Fueled by anticipation, Skye gets up at seven and realizes right away that he’s not going to get back to sleep. When he switches on his cell phone, it shakes with a text: You’re on. Pick you up at ten. He sends back OK and heads for the bathroom.
In times previous, Rachel was at least pliable. Today she’s a lead weight. She spits out her breakfast pizza, and contributes nothing to her exit from the bed. He ends up treating her like a life-size doll, scrubbing her down, brushing her teeth, putting on her clothes. When Bubba rolls up in the Escalade, he has to lift her to the seat and buckle her in.
Bubba wears an enormous Russian hat that makes him looks like a furry ice cream cone. He lines himself up behind his extended pedals and grins.
“You lead an intriguing life.”
“So good to see you, Bubba.”
He rolls the Escalade out of the drive at a pace that’s downright civilized.
“I see that look,” he says. “I must admit, a female passenger has a distinct effect on my speed. Much more a damsel in distress.” He takes a look in the rear-view. “I was very sorry to hear about the… situation.”
“Thank you, Bubba. I only hope it works.”
He takes a left through the wall of ivy and comes out along the river, just as he had two months before. Skye slaps his seat.
“Dammit! I drove down the street five times looking for that ivy.”
Bubba smiles. “It is quite the enigma.”
They pull up to the final rise in a calm snowfall. The house looks smaller than ever, a tiny rectangle on a mountain of white.
“Occasionally we have to use a snowcat for this last part. But I have found a new make of snow tire that grips the earth like an Irishman holding on to a Guinness. Ho! Sorry. That’s a hazard of growing up British.”
“Given your unique qualities,” says Skye, “I’m sure you took your fair share of abuse.”
“Constant comparisons to fire hydrants. Highly unoriginal.”
The Escalade conducts a smooth grind and pulls up to the front steps. Sarge himself comes to greet them, looking spry in a red corduroy hunting jacket.
“Nature Boy! Welcome back.” He gives Skye a hearty handshake.
“Thanks. I’m sorry if I was… pressing my luck.”
“No! I completely understand. The things we do for love. I was actually hoping you would show up sometime. I’d like to hear about your adventures. But you understand, we billionaire hermits have to put on a fierce face. Now! Let’s get you up to the house for a hot chocolate. Bubba, could you take their bags to the Louis and Ella? Oh, except for the book. I’m rather eager to see that.”
Skye fetches the aluminum briefcase and helps Rachel down from her seat.
“Sarge, this is Rachel Grossman, obscure New York collage artist.”
“And a lovely one at that,” says Sarge. He takes her hand in both of his. “It’s good to meet you. I hope you’ll enjoy your stay.”
Rachel stares at her shoetops, her face hidden in the hood of her parka.
“Yes, well. I hope we can talk later.”
They are soon seated at the same long table, enjoying a view that has become even more spectacular with the white trimmings. Andorra enters with a cart holding a silver tea service. She pours a dark liquid into silver goblets and sets them on the table.
Sarge takes a sip and closes his eyes. “Mmm. Venezuelan. The darkest chocolate in the world.”
Skye tries it. The chocolate has a bitter, woodsy edge. “That is almost sexual.”
Sarge looks at Rachel, still as a statue, one hand on the table.
“It’s best not to expect much,” says Skye. “And you never know, maybe the smell is getting through. My approach has been to feed her as many sensory variations as possible. That’s why I thought of you.”
Sarge wipes his mouth. “I do have some new toys we can try out on her. Meanwhile, may I take a gander at your prize?”
Skye hands him the briefcase. He takes it to a counter under a hanging light and snaps it open. “Nice! I love the packaging.”
“We carved the inset from the lid of a liquor store cooler.”
“Fantastic. I don’t see the autograph.”
“Inside. Page 124.”
He flips through the pages, then pulls out a pair of reading glasses. “Wow. That does appear to be Gershwin. And there’s the Rhapsody.” He hums the clarinet intro. “Magnificent! Thank you so much for thinking of me.”
“Who the hell else was I going to think of?”
“You make a good point.” He sets the book back into the Styrofoam and clicks the case shut. “All right if I pass this on to Andorra for analysis?”
“It’s yours. Unless, of course, you’d like to kick us back into the snow.”
Sarge laughs. “Not on your life. Now, enjoy that chocolate, and then I’ve got some immediate amusement for you. Unless Rachel needs some rest?”
Rachel’s hand has wandered to the base of the goblet, but her expression remains blank. Skye recalls a sci-fi story in which the hero enters a rapid time continuum, leaving those around him to move at a glacial, nearly imperceptible pace.
“I think Rachel has had enough rest to last her through New Year’s.”
He’s tempted to ask for a wheelchair, but reminds himself that Rachel’s legs are perfectly functional. Sarge leads them to a familiar triangular portal and they board the moving walkway. They exit into the same auditorium-like space, ringed by polished granite. The floor looks different – emptier.
“No more Pete Sampras?”
“Sorry,” says Sarge. “I got bored.” He leads them to a set of theater seats. Skye guides Rachel to the upper row. She sits down and buries her face in his shoulder.
“Honey,” says Skye. “You need to pay attention. I think we’re going to have a show.”
“You are,” says Sarge. He punches a button on the arm of his seat and the lights go down. A purplish glow fills the floor like a tule fog, and suddenly everything snaps into focus. What appears is a green oval, ringed by brown. Skye can see fences, a small tower, beds of flowering plants in a decorative pattern. A man in red silks leads a horse along the back turn.
Sarge smiles. “Golden Gate Fields, near Berkeley. The owner is a friend of mine. He allowed me to install cameras at the track for my little experiment. What you are seeing is a live holographic broadcast. Not purely holographic – not in the Star Wars fashion. The process involves reflective smoke and projectors. It’s been used at music festivals to bring rap stars back from the dead.
“Yes!” says Skye. “I’ve heard about that.”
“I have this crazy Silicon Valley inventor who likes to use my money to come up with things like this.”
A line of riders and trainers appear at the right, leading their horses toward the gate. To the uninformed eye, the horses would be about the size of chihuahuas, and actually do appear to be walking across the floor of Sarge’s theater.
“Next item,” says Sarge. He flips a switch, causing screens to rise from the backs of the seats in front of them. Skye’s screen offers a list of names and odds.
“Is this for real?” he asks.
“Along the right-hand edge you will find a card slide, directly connected to the racetrack. I would simply give you some wagering credit, but I find that using one’s own money is much more exciting. Do hurry, though. We’re about five minutes to post.”
Skye slides his card and orders up a hundred dollars’ worth of credit. He picks a horse named Fraudulent at 7-1 and lays down twenty. Then he slides his card along Rachel’s screen and signs her up for the favorite. He holds the nape of her neck and speaks in her ear.
“Your horse is Cotton Blend, Rachel. Three to one. The green silks. See? Over there.”
He imagines that she glances in the direction of the track, but even the verbal grunts seem to be gone now. He worries that she has gone even further into the hole.
A man in a red jacket strides across to play the starting call on a bugle, and the riders settle their mounts into the gate. The bell goes off, and the horses thunder along the track. The three horses that they have bet upon sprout colored numbers that float above them as they run. As they charge along the back stretch, Sarge begins to holler encouragements. Skye joins in, as does the Golden Gate crowd, rising to a fevered pitch as they take the final turn.
“C’mon Pinafore! Get ‘em, girl! Take the rail yes take the rail! Catch up Fraudulent! Oh! Check out Cotton Blend, honey, look at ‘im pick it up! Hold on, Pinafore!”
Cotton Blend loses the lead to Pinafore, then surprises them all by taking it back at the wire.
“Woo! Honey, you won!” Skye slaps Rachel on the shoulder.
Sarge lets out a barking laugh. “She’s a natural.”
“You people are insane.”
“Uh-oh, cheese it,” says Sarge. “Mom’s here.”
Andorra pushes a cart up to the seats. She hands Skye a tub of popcorn and two lemonades.
“Thanks, Andy,” says Sarge. “Will you join us?”
“I’ll be back for the wieners.”
Skye assumes she’ll be bringing them hot dogs, but it turns out to be the Wienernationals, a series of races for dachsunds. After each horse race, they roll out start and finish lines a hundred feet apart. The dog owners work in pairs – one to hold their dachshund at the starting line, the other to stand at the finish line and call them forward, with the help of some treat or chew toy.
Skye discovers, to his great surprise, that he can place a bet, and puts five bucks on a long, light-colored wiener named Jasper. At the starting bell, he bolts from the line, takes a sweeping diagonal toward the crowd, arrives at the finish dead last, then eludes the grasp of his owner and runs all the way back to the starting line, making the most of his moment in the sun.
After that, Skye sticks to the horses, and does quite well – for Rachel. She wins four of the seven races, and winds up 58 dollars in the black. At the end of the final race, Skye kneels in front of her.
“You did great, honey!” He searches her eyes, looking for anything, then pulls three twenties from his wallet and folds them into her hand. “Look! Look! You won sixty dollars.”
Rachel’s hand flops open. The bills fall to the floor. Skye remains on his knees, defeated. Sarge comes over to pick up the bills and help Skye to his feet.
“You know, I’m a little worried about you. You’re taking on a lot of stress. Andorra, can you take these two for a massage? And make certain they get separate rooms. I think our caretaker needs a time-out.”
He’s absolutely right. Between the general stress of coaxing Rachel back to the real world and the physical challenge of driving from Kansas City, Skye is one big knot. He lies face-down on a massage table as a large Russian man performs feats of prestidigitation on his back. It almost seems that he is able to sort out individual fibers and slowly untangle them.
Afterward, Skye is shown to a shower room with racks of clothing. After cleaning up, he assembles a suit of khaki pants, a cream-colored knit shirt and a red blazer with a gold insignia over the pocket. He proceeds to a waiting room and finds Rachel in jeans, a black frilled blouse and a suede gray jacket. Her makeup is heavier than usual, and the dark red lipstick reminds him how plush her lips are. He walks to where she’s sitting and kisses her on the cheek.
“You look beautiful.”
She looks at him, and then at a mirror across the way. It’s the first sign he’s had all day that something’s getting through. Andorra appears in the hall, wearing a royal blue gown that makes good use of her cleavage.
“Hi. Ready for dinner?”
She takes them to an elevator. They rise for perhaps three floors and come out to an extraordinary room. A long, curving stripe of window looks out on the mountains to the west, illuminated by a half moon. The floor is covered in large tiles of beige marble with veins of brown and sienna. The centerpiece is a table, six by forty feet, of white marble. The near end holds four table settings and a silver candelabra. The inside wall is covered in a blue-silver substance that shimmers like an oil slick. Skye runs his hand along the surface.
“Labradorite,” says Sarge. He enters in a black suit with a vest and a mother-of-pearl bolo. The jacket features shoulder patches in a geometric country-and-western pattern.
“I was touring a mine in Nova Scotia and I saw labradorite ‘in the wild.’ I swore that someday I would have a whole wall of it. Ah, here’s our food.”
The Russian masseuse enters with a cart of dinner plates. Seeing Rachel standing at the window, Skye walks over to lead her to her seat.
“I hope y’all like meat,” says Sarge. “On accounta it’s steak night. Grass-fed beef, from one of our local ranches.”
“That sounds fantastic,” says Skye. The meat proves to be leaner and more flavorful than the grocery-store standard. The sides are baby Yukon potatoes with parmesan cheese, spinach salad with wild mushrooms, lentil soup and a mouth-warming cabernet from Sonoma County.
Skye speaks between chews. “Having lived on truck stops for a week, this is paradise.”
Sarge gives him a quiet smile. “Glad you like it. Do you suppose Rachel will partake? Rachel honey, would you try some dinner? To please an old man?”
Rachel stabs a potato and chews it down. This constitutes a minor miracle. Skye turns to Sarge and whispers a thanks.
“The senior request is a powerful force.” He sips from his cabernet and lets it soak into his mouth. “By the way, I have news. Your gift was more generous than you imagined. Andorra?”
Andorra hands him a half-sheet of paper. It’s a photograph of a woman in a floppy white hat, circa 1930.
“That’s the recipient of the autograph, Emily Strunsky Paley,” he says. “She is the sister of Ira Gershwin’s wife, Leonore. She is also the woman who gave George a novel by DuBose Heyward titled Porgy.”
“Porgy and Bess?”
“Yep! That autograph is a genuine piece of musical history. And for that, let me say that you are welcome to stay as long as the lovely Rachel requires.”
“That may be three years, but thank you, regardless.”
The Russian man – Gregor – appears yet again, holding a silver serving dish.
Sarge rubs his hands. “This you won’t believe. It’s Andorra’s creation: a tequila mango pie with a gingerbread crust. It sounds atrocious, but it’s shockingly good.”
Gregor lifts the lid, releasing an exhalation of steam.
After dinner, Sarge takes them to another walkway. This one is tremendously long, and features an S-curve, as well as occasional Broadway posters (Kiss Me Kate, Sweet Charity) to break up the monotony. After a five-minute ride, they arrive at a circular room with blood-red walls and a spiral staircase. Sarge climbs to the fifth step and asks his guests to join him.
“We haven’t quite worked out the bugs, so Skye please keep one hand on the rail and another on Rachel.”
Skye follows orders, Andorra hits a switch. The staircase emits a low, steady hum. They begin to rise.
“A spiral escalator,” says Skye. “You’re the Wizard of Oz.”
“Thank you,” says Sarge. “Designed it myself.”
Skye marks this statement as the first time that Sarge has hinted at some kind of occupation. They rise perhaps four stories. The constant turning is a little disorienting. The escalator clunks to a halt, and Sarge asks them to climb the remaining steps. They enter a room with a domed ceiling.
“Are we all in?” asks Sarge. “Okay. Stand still.” He hits a switch and sends the room into darkness. Skye wraps a hand around Rachel’s waist and waits for his eyes to adjust. He begins to see a pattern in the ceiling and realizes that it’s the constellation Scorpius.
“Are we… outside?”
“This dome sits on an enormous granite cap. In better weather, you can even go outside and walk around. Tonight, we will have to settle for the night sky.”
Skye tilts Rachel’s head. “Look, honey, it’s every star in the universe.”
His eyes are fully adjusted. The sky is packed. He imagines Georges Seurat on a ladder, applying points of pure light to a blue-black canvas. Skye finds the Pleiades in the crosshairs of Orion’s bow, the seventh sister a faint but clear presence at the crook of the handle.
“If you’d like,” says Sarge, “Andorra has Jupiter lined up in the telescope. Just head for that blue circle to your right.”
The circle is the base of the instrument. Skye locates the eyepiece and leans over. The telescope is hugely powerful – he can see the striations of the planet’s gases, the ragged oval of the Red Spot.
Skye is beginning to suspect something geological as the source of Sarge’s fortune. The Louis and Ella room is named for two magnificent photographs of Armstrong and Fitzgerald mounted over the dresser, but the real treat is found across the way, a wall covered in some kind of pale green mineral. He recognizes it from the jewelry of his Hawaiian trip: olivine.
Skye lies on a circular bed under a paisley comforter of golds and greens. He is almost ashamed, in this billionaire funland, to be watching football highlights on a TV. He is surprised to find Rachel relatively awake, her dull eyes turned toward the screen, her breasts settled upon the fringe of the comforter.
He reaches over and cups one, takes her small, beige-pink nipple and rolls it between thumb and finger. Her expression remains blank. He returns to his highlights.
The quarterback rounds the corner and sprints for the end zone with gazellian strides. Skye feels a feathery touch on the back of his wrist. Rachel takes his hand and guides it back to her breast.
Photo by MJV