Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Monkey Tribe, Chapter R: Key Lime Tarts

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            Hi. Sorry no response. Been sick all week.
            Oh God! So sorry I went off like that. Can u forgive me?
            Its just that guys disappear on me sometimes.
            Wouldnt have left phone off so long but it was a bad bug.
            Better now?

            “Is this the home of Audrey LaBrea?”

            “Ohmigod! Are you okay?”
            “Yeah. All better now. Well – tired.”
            “I’m so sorry! I told you to fuck off, didn’t I?”
            “You did.”
            “You don’t know how many places a woman’s mind goes when she’s not getting a response.”
            “Ha! I do now. But you figured it out by the end. You get bonus points for that.”
            “You still have to take me to dinner, though.”
            “How about tonight?”
            “This is so sudden!”
            “Yeah-yeah. Drama queen. It’s just that I’ve got something special in mind. And it’s right in your ‘hood.”
            “Coolness. When do you want to roll by?”
            “How about six?”
            “Nope. I keep them home in the winter.”
            “Okay then. You and me. No birds.”
            “Seeya. Um, housemate around?”
            “Nope. Gone for the holidays.”
            “Good. I want to scream.”
            “Drama queen.”

            Jack has just begun to dig in to the blessed numerals of C-Valve when Ben calls to request an emergency meeting. He zips up in his Miata, hardtop thankfully attached. When Jack hops in, Ben hands him a cup of coffee that turns out to be fresh-brewed Peruvian.
            “Good listening requires wakefulness.”
            “Confucius? Gibrahn?”
            “Haas. Benjamin.”
            The comment turns out to be irrelevant, considering the lack of anything coming from Ben’s mouth that Jack might listen to. He drives them silently into Santa Cruz, silently up Graham Hill Road, past Roaring Camp Railroad and into Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Then he walks them silently past the ranger station, silently past the picnic area and into a small amphitheater built around a fire pit. The benches are constructed of logs, a quarter of them chopped out to provide a seat and a back support.
            Ben gestures Jack to the front log. He settles in at a reclining angle, feeling like he’s at the dentist. Ben perches on a tree stump which seems to have been placed there precisely for people to perch upon. Behind him rises an enormous redwood. The base is hollowed out, its cave-like inner walls charred black, an example of the tree’s remarkable ability to survive fires. Trying to ignore the dampness seeping into his Levi’s, Jack decides that the irony is too obvious to point out.
            “Yes,” says Ben. “I noticed the fire tree. Didn’t plan it that way.”
            Jack sees no need to respond, since the man can obviously read his thoughts. Ben launches into his story sans prologue.
            “She talked me into a ride. It was inevitable. She was nice enough to give me an aging mare, Christeltine, wide-backed and comfy like an old couch. Next to Gina’s mount, an auburn jumping filly with the grand appellation of Fajamur’s Rose, Christeltine looked like a horse made of mud, but still she was more than I deserved.
            “We rode across Old Stage Road into Foothill Estates, full of ranch houses interbreeding with McMansions, which is not as bad as it sounds. At the top of the uppermost court there’s a path that cuts between two properties and through a gate into the foothills. Gina reassured me that the landowner was a client, and had granted free passage to all equestrians in the area.
            “By this time, my buttocks were really barking, but I was determined to keep going until we reached some paradisiacal spot. Fortunately, it didn’t take long in arriving. We crossed the face of the hills, all the grass turning that lovely pure green from the rains, the trail cutting through in a strip of sandstone blond, and then we boarded a ridge that seemed to extend from the hills like an index finger. At the tip of the finger stood an enormous live oak, witchy branches elbowing their way to the sky in all directions. We stopped underneath to look out over the Salinas Valley, the broad swale of forlorn, plowed-over rectangles, the frame of green hills at either side, a tiny slip of blue at the ocean tip, a sky fanned over with horsetail cirrus. It was like a paragraph from a Steinbeck novel, and I could hear the old rascal saying Now!
            “I managed to sidle old Christeltine up to Rose’s vastly superior frame and wrap an arm around Gina’s waist. She leaned over and gave my cheek a feathery kiss.
            “Here I wax poetic. Quoth I: ‘I would never, ever have dreamed this in a million years, me and the impossibly beautiful Gina Scarletti on top of the world.’
            “‘Especially not on horseback,’ she said, and laughed that husky laugh that turns sexagenarians into adolescent butter.
            “And quoth I: ‘Gina, I know I’m tempting fate by attempting to extend a miracle, but do you suppose we could make this last a little longer? Perhaps until the ends of our lives?’
            “Having no other safe way of doing it, I had placed the ring on my pinkie finger, and then secured it in place with an utterly phony bandage. For the previous hour, in fact, said ring had been digging into said pinkie with great enthusiasm, helped in great part by my amateur death-grip on Christeltine’s reins.
            “All worth it, of course. As I unwound the bandage and revealed that rock, Gina fell right to pieces. Her eyes angled up at the corners with great delight, but then they filled with water, her face folded in on itself and she began to sob. Naturally that set me off, old sap that I am, and we just sat there for the next ten minutes, leaning our heads together, crying our eyes out.
            “Eventually I managed to capture a breath and force out some words. ‘Do I take that as a Yes?’ She gave me her answer with all the subtlety of an umpire calling strike three: ‘Yes!’ Then quoth I, ‘We are so pathetic!’ Which sent us into uncontrollable laughter. And if you’ve ever sobbed and laughed at a run like that, you know how exhausting it is.
            “I wouldn’t have blamed the horses if they had bucked us off and run for their freedom. But we had stopped over some lovely deep grasses, and they seemed quite content to stand and nosh. We eventually recovered our senses, I managed to get the ring onto Gina’s finger, and we straggled home. When we arrived, we settled the horses into their stalls, collapsed on Gina’s couch and shared a brief smile before falling asleep. When I awoke – full darkness blanketing the windows – it occurred to me that I might have dreamt the whole unlikely episode. But then Gina came to, and gave me a big fat kiss.”
            Ben is a gifted storyteller, and by the end Jack is feeling a little teary-eyed himself. The only thing he can think to do is to hop over and give Ben a high-five (something he was never very good at) and then to give him a manly bear hug. He manages to say, in a Jewish mother’s voice, “My little boy, getting married!” which cracks them up good, and then they drive into Felton for a pizza.

            So what r u up to? Seeing anyone?
            Yeh. Shes erratic, but never boring. What about u?
            Me 2! Sort of an old flame. Hes very kind.
            Im so glad we both have someone. I hate it when these things get unbalanced.
            Not that these things happen much!
            I hope not! Would give me a heart attack. But it sure was fun.
            It was smashing, honey.
            I love when u text in Brit.
            Its me first language. Yank.

            Jack guides Thompson’s Porsche into a parking garage, and he and Audrey descend to Cedar Street. A block east, the shops along Pacific Avenue are fairly booming with commerce, the Christmas rush fully underway. Audrey wears a long scarlet coat to go with the tiny scarlet dress, to go with the hair, the candy-colored lipstick, the high FM pumps. She is RED, and Jack, in a black suit and red tie, takes her hand, hardly believing that this package of lusciousness is allowing herself to be seen in his possession. When they stop at the intersection, she spins to plant a kiss firmly on his lips. He is a figure in a fashion commercial, the lights of traffic teasing the periphery of his vision. A man in a pickup lets out an old-fashioned hoot and Audrey breaks off, laughing.
            “I’m sorry. I’m just… All that radio silence last week. You scared me, honey, and now I’m afraid I can’t control myself.”
            “That’s very unfortunate,” says Jack, not meaning a word. He takes her elbow and guides her across the street.
            “You didn’t help matters any, driving me here in a Porsche. Are you trying to make me uncontrollably hot?”
            “You are already uncontrollably hot, honey.”
            “Why thank you. You got some kinda blackmail on this dude?”
            Jack’s feeling brazen. “I witnessed Mr. Flores receiving a blow job last week from some blonde coed. He…”
            She puts a finger to his lips. “Not right now, honey. Save the nasty for later.”
            Says the Queen of Nasty. He’s feeling oddly impatient. Perhaps it’s the constant stage-direction, the constant randomness. Wasn’t he ecstatic just three minutes ago?
            They arrive at Audrey’s choice, a cozy little bistro called Café Limelight. The walls are high and burgundy. A kitchen counter runs the length of the room. A blonde in a yellow dress is setting up her keyboard.
            “I looked up her schedule on the Web,” says Audrey.
            They rush over and clog up the kitchen traffic by giving Suzanne boisterous Monkey-style hugs.
            “What a treat!” says Jack. “You sing, we eat.”
            “You’re rhyming!” says Suzanne. “I hope I last through dinner. I just drove up Highway One and boy are my arms tired.” The lack of laughter sends her down that dreaded path of joke-explanation. “You know, because of the windy… roads.”
            “Oh yeah,” says Jack. “Yeah, that’s a workout. We’d better find a table and leave you to your work.”
            “Thanks. And thanks for coming.”
            The café is run by a married couple, genuine foodies who invest their dishes with small, thoughtful touches. Jack gets a focaccia sandwich with salmon and red peppers, with a side of pickled mushrooms. Audrey gets a Caesar salad with locally caught anchovies and parmesan cheese grated right at the table. They follow with key lime tarts topped with custard, and meanwhile find their occupation in starting the applause at the end of Suzanne’s songs (dinner crowds being not always attentive to their musicians).
            In her charming, off-beat manner, Suzanne introduces the next song. “I think it’s time for me to play you a Christmas song, but I really only know one. So if you don’t like this one, you’re out of luck.”
            It’s something called the Christmas Waltz. Jack’s never heard it, but it seems to register with Audrey, whose emerald eyes get big with recognition. She turns to Jack and says, “Dance with me.”
            Jack wonders how they’re supposed to waltz in such a small space (and how he’s supposed to waltz at all), but Audrey seems content to sway on the one and the three, in a few square feet next to Suzanne’s amplifier. Jack moves his hands to lead Audrey into a spin, but she stops him, resting her head on his chest and holding him tighter. He brushes his face against her hair, which smells like vanilla and cinnamon, and kisses her at the end of the song.
            After that, Audrey is strangely silent, holding Jack’s hand under the table, kissing him on the cheek, sipping from a glass of dessert wine. Suzanne finishes her set with the anti-romantic “Hallelujah,” takes Jack’s check for another CD (this one headed, almost treasonously, for Portland) and hugs them both farewell. She is driving the next morning for Eureka, working up the coast to spend Christmas with her family in Seattle.
            As they exit onto the sidewalk, Audrey stops, pregnant with words she cannot speak, her eyes flashing with mad thought.
            “Where? Where? Have to find… Oh! I know. Come.”
            It’s yet another ride on the Audrey Express. She pulls Jack south across Mission, then a block east to the town clock, which looks so traditional it ought to be on Disneyland’s Main Street. She leads him onto the ledge around its perimeter and gives him another of her devastating kisses.
            Audrey pulls back and smiles, looking at him so intently that he feels a little hypnotized.
            “This is shocking news, Jack. Jack. I love you, Jack. I’m in love with you.”
            He marvels at the ease of his response.
            “And I’m in love with you.”
            “Are you? Are you really?”
            Jack smiles, and kisses her on the tip of her nose.
            “Of course.”
            “Thank God!” says Audrey, and slings her arms around him.
            Jack peers over Audrey’s shoulder. It’s nine-fifty-two, December 16.

Photo by MJV

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