Considering the subterfuge he is being forced to undertake on behalf of his philandering host, Jack is feeling much more at ease driving the Porsche. It’s a gorgeously sunny afternoon, and he’s downshifting the upgrade at the south end of the Pajaro Valley, the somber green hills spotted with broccoli crowns of live oak. He’s on his way to the great New Year’s Spectacular at Terra and Ivan’s, and the owner of the Porsche isn’t due home till the second.
He tops out onto a long straightaway bracketed by strawberry fields, the gray-green stacks of the Moss Landing power plant looming on the horizon. This particular piece of road comes with a musical trigger: “Me and Bobby McGee,” some line about losing a girlfriend in Salinas. He pictures a baby-faced Kris Kristofferson, driving this same stretch, sometime in the early sixties, never dreaming that the lines he was putting together could someday touch the lips of a million singers, notably one named Janis.
This thought, like so many others, veers onto Audrey – the days spent in slow motion at Big Brown, like a couple of rich newlyweds. He had always wondered if their chemistry would fade without the elements of surprise and gymnastic sex, and now he has his answer. They spent languid hours together, making unhurried love, drifting into easy pursuits: a full ten frames of bowling, a DVD and popcorn on the great white couch, a rainy-day soak in the hot tub, the long beach-walks that you read about in personal ads. Not that the surprises were completely gone; at the end of one beach-walk, she pulled him behind one of White Horse’s larger constructions for a virtuosic blow job.
He figures that this last thought is what has led him onto the shoulder, until he realizes that he’s not on the shoulder. The sudden thumping is coming from a flat tire on the Carrera’s right side. He pulls to the shoulder, exclaiming, with an operatic intensity of feeling, “Oh fucking great!”
He rolls to the flattest spot on the turnout and sits at the wheel, rearranging his priorities. Arriving at party on time – gone. All bets off. Take care of the car, Jack. Jack. Right – jack.
He flips the trunk release and steps out, the breeze of a passing truck whipping his hair. Surveying the trunk, he spots a handle near the frame and yanks it, relieved to find that the tire-shaped hump in the floor actually does contain a tire – one of those junior-NASCAR temporaries that hardly befits a Porsche. He undoes the brace, lifts out the spare and deposits it next to his right front tire, which is now as flat as the bottom of a tennis shoe.
Jack. Lug wrench. Both sides of the trunk contain built-in compartments. He flips the left-hand latch, opens the panel like a door on a hinge and finds a burgundy leather pouch. A pouch that might contain tools. He pulls a zipper along the top to reveal a messy array of DVDs in jewel cases. The cases bear white file-folder labels, each of them marked with the name of a woman: Shari, Therese, Juliana, Meghan, Johanna, Brigit (Brigit?) and, at the far left, Kirsten. The bag contains one other item: a bottle of Viagra.
“Holy shit,” says Jack. He re-zips the pouch, returns it to the compartment and closes the panel. Then he opens the right-hand compartment, finds the jack and lug wrench, and sets to his work. Priorities. All bets off.
The temporary spare and its red-letter warnings confine him to the driving style of a 65-year-old school principal, so the early evening is nowhere near as fun as the late afternoon. This is especially true of the farm road, with its rain-puddle gouges and metal ridges parading as speed bumps. Terra and Ivan’s driveway is stacked up with cars, so he parks near the entrance, in a patch of tall weeds behind a long-drydocked motorboat. He inches around to the passenger door and is pulling out a sushi platter and a bottle of Gewürztraminer when a new-model white VW Beetle pulls in and parks at the other side of the entrance. The driver looks like Audrey, but the car doesn’t match.
It’s Brigit. (Brigit?) She stands in the center of the driveway wearing a red Santa-hat and a pink ski jacket, holding a bottle of peppermint schnapps. It’s Brigit.
“Going to give us a kiss then?”
He sets the sushi and wine on the ground and walks slowly toward the mirage. Brigit sets down her bottle and spreads her arms. Jack hugs her and kisses her on the cheek. She kisses him on the lips and smiles.
“If you could see the look on your face.”
He manages to separate himself, as if he fears falling under some voodoo spell.
“I don’t… understand. You’re… What are you doing here?”
“I’m here for the party, you goof.”
“Okay. Um… Why?”
She wraps her arms around herself and laughs, then takes off the Santa hat and gazes skyward.
“What an awful lot of stars you have in Salinas! Gorgeous. Oh, um… well. I’m here to see Thompson.”
She slaps him on the chest and laughs. “You haven’t figured that out by now? ‘Old flame’? ‘Very unexpected’?”
“You’re really not telling me…”
“I’ve hit the jackpot… Jack. It’s quite stunning. The impetuous fool hopped a flight to Portland one day, took me out to dinner and told me that he’s divorcing his wife. We’ve been chatting ever since, and now he’s talking about moving to Portland.”
“I can’t believe it,” says Jack.
“I know! It’s such a…”
“I can’t believe that you’re one of the idiots.”
“I had you pegged as a smart girl who got fooled. Once. Now it turns out you’re an idiot. And you know I think I’ve finally got this thing figured out. For every raging-dick superdawg like Thompson, there have to be thirty-two complete fucking idiot women to fall for his act.”
Brigit’s eyes are wide with insult. “How dare you talk to me like…”
“Oh! You Brits are so charming. You actually say things like ‘How dare you.’ That is so adorable!”
“I… I would never expect this from you, Jack.”
Jack waves toward the approximate direction of Wisconsin. “That asshole is in Madison right now, begging his wife for mercy, making plans for her and the kids to move back into the mansion.”
Brigit produces two precise blinks. “I would assume he wants to get everything back to normal before he informs her of his long-range intentions.”
Jack brings his face closer to hers, like a baseball manager arguing with an umpire. “That cock-and-bull story he gave you, Bridgey? That’s the same one he gave to the Santa Cruz bimbette he’s been screwing all during the holidays.”
“On the way here, I discovered a stash of DVDs in the trunk of Thompson’s Porsche, marked with the names of three dozen women. What do you suppose those are? Movie rentals? Oh, but don’t worry. One of the names is Brigit.”
Brigit begins crying.
“Look, I’m sorry,” says Jack. “You caught me off-guard. This nasty little… pageant keeps growing on me. I guess it…”
Brigit begins sobbing. Jack goes to touch her shoulder but she smacks him away.
“I thought you were a gentleman. But I don’t suppose a gentleman goes about shagging his friend’s lovers.”
The sheer illogic hits Jack like a splash of ice water. He raises an index finger at Brigit’s nose, and tries his best to speak calmly.
“Look. As a guy, I kind of like that horny bastard. It’s one hell of a show, and forgive me but driving his Porsche, living at his beach house and screwing the occasional leftover mistress beats the hell out of my old life. But if you think I’ve got enough imagination to come up with thirty amateur pornos in a burgundy leather pouch – next to a bottle of Viagra, I might add – you are giving me much more credit than I deserve. Meanwhile, I’ve got a party to go to. Ta!”
He fights the urge to slap her silly, then fetches his wine and sushi and heads for the front porch. He’s so intent on the conflict behind him that he almost runs into the giant serpent that seems to have swallowed the front walk. It turns out to be a long tubular tunnel, constructed of plastic camping fabric stretched around five-foot hoops. The mouth of the great beast has suctioned itself to the front door, so he assumes it’s the only way in.
Jack assumes a Grouch Marx stoop and ventures inside, carefully balancing his sushi and wine. Toward the end, the tunnel grows increasingly dark. The porch climb is a game of blind man’s bluff, but eventually he locates the front door, gropes for the knob and pushes his way inside.
Seated on a large pillow, surrounded by lava lamps, is Willie. He wears a lime-green warmup suit, and his hair is greased and spiked upward like a growth of cactus. The rest of the ensemble includes oversized circle spectacles, pointed Vulcan Spock-ears, a red clown’s-nose and, around his neck, a large clock on a chain, in the style of the rapper Flava Flav.
“Dude! You’re late. Late I tell you. You are so late. Here – have a toke on this. It’ll make you not care about being late.”
He hands him a pipe shaped like a penis.
“Hey!” says Jack. “I remember this one.”
“We call him Dick Johnson. Sucking cock ain’t so bad when Dick’s on the job. Omigod! I am such a homo.”
“Don’t ask don’t tell. That is quite a tunnel out there.”
“Thanks! I found it at an Army surplus store. I guess they used it for training or something. This is the first time I managed to get some use out of it.”
Jack finishes a healthy toke and has already half-forgotten his fight with Brigit.
“Hey, so where do I go from here?”
Willie waves his fingers, like a magician in mid-conjure, and opens a curtain to his left, revealing a dark tunnel three feet high.
“Follow the signs, O traveler. Especially the sign to the munchies, because you probably don’t want to cart that sushi around. Unless you’re trolling for a whale. Har! Hey, can I grab a couple of those? I’m hungry.”
Jack tips up the plastic cover; Willie grabs a tuna and a California roll. He heads through the drapes and receives a shock when his knees start making sounds like small firecrackers. He reaches down to discover a wall-to-wall carpet of bubble-wrap, then continues forward, crackling as he goes.
Fifteen feet on, he butts up against another curtain, pokes his head through and finds a small compartment that seems to serve as an intersection. An LED flashlight dangles from the ceiling, illuminating a signpost affixed to a Christmas tree stand. The post holds four arrowed signs reading Munchies, Smokes, Drums and Playroom. Jack follows the munchies sign, a slight leftward shift, and enters another tunnel, this one a foot deep with Styrofoam packing peanuts.
He comes to another curtain and enters a low, dark room lit entirely in red: red lamps, red Christmas lights and the kind of red flashers that you would find on a cop car. The room is ringed with large cushions, and upturned milk crates serving as tables. At the far end is a long, low coffee table covered with platters of food.
As Jack is setting down his sushi, a figure unfolds itself from the far side of the table. At first it appears to be an extremely large snake, but the scales turn out to be the red sequins of a floor-length evening gown. The wearer owns an extremely lengthy physique, a quality somewhat furthered by a high bouffant of fire-engine red. The face is large, also, and equine, adorned by horn-rimmed spectacles with flashing red lights, a long Roman nose and a generous mouth done up in cherry-red lipstick. The voice that arises from said lips is surprisingly deep.
“Sushi! Fish are ugly. If fish could really see each other, they would never breed. Maybe that’s why the female fish lays down the eggs somewhere, and then the male fish comes along later to spread the sperm. They can’t stand the sight of each other! But I do like to eat them. Because they’re ugly. And they taste good.”
“You’re Terra’s brother, right?”
“Yeah. They call me Troll. I have no idea why.”
“So you’re in charge of the food?”
He blinks several times, as if Jack has asked the most preposterous of questions. “Is anybody really in charge of anything? There’s no control in this world. All you can do is react. We’re all just a bunch of valence electrons looking to land somewhere. I’ll bet there are other civilizations. That’s what the Northern Lights are about. Signals.”
This last thought freezes Troll in his tracks; he seems to be too enchanted with the image to speak or move. Jack takes it as an opening.
“I think I’ll head for the smokes.”
Troll snaps back into motion, as if Jack has flipped a switch.
“What a fantastic idea! Follow me.”
Jack follows Troll’s sequined butt through the peanuts, through the intersection and rightward into a tunnel containing hundreds of black balloons. When they surface at the far end, Jack finds that he can stand up, which is a great relief. The space here is a full ten feet high, if only four feet wide. The length is a matter of some speculation. The ceiling is lined with theatrical spotlights, shooting multicolored beams into a thick band of smoke. Jack and Troll wander about 20 feet before they find Ben, sitting in an arm chair, next to a patio table wrapped in aluminum foil. Ben is taking hits off his hookah pipe, and wears a bright orange safety vest and hard hat bearing the logo of the Caterpillar Tractor Company. Sitting on a barstool next to him is Ivan, wearing a Mickey Mouse hat with fake whiskers attached to his cheeks. Stuffed between the fingers of his oversized white gloves is a remarkably obese joint -–what a devotee might call a “fatty.” He passes it to Troll, who takes a grateful hit.
“Ben!” says Jack. “So how come no one told me there was a theme?”
Ben takes a deep pull from his hookah and tries to sound mysterious. “Every Wonderland needs an Alice. Have a hit, Alice.”
Jack takes a drag and proceeds directly to a fit of coughing.
“Oh!” says Ben. “Sorry. No flavored tobacco tonight. We’re all pretty determined to get wasted. Speaking of, let’s open up that wine!”
“Feed your head!” squeaks Ivan, nibbling at his gloves.
Ben takes out a Swiss Army knife and makes quick use of its corkscrew attachment. He takes a healthy swallow and proclaims, “That’s sweet!”
“Gewürztraminer,” says Jack, proud of his elocution. “I like my wines sweet and white.”
“Like your women.”
“I myself prefer a zesty Italian chianti.”
“A well-aged chianti.”
Troll slams a hand on the table. “Please! Two languages at a time. Chianti sounds like a new sportscar. Gewürztraminer sounds like a villain in a science-fiction movie. You’re tearing me apart!”
“You’ll have to forgive Troll,” says Ben. “When he gets intoxicated, his line of discourse is like a feather in a high wind.”
“Hey! That’s my job.” Willie pops through the smoke, scratching at a Spock-ear.
“You’ve abandoned your post,” says Ben. “You kwazy wabbit.”
“Understood. I…” Ben stops and cocks an ear. “Methinks I hear drums.”
“Monkeys!” says Willie.
“Girl Monkeys,” Ivan squeaks.
“Have to it, men!” says Ben. Troll leads the charge, clomping forward in a pair of size-15 pumps, and the rest is something like a football squad running an obstacle course. The stretch of tunnel to the drumming area seems to be empty, except for faint beams of light striping the floor. Once they break the beams, however, the secret is revealed: a long line of electronic porch frogs that set in to croaking like it’s high mating season at the swimming hole.
They re-emerge in what was formerly the TV room – the only room in the house that seems to have been left at its normal proportions. A logical decision, considering the now-familiar gathering of congas, djembes, bongos, toms and percussion accessories. The walls are laced with white Christmas lights, but the three lamps have been de-shaded and outfitted with blacklights. This has an especially haunting effect on Terra, who is done up entirely in white: a Victorian bridal dress, a tiara with trailing veil, elbow-length cocktail gloves and whiteface geisha makeup. The lights have a different effect on Constance, who is done up completely in stripes of red and white: striped hose, striped skirt, striped sweater and one of those goofy-high top hats, like the one worn by the Cat in the Hat. Thanks to the blacklights, she is only half there.
The two of them work a samba pattern over the congas. The boys scatter to their instruments. Jack takes a first stab at Ivan’s new dombek, which offers a resounding bass at its center and pleasant ringing qualities at its rim – an even wider pitch-range than the djembe. He’s deep into a chaotic solo when Audrey pops through the entrance and springs to her feet. She is dressed as a belly dancer: a top of spangled copper rings, bare midriff, a gold-colored skirt riding dangerously low on her hips, and sheer veils trailing all around. Jack abandons his dombek to plant her with a freeway kiss. When they’re done, she rewards his attentions with a blacklit Cheshire Cat smile.
“Are you enjoying our Wonderland?”
“Oh I am, definitely. But who are you?”
She shakes her hips, setting her spangles clattering. “I’m the dragon lady.”
“The Jabberwock! Kind of a stretch, but all things considered…”
“I breathe fire,” she says. “So be careful. Who’s the British lady out front?”
Jack has already worked out his calculations, and is quick with his response.
“That is one of Thompson’s mistresses.”
“Multitudinous. She apparently believes that he will be showing up tonight. Which is news to me – but then, I’m not sleeping with him.”
“You’re about the only one. Come on, sugar, let’s drum.”
Audrey heads for the percussion basket, ties on the goat’s-hoof anklets and plays her part, gyrating around the room, making sure that her hips get as much work as her feet. Jack hides his erection behind a large conga as the tempo speeds up into a windstorm. Twenty minutes later, the whole thing collapses under its own rapidity.
“Oxygen!” shouts Terra.
“Food!” shouts Ivan.
“Appendectomy!” shouts Troll.
Jack follows Audrey’s golden ass through the hall of frogs. They emerge at the intersection, where they discover a blonde girl kneeling at the signpost. She spots a belly-dancer crawling her way and unleashes a rather stunning big-toothed smile. She has cutesy baby cheeks and eyes of radiant sky-blue.
“Hi! I’m new here. What would you recommend?”
“Are you sober?” asks Audrey.
“Ah, a pity. I’d recommend the smoking room. Crawl this way.”
So now Jack is crawling behind the blonde. Not quite the golden ass of Audrey, a bit on the economy size, but the tight jeans are working hard to provide him with a pleasant view. A view that he’s seen before, rising as a full moon over Thompson’s coffee table. Holy shit! He’s surrounded.
They drift through the smoke to find Ben and Gina in the armchair, making out like teenagers. Gina wears a chocolate brown cowgirl jacket, a crisp white blouse, wraparound leather miniskirt and black stockings leading to coffee-colored cowgirl boots with gold trim. Jack is growing increasingly understanding of Ben’s enchantment.
“Hey you two,” he calls. “Get a room!”
Ben breaks off their kiss and laughs. “We’d have a room, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!”
Gina unleashes the husky laugh that Ben talks about incessantly. “Ha! All those years, I wondered what was going on at that hippie-house down the road, and I gotta tell ya, it’s even loopier than I expected.”
She’s family now, so Jack gives her a kiss on the cheek. “Welcome to the Monkey Tribe.”
“Now we need something for Kirsten to smoke.”
Ben offers up the ceramic penis pipe. “Willie left this one fully loaded. Feel free.”
Kirsten takes the pipe by the scrotum and threatens to turn into a girl made entirely of Jell-O.
“If you’ll forgive the… aesthetics,” adds Ben.
Oh she’s familiar with the aesthetics, thinks Jack.
“So Kirsten,” says Audrey. “Don’t mind my asking, but who are you here with?”
Kirsten wraps her lips around the penis-head, then talks through her exhale, producing a voice that might very well belong to a Jabberwock.
“I’m meeting Thompson. He told me to meet him here. Confusing directions!”
Ben laughs. “Old Stage/New Stage?”
“Oh my God! I must have done three laps before I got it right.”
Ten minutes later, Audrey is chewing on a shrimp cocktail when she begins the expected interrogation.
“So you know Kirsten?”
Jack takes a time-consuming mouthful of egg roll. “Not that I don’t love any chance to bring this up, but Kirsten is pals with Bobbie, the woman I was dancing with on the porch.”
“Ah! And you also know the Brit in the driveway?”
“I ran into Thompson and Brigit in Oregon. Which is how I got my house-sitting assignment, which is how I met Ben, which is how I met you.”
“Hmm. A rather pivotal personage in our personal histories.”
“Watch it, honey. You’re alliterating all over the buffet.”
Audrey toothpicks another shrimp and chews it down, ruminating all the while.
“Being Thompson’s chief of staff, have you ever thought of warning these women?”
“Ben seems to think it would be a bad idea. And he’s probably right. I gave it a try with Brigit earlier; having just driven from Portland in pursuit of her delusions, she reacted as if I were something she had just stepped in.”
Audrey ruffles a hand through Jack’s hair, a token of affection for which he is most grateful.
“Judging by the presence of both of them,” she says, “I believe our man Thompson has a death wish. Hey! Before the shit hits the fan, let’s check out the playroom.”
Audrey kisses him on the neck. “I know why you want me to crawl in front of you, and I want you to know that I greatly appreciate it.”
They return to the intersection then keep straight on into a long tunnel covered in ping-pong balls. Audrey puts an extra waggle in her get-along, and Jack encourages her with a spank.
The playroom is another midget-cave, six-foot square, lit with colored disco lights, underlain with mattresses. The mattresses are covered with foot-wide plastic playballs, maybe thirty in all, with a pair of three-foot beach balls to act as king and queen. Audrey dives forward, scattering spheroids in all directions.
“This is fantastic! Omigod!”
Jack slides in after, more intent on playing with Audrey.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Do you suppose there’s much privacy to be had here?”
“Are you nuts? Not that I don’t appreciate the idea, but someone could come busting through those curtains at any second.”
“Which makes it all the more exciting.”
“Jack! What have I done to you? You used to be such a Boy Scout.”
He lowers the strap on Audrey’s top and nibbles on a nipple. “Boy Scouts gotta earn their merit badges some way.”
“You are a bad boy and don’t stop that because it feels wonderful.” She reaches down to stroke his crotch, but stops when she hears a high-pitched whimpering.
“Is that you?” asks Jack.
“Well I’m sure glad it’s not you,” says Audrey. “Wait a minute. If this is the back bedroom, then the window should be right behind this curtain.”
She finds a spot where two blankets overlap, pulls them apart to reveal Venetian blinds, then peeks between two of the blinds and lets out a gasp.
“Oh my God!” she whispers.
Jack slips in next to her and takes a look. Brigit is standing with her hands on the edge of the hot tub. She’s still wearing the pink jacket, but her panties and jeans are around her ankles, her white ass aimed at the Salinas foothills. Thompson, clothed in a long woolen coat, is fucking her from behind.
“Juh-ee-sus!” whispers Audrey.
Hearing Brigit’s familiar pantings, Jack feels an odd twinge of jealousy. This feeling lessens greatly when Audrey takes his hand and slides it beneath her golden skirt.
The climax of their hurried session arrives with the wail of a saxophone, followed by a steadily expanding drumbeat. After reattaching all of her clothing, Audrey takes a peek out the window and discovers that their personal porn stars have vacated the carport.
“Show’s over,” she says. “Let’s go drum!”
Jack finishes buckling his belt and smiles, then waves her into the tunnel.
“You’re insatiable,” says Audrey.
After ping-pong balls and frogs, they enter the drum room to find a short, stocky man with spiky blond hair standing at center, blowing free-form variations on a baritone sax as the Monkeys maintain a rolling beat. Audrey grabs a pair of hand cymbals and continues her belly-dancer act. Jack feels a tingle of possession, knowing that those fleshy acres are all his. He sidles next to Constance, who is working a pair of congas like a short-order cook flipping hotcakes, and taps at a pair of bongos as he gets the lowdown.
“His name’s Mack,” she reports. “He came from Modesto with Terra’s cousin Shannon – the shy djembe in the armchair.”
Jack sifts through the blacklight fuzz to find a handsome, big-boned Irish girl in the far corner with a head of thick burgundy hair and a fetchingly upturned nose. She pats her drumhead every few seconds, like a swimmer dipping a toe into the water.
“Willie did this with electric guitar once,” says Constance. “It works well as long as you stick to one instrument. This guy rocks!”
Mack has worked himself into a Coltranean lather, bending backward to release a long scream to the ceiling, then tucking himself back together to drop sweet little blurts into the stew, sweat beading up on his forehead. Freed of the chordal restraints of bandmates, he must be in riffer’s heaven.
Jack lends a lusty eye to Audrey, who is swinging her hair like a banshee as she punishes a tambourine. The illicit sex and costumery has delivered her to a realm even further out than her usual extremes, and he loves her even more for that rare capacity. He flexes his fingers and sets to work on his bongos.
With the novelty of the saxman, the session continues for another half-hour. Mack takes a deep inhale and blows his way through a final fusillade, hands flying over the keys, then literally screeches to a halt and stands bent over, gasping for breath. The Monkeys abandon their instruments to pound him appreciatively on the back.
Long lost in his rhythmic pursuits, Jack is surprised to find Brigit kneeling next to the armchair, chatting with Shannon. He feels very uncertain as to where he stands in this situation. He has dared to mess with a British woman’s delusions and now, thanks to Thompson’s outdoor ministrations, has been proven “wrong.” With Kirsten somewhere along these catacombs, he may soon be proven “right” – and it’s very dangerous to be right. He notes that Constance and Willie have met at the tunnel entrance and are about to assume a crawling position, so he rushes in beside them and tries to lose himself in the herd.
Sated with pot, sex and drumming, Jack is now craving food, so he returns to the munchies room and finds that several others have beaten him there. He locates a salad of chicken curry, mushrooms and beans and falls in love, perching on a cushion as he wolfs down a heaping bowlful. Mentally speaking, he has had just enough pot to be dabbling with that time-wormhole phenomenon, but otherwise seems to be floating along rather nicely. But where the hell is Thompson?
“So Ben tells me you’re his A-one pupil.”
Gina Scarletti has shuffled next to him with a plate of eggplant casserole. She smiles, causing her dark eyes to arch upward in a most fetching fashion.
“I suppose I am,” says Jack. “Did he give you any reasons?”
“He says that you see things that the average person doesn’t. And you’re amazingly adaptive.”
“I wish there were some things I could see at this party.”
“Ha! Judging by your date, I’d say you’re seeing plenty.”
“Amen, sister,” says Jack. “But there are other things. Demons in the walls.” He waves his fingers, spooky-like.
“Ah. So can I ask you something?”
“Am I doing the right thing? Marrying Ben?”
This serves to widen Gina’s eyes – yet another touching effect.
“To call what you are doing ‘right’ is to compare it to an answer on a history test. It demeans the size and wonder of the thing. You are not just getting the best man in Northern California, the most evolved human being that I know, you are getting someone whose very spirit grows miles wider whenever the subject of Gina Scarletti comes up. And, in a way, you’re saving his soul.”
Gina hides half of her face with a hand, feigning embarrassment. “You certainly have a way of putting things.”
“Thanks. I’m also stoned. But also grateful. You have shed a ton of light on the life of a great man, and we are all enjoying the fireworks.”
Gina kisses him on the cheek. “Thanks, Jack.”
“You’re welcome. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to see about getting much more stoned.
“Before you find the demons in the walls.”
Jack trudges through the Styrofoam snow to the intersection, where the floor is losing the battle to ping-pong balls, black balloons and packing peanuts. He is arrested by the image of two butts – one red and spangled, the other bearing a long coat-hanger mouse’s tail – gathered at the entrance to the front tunnel. A steady crackling emanates from said tunnel, as if someone were rhythmically stomping on a pile of leaves.
Jack approaches the pair and asks, “What goes here, lads?”
“Shh!” says Ivan. “You don’t want to interrupt the show. Here…”
He offers the lower curtain-crack (the upper being occupied by the red queen). It takes a few seconds for Jack’s eyes to adjust to the eery lava-lamp glow, but gradually he makes out a pair of thick white legs, spread in a vee across the mouth of the tunnel, and a darker figure like a tree-trunk between them, pounding away like a battering ram as the bubble wrap cries out in fits of static.
“Ho-lee shit,” Jack murmurs.
“Whatever are you looking at?”
It’s that posh British accent again, always tickling at his ear. He realizes that he has just been vested with tremendous power. He is the only thing standing between Brigit and the truth. Make some horrible ruckus, tackle limey-girl to the ground, and the awful vision of boyfriend’s dick pounding another’s pussy goes away, an unfounded myth. Jack steps aside and cedes the peephole.
Brigit bends to the spot, levels her eyes to the gap and peers in as Jack ticks off the Five Steps of Carnal Shock. Eyes adjust. A smirk at the sight of a humping couple. Sudden identification of Latino male buttocks. Increase in heart rate and respiration.
The next step is the wild card: big flaming confrontation or crestfallen retreat? Brigit goes for the latter, breathing in hard pants, wiping her face with a hand and racing toward the smokes tunnel. The intersection turns into an audio chamber. The left channel brings an accelerating drumbeat of popping bubble wrap; the right a high-pitched sobbing; the left a duet of moaning female and grunting male as orgasm arrives; the right a mournful whimpering.
“Bra-voh!” whispers Troll, eye still fixed to the upper gap. He sees Jack and says, “What’s wrong with Spice Girl?”
“Nothing I can fix. Because I’m right.”
“Yaknow,” says Troll. “Sometimes you don’t make sense.”
Red queen and dormouse trundle off to the munchies room for a post-coital snack. Jack considers his situation, and realizes that sooner or later he has to go after Brigit, because even though he’s right, he’s all she’s got.
The barometer cranks up to full squint as Jack crawls into the black balloons, thinking what a perfect symbol they make for smokers’ lungs. Brigit is nowhere among them, so he continues into the colored fog, detecting a cat-like mewling from the far end. He finds Audrey in the armchair, Brigit strewn across her lap like a Pietá. It’s the redhead menage a tois of his dreams, only Brigit is hardly up to it, her head nestled against Audrey’s bare shoulder as she cries out all her stupid mistakes. The similarity of the two is uncanny; a psychoanalyst would have a field day with this. He crouches beside the chair to get the lowdown from Audrey.
“How is she?”
“From what I’m assuming just happened, better than I would be.”
Brigit lets out a fresh gush. “Oh Jack! You were right. Oh God oh God oh God. Could I be any more of a…of a…” And then back to Audrey’s shoulder.
“Besides the sheer logistics,” says Audrey, “I’m wondering how he’s doing this physically.”
“A little pharmaceutical assistance,” says Jack.
“Oh that’s just lovely.”
Brigit raises her head and aims a red-hot stare down the tunnel.
“Fucking bastard! Too bad I can’t fuck his house-sitter again.”
She returns to her principal occupation of moisturizing Audrey’s shoulder. When Jack lifts his eyes to Audrey’s face, he can see the little bits of revealed truth striking her surface like asteroids.
“Only knew her from Oregon?”
“Leave, Jack. Get out.”
“We’ll be fine here, without you, Jack.”
He backs through the fogged spotlights like a rock star being booed off the stage. For two weeks, one time in his entire life, he was a dawg, and now he will be punished. He takes a last glance at the belly-dancer belly that he may never touch again. It really is a shame.
He crawls as morosely as one can through the black, black balloons, and emerges at the intersection to find Kirsten curled up next to the signpost, sound asleep. He sits next to her and notices that one ample white breast is hanging out of her low-cut sweater. After some deliberation he reaches over to see if he can pull her sweater back into place, but Kirsten grabs his hand and pulls it directly to her nipple.
Seeing that her eyes are still closed, he says, “Kirsten? It’s not Thompson.”
“That’s okay.” She cultivates a sleepy smile. “We just had some tequila shots, and I just feel like fucking everybody. I think I just fucked some bubble wrap!”
She giggles, then seems to droop back toward sleep. “Awfully tired, though.”
“Honey? Can I get you to crawl a little further?”
“Will you fuck me?”
“Sure. Right after we crawl.”
She flops onto her hands and knees like a drunken seal, then slogs her way through the ping-pong balls. At long last she makes it to the playroom and swan-dives onto the mattress.
“Sure, honey. But first let’s get you a pillow.”
“Right.” He finds a cushion against the wall, lifts her head and slips it underneath.
“Silly!” says Kirsten, grinning into the cushion. “S’posed to put it under my ass.”
“I’ll be right back,” he whispers. “I’m going to get you some toys.”
Kirsten raises one fist and says “Yes!”
By the time Jack hits the ping-pong trail, she’s already snoring. Then he hears the sound of angels singing.
After the frogs announce his approach, Jack pokes his head into the drum room to find three white bowls on a table, glowing in the blacklight. The white queen, the March hare and the mad hatter run short, thick rods around their edges, producing pure beams of sound that mix and blend in the air. Then the rod-bearers begin to sing along, matching the tones of the bowls and then drifting high and low to create grand choral harmonies. A male voice quivers in and out of dissonance, creating an edge that sounds like Scottish bagpipes.
Ah, thinks Jack. A balm for my wicked, wicked soul. He settles on a couch, dangles his arm over the side and is surprised when his fingers settle on the tip of a bottle. Even more surprised when he fishes it up and finds his Gewürztraminer, still half-full. The bottle speaks to him. It says, Drink me. So he does.
Jack comes to at the sound of Mack’s saxophone, running up and down the angel-chord like a caffeinated mountain goat.
“Oh my God!”
This declaration comes from a woman just entering the room: burgundy-haired Shannon, the sax-player’s girlfriend.
“I was crawling past the signpost, and someone reached out of the wall and grabbed my ass! When I turned around, all I could see was this crazy smile, and this man asked me if I wanted to fuck. Like he was asking me for the time! So I… I got here as fast as I could.”
Terra raises a finger very queen-like and says, “There is a dawg loose among the monkeys!”
A short scream emanates through the tunnels, and soon the frogs are announcing another entrance: Constance, minus the mad hat, her blonde hair flying all over the place.
“Dammit! Dammit!” She stands and claps the dust from her clothes. “I went to get some munchies, and some A-hole was hiding under the table. He grabbed my leg, and then made several very specific anatomical suggestions. When I realized it wasn’t you, honey – no offense…”
“None taken,” says Willie.
“…I scrammed on outta there.”
“Okay,” says Terra. “It’s obvious we’re not going to have any peace till we find this character. Why don’t we spread out through the tunnels? If anybody spots him, just let out a monkey-yell and wait till the rest of us get there.”
The Monkeys express their unity of purpose by letting out high-pitched chimp noises. Jack follows the caravan, feeling a little too drunk to be very effective, and takes a left toward the playroom – mostly because he has to use the adjacent bathroom. When he pops in among the playballs, he finds Gina Scarletti, playing with a Slinky.
“Hey. What’s all the hubbub?”
“Apparently,” says Jack, “there is a pervert afoot.”
“Oh. Ben’s told you?”
“The man’s a legend.”
“Well, after screwing his way through two mistresses, he is now prowling the tunnels looking for more.”
“Ah. The demon in the walls.”
“Exactly. And the demon’s got Viagra.”
“Oh,” she says. “That’s just lovely.”
“So where’s Ben?”
“At my house, getting more wine.”
“All things considered, maybe you’d better go there too.”
“Ye-es. There’s a back way to my house through the garden. God, what a jerk.”
He escorts Gina to the intersection (thinking it more seemly this time to crawl ahead of the woman). Gina takes a left toward the front door; Jack continues to the smoking room to check on his redheads. He hasn’t heard any monkey noises, so perhaps Thompson has given up on his quest.
The smoking room is bereft of anything – even smoke. Jack sits in a chair at the foil-covered table to catch a breath. He takes a pull from the hookah pipe and gets nothing. Then he notices that the curtains behind the table have been messed with, revealing a strip of window glass. He pulls on one side of it and finds a rather stunning sight.
An impressive fire fills the spirit garden pit, unleashing long whips of orange flame. Just over the fence, he sees the silhouette of Gina Scarletti’s hair. She holds up her hands to either side in a posture of surrender.
On the far side of the fire is Thompson Flores, fully naked, his skin colored orange by the flames, his right hand stroking a massive erection. He teeters in Gina’s direction like a Frankenstein’s monster, wearing a look of demonic possession. Whether from sheer fright or the surrounding fences and bushes, Gina appears to be frozen in her spot.
Jack shakes the window, searches for handles or latches, but can’t seem to get it unlocked. He’s too far away to be heard, and a dash through the tunnels would take too long.
When he looks back outside, he finds that Thompson has shifted his attention – and for good reason. Audrey has appeared before the statue of Lakshmi, dancing like Salome as she pulls the veils from her outfit and tosses them, one by one, to the ground. This, thinks Jack, is precisely what I deserve.
Audrey undoes her top and flings it to the ground at Thompson’s feet, beckoning him forward with the general motion of a backstroke. When he turns to look back at Gina, Audrey calls him again, then turns around, bends over at the waist and pulls off her skirt.
This, finally, is too much to ignore, and Thompson walks her way, like a man in a dream. By the time he arrives, Audrey has dropped to her knees. She welcomes his cock with both hands, and gives it a couple of pulls before inserting it into her mouth. Thompson arches backward in ecstasy, eyes toward the stars.
Jack has always made fun of dramatic types who use the phrase “like a knife through the heart,” but now he knows exactly what they mean. He can’t seem to breathe, and has the sudden urge to punch a fist through the window.
Which is when a phantom-like streak of pink flies from the bushes and a shower of red sparks explodes over Thompson’s head. He takes a single step and keels over, crashing to the ground. Jack realizes he’d better get out there; he speed-crawls the murderously convoluted tunnels, sprints across the lawn and bursts into the garden.
Thompson is out cold, flat on his back over the concrete pentagram, his forehead marked by a lightning-shaped line of blood, his penis still straight as a flagpole. Audrey, still naked, kneels at his side, a finger to his throat.
“Pulse is okay. He’s breathing all right. We’d better get him a blanket. My God, would you look at that thing?” She gives his erection a slap; it bobs back and forth like a punching clown. “Fucking asshole. Hi honey.”
Jack wraps her in a hug. “You are even more amazing than I thought.”
“I am really sorry about the fellatio. I was working on short notice.”
Brigit pops in next to them. “And I am really sorry about that garden gnome.” She unzips her pink jacket and offers it to Audrey.
The Monkeys arrive one at a time, and Audrey has to tell the story several times over. Constance arrives with a blanket for Thompson, which forms a low-lying tent over his still-hard member. Ben shows up five minutes later, surprised and ashamed that he wasn’t there in his fiancée’s moment of need, but Gina seems to have recovered.
Jack fetches Audrey’s golden skirt, then leads her off to the fireside to warm her up.
“For a second there, I thought you had dreamed up the ultimate payback.”
“It did cross my mind,” she says. “But don’t worry, I’ll get over it. Brigit filled me in on the details: knight in shining armor, live sex show, revenge fuck, one-time thing…”
She gives his cheek a light slap. “But no more of that! I do not henceforth want to be the green monster.”
Audrey looks back at the slumped form on the pentagram. “Meanwhile, what do we do with the porn star?”
“Well. Assuming he imbibed as much tequila as Kirsten, I think he’ll be out for a while.”
Terra arrives to hijack their conversation. “So he probably… won’t remember a lot of this?”
“Nope,” says Jack.
“And he’s… sort of at our mercy. Or lack of same.”
Audrey smiles. “What are you thinking, white queen?”
Terra’s eyes glint in the firelight. “It seems that Constance, at her tutoring center, does a lot of art projects, and she happens to keep her supplies in her van, and among said supplies she just happens to have a box of permanent markers.”
“Ooh!” says Audrey. “The white queen is eee-vil!”
Through the saving graces of a hay-cart, and the sliding properties of a woolen blanket over hardwood floors, the Monkeys are able to drag Thompson into the playroom and lay him out along the mattressed floor. Terra brings in a bright desk lamp, providing an operating-room clarity, then whips aside the blanket. Thankfully, the erection has subsided.
The female Monkeys gather at all corners of Thompson’s impressive physique and set to their work. Audrey chooses the nether strata of the abdomen, drawing an arrow toward Thompson’s dick and labeling it Weapon of Mass Destruction. Constance uses his chest to construct a brief timeline of the night’s events: 8:30 p.m.: shags Brigit in carport; 10 p.m.: screws Kirsten in front lobby, and so on. Terra applies a series of insults along his legs: Too bad such a looker has to be such an asshole!
Gina, who used to work as a nurse, spends this time tending to the point of gnome impact on Thompson’s temple. After they turn him over, she inscribes a heart on his left buttock that reads T.F. loves T.F. Upon the right buttock, Shannon pens Viagra: The Evil Blue Pill. Brigit uses Thompson’s broad back to write a letter of apology to Esmerelda: I fell for him twice, and I believed his lies about you. I hope you can forgive me, but I do believe you’re better off without him. I have been an awful person, and I promise never to do something like this ever again.
Kirsten lies five feet distant, buried by playballs, snoring away like a buzz-saw.
“Found his clothes!” says Ivan. He tosses a series of damp articles into the room.
“Well,” says Audrey. “We definitely should get him dressed. Best to keep him from discovering our work for as long as possible.”
The logical manner of delivery is the Porsche. After three cups of coffee, Jack navigates Highway One, careful of the temporary tire, while Audrey enjoys the distinct privilege of following them in the Hummer. Thompson shows small moments of wakefulness, but only enough to shift his position on the passenger seat.
They pull up to Big Brown as the sky is lightening with pre-sunrise. Jack undoes Thompson’s seatbelt and is swinging his legs out when Thompson snorts awake. Audrey dashes from the Hummer to run interference, popping between them and putting a hand on Thompson’s cheek.
“Morning, honey. We had to drive you home.”
Thompson manages a bleary smile. “Did we have fun?”
“Oh, we sure did, honey. You fucked me in the ass right in front of the whole party. It was quite a show, you porn star.”
Thompson grins, which causes his eyes to close. “Sweet!”
“Now I want you to try to stand with us, honey. My friend and I are going to help you inside.”
Jack pulls up the hood of his sweatshirt to hide his face. They prop up one shoulder apiece and shuffle Thompson up the tiled steps, around the whitewater and onto the great white couch. Audrey pulls a blanket over him as Jack goes to the kitchen for grocery bags. He’s halfway up the stairs when Audrey calls, “What are you doing?”
“After that graffiti job you Monkey Girls just did, I am not staying here.”
The two of them manage to pack up Jack’s possessions in a matter of ten minutes, and are soon headed out the door.
“Farewell, Big Brown,” says Jack. “I’ll miss ya.”
“I will too,” says Audrey.
They pile into Jack’s compact and are ready to go when he stops and puts the car back into park.
“Sorry. Forgot something.”
He returns to the Porsche, opens the trunk and leans inside. Audrey takes a moment to flip down the car visor and make use of the built-in mirror.
“Yikes,” she mutters. “Lost cause.”
Jack hops in and hands her a leather pouch. She turns it over to find a Porsche logo.
“That,” says Jack, “is insurance.”
Jack remembers frighteningly little of the drive back to Salinas. He does recall hitting that same straightaway and singing “Me and Bobby McGee,” but the rest is a blur.
He wakes up in the playroom between Audrey and Kirsten, and for just a moment he thinks that something exotic has happened. But the epic party comes back in a flood, and he kisses Audrey to consciousness. They pop out of their cave to discover that they can stand, that Wonderland is undergoing a thorough deconstruction. All blankets and curtains have been folded and stacked, tunnel floor materials swept into Hefty bags, motion-detector frogs lined up along the conga drums, and all that remains is a skeleton of small red-and-white fences, the kind used in horse-jumping competitions.
“So now you know,” says Terra. She exits the bathroom in jeans and a plaid shirt. “Actually, loading those fences into my truck is the next assignment. But first, let’s get you some fresh-brewed coffee!”
Audrey smiles. “You are a goddess.”
“Queen, goddess – it’s all the same to me!” Terra recites, and promenades to the kitchen.
Audrey and Jack sort their way through the fences to the dining room table, somewhere near the former munchies room. Brigit sits at a table with Ivan and Troll, chewing on scrambled eggs and sausages.
“So Jack,” she says, trying out a Mafia accent. “Did you take care of that thing for me?”
“Bada-bing!” says Jack.
“The body has been disposed of,” says Audrey.
“Thank goodness!” says Brigit, in British. And may I once again issue thirty-two brands of apology for all the havoc that I have wreaked. Me and my bloody ginormous piehole.”
“Yes,” says Audrey. “But enough! I am officially finished hearing about Jack and other women.” She grabs Jack by the ear. “Isn’t that right, Mister Teagarden?”
“Good.” She releases him and gives his ear a kiss.
“God,” says Brigit. “Wouldn’t you love to be a fly on the wall when Thompson strips off for his shower?”
“I can’t imagine,” says Ivan.
“I should certainly hope you can’t imagine!” Terra sweeps in with a pair of steaming mugs.
“Oh! That reminds me,” says Jack. “I have some souvenirs.” He heads for the playroom and returns with the leather pouch, then sorts through it and hands two DVDs to Brigit.
“I’m just guessing here, but I’d say that Thompson was a bit of a hidden-camera freak. If it makes you feel any better, you’re the only one who got two DVDs.”
“I’m so bloody honored. I suppose I would be smart to toss these before I get another beau.”
“And here’s one for Audrey,” says Jack.
Audrey stares at the case, wearing an extremely puzzled expression
“Don’t worry,” says Jack. “I’m also betting he has cameras all over Big Brown. He must have caught us doing a few ‘scenes.’”
“Well!” she says. “I am both flattered and completely creeped out.”
Jack lifts out one last DVD and holds it like a winning raffle ticket.
“I swear it’s not me,” says Troll.
“I don’t know,” says Ivan in his pirate voice. “Ya looked pretty sexy last night.”
A big blonde train wreck staggers from the playroom, shading her eyes from the sunlight. “Where’s Thompson?”
Terra walks over to help her toward the kitchen. “It’s a long story, honey. Why don’t you sit down and I’ll get you some coffee.”
“And later on,” says Audrey, “we’re gonna watch some videos!”
The Monkeys, being polite monkeys, fight hard not to laugh.
Photo: the inspiration for Big Brown (Seacliff Beach, Aptos, CA)