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He wakes to find the little motel park covered in snow. This could be problematic. He was hoping to eventually take the Tioga Pass into Yosemite, but this time of year it’s a sketchy proposition.
He takes a leisurely bath, a meticulous shave. Rachel has apparently taken the snowfall as a signal to hibernate. He wonders how it is that a person can sleep this much.
He grabs his ski jacket and takes to the main drag. The flakes are sifting the air, ticking across his shoulders.
He passes Mae’s Pizza, the center of tonight’s spy games, but it’s much too early to make an appearance. The shop next door, Auntie’s Sal’s, offers a selection of country home products. His entrance jangles a string of bells on the door. A woman stands at the counter, squat, a stripe of silver running one side of her dark hair. She looks up from a crossword puzzle.
“Mornin’. Let me know if you need help with anything.”
“Sure. Thanks.” Maybe it’s because he’s got a whole day to kill, but he’s oddly certain that there’s something in this store that will give him an answer. Mailbox with nautical sails, whirligig painted like a chicken, birdhouse painted like a barn, and then a sudden burst of fragrance: lavender soap, citrus lotion, cinnamon candles, vanilla massage oil.
It’s not that he hasn’t earned her trust, but the power granted him by her passivity is a little unsettling. She may as well be a mannequin, he a window-dresser. He rolls her onto her stomach, places a pillow under her head and massages every square inch. The smell of the oil is perfect, sweet but not sickly. After a half hour, he turns her onto her back, skirting erogenous zones, ignoring his erection. His arms begin to wear out, so he stops and wipes her down with a bath towel.
After an hour of channel-surfing, as he’s dozing off, Rachel rises from the bed. She pauses at the entrance to the bathroom and looks back, scanning the room like a ship’s captain looking for land.
She goes inside and starts the bath.
He dresses just after dark, kisses his undead girlfriend and ventures out. The sky has cleared, leaving a breathless starlight over the white courtyard.
Skye crunches along the sidewalk and finds Mae’s Pizza sparsely populated. A week of sympathetic underfeeding has left him feeling famished, so he orders what amounts to half a chicken with a mountain of mashed potatoes. A petite redhead arrives to tinker with the sound system, which gives him hope.
In the spirit of his rather questionable plan, he begins with “Nature Boy,” as if he could conjure the old man like a hunter with a duck call. The hostess seems pleased with his performance. The rotation contains five other singers: an old dude singing classic country, his thin, nervous wife trying her best at musicals, a bearded biker on the southern rock highway, a tall, long-haired kid with a Bowie fixation, and a bald 60-year-old with an unusual talent for Radiohead. Skye is determined to fill the air above Bridgeport with as much Nat King Cole as possible: “Mona Lisa,” “Route 66,” “L-O-V-E,” “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and “Answer Me My Love.” He decides it’s best to remain aloof in his corner of the room, but he gets some nice applause and increasingly fetching looks from the hostess, Leticia.
Last call comes at midnight. He dials up his favorite, “Stardust,” chasing the nocturnal, pitch-perfect call of Cole’s lush baritone. His effort wins a minor ovation. He chats with Leticia as biker dude starts into “Gimme Three Steps.”
“Yep. Same time. You comin’ back?”
She’s got a smattering of freckles across her cheekbones, and a clipped country accent from the Midwest, maybe Indiana.
“I think so.”
“Good. You’ve got a beautiful voice.”
“Thanks.” He drops a ten in her tip jar.
Skye nods to the other singers on his way out. The 60-year-old gives him a fist bump. A three-quarter moon lights up the rimed street like Hoagy Carmichael’s fondest dream.
In the morning, he walks in the opposite direction and finds a coffeehouse that looks like a wedding chapel. He spends a coffee’s worth of time polishing his brain-function story, then buys a poppyseed muffin in the hopes of feeding some of it to Rachel. The weather has lost its charm, a white slate ceiling producing nothing but cold.
He repeats the full-body massage, and at one point Rachel lets out a contented hum. Anything. He’ll take anything. He goes back to sleep, his limbs wrapped around her vanilla body. When he wakes, he tries to watch some television but the inactivity is driving him nuts, so he hits the narrow strip of open carpet for crunchies and leg lifts. He finds a deck of cards, plays a couple dozen hands of solitaire and, much to his relief, finds that he has killed off the long, dreaded day.
At the parlor, he orders a large combo pizza, imagining he can stow the leftovers in his truck and use them for breakfast. He’s indulging in a hot fudge sundae when Leticia rolls in to set up her equipment. She gives him a smile.
It’s Friday, and it looks like it’s going to be a healthy crowd. This may, in fact, be one of the few entertainments in town. The beginning rotation is a full dozen, and he’s a little bit relieved that he won’t have to come up with so many songs. He decides to go with Gershwin: “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “They All Laughed.” Soon after, the mic is taken by an Asian lady who delivers a kittenish reading of “Fever.” She’s all the way to the verse about Captain Smith and Pocahontas before Skye realizes it’s Andorra. She accepts her applause and takes a seat at his table.
“You’re good,” says Skye.
“I’ve got three songs.”
“More than some people.”
She takes a sip of beer. “You’ve been having one hell of an adventure.”
He smiles. “And you know that because…?”
She taps his knee. “Nothing evil. We were tracking your purchases. Five years ago, one of our beneficiaries went to Vegas, blew all his non-disclosure money and was so depressed about it he threw himself off a building. Money is a powerful drug. You, on the other hand, have made excellent use of your windfall – until now. What are you doing in Bridgeport?”
Skye sips from his martini, feeling like a poker player. “I would like to take my girlfriend Rachel on a tour of Sarge’s estate.”
Andorra delivers an artful pout. “And here I was thinking you had come back for me.”
“I half expected you to show up somewhere in my travels. I was kinda hoping you would. But now I have to behave myself.”
She nudges her coaster like she’s moving a pawn. “You signed an agreement, and were handsomely rewarded for it. This request is distinctly out of bounds. We are not a goddamn amusement park.”
Andorra operates at such a calm baseline that it’s hard to know if she’s really angry. This thought is interrupted by Skye’s turn at the mic. The choice this time is “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” He’s grateful for the break, and also for the familiarity of the song, which allows him to deliver it despite the hundred thoughts flying through his head.
He returns to the table, where Andorra is still clapping. “Sarge was right. You’re very smooth.”
“Thank you.” Skye crosses his legs and smacks his lips. “A couple weeks ago, Rachel’s father shot Rachel’s mother, and then he shot himself.”
“Terrible,” says Skye. “Awful. Her reaction has been this state of shocked hibernation in which she has almost zero interaction with the world. I’ve tried just about everything to spark her back into life, and I have a hunch that the Springs might just do the trick.”
“Okay. That’s… admirable.”
“That’s my motivation. Here’s Sarge’s. I have a biography of George Gershwin, signed by George Gershwin. The autograph includes a handwritten rendition of the opening theme to Rhapsody in Blue.”
“Where did you find it?”
“A bookstore in Manhattan. Rachel uses illustrations from old books in her work as a collage artist. I bought her five boxes of books for three hundred dollars, and this book was part of the collection.”
“All I want for the book is two days at the Springs.”
Andorra runs a finger along her lips. Skye’s trying hard not to find this distracting. She points a finger at him. “Can I see it?”
He waves to Leticia (who looks disappointed), grabs his pizza box and walks Andorra down the street. She perches on the bed next to a dozing Rachel.
“Poor thing. She’s really knocked out.”
“Yes.” Skye pulls an aluminum briefcase from the dresser and sets it on a small table. Inside is the book, fitted into a Styrofoam cutout. He opens it to the autograph. Andorra gives it a long study, then uses her iPhone to take a picture of the autograph and the cover.
They stand on the wooden walkway that connects all the rooms. The moon is struggling through a bank of clouds in the eastern sky.
“No promises,” she says. “I’ll call you before noon to let you know.”
Andorra starts to leave, then turns back. “We… confirmed your presence in Bridgeport by the dinner you purchased. But our first hint was when you sang ‘Nature Boy.’ A few months ago, Sarge gave Leticia a new soundboard for her birthday. What she doesn’t know is that it’s rigged with a transmitter so he can listen to the singers from home. I thought you might find that amusing.”
Skye smiles. “You have redeemed my faith in magic.”
She kisses him on the cheek, slaps his ass and says, “Good.” Then walks off down the drive.
Photo: Bridgeport, CA