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.
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.
“Oh. Hi. This is Skye Pelter.”
“Skye! Sarge said you might call. Did you want to come up?”
“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.”
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
“And your second trumpet?”
“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.
“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.”
“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.’”
“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.
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?”
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.”
Andorra returns from whence she came. Skye sips at his smoothie and gives it a curious look.
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.
Photo by MJV