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Jack awakes on the great white couch, and decides that the time has come to face the kitchen. Rounding the corner of the dividing wall, he comes upon an exhibit of bullet-gray steel. It reminds him of the kitchen in the pizza parlor where he worked during college. He tugs the huge metal slab of refrigerator door and discovers a sign in Thompson’s writing: For God’s sake, eat everything you can. This makes sense; gone for a month, the Floreses certainly wouldn’t want to return to a fridge full of rotting food. Freed by logic, Jack rifles the drawers for treasure. He lands upon a drawer that seems to be operating as a gourmet bagel center: tightly bagged poppyseed bagels, slices of fresh lox, two tubs of cream cheese (regular and garden herb) and a small jar of capers. Jack cuts two bagels in half, drops them in an eight-slot toaster (which Army division lives in this place?), and immediately gets a call on his cell phone.
“Jack! How you feelin’?”
“You’re doing beautifully, me lad. I’ve got three assignments for you today.”
“More like homeplay. Have you had breakfast?”
“Making it right now.”
“Ah! You’ve made it into the kitchen. Excellent. Your first assignment is to eat that there breakfast on the rooftop – because, if you hadn’t noticed, it’s a gorgeous, sunny day outside. After that, I want you to report to that delicious playroom of yours and indulge in two – count ‘em – two recreations of your choosing. Your third assignment is to walk down the beach and find rocks for skipping. You must skip these rocks until one of them skips at least ten times.”
Jack laughs (actually laughs!). “You are a taskmaster.”
“I also want you to meet me at the coffeehouse at seven tonight. I’ve got some entertainment for you.”
“Okay.” Jack pauses, trying to assemble a question.
“Jack? You there?”
“Is there… I mean, this is all fun, but when do we start on getting me a job?”
Ben clears his throat. “I’m not a job coach, Jack. I’m a life coach. We need to find you a job that serves your life, rather than vice-versa. I’m afraid your last job was a little too all-encompassing. And the first step is to teach you how to play again.”
Jack hears a clicking noise; his four half-bagels bounce up in their slots. “I’m not sure if I…”
“Let’s get you a life first, Jack. Then we’ll get you a job. Now get up there and eat your breakfast.”
Jack assembles two bagel sandwiches with all the trimmings and finds a can of pear nectar in the fridge. He’s about to tote his breakfast up the stairs when he spots a small door built into the wall next to the microwave. Noting a series of buttons next to it – 2, 3 and R – he thinks he has this one figured out. He opens the door, places his food inside, presses R and watches as it slides skyward. When he gets to the roof, he figures the approximate location of the shaft, finds a small door beside the tiki bar, and discovers his breakfast inside.
By seven, a light rain has set in over the coast, turning the slick asphalt of the parking lot into a field of black diamonds. Jack huddles on a window seat in the coffeehouse. The Alaskan husky lies on the walk outside, looking terribly bored. Jack is indulging in another cup of Peruvian, and realizes that, even in his new life, even in his discovery of fresh-drip coffee, he has quickly settled into a rut. Luke Bumflasher or not, he does not feel fundamentally changed.
On the drive home from Oregon, just south of Crescent City, California, he took a short hike through a redwood grove. One of the great trees had fallen in a windstorm, and several smaller trees had sprouted from its side, like teeth in a comb. He recognizes this memory as yet another metaphor, and wonders at their recent incursions into his gray matter. Aren’t metaphors the last refuge of desperate minds? And what the hell was that burning house in the falls at Multnomah?
“Thank God I’m here!” bellows Ben, swinging through the door. “Hast thou been chewing gravel, wild, effeminate boy? Let us hasten from this gloomy countenance. Fie!”
Jack laughs, as one might laugh at a lunatic uncle. “That’s a good idea,” he says. He follows Ben’s biker-looking jacket to the white Miata, which is very impractically topless.
“I know, I know,” says Ben, hopping behind the wheel. “It’s a removable hard-top, and you have to leave it home when you’re not using it. I didn’t think it was going to rain tonight. Here – use this.”
He hands Jack a chocolate brown cowboy hat with feathers along the front, like something from a ‘70s Southern rock band. Jack puts it on, feeling ridiculous, feeling the rainwater on the passenger seat soaking into his jeans. He realizes that a snappy retort has just slipped into his brain. He tries it out in his head to make sure, then lets it fly just as Ben is opening his mouth to speak.
“So tell me again why you’re the life coach?”
The delivery is delicious. Jack realizes at a single shot why people throw away perfectly reasonable careers to become comedians. Ben’s face freezes – as if he doesn’t quite understand that his young companion is making an attempt at humor. The light turns, and he heads into the intersection, letting out a whooping laugh like an aging cowboy on a white bronco.
A minute later they’re tracing the clifftop drive above White Horse’s rock sculptures. Ben asks for a report on Jack’s afternoon assignments.
“I bowled a 115,” he answers. “It wasn’t easy – you have to set the pins by hand. Assuming the golf hole is a par-three, I played nine rounds absolutely even, but I had to hit a hole-in-one on my last attempt.”
Ben raises an appreciative eyebrow. “And the rock-skipping?”
“Took me an hour,” says Jack. “The water was really choppy. I had to throw along the troughs in front of the waves. But I found a perfect disc near the Concrete Boat, some kind of red rock, and I threw an eleven-skipper. At least, I think so – they go sort of fast. There really is an art to it, though. And my arm is sore, thank you very much.”
“You’ll recover,” says Ben. He takes a downhill left into the semicircle cutout of Capitola Village, then cuts right along the ultra-cute storefronts, pulling into a spot next to a shop of Tolkien figurines and tarot cards. Ben jumps out, reaches into the Miata’s tiny trunk, and extracts a folded-up tarp.
“Here. Help me make the bed.” He hands Jack one side and they pull it over the Miata’s interior. Jack is about to raise the question of attachment when he discovers magnets sown into the fringe; they click neatly to the side of the car.
“That’s why I’m the life coach,” says Ben. “Follow me, young lad.”
They cross the intersection and cruise the storefront displays: beachwear, baby clothes, a café with sandwiches and ice cream. Across another street, they pass beneath a mermaid done up in mosaic tiles, the resident goddess of a rowdy Mexican saloon, then board a long, straight stairwell to a coffeehouse called Mr. Toots. The place is scattered with odd pieces of furniture: church pews, sofas, stools, every type of table you could imagine, planted over a floor of rough green rock. A balcony to the left overlooks the Capitola lagoon, which will return to riverdom as soon as the winter rains carve an escape hatch through the beach. A series of windows to the right overlook the street. The tables host a scala naturae of beach species: students buried in laptops, retired tourists, bikers wiring up for a blues club down the street. The chatter dips and swells like a flood tide, capped by the vanilla chimes of a piano. Jack locates an upright against the far wall, a blonde-haired woman sitting on the bench in a billowy, old-fashioned dress, like something the mother would wear in a ‘60s sitcom. Facing the wall, the woman leans toward a microphone to her left and releases a voice that catches Jack entirely off-guard. She lands on her notes only long enough to pull them this way and that, a plane performing a touch-and-go, a butterfly with sticky feet.
“I’m getting a chai, Jacko. You want one? I guarantee you’ll like it.”
“Absolute trust,” says Jack. He likes this phrase; it frees him from the burden of thinking. His eyes return to the singer.
“She’s got you already,” says Ben.
“Suzanne. She’s the reason we’re here.”
Ben heads for the espresso counter as Jack tries to follow the song, something about an impulsive road trip. Jack can see the lines of the melody dipping and dodging, like the roads they took on the way to Salinas. He’s already thinking of the Monkey party as pictures in a scrapbook; the final image is Mamet, cutting his wide blue wings as he leads Cigarette into the bright sky.
He feels a point of heat at his left elbow and finds Ben nudging him with a glass. He takes the offering – a beige concoction with a white line of foam – and follows Ben to a window table at the far reach of the room. The table affords a perfect view of Suzanne: her fingers running the black-and-white field, her face craning toward them to sing. Her hair is frosted in straw-blonde stripes over coffee with cream, her bangs cut in a line over round, startling blue eyes. Her face is round, as well, with plump cheeks and an overbite that gives her an easy smile. Despite the babe-in-the-woods appearance, she sings with a wise humor. She’s onto a bouncy jazz tune about a child discovering a feather, then she segues to an outlandish mazurka about an ice fairy, laced with a minor-chord spookiness. Jack discovers a thought about her singing: She climbs all over the gradations between song and speech, giving the words a footloose tone, like she’s making them up on the spot. The next song is a gently see-sawing love ballad, the words a little mundane and generic, but the longer notes give her the chance to show off the easy flow of her singing.
“You like the chai?” asks Ben.
“Yeah. She’s great.”
Ben laughs. “The chai, son. That thing that you are drinkething.”
Jack feels the buzz on his lips. “It’s like a spice milkshake. Only… warm.”
“A beautifully non-committal answer. So you like the singing?”
“I like the singer.”
Ben shifts in his seat to give Suzanne a look. “Everybody does. She’s a doll. Why, if I were… Jesus! Forty years younger. I think she’ll be breaking soon. Maybe she’ll come over for a chat.”
Jack feels suddenly anxious, and soothes himself with a sip of chai. Suzanne finishes a cover of a Radiohead song, receives her applause (mixed with the neverending chatter) and heads over to greet Ben with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Jack notices that her eyes narrow into upside-down crescents when she smiles, which is ridiculously charming.
“Suzanne, this is Jack, a very promising pupil of mine.”
Suzanne smiles again, but loses it to a cloud of shyness.
“Hi,” she says. “Thanks for coming.”
“I didn’t have much choice,” says Jack, then realizes what a stupid thing he’s just said. “I mean… I didn’t… I hadn’t… You’re great.”
Suzanne manages to compute the intent of his meandering, and smiles again. “Thanks.”
This is precisely the time for Ben to intercede, but Ben is sitting back like a Buddha, arms crossed, happy to let the conversation die on the vine. After an interminable stretch of dead air, he smiles and places his hands flat on the table.
“And… scene! Sorry to hang you both out to dry, but I wanted young Jack to see something. Our Suzanne, she who pours her most intimate thoughts into a room full of perfect strangers, is actually, when it comes to meeting people one-on-one, terribly shy. But do tell us, young Suzanne, what is it that you do for a living?”
Suzanne ducks her head, focusing on Ben. “I play coffeehouses and clubs all along the West Coast. I start at a jazz club in San Diego, and work my way up to this bookstore café in Vancouver, British Columbia. And then I turn around and work my way back.”
Ben holds his hands together, pretending he doesn’t already know the answers, and says, “Do you have a home, young Suzanne?”
Ben puts on a look of mock surprise. “Well! How ever do you manage, then?”
Suzanne laughs at their little drama (obviously, with Ben she’s comfortable). “I stay with relatives in Washington. I went to college at UC Santa Cruz, so I have a lot of friends around here to stay with. And other places, people just kind of… take me in. It’s amazing what the music brings out in people. Of course, the music doesn’t always work, so I keep a sleeping bag and a tent in the car.”
Ben drums his fingers against the table. “And, may I ask, if it’s not too personal, what of money?”
Suzanne flutters her lashes theatrically, giving Jack a brief glance just to let him know he hasn’t been forgotten. “Tips. A few actual payments from clubs. Mr. Toots throws me a twenty or two during the summer. And lots of CD sales. I’m lucky that way. I’ve had some fantastic sound guys, and musicians to record with, and my listeners just sort of get hooked. They sometimes buy all five at a shot. Things are still pretty tight, all in all, but it’s not like I’m paying rent anywhere.”
Ben takes in this last response thoughtfully, then gives her a gracious smile. “Thanks, Suzanne.”
“Delighted. I’d better get back to work. Nice meeting you, Jack.”
“Yes,” says Jack.
Suzanne settles at the upright, flips a switch on the mic and says, “This is for Uncle Ben, because I know it’s his favorite.”
The song is “Hallelujah,” a lovingly bitter commentary on relationships by Leonard Cohen. Jack remembers hearing it in a movie, but Suzanne’s version is different. At the piano she’s fearless, and fashions the song into a small opera, acting out each line as she sings it, slowing the final verse to an aching soliloquy. The room falls miraculously quiet. Suzanne lets the final notes fall from her fingers, and receives her applause like a dreamer waking from sleep.
“What do you think?” asks Ben.
“Amazing,” says Jack.
“She’s twenty-eight years old. Two years ago she decided she could assemble this odd career – a ludicrous notion, nothing a normal person would even imagine – and somehow she makes it work. And, if you’ll allow me to hammer you over the head with this notion just once more, you saw how shy and awkward she was when I introduced you, how like one Jack Teagarden. Don’t think there isn’t a multiplicity of incredible, unexpected things you can do with your life, Jack.”
Suzanne flips through a book of jazz standards and settles it against the music holder. She finds Jack in the corner of her vision and smiles, as if he has discovered her most embarrassing secret, then presses her fingers into a major chord and breathes in.
Photo: Suzanne Brewer