The Game of Madness
Skye knows the neighborhood well. A long downhill street with a grassy meridian, clean suburban houses on banked rises to left and right. The spiked hair of cypress and, just before the turn, a glimpse of the ocean.
They’re just a bit early, so they check in to a coffeehouse. At midafternoon, the place is vastly empty. Rachel, alert but quiet, takes her latte with a look of gratitude.
Skye takes a sip and relishes the bite of the espresso. “I don’t really know anything about this guy, but Sarge swears by him.” He stops and gives her an intent look. “It’s a long journey, Rachel. But I’ll take it with you. It may not seem like it, but you’ve got good days ahead of you. I promise.”
She takes his hand and holds it to her lips, her eyes wide. Skye know the equation: if he can’t do this, he’s a failure.
The shopping complex centers on a village fountain, the walkways neatly cobbled, the buildings a pleasant jumble of polygons. Skye takes Rachel into a clapboard canyon and finds a staircase next to a small sign: Teagarden and LaBrea, Counselors. They climb the steps and enter a small reception area with a painting of the Monterey waterfront. Skye sees a small cage near the window and is surprised to find it occupied by pigeons. A red-haired woman enters from an adjoining room.
“Hi! Are you Rachel and Skye?”
“That’s us,” says Skye.
“I’m Audrey. Follow me.”
She takes them into an office with a large window overlooking the center and the ocean beyond. The afternoon sun paints a swath of golden fishscales across the water. The man standing at the desk looks a bit devilish – shaved head, goatee – but his demeanor is anything but menacing.
“Rachel, Skye, I’m Jack. It’s good to see you. I hope the drive wasn’t too hard on you.”
“We stopped at a motel in Manteca,” says Skye.
Jack waves them into a pair of chairs.
“First of all, you should know that Rachel’s treatment is being paid for. Anonymously.”
“Inside joke?” asks Jack.
“You might say that.”
“Okay. Secondly, I wanted to tell you how we operate. Rachel will stay at one of the cozy townhouses behind this center, and will be rooming with Audrey. Skye, you’re free to go.”
Skye blinks, twice. “I am?”
“Rachel has some serious trauma to work through, and a lifetime of feelings. In order to help her, we have to reduce the number of roles she’s playing. Including girlfriend.”
“Oh. Okay. It’s just hard to…”
“Yes, it is. But from what Sarge has told me, you could probably use some rest. And don’t worry. We will likely have you back within a week for a visit.”
It appears that they are the final clients of the day. When they return to the main area, Audrey is sorting files and cleaning up her desktop.
“Ready to go?” she says.
“All ready,” says Jack.
They stroll past a pizza parlor where children are flying around like monkeys. Jack and Audrey hang back as Skye fetches Rachel’s bags from his truck.
“This is odd,” he says.
“I know,” says Rachel. “You’ve become my Siamese twin. Don’t worry. I have a good feeling about these two.”
She starts to cry, and Skye takes that as his cue. He kisses her.
“Goodbye lovely girl. See you in a week.”
She takes her bags and walks away. The three of them follow a sidewalk that climbs toward a row of townhomes. Just before a large bush, she turns back, looking a little lost, and disappears. Skye gets into his truck and does something he hasn’t done in a long time. He drives home.
Skye lives on Union Avenue, a pleasantly wooded strip of apartment buildings in Campbell. His building, Villa Montecito, offers a well-tended garden courtyard that does a good job of blocking out the surrounding city. He trudges to his first-floor porch, feeling as if the entirety of his two-month adventure had just jumped on his back. He opens the door to find everything largely unchanged, except for a pile of mail nearly blocking his entry. He leaves it there, tosses his bags on the floor and dive-bombs the couch. Twelve seconds later, he’s asleep.
He wakes in the dreaded late evening and determines that he must get out somewhere. This is fairly easy to do – it’s a rather modest walk to the Pruneyard, an old-school outdoor mall shadowed by two sleek black office towers. His target is the Coffee Society, a comfy espresso house with a bevy of lively neighbors – pizza parlor, pub, moviehouse. Skye is greeted by Courtney, his guardian barista.
“Where the hell have you been?”
“I couldn’t begin to tell you.”
“Yes you could.”
“Okay. Tahoe, Hawaii, Denver, New York, Cape Cod and Yosemite.”
“You are either jerking me around or you’re a freakin’ rock star. Latte?”
“Ooh. Living dangerously.”
She punches in a number that is half the actual price.
Courtney is a fascinating jumble: beauty queen/nerd, sometime law student/former professional snowboarder, millionaire’s daughter who works at minimum wage. Her lithe figure and cat-like features have inspired thoughts, but Skye fears befouling his favorite haunt.
He sets himself up near the window, next to a dozen old-guy regulars playing backgammon. The patio hosts a breed of spastic AA members producing clouds of cigarette smoke and random rooster-like outbursts. Agamemnon has returned from Troy and yet, nothing has changed. Skye opens his laptop and pulls up the Writer’s Digest worksite, where 1800 poorly written short stories are lined up at the gallows. The first is titled (Yikes) “Reflections.”
Espresso-foam art became all the rage the previous spring, when a moonlighting chef displayed an ability to create peacocks and Indian chiefs from milk and coffee. Courtney’s latest is more of a pinwheel with a smiley-face.
“Nice! Thanks.” He surrounds it with shakes of chocolate powder and sets to his work. The job of extracting twenty winners out of so many entries is savage, and he has learned to sniff out the easy kills: first-sentence typos, page-long descriptions of the weather, any opening involving the protagonist regaining consciousness. To maintain his ruthlessness, he accompanies his rejections with mental iterations of pop-culture dismissals. His favorite is “No soup for you!”
When he hits fifty – and one surprising acceptance, written in a language resembling actual English – he feels the need for a ginger snap, and hits up the ATM for a pair of twenties. As he arrives at the counter, he checks his receipt and sees that his balance has grown by two hundred thousand dollars.
“I’m sorry,” says Courtney. “All we have is secular shit.”
“Oh, I… ginger snap.”
“You got it. Oh! By the way, someone left you a note. It’s been sitting by the register for a couple days.”
She hands him an envelope with his name on it, in Lindsy’s handwriting.
A half hour later, Skye is reading the local alt weekly, trying to glean advice from the brilliantly vague horoscope. He is apparently supposed to turn himself into a turtle and swim toward the nearest Denny’s. Swimming brings to mind the digital equivalent of dipping a toe into the water: the exploratory text message.
How you doing?
The response arrives in a matter of fifteen seconds, indicating a certain eagerness.
Out here for a friend’s wedding! I deleted your number in Elko (sorry) but I remembered that coffeehouse you talked about.
Uh-oh. He’s dealing with a rapid typist. He’s trying to reply when she buzzes in again.
I leave for Colorado in the morning. Would love to see you before I go!
Oh, Jesus. He is venturing into a tar pit.
You were absolutely right about taking care of my marriage, she continues. Well – my future ex-marriage.
Exhausted by interruptions, he awaits the next message.
He types quickly: At the coffeehouse now. Meet here?
Yay! Half hour.
Skye settles on the patio of alcoholics, next to a tree encased in strings of light. How does the tree feel about this? Flattered? Embarrassed? The cover band at Boswell’s kicks into “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” featuring a singer who is clearly sleeping with the lead guitarist. He tries to scan another story, drowning in pluperfect, but his brain is a labrador surrounded by squirrels playing tennis. He glances up at anything having a one percent chance of being a luscious blonde. He’s considering an escape to the sporting goods store around the corner when she appears, marching his way in a flouncy white dress and feral cleavage. She’s lost weight, the curves a little more sleek. He is beginning to fear for his life.
He stands. She flings her arms around him and pulls tight, as if she’s trying to use her tits as branding irons. He hopes that Courtney’s watching, that she will report to the staff that Skye is not the creepy loner they have always suspected.
Lindsy backs away and studies his face. She can’t stop smiling.
“I can’t believe it’s you.”
He says nothing until nothing gets awkward and so he has to say something.
“Sit down! Tell me all about your impending divorce.”
She sits and arranges her dress. “Somewhere in Temple Square, there is a silver bullet with your name on it. The only Salt Lake Citizen who doesn’t hate me is, strangely enough, my future ex. He was very accepting. It really surprised me.”
“I suppose he saw your determination.”
“Yes. And when he got word about my trip to Hawaii with Satan – that would be you – I suppose he saw me as damaged goods. I’m certain that all those Mormon housewives could read on my face all those nasty hours of island sex, and after ducking into their basements for their stashed vibrators and illicit fantasies of sex with Presbyterians and Episcopalians and dirty Catholics they had to cover up their guilt by hating me even more. Whew! I’m sorry. Is it hot out here?”
“No, but you certainly are.”
“Tell me about it. It is fucking awesome coming out as a slut.” She breaks into laughter and has to catch her breath before finishing the thought. “I’m a slututante!”
Skye laughs along, but is running out of replies that aren’t dangerous. Lindsy picks up on his discomfort.
“So tell me all about your adventures, Ramblin’ Man.”
“Well, let’s see. Post-Winnemucca, I ended up in Glenwood Springs…”
“Oh! I love it there. Did you do the pool?”
There’s a lot to tell, so they stay for an hour, wired on espressos con panna. Skye recalls his recent windfall, and reasons that he should share the wealth, this being Lindsy’s last night in town. They convoy to the San Jose Fairmont and sit in the enormous circus-ring lobby, drinking exotic cocktails. When the trio strikes into “Misty,” he asks her to dance. The nearness stirs up the nostalgic potions of Hawaii, strawberry hair tickling his cheek, familiar gardenia perfume, eyes the color of the water at Hapuna Beach. The overtones from the piano fill his head.
He wakes to the wail of a siren, and imagines that he’s in his apartment. But the sheets are silk, the air is ringed with potpourri, and an empty champagne bottle sits in a bucket of water. When he opens the window, a 747 cruises past at eye-level. He looks down onto the fountains of Cesar Chavez Park.
He tractors himself out of bed, feeling dizzy, and braces himself on a small table. The centerpiece is a pair of white silk panties, next to a note on hotel stationery.
To Skye, the best plowman West of the Mississippi. Thanks again for my liberation. If you come to Colorado, you had better call.
He hits the power button on his cell phone. He has three messages from Rachel.
“Your place seems nice.”
Rachel smiles but doesn’t answer.
“Isn’t it?” he asks.
“Oh, sorry. Jack has this idea about slowing down the brain. About examining our thoughts. So when you asked me about my place, I was taking a moment to visualize it before I answered.”
“It is nice. Cozy. They bought it from an old lady who’s owned it forever, and they decided to keep all the beachy knick-knacks. It sort of gives the place a history.”
They come to a dirt trail that passes beneath a train trestle, an imposing jumble of timbers soaked in creosote.
“Speaking of history…” He stops.
Rachel takes his hand. “Yes?”
“It’s pretty depressing.”
“I am well-versed in depressing stories.”
“Okay. I spent a couple summers here, just after college. Had a little quartet I hung out with: Les, Chuck, Scott. All of them better-looking than me, which is not a very good strategy for meeting chicks. We would drink beer, and listen to Les’s boombox, and play Frisbee for hours.
“Les was dating my cousin Shannon, which was its own weird little story, so on the day of the incident she was there, as well as Les’s little brother, Andy. Andy was a wild man, a bodybuilder who was always pulling crazy stunts. One time he took a ride on the hood of a friend’s car, fell off at thirty miles an hour and broke his jaw.”
“Ouch!” says Rachel.
“That day, Andy was imbibing pretty heavily, and he took a mad dash into the water. When he jumped into his dive, a wave knocked him off-balance, he entered the water absolutely vertical, hit his head on the bottom and broke his neck.”
“He was flopping around, yelling for his life, and we all assumed he was just messing around. Fortunately, some off-duty lifeguard down the beach took him seriously and pulled him out. Next thing we know, we’re huddled in a hospital waiting room and they wheel him in with one of those cages that they screw into your skull. Andy had this bemused look on his face, like this was just another of his goofy stunts. And he’s been a paraplegic ever since.”
“God,” says Rachel. “That is sad.”
“Whenever I see my cousin, she asks me if I’ve heard anything about Andy, and really I have no idea. We were never close, and my summer quartet eventually drifted apart. But I guess that was a traumatic experience for her, so she always asks.”
The path ends at the top of a long set of stairs. The beach below is socked in by fog.
“I’m sorry. But I think of that story every time I come here.”
She precedes him down the steps. When she reaches the bottom, she takes off her shoes.
“Isn’t it a little cold?”
“Another Jack thing. Leave no sensory pleasure unpursued. Like sand between your toes.”
“You make a good point.” He unties a shoelace.
They cross the wide beach and arrive at the damp sand near the water. It’s a clean shoreline: a sand dollar here, crabshell there. The breakers roll toward them in low-key six-packs.
“How have you been?”
“Well,” says Rachel. “Audrey is a little nuts, in a fun way. They’re married, you know.”
“Yep. And Jack… He and I have been working on re-wiring my head. So many children of dysfunction end up carrying on the bad patterns of their parents. He’s trying to get me to slow down my thoughts so I can better understand what’s going on in there. We’ve just started into my childhood. My stories. It’s a long process.”
They walk a long way without talking. Skye is gazing at a stand of eucalyptus on the clifftop when he finds that Rachel has stopped in front of him. She wraps her arms around his waist and gives him a thorough kiss.
Skye laughs. “There?”
“Your job is done. So stop treating me like I’m fragile. This part is up to me. In fact, I’d like it very much if you roughed me up a little. Audrey and Jack are off in their townhome, so I think, after this little hike, that you should take me home and bang me silly.”
Skye feels the blood rushing to his dick (a body part that never gets enough) and doesn’t know what to say.
“Say ‘Yes, mistress.’”
Skye reaches around and applies a healthy slap to Rachel’s butt.
Rachel smiles. “That will do, also.”
Thirty minutes post-coitus, as Skye boards the footbridge to sleep, he is jostled awake by birdsong. Rachel answers her iPhone.
“Mmulloh? Oh, sure. Yeah, that sounds fun. Half hour? Okay.”
Skye works himself up to an elbow. “You have friends in California?”
“I have friends next door. Which is how they know when I’m done having sex.”
“I guess I won’t be so loud next time.”
“I’m sure that Audrey thoroughly enjoyed it.”
“In that case, I’ll expect a gratuity.”
“They’ve invited us over for a board game. I’ll shower first so you can snooze.”
The condo next door is identical, albeit bereft of seaside tchotchkes. The living room is ringed by eight TV trays, each of them hosting a popular board game. At the center of the room stands a Vegas-style wheel of fortune bearing the numbers 1 through 64.
“What the hell?” says Skye.
“Welcome to the Game of Madness,” says Jack. He’s wearing a purple smoking jacket, which gives him the air of a ringmaster. “May I obtain for you a beer?”
“Sure,” says Skye. “Whattya got?”
“Am I allowed?” asks Rachel.
Audrey bursts into the room holding a blue pigeon. “Two beers. And no fisticuffs.”
“Yes’m,” says Rachel. “Is that Apostrophe?”
“It is. Skye, would you like to rub Apostrophe’s head?”
“Sure.” He strokes the downy cap, feels the bones of the skull underneath. Apostrophe actually coos, just as pigeons are rumored to do.
Audrey laughs. “No surprise that a pigeon would like the Skye.”
“Yeah yeah,” says Skye. “Never heard a joke like that before.”
“Sorry. Had to be done. Rachel? Do the honors?”
“Yes!” She takes the bird in both hands, careful to wrap its wings, and tosses him out the back door. She turns to Skye, who looks like he’s expecting an explanation.
“Audrey raises homing pigeons. She’s got an awesome coop on the balcony.”
“I don’t usually let them out so late, but Apostrophe was dying to meet you.”
“Okay,” says Skye. “Why ‘Apostrophe’?”
Audrey smiles. “He’s very possessive.”
Skye accepts his IPA from Jack. “Thanks. So, what is this thing that we are attempting to do?”
“I think we should just talk you through it,” says Jack. “Why don’t you give the wheel a spin?”
“Okay.” Skye sets the wheel in motion. It clacks to a stop on 23.
“Now,” says Jack. “You have two choices: Table 2 – the game of Life – or Table 3, Scrabble.”
“Oh, Scrabble, by all means.”
“Have at it.”
Skye draws seven tiles and places FECUND over the center star.
“Uh-oh,” says Audrey. “We’ve got a ringer.”
“Well, I am a writer.”
“Fortunately for us,” says Jack, “nobody keeps score. And once we introduce the sinsemilla, no one cares.”
Audrey hands Skye a loaded pipe and a lighter. Rachel spins an 8, takes the Monopoly race-car token, rolls a five, ends up on Chance and receives $200 for winning a beauty contest.
Skye laughs. “You could see that coming.” Rachel rewards him with a smooch.
Rachel and Skye take a time-out to stand in the backyard. Skye is pointing to a spot in the western sky.
“See? Those three right there. Jupiter, Venus and Mercury. It’s very rare that they’re so close together.”
“They’re almost as close as my therapists.”
Skye peeks back inside, where Audrey and Jack are making out on the couch.
“They’re like newlyweds!” says Rachel.
“Nice to have happy therapists.”
“It is. So how are you doing?”
“Let’s see, I’ve got three kids in college, two slices of trivia pie, and I successfully removed the patient’s funny bone.”
“I meant how are you doing in Life-not-the-board-game.”
This question makes him nervous. “I am hacking my way through a jungle of short stories and… Oh! doing an arts roundup for one of those tourist books that they put in hotel rooms. Sort of an annual gig. One of the theater groups is doing a musical version of Reefer Madness. Is that not just beyond cool?”
“Okay,” says Rachel. “So how are you doing?” She puts a hand on his chest. “In there.”
He thinks about it, mapping out the land mines. “I worry about you constantly. But I’m glad you’re in good hands. And I’m a little nervous about Thanksgiving, and having to explain my little shit-fit to my family.”
“Hey!” It’s Jack, leaning into the yard, one hand hooked around the doorjamb. “For some impenetrable reason, we seem to have the munchies, so I’m going next door for some pizza.”
“Oh,” says Skye. “May I go with?”
Audrey reacts theatrically. “No! Don’t leave us, Skye!”
“Honey,” says Jack. “Clearly he’s looking for a chance to talk shit about you women.”
Skye kisses Rachel and heads for the front door. The night is heavy with mist, the road framed by pines. Skye realizes he’s not quite ready for confession.
“So how did you start this little enterprise?”
“Unique circumstances,” says Jack. “My former boss was a womanizer who pushed his luck until he woke from a drunken stupor and found that his victims had scrawled his sins all over his body in permanent ink.”
“Yowza. Every man’s nightmare.”
“I helped him with his reform, and he paid me back by setting me up with an office and three condos. Our innovative little project developed from there.”
They turn into the parking lot. “At one point in my life, I came within a few inches of throwing myself over a waterfall. Thanks to a talented life coach, I came to see suicide as the selfish, wasteful act that it is, and I decided to do whatever I could to prevent it.”
“Wow,” says Skye, and decides to leave it at that.
They enter the pizza place, where a trio of old dudes sit at a bar, watching football. Jack orders a large combo, and they repair to a booth with a couple of beers.
“I do have sort of something to ask you.”
“I sort of thought you did.”
“I, oh geez, how do I say this?”
“With as few words as possible,” says Jack. “We’ll expand from there.”
Skye clears his throat. “I slept with another woman.”
Jack looks at him blank-faced, as if he’s fighting off an immediate reaction. “When?”
“The night you dropped Rachel off.”
“Okay.” He pauses again, looking out the window. “Jesus, Skye. Nobody’s better at being non-judgmental than me, but Jesus! You couldn’t keep it in your pants?”
“I know. I feel like absolute shit. A former fling, leaving town the next day, throwing herself at me. And alcohol.”
“Hmm. A devil’s brew. Especially the next-day departure. But tell me – do you do this often? And don’t bullshit me, or I can’t help you.”
“Serial monogamist. I can barely handle the administrative duties of one woman, much less keep track of the lies I’d have to tell to two.”
Jack takes a sip from his beer and taps his finger against the table, sorting out the elements of the situation.
“How long have you known Rachel?”
“Maybe… a month.”
“How long before the homicide?”
“Okay. Yeah. I think I get it.”
“This is not a normal relationship. You barely know this woman. And the extreme nature of her situation threw you into a role more suited for a husband or a close relative. On Friday, when you were at least partly relieved of this duty, I would bet that you felt a strange rush of liberation.”
In fact, he remembers the exact moment: crossing the county line at the top of the Santa Cruz Mountains. He had ascribed it to homesickness.
“And then,” Jack goes on, “this tremendously convenient situation comes along. Call it microwaveable sex. The portion of your brain most directly connected to your dick says, This isn’t fair! I’m doing all this work that I am not obligated to do, and now I have to give up a free fuck just because some crazy bitch wants to kill herself.”
“Well, I wouldn’t…”
“This is your dick-brain talking. He’s very crude. And so, you seek a little temporary amnesia in a glass, and things proceed. I’m not saying what you did was right. I’m just saying that it’s understandable.”
A group of teens comes in toting long skateboards, hailing their friend who works in the parlor. Skye pats the table in a steady beat.
“So. Do I tell her?”
“God no! Look, I know it’s tempting to cleanse your conscience, but frankly I don’t give a shit about your conscience. I’ve got a young woman who’s looking for any excuse to off herself, and unlike a lot of my clients, she’s got a lot of perfectly legitimate reasons to do so. I assume you’ve heard some of her stories?”
“Yes. So do me a favor and don’t hand her the bullets. You are going to walk around with that dirt on your soul, you are going to be the world’s best boyfriend, and you are going to keep that penis locked up unless you’re using it on one Rachel Grossman. That is your penance, and from what I know of Rachel, that’s really no penance at all.”
Skye feels enormously uncomfortable, because he knows he deserves this lecture and so much more. Jack gives him a studied look.
“If it makes you feel better, I can also make you do some pushups.”
“Thank you, father.”
Jack leans in confidentially. “Here’s the tricky part. You have to push the guilt aside. It’s not going to do her any good.”
A streak of moonlight cuts through the window. Rachel’s eyes are open. Skye traces a pattern on her forehead.
“There. I just spelled out S-L-E-E-P.”
“Not working,” she mumbles.
“I’m sorry, Rachel.”
She looks up. “For what?”
“For you having to go through so much shit.”
“Not your fault.”
“I apologize on behalf of the universe.”
“I forgive the universe.”
He slides next to her, reaches along her side to take her hand.
“My mother had only nine fingers.”
“Born that way?”
“My father chopped off her pinkie. In front of me. To teach me a lesson.”
Having released this image to the universe, Rachel falls asleep. Skye watches the moon until it crosses the window.
Photo by MJV