The weather on the Oregon coast is miserable, but it seems to be having a good effect. Faced with the narrow ribbons of 101 and a big gray cave of burly, nasty, steroid-injecting clouds, the chambers of Jack’s mind have no room for the Imp of the Perverse. Jack is also indulging in a bag of cheese cubes from the Tillamook factory thirty miles back, and though he wonders about ingesting so much dairy at a sitting, the mushy bland morsels of Monterey Jack, cheddar and mozzarella are exactly what his soul desires. He cannot possibly stop.
Unless the ocean decides to attack him. He’s rolling into the town of Depoe Bay, smack dab against the waterfront, when a whalespout of water arches over the blacktop and lands on his hood, sending a blinding splash across his windshield. Assuming it’s a rogue wave that has surmounted the seawall, Jack is more than happy to keep driving, but then he spots a gaggle of people gathered under umbrellas at the roadside, looking very much like a gallery at a golf tournament. The Imp of the Curious gets the best of him, so he pulls into a parking spot, slaps on a raincoat and ballcap and gets out to investigate. Peering over a low stone wall next to the sidewalk, he finds muscular slabs of rock, lining the seawall in a blanket twenty feet thick. The waves are piled up for miles, dark green monsters waiting their turn to obliterate themselves in thunderous sprays of foam. A hundred feet along, the wall cuts leftward into a C; the top of the C plays host to the gallery, chattering like kids at the circus. Jack’s usual impulse is to avoid social contact at any cost, so he loops quietly around the gathering and finds a spot around the corner, where the wall straightens back out.
“Hey buddy!” It’s a tall man in a green rainjacket. “You better not stand there.”
His tone reminds Jack of the cruel-joke bullies of junior high, sounding jovial while they’re setting him up for some embarrassing put-down. He has no idea how to respond, but then he hears a dramatic whooshing sound. A column of white water launches from the rocks and catches the wind, heading directly for him. He lets out a squeaky “Shit!” Fortunately, his feet are much quicker than he is, scurrying away of their own accord. The rest of his body is obliged to follow, and the momentum takes him directly into Greenjacket, who catches him in a bear hug as the plume smacks the walk behind him.
The gallery erupts in laughter (more echoes from the playground), but Greenjacket gives him a reassuring slap on the shoulder.
“Wow! With a first step like that you should be in the NBA. Maybe we should… Jack?”
A good-looking redhead leans against Greenjacket and smiles.
“Bloody hell, Thompson! You know him?”
Thompson looks flustered – which for him is a rare occurrence – but he recovers quickly, flashing that automatic grin, the one that seems to get him out of everything.
“It’s Jack Teagarden! He used to work with me at C-Valve. Damn, Jack! What’re you doing thisaway?”
Jack’s pathetic social skills are officially overloaded, especially when he recalls the company barbecue, Thompson’s two small children, his very lovely trophy wife. His very lovely African-American trophy wife. Just to deepen the contrast, the redhead has one of those posh British accents.
“Poor dear,” she says. “His near escape from the devil’s horns hath rendered him mute.”
Jack manages to string two words together: “Devil’s horns?”
“Well, yes!” says Thompson. “As a matter of fact…”
He grabs Jack by the shoulders and spins him around. Jack hears the whoosh again, and this time he can see where the exploding water is coming from, a jagged opening in the top of the rocks.
“Brilliant device,” says Redhead. “It’s a lava tube. I don’t quite know the geology, but some ancient flow has left us a lovely little pipe that takes in those crashing waves and funnels them all the way up here. I would love to have one for home use.”
Wafting over his left shoulder, the redhead’s voice is the single most beautiful thing he’s experienced in months. He wants her to leave him a lengthy voicemail just so he can take in those perfect vowels and consonants whenever he needs a lift.
He turns back around and unleashes a veritable soliloquy. “It hit my car when I was driving by. That’s why I stopped.”
Redhead is holding Thompson’s hand in a tender manner. Thompson’s grin is growing. The way it did at staff meetings as his fabrications grew larger and larger.
“Brigit’s a florist in Portland,” he says. “I met her at that finance conference last May. She was delivering centerpieces.” He kisses her on the cheek as if he’s said something hugely sentimental.
Jack feels like he’s in a minefield, so he decides to simply stand there and look stupid – which is, really, one of his most valuable talents.
“Well hey!” says Thompson. “We need to get up to Chinook Winds for a concert – Kelly, Kiley…who was that?”
“Keely Smith,” says Brigit. “Jazz singer. Married to Louis Prima. She’s fantastic.”
“I do whatever she tells me,” says Thompson. “She’s never wrong.” His smile is threatening to burst from his face. Jack would do anything to have a weapon like that smile, if only for a day.
Brigit grabs Jack’s hand. “Pleasure meeting you. And do be careful, driving in this muck.” She studies the clouds over the bay, looking like vaporous gray ogres. “Imagine. I left London because of the weather.”
“Nice seeing you, pal,” says Thompson, shaking his hand. “Take care of yourself.” He gives him a wink, then wraps an arm around Brigit and walks her across the street to a black retro Mustang.
Jack is feeling ethically shell-shocked, so he remains at the waterspout, raindrops smacking the bill of his cap. He waits for another eruption, noting the exhalation of mist that presages the water. Then he hears footsteps, and finds Thompson returning across the street, pulling out his cell phone.
He’s smiling again, but now he’s talking through his teeth, a style of speech that Jack recalls from their less enjoyable back-hall chats at C-Valve.
“Hey Jack, I’ve already got your cell number, but I’m going to pretend to get it from you while I talk, okay? Just mouth a few numbers at me.”
Jack moves his jaw up and down, just like in school choir, when he was too afraid of the sounds he might produce if he actually sang.
“Just wanted to thank you for not giving me away, pal. This thing with Brigit really knocked me for a loop, and I’m trying to keep her blissfully ignorant until I figure out what to do about my family situation. Anyways, I really appreciate it, and I’m gonna find a way to pay you back. So take care, okay? I’ll be in touch.”
“Sure,” says Jack. “No prob.” I want my job back. You asshole.
Thompson finishes the pantomime by closing his cell, then gives him one of those finger-pistol salutes before heading back for the Mustang.
All things considered, Jack has no idea how to take all of this. Has he just entered into a case of involuntary blackmail? He waits for three more waterspouts then hikes back to his car, tosses his rainwear on the back seat and drives off into a watery horizon. He feels for the plastic bag on his passenger seat and is pleased to find six more cubes of cowy goodness.
Photo by MJV