It’s Christmas morning, and Jack is bathing himself in numbers. He realizes that some people would look askance at this, would whisper the word “workaholic,” but let them celebrate their way – all he wants for Christmas are long columns of integers. Until his cell phone rings.
“Thompson! How’s the great white north?”
“Unbelievably freakin’ cold, my friend. I had completely forgotten.”
“You’ve been Californianized.”
“And I’m a Texan. And a full-blooded beaner.”
“Well I wouldn’t say that.”
“But it’s true!”
“Yes, but I wouldn’t say it.”
“Smart man, gringo.”
“So how are things going? How’s the wife and kids?”
“Ah, Jack. I can’t tell you how good it is, watching those little velociraptors tear into their presents. They’re so damn cute, I can barely believe I made ‘em.”
“And the wife?”
“I have won her over. So much so that they are all moving back, as of January tenth.”
“And you have to move out.”
“You bastard! Kidding, kidding. I couldn’t think of a better eviction.”
“Thanks, man. You having a good Christmas?”
“Yes. I’m working.”
“I knew it!”
“And, I’m almost done.”
“Wow. That is phenomenal. I knew you were the one to get us out of this shithole. I have got to figure out how to get you back full-time.”
“Maybe an alias and plastic surgery?”
“On the other hand, it’s Christmas! Have some fun, wouldja?”
“Audrey’s coming over this afternoon.”
“Ah, the Oompah-Loompah with the fine ass. I want you to screw her in every room of the house. I want those pheromones floating around when my wife gets home.”
“Yes, sir! Hey, and congrats again. Glad to hear things are working out.”
“Thanks, dude. See ya!”
Jack folds his phone and immediately wonders where he picked up a word like “Ciao.” A half-hour later, his right hand is dancing over the number-pad on his laptop, just like old times. He flips a page on the spreadsheet and realizes that it’s the last – and that it only contains one entry. Several finger-twitches later, he is entirely done with the project. He misses it already.
He looks up for the first time in quite a while and discovers an astounding amount of sunlight flooding the windows. He checks the clock, finds that he’s got two hours before Audrey, and gets up to pull on his sweatshirt.
After a week-long storm that pounded the coast with rain and left dustings of snow on the coastal mountains, the beach looks like it’s been scrubbed clean by a hundred thousand housemaids. The sunshine is brilliant, the water as flat and calm as a koi pond. The storm has left little mounds of rocks every hundred feet, and Jack finds bits of sea glass, tucked among the pebbles like hard candy. He was only planning a brief hike, but the introduction of treasure keeps him going, all the way to the cliffs of New Brighton. There he finds enough rock-stacks to populate the state legislature, and wonders if White Horse was out here during the rainstorm. He crouches beneath the tallest and tries to fit it into the screen of his camera phone. When he sees the results, he indulges in a hearty curse.
“Not workin’ out for ya?”
His eyes are fixed on the nothing-looking blobs on his phone screen. “I swear these things are protected by a curse. They refuse to show up on photos.” He punches the erase button and looks up to address his interloper, a thin woman with milk-white skin, oval-shaped eyes and long, straight hair. Failing to come up with a name, he announces their place of meeting.
“The Fog Bank!”
“Bobbie,” she says. “And you’re Jack.”
“Um, yeah. So what brings you to the White Horse Jenga pile?”
“You know White Horse?”
“Sure. He’s a legend.”
Bobbie smiles. “And yet, you didn’t notice that he was in that band we were dancing to?”
“I guess I had more important things to look at.”
“Uh-oh. Smooth talker.” She smiles broadly, re-introducing him to those dimples. As if to catch him in the act, she says, “So how was the wedding?”
“Hmm. Which direction you headed?”
“All the way back to Rio del Mar. This walk is my Christmas tradition, before my family stuffs me like a piñata. We call it the Cliffenbock.”
“Ha! A noble brew – and a long hike! But I’ll need most of it to explain that night. Shall we?”
It takes a half mile and a thorough cross-examination before Bobbie accepts Jack’s story. In a sense, he respects that. He’s already seen too many idiot girls buying everything that Thompson has to sell.
“So back then, you and Audrey were just dating. And now you’re more serious.”
“She’s coming over for Christmas supper.”
“My timing sucks.”
“Your disappointment flatters me.”
“Finding a non-gay man who can dance is not that easy.”
Jack laughs and pauses to pick up an aqua-colored chip ribbed with bottlecap threads. He hands it to Bobbie.
“For your troubles. For your friendship.”
“Stop being so nice, Jack. You’re breaking my heart.”
Thankfully, she appears to be kidding. He finds a perfect disc of black stone and scores a seven-hopper on the smooth water.
“Oh, sure,” says Bobbie. “You can skip stones, too. Is there anything you’re not good at?”
“Well right now I’m not very good at being employed. Hey, how’s your curvy blonde friend?”
“Oh, Kirsten? I’ve only seen her once since then. She is wildly in love. I’m surprised you didn’t know.”
“‘Cause she’s hung up on your friend. Tony Banderas.”
“Sounds like a pain in the ass to me. He always has to come over to her place. At least until the divorce comes through. I know he’s your friend, but I don’t trust that guy.”
Jack laughs much too loudly, trying to hide his great surprise. He suddenly feels like he’s treading in dangerous waters, and had best keep his mouth shut.
“Yeah,” he says. “There’s a reason he’s getting divorced. Or two. Or three.”
“That’s what I told Kirsten. Sexy man, but much too smooth. Watch out, sistah! Hey, this is totally off the subject, but have you seen my hat? I thought I left it at the Fog Bank, but…”
“I’ve got it.”
“You do! Well that was kinda silly.”
“I was kinda drunk.” Jack bends down to fetch a postage-stamp square of green glass. “And it just looked so… lonely. Plus, I had this vision of roaming the countryside, trying it on the heads of different women until I found my Cinderella.”
Bobbie slaps him on the shoulder. “Watch it, prince. You’re getting a little too charming. Any chance I can get it back?”
“Excellent chance. Follow me.” He takes a sharp left, and soon they’re climbing the back deck of Big Brown.
“Holy crap. So the story is true. I told Kirsten she must have been hallucinating.”
“Yup. It’s Big, and it’s Brown.”
“And frankly,” says Bobbie, “kinda ugly.”
“I have mixed feelings about it myself.”
“So why do you stay here?”
“It comes with a beach.” They round the corner, and Jack looks up at the enormous chocolate walls. “Plus a boatload of intangibles that I really can’t explain.”
He asks her to stay on the porch while he fetches the cowgirl hat from his front closet. When he returns, she’s writing something on a small slip of paper. She hands it to him, then takes the hat and places it on her head.
“Ah! Now I feel complete. That’s my phone number. If things don’t work out with Audrey. Or even if they do; you can never have too many friends.”
“Sure.” Jack tucks it into his pants pocket. “It was great running into you, Bobbie. Have a great Christmas.”
“You too, Jack.” She looks off into a middle distance, as if she’s processing something, then returns to Jack. “Could you… give me a few spins for the road?”
“It’s a big porch. We could probably manage it.”
Jack takes Bobbie’s hands, finds an old Bonnie Raitt tune running through his head and leads her into a series of the moves he learned with Audrey. He feels the same remarkable sense of balance and gravity from their meeting at the Fog Bank, and is soon tossing Bobbie around the tiles with abandon. They begin to laugh at their own synchronicity, and they keep going until Jack runs out of ideas. He warns her ahead of time, imagines the song coming to an end and drops Bobbie into a dip. Balanced across Jack’s arm, the world an upside-down kaleidoscope, Bobbie sees a beautiful redhead, perched on the second step with a pet carrier, wearing a look of extremely pressurized calm.
“Hi,” says Bobbie. “You must be Audrey.”
“I ordered these little message carriers online.” Audrey holds a small aluminum tube with a clip to one side. She hands Jack a pen and a tiny slip of paper. “So the idea is, we write down our Christmas wishes, and Mamet and Cigarette will fly them to the heavens.”
She leans down to write something. Jack writes, I want Audrey to forgive me for dancing with strange women on my porch. Audrey takes the slips, folds them up and tucks them into the tubes, then clips the tubes onto the right leg of each pigeon. Then they stand and, on the customary count of three, loft their charges skyward. The birds circle twice and head southeast along the shore.
“I never get tired of that,” she says. Then she swats Jack on the arm with surprising force.
“What the fuck were you doing? Don’t make me get jealous. I fucking hate that, so don’t even get me started.”
Jack keeps his arms at the ready, in case she goes for another strike.
“Do you want an explanation? Or is that just going to piss you off even more?”
Audrey sits in a patio chair and folds her arms very tightly. “Is it a good story?”
“It better be.”
“After Thompson found out he was going to see his kids at Christmas, he took me out to celebrate. We ended up at the Fog Bank, where Bobbie and I did some dancing. And I ran into her just now on the beach.”
“And just had to take her to the house?”
“Yes. I had her hat.”
“She left it at the bar.”
“And you should have left it there, because that’s the first place she would have looked for it. But, you took it home, because really you wanted to see Bobbie again. Am I right?”
Perhaps it’s because he’s tired of having no good answer to the Cowgirl Hat Conspiracy, but Jack feels his blood rising. “So let me get this straight. At a time when you made your appearances in my life whenever the fuck you felt like it, I was supposed to sit next to the phone and await your summons? You’re awfully fond of your independence, sweetcakes, and that’s just dandy, but you have to let other people have theirs, too, or it really doesn’t count.”
Audrey stomps off to the railing and releases a filthy, muttered stream punctuated by the letters F and K. And K. Jack thinks it best to leave her alone for a while. After a minute, she turns and yells.
“This is what I fucking hate! This is how it starts. One person says I love you, the other agrees, and then everybody proceed directly to the bickering and mutual disrespect. I have had way too much of this shit!”
Jack advances to a safe middle distance, which places him next to the tiki god.
“This shit is exactly what it’s about, Audrey. We have to learn how to fight.”
“How about discussing?”
“No. Fighting. I love you because you’re passionate, and I want to fight with you. Be real with me. And tell me this: Am I going to see more of you now? Are you going to stay connected? Because when a woman tells me she loves me, that’s what I expect.”
Audrey takes a long breath, and seems to calm down. “Are we going to be exclusive?”
“Well, then – yes.”
“Good! Now, are you going to kiss me?”
Audrey shoots him a simmering look. “Oh, I’m going to do a lot more than that.” She begins to remove articles of clothing as she charges in Jack’s direction.
“Exactly,” says Audrey. “’Tis the day of our Savior’s birth.”
“Well thank the Lord. How did we end up in the hot tub?”
“Hell if I know. But what I do know is, if you ever have the opportunity to go straight from fighting to fucking, you should always take it.”
“Jesus. I think I hurt my ankle.”
“Wouldn’t be surprised.”
“I love you, Audrey. And I’m sorry about the… incident.”
“Next time you dance with another woman – preferably at some public event where I, too, am in attendance – try not to look so damn good while you’re doing it.”
“Can’t help it. I had an excellent teacher.”
Audrey gives him a wary look. “You’ve been hanging out with Thompson too much. You’re starting to talk like a dawg.”
“Yikes!” Jack fishes his sweatshirt out of the water and tosses it onto the rooftop with a splop. “Speaking of, the wife and kids are moving back home in a couple of weeks. Which means I’m out.”
“Aah! I’m gonna miss this place.”
“I get the feeling I might be back. I have discovered some things about Thompson that do not bode well.”
“A dawg’s a dawg, honey. Never changes. That’s why I stick with monkeys. And in case I forgot to mention it, I love you, too."
Jack kisses her. “Thank you.”
“Because you’re a monkey’s monkey.”
Audrey wraps Jack up in her arms and stretches her legs into a ballet pointe just above the water. “But since your time is running out – and since I have a few days off work – you mind if I spend a few days here at the mansion?”
“Did you bring any clothes?”
Audrey lets fly with a witchy cackle. “Who the hell needs clothes?”
Photo by MJV