Amtrak is the perfect antidote. He places himself at the mercy of the rails and watches the western United States roll past his window. Also, he naps. His limbs resonate with Chitra, and he fully understands the psychology. The woman who freely invites him to forget her will be the one he remembers. Her image is interrupted only when the train rolls into Glenwood Springs, and he recalls the artful pimping of Sigh, who delivered two sex-dwarves in a single night and is now paying the price. He will have to make it up to him.
The Rockies are thick with snow, but just before Grand Junction the alpine look is replaced by the raw geology of the desert west, hoodoos and buttes framing the rails, their faces etched in white. The swamps and flats of Salt Lake lull him into a half-sleep, and he wakes to a sunrise over Elko, Nevada. He switches on his cell, which buzzes with a text message divided into seven parts. The gist is that the buyer has not only agreed to regular exhibitions, the first of these is to be at the Whitney Museum.
Skye sits through breakfast pretending to listen to his tablemates as his brain spins. He’s returning to his seat when he hears the ten-minute call for Winnemucca, and decides that he needs to get off. He scours his seat for hidden books and gizmos, then yanks his carry-on from the overhead, extracts his rollaway from the downstairs bin and finds himself on the platform, watching the train roll away as he tries to figure out why he has done what he has just done.
A beat-up, baby blue taxi rolls to the curb, and a black man with a large mustache gives him an inquiring look. Skye gets in and waits for some kind of destination to come to his lips.
“Sure. Enterprise okay?”
“Good. Cause that’s all we got. Ha!”
The drive lasts for exactly one Hank Williams song. They end up on Potato Road, before a neat-looking store and a small lot lined with shiny new cars. Skye musters the requisite social skills to get an SUV and arrange a drop-off at San Jose Airport. He stops at a McDonald’s for driving food, then finds himself on Interstate 80, headed toward Reno. An hour later, he spots the sign for Highway 95 and heads south, though he has no idea why. As he enters the Walker River Indian Reservation, a signal goes off in his head like a tiny Christmas-ornament bell. And then, on his left, a lake.
Walker Lake. This is where it started, where he stood in the arid heat of Nowhere, Nevada and decided to drive across the country. The rocky, flat ridge of mountains to the west, lined with snow. Near the end of the lake, before the road rises to the pass, he spots the turnout and pulls over. The sun lurks just behind the ridge, lighting up the horizon like a hidden lamp. Skye walks to the water’s edge, takes off his jacket, and then his shirt. It’s very cold, but it’s not enough. Off come shoes, socks, pants, boxers until he is naked in the middle of a frozen solitude. Stars begin to seed the darkening sky. He waits for an answer. The answer comes.
When Skye pulls up to Mae’s Pizza, he expects the usual secret-agent rigamarole: the Nat King Cole song, followed by a night at the motel and, hopefully, a morning visit from Bubba. What he gets is Sarge himself, sitting at the bar, taking in a basketball game with a pair of bearded mountain men. He turns, lowers his spectacles and smiles.
“Skye! What the hell.” Sarge clambers down from his stool to offer an embrace.
“Were you just in the neighborhood?”
“I wanted to thank you.”
“Well you’re welcome. What for?”
“For buying Rachel’s scroll.”
“Scroll? Oh, the… um…” He looks around at the mostly deserted bar, then at his two companions. “Gonna take a smoke break, fellas.”
He takes Skye outside. They stand next to a bricky hardware store. Sarge pulls out a cigarette and lights it.
“Subterfuge. I don’t actually smoke the things, but I find that pretending to be a smoker gives you unlimited license to disappear. Now, what are you on about?”
“Did you put in a bid for Rachel’s scroll?”
“I read about that! I’m so proud of that girl. I had no idea she had that in her.”
“Listen, I understand about the anonymous thing. But you can tell me, right?”
Sarge flicks an ash. “I guess I’m a little embarrassed that I didn’t. I didn’t even know it was for sale.”
“It wasn’t. But someone offered three million.”
“I know. And naturally, I thought it might be you.”
“Nope. You want to come up to the house?”
“Here, let me help you with that.” Skye takes the cigarette and gives it a puff. “Thanks. I don’t know who’s running things today, me or my brain.” He watches a truck come and go down the main drag. “No, I guess I’m going home. A night at the motel, maybe. Just needed to check in with you.”
“Can an undercover billionaire buy ya dinner? You look a little ghostly. And I’m pretty sure you’ve got some stories to tell me. We’ll get a table away from my companions, and we need a cover story. Let’s see, you’re my nephew, from…”
“Brilliant! If lacking in imagination. Come, nephew, let’s get you a steak.”
Skye sets the infrared heater on the door and waits, glancing out the window at the buildings stacked like poker chips on Russian Hill. Each of a thousand windows holds a salmon sunset. Maddie emanates from his Kindle, singing bel canto classics.
White smoke rises from the door. Skye grabs the handle, sets the heater on a nearby section, and picks up a triangular scraper. He’s in luck – the paint has lifted like a balloon, and it comes off in a clean swipe. He waits for the next section, for the white smoke, feeling like a cardinal awaiting the selection of a pope.
He’s not really sure why he’s here. For once, he doesn’t need the money. But he finished judging the short story contest and the structureless days were getting on his nerves. He expressed this concern to his friend Joe, who answered, “I have just the right dreadfully boring job for you.”
Joe and his wife, Carye, purchased the apartment above theirs, and Joe is indulging in an engineer’s fantasy: stripping the place to the bones and starting from scratch. One exception is the set of vintage doors he salvaged from the old place. It is Skye’s job to strip them, perfectly and meticulously, a task custom-made for a new millionaire with too much time on his hands.
And just like that, Skye has his structure. He rises in San Jose and spends midday at a coffeehouse in Palo Alto, the latest landing spot of his favorite barista, Courtney. After that, he adjourns to a miniature golf course in Redwood City for a round in the batting cage and a jazz tune in a karaoke recording booth (the song uploads to a website, and he dutifully sends the URL to Sarge). He stops at Joe’s shop in the Bayview district to pick up bundles of floorboards then crawls along Van Ness to Pacific Heights, just in time to watch the day shift (today, a sheetrocking crew) head home.
The thing that surprises him about “Pac Heights” is the sharpness of the class distinctions. After receiving “the look” from several rich residents, he learns to wear a clean set of clothes for parking and walking, waiting till he’s inside to change into his grubbies. It’s almost as if a colony of East Coast elitists have staked out a beachfront on the Pacific. The feeling is seconded by Joe’s neighbors, who react to any stray molecule of drywall as if it were a sign of the apocalypse.
But then, money is on his mind these days. Because he has it. He studies the issue through the lens of gender and comes to the conclusion that women are fucking awful. His history is scattered with females who were intrigued by his career and intellect, but who jumped ship once they figured out his income. (Or worse, stayed on a while to hector him about it.)
Equipped with Sarge’s cash and Rachel’s celebrity, he proceeded to have more sex in six months than in the previous ten years. Certainly, he took full advantage of this new status, but now he is disturbed by its implications. The sale of an artwork for a ridiculously large amount of money is not necessarily headline news, but word has trickled out, and women who previously saw him as an entertaining eunuch are popping out of the woodwork to say hello. A high-school classmate pursuing a post-divorce singing career (previously too busy to manage even a coffee date). The poet who dated him only so she could quiz him about his wealthier best friend. The soprano who goes five years without returning emails, but who turns up when she needs a story written for some piddly-ass newspaper. They appear by the dozens in his email inbox, on his Facebook page, like ads for erectile dysfunction.
Without the starfucker motive, does Chelsea Kormit even talk to him? Does he score a woman like Chitra Flanagan? Does Mandy go all Madama Butterfly when he asks her to lighten up? Who is the real Skye Pelter, and who is the woman who will love him for his true enigmatic essence?
Skye scrapes another section. No inflation this time. He’ll have to go back over the trim with a custom scraper blade that Joe crafted on one of his diabolical machines.
He thinks of Joe and Carye, two well-off professionals who earned their dough at the meritocracy, and his grip on his bitterness begins to loosen. And Delilah/Claudia, the seeming golddigger who turned out to be his shrewdest advisor. Maddalena Hart, who married a man impoverished by divorce because she liked the way he wrote about opera.
And then there’s the curious case of Rachel Grossman and that enormous soul of hers, hollowed out by unspeakable trauma, drawn to a strange man in a club who looked self-assured despite being utterly lost. She fell for the enigmatic essence, was tickled by Plaza Hotel board games but more so by the used bookstores of Manhattan. He worries that he has begun to canonize her. Distance has a way of blurring the imperfections, and he wants her to remain human.
And what of Lindsy Charrish?
“Hey, man, go home already!”
Joe’s thin silhouette appears between stacks of sheetrock and joint compound.
“Have to finish this door.”
“Okay. Just don’t want to disturb the tender sensibilities of my neighbors. Five hours?”
Joe pulls out a thick envelope and hands him a Benjamin.
“I think you’re turning into a drug dealer.”
Joe indulges a sigh. “Drug lord, home renovator, human ATM, all the same.”
“Hey, well, thanks again for the busywork. I really dig the view.”
“The shower has an awesome view of the bridge.”
“And you tell me that every time I see you.”
“I know! Isn’t it great? Well, late dinner with the wife. Make sure that heater is cooled down before you leave.”
Joe fades into the dark rooms like a friendly ghost, splitting the dust cover over the back doorway. The white smoke rises.
Skye has always loved the Peninsula section of Interstate 280, cutting a path between the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Bayside hills. Late afternoons bring banks of fog to peek over the evergreen ridges. Tonight, however, everything’s clear. His mid-point is a daytime vista; in the dark it becomes the perfect spot for a covert pee. He leaves the truck running but cuts the headlights, sending the dirt turnout into darkness and bringing a curtain of stars over the far horizon. He aims a stream at the tail of Scorpius, turns to see late-night semis haunting the long curves of the freeway, the hills rimmed with suburban glow.
Holding on to two or three drams of energy, he cruises into the South Bay and heads for Effie’s, a bar linked to an old-style brunch palace, across the street from a percolation pond. He checks in with bartender Paul, he of the knife-sharp hair and inborne mellowness, and exchanges the expected gossip about their ball teams, the A’s and Giants. He proceeds to Bill, playfully cranky veteran of dance bands going back to the ‘60s, and picks a Sinatra tune to warm up on: “I’ll Be Around,” from the Wee Small Hours album.
As his eyes begin to adjust, he spots Greg Hill, sitting at a low table with a shot and a beer. Greg’s a metal sculptor, so it’s natural that he and Skye have become friends. He sings ‘60s and ‘70s pop, Skye sticks to jazz but they meet at Billy Joel, most specifically “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” They talk incessantly about women, propelled by Greg’s horndog exterior (neatly masking a gentleman’s ethos) and Skye’s need to express his rudest thoughts. Their current dialogue centers on Skye’s six-month disappearance. He tries not to share too much at a time, for fear that Greg will think he’s lost his mind. He arrives at Greg’s table with a hearty handshake.
“Where you been? It’s dead in here.”
“Working in San Francisco again.”
“Hell of a commute.”
“It’s okay. Don’t have to be there till five p.m.”
“Suh-weet! So what’s the deal with you? Any female action?”
“No, thank goodness.”
“Hey! You gotta bring better stuff than that.”
“Burnt out. Cannot figure the motives.”
“Fuck the motives! Focus on the parts.”
“Or just fuck the parts.”
“There! That’s better. Whatever happened to you and Janice? You looked pretty sweet dancing together.”
“Janice is beautiful, stacked, smart, stacked, an elegant dancer, also stacked… and a total fucking drag. Just the thought of the hours I would have to put in before I got her into bed – fucking exhausting.”
Tommy lets out a squealing laugh, sending his thick salt-and-pepper hair into a quiver. “You make excellent points. Whoops! My turn.”
Greg performs his signature, “Walk Away, Renee.” Skye had never paid much attention to the song, but the lyrics revealed by the karaoke screen are terribly sad. Greg’s tenor has a way of flipping into his headtone, a catch in the throat that makes the chorus even sadder. Skye follows with his Sinatra tune, a pledge of fealty from a booted lover that can’t help but conjure the image of Ava Gardner. Both songs are exactly what Skye is trying to get away from, but then, music will do that.
Greg has that rare ability to give fully felt compliments. “Beautiful! Hey, come on out to the parking lot. I’ve got a new one.”
The bed of Greg’s pickup plays host to a man of metal, five feet tall, assembled from a dazzling array of found parts: butter-knife fingers, limbs fashioned from springs, bolts and rods forming the cradle of a pelvis, and wire-rimmed spectacles lending persona to a jumbled face. He stands with knees slightly bent, a posture that evokes sentences beginning with “Hey, baby…” Greg jars the bumper, sending his creature into a jangling dance.
“That is fucking awesome!” says Skye.
“Manhood personified. I love it!”
Greg smiles and vaults into the bed. “That’s not all.” He reaches into the pelvis, undoes a couple of latches and pulls out some sort of automotive part, a thick copper-colored shaft with a T-shaped base. He flips it around, hitches it to another pair of latches, and Metal Man is now sporting a glorious erection.
“I call him Shwing, after the Wayne’s World thing.”
“That is beautifully nasty.”
“Nothing nasty about sex. Sex is joyous and fun.”
“No argument here. How much are you asking?”
He hops back to the asphalt and clocks his hair back into place. “Well, I figured the hours, and I’m going for five thousand.”
“Stay right there.” Skye jogs to his truck, five spaces down, and digs into his writing case. When he returns, Greg is setting out a pair of spotlights hooked up to the truck’s battery.
“I know it’s goofy, but hey, it’s Sillycon Valley. Some richer-than-God techie might drive by and fall in love. What’s that?”
“That’s a check.”
“Okay, funny joke.”
“It’s good. Put it in the bank.”
Greg’s staring. “You’re serious.”
Skye puts his hands on Greg’s shoulders. “At the end of my epic adventure, I fell in love, and then I lost her, and somehow because of that I came into a shitload of money. And you know what I always said.”
Greg stares at the check. “When you hit it big, you’re going to buy one of my pieces.” He looks back to Skye. “Hey, I’m… I’m sorry about your loss.”
“Thanks. I’ll fill in the details someday.”
Greg breaks into a smile. “But I’m not sorry about this check! I am buying you a drink.”
“Can I finish my first drink?”
They head back inside, where someone is absolutely slaughtering “Turn the Page.”
Photo: "Shwing," by Greg Hill.