Spooked by the instinctive knowledge of the Pirate King and the Texas Belle, Scootie spent the next few weeks warding off thoughts of Juliana Kross. He was helpfully distracted by the Kabuki Troupe of Nagasaki, who had hired a scholar of dubious talent to translate their program notes. The ones who play (the players, Scootie guessed) will aggrandize you with their marvel daring feats of do. Scootie spent hours trying to unwind such tangles into a workable text.
Still, there was no way to avoid the great adobe house that shadowed him on the way to the parking lot each evening. Thursday night found the Pleiades themselves lifting out of the chimney like a silver-blue cinder.
The light that Juliana watched was the square of window just beneath the Fetzle battlements – the one that lay at the back of Scootie’s office. She first noticed it on Monday, sharing a late cup of coffee with Virginia Mendheart. She took note of it each evening since, little knowing that she had lost both of the men in her life to the Japanese.
Scootie’s attentions gradually shifted southward. On Wednesday, he released the last of Audrey’s pigeons, and he knew what that meant. He woke up early Saturday morning, gathered his own pigeons from the coop behind his apartment, and started out for Big Sur.
Three summers before, Scootie journeyed from the LA suburbs of his childhood to his new job on the San Mateo coast. For a veteran of the short-lived theater groups of Southern California, a job with this much stability and prestige was a dream come true. The import of the occasion called for the scenic coastal route, but by the time he reached Big Sur the winding roads had worn him down.
The state park was full-up, but he managed to find an inexpensive walk-in campground a mile’s walk from the ocean. After pitching his tent beneath a wind-blown oak, he drove into town for dinner, but was immediately distracted by an import shop called Beatniks. He ventured in to find virtually every rhythm instrument known to mankind. He spent the next two hours applying his hands to every tabla, conga, shekere and berimbau in the place. He spent a full fifteen minutes on the dundun, or talking drum, from Kenya, taking in the delicious swoop of tone as he beat the head with a hooked mallet and pulled the skin tight with its outside laces. He was trying out an anklet of Peruvian sheep’s hooves, exuberantly stomping the floor, when the manager of the store appeared at his shoulder.
“Hi,” she said.
“Oh. Hi. Have I been taking too long?”
“Well,” she smiled. “The store did close a half-hour ago. But I hated to stop you. You’re so... devoted.”
Scootie smiled sheepishly. “I’m in love with sounds. You have an amazing collection. I’d buy the whole damn store, but I’m on my way to a new job right now, and...”
“No need to explain. I have no doubt you’ll be back. I’m Audrey, by the way.”
“Scootie,” he said, and took Audrey’s hand.
“Tell you what, Scootie. I’m headed next door for dinner. Would you join me?”
“Well... sure, I’ve been driving all day, and... well, yes.”
They were halfway out the door when Audrey turned and laughed.
“I think you might want to take those off first.”
“Scootie looked at the sheep’s hooves, still wrapped around his ankles, and said, “Oh. Right.”
Audrey LaBrea was a witchy red-haired beauty, product of a half-Jewish, half-Catholic household in Florida (“Guilt,” she said, “was the unifying concept.”). She was thirty years old and had just completed her third divorce. The latest ex was Tiger LaBrea, whom she met while working as a cocktail waitress in Vegas.
“They called him Tiger ‘cause he was a baseball fan from Detroit,” she said, picking over a salad in the woodsy Ventana Restaurant. “He covered the gambling beat for the Las Vegas Star-Press. Guy hits a jackpot, Tiger takes a photo in front of the slot machine with the oversize check. Some of the nasty stuff, too: casino fights, gambling-related suicides...
“I met him, in fact, because some guy I was serving drinks to, real estate agent from Chicago, lost a hundred thousand bucks at the craps table, then went back to his room and blew his brains out. Turns out he had marital problems, was looking to cash it in one way or the other. You get very jaded in that business, but Tiger was very respectful about the guy, and I found that very touching. I gave him my phone number, in case he had to ask me some more questions, and a week later, he asked me out to dinner. We dated for two months and then got married. In Vegas, things happen quickly.
“Thing was, as soon as we got hitched, Tiger lost his libido. Completely. Two, three times a month, if I was lucky. That’s a funny thing about me, Scootie – I like to have sex with the man I sleep with.”
Scootie surprised himself by feeling suddenly and intensely embarrassed.
“Scootie! You’re blushing! That’s so sweet. Are we getting too deep into Audrey’s sordid affairs?”
“Well,” said Scootie, fingering his breadstick like a cigar. “I guess it’s... well, we just met.”
“I’m sorry. But you know? After watching you pay such careful attention to my wall o’ percussion, I just knew you were someone I could talk to.”
“So where was I?”
“You were not screwing your husband.”
“Well! That’s better. So. We tried everything – marital aides, soft-porn, counseling, Kama Sutra. Nothin’. Six months ago, we signed the final papers. Cheers?”
“Congratulations,” said Scootie, clinking her glass. “But if it’s not too personal a question – what do you think caused Tiger’s mysterious lack of interest?”
“For a long time, I thought it was me – a natural response, given my religious upbringing. But I’ve got a theory. In Vegas, the idea of sex is so externalized. YOu can only take so many naked legs and tits and butts before you get a little bored of it all. And poor Tiger, he was right in the middle of it, every working day of his life.”
“So how did you get from there to here?” Scootie asked.
“Ah! Another of Tiger’s misfortunes. As soon as we signed the divorce papers, I took off on a rare gambling binge. In Vegas, smart girls like me never gamble – we see too much of what it can do to people. But that day seemed like a good time to break some personal taboos, so Katie McGregor and me took a thousand bucks that I was saving for a trip to Guadalajara, and we just went nuts! I was down to two hundred when I hit a hot streak on a roulette table, and walked away with ninety thousand dollars!”
Scootie let out a low whistle.
“And who shows up to do the story?”
“Oh, no,” said Scootie.
“The same poor sap who had just signed away any stake in his wife’s financial fortunes. Poor Tiger. I bought him a nice diamond earring for a going-away present. After that, it was straight to the coast. When I found a ready-made percussion shop for sale, I remembered all the Latin rhythms of my Miami childhood and jumped on it. Katie McGregor, I might add, is my assistant manager.”
They talked for four hours, all the way through dinner, a bread pudding dessert and three gin martinis. At a quarter to midnight, Audrey’s hazel eyes got big with ideas, and she took Scootie by the hand.
“What?” he said.
“There’s something I want to show you. Goodnight, Max.”
Max telegraphed a wink from behind the bar. “You take care, Audrey.”
Scootie had all kinds of ideas about where Audrey might be taking him, and every single one appealed to him. They climbed a twisting stairwell at the back of the percussion shop and came out on a rooftop deck. Scootie could make out a large shed-like form, covered in chicken wire, and heard a distinct baritone mumbling.
Audrey drew him to the door and ulatched it. “They’re so sweet when they’re sleeping. Very calm and unaware.”
She reached into a small wooden niche and pulled out the largest, most muscular pigeon he had ever seen. The bird opened its wide yellow eyes and burbled in protest as Audrey wrapped her fingers around its wings.
“A thoroughbred homer,” she said. “Raised for flight. A blue bar – you can see the stripes across his wings. Here. Hold him with one hand like this – make sure he can’t flap his wings – then hold him upside down and run your hand over his chest.”
Scootie followed her instructions with characteristic grace. After a couple of nervous struggles, the bird fell asleep in his hands.
“Just like I thought,” said Audrey. “You’re a natural.”
A shaft of moonlight lit up her lips, drawn to a devilish smile, and she came closer to kiss him, the way a thrice-divorced 30-year-old should kiss. Scootie lost his grip on the bird, who fell to the floor with a thump, then staggered back to his box.
Audrey laughed. “Okay. So maybe you’re not such a natural.”
Scootie took her downstairs and made love to her on a large taiko drum, then drove her home, two miles up the steep hillsides of Big Sur.
They spent the next night at Scootie’s hike-in campsite, in a field of sand-colored grass. Scootie roasted a marshmallow while Audrey talked about sex.
“Oh, and I understand this thing you men have about the doggie position. It’s an animalistic, tribal sort of thing, and you just love the way we look over our shoulders with that helpless look in our eyes. Not that I don’t like it – any new angle is a plus for a wise woman – but some of you guys get carried away, start smacking our cheeks and whooping like a bronc buster.”
Scootie jabbed his marshmallow into the fire, letting it torch to a bubbling black before blowing it out to consume the crispy skin.
“And it’s men like you – the ones who burn their marshmallows – who are the worst butt-riders of them all.”
“You’re wrong,” said Scootie, licking the mess from his fingers. “I prefer the female superior, so I can get my hands on all essential parts.”
Audrey sighed wickedly. “We’ll have to try that out – after a few more marshmallows. She retrieved her stick from the fire and extracted a marshmallow with a perfect Playboy-bunny tan, then popped it into her mouth. As she chewed, her expression grew surprisingly serious.
“My other weakness, Scootie, is that I like to talk with the men I have sex with, which contributed to my first and second divorces. They seemed to think that talking about it took the passion out of it. But what are we supposed to do? Read each other’s minds?” She turned her gaze to the orange breaches of the fire. “And I’m sorely afraid that once you hit that dream mansion, we won’t have any more times like this.”
Scootie began to protest.
“No,” said Audrey. “Let me finish. I am at least three, four, maybe twelve years from wanting to get involved with members of your particular gender. Nothing personal. But I have an idea.”
The idea was for Scootie to take a couple of Audrey’s pigeons to Hallis, breed them until he had a decent-sized flock, then release the original pair so they could fly back to Audrey’s. They would then exchange a dozen birds and use them to deliver messages to each other. They would write about sex, and the things they wrote would seem deeper and more real, because they would travel the long beaches and rocky coastlines of Monterey Bay on the leg of a beloved pet, arriving at the whims of airflow, weather and the inattention of predators. When the final pigeon was sent off, they would meet the following Saturday in Big Sur to replenish their troops and, if both parties were amenable, explore some of the issues brought up in the intervening weeks.
Which brought Scootie to the wide, uneven artichoke fields of Watsonville, zipping along under a bright, fogless sky. He recalled his and Audrey’s second night, when he stuck his head through the tentflap to discover a full moon coating the grass in silver.
The three years since had aged her not a bit – in fact, had taken a few years off, as she distanced herself from her failed marriages. They sat outside at a St. Patrick’s arts festival, surrounded by craft booths, kids splashing in a swimming pool, and an Irish folk band playing on the deck behind the Ventana (Scootie could swear he’d seen the same musicians playing polkas at Oktoberfest). The sun sparked off Audrey’s teeth as she bit into an ice cream cone.
“I love that thing you wrote about masturbation,” she said (a bit loud). “It’s the same with me. I’m constantly fantasizing about people I would have no business fucking around with. I think I even did my priest once. Or was that my rabbi?”
Scootie laughed. “Must be nice to have two religions to get you off. Being a born-and-bred agnostic, I sometimes feel like I don’t have enough taboos to break. By the way, that Xerox reduction technique is fabulous!”
“I was feeling guilty,” said Audrey. “My letters were getting longer, and the poor pigeons were listing on takeoff. Are they legible?”
“Yeah. I got one of those senior-citizen magnifying strips. I’ll see what I can do about using that technique myself. There’s a good copy shop in Half Moon Bay.”
“Why don’t you use the copier at work?”
“I’m deathly afraid I’m going to leave the original in the machine. My co-workers don’t need to know quite that much about me.”
“You’ve got amazingly small writing as it is. Good thing that’s not reflective of your other qualities.”
Scootie smiled and stretched his chest, still stiff from the drive down. “It’s not the size, honey, it’s how neatly you print.”
“Well, I was thinking,” said Audrey, getting that look in her eyes, “that since it’s so sunny, we can go to a secret cove I know of and chip into that outdoor-sex fantasy of yours.”
“That sounds dandy,” said Scootie, biting into his popsicle. “But I was thinking I might hold off this time.”
Audrey smiled. “Do we have a budding love interest?”
Scootie had no idea what the hell he was talking about. Was he intending to stay faithful to a married woman he might not ever...?
“Scootie? Are you all right?”
“Oh, uh, yes,” said Scootie. “Ya know? I think I’m being a bit rash about this. If you will forgive me, I’d like to recant my last statement.”
“And fuck your brains out on a beach.”
“Now you’re talkin’!” Audrey placed a hand on Scootie’s ribcage and gave him a long vanilla kiss.
“And later on,” said Scootie, “we can try out that anal sex you were talking about. I still can’t believe you’ve never tried it.”
“I was always too shy to ask.”
“But not too shy to write.”
“The pigeons,” said Audrey, whacking Scootie on the butt, “are the couriers of truth.”
The next evening, sore all over, sunburned in new and unusual places, a dozen Big Sur homers mumbling in the back seat, Scootie passed the Santa Cruz Lighthouse to find the sun half-swallowed by the ocean. If a weekend of Audrey LaBrea cannot remove Juliana Kross from my head, he thought, I am in deep, deep trouble. He left the idea on a box kite over Natural Bridges, and returned to the highway for Hallis and home.