Faced with the landlord surprise, Jack decides that he’d better see Audrey off. He wanders back to the tile steps feeling like he’s been caught having a party while his parents were off on vacation. And then he realizes that this is not a metaphor at all – he has had a party, has screwed one woman in Thompson’s shower, another in his bedroom. His mistress in his bedroom. After wearing his best clothes. Jesus. By any measure, he has broken the house-sitter’s code.
Jack closes the front door and spies Thompson’s shoulder over the top of the great white couch. He’s about to tap said shoulder when he hears snoring. Though seated in an upright position, ostensibly watching ESPN, Thompson is sound asleep.
Poor guy. Must have been a hell of a flight. The thought is followed by its logical succedent: Where’s the wife and kids?
Jack realizes he’s pretty pooped himself. He stops by Thompson’s room to pick up a bathing suit and towel, then trudges to the roof for a session in the hot tub, followed by a nap on the chaise lounge.
“Are we assuming that sunburn red cancels out pumpkin orange?”
Jack is surprised to find himself still on the roof, his shoulders tender from UV assault. He rolls over to find the adjoining chair occupied by the more standard version of Thompson: shaved and sharp in blue jeans and a red Guayabera shirt.
“But I gotta tell ya, even for an Oompah-Loompah, that orange chick was hot. Where’d you dig her up?”
Jack mutters the phrase “Monkey Tribe,” under the assumption that this will explain everything.
“You’re babbling, my friend. Hey, can I buy you dinner? You know, for not burning down my house?”
Jack sits up and rubs his eyes. “Sure. Sounds good.”
“Fantastic,” says Thompson, finally making with the GQ smile. “Can you dash through the shower in fifteen minutes? I am damned hungry.”
“Um, sure.” Jack stands, revealing a skin tone that looks like a salad of radish and marmalade.
“And for God’s sake,” says Thompson, “wear a long-sleeve shirt.”
Subjecting his burnt back to the shower spray is a trial, but later, cruising Highway One in Thompson’s Carrera, the wind blows under his shirt, tickling his tender hide in a delightful fashion. A few miles south, they pull into the Seascape neighborhood and a resort called Sanderlings, where they sit at an outside table under a parasol heater. Their vista takes in a large cliffside lawn bisected by an artfully winding path. The ocean beyond serves up a million diamonds of dappled sun.
“They do weddings out there,” says Thompson. He’s quiet for a few seconds, then snaps into a digression. “They had this big storm a couple years ago, and even after it cleared out the waves were crazy and high. Some bride in Monterey was posing at a spot near the rocks when a wave rose up and just took her away. She drowned, a half-hour after getting married.”
Jack remembers the story, and it still gives him the chills. Thompson’s attention shifts to the waiter.
“Hi. How about some crab cakes to start, and I’ll have the Forest Meridian Chardonnay. Jack?”
“Oh, um. Can I get a double latte?”
“Absolutely,” says the waiter. “I’ll be right back.”
Thompson takes a sip of water and gives Jack an appraising look. “Beyond the orange skin, mi amigo, there is definitely something different about you. You’ve become a Santa Cruzan, haven’t you?”
Jack has been running a low-level inner debate that just now is coming to a head. He’s got enough dirt on this dude to sink a Senator. For once in their sketchy, one-sided relationship, he can say whatever the hell he feels like.
“I think it’s more that I’m getting laid.”
Thompson lets out a laugh loud enough to upset the conversation of a family dining across the patio.
“Oh-hoh! My friend Jack. You’ve been playing the beach mansion for all it’s worth.”
Jack sees the not-so-subtle jab at his lack of babe-landing skills, but also realizes that it’s absolutely true. “That’s the oddest thing of all. Audrey – the orange one – she seems to have fallen for me before she had any idea about the house. Hell, before she had any idea about me. It really confused me.”
“Ah-hah! I know that feeling. You are automatically suspicious of a woman who likes you, because obviously she has no taste in men. Right?”
Jack laughs. “That it so it. And then, somehow, a second one came along.”
Thompson slaps the table, jangling the silverware. “You nailed two chicks in my household? Where’d you find this one?”
“She was visiting friends in town. I met her on the beach, right outside.”
“Woo-hoo! Nothin’ like home delivery. Details? Details?”
This is one of those locker-room conversations, thinks Jack. Details, details. “She had this air of class about her. Maybe even a little stiff, so you make certain assumptions.”
“Like she does it missionary only,” says Thompson. “And she weeps afterward. And then writes about the experience in her journal: ‘Jack and I made love this evening. He was so tender.’”
“Wow. You’re like, a student of the gender.”
“I love women – they’re so pathetic.”
“Well, anyways, once in the bedroom, this one was a banshee: screaming, swearing, ripping clothes…”
“Oh!” says Thompson. “The naughty librarian, nothing better. Was she Catholic?”
“One of those posh London accents. Like… Elizabeth Hurley.”
Thompson’s smile begins to shrink.
“It was Brigit.”
Jack’s ready for a long walk home, maybe even a pop in the nose. What he gets is a whole bunch of nothing. Thompson stares at the table, rubs his chin, breathes in like he’s going to say something but doesn’t. Finally he rises, turns carefully from his chair and walks down the path to the wedding site, settling on a bench that faces the ocean.
The waiter arrives, looking puzzled.
“Um… he’ll be right back,” says Jack. The waiter leaves their beverages. He has seen this scenario before – his restaurant seems to be a hot-spot for breakups – but he can’t imagine that Antonio Banderas out there just got dumped by this schlub.
Jack sips at his latte, trying to figure Thompson’s response. This utter neutrality was not even on the list. Five minutes later, he’s halfway through his latte and Thompson seems to have turned into a bronze. Jack heads down the path and stops at the end of the bench, a safe distance away. He’s about to say something when he finds rivulets tracking Thompson’s face.
“I’ve lost her,” he says.
“Well sure. When she found out you were married…”
“Esmerelda. I’ve lost Esmerelda.”
Jack eventually convinces Thompson to eat something. He picks at a plate of pesto ravioli as Jack lays into an Idaho trout with rosemary potatoes. He is much encouraged when Thompson’s eyes glimmer and he lets out a laugh.
“You and Brigit. Damn, Jack. I didn’t know you had it in you. Was it kind of a revenge fuck?”
“Oh yeah. She insisted we do it in your bed, in front of your family photos.”
“Man! Women. What did she do when she found out about me?”
“Jumped in the ocean.”
“I’m flattered. And you jumped in to save her? And she was so grateful she jumped your bones?”
“You know, I think you did me a favor. I needed to clear Limey Girl from the situation – but any attempt at direct communication would have been one more step toward divorce.”
Jack gazes over the cliffs, where the faint green light of a ship is inching across the black horizon.
“How did she find out?”
“Bloody fucking cell phone,” says Thompson. “That’s the one contact I allowed Brigit. Toward the end she was getting pretty desperate, and a wife notices how many times a day her husband ignores an incoming call. And, a guy’s gotta take a shower sometime, right? So I’m in Milan, merrily scrubbing away at the hotel, and a text message buzzes in. Ezzie launches into spy mode at the same time that lovely Bridgey launches into nude photo attachment mode. She also scrolls through three preceding messages – all of them highly suggestive, and Thompson is officially FDA-rated dead meat.
“Ezzie is scary-cool in situations like this. She wanted so bad for Sanja and Nikola to enjoy the rest of the trip that she managed not to let on. When we arrived at JFK, she sent the kids off to a playground, turned to me very calmly and said, ‘Here’s the deal: I know about Brigit. I’m taking the kids to Madison to stay with my folks. You’re going the hell home, and you will wait to hear from me. As far as the kids will know, we’re just extending their vacation. Do all of this or I will call a divorce lawyer to-morrow.”
“Wow,” says Jack. “Ice in the veins.”
“She is a mightily strong woman. And I am up against it.”
Thompson pierces a square of ravioli and chews at it like he’s ingesting some bitter-tasting medicine.
“I’m not sure I’m getting this,” says Jack. “Wasn’t there trouble in your marriage already? Isn’t that why you were with Brigit?”
“That’s the usual assumption. But no. A couple of little kids do suck a bit of the romance out, but nothing tragic or unexpected. Nothing to… God, Jack. It’s Ezzie, and Nikola and Sanja. I can’t… I feel like I can’t breathe.”
Thompson is butting up against tears again, and you can tell he’s sick of the fight. His jaw tightens up, and his eyes wander around the patio.
Jack finds himself thinking like Ben. What does this person need right now? What can I do to help him? He takes another bite of his trout (he is really enjoying this trout) and takes a long time to chew it, giving Thompson time to get somewhere else. Jack looks inside and notices a large fishtank in the lobby, a trio of orange clownfish conducting a pas de trois against the dark rocks. He clears his throat, feeling like he’s about to give a speech.
“Thompson, I feel like I owe you an explanation. You left one person here to look after Big… um, your house, and you have come home to someone who’s much different.”
Thompson smiles, well aware of Jack’s ploy. “For one thing, I left a Caucasian and came back to a cantaloupe.”
Jack laughs. “You got me there.” Then he considers where this story begins. “You told me to check out the Aptos Coffeehouse. So I did, and I ran into a guy I’d seen on the beach the night before. His name was Ben, and he was a life coach.”
“…and that is how Audrey and I ended up arriving at Big Brown with orange skin.”
Thompson raises an eyebrow. “Big Brown?”
Jack laughs. “Yeh. That’s what the locals call it.”
“Isn’t that a racehorse?”
“Coincidence. As you may suspect, it’s not exactly a term of endearment.”
“Like ‘Big Brown Dookie.’”
“Somethin’ like that. Funny, though. They like it a lot better once they get inside. Ben’s the biggest convert of all.”
“Ben sounds pretty fucking cool.”
“Oh, he is. Without seeming to have done much at all, he has utterly transformed my view of life.”
“I think it’s pretty amazing, Jack. When I saw you in Depoe Bay, I thought, God, this guy looks pathetic. And it occurred to me that a few weeks in ‘Big Brown’ might do you some good. But holy shit! I don’t think I’ve ever had a month like your month.”
“I somehow doubt that,” says Jack.
“Well, okay. A month I can remember. Hey! Can we hitch a ride?”
He’s calling to a young Latino driving a golf cart beach shuttle. The trailer is occupied by an elderly couple, with room for more.
“Sure!” says the driver. “Gotta go right now, though.”
“Just paid our bill,” says Thompson. “Come on, Jack – and bring your drink.”
Jack gathers up his Long Island iced tea and jumps on board. They face sideways as the cart drops into a canyon covered in pampas and cypress trees. They come out at a concrete pad before a wide beach, the near horizon peppered with fires in concrete rings. Thompson slips the driver a ten and leads Jack to a ring at the far edge, accompanied by two white beach chairs.
“That’s what I love about this place,” says Thompson. “They always assume you’re a guest, and treat you accordingly. And I tip accordingly, which nicely seals the deal.”
Jack focuses past the fire on a thin white stripe that represents the breakers.
“I fucked you over pretty good, didn’t I?” says Thompson.
Jack is struck nearly dumb, but quickly recalls his pledge to ballsy honesty.
“In fact, my friend, you may be responsible for my impending divorce. Follow me on this. When all that shit came down at C-Valve, I truly expected the hammer to finally get me. Hell, maybe I wanted the hammer. I saw a lot of people at Enron tossed overboard while I slipped through unscathed. But Jack Teagarden – there was a man so tortured by conscience that he wanted the hammer even more than I did. I began to suspect that, this time, I didn’t even have to lie my way out. All I had to do was nothing. And it worked. After that, I believed that I was bulletproof – that no matter what crimes I committed, there would come along a Jack Teagarden to save me. The very week of your so-called layoff, I went on that trip to Portland and met Brigit.
“Now, please understand this: I’m an extremely good-looking man. Over the years of my marriage, I have fought off many an offer. But dammit! A man gets tired of saying no to perfectly good pussy. ‘Oh, pussy? No thanks. Been tryin’ to cut down.’ So the redhead with the fine white ass and the Spice Girl accent makes me an offer, and for once I accept. And I’ll tell ya, it was powerful. You screwed two women this month, you know how it feels. Wasn’t it powerful?”
“Yes,” Jack admits. “You fucker.”
Thompson takes a moment to luxuriate in his Manhattan. “Yes. I was a fucker. I deserve every epithet you can come up with. And I owe you for fucking Brigit. Now, if she starts any trouble, I’ve got something to hold over her head. It ain’t much, but I’m desperate.”
He takes a moment to laugh at his own pathetic situation.
“You know, I have always had it easy. I could give you this epic sob-story about growing up poor in San Antonio, with parents so goddamn Mexican I couldn’t stand it. A maid and a gardener, for Christ’s sake. A maid and a gardener! But fuck all that, because I knew early on that people liked me for no particular reason. My good looks and charm made them feel better about the world in general, and that’s all I really needed. When they found out I was also good at math… Fuck! Every goddamn college in the country wants a good-looking Latino with a spreadsheet for a brain. I used what God gave me – I used it in spades.
“Now, if you plot this Great American Dream on a grid, this story should end at a blonde white girl with a tight ass and a talent for blow jobs. I went to the University of Wisconsin, which was fucking beautiful, because it’s like a thousand miles directly north of San Antonio. Many years later, I’m celebrating my freshly minted MBA with a drunken cruise in downtown Madison. It’s getting late, we’re all desperately hungry, and Becca, a white blonde girl with a tight ass and a talent for blow jobs, says she knows this late-night tapas joint. I’m consuming a sangria and some dish having to do with lamb and paprika when this old guy starts playing flamenco guitar, this old woman starts singing in Spanish, and upon this tiny, much-abused stage appears the most gorgeous assemblage of milk-chocolate parts that the world has ever seen. And her dancing! I am absolutely no expert, but even as performed by homely women, flamenco is unbelievably sexy. She came out afterwards to watch the other dancers, I left my table – much to the chagrin of Becca – and bought her a drink. You’d expect some exotic story, but she was a Madison girl, born and bred, one of the few old-money black families you’re bound to find, had just received a bachelor’s in dance from my very college. She took one of those semester-abroad things to Spain, and came back absolutely obsessed with flamenco. At this point, she was working on something pretty provocative, taking a basically improvisational art form and applying it to an evening-long story based on a play by Federico Garcia Lorca. Ruffled a lot of feathers in the flamenco community. As our conversation deepened, this was the thought that formed in my mind: You have found someone better than anyone else you will ever find. And that open-mouthed laugh that seemed to embrace the world, those long, graceful fingers that lit upon my arms like butterflies. I spent my summer taking in these small aspects of her, and falling in love.
“A couple of months later, my career took off so quickly that we had to make some fast decisions. Another geographical irony, eleven hundred miles directly south to work for Enron in Houston. For Ezzie, the move offered some appealing enticements, notably a much stronger Hispanic culture that offered many more venues for her work. She also knew that flamenco didn’t offer the kind of steady income that was at least possible in ballet or musical theater, so maybe having a newly rich boyfriend wouldn’t be so bad. Or, a year later, a rich fiancé. Or, a year later, a rich husband. Five years later, she was pregnant with Sanja, and ditched the whole thing for motherhood. Then came Nikola, then came the scandal, then came California. Nowadays, she figures when the kids are off to school, she can start back in to flamenco, and someday she wants to start her own troupe. Unless.”
That last word says a lot, along with Thompson’s gaze, his brown eyes reflecting the orange coals of the fire. He hasn’t really said much about the kids, but perhaps the guilt there is too great, even for a bulletproof man. Jack offers him another out.
“So, is it all right if I wait till tomorrow to move out? I’ve got a bit of loading up to...”
“No,” says Thompson. “You like the place, right? I mean, it’s been good for you, right?”
“Why don’t you stay? In fact, I’ll pay you to stay. Forty dollars a day, a little walking-around money. And dude, don’t worry – I won’t be crying on your shoulder. I’m going back to work on Monday, and I’m sure it’s gonna be hella busy. But… it would be nice to have someone else around the house. It’s awfully… big.”
Jack doesn’t know what to say, but just then a meteorite etches the sky with a long green streak.
“Holy shit! Did you see that?”
“I think I did,” says Thompson. “And I wished on it, too.”
“What did you wish for?”
“Can’t tell you. Ruins the wish.”
Jack thinks about it. Why the hell not? Whatever’s in the air around Big Brown has been good for him. Respond to things in a real fashion, said Ben.
“You got it.”
“Fuckin’ ay,” says Thompson. “See? God even sends meteorites just so Thompson Flores gets his wishes.”
Jack laughs. “You are a cocky son-of-a-bitch.”
“And the more you insult me,” says Thompson, “the better I feel.”
Photo by MJV