Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Exit Wonderland, Chapter Seven: Olivine

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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.”
 
 
Photo by MJV

Monday, December 15, 2014

Exit Wonderland, Chapter Six: Infinity Edges


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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.


Photo by MJV

Friday, December 12, 2014

Exit Wonderland, Chapter Five: Aquamarine


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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.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Exit Wonderland, Chapter Four: Renegade Rooster

FREE, Dec. 8 at Amazon.com 



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.


Photo by MJV

Friday, December 5, 2014

Exit Wonderland, Chapter Three: Jingly Thunder

Buy the Kindle ebook at Amazon.com 



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.



Photo by MJV
 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Exit Wonderland, Chapter Two: One Weird Thing After Another

Buy the Kindle ebook at Amazon.com


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.