In the morning, Jack has no choice. He finds a normal-enough toilet downstairs, but for a shower he’ll have to brave the second floor. He locates a broad, curving staircase near the kitchen (the high-tech possibilities there give him the willies) and climbs to a carpeted hallway with three doors to either side. He fears he may have to do some investigating through those doors – bedrooms? studies? small family of vicious robot lions? – but then he spots an open doorway at the end of the hall, giving off glints of tile and plumbing.
The boulder theme is surprisingly persistent. Here they’re in slices, like cuts of blue-gray bologna embedded in the floor. This includes the shower area, which is delineated only by a small speed-bump of river rocks. A wide gray tab hangs from the ceiling like a periscope, offering a shower head and hot-and-cold valves.
But here’s the thing: the wall behind the shower is nothing but a clear plate of glass, as might be used in a museum exhibit to better display the specimens. And there’s the beach. A woman in gray sweats jogs by underneath the overcast, not seeming to notice. Is the Flores family a tribe of nudists? Jack is about to ditch the whole idea of hygiene when he spots a sign, taped to the mirror over a gray marble counter with double basins. The sign says Play Me, followed by a downpointing arrow. Jack finds a small metallic square positioned between the basins. It presents only one button, so he pushes it, and out comes Thompson’s voice, as fresh as a morning DJ.
“Hey Jack! I figured you might find the shower a little weird, so I thought I’d leave you a message. Not to worry, my friend. The glass is utterly one-way. If you check it from outside – and I know you will – it’s pitch-black, like a solar panel. Anyways, hope you’re having fun, try not to order too much porn on the high-def, and if you’d like a good cuppa java, I highly recommend Aptos Coffee Roasting, next to the Safeway on State Park Drive. Mmmgood! Ciao, bebe!”
A child giggles in the background, and the message clicks off. Jack has no choice – he has to head for the deck and make sure – and it turns out that Thompson’s description is exactly right. Still, as he nervously disrobes, as he spins the shower head until he gets something besides a vaguely erotic pulsing massage, as he finds bits of oatmeal in the soap (and realizes that they were put there on purpose), he gazes out his wall of full exposure and thinks, I don’t like this house. I will never like this house.
Jack takes a glance at the high-def and realizes that it’s a trap – that if he gives it the slightest opening it will suck down four of his hours. He’s not sure if he can walk through the security gate, so he heads down the back stairs for the beach. Toward the water he sees an ambiguous lump that might be a dead bird, so he forces his eyes forward and keeps walking.
Halfway up the entrance road he’s pleased to find a footpath that neatly avoids the ranger station. He’s boarding the sidewalk along the Highway One overpass when what he had taken for harmless fog begins to spit raindrops. Sorely unprepared, he quickens his pace and jogs to the dry overhangs of the shopping center. Passing the high façade of the Safeway, his freak-alarm goes off. It’s a man in a buckskin jacket, squatting on an overturned milk crate as he plays some song from the sixties on a guitar. A tall woman with blonde-gray hair and missing teeth looks on encouragingly. Jack paces briskly forward and is just feeling safe when he hits the freakapalooza: skateboarders, bikers, a tattooed chick with a backpack and a Siberian husky on a tattered rope. An old guy with a severe Amish beard scoots by on crutches, muttering to himself.
What’s worse, the inmates are standing directly between him and the coffeehouse. He takes a deep breath, lowers his gaze to the sidewalk and propels himself forward, like a fullback trying to break through the line.
Inside, it’s not much better. The entire right-hand wall is taken up by musicians, playing some bluesy standard: a gray-haired grandmother on electric bass, thirty-year-old beach bum on guitar, two old jazz-looking guys on drums and trumpet. A middle-aged Persian man stands behind the mic and sings with a voice that is too square to be believed, Mr. Rogers doing Sinatra. The bunch of them are nearly drowned out by a table of cackling fiftysomething females in tie-dye sundresses and hippie accessories. Jack heads for the counter and lines up behind a husband and wife in bright bicycling silks, spandex shorts embracing their derrieres much too tightly. They finish their orders and pass to the right, leaving Jack with a short, tomboyish woman, wearing a mop of blonde hair that might best be found in a production of Oliver! She is aggressively friendly.
“Hi sweetcakes. Tell me your heart’s desire.”
“What would you like?”
“Can I get a tall Americano?”
Jack has no answer for this, so she continues.
“We don’t talk Starbucksian, honey. We call our small drinks ‘small.’”
“Oh. Okay. A small Americano?”
“Are you sure? You know, our specialty brews are pretty fantastic. We brew each cup separately. It’s almost better than group sex.”
Jack is quickly losing his will to fight. This… troll is clearly a force of nature.
“Umm, sure. Whatever you want.”
She smiles at his acquiescence.
“What I want is for you to try the Peruvian. Has that dark, tropical tail-end that will leave you feeling sultry and jazzified. You will float out of here like a human hovercraft.”
Oh God, anything. “Yes! Um, a small, please.”
“We only have medium and large.”
He pays her quickly (mindful of the line growing behind him) and stuffs a dollar in the tip jar.
“Thanks! You’ll be under Brad Pitt. Wouldn’t I love to be under Brad Pitt!”
This must be a local thing – never say anything in a normal way when you can talk like a fucking freak. But he can’t possibly give the blonde elf another straight line, so he slips away and trusts that Brad Pitt will make himself known. He flips through a pile of used newspapers, and meanwhile takes note of the elf’s actions. She places a mug over a spill grate on the counter, then pours water into an aluminum bar hanging over it. Between the two, affixed to the facing, is a photo of Brad Pitt. Once in a great while, thinks Jack, life is figureoutable.
Once the brew has finished its dripping, Jack waits until the elf is off blending a frappe and seizes his drink, stopping to add a little sugar, a little milk, before he settles at a table in the back, far away from the band. He curses himself for giving in to the coffee; he knows he will spend the whole time thinking how he would have preferred that Americano. Still, the Peruvian’s not bad; it carries a bit of an edge that reminds him of black licorice.
His table is enchanted, because someone has left him the Chronicle’s business section. He flips to the back page and pores over the stock readings, luxuriating in its small sea of numbers. If he could, he would soak them in butter and eat them for breakfast. Halfway down the page he hears the sound of scraping chairlegs at the next table, and then the sound of two men talking. One of the voices seems familiar, which sends him into a panic. He just can’t handle any more interaction. He pulls his numbers closer, hoping he will disappear among them, but finds himself almost forced to follow the conversation. The familiar voice is the lower, the other one higher and a little nasal.
Low: You got the macadamia?
High: Oh! They’re the best.
Low: It’s the little pleasures in life.
High: Yeah. The big ones are a little hard to come by, lately.
Low: Wait a minute. Hold it right there, Carlos. Before we dig into your… stuff, I want you to do something for me.
Carlos: Another of your experiments?
Low: Haha! Sure. Now – close your eyes.
Low: Here. Take that cookie.
Low: Now. Take a bite, and I want you to focus on each small sensation. The way it crunches under your teeth. The way your mouth salivates. And of course, the way it tastes: the cookie, the nuts, little chunks of white chocolate. The world is nothing but you and this cookie. Go ahead.
Silence. Sound of chewing. Sound of the Persian guy singing “The Lady is a Tramp” like it’s a funeral dirge.
Low: There! Now. How was it?
Carlos: Nothing’s as good as that first bite.
Low: Except maybe that last bite. Thanks for indulging me. Now. What did you want to talk about?
Carlos: Funny, I… lost my train of thought.
Low: Good! That train was trouble, anyway. No offense.
The conversation continues in the same fashion. Carlos tells the man about his problems – mostly his recent divorce – and the man steers him through the process of how to think about those troubles. It isn’t psychiatry. Jack always pictured a psychiatrist as a guy with too many degrees digging around in someone’s mental closet, looking for grand Eureka moments for his personal collection. This guy is more like a mental mechanic performing a tune-up. The object isn’t to dissect the entire system but to adjust the timing belt, replace a spark plug, put in a new air filter. Jack is very surprised at this thought. He believes a writer would call it a metaphor. Jack isn’t one to create metaphors – but there’s something in the man voice, a subtle music that seems to introduce pictures into his mind. Along with the Peruvian coffee, which is causing his nerve endings to float around like one of those swimming-pool giant soda-straw things.
Another one! He’s beginning to suspect that the elf barista has slipped something narcotic into his brew. He sets down the stock listings and heads for the restroom, but the restroom is occupied, so he stands in the hallway scanning the bulletin board. He spots a flyer about the mysterious oil spills in the bay: Please do not handle injured waterfowl; call the rescue hotline below.
The flyer includes a photo of a besmirched bird; it looks like the one he saw the night before, and he realizes that that was when this metaphor business began. Jack thought of the bird being like himself – having lost an essential skill, a place in the order of things. It seems that Carlos is wandering in the same territory.
One of the hippie-ladies leaves the restroom and tries to hand him a spatula. Jack looks at it, puzzled. He has heard that the 1960s was an age of symbols, and wonders what it signifies when someone hands you a spatula.
“It’s the bathroom key,” she explains. She shakes the keychain looped around the handle.
“Oh,” says Jack. “Thanks.”
The hippie-lady pats him on the cheek – pats him on the cheek! – and says, “No problem, cutie.”
I will never get used to this place, thinks Jack. He settles to his business, meanwhile trying to process some idea about the oily bird and the low-voiced man. Does the oily bird get the worm? Thompson said he got his best thinking done at the urinal. Jack had dismissed it as yet another product of Thompson’s gutter-bound brain cells, but he did have a good point: there wasn’t much else you could do.
Returning past the bulletin board, Jack spots another flyer: a familiar silver-bearded figure wearing a cordial smile. “Feeling Stuck? Want to Get a Life? Get a Life Coach!” The name under the photo is Benjamin Haas, Jr. Jack finds the same face at the table next to his, the low-voiced man now chuckling at the Sunday comics. The same man who, last night, told him about the freezing bird.
Jack walks toward the man, holding the spatula in front of him like a divining rod. When he stops at the table, the man looks at him and says, “No thanks. Don’t need it quite yet.”
Jack looks at the spatula as if he has no idea how it got there.
“Oh! No. I… I think…” (He’s having a hard time getting this thought out.) “I think I’d like a life coach.”
Benjamin Haas, Jr. studies him carefully, the way one might study a wounded bird. “Tell you the truth, I’m sort of finished for the day, but, well – Hey! I know. What are you doing right now?”
“I’m headed for my regular constitutional. Why don’t you join me, and we’ll see if you pass muster.”
Ben spends the first twenty minutes rambling on about politics, fast-food obesity and the central irony of blues music. Jack is very comfortable with this. He is well practiced at the role of sounding board. He finds that people will talk for hours if you let them, and will express much appreciation afterward for your contribution to the “conversation.” This trait may well have been the one thing – besides his talent with numbers – that accounted for his success at C-Valve. And also, inadvertently, contributed to its end.
The only break in Jack’s silence comes as they approach Big Brown. Jack feels like he’s doing a good job of not letting on, but Ben stops to give the house a good hard glare.
“Why they let those bastards build that… Kennedy compound I’ll never know. Probably some Silicon Valley hotshot.”
“Probably,” says Jack.
“So you say you’re in accounting?”
“‘Downsized.’ Cute word. Sounds like they put you under some laser device and Shazam! You’re an action figure. Then they give you a Barbie doll for the lonely nights and send you on your way.”
The idea strikes the visual end of Jack’s funny bone and he lets out a hiccup of a laugh.
“Wow!” says Ben. “Got an actual laugh out of you. Oughta charge you extra for that. Because – no offense, mind you – you’re generally about as wildly witty as a brick. Oh, and this little walkentalk is charge-free, by the way. Don’t want to scare you off. We can figure out the finances later.”
“So this job. Sixty hours a week?”
“Sometimes more. I didn’t mind.”
“The noble Silicon Valley martyr,” says Ben. “Oh yeah, I know that species. Once they’re all fried up and need to find themselves, they all come to Santa Cruz County.”
Jack thinks of correcting him. After all, he’s here on assignment – to take care of Thompson’s house. But that would bring up the scourge that is Big Brown, so he decides to shut up.
“So what’s the problem? Can’t find another job?”
“No. And I’ve tried. It’s just, that’s how it is in The Valley, these days. Tight.”
“Uh-huh. Considered another line of work?”
“You mean… taxes? CPA?”
“No. I mean, something besides accounting.”
The idea strikes Jack so oddly that he can’t respond.
“There are jobs besides accounting, Jack. I know some folks who’ve had three, four different careers. Hell, I know a guy who went from VP of marketing to teaching special education. He’s never been more challenged, and he’s never been happier.”
“I just… I don’t know if I’m the type that could change like that. That would be… weird.”
“Hmmm. Well, life is weird. And speaking of weird…”
They’re nearing the end of the beach, where tall putty-colored cliffs cut off the shoreline. Ben steers them toward the piles of large rocks that line the base. What Jack had first glimpsed as a group of picnickers turns into something entirely different. Rocks have been stacked in tall, precarious formations resembling human figures. On each of them, the top rock remains there seemingly by magic, like one of those impossibly balanced boulders you see in postcards from Arizona. Jack steps up to one – about the size and shape of a baguette – and judges the point of contact with the rock below at no more than a square inch.
He looks at Ben. “It’s a trick, right? Some kind of glue?”
“Not at all,” says Ben. “I’d prove it to you, but I’m not in the habit of vandalizing works of art.”
“Well, it’s impressive, but… art?”
“Have you ever seen anything like it before? Has it nudged your sense of possibilities? Just a little?”
Jack loses track of the questions. No? Yes?
“Not only that. Have you considered the way in which these figures are grouped?”
Jack scans the tableau: one tall, rotund figure at center, a dozen smaller figures in two neat rows to his right. To the left is a figure that appears to be seated, with a taller figure standing over it. Oh, this is stupid, he thinks. They’re just rocks!
“His name is White Horse,” says Ben. “I know – white guy, Indian name, Santa Cruz hippie-dippie shit. And he’s got long hair, and he plays guitar in a band. But he makes a good point. He has taught himself to do this extraordinary thing through extreme patience and a lot of practice. He considers it a spiritual discipline. The balance of things, the oneness of things, the way that objects interact. It might sound loopy, but for White Horse it works, because when he’s out here for hours balancing rocks, he’s actually balancing himself. He is one of the most peaceful, rational beings I know. But in Silicon Valley? There he’d be a freak.”
“Well yes!” says Jack. “This is not a normal thing for an adult human being to be doing.”
Ben rubs his beard and approaches Jack slowly. “So. Have you figured it out yet?”
The answer arrives at once, like an image in a slideshow. “It’s a courtroom – a trial.”
Ben holds his smile for a long time. “There’s hope for you yet.” He starts back down the beach, leaving Jack to follow.
This is what a life coach does? Jack thinks. Look at rocks? When do we work on my resume?
They traverse a shallow sand-stream left over from a recent rainstorm, and Ben seems to emerge from his thoughts.
“How long did you work at C-Valve?”
“Wow! Loyalty, Don’t see that much.” He picks up a flat stone and whirls it sidearm at the water. It skips three times and punctures an incoming wave. “How’s your cash flow?”
“Six months severance, mostly paid-off house.”
“Hey, you paid for it; your company paid for it. If you need it, use it.”
“The thing is, Jack, I’m not on the clock right now, so I swore I would do no analysis on this little hike, but this one’s easy. What’s painfully plain to see is that you, my friend, have led an extremely narrow – no, no, let’s use a more positive word – an extremely focused existence. Faced with your current predicament, the principal skill you now need to obtain is how to take a broader view of the world – how to see the plentiful opportunities that each situation presents to you. And you, my friend, are tremendously fortunate – you have this lovely little window of time in which to see what other styles of living the world has to offer. You don’t have to adopt any of them, you just need to know that they exist. What are you doing tonight?”
“Um… watching TV?” He finds it strange that anyone would think he might have plans.
“I usually take my time with these kind of things – but you’re a hard case, Jack, so I’m going to try a little immersion therapy. Plus, I just happen to have an… opportunity in the very near future. The thing is, though, you have to give me the luxury of absolute trust. Nothing in my plans will do you any real harm, okay?”
Certain sentences carry a single revealing word, and with this one it’s real. Real harm. But the idea of handing his troublesome life over to somebody else for a while is tremendously appealing.
“Sure,” he says. He picks up a rock and hurls it at the surf. It angles over sideways and knifes into the water.
Photo by MJV