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Jack loses fifteen minutes figuring out that Park Drive and State Park Drive are distinct arterials, despite their shared verbiage. The latter takes him to Seacliff State Beach, where he pulls up to the ranger station, eager to portray himself as a non-burglar-type housesitter. Even though the occupant of the olive-drab uniform is an acne-riddled young man barely out of his teens, Jack’s tongue feels about as useful as a Styrofoam shovel.
“Hi! I’m, uh, the Flores house?”
“You are the house itself,” says the ranger. “Strange. Do you know the password?”
Password? Thompson didn’t mention a password. All this way and now he couldn’t get in? Dammit!
“Dude!” says the ranger. “I am totally fuckin’ with ya. House-sitting, right? Let’s see, I got a note here somewhere. Ah. Teagarden, Jack. Can I see your driver’s license?”
Jack laughs, relieved that it’s just a joke. But the ranger’s still looking at him.
“Dude! I actually do need to see your license.”
“Oh. Sorry.” Jack digs into his wallet and pulls out his license. The ranger gives it a quick scan, then hands it back with a small yellow decal.
“Here. Put this puppy on the inside of your windshield – driver’s side, lower corner – and next time you can just drive on through. Although a friendly wave would be nice.”
“Okay,” says Jack. “Thanks.”
“Pretty sweet gig,” says the ranger. “Big Brown is quite the Playboy Mansion. Have fun!”
Jack has no idea what the ranger is talking about, and he still feels like he’s getting away with something. He follows the road in a long ess and comes out at a pier culminating in the abandoned hulk of a concrete ship. He remembers this oddity from a company picnic ten years before, and makes a mental note to find out more about it.
The road bears right through a grove of eucalyptus and continues along the beach past rows of RVs and camper trailers. The residents appear to be in for the long run. Many have awnings strung with Christmas lights, windsocks and banners. Some have fire cans surrounded by lawn furniture. A fit-looking old man walks by in sweats and a ballcap, walking an enormous chocolate poodle. Jack is struck by the way the poodle walks, some trick of double-hinging that makes it look like strutting, or softshoe. He wonders what evolutionary value this could possibly have. At the end of the campers he arrives at a blue metal gate and gets out to punch Thompson’s code into a keypad. The gate makes a jarring sound and slides to the right. Jack waits till it’s completely open before inching his way through.
Thompson’s neighborhood is a straight, narrow lane between high sandstone cliffs to the right and a menagerie of tightly packed houses to the left. Jack marvels at the variety of styles: an overgrown Tudor cottage with wraparound eaves like something out of Tolkien; a stucco’d stack with Aztec geometrics and a tiny rooftop deck; a sky-blue ranch house that could have been shipped in from Jack’s childhood. Any view of the beach, a mere thirty feet distant, is blocked by habitation.
What he’s looking for, per Thompson’s instructions, is the color of chocolate. He thinks he has it halfway up – a modest clapboard bungalow – but the number on the mailbox doesn’t match. From there, the structures begin to take on resort dimensions. The second hulk from the end has the proper color – high walls of cedar shingles stained mocha – and the right number tiled into the front steps, but Jack refuses to accept this tri-story monstrosity as his intended destination. He pulls a remote from the glove compartment, presses the oversize button and watches as the garage door rises on its tracks, revealing a black Porsche Carrera, a pair of chrome-spangled Harley-Davidsons and a rectangle vacated by the Flores Hummer. Jack pulls in with surgical caution, anxious to come nowhere near the motorcycles.
The feeling of trespass continues as Jack ascends the semicircle steps – waves of floral yellow on a dental white background – and re-reads Thompson’s instructions. At the Starbucks, Jack was certain that Thompson was making some kind of sci-fi joke – until he produced a tiny screen the size of a cell phone and asked him to press the pad of his thumb to the surface. Jack steps up to the welcome mat and finds a similar screen to the left of the door. He presses a red button, places his thumb on the screen, and watches the button turn green. The dark double doors click open and part inward, as if they are being tugged by ninja butlers.
Jack takes a careful step inside, accompanied by a three-tone chime and a rush of water. He finds himself before a pile of blue-gray boulders stacked against the leftward wall. A stream of water tumbles over the crowns, frothing white, and settles into a pond at the center of the room. The pond is lined with blue disc-shaped stones that would be perfect for skipping. A narrow channel carries the overflow to the rightward wall and down a concealed drain.
“Disneyland,” Jack whispers. He circumnavigates the whole enterprise and descends a trio of slate-covered steps to a white leather couch the size of Moby Dick. The couch is so long that there’s a gap in the back where you can board it amidships. He takes this option, sliding to the right so he can take in the sheer size of the living room. The wall opposite sports a stripe of vertical blinds fifty feet long. To the right stands an enormous fireplace of mortared stones, the same blue-gray as the boulders in the fountain. A modern-looking sculpture of shiny steel bars projects from the mantelpiece, like a cubist eagle taking flight.
The center of the room is oddly bare, but for a couple of low coffee tables stained a deep black. This seems curious, and grows more so when Jack spots a red jumprope handle, dangling to his left like a spider. Jack takes a breath and gives it a pull, setting off a low whirring. An enormous black rectangle descends into the room, suspended by three cables. It settles into a spot three feet above the floor and explodes with color.
Jack has never seen a high-definition television before; the sharpness of the picture makes him feel a little dizzy. It’s a soccer match, and it’s almost as if someone has set tiny animatronic figures scampering about the room. He takes a silver remote from one of the coffee tables and embarks on a surfing session that covers seven hundred channels and two hours.
The spell is broken when Jack notices a second remote – on the second coffee table – that looks a little like the garage door opener. He presses the single black square and gets a rather startling result: the vertical blinds on the far wall rotate until they’re perpendicular to the window, then slide to left and right, clicking together as they go. What they reveal is more stunning than anything on the high-def, a canvas of deep purples and pinks over a faint line of tangerine. He’s so acclimated to artificial worlds that it takes a while before he realizes that this is an actual sunset, the actual Monterey Bay, viewed through Thompson’s actual back window. With time ticking out on the day, Jack feels suddenly energized; he grabs his windbreaker and hustles to the sliding glass doors, startled by the burst of cold sea air. He crosses the deck and jogs the back stairs – ten steps, exactly as promised – then makes his way across a broad white-sand beach littered with rocks and driftwood.
The tide is low, but the waves break in like they’re falling off a table. As Jack steps to the wet sand he sees an object that looks like a large, dark rock. As he comes closer, however, the rock mumbles, sprouts feet and waddles forward. Once his eyes adjust, he can make out the feathers, ashen in the failing light, and the small round slope of the head and bill. The bird cuts a bulky silhouette, full-bodied like a duck. From the unsteadiness of its movements, he assumes it’s injured, has come to the beach to rest and recover. When Jack takes another step, the bird struggles away, drifting seaward on a backwash.
Maybe that’s all he needed, he thinks. A little incentive.
He’s wrong, of course. Nature knows what it’s doing. Lacking the strength to navigate, the bird slides underneath a breaker and is unceremoniously thrashed, like a plush toy in a spin cycle. He pops out of the foam and rides the wash back to the sand. He’s closer to Jack now, but he seems too stunned to care. Jack can see that the ashen appearance has nothing to do with the failing light.
“Those are the tough ones. I got a few sandpipers – carried one all the way to the ranger station in my jacket – but those suckers’ll bite a finger off before they let you catch ‘em.”
It’s a man in a one-sided Australian hat. He’s sixty, maybe, wearing a trimmed beard of silvery white. His face bears deep lines at the sides of his eyes which - even in the fading dusk, radiate a sky-blue light. Ernest Hemingway as a Deadhead. He takes Jack’s silence as license to go on.
“They still don’t know where it came from, but every beach I’ve been to you see the birds every fifty feet, standing there like this one, eyeing the waves, wondering what it was that hit them.”
“Oil?” says Jack.
“You an animal rescue worker?”
“Nope,” says the man. “I just go where I’m needed.”
Jack returns his gaze to the bird, who now looks like he’s asleep.
“Will he make it?”
“Not likely,” says the man. “The oil messes with the ability of the feathers to insulate – ‘water off a duck’s back,’ so to speak. Basically, he’s freezing to death.”
Jack feels as if he knows what the bird is going through: his most basic ability has been taken away, and he doesn’t know what to do to survive. He realizes, also, that this thought is radically self-serving.
“Well,” says the man. “I’d better start hiking, or I’ll freeze to death myself.”
“Yeah,” says Jack. “Have a good one.”
He stands near the bird as long as he can bear it, then he spots a bright star above the horizon, connects it to four others, and finds himself looking at Canis Major. He has not identified these stars since a camping trip when he was seventeen.
He sends a silent wish to the bird, nothing but a bag of shadow in the murky dark, and turns to cross back over the beach. He may return to the great white couch; he may watch the monster TV and fall asleep on the cotton pillows. The rest of the house scares him.
Photo by MJV