Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Monkey Tribe, Chapter H, Part 2: The Burning House

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Downstairs, the Tribe is looking chipper, watching Daffy Duck on the high-def as they munch on apple fritters, buttermilk bars and bear claws. The general style of dress is somewhere between beachwear and camping, leading one to expect a strenuous coastal hike.
            Jack and Audrey make an entrance of shame down the circular staircase, Jack realizing just how audible must have been his cries of “Cher! Cher!” He leans close to Audrey and whispers, “Do I get any clues?”
            “No,” she answers. “I want you to experience this without forethought.”
            Jack notes one Monkey who is not so chipper as the rest: Ben, who wears a straw caballero’s hat, its hook-nosed brim drawn close over his eyes.
            Ivan takes the logical stage-space in front of the whitewater and raises both arms. The chatter slows to a jog and he says, simply, “Shall we?”
            That’s all it takes. The Monkeys file out the door and into the drive. Ivan, Terra and Ben pile into the cab of Terra’s farm truck, while Constance, Willie, Suzanne and White Horse head for Constance’s van. Audrey hands Jack a set of keys.
            “You’re driving the Miata, big boy. Ben thought you’d enjoy that.”
            It’s been a few years since Jack has handled a stick, but the Miata offers a generous clutch. Soon enough, they’re done with the Santa Cruz crawl and off to the easy fourth-gear stretches of Highway One. Ten miles north they pass the town of Davenport, next to the jumbled silhouette of the cement factory. Jack reaches over to take Audrey’s hand. She smiles, her eyes hidden by big Italian sunglasses.
            “You’re a sweet boy, Jack.”
            Jack doesn’t like the sound of that. Dismissive. If last night was any indication, it could be that sweetness has been his problem all along, and he’s ready to kick the habit. He gazes ahead at the rectangle window of the truck cab. Ben is seated at the right, staring out the window at the foothills, which have gained a green depth with the autumn weather. They round a bend and find the Pigeon Point Lighthouse, a broad white tetherball pole on the crest of the rocks.
            “How far are we going?” he asks.
            “’Bout ten more miles. The turnout comes up pretty fast, so keep an eye on Terra.”
            They pull into the straightaway along Pescadero Beach, high sand dunes bleeding onto the roadside, then they climb a long hillside across the lagoon from a eucalyptus grove, topping the ridge like a cock’s-comb. The road tops out along a seacliff, tracing straight ahead in a series of gentle dips. Jack looks to the left and finds that they’re a hundred feet above the water. The Imp of the Perverse points out two or three spots where an unlucky skid would send them hurtling to the long gray waves below. Jack looks straight ahead. Terra follows a slow downhill curve to the right then drifts off the road into a narrow turnout covered in red sand.
            Constance pulls in behind them and the Monkeys are all action, strapping on identical army-surplus backpacks. Ivan hands a couple of them to Audrey and Jack.
            “Ahoy, lovebirds. Follow us, but be very careful crossing this highway. Some of these weekend warriors are insane.”
            Jack hoists his pack onto his shoulders and follows Ivan as he signals all clear and leads the migration. They climb the opposite roadbank, speckled with broken glass from long-ago parties, then trek through some dicey-looking shrubs to find a scrubby hillside descending to the ocean. A tiny brown sign signals the beginning of an official state park trail, scarred with gouges where rainfall has carved out the soil. Jack could swear he smells lighter fluid, but blames it on the same Audrey-inspired cross-wiring that’s afflicted him all morning.
            The trail winds around to the right, and then ends abruptly where a small creek has cut a ravine into the sandstone. The beach is directly below them, a twenty-foot drop, so Jack assumes there’s an alternate route. Ivan, who has obviously been designated scout leader for the day, steps to the creekside to give a little how-to.
            “Okay, Mr. and Mrs. Monkeys. I need you to be very careful along this section, and please watch my choreography. No broken bones today.”
            He aims that last phrase at Willie, which must refer to an episode from years past. Ivan takes large, precise steps, the better to illustrate. He goes to a higher, narrower section of the ravine and takes one long step over it, where the other side seems to offer a flatter walking area. Then he heads slightly uphill on a tiny path, circles around an outcropping of boulders, and comes back around to the very lip of the drop, where he’s able to hop back to our side of the ravine. A few steps to the right and he comes to another ravine, arriving from a different angle, and crosses it on a wooden plank that’s been firmly fixed to either edge.
            But that’s not all (and at this point, Jack has to assume that this is a very important beach, for all the rigmarole they’re going through). The trail continues along the side of a bluff, then drops to the beach in a series of footholds carved into the rock. Jack works his way backward, face to the wall, then, realizing he’s perched in the last two footholds, jumps onto a wide boulder and then onto the sand.
            He finds himself in a small cove, bluffs on either side, breakers rolling in to leave a residue of small rocks and shells. It’s a lovely spot, but Ivan is already leaving, rounding the corner of the far bluff for places unknown. Jack falls in with the other Monkeys, and they emerge on a long spread of white sand, lorded over by high, bare cliffs in striations of beige and putty. The Monkeys deposit their identical packs in the shade of the bluff, and Ivan commences with the orders of the day.
            “Okay. Terra, why don’t you start on the throne? Willie and I will start the house. Constance, why don’t you act as Terra’s gatherer? White Horse, do that voodoo that you do, and Suzanne, you’re our designated wild card, so it’s up to you to think up something entirely new. Audrey, let’s get you on southern wood patrol and – oh yeah, our newbie.”
            Ivan comes to Jack and puts a hand on his shoulder.
            “Um… Jack. I know this is all a little mysterious, but hang with us here. I’d like you to head north along these cliffs and see what you can find in the way of usable driftwood. We’d prefer pieces at least five feet long, but it’s looking a little spare today, so we’ll take whatever you can get. There’s some Gatorade in the number-three pack there, along with some beef jerky and power bars. Hop to it, and good luck.”
            Jack wanders along the cliff, finding very little for his troubles: a pair of three-foot limbs, white from exposure. He returns and lays them at Ivan’s feet with a look of apology. Audrey has apparently hit a treasure trove to the south, for Ivan and Willie have already laid out a seven-foot square of base logs and fixed them in place with stake-like pieces buried into the sand.
            Jack walks further this time, and spots an opening in the cliff. It’s a small lagoon, framed on both sides by steep hillsides, a natural depository for driftwood – logs and logs of it. He grabs two eight-footers and drags them back down the beach.
            When he arrives, the peripheral projects are beginning to take form. Terra and Constance have rolled a wide stump into place as the seat of their throne, and positioned two smaller stumps as armrests. Now they’re behind it, planting a row of narrow limbs into the sand as a kind of backing.
            Farther toward the water, White Horse and Suzanne are setting up a kind of exhibit. White Horse’s contribution, to no one’s surprise, involves the balancing of rocks. Limited to moderate specimens culled from the creek-drop, he is fashioning a congregation of elves, gathered in random groupings like spectators at a car accident. Suzanne has found a bucket, gone down to the waterline to fill it up with slushy sand, and is dripping the contents into stalagmites, bunched together like a gnarled Tolkien forest. As Jack turns to go, he sees that Ivan and Willie’s house has attained a height of three feet.
            Ten minutes later, Jack returns with two more eight-footers. Terra and Constance have finished their backing and are binding the limbs together with strands of kelp. Audrey appears from the south, dragging two long planks. She smiles when she sees Jack, and drops them to give him a kiss.
            “Check this out,” she says. “Genuine lumber. It’s like someone was getting ready to build a pier down there. How’re you doing?”
            “Pretty well. Found some good stuff, but it’s quite a hike.”
            “Sorry. Rookie treatment. Keep at it, though. I think we’ll need it.”
            “Um…” Jack looks around, feeling like something’s missing. “Where’s Ben?”
            Audrey scans the clifftop. “He usually takes a hike up there. I’m guessing you’ve figured this out, but this is… about Ben. So we do the work while he goes off and thinks. Here, have some Gatorade.”
            Jack downs half a bottle, grabs a few pieces of jerky and heads north. He’s feeling grateful for the overcast, since otherwise he’d be working up a pretty good sweat. He takes three more sojourns before Ivan gives him the okay to relax. The cabin walls have attained six feet. Willie places Audrey’s planks across the top, and begins hoisting smaller limbs across the planks, creating a Mohawk of nubs along either side of the ridgeline. White Horse, meanwhile, has found his way inside the structure with a supply of rocks and is building his figures somewhat larger. Having festooned their throne with seagull feathers, sand dollars and bits of glass, Constance and Terra have retreated to the shade of the bluff to enjoy a snack. Suzanne, on the other hand, is growing ambitious, has constructed a large mound so that her stalagmite forest might climb into the hills. Jack chuckles at this, then jolts a little when he feels a hand on the back of his neck.
            “All right!” says Ivan. “As soon as Audrey brings us two more limbs, I think we’ll be set.”
            “Should I call Ben?” asks Terra. Ivan nods. She reaches into a backpack and pulls out her bodhran, a round frame drum with Celtic knots painted on its skin and sides. Jack recalls seeing it at the first party. She unties a two-headed stick attached to the frame, stands before the cabin and delivers single blows against the skin, sending deep thuds echoing across the cliffs. After a dozen of these, she stops and returns to the shade. Willie takes the last two limbs from Audrey, stands on tip-toes and slides them into the last remaining slot in the roof. The Monkeys respond with subdued applause, and Willie takes a brief bow. Jack finds this all a little muted, Monkey-wise; Terra, always attuned to puzzlement, turns to explain.
            “This is sort of a religious ritual, Jack, so it’s not like you wouldn’t be respectful, anyway, but we do tend to take it pretty seriously. I’m sure you’ll catch the spirit.”
            Jack stands to scope the clifftops, but sees nothing, so he wanders toward the water and finds Ben descending the footholds. He crosses slowly toward them, eyes straight ahead as if he’s in a trance. He has affixed wildflowers and pieces of grass to his clothing and hair, a King Lear wandering in the wilderness. He walks steadily toward the throne and seats himself, giving the driftwood house an appraising look and then signaling his friends with a slow nod.
            Ivan and Willie go to one of the backpacks, extract two squarish containers and position themselves at opposite corners of the structure. Ivan calls “Okay?” Willie answers “Yes!” and they flip up their spouts, spraying the driftwood with a clear liquid. When he catches the odor, Jack realizes that this is the lighter fluid that he thought he smelled before. They pull out long fire-lighters, set the corner sections into flame and then proceed along the base of the structure, pouring and lighting until the ring is complete. The vision strikes at the back of Jack’s mind: it’s the burning house from Multnomah Falls! If the food, the fireworks and Audrey had not opened his nerve endings before – now he is almost levitating with epiphany.
            Terra lifts her bodhran and walks until the surf touches her feet. She raises the instrument and plays a series of slow rolls. Ben braces his hands on the armrests, staring into the fire. Willie and Ivan come to stand behind him, placing their hands on his shoulders. Constance and White Horse kneel at either foot and wrap their arms around Ben’s legs. Ben is braced against the fire like a man trying to face down a hurricane, and tears are streaming his cheeks.
            Audrey leans over to whisper in Jack’s ear. “Twenty years ago, to this day, Ben returned from a business trip to find that his house had burnt down during the night. His wife and two daughters were asleep when it started. They died, all three. This is why he became a life coach. It was a choice between helping others to live or ceasing to live himself. This awful, awful thing is what brought Ben into your life.”
            Audrey takes Jack’s hand and leads him to the throne, where Ben is shaking with grief, his face gone red, the creases in his forehead deepening with anger. Audrey goes behind the throne, wraps her arms around Ben’s neck and kisses the top of his head. Constance waves Jack over to her spot and replaces her arms with his around Ben’s thick calves. Jack feels the muscles tensing and releasing, like a dog running in his sleep.  Jack faces the fire, now conquering the Mohawk roof, and hears Terra break into a high, keening wail, a soprano exhalation of her Irish blood. Another voice finds a trail just beneath – Suzanne’s – and he glances over to find Constance carving the sound into motions of pain, sharp-angled turns and leaps that remind Jack of modern dance.
            He turns back as the first of the roof-pieces drops inside. This is when he notices White Horse’s figures: one the size of an adult, two the size of children. Jack feels the tears coming freely to his eyes. It feels good. It feels powerful. The roof collapses with a loud cracking, and the figures are gone.

            The fire takes three hours to run its course. As Willie and Ivan run buckets of seawater to drown the coals, Ben takes his parting embraces and heads up the trail with Audrey and Jack. Jack is beginning to understand the arrangements: it will be his job to drive, so that Ben can feel at home in his beloved sportscar, can let the wind pound through his hair, but not be expected, in his altered state, to actually navigate a vehicle. Audrey straps him in, gives him a word of parting and then pulls Jack up the red-sand roadside for a lengthy kiss.
            “It’s been a wonderful weekend, Jack. You’re fantastic, you really are. But I need to let you know, I’m not all that dependable. So I’m sure I’ll see you again soon, but let’s not play the dating game, okay? I can’t take that shit anymore. Take Mr. Ben home and get him into the hot tub, okay?”
            The information is flying a little fast and furious, and all Jack can latch onto is this last tidbit.
            “Hot tub?”
            Audrey laughs. “Oh my God! You didn’t even know you had one, did you?” She taps a finger against his chest. “Go to the tiki god and turn right.” She gives him a kiss and is gone, across the highway and back to the trail to help the others. Jack feels immediate guilt, ogling a woman’s ass with a grieving friend waiting in the car, but he’s assuming that Ben would understand. Then he hits the rewind and considers the word that he’s using: friend.
            Ben is awake, but so lost in thought that Jack thinks it best not to speak. A curtain of navy blue draws down the sky, and as they near Davenport the first stars begin to appear. Ben looks past him to the strip of roadside stores, the little white Mexican church at the base of the hills, then speaks, his voice pock-marked by gravel.
            “You wouldn’t believe how it was the first year, and the second. I would scream, I would thrash on the ground – a couple of times I made a dash for the fire and tried to throw myself in. My friends had to hold my arms and legs to keep me from hurting myself. Now they hold me only to comfort me. And the strange thing is…” He pauses for a long time as the Miata gains the following hill; he’s fighting for this thought like a fisherman struggling with a marlin. “I’ve heard men say this of war. That of course it is the most horrible thing that a human being could live through And that they miss it terribly. Because they will never feel that intensely ever again. Our lives should all include things that would utterly rip us apart if we lost them. And that fire most certainly destroyed me. I am the Phoenix, Jack. But it’s better to live as a Phoenix than not to live at all. Have you ever contemplated suicide?”
            Jack is tempted to tell Ben about the burning house at Multnomah, but this is certainly not the time. “Yes,” he says.
            “I considered it night and day for three years. But I had friends who told me what I’m going to tell you now. Don’t you dare. Because I could not bear losing you.”
            In his thoughts, Jack is taking a plunge into the mist, his foot leaving the stone wall, the gravity taking him in like a lover, the sudden jarring flash of regret. That was his only chance, because from now on the Imp of the Perverse will have to answer to Ben’s Don’t you dare. Highway One opens to a stretch of dark farmlands, breaking off at their ocean edges like snapped-off chocolate bars. The wind thunders through Jack’s hair, sending a chill along the sunburn at the back of his neck, and causing him to do the most unexpected thing of all: to smile.

Photo by MJV

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