Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Monkey Tribe, Chapter I: Muggy and Soggy

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            Two days later, when Jack returns to the Aptos Coffeehouse, he spots the guitarist perched on his milk crate across from the Safeway. He’s singing a song that Jack has never heard, but there’s something about it that agrees with him, a rootsy blues grind that sounds like an approaching locomotive. The man sings over the tracks in a growly voice, lamenting the great distance between himself and his lover. Jack pulls out his wallet, extracts a bill and crosses the street to drop it in the guitar case. The man interrupts his next line to say “Thanks dude” then returns to the song.
            But why not? Jack thinks. At least he’s doing something, and he’s not begging. He walks neatly around the eccentrics gathered outside the coffeehouse, reassured by his wariness that he hasn’t totally gone soft, and heads for the door. The college brunette stands at the counter.
            “Cher! Hi.”
            “Well hello!” she says. The extra width of her smile tells Jack that she doesn’t remember his name.
            “Jack,” he says.
            “Jack.” She’s standing on a small platform behind the register, giving her the stature of a judge on a dais. “What culinary delights are we pursuing this morning?”
            “Do you have bagels?”
            Her eyes light up. “Do we!” She gestures to a board listing ten different varietals of the bagel species.
            “Oh! Wow. Let’s go with the pesto, and… could you recommend a spread?”
            “Ah. The roasted red pepper. Definitely.”
            “All right! And a fresh-brewed Sumatra, please.”
            “Gotcha. That’ll be under Heather Locklear. And wouldn’t you love to be under Heather Locklear?”
            The subtle flirtatiousness, along with the running joke about celebrity sex, takes Jack to two mornings previous, when he was shouting Cher’s name and mentally placing her in various acrobatic positions. Two weeks ago, such a thought would have destroyed him. Today, he drops a dollar in the tip jar, harvests Cher’s charming smile, and goes off to sit by the window.
            He notes the blueness of the sky over the Aptos hills as the first sip of coffee warms his mouth. It’s one of those spotless bite-of-an-apple mornings that the locals would prefer no one knew about, inspired by one of those mysterious pressure-shifts over the Central Valley.
            Jack has a sudden thought of what Audrey must be doing. Meeting with buyers over lunch, hosting an open house, planting For Sale signs in the lawns of Monterey. Bringing a new bag of feed into her pigeon loft, the birds muttering excitedly at the smell of fresh eats. He’s interrupted by a brand new anxiety: he wants more of that woman, that drug, and has no idea when, or if, he’s going to get it. Audrey has hung him out to dry.
“Pesto bagel!”
Thank goodness for Cher. He picks up his plate and consumes another of her smiles. If all this niceness is a show, she’s a fine actress, and he doesn’t care either way. He’s knifing out some red pepper spread when Ben makes his entrance, wearing an aloha shirt featuring tiny surfers riding huge, ornamental waves. He comes to Jack’s table and claps a hand on his shoulder.
“Quick: what are you thinking about at this very instant?”
“What are you, a woman?”
“A life coach. So yes, I’m part woman. Now answer the damn question.”
Jack reminds himself about absolute trust. “Audrey.”
“I could have laid money on that. So what are you thinking about her?”
“She has this narcotic effect on me. But I have no idea when I’m going to see her again, and it’s very… frustrating.”
Ben spins a chair around and straddles it. “This is precisely what I wanted to tell you about. Audrey is a potent force, and it’s tempting to think that she will help you fix your problems. But of course she won’t. I want you to own your problems; I want you to guard them jealously, because your problems are the stepping stones to your new interior self. And once we get the feng shui just right, you, my man, will be a potent force.”
Jack takes this in for a while, parsing Ben’s meanings. “But I’m doing pretty well, right?”
A grin splits Ben’s silver beard. “Yours is the most remarkable turnaround I’ve ever seen. In fact, your momentum is so great, I sometimes feel like tackling you, just to slow you down a little. You’re developing a bit of personal power, Jack, and you’ve got to be careful how you use it.”
Personal power. Jack runs the phrase back and forth through his head. No one has ever accused him of having personal power. “Why do I feel like I’m in a martial arts movie?”
Ben lets out a horse-laugh and stands up. “You see? Right there. A piece of bona fide dry wit. Two weeks ago, you never would have said something like that. Now let me get some coffee, and we’ll dig into this further.”
When he returns, the conversation is much less structured, much less teacher-and-pupil. More like that initial session that Jack eavesdropped on. He talks; Ben asks questions; he talks some more. At the end of two hours, Jack feels tired, emptied out.
“So,” he says. “Do we have any new projects this week? Field trips?”
“Yes,” says Ben. “I have arranged a visitation that will illustrate some of the true extremes of civil society. Things that will make the Monkey Tribe look like a Girl Scout troop. Things that might even seem a little threatening. Keep Friday night open, and see if you can assemble a costume along the lines of fairies and elves.”
“Umm… fairies and elves?”
“Yes. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Peter Pan. Narnia. Tolkien.”
“Wow. Okay. Umm… Do I owe you anything?”
“What do you think you owe me?”
“I can’t afford that,” says Jack.
“The more jokes you make, the higher my fee. But – something you can afford. I don’t want to save your life only to ruin your finances.”
Jack writes a check for four hundred dollars. Ben folds it in half without looking at it and slips it into his shirt pocket.
“Now,” he says. “Give me a big man-hug.”
“Ah geez, I don’t know…”
“Come on, stand up. It’s an art form, and you’d better start practicing. You’re gonna need all the affection you can get.”
“Well… okay.” Ben wraps his arms around him before he’s ready, pinning one arm to his side. He holds it only a couple of seconds before releasing him.
“I’ll let you off easy this time. But work on that approach, okay? None of this reluctance. Let’s see some enthusiasm! Arms out wide. Boisterous! It’s all in the attitude.”
“Yes, coach.”
“Say hi to Big Brown for me.”
“Will do.”
“Bye Cher!”
“Bye Ben!”
They both follow Ben’s exit, and then Cher gives Jack an odd look, as if she’s just realized the things he’s been thinking about her in other people’s beds. Jack busies himself with the Wall Street Journal.

When he arrives at Big Brown, Jack is dead tired – probably a result of all that talking. He heads for the great white couch and yanks the red handle, bringing down the high-def. His intention is to simply power up and watch whatever happens to be on. He reaches for the coffee table, smacks the remote and watches as the vertical blinds slide from the far windows. He’s about to smack it again when he realizes that the usual four-layer pie of deck, sand, sea, sky contains an additional element: a woman, asleep on the chaise lounge. She has red hair, brighter and shorter than Audrey's. She wears blue jeans with a broad black belt and a short-sleeve blouse of floral creams and yellows. Her eyes are hidden by a pair of Ray-Bans.
Jack is unsure of the legalities. The deck is so accessible, it almost seems like a public space, anyway. And why should he care if someone takes a nap on it? Especially someone so good-looking? On the other hand, he’s pretty certain that the house-sitter’s code requires some kind of response to trespassers. He takes a minute to work up a suitably authoritarian aura, then steps slowly to the sliding glass door. He cracks it open and says, “Excuse me?” But the woman fails to move. Oh God, someone left a dead body on my deck.
Jack slips outside and steps across, reassuring himself that this does not appear to be a woman who would knife a stranger – and squats next to the chaise. She’s even better-looking up close. Her lips possess a certain cushiony quality that certain Hollywood starlets would pay a fortune for.
“Excuse me?”
She shifts on the lounge and giggles, still semi-conscious. “Thompson,” she croons, “leave me alone, randy beast. Must… sleep.”
Finally Jack has to tap her on the shoulder, praying she doesn’t fly into a deeply programmed secret-agent ju-jitsu. Her eyes flutter open behind the glasses.
“Oh, I… oh my god.” She nudges herself up on an elbow. “I am so sorry. When I found that Thompson wasn’t here, I thought I would steal a few winks and… are you his housemate?”
Jack is greatly relieved to find that she’s friendly. “No, no. I’m his house-sitter. He’s off in Italy with his wife.”
At the precise moment that his lips, mouth and vocal cords are releasing the word “wife” to the greater world, Jack realizes the identity of his listener, and realizes also that he has done an awful thing. For five seconds, she stares at him, expressionless, and although he can’t see her eyes he can tell she’s about to start crying. She covers her face with her hands and conducts a round of self-recrimination in a decidedly posh British accent.
“Idiot! I can’t believe… Stupid, stupid woman! Bloody hell!”
She stops, like a deer alert to a sudden noise, then stands and looks toward the ocean, taking off her sunglasses and dropping them to the deck. Feeling like an accomplice to murder, Jack is scouring his banks for something to say. Brigit stamps her foot on the deck and screams.
“Shit! Shit shit shit shit shit! Oh God, Thompson, you fucking…”
She switches off again, staring oceanward, leaning forward. Jack sees the quaking in her legs, like a spring about to go off. She lets out a blast of sound, somewhere between a grunt and a snort, races down the ten steps and sprints across the sand. Jack does his best to follow, but he stumbles on a shallow depression and has to scramble back to his feet. A pain shoots through his left ankle, he’s running with a limp, when he sees Brigit leaping into the water. Ben’s words – Don’t you dare – flash into his head, and he splashes in right after. The chill of the water is like a punch to the solar plexus. He spots Brigit in water up to her hips, readying to launch herself over the breakers. Jack lurches forward and locks his arms around her waist.
Brigit flails to get away, sending an elbow against his mouth.
“He’s not worth it!” Jack shouts. “Don’t do it!”
Brigit’s anger has discovered a new focus. She escapes his grasp and turns to scream at him with all her might.
“I’m going for a bloody swim, you bloody fucking git! Leave me alone!” When she sees Jack’s bloody lip, the anger drains away, her hands droop at her sides. She begins to sob.
“I was… a fantastic swimmer… in school. I won medals, I… I…The crawl, the butterfly, the… the…”
She’s about to double over when Jack stumbles forward to catch her. She grabs at his shoulders to stay upright, rubbing her face into his chest.
“I’m sorry… I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to…”
Jack stands in the water, holding the slaughtered mistress of Thompson Flores, and meanwhile running an inventory of odd sensations. His lip hurts like hell; his ankle like double hell. The seawater is seeping into his loafers and giving great weight to his Levi’s. A strand of kelp is winding around his right calf, feeling exactly like the tentacle of a great sea squid, the one from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. And mostly, he’s wondering about the statute of limitations: how long is one required to comfort a broken woman in the waist-deep October Pacific before hypothermia becomes an overriding concern?

Jack feels grateful for all the facilities that have been placed at his disposal. He has set the large stone fireplace into gas mode, the flames licking their way between verisimilitudinous metallic logs. He has clothed his patient in a peach-colored satin bathrobe – not unironically purloined from the wardrobe of Esmerelda Flores – and placed her at the end of the great white couch under several layers of flannel blankets. As quickly as she fell asleep, as peacefully as she’s sleeping now, two hours on, he suspects she took the drive from Portland at a single shot. Regardless, he feels obligated to stay near; he had his chance to rid her of Thompson at Depoe Bay, and he failed her. He took the easy path, the path he always takes. He wonders how much of his life has been determined and branded by this tendency.
The length of Brigit’s sleep is also leaving him bored, so he pulls a pair of cordless headphones from beneath the coffee table and switches on the high-def. He gets hooked into a game of Australian rules football, which is entirely confounding to his Yankee sensibilities yet doubtless a wildly spirited activity. The stands are full of rowdies in team-color makeup, waving banners and chanting. He’s greatly puzzled when they begin chanting his name. Eventually he realizes that this chant is coming from Brigit. He strolls to the far end of the couch and sits on a footstool. She smiles weakly, her face scrubbed pink from a combination of crying, long-distance driving and one near-drowning.
“Jack.” She repeats it like a lucky charm. “I didn’t remember that. When I first saw you. But just now, I had a dream. There was this enormous devil – classic stereotype, orange chap, long tail, two rather vicious horns of fire shooting from his temples. But he turned out to be quite friendly. He made me the most delicious breakfast: kippers, bagels and lox, currant scones with chutney. And his name was Jack.”
“So,” says Jack. “I’m a friendly devil.”
“No. I mean yes – but that’s not the point. Because I met you at the Devil’s Horns. A very brief encounter, but you were vastly entertaining, the way you almost got yourself an individual car wash, and then Thompson…”
She hits the name like a tripwire – as if she had briefly forgotten Thompson existed – and loses her speech. She seems headed back toward tears, but instead lets out a sad laugh.
“Oh God. It’s such a pathetic story, Jack. But I suppose I do need to tell it to you.”
She chews on a fingernail, looking pensive.
“Is there anything I can get you?” asks Jack.
She looks at him as if he just appeared there, and her eyes light up.
“Hot cocoa. Might you have hot cocoa?”
She blinks her eyes in a fashion that warps his heart.
“I’ll… see if I can find some.”
He does, of course. Big Brown always provides. It’s in the pantry, next to the coffee mixes and herbal teas, perfectly logical. He boils a kettle of water and mixes two mugs, guessing that too much cocoa mix is better than too little. When he presents one of them to Brigit – now sitting upright and alert – she gives a look of vague disappointment.
“No marshmallows? I must have marshmallows, Jack, else I am going to have to leave you.”
Jack looks at her blankly. “I could… I could look for…”
“Oh Jack!” she laughs. “You are a gulla-bull. That is such a rare quality. I think I like that.”
Jack laughs, embarrassed. Brigit’s expression flashes back to serious. “That’s how he fooled you, isn’t it?”
“Fooled you into taking the fall at C-Valve. He told me all about it; actually, it was one of his favorite stories. He did say that he felt bad about it. Is that why you’re here? Is he finally making it up to you?”
“I think so,” says Jack. “Of course, we’re making the large assumption that Thompson has a conscience. But he’s also paying me back for not tipping you off at Depoe Bay. I’m really… sorry about that. I don’t think I actually set out to lie to you, but seeing the two of you really threw me for a loop, and it all happened so fast. I guess the easiest thing to do was just go along with the program.”
“Oh I know,” says Brigit. “He’s very…  persuasive, even when he’s not trying.”
Brigit takes a sip from her cocoa and stares at the fireplace.
“Thompson’s very… smooth,” she says. “Of course, that’s one large reason I fell in love with him. I’ve never met a man so capable of handling things. Of handling me. For a while, we were seeing a lot of each other. It was the most perfect romance. When we were out somewhere, I felt like one half of one of those Hollywood power couples – and I never had to call a shot. It was like I was the visitor and Thompson the Portlander, he knew all the unexpected spots: a coffeehouse with a string quartet, a cool jazz club on the riverfront, a new tapas joint in the Rose Garden – a minor league baseball game.
“But then he just… disappeared. Everything stopped – the emails, the clever text messages, the funky postcards. Flowers. He used to send flowers to me, a florist – and I loved it. And no answers to my voicemails, nothing. When it got to a month, I suppose I blew a gasket. I threw a Hefty bag of clothing into my car and off I went. I tracked down his street address through one of those friend-search websites and I just drove on through, twenty hours on the road. All that time to think, and yet the foolish woman-in-love fails to line up the pieces: that a man in a long-distance love affair had not once divulged his home address, not even on one of those funky postcards, despite all the romance, and sex, and that night on top of the Bancorp Tower when he danced with me, looked out at the lights of the city and told me that… he loved me.”
The sentence trails off into another bout of tears. Jack recalls a box of Kleenex in the downstairs bathroom and goes to fetch it. When he returns, Brigit seems better. She takes a tissue and wipes her cheeks.
“I swear,” she says, “despite all evidence to the contrary, there are those who think of me as an intelligent woman.”
“I’ve heard that love is inexplicable,” says Jack. He’s surprised to find himself saying something like that. From the look of it, so is Brigit.
“Have you been in it?”
“I don’t think I have.”
Brigit leans back against the couch, staring through the windows at the dark beach. After a few long seconds, she snaps into wakefulness.
“Well! I have been all too intrusive, you have been a saint, and I believe it’s time for me to get out of your hair. Do you know any motor inns hereabouts?”
“No,” says Jack – and for a moment, that one syllable is all he’s got. “You’re not going anywhere. For the next two weeks, this is my house, and you are my guest.”
Brigit looks a little overwhelmed. “You’re… certain?”
“This is something that I owe to you. I could have saved you a lot of trouble.”
She processes the thought, indulges in another sip of cocoa, and smiles.
“Thank you, Jack. I will just take you up on that.”
“Are you hungry?”
“Oh God am I!”
“I’ll make you something. Here. Watch some television.”
He hands her the remote and heads for the kitchen. This is straight from Ben’s playbook, he thinks. Take care of yourself by taking care of someone else. He opens the pantry, hoping for God’s sake there’s something he’ll be able to cook.

Having previously ascertained that he was capable of boiling water, Jack settles on a big bowl of bowtie pasta, glazed with olive oil, fresh oregano, basil, and a sprinkling of grated parmesan cheese. He locates enough produce to assemble a salad with honey mustard dressing, and steals a bottle of Pinot Grigio from the winerack. For location, he picks the tiki lounge, which carries still-fresh memories of Audrey LaBrea. He sends everything up on the dumbwaiter and positions their table next to the tiki god, hoping that two Duraflames in the god’s mouth will provide enough heat.
Brigit is back from fetching her car – last seen in a small neighborhood atop the cliff trail - and seems better for the exercise. She sits across from him in a thick red sweater, her blue eyes much clearer than two hours before. She seems impressed by the impromptu meal – and certainly by the setting.
“Egad, Jack. I’m afraid you’re making things worse for me – now that I see the beachfront empire owned by my erstwhile beau. Gracious! I’m sorry. In times of despair, I tend to hide behind ostentatious vocabulary.”
“That’s all right,” says Jack. “I used to do the same thing with numbers.”
Brigit serves herself a heaping portion of pasta and digs in.
“Mmm! This is so the antidote to my disease. Very filling. Thank you so much.”
“So why do British people pronounce it ‘passed-uh’?” asks Jack. “You know damn well it’s ‘pawsta,’ you live much closer to Italy than we do and yet you insist on mispronouncing it. It reminds me of Texans and Spanish.”
Brigit takes another bite and covers her mouth as she laughs. “The vestiges of a lost empire. We may no longer rule the world, but we can damn well mangle the languages.”
“Ha!” says Jack, enjoying his righteousness. “Exactly what I’ve always suspected. Seriously, though, I adore your accent. When I was watching the Devil’s Horns, you were talking right into my ear, and I thought I was going to melt into the sidewalk.”
“That’s why I moved to the States. You Yanks assume that anyone with a Brit accent is bloody brilliant.”
“And if male-female relations are any indication, you’ve certainly thrown the kie-bosh on that notion.”
“Ouch! Verily thou hast run me through, good sir, as a shish doth skewer a kabob. But needst I remind thee, knave, thou hast fallen for those self-same Thompsonian charms.”
“Damn! And touché.”
“We are but the detritus of Flores.”
“Well,” says Jack. “Perhaps someday we’ll exact some kind of revenge.”
Brigit stops mid-bite. “Did you have anything particular in mind?”
“Absolutely not. But I’ll let you know if I think of something.”
Brigit gives him a sly smile, then takes a sip of wine and peers across the water at the tiny sugar-grains of light from Monterey.
            “You’re different.”
            “So they tell me.”
            “No,” she says. “That day in Oregon, I only met you for a few minutes, but you have definitely changed.”
            Jack uses his fork to drum a brief tattoo on the table. “I’ve been undergoing some therapy. Strangest damn therapy you’ll ever see. But it does seem to be having an effect. In fact, if you’re still here Friday, you may attend my next session.”
            “Your therapy is open to the public?”
            “I told you it was strange.”
            “It’s a date. And tell me, after dinner, could we try out that hookah?”
            “Yes. Behind yon tiki god.”
            Jack walks over to inspect. Sure enough, there it is, Ben’s hookah, freshly loaded with strawberry tobacco, as if for this very occasion.
            “I’m beginning to suspect psychic powers.”
            “In me? In you?”
            “Friend of mine. And I believe he would be honored if we made use of his hookah.”
            “Brilliant!” says Brigit, and digs up another forkful of bowties.

            The following two days are exceedingly domestic. Jack and Brigit are like patients at a rehab center, both of them recovering from Thompsonitis. Lacking any designated regimen, loosed from her moorings, Brigit follows the daily agenda first set forth by Jack’s life coach: breakfast on the roof, two games in the amusement hall (granting each Foosball figure the name of some player from Manchester United), then a long beachwalk in search of skipping stones. Jack’s ability in this arena has grown tremendously; his sidearm spinners seem like the products of a Yankee infielder. They continue their hike to the Aptos Coffeehouse, where they scour the daily newspapers in silence, like an old couple. Jack studies the sports box scores (his new source of raw numerical fiber) while Brigit reads the world news reports and lifestyle articles – particularly anything on gardening. Bored with the afternoon lull, Cher gives Jack flirty, jesting looks that seem to say, “Where’d you get the hot chick, bruddah?”
            After an hour or two, they head next door to hunt up ingredients at the Safeway, and then Brigit (who is, thank God, a better cook than Jack) prepares a dinner for rooftop consumption. After a brief session with the hookah, they adjourn to the hot tub for a long soak. No naked monkey-tubbing, however; Brigit has obtained a discreet one-piece at the local drug store, and Jack wears a pair of modest baggy trunks.
            Having only the wildly assertive Audrey for comparison, Jack has a hard time figuring out where this new intrigue fits in. Does he have any trace of Thompson’s dogginess? Could he actually screw two women in two weeks? (Doesn’t the fact that he’s even considering it prove that he’s a dog?) But although Brigit’s comeliness certainly introduces such thoughts, her tragic situation shoos them away. Before he even so much as held her hand, he would require a direct, overt and probably thrice-repeated verbal request.
            Regardless, he has already built up a small scrapbook of visions and gestures: the way her eyes widen just before she laughs, the relaxed way that her limbs fit with her body, like a dancer’s. The way she taps her thumb with her fingertips when she’s puzzling something out; how she tucks her right foot under her left thigh when she sits on the couch. Sometimes he enters a room to catch her gazing emptily at the horizon, or dabbing at her face after crying, and the sorrow he feels at her sorrow is as deep as an X-ray. He swears he can feel her anguish at distinct spots beneath his skin – the right cheekbone, the left forearm, the right kneecap, the abdomen – and for this he secretly thanks her.
            The fairies and elves party seems to bring up large batches of Brigit’s UK upbringing. They spend Friday hopscotching from thrift store to costume store to lingerie store. Jack manages to fashion himself into a kind of emerald wizard, combining a satin kelly cape with lime circle spectacles, a fuzzy olive top hat, a glow-in-the-dark shamrock pendant and a healthy treatment of green hair dye.
            “I think you’re more like Sir Elton,” says Brigit.
            “Fairies and elves,” says Jack. “And what the hell are you, saucy wench?”
            Brigit has gone all black leather: hip-high boots with deadly looking studs, a wraparound miniskirt with a wide silver belt, and a lace-up bustier revealing cleavage that Jack had not previously been aware of. The capper is a set of black raven-feathered angel wings that attach to her shoulders.
            “Hmmm.” She taps a finger against her thumb. “Faerie dominatrix queen? Dark angel?”
            “Horny Brit?”
            Brigit swats him on the forearm, but the blow is cushioned by his cape.
            When they arrive at the coffeehouse in Brigit’s black retro ‘Stang, they find Ben sitting out front in a silver jumpsuit covered in patches from various retail corporations. He holds a matching motorcycle helmet with two sparkly deely-bob antennae. Jack attempts to work on his man-hug skills, slapping Ben heartily on the back.
            “Explain yourself, mentor.”
            Ben stands, the jumpsuit making a noise like a sheet of paper being crumpled. “I may be a NASCAR driver from the Third Realm. After that, your guess is as good as mine.”
            “NASA’s first openly gay astronaut,” says Brigit, taking Ben’s gloved hand.
            “Duchess de Sade!” says Ben. “You are a schoolboy’s vision.”
            “Thank you. Did um… Did Jack explain me?”
            “Oh, Jack tells me everything. And I do apologize, on behalf of the male gender, for your pains.”
            Brigit gives the emerald wizard a glance. “Well you didn’t necessarily have to tell him everything.”
            “Actually, I did,” says Jack. “That’s our deal. Shall we head out?”
            “Let’s shall,” says Brigit. “That’s how they speak in Fitzgerald novels. ‘Let’s shall.’”
            Brigit handles the serpentine curves of Highway 17 as any retro Mustang owner should, and soon they’re descending into the half-million low-intensity streetlights marking off the Silicon Valley. Jack feels the call of his neglected home as they pass mere blocks to the west, driving north toward Sunnyvale. They arrive at a neighborhood that looks absolutely normal, a strip of ranch-style tract homes, circa 1970, across the street from a softball field, lights blazing. The third house in is a white two-story with mocha trim, the front walk lined with candles in sand-weighted bags.
            Jack leads them in and spots a young woman in the hallway, talking to a friend. The woman is dressed in a pantsuit made from wispy black material, and Jack realizes that you can see right through it. Also, that the woman is wearing no underwear, just one beautifully shaped derriere free to all gawkers. She turns to greet them, revealing a set of similarly framed breasts. How does one talk to a nearly nude woman? Does one acknowledge the nudity? Or pretend that everything is absolutely normal?
            Fortunately, Ben is there to intercede. “Blackberry! How are you?” He steps up to give her a kiss and a pat on the fanny. “You look smashing! And so much to look at, too.”
            You look like the Silver Surfer,” says Blackberry.
            “That is such an improvement on previous interpretations. B.B., this is Brigit and Jack, virgins both.”
            “Well! We’ll take care of that soon enough. We’ve got a table of snackables through the kitchen there, and a keg of microbrew out back. Have a great time! I have to set up the Boudoir.”
            “Ah, the Boudoir,” says Ben.
            “It’s just not a party without the Boudoir,” says Blackberry.
            “Break a leg.” Ben laughs as if he’s told an enormously funny joke. Blackberry sashays down the hall, bouncing at pivotal points.
            They follow Ben into the kitchen, which is packed to the gills. Navigation is problematic, for half the women are wearing wings and, being mortals, are unfamiliar with matters of clearance. A third of them have exposed breasts, which is causing all the men to walk in a distracted fashion, and people keep bumping into each other, which is clearly what they want to do anyway.
            The male contingent leans toward various incarnations of Pan (the ultimate horndog) along with a generous application of Robin Hood caps, a tremendous variety of codpieces, and three sets of exposed Castro Street buttocks.
            Brigit whispers in Jack’s ear, taking him back to that first meeting in Depoe Bay.
            “It’s a bit like the Ren Faires I used to attend as a teenager. Only, gone a little porno, I suppose. I have never seen Peter Pan in assless chaps!”
            “If you think about it,” says Jack, “it was pretty inevitable.”
            Ben leads them into the dining room so he can offload his tray of deli meats. The room is so crowded it’s essentially a massive dry hump, and the food is inspired: white chocolate truffles, strawberries dipped in pecan praline sauce, slices of bruschetta, potato skins with bacon and melted gorgonzola cheese. The three of them load up their plates and pursue a draft of fresh air coming from the back steps, feeling like they’ve been spat out by a whale. Brigit beelines for a wooden bench at the edge of the patio.
            “Stay here,” says Ben. “I’ll gather up some brews.”
            “This is wild,” says Brigit. “Omigosh. Look at that couple.”
            Jack glances behind them at a small grove of trees encircling a porch swing. An older man in a harlequin outfit sits with a younger woman, her zaftig physique covered (in spirit, at least) by a veil-like drape resembling something from a harem.
            “It’s funny,” says Brigit. “They look absolutely bored, which is about the last thing one should feel when one is 80 percent publicly starkers.”
            “I’m betting the woman has never done anything like this in her life. Notice how she’s dipping a toe in the water by trying out her exhibitionism where she’s visible but not accessible. The bored look is just part of her cover. The guy, on the other hand, actually is bored. He wants to join the party but is being held hostage by his wife’s timidity.”
            “Big, sparkly wedding ring. The kind you buy for your younger, sexier, big-boned second wife.”
            “My!” says Brigit. “You are a wizard.”
            Jack enjoys the admiration, but is using most of his energy to not stare at Brigit’s bustier, which does not seem to be held up by much more than friction and good wishes. A cup of ale floats into her outstretched hands, blocking his X-ray vision.
            “So what’s the tale here, Flash Gordon?” she asks.
            Ben hands Jack the second ale and takes a satisfying quaff from his own.
            “These are all folks from Burning Man, which is a temporary community built up and taken down in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert for a week each summer. For that one week, these folks live on the playa, fight the heat and dust storms and pursue what some might call an arts festival, filled with fantastic structures and statues and displays of engineering. And then, at the end of the week, they burn an enormous effigy of a man – whence comes the name – and hoot and holler and carry on like it’s Mardis Gras. The festival also offers a rather extreme pursuit of libertarianism – it’s an adult community with few rules. Nudity is not only allowed but encouraged – especially in consideration of the heat. One of the more infamous events is Critical Tits, a mass bike ride featuring five thousand topless women. The lack of rules foments a certain hypersexuality. I’ve witnessed a man receiving a blow job in a crowded bar, couples fornicating on the open playa, a burlesque show featuring men wearing three-foot Styrofoam penises. Taken in the right light, it’s rather liberating. But this is tonight’s lesson. As much as I enjoy these Burner occasions, I tend to see the artistic aspects being overwhelmed by the sexual – sex being such a powerful drive. I wanted to show Jack some extremes to which he might not want to attain. At the same time, the knowledge that such extremes exist – right here in Sunnyvale! – makes it easier to see the eccentricities of a group like the Monkey Tribe as rather moderate. I tend to think of a lot of my Burner friends as freaks who have found a safe arena for their freakyness. Ah! Now for some action.”
            A thin man in an ass-revealing thong appears at the far end of the lawn, accompanied by a big-boned athletic woman in a pair of skin-tight leather shorts and matching halter top. The two of them go to a metal garbage can, stamped with decorative punctures for art and airflow, pour lighter fluid on the wood inside and set it on fire. The man pulls out a chain with small globes at either end, dips the globes in a small bucket filled with liquid, then lights them in the burn barrel and starts to spin them in changing orbits over his head. The woman follows suit, and soon the two of them are inscribing flaming patterns into the dark air. Jack notes two women standing nearby, fire extinguishers at the ready.
            “Lovely!” says Brigit. “It’s our own backyard circus!”
            “Here,” says Ben. “What this show needs is a little jungle fever.”
            Jack is surprised to find a djembe at his feet. Ben sits before a junior conga and begins a rapid beat. Jack follows his lead, the lessons of the Tribe kicking in quickly. He carries the beat as Ben fires off some variations, then jumps to the high ceramic pitches at the rim of his instrument to toss out a few brief solos. Two players means less wandering, more responsibility, but Ben is a solid player, and the ride is easy. They keep at it for ten minutes, until the spinners begin to tire. Ben gives Jack a nod and leads him into a finishing quartet of slams, which the spinners are more than happy to follow, hurling their double globes into the air and catching the chains just before they hit the grass. Jack is surprised to find the scattered groups of the backyard giving them a rousing applause. The spinners dip their globes into buckets of powder.
            “We’re a hit!” says Ben, breathing hard. “And Brigit’s enjoying herself, too.”
            Brigit is standing next to the bench. A red, fuzzy-looking man with devil’s horns stands behind her, reaching around with both hands to knead her breasts through her bustier. Brigit’s head is back, her eyes closed. The devil-man notes his new audience and says, “Hi. I’m Muggy. Professional groper. Are you with this young lady?”
            Jack stands somewhere amid three points: shock, disappointment and taking this fucker down with a flying tackle. “Umm… yes,” he says. Almost simultaneously, he has a starkly reasonable thought: after Thompson, Brigit deserves any pleasure she can find, and should not owe anything to anyone.
            The satyr calls out “Soggy!” A curvaceous pink-haired green ogrette skips over, sporting holes in her top where her breasts protrude.
            “We have a rule regarding couples,” says Muggy. “Where one is groped, two shall be groped. Keeps the peace. Arise, young buck, and take your medicine. I can attest to Soggy’s talents.”
            Jack looks at Ben, then at Brigit, who opens her eyes long enough to give him an encouraging nod. He stands, removes his cape, and feels Soggy’s long nails running slowly down his back.
            “Don’t worry,” says Soggy, in a surprisingly girlish voice. “I won’t go anywhere beneath your clothes, and you just let me know if I go too far. But if you don’t, I will go too far.”
            “Okay,” says Jack. She kneads her way down his back until his muscles relax, which makes it easier not to flinch when she squeezes his buttocks like she’s testing casabas at Safeway. He surfaces, just for a moment, to realize that being molested by an ogre in a backyard in Sunnyvale is, in fact, a deliciously nasty sensation. He glances sideways to see that Muggy is kneeling behind Brigit, running his fingers along the hem of her panties, and thinks of Ben’s theory, freaks finding arenas for their freakyness. Soggy is on her knees as well, tracing a hand along either of Jack’s inseams until they meet at his balls, which receive a thorough rubdown.
            A few minutes later, Muggy and Soggy have shifted their ministrations to the harlequin and his timid exhibitionist. Jack and Brigit sit on the bench arm-in-arm, victims of the same train wreck.
            “Bloody hell!” says Brigit. “I hope I didn’t go too far, but it just felt so good! And despite all those naughty things he was doing with his hands, he seemed more like a Boy Scout doing his good deed.”
            “Considering what Soggy was doing, I’m pretty sure we’re even.”
            Five seconds later, they burst out laughing. Brigit looks toward the house and says, “Where’s Ben gone to?”
            A crowd has gathered at the sliding glass door; Jack spots Ben’s deely-bobs rising from the center. He takes Brigit’s hand and leads her over. When they manage to find a gap in the crowd, they see that the room has been piled high with cushions, like a seraglio. Blackberry has now shed every thin stitch and is positioned on her hands and knees, administering a thorough blow job to a dark-skinned man in front of her as a thin, enormously endowed white man plows her from behind. A third man, fully clothed, prowls the vicinity with a video camera.
            Ben spots Jack and Brigit and snickers. “I think I’d be into live sex shows, too, if I had a tool like that.”

            After dropping Ben off at his Miata, Brigit drives them to Big Brown. She’s been silent most of the way home, and Jack’s afraid that the night’s adventures might have upset her. Once they enter the house, however, she turns and plants a kiss on him that grows over the minutes into animal regions. She breaks off suddenly and gives him a look of crazed intensity.
            “You know, Jack, that I am bloody fucked up, and idiotic, and angry, but once that satyr got me going I have got the nastiest idea, and I’ve been squirming all the way home just thinking about it.”
            She gives him another kiss, this one more tender and thoughtful.
            “You see… Jack. I don’t want just sex. I want more than that. I want revenge. The idea of shagging a fellow victim in Thompson’s bed, surrounded by all those sweet little photos of his wife and children. Well…”
            She leaves the thought unfinished and turns her big blues on him. For a moment, Jack doesn’t realize that he’s been asked a question. His hesitation turns her expression to one of anxiety, as if she has grossly misaimed her proposal.
            Jack laughs. “Of course,” he says. “Of course.”
            Brigit claps her hands together like a cheerleader. “Oh goody!” Jack grabs her around her black leather waist and kisses her neck, silently thanking Audrey for his newborn assertiveness.
            “One thing, though,” he says. “Could you leave that outfit on?”
            “Oh ye-e-es,” she says, and bounds up the stairs. Jack locks the front door, turns off the whitewater and races after.

Photo by MJV


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