Liza Selena Dolly
Jack has just gotten comfortable with the idea that life around Ben will be one long rollercoaster ride when his life coach basically abandons him. Left with no blueprint for living, he goes to the old assignments: breakfast on the roof, two games in the amusement room (this time the Skee-ball and an old-school Asteroids machine), and a lengthy search for skipping-rocks. This ruthless agenda gives him a whole new store of energy, so he extends his hike to the coffeehouse, where he makes the radical departure of trying the Guatemalan, which proves a little smoother than the Peruvian – albeit without the psychogenic aftereffects. The blonde dwarf barista is absent, her place taken by a perky college brunette named Cher. On his return home, he surfs the seemingly limitless channels on the high-def, finding the greatest satisfaction when he lands on a well-done documentary or a familiar sitcom. The prime-time dramas are too gory and self-important, the reality shows too clearly aimed at idiots. Jack knows than Ben is trying to teach him open-mindedness, but when it comes to stupidity he intends to remain a bigot.
Against the backdrop of his recent chaotic adventures, this sudden solitude has created something new, a sense of relaxation that he hasn’t felt for years – perhaps ever. The only glitch is a trip to the computer, where a scan of the job sites reminds him of all the number-loaded jobs he will not be getting, and returns him to the desperado mood of two weeks before. He tries to console himself with a trip to Mr. Toots, but the echo of Suzanne’s voice – now playing along the walls of a laundromat café in San Francisco – is not strong enough.
Just as his overanalytic tendencies begin to crowd back in, Saturday arrives, and he knows he’ll have lots of other things to worry about. The very idea goes against a dozen tenets of the house-sitter’s code, but then, when it comes to Thompson, perhaps he’s allowed an exception. He’s just emerging from the shower, fully spruced, when he hears a snatch of jazz trumpet (he is later informed that it’s Miles Davis) and recalls that this is the doorbell. He wanders downstairs and opens the door to a red flame holding a pet-carrier.
“Jack! You look all slicked-up. Gimme a kiss, wouldja?”
In consideration of the sash just barely holding his bathrobe together, Jack leans over rather stiffly and gives Audrey a kiss on the cheek. Audrey responds with a disapproving look.
“Jesus, Jack. Are you that afraid of cooties? Now stand still, and close your eyes.”
He does so, and receives a kiss the texture and warmth of hot cocoa, topped off by a playful tongue-flick.
“Ah, there,” says Audrey. “Now let’s go to the roof so I can release my captives.”
Jack follows her all 47 stairsteps, marveling at the tasteful brevity of her white shorts, the way the fibers in her legs tighten and relax as she climbs. On the roof, she extracts a small blue-bar and hands it to Jack, then reaches back in for Mamet. Jack turns the new bird upside-down and strokes its chest.
“Marvelous!” Audrey exclaims. “A man who retains his lessons. That one’s called Martini, by the way. Now turn her back around, and we’ll go for the release.”
They count off the same gentle toss, and the birds react as they did in Salinas, taking a double-circle survey before heading out for Watsonville.
“I think they follow the shore,” says Audrey. She watches until the two birds are nothing but an umlaut against the clouds. “I suppose if I wanted to know for sure, I could get a teenie-weenie video camera…”
“Or learn to speak pigeon English,” says Jack, completely unaware that he’s making a pun. Audrey attacks him with another kiss.
“There,” she says. “That’ll keep your trap shut. Now put on some beach clothes, honey. You and I are going on an expedition.”
“Oh, um…” Jack taps two fingers against his temple. “Isn’t everybody showing up soon? Don’t I need to be here?”
Audrey bites her lip, a gesture that Jack finds excruciatingly appealing. “I’m under direct orders from Star Command. Ben is concerned that you’ll be too nervous to watch us re-make your household. So he figured I could distract you while the Monkeys go about their Monkey business.
Jack smiles. “I’m thinking you probably can.”
“Damn, Jack. I think I finally got a rise out of you. I was beginning to think I was losing my feminine wiles."
This is clearly an opening for another saucy retort, but Jack has used up his daily quota.
“Okay,” says Audrey. “Don’t hurt yourself. Go, put on something beachy. I’ll be downstairs by the amazing whitewater machine.”
A half hour later, Jack and Audrey are walking the long lot that usually plays host to trailers, RVs and senior citizens. Now it’s loaded up with kiddie rides and carnival games. Audrey stops before an inflatable slide. A little girl in a pink jumper comes soaring down, lands in a pile against the cushioned wall, then jumps right up and scales the ridged steps back to the top.
“Such energy!” says Audrey. “Did I ever have that much energy?”
“I get the feeling you did.”
“Yeah. I guess so.”
Jack picks at his blue admissions wristband. “So what’s this all about, anyway?”
“They put this on every year to raise money for local schools,” she says. “Just a kiddie carnival, really, but they have some bands at nightfall, and then of course the big fireworks show. It’s actually better than most of the 4th of July shows. I think the pyrotechnics guys use it to try out new stuff for next summer.”
They stop at a booth where kids are using hand-held electric fans to propel tiny sailboats along troughs of water. A little Japanese boy blows his craft to the far end and raises both fists.
“Ha!” says Audrey. “That’s so cute. Never had kids myself. Three marriages, no kids. I guess that’s why I’m into pigeons.”
Jack is always surprised that people (normal people, he thinks of them, in contradistinction with himself) are capable of divulging huge pieces of their personal histories in single sentences. He’s further distracted when Audrey takes his hand and pulls him to the next attraction, kids in safety harnesses scaling a rock wall.
“So how did you come by this mansion? You said something about an extortion racket?”
Oh God, thinks Jack. Must have been the pot. But he feels the enormity of the past year welling inside of him like hot water in a teakettle.
“Thompson was always saying, ‘Well, that’s the way they did it at my old company.’ Only, his old company was Enron. He just barely managed to stay out of prison. But it’s like he went through that whole mess and didn’t pick up a thing. What a moron. He was very fond of what we call ‘soft closings’ – which is when you send in the monthly reports without vendor confirmations. After all the accounting scandals – WorldCom, Tyco – those kind of procedures were strictly reined in by the SEC. I remember we were all walking around using the phrase ‘willy-nilly.’ ‘Well you just can’t send in those figures willy-nilly.’ And that became our nickname for Thompson: Willy Nilly. He said we were being worrywarts, wet rags. And… he had this way about him. He was the cool kid, the one where, if you just got to hang out with him a little, you felt like royalty. Plus, you know, among the number-farmers there was this unexpressed feeling about those scandals: for a little while, they made accounting sexy. People saw just how powerful we could be; if we really did things wrong, we could wreak some major kick-ass havoc. We were action heroes. I remember an old cartoon of three geeks in thick glasses and leather jackets that said ‘Hell’s Accountants.’ And the smallest guy says, ‘Hey, you wanna go gang-audit somebody?’
“We got caught. It wasn’t huge, but Corporate needed to can somebody, and all the reports were processed by me. Thompson could have taken the bullet – he was my supervisor – but he had that way of smiling and saying nothing and just breezing along. I was plagued by guilt and my own stupidity, so I just took it. They called it a ‘layoff,’ which sounds a lot nicer, and they gave me a severance. So now, from what I can figure, I’ve been blackballed. Fifteen years in the business, and I don’t even rate an interview.
“A few months later, I went on a road trip and ran into Thompson. He was cheating on his wife, in a very public way. I was too surprised, too typically chickenshit to say anything, but Thompson thought I was upholding some sort of male code. Moron. I don’t even know if it’s possible that he felt guilty over the SEC thing – I don’t think he’s capable of it. But he was grateful that I didn’t rat him out about the mistress, and I’m assuming that’s why he’s letting me stay at his house. I wasn’t about to turn it down, cause Lord knows I needed something.”
When Jack stops, he feels winded, as if he’s just given a five-minute compressed performance of Hamlet. He finds Audrey looking at him, her green cat’s eyes going all moist with sympathy. He knows he shouldn’t be enjoying this – there’s something shameful about relishing pity – but a beautiful woman actually seems to care about his sad, pathetic life, and there’s something in this gaze that absolutely paralyzes him.
“I’m so sorry, Jack. God, that is all so fucking wrong.” She wraps her arms around his torso and kisses him on the cheek. “We are going to have such a party tonight. We’re going to piss off all of that rat-bastard’s neighbors.”
Jack has a thought of telling her that he would prefer they didn’t, but he realizes that this is not entirely true. He smiles, and feels a sudden lightness, like helium coursing through his veins. (Although he’s pretty sure that actual helium in actual veins would not be an advisable combination.)
“Yes,” he says. “I think I would like that.”
Audrey pulls him forward. “Come on. I know a booth with kettle corn and lemon ice.”
Jack follows, feeling the pull of a good karma that he feared would never arrive.
They return to the house just before sunset, and Chateau Flores is a hive of activity. The driveway is stacked up with cars, a few of them spilling out onto neighboring curbsides. Let the pissing off begin, thinks Jack.
The entryway is surprisingly spare. A trio of silver balloons stands guard at the whitewater, and some enterprising soul has tied an inflatable monkey to the rocks so that he appears to be body-surfing. The high-def is showing a scene from High Society. He catches a glimpse of Terra slipping a tray into the dumbwaiter, and hears the chirpy laughter of Constance, but Audrey pulls him up the stairs before he can see more.
“As the lord of the manor, you are required only to show up and look spiffy. Now. Do you have a suit?”
“Oh! I can tell this is going to be a project. Tell you what. Point me in the direction of your wardrobe, and meanwhile take yourself a shower.”
“Right,” says Jack.
Audrey bats her eyes. “Unless milord requires some assistance with his shower?”
“I um… I um…”
“Yes, I’ve met ‘I um’ before.” She places a hand on Jack’s back and pushes him toward the bathroom. “Closet?” she shouts.
To the right of the fountain.”
“Jesus, man. Someday you’ve got to actually live in the house!”
Jack soaps himself before the nudist shower with more of an audience than usual – clots of family and friends taking the beach route to the festival. He gives himself a thorough scrubbing, and then does his best to sharpen the edges, going so far as to try out some of Thompson’s hair product. He’s not quite sure of the recipe. Leave it slicked down? Wipe it off? Comb it out? He goes for slick, and gets a good response from Audrey, who’s laying out men’s clothing in one of the bedrooms.
“Well! Ain’t you all Antonio Banderas/James Bond? Now here, put on these lovely silver and blue boxers. With your sordid personal history of streaking, I am color-coordinating down to the skin. After that, slap on these black pants – and don’t be shy. I’ve seen your junk, mister.”
He manages to slip on the boxers while shielding his privates with his bathrobe. Audrey gives him a scornful look. The black pants are his own, but the rest of the ensemble…
“Well yes, Thompson’s. I like you, honey, but nothing else in that closet is getting into this party. Thompson, on the other hand, has exquisite taste. Are you sure he’s not gay? Here. Put this on and… this.”
She hands him a black button-down shirt and a silver paisley tie. The sleeves are a little long, but the overall effect is pretty sharp, and it matches surprisingly well with the pants. After three attempts, he gets the right length on the tie, and fixes it with a diamond tack that bears the logo of C-Valve, Inc. Audrey holds up a black Italian double-breasted jacket with subtle gray pinstripes, and Jack slips his arms into the sleeves. When he turns to look into the mirror, he can hardly believe the reflection. Something of Thompson’s Latino wiseguy slickness has rubbed off on him. Audrey strokes a hand down either lapel.
“Mee-ow! If I saw you in these clothes, I’d want to tear them right off you. Except then you wouldn’t be wearing these clothes.” She laughs, amused at her own wit. “Now you need to wait here while I get myself cleaned up.”
Jack grows bored as he waits, but he’s under orders from a beautiful woman and powerless not to follow. He finds a copy of Maxim magazine on Thompson’s dresser, and is astonished at the lack of clothing on the models, some of whom are well-known actresses. When did this new slut society begin, and where was he when everything changed? His interest causes him to lose track of time, and soon Audrey is back, dashing in, spinning around, requesting a zip.
Jack is unable to move. She’s wearing a skin-tight, floor-length silver dress, spangled all over with beadwork of cobalt blue. The dress comes to a high collar, which conceals a lot of quality territory, but serves to accentuate her bare arms, angelically white and toned. With the zipper down, his vista includes most of her back, tiny freckles scattered across her shoulder blades like grains of black pepper and paprika. He’s feeling quite averse to sealing this from view, like a security guard locking up the Louvre at closing time.
“Ahem! Zipper, Jack?”
“I um… Right.” He braces a hand against her shoulder and pulls the zipper tight, then hooks a clasp at the top. Audrey circles back around and smiles. Her hair is tied up, dangling here and there in artfully random tendrils. She wears a blue eye shadow with just enough green to set off her eyes, but her lipstick is unapologetic crimson.
“So! How do I look?”
“I…” Jack’s hands manage to settle on the swells of Audrey’s waist. “I’m… speechless.”
Audrey jabs a finger at his tie. “I would be much more impressed if that were not your permanent state. Hold on a second.”
She locates a small shelf built into the top of the dresser and pulls out a spray bottle.
“This is about the only thing I ever liked about my second husband.” She sprays it on her fingers and dabs a sweet, sharp cologne at either side of Jack’s neck. The alcohol evaporates quickly, creating the sensation of ice crystals on his skin.
“Now,” she says. “Let’s go make that entrance.”
Audrey’s tight dress and high pewter pumps should prevent her from scaling the two sets of stairs, but she apparently possesses the powers of a Sherpa witch, and soon they’re standing before the rooftop doors, which have been painted silver for the occasion. (Jack prays it’s temporary paint.) He goes for the doorknob, but Audrey stops him, and pulls a cell phone from God knows where. “Tonight, we’ve got a little system.”
She sends off a blank text message. Jack hears a Mozart-sounding ringtone from the other side of the door. Two seconds later, both doors swing open, revealing a tableau awash in the tangerine light of evening.
“Presenting Sir Jack Teagarden, Lord of the Manor, and his escort, the divine Lady Audrey of LaBrea!”
The declaration is operatic and baritone; Jack is unsurprised to find it coming from Willie. What does surprise him is Willie’s outfit, a gray English suit with an ascot tie, top hat and silver walking stick. Holding the other door is Ivan in a classic James Bond tux, single-breasted black with white pleats, a black-and-silver bowtie and an eyepatch. He smiles like a gregarious maitre’d in a Fitzgerald novel.
“And how is my lord?”
“Geez, Ivan. What’d you do to your eye?”
Ivan lifts the fabric to reveal that all is well. “A pirate in a tux is still a pirate. It does, however, create an issue of depth perception.”
“Remind me to keep you away from the steak knives.”
Ivan goes from smile to grin. “The master is jovial this evening.”
Audrey takes Jack by the elbow and leads him to the tiki bar, done up in silver streamers and hosting two crystal pitchers.
“Gin or vodka?” asks Audrey.
“Martinis?” asks Jack.
“By the pitcher, in the old-school style.”
“Gin? I guess?”
“Gin it is!” She fills an oversize martini glass halfway up, inserts two olives on a toothpick, and hands it over. Constance walks by in a gown of salmon taffeta, with pink gloves that go all the way past her elbows.
“Hi Jack!” she says. “I love what we’ve done with the place. Oh! That’s the lobster bisque. Pardon me.”
She hurries to the dumbwaiter and extracts a large silver bowl of soup that matches her outfit. Jack watches her walk toward the main patio, feeling like he has stumbled into Buckingham Castle. He finds Suzanne walking toward them in a red retro ‘50s dress with white polka dots, poofy sleeves and a high starched collar.
“Hi,” she says. “Thanks for inviting me. Even though you didn’t know you were doing it.”
“I… well, I’m sure I would have…”
They’re joined by a lean, athletic-looking man with a face burnished by sun. He’s wearing a beige Western suit with chocolate suede shoulder patches, a silver bolo tie and a black felt cowboy hat over shoulder-length, gray-blond hair.
“Hi,” he says to Jack. “I’m White Horse. You’ve probably…”
“The rocks!” says Jack. “Wow. I feel like I’m meeting a celebrity. I really like your… work.”
“Thanks. I could teach you sometime. It’s not that hard, really. It just takes balance, and a lot of patience. And… a lot of rocks. Dude! Here’s our hostess.”
Jack turns to find Terra, looking like a Celtic goddess headed for the senior prom. She wears a blossoming satin gown with alternating swaths of spring green and copper, capped by a snow-white wrap, her blonde ringlets falling to either side. She smiles, pleased that her entrance has been noted. She comes to Jack and kisses him on the lips.
“Thank you, Jack. You don’t know what a thrill it is, seeing my Monkeys all dressed up. But enough of this. Let’s eat!”
The word “eat” echoes across the rooftop, and the Monkeys make way for a long table at the beachside railing, covered in a blue-gray tablecloth. An arrangement of fine china and silver carries the most elaborate spread of foodstuffs that Jack has ever seen. Terra ticks off the comestibles as they pass.
“Duck l’orange, whipped garlic potatoes with rosemary, braised vegetables, escargot (which Constance somehow figured out how to prepare), mushroom caps stuffed with crab and parmesan cheese, fresh-baked rye bread from Willie’s oven. Rack of lamb with caramelized onions (that’s White Horse), Suzanne’s family-secret jambalaya, and later, courtesy of yours truly, a dessert of crème brulee. And that large white dish at the end is either Colonel Sanders or Ben.”
Ben rises from his chair. He’s dressed in top hat and tails, brilliant white down to the bowtie and cane, as if he’s just stepped away from a Busby Berkley musical.
“Got a friend in the costume shop at Cabrillo College,” he says. “If I spill something on this, I’m a dead man. But I think it’s worth it. Monkeys! Take your places!”
The tribe produces a high-pitched chittering, but somehow less chimpy than usual, more South Hamptons. The Monkeys stand at their seats as Audrey leads Jack to the far end of the table. Ben lifts his martini glass.
“I hate to break it to Jack, but this party is yet another excuse for me to expound upon life. And tonight’s lesson is this: that a truly open-minded, worldly person should not only pursue the loony extremes of life, but should also learn to appreciate the finer points of so-called ‘normal’ society. In other words, the monkeys do clean up well.”
The monkeys cry out “Hear, hear!”
“That said,” Ben continues, “it is equally true that every worthy person deserves to be the focus of one whole entire toast, and one whole entire occasion, at least once in his or her lifetime. And so I raise this glass of gin and say, Hey-ho! All hail Jack Teagarden!”
The Monkeys shout the phrase back and drink. A silence arrives soon after, a space normally filled by the honoree’s response, but Jack is not about to magically produce a speech.
“Let’s eat!” he says, a suggestion that is not about to be refuted. The space above Big Brown fills with the chatter of utensils, like a flock of silverware seagulls.
After a serious bout of eating, the poor fat Monkeys take a while to recover. Willie is the first to find his feet, opening his guitar case and playing every soft-rock ballad he can think of: Eagles, Clapton, Orbison, Ronstadt. Terra finds her voice and begins tracing the overtones with harmonies. Then Ivan comes in, low and rumbling. Audrey gives Jack a certain look, leaving him no choice in the matter. She leads him to a spot on the rooftop underlain by a square of burnished rock, and he tries to remember what he can of slow-dancing: one hand on Audrey’s back, the other held against the cobalt beads at her waist, taut flesh swimming beneath his palm. He’s afraid to look at Audrey’s face, for fear that he will be overcome, but when he does she gives him a beatific smile, well worth the risk.
At this point, Willie flashes his jester’s grin and begins to walk away. The dancing couples give each other querulous looks and then link arm-in-arm to follow. Ben and Constance achieve the traverse with a tango. They round a wicker dividing wall and come upon a hidden enclave tiled in a black-and-white checkerboard and lorded over by a six-foot tiki god, grotesque features etched in black igneous jags, his enormous jaw-drop mouth hosting the coals of a fire that must have been burning all during dinner. At the far side is Suzanne, looking at home behind her keyboard, teasing the patterns of a song but not yet revealing her intentions. The eventual winner is an old torch song, “What’ll I Do?” The stuffed monkeys are quick on the uptake, and return to their dancing.
Jack feels that he is beginning to understand this: clockwise the direction of choice, the hint of Audrey’s magnolia perfume taunting him at a subterranean level. Suzanne is playing out the tail of the song when an explosion causes her to mangle a chord. The dancers look to the Concrete Boat, where an emerald flowerburst is attempting to embrace the sky, lighting up the crowd on the beach below. Then a silver aster; then a golden hydrangea. The monkeys dash to the railing, but Audrey holds Jack in place, turning her eyes to his like an astronomer grazing the Milky Way.
“There are certain moments, Jack, that can never be re-created.”
The way that she pauses on his name sends a string of cherry bombs down his spine. She closes her eyes; he descends.
After the fireworks, the streams of humanity make their way up the roads and hillsides under a fog of sulfur smoke. A few rivulets course beneath the high walls of Monkey Mansion. The Monkeys themselves are beginning to disintegrate: ties untied, high heels abandoned, long hair unloosed. The tiki god now overlooks a smoking lounge equipped with two bongs, a pipe shaped like a penis, two joints, Ben’s grand hookah and a single Dominican maduro cigar, firmly clamped in Willie’s tycoonish grin. Jack is seated on a long teak bench, Audrey’s gorgeous head upon his lap, framed in a blanket of lush red Rita Hayworth tresses.
“I think you got my story,” says Jack. “So what’s yours?”
Audrey gives a coquettish smile. “PBS could do a nine-part documentary on me, babe. But you have to promise you will hold not a trice of it against me.”
Jack looks away at the string of taillights running a conga line along the cliffs over New Brighton Beach. But he’s doing this mostly to pretend he’s thinking. He hasn’t felt this lucky in years, and why in the world would he hold anything against this mistress of pigeons who has delivered it all to his doorstep?
“Of course not,” he says.
“Okay.” She runs a finger along her lips, running her databases through a quick merge.
“I believe I already confessed to the three marriages and divorces.”
“All by the age of thirty.”
“Hey! You cursed. Do this: say ‘fuck.’”
Jack has had at least two visitations with a joint, so he sees no problem with this.
“Ooh! That makes me all… well. We’ll get to that later. Let’s see. During my last divorce, I was a cocktail waitress in Vegas. When the papers came through, I celebrated by gambling – which generally, when you’re a townie, is not a good idea. Put it this way: we secretly refer to the gamblers as ‘donors.’ This time, however, I won a hundred thousand dollars on a progressive slot machine. I immediately moved to Big Sur with my best girlfriend and opened a percussion shop. It took seven years for me to run it into the ground, but I was generously bought out by a wealthy restaurateur. I moved to Monterey, got a realtor’s license right before the boom, and now I own a lovely little house up the hill from Cannery Row, where the neighborhood car-owners have no appreciation for the artistic expressions of my pigeons.”
Jack takes all of this in, and finds that the whole of his response is a chuckle.
“What?” says Audrey.
“You’ve had a rich goddamn life, Audrey.”
“And you’ve been talking in complete sentences almost all day now. I like that.”
Jack loses his vision once more to distant objects: Terra and Ivan on the main patio, slow-dancing to an unplayed tune; Suzanne laughing open-mouthed at something that White Horse has told her; Ben in the corner with his hookah, smoking half-asleep.
“What would you like, Jack? What would you like most of all? Don’t think – blurt it out.”
Jack tries to wire a shortcut to his impulse drive, but of course when someone tells you not to think you’re bound to think a little.
“I want to get out of my… of Thompson’s suit. I’m tired of being elegant. And… I would love to take a shower.”
Audrey curls to a sitting position, pivots counterclockwise, stands up and reaches for Jack’s hands.
“Let’s go do that,” she says.
Willie is just picking up a spare to launch his score past 100 – Constance at the barre, stripped down to her stockings to try out some old ballet moves – when Jack and Audrey descend the stairs like a royal couple, completely oblivious to the athletic pursuits of their subjects. Just before they reach the next stairwell, Audrey asks, “So what’s the deal with that shower? Can people see you from outside?”
Willie smiles at Constance. Constance smiles back. They both burst out laughing.