neighbors. Five hours?”

“Yep.”

Joe pulls out a thick envelope and hands him a Benjamin.

“I think you’re turning into a drug dealer.”

Joe indulges a sigh. “Drug lord, home renovator, human ATM, all the same.”

“Hey, well, thanks again for the busywork. I really dig the view.”

“The shower has an awesome view of the bridge.”

“And you tell me that every time I see you.”

“I know! Isn’t it great? Well, late dinner with the wife. Make sure that heater is cooled down before you leave.”

“Gotcha boss.”

Joe fades into the dark rooms like a friendly ghost, splitting the dust cover over the back doorway. The white smoke rises.



Skye has always loved the Peninsula section of Interstate 280, cutting a path between the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Bayside hills. Late afternoons bring banks of fog to peek over the evergreen ridges. Tonight, however, everything’s clear. His mid-point is a daytime vista; in the dark it becomes the perfect spot for a covert pee. He leaves the truck running but cuts the headlights, sending the dirt turnout into darkness and bringing a curtain of stars over the far horizon. He aims a stream at the tail of Scorpius, turns to see late-night semis haunting the long curves of the freeway, the hills rimmed with suburban glow.

Holding on to two or three drams of energy, he cruises into the South Bay and heads for Effie’s, a bar linked to an old-style brunch palace, across the street from a percolation pond. He checks in with bartender Paul, he of the knife-sharp hair and inborne mellowness, and exchanges the expected gossip about their ball teams, the A’s and Giants. He proceeds to Bill, playfully cranky veteran of dance bands going back to the ‘60s, and picks a Sinatra tune to warm up on: “I’ll Be Around,” from the Wee Small Hours album.

As his eyes begin to adjust, he spots Greg Hill, sitting at a low table with a shot and a beer. Greg’s a metal sculptor, so it’s natural that he and Skye have become friends. He sings ‘60s and ‘70s pop, Skye sticks to jazz but they meet at Billy Joel, most specifically “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” They talk incessantly about women, propelled by Greg’s horndog exterior (neatly masking a gentleman’s ethos) and Skye’s need to express his rudest thoughts. Their current dialogue centers on Skye’s six-month disappearance. He tries not to share too much at a time, for fear that Greg will think he’s lost his mind. He arrives at Greg’s table with a hearty handshake.

“Where you been? It’s dead in here.”

“Working in San Francisco again.”

“Hell of a commute.”

“It’s okay. Don’t have to be there till five p.m.”

“Suh-weet! So what’s the deal with you? Any female action?”

“No, thank goodness.”

“Hey! You gotta bring better stuff than that.”

“Burnt out. Cannot figure the motives.”

“Fuck the motives! Focus on the parts.”

“Or just fuck the parts.”

“There! That’s better. Whatever happened to you and Janice? You looked pretty sweet dancing together.”

“Janice is beautiful, stacked, smart, stacked, an elegant dancer, also stacked… and a total fucking drag. Just the thought of the hours I would have to put in before I got her into bed – fucking exhausting.”

Tommy lets out a squealing laugh, sending his thick salt-and-pepper hair into a quiver. “You make excellent points. Whoops! My turn.”

Greg performs his signature, “Walk Away, Renee.” Skye had never paid much attention to the song, but the lyrics revealed by the karaoke screen are terribly sad. Greg’s tenor has a way of flipping into his headtone, a catch in the throat that makes the chorus even sadder. Skye follows with his Sinatra tune, a pledge of fealty from a booted lover that can’t help but conjure the image of Ava Gardner. Both songs are exactly what Skye is trying to get away from, but then, music will do that.

Greg has that rare ability to give fully felt compliments. “Beautiful! Hey, come on out to the parking lot. I’ve got a new one.”

“Cool!”

The bed of Greg’s pickup plays host to a man of metal, five feet tall, assembled from a dazzling array of found parts: butter-knife fingers, limbs fashioned from springs, bolts and rods forming the cradle of a pelvis, and wire-rimmed spectacles lending persona to a jumbled face. He stands with knees slightly bent, a posture that evokes sentences beginning with “Hey, baby…” Greg jars the bumper, sending his creature into a jangling dance.

“That is fucking awesome!” says Skye.

“Really?”

“Manhood personified. I love it!”

Greg smiles and vaults into the bed. “That’s not all.” He reaches into the pelvis, undoes a couple of latches and pulls out some sort of automotive part, a thick copper-colored shaft with a T-shaped base. He flips it around, hitches it to another pair of latches, and Metal Man is now sporting a glorious erection.

“I call him Shwing, after the Wayne’s World thing.”

“That is beautifully nasty.”

“Nothing nasty about sex. Sex is joyous and fun.”

“No argument here. How much are you asking?”

He hops back to the asphalt and clocks his hair back into place. “Well, I figured the hours, and I’m going for five thousand.”

“Stay right there.” Skye jogs to his truck, five spaces down, and digs into his writing case. When he returns, Greg is setting out a pair of spotlights hooked up to the truck’s battery.

“I know it’s goofy, but hey, it’s Sillycon Valley. Some richer-than-God techie might drive by and fall in love. What’s that?”

“That’s a check.”

“Okay, funny joke.”

“It’s good. Put it in the bank.”

Greg’s staring. “You’re serious.”

Skye puts his hands on Greg’s shoulders. “At the end of my epic adventure, I fell in love, and then I lost her, and somehow because of that I came into a shitload of money. And you know what I always said.”

Greg stares at the check. “When you hit it big, you’re going to buy one of my pieces.” He looks back to Skye. “Hey, I’m… I’m sorry about your loss.”

“Thanks. I’ll fill in the details someday.”

Greg breaks into a smile. “But I’m not sorry about this check! I am buying you a drink.”

“Can I finish my first drink?”

“No.”

They head back inside, where someone is absolutely slaughtering “Turn the Page.”

Solar Plexus

Skye removes the plastic shield from his face and gives it a wipe. Geronimo hands him a pink rectangle.

“You take a picture? I want my wife to see.”

“Oh! Yeah, sure.”

Geronimo stands with the paint sprayer and smiles.

“Okay – action shot!”

Geronimo attacks the wall. Skye snaps off a couple more and finds a safe place to stash the camera. He returns to the shield, which is largely a lost cause. He has spent the morning covering Joe’s apartment in primer, and the ceilings are killing him, raining a mist of white onto his head. He’s annoyed at everything: the uneven spray, the sweat building up in his bunny suit, having to stay overnight and wake at eight to beat the building’s nine-to-five noise window.

The only positive is Geronimo. Joe picked him out of a crowd of dayworkers, basing his choice mostly on personality. Geronimo is a short, square dynamo, delighted at each new task, crafty in problem-solving, and eager to please.

None of which, for Skye, is helping. He was so enjoying the solitude of paint-stripping, and the obligation of managing an assistant is chewing at his innards. What started out as a time-filler has turned into a chore, and the only reason he’s still here is a desire to see Joe finish his new home. They day before, he found himself lugging heavy boxes of tiling, back aching, arms failing, thinking, What the hell am I doing?

When they reach the end of the final wall, Skye discovers that the too-small bunny suit has developed a lengthy rip over his crotch. He takes great relish in ripping it from his body like a tearaway suit. Joe returns from the front room, looking concerned.

“It’s not really covering. Why don’t you take a lunch, and then we’ll put on a second coat.”

Skye feels the marrow draining from his bones. “Joe, I have to leave. I am utterly burnt out.”

Joe looks disappointed, but seems to realize that it’s a reasonable request.

“Okay. I’ll take the afternoon shift. Why don’t you go downstairs and shower up?”

“Thanks.”

Skye places his sweaty work clothes in a bag and steps gratefully into the spray of the shower. He comes back out a new man, towels off and heads for the guest room. Given the changeable nature of San Francisco weather and Joe’s work schedule, Skye packed quite a bit of clothing, and he realizes that he could, ostensibly, take off on a road trip. Right now.



He takes the new Bay Bridge to Oakland, its single tower spooling out white cables like some kind of carnival ride. Feeling the onset of rush hour at his heels, he cuts across the East Bay to Martinez, where he crosses the yawning mouth of the Sacramento River on the Benicia Bridge. For Skye, whose escapes tend to the north, the Benicia’s long, low arch is the gateway to freedom. Just beyond the turnoff to Napa, he pulls into a fast food place and proceeds to fall asleep in the parking lot. He wakes up an indeterminate amount of time later and gets back on the freeway, dining on cold fries and a watery Coke. Next are the long, lonely stretches of 505, a farmland connector between Vacaville and I-5. The sun approaches the westward mountains, casting the endless fields in tangerine, and loosing a million bugs to flicker their last on his windshield.

An hour later, he passes the Sutter Buttes, the weirdly misplaced volcanic mountains plopped into the middle of the Sacramento Valley (called by some the smallest mountain range in the world). What’s more notable is what’s going on behind it, a sliver of pumpkin peeking over the far Sierras. Skye recalls his latest purchase, a tiny but powerful rectangle of Nikon camera in his writing case. He pulls off on a farm road and braces his arms on the top of his truck, pushing the zoom as far as he can. The results are excellent, the Buttes cutting a jagged silhouette in the foreground.

Another hour and he stops in Corning, pulling into the sprawling parking lot of the Rolling Hills Casino. He strolls the fields of slots, looking for something amusing, but the machines have all grown new complexities, so he settles for one that features African jewelry. The combinations are as enigmatic as sudoku, but it seems that a certain combination triggers an extra cycle of rearrangements. He’s playing at a satisfactory break-even pace when this extra level kicks in and keeps going, till he’s staring at a full screen of tribal chieftains and a flashing message that reads BIG JACKPOT! In short, a hundred dollars on a nickel play. As opposed to most gamblers he knows, he takes this as a good time to cash out.

Skye takes his winnings to a straggling little bar in the back, offering a full menu with its cocktails. He sits at a table beneath a television and orders a crème brulee, which arrives with Jackson Pollock syrup squiggles all across the plate.

He takes a spiral notebook and a pen from his writing case and sits there a while, savoring the custard, considering the beginnings of things.

Skye pushes uphill, planting his steps, kicking at rocks, his temple covered in sweat. He passes a gaggle of vacationers at their houseboat barbecue, laughing their heads off.

He works his way up to the meeting with Sarge, but stops before he gets to the hazardous ride with Bubba. To write that will take some energy, and it’s time to hit the road.

Skye’s modus operandi is to drive until the drowsiness kicks in. At times, the energy lasts all night. Others, he gets eyeblink hazy before ten miles. But he does have a destination in mind: the first rest area at Shasta Lake, which offers the waking traveler a bracing view of the reservoir and a smattering of tree-shaded picnic tables. He glides through the sleepy lights of Redding, makes the long climb up Mountain Gate, and is soon at his destination, teeth brushed, grocery bags screening his windows, ready to sleep.

But he can’t. Some devilish mixture of fucked-up circadians, road fever and his truck’s narrow bench seat has him conducting an endless progression of poses: feet on the floor, feet under the steering wheel, reclined in the passenger seat, head tucked against the door. And he cannot sleep. After an hour, he gives up, takes down the screens, cranks the engine and drives north, crossing the long bridge over the lake, a moontrail striping the water like a crosswalk.

This time, the goal is Mt. Shasta. As he spots the white flanks, as the sharp triangle of the Black Butte cinder cone looms ahead, something remarkable happens. An enormous stormcloud leads a front in from the north, and the impending dawn paints the underside in streaks of purple and ochre. He loses sight of it as he rounds the Butte into Weed and the high desert beyond. When he pulls into a rest area next to the Weed Airport, the sky is on fire.

Now, his body wants to sleep, but sleep is out of the question. The cloud is an airship tethered above the ridges north of Shasta, aflame with maroons, mandarins, bronze, lemon, copper. Skye digs for his camera, stands on a rock and shoots over the airfield fence, hardly believing that what he’s recording is real. He turns around, if only to rest his eyes, and finds burly gray clouds fringed in cabernet, merlot, burgundy, zinfandel, the kind of scene backing angelic choirs in baroque paintings. Across the highway, hovering over a semi, is something he’s never seen, a pre-dawn rainbow. A Mexican woman passes him. He says, “Have you ever seen anything like this?” She smiles as if to say Yes, she has.

He returns to the airstrip and takes a shot with a plane in the foreground, its nose aimed at the spectacle. The mother cloud shifts in the high winds, tucking smaller clouds against its belly like a spaceship retracting its landing gear. The sun slips its yellow eye over the mountains. Skye takes one last photo and heads to his truck for a much-needed nap.



At noon, Skye attains some semblance of wakefulness and climbs the Siskiyous. He descends to a Black Bear diner in Medford, Oregon, walks past a dozen post-church families in the lobby and seats himself at the counter. Ah, the privileges of the single class. He orders the New York steak and eggs and walks into the rain a very full man.

Skye stops at the Seven Feathers Casino in Canyonville and shuns the gambling entirely, taking a latte to the lobby to work on the next section of his memoir. It’s the ride with Bubba, and he keeps laughing at his own descriptions, which he takes as a good sign.

As his pen arrives at the Springs, his cell rings in with a voicemail. It’s Claudia.

“Skye! I just got the weirdest thing. It’s your check for two hundred grand to the East Village Women’s Shelter. There’s a note, female writing. And I quote: ‘Thank you for your generous donation. As the scroll will be used to raise funds for the shelter, however, we felt that your gift would be somewhat redundant. Thank you again for your interest in our cause.’ No signature. But I’m betting you can guess who our anonymous buyer is. Call me if you want, ya rich bastard.”

Chelsea. The news stays with all through Southwest Oregon, which he’s always thought of as Ireland with mountains: green, bucolic, one grass valley after another, framed by evergreen ridges. During his years in Seattle, he joked that he lived in Washington as an excuse to drive through Oregon. He’s a little relieved when he departs the climbs and curves for the broad farmlands north of Eugene. The views to the east are perfect portrait landscapes, receding foothills covered in lush grass, volcanic outcroppings, lines of evergreens suddenly cut off, the signature of logging. A light rain speckles his windshield. He digs into the glove box for a cigar and lights up. A red-tailed hawk perches on a fencepost, giving him the eye. A broad, flat field opens up on the left, sheep grazing in scattered cliques. A front of clouds rises up over the coastal range.

His meditation comes to a stop at the onset of urban territories – the active, populous northwest corner of the state. The thickening traffic combines with his wounded sleep-cycle to call for a halt to the day’s driving.

A brown sign piques his interest, but he passes it too quickly to figure out why. A few miles later, he sees a sign more germane to his situation – Motel 6 – and pulls over into Salem.

He takes a long soak in the odd triangular bathtub, dries off, and sits on the edge of the bed to consider his temptations: 25 cable channels, a coaster ad for pizza delivery, fluffy-looking pillows. But he knows it’s a trap. He needs to go out and work himself back to a normal bedtime. He powers up his Kindle and searches for a coffeehouse: Broadway Coffee, a mere three miles away.

Just north of the downtown strip, the Broadway occupies the lobby of a former office building. The room is huge, furnished with a fireplace, leather armchairs, couches, a dozen tables and an espresso counter of blondewood cabinets and stainless steel machinery. When the clean-cut barista hands him a latte with a classic rosetta poured into the foam, he nearly breaks into tears.

“You don’t know! I lived in Seattle for five years and then moved back to California, and down there, a latte like this is like spotting a bald eagle in a shopping mall.”

“I’m glad you like it,” he says. “Still, I think you’re going to have to drink it.”

“Oh I will.” Skye shakes little curtains of cocoa around the rosetta, then looks skyward and realizes that the coffeehouse has an open-air second level. And a third. It’s a freakin’ tabernacle of coffee. He takes out his notebook and pen, ventures a sip – the rough-bark edge of the infused foam – and watches the tip of his pen as it lowers to the white.

Two hours later, he stops. He has heard of this time-tunnel effect from fiction writers, but has always ascribed it to overactive imaginations. With journalism, one is forever tethered to structure, word count and the regular interruptions of quote- and fact-checking. He credits most of this particular two-hour wormhole to the Springs, which conjures such vivid images that they fly from his pen in rapids of blue ink. And then the departure, the stealth truck, that moment at Walker Lake. He stops, finally, as his alter-ego walks into the casino at Winnemucca. He suspects that Lindsy would lead him into another time-tunnel, so it’s best to take a rest and enjoy the comforts of his motel room.

Lindsy. Lindsy. Her name knocks at his door until he receives a vision. The brown sign on I-5. The sign that said Silverton.

He fires up his Kindle and looks for Thad’s email address.



Skye sets out the next morning and enters road construction hell. He follows the detour signs for five miles and finds himself back at the Motel 6. Finally, he heads south on I-5, U-turns on an overpass and looks for the brown sign, which leads him onto eastward 213. Still, he feels nervous that the housing tracts are going on for so long, until he tops a rise and finds a spread of rolling farmlands. After a seeming eternity, he enters Silverton, which offers a classic downtown of early-century buildings with ambitious ornaments and old-school storefronts. The fire hydrants are painted in red, white and blue; or baby blue with white clouds, or the black and white spots of a Holstein cow. A sign sits atop a grassy knoll, offering a greeting to Friendly Silverton. The lampposts carry small banners for the Oregon Garden and Silver Falls State Park.

Just past the final store, Skye spots Oak Street and turns right. He finds an address to the left and pulls in at a petite yellow square of house. The gutters and drainpipes are painted white, giving the place a crisp look, and the flowerbeds under the windows offer stalks of lavender and bushes of rosemary. The smell is terrific. He’s halfway up the walk when a plump, friendly-looking redhead pops from the front door.

“Oh! I’m so glad you’re here. The washer is in the garage. It’s the spin cycle again. It’s rocking like crazy, and… Damn. You’re not the repairman, are you?”

Skye tries not to laugh. “No. I’m a friend of Lindsy’s.”

The smile sinks a little. “What sort of friend?”

Skye hesitates, trying to think of some kind of definer for himself. “Did she mention a trip to Hawaii?”

The smile returns. “Skye! Oh Lord did she tell me about you. Sorry, we’re old college friends, so I probably have a lot of information that I shouldn’t have. I’m sure she’ll be happy to see you! But she’s at work right now. She gets back about eight.”

“Where does she work?”

“Oh, um, she works at Silver Falls.”

“All right. How does one get to Silver Falls?”

“Well, head back through town, and just before you reach the end of the main drag, you’ll see a sign telling you to turn left. Fifteen miles later, you will be among the descending waters.”

“Must be a nice park.”

“You have no idea. But I don’t want to spoil the surprise. You’ll see.”

“Thanks. Hopefully, I will see you later.”

“Yes. I hope so.”

Skye returns to his truck, feeling Kathy’s eyes on several parts of his anatomy. He’s happy to be getting such good reviews.



He gets the directions right and ends up on a winding road that passes several farms and climbs a wooded hill. None of it looks like state park material but soon he downhills into a grove of clean-looking evergreens and spots the familiar yellow-on-brown signs of parkdom. The first announces a parking lot for the North Falls, but he senses he’s looking for something a little more central.

The evergreens grow thicker, and he follows the road through a series of long curves. He sees a sign for Silver Falls Lodge and pulls in to a series of long, empty lots. He parks at the very end, among a dozen other cars, and walks to a kiosk hosting a large map and a description of the park. The most arresting line is the one promising “ten waterfalls in eight miles,” which seems preposterous. But Skye has a blonde to locate, so he rounds a corner past the lodge – workers setting up tables for the lunch crowd – and heads for a gift shop housed in a woodsy cabin. Off to his left, he sees what looks like a canyon rim and hears the sound of rushing water.

The shop smells amazing, and he quickly discovers why: a display of handmade soaps in bay rum, eucalyptus, green tea and linden. The rest of the store offers photo-cards, refrigerator magnets, walking sticks, collectible shot glasses and anything else you could slap a waterfall on. Skye heads for the front counter, where a tall, vaguely effeminate man rings up an order for an elderly woman.

“Thanks,” he says, and hands over the change. “Whew! Two customers in a row. This must be my rush.”

“Hi. Is Lindsy around?”

“Oh! You know… Oh. Wait a minute.” He reaches for a slip of paper under the register, checks it, then smiles. “Okay. You pass. I feel very guilty, actually, because I sent Lindsy out on trail-trash patrol. Ha! Sounds like ‘trailer trash,’ doesn’t it? Anyway, she left about an hour ago.”

“Why guilty?”

“Oh, I cranked my ankle yesterday, so she had to cover for me. Plus, it’s Monday and the weekend tourists have probably left a veritable ticker-tape parade out there.”

“Do you know when she’ll be back?”

“Oh, um… maybe four hours.”

“Shit! Do you think I could catch her?”

“Sure. She’s picking up trash, you’re not. Here’s a trail map. Just start at the South Falls out yonder and continue along this loop. And I know you’re eager to find Lindsy – who wouldn’t be? – but do be sure and actually look at the waterfalls. They’re quite… Wait a minute. Are you Skye?”

“Well, yes.”

“Oh my God! The sighs that girl has released on your behalf. Well go! Go get her. Here, have some trail mix, and a bottle of water.”

“Oh, you don’t…”

“Oh yes I do! All that sighing is driving me nuts. Now go! Out of my shop.”

Skye leaves laughing and heads for the South Falls, a downhill right, a downhill left into the semicircular end of a canyon. Above him, a slender stream of water drops 177 feet from the rim into a pool below. As he paces forward, he realizes that the trail cuts behind the falls, and remembers a bit of info from the kiosk. The land hereabouts is composed of volcanic flows of basalt over sedimentary rock. The rivers have eroded the softer sedimentary but caused little damage to the basalt, creating overhanging falls. During the Depression, workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps cut the indentations deeper to make for safer hiking. Skye can see the cuts in the wall next to the trail, the telltale work of humans with picks and grinders. He pauses behind the falls to marvel at the white veil and snaps a photo for future reference.

He continues along the south fork of Silver Creek, then climbs a low rise into the woods. He begins to hear the rush of water again, and finds a series of large stone steps heading downhill, equipped with a handrail made of pipes. A middle-aged Hispanic woman stops to rest, wiping her brow and smiling.

“I knew I would pay for all those downhills.”

“You’re almost there,” he says.

“Good.”

The steps take a rightward switchback and head toward a waterfall with a stately air, a massive block of black stone. This is Lower South Falls. A curtain of water slips from the straight-line top, 30 feet across, falls 93 feet and strikes a zig-zag rockface below, creating a web of white ribbons. Skye snaps a shot of this landing spot and walks behind the water, enjoying the feel of the mist on his face. He continues up the far side.

Skye passes a family with two young boys, happy to run rings around a Douglas fir. The adults give Skye weary smiles. He rises into the forest, away from the water, then enters a straight-shot tunnel through the undergrowth. He stops to take a close-up of the lush clover at the side of the trail.

As near as the map can tell him, he has just gone from walking down the south fork to walking up the north fork. The rise is subtle, but he begins to feel all the weeks of work at Joe’s in his legs and feet.

Drake Falls is a thirty-foot waterslide over a smooth bank of rock, Middle North Falls a slim, 106-foot sister to South Falls. Its trail cuts behind and far past the water, offering 180 degrees of photo angles, and also comes breathlessly close to the landing spot, giving a sense of the water’s power as it gathers speed and pounds onto its basalt anvil.

Twin Falls is roped off with thick metal cables, and Skye can’t even get within sight of it. The trail begins to steepen, and he decides it’s time to break into his water bottle. He mentally whips his legs forward, ever uphill, with nary a glimpse of a sexy ranger. He does, however, come upon a step in the stream that affords a trio of charming three-foot funnels. Even at the risk of forestalling his reunion, he ventures out on a ring of stones to get just the right angle.

He takes a deep breath and keeps pushing upward (reminding himself of the now-historic trek at Lake Tahoe), evergreens rising steeply to either side. A mile on, he’s about to give up on further waterfalls when he turns a corner and sees a large stripe of water dropping right out of the forest like a fairy spigot.

The vision becomes even more unlikely as he draws near. The spout pours over the lip of an overhang and drops 136 feet, landing in a small pool. What makes the falls (the North Falls) even more astonishing is the cave behind it, perhaps fifty feet deep. Skye follows a trail along the back wall – marked, again, with CCC notches – and settles on a bench directly behind the falls. It seems like the work of an illusionist, a thick column of water floating there between the actions of dropping and landing.

This would be the magic place, the place to catch up with Lindsy, a mystical cave echoing with water-rush, the air sparkling with vapor. But there isn’t a human in sight. He gets up, ignores the fatigue in his legs and continues to the far side. The ceiling of the cave carries the shape of a boomerang, the falls carving a notch at the elbow.

After an upward switchback, Skye spots the stream leading to the falls, and the spot where it disappears. He wonders how many foolish people have ventured out to take a look. A few minutes later, he hears the swoosh of a passing car and sees the North Falls parking lot, the one he drove past earlier. The rest of the loop trail is an overland return, devoid of waterfalls.

He’s disappointed, but he’s also tremendously thirsty, and delighted when he climbs the steps to the lot and spots a water fountain. After taking a long draught and filling his bottle, he returns to the trail. He’s about to head back toward the lodge when he spots a sign: Upper North Falls .6 mi. This brings two thoughts: one, that early Oregonians were not very imaginative when it came to naming waterfalls, and two, that if there was one more fall, a half-mile was a small price to see it. He follows the sign and crosses under the roadway to a level, well-tended path that follows the creek.

A few minutes on, he catches a glimpse of the falls in the far distance, and is intrigued by what he sees. He seems to have developed a waterfall aesthetic, just today, and this one matches up nicely. One long bend later, he gets the picture. The Upper North is a modest 65 feet in height. The stream is twenty feet wide, and freefalls over a table-like lip before splashing onto a jumble of basalt Buddha bellies. The water continues in a quartet of white stripes and drops into a surprisingly broad and dark pool. It reminds Skye of those waterfalls in commercials about Hawaii, and the connection is far from random – the darkness of the pool undoubtedly comes from the black volcanic rocks below. Adding to the charm is a higher ring of those same rocks, rising just above the water to create a sort of poolside patio. The ring begins at the center of the exiting stream and continues to a wall of rock at the right, next to the naked woman.

Spooked, Skye ducks behind a moss-covered log. When he peeks through an adjoining bush and discovers that he was not hallucinating, he reaches for his camera and ramps up the zoom lens. (He can’t recall if the shutter makes a noise, but at least he’ll get one shot before he’s found out.) The woman wades knee-deep into the pool (quite a feat, considering it’s basically snowmelt), scoops a double handful of water and splashes it over her blonde hair. Rivulets run the white skin of her back and over her generous buttocks. She webs her fingers together and stretches her hands over her head in a yoga-like maneuver. Skye clicks away as quickly as the camera allows, elated that he has gone undetected.

The woman turns to reveal a generous pair of breasts, bobbing with her movements. Skye zooms closer. When he finally moves up to her face, he finds a pair of eyes the color of the water at Hapuna Beach.

“Are you going to join me or what?”

He laughs and stands up. “I’m not done!” He keeps clicking, two feet closer with each shot, until she meets him at the edge of the basalt patio. He takes her wet body in his arms and does his best to warm her up. He kisses her for a full minute, then he breaks into laughter.

“You set me up.”

“Damn right I did. Kathy texted me that you were coming. I’ve been looking over my shoulder all afternoon, so if there’s trash on the trail it’s your fault.”

“You definitely know how to make an impression.”

“More of this,” she says, and kisses him. “More.”

After a few more minutes of reunion, Lindsy dons her olive drab uniform, slings a canvas garbage sack over her shoulder and leads him to the rim trail. For the first half hour, Skye is too overwhelmed by sensations to talk: Lindsy’s hand in his, the sharp smell of cedar, the lowering sun silhouetting a criss-cross of mossy branches. After a while, he recalls an important piece of information.

“Your ex-husband says hello.”

Lindsy’s cartoon eyes grow even rounder. “You met Thad?”

“And his lover.”

She shoves his shoulder, nearly knocking him over. “No!”

“I was speaking at an art opening in Boulder.”

“Whatever for?”

Skye considers the significance of this question. She doesn’t know. These two words comprise a thing of such beauty that he decides to preserve it a little bit longer.

“I was on a panel of art critics.”

“Oh. I didn’t know you wrote about art. I mean, visual.”

“Just enough to not really know what I’m doing. Anyway, Thad’s boyfriend, Charlie, is a remarkably understanding man, and very caring.”

“Good. That’s very good.”

He hears a note of sadness and gets her to stop, on a wide spread of trail.

“What’s the matter?”

She wipes at a tear and drops her bag. “I didn’t… do as well as Thad. Typical mistake, walking fucking cliché, actually. I overcompensated for the effeminate Thad by finding a macho douchebag named Eli. Jealous type. Actually punched out a guy at a restaurant for looking at me. Forbade me from leaving the house without him. It was getting a little scary. I was telling Kathy about it one night, and she invited me to live with her. Eli went to work the next day, and I left. I would have loved to see the look on his face when he got home.”

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“Don’t be. Look where it led me.”

“You make a good point.” He picks up her sack, and they continue their walk. The path comes to a paved walkway near the road. A pair of bicyclists churn past, looking winded.

“So I guess you’ve had some adventures,” she says.

Skye laughs. “I could write a book. In fact, I am.”

“That’s great! I will be your first reader.”

“Okay.”

She reads the hesitation in his answer. “Were some of those adventures… romantic?”

“Oh, well, I…”

“It’s okay, Skye. How could I hold it against you? What with all my nonsense.”

“Yes, romance. One, especially.”

“What happened?”

“She left me.”

“I’m sorry,” she says, then laughs. “But not too sorry.”

He squeezes her hand. They walk another hundred feet.

“So, if you don’t mind my asking, what brought you… here?”

He stops, takes her hand and places it at the bottom of his ribcage.

“Your stomach? You were hungry?”

“No,” he laughs. “Solar plexus. The very center. It’s actually a network of nerves that shoot out like rays. That’s why they call it solar. The way that people usually pursue lovers is to list all of their qualities, like an inventory sheet, to see if they add up to a winning lottery ticket. I could do that with you. Quirky sense of humor, amazing knockers, killer smile, sharp as a tack, eyes the color of the water at Hapuna Beach.”

She winces, as if this last one has pierced her.

“But that’s not what happened. I came here because my solar plexus led me here, because I’m the moon and you’re the Earth. Not ‘Lindsy’s cute’ or ‘Lindsy cries at movies’ or ‘Lindsy’s a demon in the sack,’ but for no particular reason at all or because, behind all the mathematics lies the base axiom that I seem to love Lindsy Charrish.”

This last phrase surprises them both. He stops, she stops, and they stare at each other.

“I’m sorry, I…”

“I love you, too,” she says, and smiles.

That shuts them up for a long time. They walk slowly. A trio of cars swoops past in a tight convoy. The sun disappears over the western hills. Skye hums a few bars of “Nature Boy.” They reach the long parking lots and work their way to the gift shop. Everything’s dark and closed up, but Lindsy discovers a key taped to the door.

“How sweet!”

“What is it?”

She holds it to her lips and smiles. “Francis left me the key to the honeymoon cabin. Running water and everything! Come on.”

They cross a wide lawn lorded over by a Douglas fir. The topmost branches form a spiked silhouette against the sky, a blanket of clouds painted white by a hidden moon.

“I’m flattered that your friends seem to know so much about me.”

She stops, looks into his face and starts to cry. Skye draws her in, looking past her to see a cloaked figure on a low branch. The figure sprouts wings and sails away toward the lodge. A great horned owl.

“Lindsy? What’s the matter?”

She pulls back, her eyes brimming. “I thought you would never get here.”

She buries her face against his chest and goes on weeping. Her song climbs his ribcage and brings a smile to his lips.