He wakes up. Three devils watch him from the opposite wall. He has grown accustomed to their morning sneers, their wild hair and mascara’d eyes. Since Thompson’s return, Jack has been sleeping in Nikola’s room, across from a poster of the punk group Green Day. How an eight-year-old has developed this attachment is a mystery. But the bed is incredibly comfortable (no doubt thoroughly researched by Esmerelda the supermom), and Jack has never slept better.
He is conscious, however, that he is sleeping among shadows. Nikola should be here, hammering away on his Guitar Gods video game, ignoring his mother’s commands to get ready for school. Whenever Jack considers these absences, he develops a painless but bothersome pressure in his forehead that makes him squint. He thinks of the pleasure-squint belonging to Barbie the opera singer, and decides that this is something much different. He has become a human barometer.
Jack stands in the shower, looking out over the beach. Sometime this month the false exhibitionism stopped bothering him. In its place he found the shower’s central idea: a chance to embrace the outside world even as one prepares to enter it. He lathers the soap between his hands, raising it to his nose to take in the aroma. He has developed a fixation for handmade soaps, this one a lemon verbena purchased at a farmer’s market in Soquel.
The barometer begins to hone in on its target. An overheard answering-machine message revealing that Esmerelda has hired a private tutor, determined to keep the children in Madison through the holidays. And Thompson, despite his great show of emotion at Sanderlings, has apparently done nothing about it. Jack realizes that none of this should be his concern, but the forehead barometer says otherwise. Arriving on the first floor, he is surprised to find Thompson next to the whitewater, wrapping himself in a windbreaker, laptop case lolling at his feet like an affectionate puppy.
“Wow,” says Jack. “You’re still here.”
“Yeah. Got a presentation at eleven, and it was easier to polish the spreadsheets at home base. How you doin’? Is the bed and breakfast meeting your expectations?”
“Where do I begin?” says Jack. He’s about to follow with laudatory details, but Thompson will soon be out the door and the barometer needs feeding. “Hey, I know work is pretty crazy, but have you had a chance to talk to Esmerelda?”
Thompson gives him a cold stare. “What’re you, my mamasita?”
Jack begins to melt into an apologetic stance, but then Thompson busts out laughing.
“Dude! You are such an easy mark. Don’t ever lose that gullibility, man. It’s beautiful! See ya.”
And he’s out the door, getting into his Carrera, repeating the word “mamasita” and chuckling. Having successfully dodged the question. Jack feels like a sitcom wife, left at the door without a goodbye kiss.
Despite the squinting, these are good days. Ben is largely absent, spending his every free minute with Sophia Loren de las Salinas. This has left a large space in Jack’s days, but he finds himself embracing it, his mind simmering with a slow warmth. His thoughts feel simultaneously slower to arrive and sharper when they get there. It could be that he has become a shaman. As Barbie would say, Ha!
After his two standard two bagels and mango nectar, Jack fetches the pressure washer from the garage and attends to his morning chore: turd removal. He wheels it onto the deck, attaches the hose and cranks up the preposterously annoying engine. He holds the wand until the hoses work out all their air bubbles and then takes to the railings, where the seagulls love to congregate and shit. After that, he runs the deck two planks at a time. He’s nearing a cutout in the house wall when he realizes that he’s cornered a salamander, a yellow-gray critter, four inches long, flicking his tail in great alarm. No wonder, thinks Jack. This has got to be like a class-five hurricane. He sets down the spray wand and picks him up. Being a salamander, he doesn’t put up much of a fight.
“Sorry, little dude. We gotta find you a new place.” He carries him to the edge of the deck and drops him onto a spread of ice plant.
“Come back in half an hour.”
At noon, the day turns fairly amazing. A bright late-fall sun breaks through the fog to pull the temperature into the low seventies. Jack abandons shirt and shoes – inordinately proud of the tan that he has developed – and walks toward the cliffs of New Brighton. The waves have lain out an even spread of medium-sized rocks, many of them in the shape of perfect skippable discs. What’s more, the waters of Monterey Bay are remarkably quiet, smooth as a lake. After a couple of warmup tosses, Jack winds up on a big yellow-brown stone, leans far over and tosses a hard sidearm. The result is stunning, a dozen even skips that cover the length of a football field. He’s pretty certain that he could not actually throw a rock that far without the help of the water. He’s pondering the physics of this thought when he spots a tiny square of paper flapping around on the sand. It seems to be alive. He leans down to find a monarch butterfly, struggling to work the wet sand from his wings. Jack imagines he’s been ambushed by a breaker.
He recalls an urban myth about touching a butterfly’s wings – that this somehow disables them – so he digs in from either side and carries the butterfly aloft on a mound of sand. He walks uphill past the break line and sets the pile down, then blows on the butterfly until he comes to rest in a scoop of warm, dry sand.
“Dude! Be patient. Let the sun do its work. You’ll be fine.”
His next client lies a hundred feet away. A pack of pelicans are conducting bombing raids on a spread of water; directly landward of this commotion, Jack finds a strip of silver the size of a pencil, flopping on the sand. The anchovy looks quite alarmed (although, of course, fish always look alarmed), and Jack realizes he must act quickly. Out there, this one might serve as an appetizer to a pelican, but out here he dies for sure. Jack leans down to pick him up, then carries him toward the water.
“Dude! Try to stay away from the big birds.” And he tosses him in.
Toward the cliff’s edge, Jack finds another perfect stone. It skips twice, then rockets off of a wave like Evel Knievel. At the base of the cliff he finds White Horse’s latest creation, a thin seven-foot column of rocks, and as he’s meditating on this he thinks, Shaman? I’ve become St. Francis!
He finds a rock and moves it around on the top of another rock, until he senses something, like a bolt slipping into a latch. He lets go. The rock stays in place. The barometer in Jack’s temple ticks forward. A bath of warm mango nectar floods his frontal cortex.
Late that night, Jack prepares for bed, the friendly devils of Green Day eyeing him curiously. Jack hears the click of the front door. He attempts a trick of telekinesis, drawing Thompson toward the coffee table, where he has “accidentally” left out the case that holds a DVD of Esmerelda’s performances. A minute later, he hears the familiar grind of guitar strings, the stamping of feet.
Jack is so thrilled at this new talent of his that he fears he won’t be able to sleep. After twenty minutes, the music clicks off. He hears the beep-tones of a cell phone, followed by Thompson’s voice, colored with anxiety.
Silence. Too much silence.
“I miss you too.”
The barometer opens up. The squint retreats from Jack’s eyes. He bids the three devils good night, and drifts away like a rescued anchovy.
Image: the author (photo by Janine Watson)