His next meeting with Ben comes on a Sunday afternoon. A thick fog hangs over town, turning everything mystical and Londonesque. Jack walks the front of the Safeway, hands stuffed into his jacket, enjoying the smell of the Christmas trees still rolled up and bundled on the walk. Then he hears the sound of jazz, which seems like a pleasant enough idea, until he realizes that it’s live jazz, and this means that he will have to listen to that corny singer again. In a time when he has learned a certain positivity toward so many things, why does he hold on to a petty hatred of this man’s singing? Or is it right to dislike bad things? He makes a note to bring this up with Ben.
Jack steps inside just as Ray, the singer, starts in to butchering an old Cole Porter song, “True to You in My Fashion.” The original is sharp, deft, witty. Ray’s version is a piece of roadkill that has attached itself to the fender of a Jeep and is now being dragged through the mud. And now (his thoughts growing more bitter by the moment) Jack finds that Ben is nowhere to be found. He orders an Indian Malabar from Cher, whose everbright smile makes valiant battle against his oppression. The photos over the brew stations have been replaced by children’s drawings. After he finds his cup under a turkey dressed as a ballerina, Ray steps aside for a cornet solo by John, which immediately improves the atmosphere. As Jack stirs the sugar into his brew, he spots an older gentleman across the room, grinning at him broadly, wearing a blue plaid shirt that seems familiar. When the man lifts a two-fingered salute, Jack realizes that something may be up. He circumnavigates the bar to inspect.
“Is that… Is that Ben?”
“It is,” reports the familiar grumbling baritone. But the voice comes from a forest that has been clear-cut.
“Best reason of all,” says Ben. “Mah woman requested a clearer landing approach.”
Jack sits down and stares. “Wow. You look twenty years younger.”
“Well! There’s another benefit.”
“I don’t know if I like having a life coach with no facial hair.”
“Ha! I may not be hirsute, but I remain astute.”
“You’ve been sitting here rehearsing that.”
“Yes. So. How is my fellow young man?”
“Doing pretty well. But tell me, should I feel bad for loathing Ray’s singing?”
Ben gives a glance to the far corner, where Ray has taken up a fresh assault, rolling forth Cole’s notes with all the panache of a soiled gray carpet.
“You mean Ray, the middle school principal, who devotes his free time to Habitat for Humanity?”
“Oh, you’ve gone and ruined it for me now.”
“Doesn’t change the fact that he’s a lousy singer,” says Ben. “And believe me, no one with ears would disagree with you. But it does make it easier to take. You see how that works? No one’s all good, no one’s all bad. And you can loathe Ray’s singing all you want, as long as you’re not cruel enough to tell him to his face. I mean, look at him.”
Ray ends the last phrase and the corners of his mouth lift into a beatific grin. Jack takes a swallow from his Malabar, thinking about a plethora of things he might discuss with Ben, but finds that his friend is lost in the guitar intro to “Stardust,” stroking his chin as if he still had a beard.
“I was thinking about proposing to Gina.” Ben smiles and turns to take in Jack’s response. Jack is fairly certain that he looks stunned.
“Yes. Really. So what do you think?”
“You want… my opinion?”
“Yes. Everyone gets a vote. Am I being a foolish old man?”
Even minus the beard, Jack finds this position intimidating, so he decides that he needs a time-out. “Excuse me,” he says, and goes near the band – where Ray is preparing to do awful things to Hoagy Carmichael – to fetch a cup of water. But it’s ice water, and he drinks it too fast, and it gives him a small case of brain-freeze. When it clears, Jack realizes that this is precisely where he will find his answer. The barometer. He lets his eyes fuzz out to an empty focus, and allows his thoughts to swim around like clown fish in his frontal lobe. Halfway back to the table, he feels the words approaching his mouth.
“I don’t know much about how love… operates,” he says, sitting down. “All I really know is, I don’t think that there are any iron-clad rules to the phenomenology. It is perfectly reasonable for someone to go thirty years with no romantic connection whatsoever, and then to reunite with someone and propose to her within a month. And I would never think of you as a foolish old man.”
Ben offers a look of admiration and surprise. “Perhaps today, I should be paying you.”
Jack laughs. “So what’s the count on this little poll of yours?”
“One for, none against,” says Ben. “You’re the only one I’ve asked.”
And this, for Jack, is an astounding piece of information.
Jack is about to enter Big Brown when he hears a voice from the heavens.
He looks up to find Thompson’s head and shoulders edging over the railing. He is shirtless, and a stream of smoke is trailing from the top of his head.
“Come on up! Oh, and bring a couple of beers!”
Jack makes the convoluted trek to the rooftop (thinking elevator, elevator) and finds Thompson in the hot tub, smoking a cigar the size of a small zeppelin. The tip has developed an ash two inches long, but Thompson is too happy to notice.
“My man!” He takes one of the beers and gives it a long pull.
“Ah! Thanks, man. Hey, remember when you left that DVD of Esmerelda in the player last week?”
“Oh. Sorry. After all the stories, I got curious.”
“No! No problem. In fact, the opposite: it inspired me to get off my ass and give her a call. We’ve been talking every day since, and get this – I’m going to Madison for Christmas! I’m gonna see my kids!”
“Thompson! That’s fantastic!”
“It certainly is.” Thompson settles back in the water and savors a drag from his cigar. The ash is now three inches and teetering. He points it at Jack. “Hey! You know what? Let’s go celebrate. Let me take you to Capitola for some seafood.”
“Ready in an hour?”
“Fan-tastic,” says Thompson. He turns to retrieve his beer, and the enormous ash falls into the water. Jack thinks of mentioning it, but then, that’s what filtration systems are for.
Jack cannot help replaying the old thought: hanging out with the cool kid, rolling into Capitola Village in Thompson’s Porsche. There were several years during which Jack could have purchased a similar car, but he never believed he could carry it off. A biker with an enormous Fu Manchu backs out of his space just in time for Thompson to roll on in. There’s a full hour left on the meter, plenty to get them to the 8 p.m. cutoff. And this, thinks Jack, is what it’s like to be Thompson Flores. He leads them into a restaurant with moss-green walls and Italian menus printed in cursive. Jack gets chicken breasts stuffed with chunks of portobello mushroom. Thompson orders grappa for both of them, and Jack downs three glasses with dinner. By the time they’re finished with the spumoni, Jack’s feeling a little light-headed. Heading outside, he gives Thompson a punch on the shoulder, very boy-like, and Thompson punches him back. Jack notices all the good-looking women on the street, most of them checking out Thompson, but two or three saving their looks for the clean-cut sidekick.
They venture next door to the Fog Bank, a saloon covered floor-to-ceiling in well-worn varnished wood. A band wanders over to their instruments, and soon the air is filling with edgy blues, the kind associated with extremely hip black people, the city of Chicago, summertime barbecues and trips across the country on a Harley-Davidson. Thompson gets a pitcher of beer and tips his mug in Jack’s direction.
“To my sexy flamenco-goddess wife.”
Thompson downs his beer in three swallows and fills it back up. “Goin’ to Madison! Goin’ to see my babies!”
“Awesome!” says Jack. He realizes he’s getting drunk now, and losing vocabulary. “Awesome!”
“Yes!” Thompson takes another long drink, then folds his arms and studies the floor, which has filled with dancers.
“Man! Lots of talent in this bar.”
“Har! The Boy Scout, he does not know his urban lingo. That’s the word we dawgy dawgs use to describe comely females: ‘talent.’”
Jack scans the bar and catches several appealing fragments: halter-top cleavage, curve of shaking ass, slice of breathless smile. Men feed on these portions all their lives and are never sated, says his brain, sounding strangely like a Chinese philosopher. And this is what comes from his mouth:
“Allow me to pour you another beer,” says Thompson.
“But I haven’t finished this one.”
“So finish that one. Keep up!”
Jack – who will later realize he’s got to kick this habit of following orders – downs the final half in a chug. The carbonation rises into his nose, making him laugh. When he recovers, another full mug has made its way into his hand.
“Hey Jack. I feel like dancing.”
“Sorry. I only know how to lead.”
Thompson breaks up laughing, exactly like a drunk guy.
“You are a card. How about those two over there? By the wait station. Curvy, curvy blonde – that one’s mine. And the slender brunette in the cowgirl hat? That’s yours.”
“You mean you’re just going to go up and talk to them?”
“That’s usually the best approach.” He crosses the floor in three big strides, teeth to the front. At his first word, both girls smile. The back of Thompson’s head bobs slightly, in the manner of a car dealer giving a pitch, and then he’s off with the blonde, bumping parts and laughing. She gives off a milk-fed radiance: bright blue eyes, grippable seal-like geometrics. The brunette places her hat on the bar and walks his way with a devilish smile. She’s got a light complexion, dark eyes and long, straight hair – a taste of Shania Twain.
“Hi. I’m Bobbie. You’re Jack. Your pal says you could use a dance.”
Jack would disagree except that he doesn’t. He follows Bobbie into the crowd and soon they’re twisting and shaking to a jump tune, lost between the guitarist’s sharp edges and the singer’s hallelujah shouts. A couple of minutes later, the drummer rallies them into a tornado of sound and brings it down with a breakfast-cereal crunch. Bobbie gives Jack a well-exercised smile and brushes her hair back. The drummer counts into a slow, crawly blues.
“Do ya slow dance, Jackie?”
“Do I!” He takes Bobbie’s right hand with his – like they’re shaking on a deal – and pulls her into a spin. He realizes this is a move he’s never done before. To Bobbie’s great credit, she follows easily, and comes back smiling.
Great teeth, thinks Jack.
“I hope you don’t mind being thrown around a little.”
Bobbie lets out a happy growl.
“Oh, you’re in for it now,” says Jack, and takes her into a double spin.
It hardly seems possible, but an hour later they’re still at it. Jack’s limbs feel so loose they’re about to fly off, and he and Bobbie are sweating up a mutual storm. They’re dancing close as the band winds up a slow, slow ballad. Jack holds Bobbie’s waist, reading the movements of toes, feet, legs, pelvis through the fibers under his fingertips. The band cuts off, leaving the singer to a single ghostly line, and then they announce a break.
“Shew!” says Bobbie. “Let’s get some air.”
“Sounds good,” says Jack. He fans himself with a hand to illustrate.
They take a small back door onto a balcony overlooking the lagoon. A pack of ducks and gulls float in their direction, hopeful for handouts.
“Oh! The air feels so good. I haven’t danced like that in years. You’re an excellent lead, Jack. Do you take classes?”
“Um… a couple.” He has a fleeting thought of his red-headed teacher – but his thoughts are soon re-focused on the pair of lips pressing against his own, which feels quite pleasant. Bobbie backs off suddenly and covers her mouth, as if she’s concealing Exhibit A.
“Oh, Jesus. I’m so sorry!” After she recovers her bearings, she sets her elbows on the railing and fixes a sad gaze on the Venetian-style cottages across the beach. “It’s so true – all the good ones are taken.”
Does she know about Audrey? “I’m… sorry?”
“Oh, no, it was all me.” says Bobbie. “No need to apologize.”
He’s deciding whether to say that he wasn’t apologizing when Bobbie places a hand on either of his pectorals.
“Your fiancée is such a lucky girl.”
“Now come on, Jack. Don’t ruin my impression of you. You’ve really got to behave now or…”
She turns to re-establish some distance but catches her heel on a plank and stumbles forward. Jack catches her and they’re kissing again, this time much more operatically. Then Bobbie is off and talking again.
“I am so sorry, oh shit I am drunk and I’m being a bad, bad girl. Look, I better leave. Thanks, Jack. Thank you, thank you for the dancing, and you, um, give me a call if you get divorced someday. Not that I want that! Bye, honey.”
She gives him a kiss on the cheek, slips through the doorway and is quickly swallowed by the crowd. Jack stands with his back to the railing, stupefied, entranced by the full moon over the roof. Three minutes later, a whiff of cigarette smoke drifts over from the next balcony and Jack finally gets the idea. Thompson got Bobbie to dance with him by telling her that this was his last night out before his wedding. He’d like to be pissed off, but the ruse is so beautiful he starts laughing instead, like a crazy man, scaring away all the ducks and gulls.
He’s still chuckling when he re-enters the bar. He looks for Bobbie, and is not entirely surprised to find no sign of her. What is surprising is the complete lack of Thompson, or the curvy blonde. The only thing left is the cowgirl hat, a chocolate-brown number with a braided black band, sitting atop the bar like an abandoned pet. Jack considers the ethics of the situation, then takes the hat by its brim and heads outside. Ransom.
The unkindest absence of all comes from the Porsche, which means that Jack is walking home. He places the cowgirl hat atop his head. It’s a little small, but he tries to balance it as he tracks the long uphill out of the village.
At New Brighton Beach, he cuts across the railroad tracks to the parking lot, and is about to descend the stairs when he’s greeted by an old malady: a form of cardiac arrhythmia that locks his heart into an accelerated beat. The only remedy is to take a seat and wait it out. Coated silver by the moon, he sniffs the hat, which is too new to have much Bobbie to it, and has the usual, terrible thought: what if his heart never slows down? What if he dies right here? But the thought has lost its edge from overuse, and it’s no surprise when his heart delivers a cleansing galumph of bloodrush and kicks back down to a normal rate. Soon he’s off to the beach, slogging the wet sand as his Italian dinner sits on the bottom of his stomach like a chunky piece of furniture. The sight of Big Brown is quite a relief.
As he boards the deck, Jack catches a faint light seeping from the living room. The barometer clicks on with a whirr, hindered only slightly by grappa and beer, and tells Jack to slow down. He creeps up to a tiny gap in the vertical blinds and peers in to find Thompson sitting on the great white couch, his head flung back in pain.
Or… not. Just above the coffee table, Jack finds the broad white moon of a female ass, and a satellite of tousled blonde hair bobbing over Thompson’s lap like a piston.
Jack finds the sight both titillating and amusing – his own private porno – but he senses that he might feel differently in the morning. For the moment, he decides that he should sneak through the side yard and take a nap in his car.
Photo by MJV