We have struck the jackpot: a mountain retreat owned by the head of retail operations for Apple Computers. Let’s call it the IPod Mansion. The place carries that modern propensity for borrowing from several different styles, but the unifying factor is a pleasing rusticity. The front walls are anchored by clumps of gray boulders, mortared together as if they just sort of fell there. The garage doors employ dark varnished wood with wrought-iron Gallic braces.
The back deck is gorgeous, a broad spread lined by a pair of long benches, plus two arbors over concrete porches. The view is a 270-degree cross-section of the Santa Cruz Mountains, rugged slopes covered by blankets of evergreen, tony homes peering out from ridges and bottom lands. In the distance, you can see a tiny slice of Highway 17, and, beyond that, the gray silhouette of the Santa Lucia Mountains overlooking Monterey. At times like these, I think I have the best job in the world.
The deck was custom-built a year ago with a hardy, fine-grained wood shipped in from Brazil: ipé, sometimes called ironwood, and extremely distasteful to termites. The gaps between the planks are perfect, the woodscrews pre-drilled and perfectly placed. The contractor proceeded to cover this masterpiece with the cheapest stain he could find. Twelve months later, it’s peeling so badly that the pressure washer took the remainder right out.
The next challenge falls to me. The deck’s design called for wooden railings with copper verticals, which means we can’t do the standard mask-and-spray. Having developed a deft freehand technique (Colin calls me the Dry Brush King), I must now take my trim brush and work my way around a gazillion copper rods.
At noon, it’s starting to heat up, so I head for my car, parked in the shade of a mossy oak, to fetch an eight-pack of Gatorade. I pull my phone from the glove compartment and discover a remarkable text message:
Call me! Urgent. Grassfire near yr cabin. Evacuation.
Allison is at the top of my shit list, but she has definitely given me a good reason to call.
“Hi. What the hell’s going on?”
“Hi.” She’s driving. “It’s all over the TV. Those dry brown hills across the canyon from you are blazing. If it jumps the canyon it’ll climb right up the mountain.”
“I know you’re probably pretty far away, so I thought I would head on up before they close off your road. So what do you want me to get?”
I don’t know if I’m more befuddled by the news or the idea of Allison being so helpful. But at least my list of valuables is small.
“Oh, geez, um… as much of the computer as you can grab, any clothes you want to get, and… Oh yeah! Bottom of the bedroom closet, there’s a long wooden box with a white handle.”
“Okay. Gotta talk to a cop. They’re stopping all the cars. I’ll call later.”
I tuck my cell into my shorts pocket, grab my Gatorades and head back to the railings. Work may be dull, but life certainly isn’t.
There’s no sign of smoke at the IPod Mansion, but the reports on the radio sound dire: thick clouds covering the west valley, jumbo jets bombing the hills with retardant. Allison sends a text at four, and we arrange a meeting in Saratoga Village.
Starbucks fought for a spot in the Village for years, and once they finally got it they did a good job, nabbing a former antique shop, setting the parking lot with pavers and keeping the signage to a single mermaid logo above the door. You almost wouldn’t know it was even there, but word gets out quickly.
I pull in at six, feeling sweated out, and find Allison outside sipping an iced coffee, looking as cool as a cucumber despite her adventures. I come to her table, wiping my forehead.
“Oh my god!” she says. “What an escapade. I had exactly a half hour to get down and back, so I just grabbed and grabbed. And the smoke was pouring through the trees, like a haunted forest in a movie. Then a chopper thunders in over the trees, and it’s got one of those big buckets on a cable. I was just positive they were going to drown me.”
I sit down and cross my legs.
“What was all that cell phone shit?”
She squints at me. “Not sure I gather your meaning.”
“You couldn’t let me have one bit of happiness, could you? Allison isn’t happy, so no one else gets to be!”
She looks around. “I’m sorry. Joke? Hidden cameras? What the fuck are you talking about?”
I am struggling to stay calm.
“Fine. The princess wants the full discovery process. That morning you snuck in and raped me in my sleep? After I left the house in my pirate outfit, Allison drives back to the cabin, sees my cell phone and says, Goody! One more way I can fuck with Mickey’s life. I’m having a grand old time at the Ren Faire when Maddie receives a message from my cell, complete with a nude photo of me with some blonde chick. Blammo! Mickey’s happiness successfully destroyed. You miserable cunt.”
The c-word hits her like a slap. Which is exactly why I used it. She opens her phone and starts punching the keys. This makes me nervous. She rises from her seat and hands it to me.
“Why look, honey. It’s me and Elisbeth Challener at a luncheon at Villa Montalvo! Do a little fast-forwarding and I think you’ll see what a total prick you’re being. I risk my fucking life saving your trailer-trash knick-knacks and… God! You are such an asshole!”
She grabs her purse and heads for the sidewalk, then stops and hurls her keys at me.
“Take your shit and go! I’ll be across the street, drinking.”
I pick up the keys, then I return to the cell phone, following the time-date stamps. Allison and Elisbeth at 11 a.m., a half-hour after she left the cabin. A group photo at 12:30. A string quartet behind the Villa at two, a curtain call at 3:30, then several shots from a street festival in Saratoga Village, from 4:45 till 9:30. I try to cram this information into my sweated-out mind, push it this way and that, and conclude that not even the evilest of ex-wives could have concocted a way to get to my cabin, send the incriminating photo and scurry back downhill for the next event.
An enormous wall of smoke is boiling over the western hills, drowning out the sun, and the air smells like the biggest campfire on God’s brown earth. I take the keys, open the trunk of my old BMW and begin my work.
Kendra has just gone south to college, so I have an entire bedroom to myself (albeit with red and black walls). Kyle has worn himself out on Guitar Hero, and husband Randy is off to Phoenix on business, giving me the rare luxury of a conversation with my big sister. We sit at the kitchen table, sipping root beers.
“Do you remember leaving an opera tape in the station wagon?”
Carla scans the ceiling, looking for a memory.
“Yeah. Maddalena Hart.”
“Yeah! Oh, that’s funny. You remember how Kyle used to sing my name like he was an opera singer?”
I answer with a contralto burst. “Mom-mee! Mom-mee!”
“Ha! Yeah. Well I told my neighbor about it. She was one of those Supermoms – very serious and human-potentialized. She bought me this opera tape so I could encourage Kyle’s interest. Funny thing is, the moment I stuck it in, that’s when the cassette player broke.”
“It wasn’t the cassette player.”
“It was the fuse. When I fixed the fuse, that tape came on.”
“And now you’re dating the singer. Ohmigod! That is so weird. You know what I call those? ‘Fate hinges.’ Tiny little things that completely change your life.”
I am on the precipice of disappointing yet another woman. So I don’t.
“That’s good!” I say. “I’m gonna use that.”
I work the dreaded IPod railings all the next day, consuming Gatorade by the gallon. At noon the radio reports that the fire has been contained. God bless all fire-fighting personnel everywhere.
At five, I take the chance of driving home. I certify my local-resident status at the road block and descend the dirt road, fingers of smoke drifting through the trees like phantoms. The power is out, so I light a few hurricane lamps and I load up my rescued possessions. I’m about to tuck the wooden box into the closet when I change my mind and pull it back out. I grab a beer (still cold, hallelujah), sit on the couch next to a lamp and take a trip through the contents: prom pictures, graduation programs, wedding photos (Allison, stunning in white). Far at the bottom, I find one of those deluxe-edition books with its own cardboard coverslip, and I pull it out. Ulysses, James Joyce, red faux leather binding with embossed gold letters. I see a faded green bookmark and I open it to that page. It’s a twenty-dollar bill. I turn the page. A twenty-dollar bill. I keep turning. A twenty-dollar bill, every time.
The next day, I proceed from work to the Saratoga Library, where I tell the story to Devil Diva.
M: I had a pal at the brokerage, Paulie. He was an English grad, pretty snobbish, and obsessed with James Joyce. He was always referring to Ulysses as “the world’s most half-read book.” One day I said, “I’ll bet I can read it.” So I bought a copy that night, and I devised an incentive plan. Every time I finished two pages, inserted a twenty.
DD: I’m sorry. How is that an incentive?
M: It was a college fund for my kids.
DD: What kids?
M: The ones we never had.
M: Long story. But now I’ve got four thousand bucks, given to me by my 31-year-old self.
DD: Awesome! But isn’t that thing 500, 600 pages long? Am I missing the math?
M: I never finished it.
M: Most pretentious piece of crap I’ve ever lain eyes on. I think I’ll spend some of the money on my ex-wife.
DD: You have got to be kidding me.
M: She made a pretty extraordinary gesture the other day, and I pissed all over it.
DD: You were probably in shock.
M: This grudge-holding is an exhausting enterprise. I think I’d like to reward any kindness that comes my way.
DD: You’re a good boy.
I return home to find the power back on, so I spend a few minutes reassembling my computer. When I adjourn to the couch to watch some sports, I notice the envelope on my end table marked Don José. I open it to find Maddie’s love letter blacked out by a Sharpie pen cyclone. On the back of the card is a scrawled note: Fuck you, you bitch! The writing is distinctly Katie’s.
Photo by MJV