Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Exit Wonderland, Chapter Eighteen: Persephone

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Mickey and Skye stand between the Caddy and the stealth pickup.

“I sort of wish I could tag along with you. On the other hand…”

“You want to be Nature Boy.”

Mickey searches the data banks. “Nat King Cole?”

“That’s the one.”

“Yep. No offense to she who will not be named, but it’s nice to come to a junction and go right or left without a conference. Maybe even do something stupid, with the luxury of nobody knowing about it.”

Skye chuckles. “Feels like I’m passing the torch.”

Mickey looks toward the truck. “You will definitely have to let me know what happens. Lots of pain in that girl. Should I tell her goodbye?”

Skye kicks a stray pebble, is surprised when it clangs against a pipe. “At this point, I’m going by what they say about coma patients: you never know what’s going to get through so you may as well say it.”

Mickey approaches the window. Rachel is curled against the headrest, one hand wrapped around the seatbelt. Mickey ducks inside to kiss her on the cheek. She stretches, cat-like, then resumes her position.

“Come back, Persephone. We need you for the spring.”

He turns and gives Skye a hug. “Best of luck, Captain. Send me some updates.”

“Thanks, Mick. And thanks for the preposterous idea.”

“Anytime.” Mickey climbs into the Caddy and fires it to a baritone rumble. He hits the horn, producing the theme from Beethoven’s Fifth, and rolls away.

Skye gets into his new-old truck, pulls out a map and considers his future.

His initial thought is of icons – the icons in Rachel’s collages. Perhaps a spark of recognition will help to bring her back. He heads north along the Missouri River, Lewis and Clark’s river, Nebraska whispering just across the water. On the way to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, they enter a rainstorm, and Skye sees thousands of leaves drifting across the road.

“Look, honey, isn’t that odd? Why would wet leaves be blowing around like that?”

The running narration is something he decided he needs to do – although it does feel a bit silly.

He pulls over to get some gas, and notices something strange on his bumper: a dozen green smears, like guacamole constellations. The connection doesn’t take long to land: those weren’t leaves. Those were frogs, tens of thousands of frogs migrating across the road. He can only imagine how many went under his tires.

He finds a radio station and sings along to an old Roger Miller tune, “Chug-a-lug,” hoping to mask the shadow of death, but suspects he has failed when Rachel takes his hand. Still, the feel of her fingers is nice, and the roadway is clear of amphibians.

They head west on I-90, and wake up in a motel in Mitchell. He guides Rachel into a diner and gets her to share some of his pancakes. The day is brilliant, and the coffee has had its effect, so Skye sets out to tell his entire life story. Somewhere along age eleven, he lands on a relevant subject.

“We were stationed in Monterey, at the Naval Postgraduate School, and then my dad got orders to San Jose, about 60 miles to the north. It being summer, we decided to cover that 60 miles via Yellowstone Park.

“I loved Yellowstone! The hydrothermal stuff was mesmerizing. The mudpots like boiling buckets of paint, that great rotten-egg smell. We got back to California a day early, so we parked the camper in the mountains overlooking San Jose. And naturally, our cat gets out and disappears into the woods, and looking back I have to say, We took a cat to Yellowstone? Are you fucking kidding me? Oh look, honey, we’re crossing the Missouri.”

To which Rachel responds, “Hm.” And buries herself in her blanket.

The rest of the day is one icon after another, beginning with the Badlands. Thinking of the alarm clock, Skye pulls Rachel to a bench at the overlook, and holds her head in his hands so she’s forced to look: hundreds of yellow, orange and red mounds, topped with snow like mineral desserts.

Driving through Rapid City, Skye spots a pack of dinosaurs on a high ridge and wanders the streets until he reaches them. At a park, the lights of town stretched out beneath them, he lifts Rachel’s hand to the metallic belly of a brontosaur.

They make Mt. Rushmore after nightfall and find the presidents lit up by spotlights. This being the icon of icons, Skye forces himself to stay with Rachel and stare for a good twenty minutes. He’s actually a little disappointed – Rushmore looks exactly like it’s supposed to look. Driving away, he lands on a rockabilly surf tune and hears a phrase pinging around his head: To see Abe Lincoln glowing in the cold arena light. He recites it a dozen times as they snake through the Black Hills.

They wake up in Gillette, Wyoming and stop in Buffalo for Chinese food. Climbing into the Bighorn Mountains, Skye breaks into the leftovers and is still noshing as they pass a sign that reads Powder River Pass. He repeats the phrase several times, then sees what he’s eating and expands it to, And still we eat our snow peas on the Powder River Pass. Then recites it twenty times as Rachel occasionally grunts.

At sunset they arrive in Thermopolis, a hot springs park with all the subtlety of a children’s pizza parlor. Skye manages to get Rachel into shorts and shirt, and walks her to a hot tub that smells of rotten eggs. A curious yellow triceratops peers over their shoulders as an afterglow paints the lunar hills. He dips his hand into the water and dabs it on her face.

“Rachel, I’m trying real hard here, but I gotta admit, it’s getting a little frustrating. I would be thrilled to meet your real self before we get to California.”


Once again, the West is wearing him out. Once they reach I-80 at Rock Springs, he finds himself on an old track, and he’s too tired to finagle his way out of it. He gets through Salt Lake City as quickly as possible, and spends the remainder of the day conquering the Salt Flats. The graffiti on the roadsides, black rocks against white salt, is the exact opposite of the Kona lava fields. It’s just now that he realizes he drove almost completely across Utah without thinking of Lindsy.

They enter the Jack Mormon paradise of Wendover, Nevada, and are greeted by Wendover Will, an illuminated 63-foot cowboy. Skye gets them a room at a casino and takes Rachel to the main floor to absorb the merry chaos of the slots. He settles at a penny machine featuring yodeling goats, and enjoys the feel of Rachel leaning on his shoulder.

“Where are we?”

It’s the first three-word sentence she’s produced since the shutdown began. He fights the urge to over-react by keeping his eyes on the screen.

“We’re in Nevada, honey. We’re playing the slots.”

“Hm.” She runs a hand into his hair. He hits the Spin Again button.

The three words give him the idea that he’s headed in the right direction, so he bullets across the state, picking up sandwiches at truck stops and driving on. The shadow of Lindsy reappears at Winnemucca. He drives on. As they near Lovelock, curtains of snow drift across the roadway. Rachel comes awake to watch them, and smile.

Speed is essential, so he sticks to the interstate, all the way into Reno. He takes Rachel into a casino for a five-dollar slots refresher, then courses south through Carson City, onto the sweeping curves of 395. They arrive in Bridgeport at midnight. Skye pulls into the same motor lodge, and, because it’s the off-season, gets the same room he had before. He feels the loop of his travels clicking into place.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Exit Wonderland, Chapter Seventeen: A Wolf, A Bison and a Grizzly

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A Wolf, a Bison and a Grizzly

“We’re not particularly pursuing a straight shot, are we?”

Mickey cranks down the perpetual opera. “Did you enjoy the Delaware Gap?”




“Following the arc of my logic?”

“This is not the efficiency tour so much as the… postcard tour.”

“Smart man!”

Skye watches as a billboard for cheese approaches and disappears. “Are you certain that this is all right with the diva?”

Mickey gives a sly smile.

“You didn’t even tell her, did you?”

“Maddie and I have an agreement that we will, when the opportunity presents itself, live large. Inherent in that agreement is an obligation on my part to occasionally surprise the hell out of her. She’s in London this week, after which I’m supposed to meet her in San Francisco for Otello. Imagine her surprise when her husband pulls up in the family limo.”

“You’re an evil genius.”

“‘Bout time you figured that out.”

They’re headed southwest on 81 toward Knoxville, Tennessee, having spent the night in Bristol, Virginia. The road takes a sudden sweep to the right, crossing over a river. Mickey pulls into a turnout.

“How’s our patient?”

Skye peers into the back. “Snoozing, as ever.”

“I’m working on a twenty-year memory, but I seem to recall that the next ten miles are fairly incredible. Why don’t you prop her up so she can see?”

“I don’t know,” says Skye. “I hate to wake her up.”

“Skye. Our entire mission is to wake her up. Stop being so nice. Is an alarm clock nice?”

“God no.”

“But if the alarm clock doesn’t do its job, you’re screwed.”


“So. Do your job.”

Skye tightropes into the back, where they have fitted the Caddy’s spacious interior with a small mattress. He kisses Rachel into the shades-half-drawn stare that passes for wakefulness, then pulls her up to the bench seat. After belting her in, he gives Mickey the high sign.

The road enters a narrow canyon, framed by walls of blue rock, and snakes back and forth over the river. The water runs like glass through the channels, simmers along the shallows, and boils white over the rockfalls. Skye cradles Rachel with her face toward the window, in the hope that some of it will get through.

He manages to get Rachel interested enough in St. Louis to kneel on the mattress and see the Arch, but soon she’s back to horizontal. They call it a day in Columbia, Missouri, at an intriguing hotel called Samuel’s Inn. The namesake turns out to be Clemens – the Mark Twain Forest is just out of town. The exterior is full-on log cabin, and the lobby centers on a fireplace fashioned from beige river rocks. The opposite wall features the taxidermied head of every imaginable North American mammal, including a wolf, a bison and a grizzly.

Mickey handles the arrangements while Skye sits with Rachel on a cowhide couch. Getting her to their room is surprisingly easy, no worse than propping up a drunk. She quickly disrobes and heads for the clawfoot tub.

Skye settles into a burgundy leather armchair to continue the Gershwin biography (the Girl Crazy pit band included future stars Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Jack Teagarden and Jimmy Dorsey). He turns the page to find handwriting. His initial response is anger – who would mark up such a beautiful book? But then he spots the vandal’s signature: Gershwin. Followed by three measures of handwritten music.

“Holy motherfucking shit.” He phones Mickey.

“I’m sorry. The chauffeur has retired for the evening.”

“Mickey. Seriously. I have got to show you something.”

“Okay. Lobby, ten minutes?”

Mickey arrives with two beers. Skye waits on the cowhide couch, like a hen sitting on a golden egg.

“What’s up?”

Skye shows him the cover of the book. “Biography of Gershwin, a gift from my zombie girlfriend. Published 1931. Could you please set down that beer?”

“Sure.” He takes a sip and sets his bottle on the coffee table. Skye opens the book and hands it over. He watches as Mickey’s eyes scroll the page and get big.

“Jesus Mary fucking Magdalene.”


“‘Dearest Emily: Cannot thank you enough for your constant encouragement and inspired library services. You are an angel. Cheers.’ George freakin’ Gershwin. Where the hell did she get this?”

“A bookstore in Alphabet City. Any idea what the music’s about?”

“There’s music?”

“Bottom right.”

“Holy crap. Well, there’s a way to find out. Hold this.” He hands him the book, takes a swallow of beer, sets down the bottle, takes back the book and heads for a upright piano in the corner.

“You play?”

“I forage.” He sets the book on the music holder and feels around for the notes, throwing out the bad ones, starting over, a half, pair of triplets, a series of tied eighths descending in an offbeat staircase. Finally, he runs off all three measures at a steady clip and smiles.

Skye taps a hand on his temple. “God! I totally know that. What is that?”

“That,” says Mickey, “is the opening theme to Rhapsody in Blue.”

They finish their beers and try to have a casual chat, but the book sits there, glaring at them.

“Perhaps tomorrow,” says Mickey, “we can find a suitable holding case.”


Skye returns to the room. Rachel lies on the bed, looking much more peaceful than in her daytime haze. He takes a ring of her hair and runs it around his thumb.

“Darling, that book you gave me is much more than you imagined.”

Her long, slow breath fills the room.

“Good night, Rachel. I know it’s hard, but I hope you come back someday.”

He turns off the light and tries to visualize sleeping. The book glows white on the nightstand.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Exit Wonderland, Chapter Sixteen: Connecticut

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Rachel has been pursuing her sudden romance courtesy of piled-up sick days at a job she refuses to describe. Skye has decided not to press the issue. Given the ironclad contract with Sarge, he has his own secrets, and hasn’t even bothered to offer the rich-uncle cover story.

So every morning, he is kissed awake by a sexy Jewess in smart, preppy-looking clothes: plaid skirts, colored stockings, clean white blouses and delicate sweaters. She is the graphic designer for an off-Broadway theater group; sales rep for an art gallery; receptionist for a small publishing house. All he really knows is that she enters the downtown station for the 1, 2 and 3 lines, and that she gets back at six.

Skye’s occupation is walking. He has never experienced a city that inspires so much pedestrianism, and he notices how much leaner the natives are than in supposedly health-conscious California. He enters the park past a batting practice with 40 fielders, crosses the Great Lawn to the Met museum, descends Fifth Avenue, golden leaves dripping from the trees, and ends up at Rockefeller Center, where he finds a café overlooking the soon-to-be ice rink. He opens his laptop and discovers an email from his favorite source, the science writer/poet Diane Ackerman. The assignment is a story about the right brain-left brain connection for Writer’s Digest. One of Diane’s books is about brain science, but recently the subject has become more personal. Her husband, also an author, suffered a stroke that caused a complete loss of his language skills. But now he has regained so many of these powers that he is working on his next book. Diane attributes the recovery to the brain’s astounding plasticity. Other regions of his brain have apparently re-wired themselves to cover for the damaged area. He’s about to type in some follow-up questions when his phone goes off.

“Hello, sweet thang.”

“Wow. Seventies flashback.”


“You card. Hey, could you meet me at St. Mark’s Place in an hour?”

“Umm, okay.”

“Fantastic. Another treasure hunt. Call me a wuss, but I kinda need an escort.”

“No prob. See you there.”

Skye knows he’s close to the 6 line, but the overcast looks harmless and once again he’s walking. He takes Park Avenue and tries not to look too touristy as he scopes out the Chrysler Building.

He finds Rachel in a sunglass shop, trying out various levels of funkitude. She wears a checked black-and-white coat that makes her look so sharp he can’t stand it. The destination is Alphabet City, which, he has to admit, kinda gives him the creeps. He straightens his posture, thinking bodyguard, Secret Service.

The store is Alphabet Books, East Sixth and Avenue C. The interior carries the distinctive rotten-beer smell of an old saloon. Their contact is Squilly, a Jamaican beauty with the cheekbones of an Egyptian princess. She leads them to a corner piled high with moving boxes.

“How could I not tink of you, dawlin? Drama books – set designs, drawins o’ costumes. It’s a gold mine!”

Rachel digs in like a badger, flipping lids, fanning pages. She shows Skye a sketch of Lady Macbeth in a purple gown, standing before a dark stone castle.

“How much, Squilly?”

Squilly fixes her hands on her hips, long nails done up in a sparkled green.

“I hate to ask anytin, what wit dat look in your eyes. Five dollah book?”

“Okay.” She turns to study the pile and run her calculations: how much in the budget, how much they can drag onto the subway.

“How much for all of it?”

Skye takes some pride in the response: four dark eyes, all of them surprised.

Squilly extends her nails toward the boxes as if she’s casting a spell.

“Tree hunred.”


He has delighted his woman; he has also condemned them to hard labor. They lug five boxes to the curb. Squilly comes out with some masking tape to reinforce one of the lids. It takes twenty minutes to hail a cab. Then they have to carry the boxes into 666, into the elevator, out of the elevator, into the apartment. Skye sets down the final load and collapses onto the futon next to Rachel. She leans her head against his.

“The bad news is, I no longer have room for you.”

“If I were not so tired,” says Skye, “I would be laughing uproariously.”

It’s been raining all night, and Rachel’s wakeup kiss acted more like a snooze button. He wakes to silvered light and the scent of damp air, fairly certain that the day is already half-spent. The exit from bed takes a little more effort than usual, Rachel having lined the edge of the futon with book boxes.

He enters the bathroom to find a wrapped package. What it’s wrapped in is pretty intriguing: a ‘60s-vintage centerfold spread from a Playboy magazine. The subject is a perky, milk-fed blonde, back when white girls were white. Were it not for the lack of clothing, she could be a Lawrence Welk dancer. Along the curves of an over-the-shoulder shot, Rachel has inscribed a commentary in her sleek handwriting, like a tattoo along Debbie Ray’s backside: Behold! A little surprise from yesterday’s purchase. It’s all right if you visualize Debbie Ray while we’re screwing, but keep in mind that she’s probably 80 by now. Mwah! –R

She has managed to wrap his gift using strategic tabs of masking tape, so it’s easy to disassemble the photo spread without inflicting damage. The object inside is a biography of George Gershwin. A post-it note reads, For the lover of old songs, a hidden treasure from the Alphabet trove. Thank you for feeding my crazy muse. X X O O

A rainy day is not necessarily the best time for a trip to Ellis Island, but Skye is feeling the need to set his feet somewhere off of Manhattan. Most of the tour is inside, anyway – particularly the grand admissions hall – but the most striking moment comes outside in a full downpour. He stands under his umbrella, scanning the list of names on the waterside walls, and the names become voices, a cacophony of foreign dialects filling the great hall.

Across the gray-blue water, the buildings go on forever, their tops slipping in and out of the clouds. The new World Trade building knifes out of the downtown gap. Having stepped this little way off, he wonders what the hell he’s doing. Sarge’s money doesn’t change the fact that he’s a Californian, that at some point he will need to return to his apartment. But what is he supposed to do about Rachel? He can’t just pack her up and take her with him. But he’s not sure if he can leave her, either.

By the end of his long subway ride, he concludes that he is the victim of rainy-day morbidity, and vows to enjoy his adventure two more weeks before returning to a logical existence.

His timing falls into the cracks: late, but not so late that he needs to text. He reasons that Rachel probably doesn’t mind some alone time after work. He opens the door to the overwhelming sweetness of narcissus, and now understands the correlation of myth to plant – that flower is so into itself. He makes a mental note to throw it out before they both go crazy from the scent.

Rachel is a small series of hills under a green comforter, fast asleep. The rain must have dragged her down, too. Skye makes himself a sandwich and watches an old sitcom with the help of some headphones. He makes a covert study of Rachel’s latest work, a spatial parody of The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. The work makes use of every fairyland character imaginable: sprites, ogres, nymphs, the big bad wolf, even Tinkerbell, who is ringleading an orgy involving Hansel, Gretel, Jack, Jill and Icarus.

After another sitcom, Skye comes to the conclusion that Rachel has embarked on an all-night snooze. He picks up the Gershwin biography and sits in a small armchair to read. The city outside sends waves of traffic noise to accompany the steady drip of water against the window pane.

He wakes in the armchair and finds that the small green hills have not moved. Her half-melted Salvador Dali clock reads ten, which cannot be good. He slides next to her on the futon and nudges her shoulder till she rolls over, wearing a drowsy, blank expression.

“Rachel? Honey? You overslept.”

Still blank.

“Are you sick?”

After a long pause, she nods.

“Do I need to call in for you?”

A barely discernible shake. She rolls back over.

“Okay. Sorry you’re sick.”


Skye performs a lengthy toilette and puts on his rainwear. He watches Rachel’s breathing and concludes that she’s not asleep.

“Going for a bagel, honey. Bring you an Asiago?”


He’s found a lovely little place on Broadway, Hiram’s, that offers bagels fresh out of the oven, strong coffee, and a counter at the window, perfect for writing and the occasional pedestrian-watch. This is, in fact, an element of the article he’s writing. When a writer is stuck for a word or an idea, he will often look off in the distance. This is usually seen as an attempt to rest his eyes. But the right hemisphere of the brain, which generates new concepts, is also responsible for handling visual imagery. So, in looking for an idea, the writer massages that portion of his brain by seeking visual stimulation.

For the coffeehouse male, this can be a hazardous maneuver. The male brain latches onto what it likes, and sometimes the unfocused idea-gaze turns into an unintentionally rude stare. Skye is occasionally tempted to rush across the room and say, “I’m sorry, your ass was helping me to find a word.”

The other distraction is endemic to the denizens of uptown Broadway. Manhattan women are, on average, much better-looking than most, and even in a rainstorm they’re dressed to the nines. A Russian-looking brunette struts past in a black-and-white checked coat, bringing a thought to the surface. Rachel didn’t look sick at all. But her eyes were sealed off, like the locked door. Like the dark room.

He orders an Asiago bagel to go, and makes his way back.

He pops the Asiago into the toaster, hoping that the pungent aroma will bring her to life. When the toaster pops, Rachel rolls over, pulls up her legs and stumbles to the bathroom, barely giving Skye a look. He puts the bagel halves on a plate and spreads the cream cheese.

A half hour later, she’s still in there, but at least she’s running a bath. Skye finds Ordinary People on the TV and settles in. A few minutes later, she wanders out, naked. She sees the bagel next to her light table, takes a bite, and drops the rest into her wastebasket. Skye takes her by the elbows.

“Rachel? What’s wrong? Is there something wrong?”

Still the locked door, but she manages a word: “Cold.”

“Honey, you’re naked.”

She looks down at her body, then goes to the corner to pull on a pair of sweats and a T-shirt. She returns to the bed, and he’s lost her again.

After the movie, he goes to the corner for Thai food, and manages to feed her two bits of chicken curry before she pushes it away. He feels like he’s dealing with a sleepwalker, and he’s afraid to wake her up. After ingesting a crime show and another chapter of the Gershwin bio (his early career as a producer of rolls for player pianos), Skye gives up, turns off the lights and curls up next to Rachel to see if he can force himself to sleep.


Someone’s running a finger along his ear. He wakes to find Rachel kneeling over him.

“Stratford… Connecticut.”

She stops between the two words to take a breath, as if the effort of speaking is exhausting her. Then she lies back down, curled against the wall.

Skye rubs his eyes into focus and reaches for his phone, balanced on a bookbox. He pulls up Google and types it in.

--Stratford, Connecticut

Residents of this peaceful seaside town were shocked to learn of the shooting deaths of orthodontist Marcus Grossman and his wife, Shelly Graysen Grossman, late Monday night.

Police have only begun their investigation, but did report that the Grossman residence showed no signs of forced entry. Records show that Dr. Grossman has been the subject of several reports of domestic abuse, although no charges were ever filed.

He finds himself across the street from a dark, heavily gabled apartment building. He’s fairly certain that this means something. A man in a tweed fedora stops beside him.

“The Dakota Apartments. Where John Lennon was killed.”

“Just my luck.”

The man starts laughing, which serves Skye right. He starts laughing as well, then stops.


Mickey tips back his hat and smiles. “Delilah’s boy! I’m sorry…”

“Skye.” They shake hands.

“With Delilah, I tend to lose track.”

“Absolutely.” He looks back at the Dakota. “I don’t know if I’ve had a more disheartening night in my life.”

“Oh! But you can’t take Delilah’s rejections personally. She is the human incarnation of ‘La donna è mobile.’ I would guess that…” Mickey performs a theatrical self-hushing, clamping a hand over his mouth. “You’re talking about John Lennon, aren’t you?”

Skye nods.

“Well how long were you going to let me ramble on, for God’s sake?”

Skye smiles. “As long as it took.”

Mickey pats him on the shoulder. “I think I need to buy you a drink.”

“I think you do.”

He expects another visit to Mickey’s apartment. What he gets is a rambling trek past Lincoln Center to a tiny bar on 58th and Ninth called Cavalleria Rusticana. The interior is dark, full of archways, the red walls dotted with framed photos of opera singers. Something old and Italian plays from the P.A. The man behind the bar is built like a teamster, with a neatly trimmed beard and a head of thick, dark hair. He sees them and smiles.


“Buongiorno, Pietro!”

The man lets out a gravelly laugh. “It’s not fair – your Italian is so much better’n mine.”

“Mi dispiace, signore. But you got dat Bronx thing.”

“Been workin’ on it all my life.”

“Gimme some grappa. Due, per favore.”

“I’m gonna assume you mean two.”

“Yes, please.”

Mickey hands Skye a tumbler and takes him to a corner booth with the requisite dark varnish and black upholstery.

“That man at the bar is Peter Mascagni, great-great grandson to Pietro Mascagni, who wrote the great verismo opera Cavalleria rusticana. Which translates as ‘rustic chivalry.’ Which is a great name for a bar.”

Skye takes a sip of the grappa, which offers the same fumey quality as brandy. “Y’know, most guys go to bars to get away from their wives.” He nods at a photo of Maddalena Hart in 18th century dress, braided blonde hair, a Spanish wrap.

Mickey looks at the picture and sighs. “Micaëla, from Carmen. I could tell you a story about my wife and Micaëla that would make your ears rotate.”


Mickey gives a devilish chuckle. “You are not far off. But enough. Basta! Continue this story of yours. The Jewish girlfriend, the bottomless funk.”

“Yes. Um… a few nights ago, she managed to produce two words: Stratford, Connecticut. So I looked up Stratford, Connecticut and found a murder-suicide involving a Mr. and Mrs. Grossman.”

Mickey looks sincerely shocked. “Her parents?”

“Her parents. Her father had a record of domestic violence; her mother had a record of not pressing charges. And there’s another thing. In the short time I’ve known her, Rachel has shown this tendency for brief disappearances into dark places. I call it the locked door.”

“So she expected this.”

“I think so. And now that it’s happened, she has checked out. She rarely leaves her bed, eats just enough to stay alive. Her longest sentences are two words. Frankly, I don’t know how long I’m obligated to play nursemaid – or whether she’d be better off in more qualified hands. Someday, I probably need to go home.”

Mickey takes a sip of grappa and rolls it around his mouth. “I wonder… if there is a place where your needs and Rachel’s needs might overlap. Is she dangerous?”

“Not at all. A kind of hibernation.”

“No calls from the police?”

“No. Sadly, it was a pretty open-and-shut case.”

Mickey’s eyes shift around the room, as if he’s working some kind of mathematical formula. “So you live in… what? San Jose?”

“Yes. But I need to go through Kansas City.”

“Whatever for?”

“I have a pickup truck in a parking garage.”

“Naturally.” He rolls his fingers on the table. “I had a friend in California who grew up in Boston. She left Boston when her brother was murdered. She has come to realize that the recovery process has been easier on her than on the rest of the family, because she’s not faced with the physical reminders: the old school, the old house, the liquor store where he was shot. So perhaps, at least in the short term, you should do the same for Rachel.”

Skye gives it a thought. “I can’t see taking her on a plane, though. She’s halfway to a zombie.”

Mickey looks distracted, his eyes scanning the ceiling.

“Sorry. Peter always slips in something by Maddie. That’s ‘Casta diva’ from Norma.”

Maddalena’s voice rises by slow steps over a bed of strings, then blossoms in a crown of tones. Mickey closes his eyes and smiles.

“You absolutely worship that woman.”

He chuckles. “The amazing part is that she worships me.” He rubs his hands together and says, “So!” And stops.


“Hold on. One last run-through.” He touches his fingers to different points in the air, as if he’s conducting his thoughts. He literally gives a cutoff – a sweep of the hand, thumb and fingers coming together – and says “Yes!”

Skye laughs. “Share with the class?”

Mickey bolts his final swallow of grappa and sucks his teeth. “Yes. But you’re going to have to believe in the power of impulsive action.”

Skye laughs again. “You have no idea.”

Friday, January 16, 2015

Exit Wonderland, Chapter Fifteen: Kicking the Box

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Kicking the Box

In architectural terms, Skye has toured the house of Rachel, has seen her bay windows, her crown moulding, but has also found a single dark room in the back, its door firmly locked. They will be at a concert, on a ferry, in a bookstore (often in a bookstore), and he will find the black eyes sparkless, the brows immobile, her hands dangling in space. She kick-starts at his voice, seemingly unaware of her previous state.

Long Island aims its alligator snout along the undershelf of New England. A hundred miles away, Massachusetts turns its back, crooks an elbow and gives Great Britain the finger. The fingernail? That’s Provincetown.

If Rachel is, at times, an interior, the autumn sunshine of P-town turns her inside out, throwing tendrils, dealing blossoms. Her curls are contained by a gray knit cap that brings her broad-cheeked face into radiant clarity, laughing at each small amusement of the sea-shantied street. A squadron of blond children slalom the tourists like a New Year’s dragon, squealing like seabirds. A man painted completely silver stands on a crate, perfect as a statue until a dollar in his hat triggers a dance. They pass a long display of flowers, and Rachel demands a single purple aster.

Skye goes for the tease. “You want it so bad, buy it yourself.”

“It has to be a gift.”

“Says who?”

“The immutable laws of poetry.”

He makes the purchase and hands it over. She snaps the stem with her teeth, feels for a tiny hole in her cap, and inserts the aster so that it perches over her right ear.

“That is pretty fuckin’ stylish. Oh! I smells garlic.”

She raises her nose. “Absolutely.”

“Bruce told me I would smell the restaurant before I saw it. There!” He nods at a shack on the bay side, next to a long counter of diners on stools. A worn blue sign reads BUCKETS.

“Don’t look now,” says Rachel, “but one of the natives is waving at us.”

The native in question has a thick head of salt-and-pepper hair, a Mediterranean hawk’s-nose and an animated grin. He walks their way on limbs that seem to carry independent charters.

Skye calls “Bru-u-uce!” and storms over, ignoring his extended hand and wrapping him in an embrace that sends his arms flying out like a squished spider.

“Hey buddy,” he says. “Good to see ya.”

Skye turns to make the intro. “This is Rachel, a genuine New York City artist.”

“An artist!” says Bruce. “What medium?”

She answers with some hesitation. “Collage.”

Bruce’s voice has a nasal quality, like an old-time sportscaster. When he’s excited (which is often), it gets high and breathy.

“Collage! I love collage. One time, in high school, I covered an entire wall with all my favorite rockers. The problem was, I glued them on with some serious shit, so when my parents re-did my room, it took off half the drywall. Ha!”

Rachel giggles. “I, too, have done damage. I used to cut up my mom’s magazines before she had a chance to read them.”

“Did your mom say anything?” asks Bruce.


“Ha-ha! That’s a mom.”

The exchange hits a sudden speed bump, so Skye jumps in.

“I’m famished! Shall we make to the bucket?”

The gimmick is fairly straightforward. They settle at a round table, each of them fitted out with a bowl of melted garlic butter, a small baguette and a bucket of steamed shellfish.

“Okay, so the artiste got razor clams and oysters, I got clams and mussels. What did you get, Bruceski?”

Bruce answers in song: “In Dublin’s fair city, where girls are so pretty…”

“Cockles and mussels!?”

“They’re not just for Saint Patrick’s Day.”

Rachel uses a shred of baguette as a pointer. “So how long have you scoundrels known each other?”

“College paper, twenty years ago. Bruce was the effete rocker, so naturally he was the sports editor.”

“And the high school jock,” says Bruce, “was the effete arts editor.”

Skye laughs. “The ironies continued after college. The seemingly stable arts editor has had a gazillion different jobs, whilst the overtly weird sports editor has had precisely one employer.”

Bruce raises a finger. “The Provincetown Monitor! Wrap your fish in nothing else.”

“And a lovely wife and three girls. A bas-tee-ohn of Cape Cod society.”

Bruce releases the machine-gun laugh. “Heh-eh. Which provides the perfect cover for my secret life as a pervert. By the way, the wife still hasn’t forgiven you for the bachelor party.”

“Damn.” Skye dips a clam and chews it down. “Mmm. Anyway, Bruce graciously hired me to write an article on Peter.”

“Hey buddy, any chance to get your golden prose into my rag. So am I gonna like this guy?”

“Yes. And here’s why. Awesome sense of humor.”


“Great musician.”


“Primary influences are Neil Young…”


“Bobbie Dylan…”


“And John Mayer.”


“Hey!” says Skye. “This calls for a disappointment high five.”

The two of them raise their arms while producing a tonally ascendant chatter about all things good: Peter, Neil Young and Bob Dylan. They thrust their palms forward but stop inches apart. Their hands drop back down to disappointed mumbles, ending with Bruce’s phrase “…the general suckage of John Mayer.”

Rachel laughs so hard that she has to spit a razor clam into her napkin.

“Geez, Rache,” says Skye. “Company.” He turns to Bruce. “I really must apologize. She rarely gets out of the city.”

Bruce answers Britishly. “Oh! No bother.”

Rachel raises a hand and tries to talk. “You two… should charge admission.”

Their destination is Drift, a coffeehouse at the very tip of town, looking out over the calmer waters looped in by the Provincetown Spit. The main room is disappointingly orthodox, but once they sit down with their drinks, Skye spots an oversize copy of his article on a back door. What he finds on the other side is pretty astounding. Three broad tiers descend to a small stage, each of them hosting several tables. A window runs behind the stage, revealing the blue layers of sea and sky. The walls and ceiling are covered in tentacles of driftwood, bleached white by the sun, creating the impression of a living, breathing interior. Skye leads his trio to the front-center table. Peter arrives a minute later, looking roadworn but excited.

The crowd is different; Peter is different. An unfamiliar performer breeds skepticism, cautious patrons dipping their toes into the room. But Peter has been legitimized by newsprint, by a writer who had the luxury of saying, Yes, I’ve seen this guy, and here’s why he’s good. With his sense of humor, Peter comes off well in print – particularly the bit about the invisible labrador. The impression was furthered by an excellent photograph, Peter belly-laughing in Denver, the photo credit a revealing M. Santiago. Given a lively writer and a legit paper, the masses are easily led – which is why Skye only goes this far out on a limb when he knows he’s right.

The energy of the crowd feeds Peter’s ego; he responds by performing with confidence, and letting his wry humor spill into silliness. He sings half a song with the mic against his throat, just to see what it sounds like. He composes an impromptu blues tribute to Lady Gaga. (“I would rather sing in Raga / write an Ice-a-landic saga / sail a boat to Nicaraga / than mess with Lady Gaga.”)

At the end of two hours, the room has filled with a toasty enthusiasm. The audience stomps the floor until Peter delivers an encore: he thanks Bruce with a cover of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl.” Bruce raises jazz hands like a testifier in church. Skye is so rapt by the festivities, he worries that he is neglecting his date. When he glances her way, Rachel is just as involved as he is, eyes wide, drinking the music. She catches Skye watching her, smiles and takes his hand under the table.

The post-concert festivities are in Truro, a few miles down the finger, where Bruce lives in a rather amazing stone house. They’re greeted by his wife Marit, a slim, sharp-witted redhead, and three blonde teenagers who are terrifyingly (from a father’s point of view) good-looking. They take a quick tour of the house (Skye roundly disappointed that the interior is not also stone) and retreat to the back yard. A long path takes them to the edge of a modest wood, where stands a genuine New England barn. Bruce gives a game-show wave and declares, “If you vanna buy da vatch, buy da vatch. If you don’t vanna buy da vatch, get avay from da vindow.”

Rachel turns to Skye. “I’m sorry. What?”

“It’s Bruce’s all-purpose non sequitur. He’s been using it since college.”

“Of course.”

The rough exterior – aging shakes sauteed in white paint – gives way to a surprisingly modern interior, featuring a ping-pong table, beanbag chair, daybed and full musical setup: upright piano, Stratocaster guitar with amp, microphone and stand, and an old beater drum kit.

Peter’s eyes light up. “May I?”

Bruce laughs. “Heh-eh-eh. That’s why we’re here!”

Peter fires up the amp, straps on the Strat, checks the strings and rips into the intro for “Roll Over Beethoven.”

“Yeah!” yells Bruce. He hits another amp and waves Skye to the microphone.

Skye says, “Oh no I couldn’t possibly…” as he races to the stand, arriving just in time for the first line. Bruce reaches the upright on the second verse, pounding out chords in a wave of Jerry Lee Lewis eighth notes. Marit grabs a tambourine and smacks it on her thigh. As he finishes the chorus, Skye hears a drumbeat and turns to find Rachel flailing at the skins. Peter drops to his knees and heads into a guitar solo that is bound to last and last.

Four bottles of wine later, Bruce perches on a stool with an acoustic, finishing an old joke. Skye knows all six verses of “Miss American Pie.” The joke is to watch everyone else try to sing along as the lyrics get more and more obscure. They generally end up resorting to nonsense syllables. But Skye keeps going, and Bruce interjects the identities of the rock stars hidden in Don McLean’s words. “That’s Mick Jagger.” “Janis Joplin – duh!” And laughs like Woody Woodpecker.

When finally they reach the end, everyone applauds. Marit says, “Please! Honey! We need to sleep.”

“The man is a human jukebox,” says Skye. “More than once have I seen him play on the back porch of some frat party until he was quite literally bleeding.”

“Ha!” says Peter. “Take that, George Harrison.”

Marit rises to a teacherly posture. “If you want, you may simply sleep out here. There’s a small bathroom next to the piano. That little red door beyond the ping-pong table leads to a cozy bedroom.”

“Thanks, Mom!” says Peter, who seems content to pass out on the beanbag. Rachel heads for the bathroom. Bruce sings “Goodnight, buddy!” and wanders toward the main house. Marit takes Skye by the arm.

“How long have you been with Rachel?”

“Two weeks.”

“There’s a pond between here and the golf course – out the door, trail to the left. Take her there.” She lowers to a whisper. “It’s enchanted.”

And she’s gone, replaced by Rachel, who wears a devilish look.

“Is Bruce’s wife hitting on you?”

“Quite the opposite. Put on your coat, dollface.”

“Okay, Bogey.”

They follow the path, pressing each other for warmth, and come to a pond ringed by cattails. They stand on a small pier and find lily pads in the trail of a full moon.

Skye grips Rachel by the waist and lifts her onto a wooden storage box. They scour each other’s mouths like a pair of teenagers; Rachel’s hand wanders south.

“Wow! I must have this.”

She undoes her coat, hikes her dress to her waist and opens her legs.

“Honey! You are underwearless.”

“No shit. Now off! Off with your pants.”

He is barely unzipped when she grabs his dick and pulls him inside.

“Oh! That is… Wow.”

Skye laughs. “Your eloquence astounds me. But not as much as your drumming. My god I love a woman who drums.”

Rachel is lost in the stars over Skye’s shoulder. “Garage band… high school. Love your singing.”

“In a really weird way, my singing is what got me to New York.” He ends his sentence with a thrust, then laughs. “Kicking the box.”


“Beginning Shakespeareans learn to speak all the way through their lines by placing a cardboard box on the stage and kicking it on the fifth… beat!”

He finishes with a thrust and Rachel squeals. Skye slows the pace. Rachel gazes up at him, the moon melting in her eyes.

“You are… the best thing I’ve had… in a long time.”

“That’s one of those rare sentences where you can call someone a ‘thing’ and turn it into flattery.”

Skye senses the presence of the locked room but pushes on past, determined to give Rachel as much pleasure as possible. He speeds up. She kicks her legs into the air, a rider spurring a horse, and punctuates her arrival with a howl. As she drifts back down, Skye hears a rustling. He knows exactly who it is.

“Bastards! Sneakpeeks!”

Bruce and Marit burst from a nearby bush and run, giggling all the way.

“Scoundrels!” yells Rachel, and laughs deliriously. “Ooh! It’s even better when I laugh.”

Skye works back to an easy pace. “These two gynecologists walk into a bar…”

“Do you always talk this much?”

“When I’m happy, yes.”

She scoots forward. “Talk all you want.”

“Hypothermia here we… come!” he says. And kicks the box.

The ferry dock at New London, Connecticut makes an impressive setting. The harbor is pencil-thin, banked by a high, long ridge. The ridge is covered in rich lawn and a line of trees showing their October best, particularly a tall ash on the point, bathed in yellow.

Skye exits the ferry’s interior with two cups of hot chocolate. He pauses at the sight of Rachel at the railing, staring into the icy gray overcast. It’s the locked door, the single dark room, and he wonders if he has earned the right to ask about it. He stands just behind her until the smell of the chocolate brings her around.

“Oh! You kinda snuck up on me there. Gimme.” She takes a careful sip. “Mmm. So where’s our friend Peter today?”

“Headed to Baltimore, then on down the coast.”

“No New York?”

“Couldn’t get any interest.”


They stand for a while, exhaling trails of vapor.


She turns with an amused smile. “Skye.”

“I have noticed that your attentions sometimes go to a faraway place. Is there something troubling you?”

First, nothing. Then a twitch of the lips, a promising intake of breath. Then she stops.

“Every artist has a dark side. I believe it’s required.”

She concludes the subject with a return to her hot chocolate. The ferry grinds forward, sending them both into a stumble-step.

“Back to New York,” says Rachel. Skye lifts her hand and kisses it.

They’re on 495, cruising the long stretches near the eye of the gator. Skye finds it fairly amazing that a place so close to a world capitol could be so devoid of people.

“When I was a sophomore in high school, my friend Maurice told me that I was not cool enough to be in the men’s glee.”

He waits for a response. “Okay,” she says. “Are you going to explain?”

He smiles. “If you insist.”

“I do.”

“The glee club had 125 members. Half of those members were on sports teams. Half the varsity football team was in men’s glee. We used to perform at other schools – one time in Reno, Nevada – to encourage the boys at those schools to sing. Along with the women’s glee, the choir and the orchestra, we gave Christmas concerts that included 600 performers out of a student body of 1500.”

“So you went to school at Disneyland.”

“That’s how it seemed. The director of the men’s glee was Mike Patterakis, a wiry little Greek guy who could be alternately high-strung and supremely cool. With the glee club, I think he realized that, just by their numbers, the group was already impressive. So he kept it simple. Broadway tunes, folk songs, Sinatra’s ‘My Way,’ would you believe, with maybe one or two harmony parts. He didn’t sweat the small stuff, and he tried to keep it fun.

“The ultimate example was our rendition of ‘Winter Wonderland.’ Over the years, the guys slipped in a number of references to sex and drugs. The final verse was…” He stops to remember the lines and bursts out in song. “‘Later on, we’ll get higher, as we drink by the fire, to face unafraid the chicks that we laid, walkin’ in a winter wonderland.’”

Rachel laughs and slaps the dash.

“Brilliant wit, right?”

“Oh! Give ‘em a Pulitzer.”

“But here’s the key. With our murky diction, the audience was none the wiser, and Mr. P was too busy on the piano to play bad cop, so he let it slide. He would slyly admonish us not to sing the naughty version, we would enthusiastically ignore him, and afterwards he would smile and wag a disapproving finger. And once in a while, a friend would ask, ‘Is there something different about that song?’”

“I didn’t come from a terribly musical family. If it weren’t for that freakish high school, and that amazing men’s glee, I might never have been drawn to my life’s work. I might never have learned the great old songs. I might never have sung one of those old songs in a pizza parlor in Bridgeport, California, and I might never have met the spectacular Rachel Grossman.”

Rachel’s expression is a combination of flattered grin and puzzled squint.

“Not quite sure I’m getting the part about the pizza parlor.”

“Oh, um… Met a guy there who convinced me to drive across the country.” He stops to recall the end of his story.

“Last spring, I got an invitation to a wake, at a Greek restaurant in Modesto, which featured the subject of the wake. Mr. Patterakis had terminal cancer, and he wanted to see some of his old students while he could still get around. He was atrociously skinny, but he still had that sparkle in his eye, that lightning grin.

“I found myself in an odd position. I was nothing special in high school. I doubt if I ever even had a full conversation with Mr. P. But I’m sure that teachers understand this idea about their students: you plant a lot of seeds, but some of them don’t germinate till years later, and the size of the blossoms might surprise you. So I sat down with him for maybe thirty seconds, offered a simple thank you, and gave him a copy of my book – a book that was dedicated to him.

“At the end of the party, they handed out scores, fired up a recording from one of our old Christmas concerts, and sixty of us stood up in this Greek restaurant and sang the Hallelujah Chorus. A couple hours later, driving home into the sunset, I imagined what that must have been like for the other patrons, eating pasta with your wife when the freakin’ Hallelujah Chorus breaks out. I like to think I would have been delighted. For us, of course, it was enough to see the look on Mr. P’s face. He was glowing.”

Rachel finds the spot where Skye’s neck meets his collarbone and gives it a rub. She realizes that they’re driving into the sunset, and wonders if this is what triggered Skye’s story.

“This morning, while you were in the bathroom, I got a text from an old schoolmate. Bill. He was the drum major. Built his own recording studio. He specialized in a capella groups, became very successful, and last year he won a freakin’ Grammy! How’s that for…”

The sudden stop indicates a man who is trying not to cry while driving into the sunset. Rachel takes his hand and kisses it. They drive in silence, until the lights of Manhattan sprout from the night like a diamond tiara.
Photo by MJV