He’s back to the Starbucks in Cupertino, and back to the numbers: the spring-training stats of the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics. Barely enough to whet the appetite of his deprived left hemisphere (he’s been reading a book on brain function), but he’s afraid to look at the stocks. It’s too close to the pathos of his pre-Aptos life, and it’s already scary enough just being here at this same table, gazing across the street at that same Calderian fountain. He does find some satisfying sense of mathematical process in earned-run average and on-base percentage. Perhaps he could get a job with the Bill James Baseball Abstract.
He is not drinking an Americano. After the coffee bar at Aptos, he would not be caught dead with one. He’s drinking a chai. This serves as a spicy little reminder that he is fundamentally a different person. This and the occasional spicy text message from Audrey. He will never, ever see the world in the same way. He thinks of the burning house, in the falls at Multnomah. He thinks of the Imp of the Perverse. He thinks of Ben saying, “Don’t you dare.”
Still. He finds himself at war with several real-life enemies. The door that Thompson opened with his exquisite quarterly analysis has not been slammed shut, thanks to the artistic endeavors of the Monkey Girls. He envisions his immaculate report circulating the halls at C-Valve, its creation credited to some phony accounting consultant dreamed up by Thompson.
His severance package runs dry in two months, which will severely curtail his ability to throw money into the black pit that used to be his house. Thanks to the global plunge in housing prices, his suburban ranch-style abode – smack in the center of what was once the most costly real estate in the world – is now worth less than the money he still owes on it. He is not alone. Foreclosures pepper the Valley like rapidly breeding feral cats. After severance comes unemployment insurance. Whether this will be enough to fund an already-questionable enterprise, is… questionable.
Meanwhile, what will he do with his life? He wants to be worthy, he wants his talents to be exploited. He wants to contribute. Even the lofty endeavor of making love to Audrey LaBrea is not quite enough.
Jack returns the sports section to the newspaper holder and deposits his cup in the wastebasket. Then he heads for De Anza Boulevard – named for a Spanish pioneer – and the dreary walk home. He’s just passing the library when his cell phone goes off. He finds a bench near the fountain and answers.
“How’s the Silicon Valley outcast?”
“Ha! Yeah. Just thinkin’ about that.”
“Good! We’re on the same wavelength. Hey, any chance you could run by the house tonight? Seven o’clock? Gina gets these urges to prove her heritage, and tonight it’s cioppino. I think we’re gonna need some help.”
Even as he speaks, Jack is forming the kind of agenda fully rationalized by this offer. To drive the hill early (to beat the traffic), to walk the beach, to grab a Peruvian at the coffeehouse.
“I’m there! Only… where’s there?”
“That’s right! You’ve never seen the place, have you? The address is seven ninety eight Lusterleaf Drive. You take State Park off the highway, and…”
“Stop right there. I’m at the library. I’ll look it up.”
“Oh, you crazy kids and your Internet. But give me a call if you get lost. It’s a little tricky.”
A dinner invitation might seem pretty pedestrian, but for Jack it offers the opportunity to answer a mystery. So open about every other aspect of his life, Ben has never had his A-one pupil over to his place of residence. Jack takes the familiar route toward Big Brown, heads left at the turnoff instead of right, zips through the intersection at the Safeway, finds Lusterleaf three blocks uphill and takes a right. The street follows a serpentine path into the Aptos hills, offering stunning vistas of the beachside neighborhoods across the freeway. Just before the surface turns to gravel, Jack spots a dirt driveway to his left marked 798. He follows it down, around and up to a three-level structure of steeply angled roofs and cedar-shake siding.
When he arrives at the top of the front steps, he finds a large deck running in a backward el along the length of the house. The surface is cut out every 15 feet to make way for five different trees: a live oak, a madrone, a big-leaf maple, a bay and a redwood. The live oak is massive, spreading its branches over the corner of the el in a protective umbrella. As he nears the porch, Jack notices the condition of the surface, coated with a golden tan stain that makes the wood look like new.
The wide front door is hewn from redwood burl, treated with a dark varnish that gives it the look of unsweetened chocolate blushing in embarrassment. The door is bracketed by tall, narrow windows emanating a blue light. Looking closer, he finds that the light comes in circles. Ben opens the door and catches him in his study.
“Yes! Bottles. Cobalt. Can’t tell you how much pretentious French water I had to buy to fill up these cabinets. Then I sealed up the back with Plexiglas. You should see them in the morning when the sun cuts through. Yowza!”
“Hi Ben,” says Jack.
Ben laughs. “Forgive me. I turn into a freakin’ tour guide around here.”
Jack finds his nostrils filling with tomato, garlic, oregano and ocean.
“Wow! That… Wow!”
“We’re just about to eat. Come on in and greet the girls.”
Jack notes the plural, which is quickly explained by the sight of Suzanne Brewer at the counter, filling a wine glass. Out of her usual retro gear – into a pair of jeans and a white sweater – she looks like a drab cousin of herself.
“Suzanne!” Jack storms over to give her a hug. Gina Scarletti, shadowing the stovetop, feigns annoyance.
“Not even married yet, and already being ignored.”
Jack’s not biting. He needs to hear of musical adventures. “Going north or south?”
“North,” says Suzanne. “Ben came to Mr. Toots last night and insisted I stay in town for this dinner.”
“I’m so sorry I missed you! I haven’t checked your website for a while.”
“No sweat.” She lifts her fingers in a spell-casting wave. “We will get you eventually.”
Jack U-turns to give Gina a kiss on the cheek. “Sorry, Gina. How are you?”
“Well now I’m fine. Hmm. I think it’s about ready.”
Jack takes note of the stove area, which is surrounded by walls of brick the color of sunshine. “Wow. Pretty cool.”
“Salvaged from an apartment building in Tacoma, Washington,” says Ben. “Circa 1913. They had a fire five years ago – too much water damage to salvage the joint. Got those bricks for a song.”
“Wow,” says Jack. “So you did this all yourself?”
Gina chuckles. “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Tell you what. Why don’t we do this buffet-style? Everybody grab a bowl.”
Jack fetches a bowl from the table and Gina fills it up, ladling from the bottom of the pot where all the sea-creatures lurk. His first few bites draw calamari, mussels, clam and some kind of whitefish. The broth is a thick, creamy red with an irresistible tang.
“Mamma mia!” he says. “This is heaven.”
“Grazie,” says Gina. “Once in a while, a gal’s gotta prove she’s Roman Catholic.”
“So where are you headed next, Suzanne?”
Suzanne has to wait until she finishes with a chunk of eel. “San Rafael. This groovy hippie bookstore where they host regular concerts.”
“God bless Marin County. Geez, I might just drive up. I been trapped in Silicon Valley, and I’m starved for culture.”
“I’d love that!”
“Besides, I don’t know too many musical geniuses. I’m just trying to tap into your power.”
“Power’s feeling pretty weak lately.”
“Suzanne has had some auto misadventures,” says Ben.
Jack offers an empathizing wince.
“I am so going to pay you back for that alternator,” says Suzanne.
“You are not going to pay me back,” says Ben. “And that’s an order.”
“Jerk,” says Suzanne. “Always forcing his generosity on people.”
The talk continues as the bellies expand, further assisted by Caesar salad, tiramisu and a quartet of cappuccinos that Ben proudly concocts with his home espresso machine. At the peak of group satiation, Ben makes a small theatrical production out of folding his hands, and returns to his tour-guide patter.
“Well! Now that we’ve got you too stuffed to make a run for it, I have a little show-and-tell. Please – follow me.”
He walks them around the corner and flips on the light, revealing a room with some astounding features. The back wall, ten feet high and thirty long, is covered in two-foot squares of slate, gray and black with hints of russet, sienna, occasional veins of green. The colors change as you walk past, like oil spilled on asphalt. Running along a horizontal line at the midpoint of floor and ceiling is a series of checkerboarding squares – one under, one over – displaying surfaces of vibrant, otherworldly color.
“Welcome to the batcave,” says Gina.
“Forgive her,” says Ben. “I spent many more years with this wall than with Gina, so she is painfully jealous. In fact, I spent most of the ‘80s on this. Each of the squares holds a particular mineral found in the United States. As part of my post-traumatic therapy, I ventured to various dig-your-own sites across the country, then brought my treasures back here for slicing, polishing and fitting. Did all the work right in this room. I have since moved the equipment to the garage, for which Gina is very grateful.”
He approaches the first square, a cloudy pink resembling frozen grapefruit juice. “Rose quartz. The Grafton Mine, New Hampshire.”
The next square offers lava-lamp rings of black and green, a deep hue the color of shamrocks. “Malachite. Bill’s Gems and Minerals, Magdalena, New Mexico.”
Square number three is a sky blue, ranging to the kind of purple that same sky would offer up an hour after sunset. “Labradorite. The Woodward Ranch, Alpine, Texas.”
Number four serves up rings of blood red, cream white and several shades between. “Carnelian, a variation of chalcedony. Place called the Rockhound – a bed and breakfast, believe it or not, in Gila, New Mexico.”
The fifth square is a bright yellow, with shadings of pumpkin. “Limonite. Tempe, Arizona, the Fat Jack Mine. The place was, quite literally, a dump: piles of crystals that gold miners tossed aside on their way to the good stuff.”
He leads them through ten more squares, then sits them around a long glass coffee table spotted with white, green and brown. Gina serves them a dessert wine in tiny glasses.
“I hate to pack any more information into my small, small brain,” says Jack. “But what’s the deal with this table?”
“Ah yes!” says Ben. “Got this from a shop on the Oregon Coast. A young lady there took bits of sea glass and encased them in clear casting resin. From what I understand, you pour the stuff into a mold, let a layer of it dry solid, then scatter bits of glass and pour another layer, et cetera. It is, however, extremely toxic. You have to be awfully careful.”
“Awesome,” says Jack.
The cioppino and mineral-talk have left everyone a little sluggish, and the conversation comes to a halt. Ben lets the pause have its way for a while, then sets down his glass and places a hand on either knee.
“All this rock stuff has little to do with the reason for this gathering. But for anyone who sees the house for the first time, it’s a bit of a necessary evil.”
“Nonsense,” says Gina. “He cherishes any opportunity to show off his rocks.”
“There are so many places to go with that comment,” says Jack. “But I am just going to pass.”
Ben breaks out his trademark laugh, a husky growl. “I thank you for your discretion. And now, it’s time for me to spill my guts, and tell you a story that may have considerable bearing on your respective futures.”
There is, actually, one connection between this story and the story of the wall. Rocks. Soon after the fire, I rented a cottage near San Gregorio, and I made it my assignment to walk the beach every day. I think you know, beaches are tonics, and I sorely needed to keep moving or die. I began to tire of the beach at San Gregorio, though, and I began to wander south, eventually to discover the beach where we do the house-burnings. For a man desperately seeking respite, that beach was a godsend. The sandstone cliffs were high and grand, and blocked out the treacherously evil world, leaving me alone with my thoughts. And I began to find some fascination with the rocks that washed up at the ocean’s edge. I began to take interesting specimens home, and found a guidebook so I could put names to their faces. Rocks were something I had never really considered before. I began to notice that a lot of my fellow rockhounds were older men, and came to the conclusion that this interest was related to an increasing awareness of mortality. Rocks are the oldest things that we come into contact with, and they are everywhere around us.
You’ve seen how it is on that beach. The surf can be savage, especially in a storm. I found additional diversion in the objects that washed up. Pieces of sea glass, the occasional Japanese net float, life jackets, surf boards, a paddle, a buoy – one time an entire rowboat. Having no desire to drag a boat up a trail, I left it there, and the next day it was gone. I indulged in the happy vision of some local teenager finding it on Pescadero Beach and rowing it all around the lagoon.
On a day in late autumn, I was walking along the shore, returning to the trail, when I spotted a yellow rope sticking out of the sand. Well! Naturally I had to inspect, and when I gave it a tug, up came one corner of a fishing net. Well of course then I had to find out what was in the net. Problem was, the net was buried in a layer of rocks just beneath the sand. I set to work digging it free, but I kept jamming my fingertips against the rocks. It was pretty brutal. And it was getting dark. And cold. A jogger cruised by, giving me a look like I was crazy. Then I caught a sharp edge with my index finger and began to bleed.
None of this mattered. Certain treacherous thoughts kept me from leaving that beach. If I came back the next day, the net, like the rowboat, would be gone. If I read in the papers about some surfer digging up Jimmy Hoffa’s mummified corpse. Or a Japanese sub from WWII. Or a monstrous fish long thought to be extinct.
So I dug. And I pulled on the net. And dug some more. And shook my aching fingers, tossed aside a thousand pebbles, and cursed. And dug some more. I was almost set to call it a night when I gave a powerful, pissed-off yank and it all came up: sand, rocks, fishing net, and one blue-and-white, mid-sized plastic cooler.
Well whoop-di-freakin’-do. Right? Local Man Unearths Pastrami Sandwiches. But of course by then I had to know the exact depth of my defeat, what species of moldering, chitter-infested former picnic lay inside. So I held my breath and gave the latch a tug. A quick check with my keychain flashlight revealed beer. To be exact, a twelve-pack of Budweiser. My relief at the absence of spoiled foodstuffs introduced a very bad idea into my head. I was going to get something for my labor.
I rescued a can from the soggy, disintegrating carton, reached for the tab and found nothing but smooth surface. So I turned it over and found the same thing. It was like finding a baby with no belly button. Then I noticed how light it was – not at all like something holding a liquid. I tried the flashlight again, and found a seam across its midsection. I gave a nudge here, a tug there, then grabbed the bottom half as I unscrewed the top. I pulled the two halves apart and discovered that each contained a tightly packed roll of paper. Prying the top roll from its container, I saw the face of Benjamin Franklin and nearly passed out.
I lugged the cooler to the top of the trail, set it on my passenger seat and drove home. When I arrived, I had to remind myself that a man carrying a cooler is not an unusual or suspicious sight. Once inside, I locked myself in the bathroom, shut the window and counted my booty. Two hundred and twelve thousand dollars.
The next day, I worked up the nerve to abandon my cooler – deep in the corner of my bedroom closet – while I went to the library at Half Moon Bay to search the newspapers for any crime that might match up with my treasure. I found nothing. Then I checked out every book I could find on crime in general and bank robberies in specific. When I got home, I allowed myself one quick peek at the green, just for reassurance. I immediately made it a rule: one peek only, once a day, and only when no one else was around.
About one thing, I had already made up my mind: I was keeping it. Screw this bullshit Boy Scout ideal of turning it in to the authorities. This came nine months after the fire, and it provided more than just a little karmic payback. It convinced me that the world was not composed entirely of treachery and disaster, that to every great tragedy there might be an unexpected windfall, a sunny day that takes away your breath. Maybe a beautiful woman who makes your heart do gymnastics. And that these – or even the possibility of these – were the reasons you went on living.
So I took my robbery books to the general store, ordered a huge cup of java and dove in. The patterns were immediately clear. Those who gave themselves away did so in the classic ways: rivalry with cohorts, too many witnesses (too many mouths) and, primarily, ostentation. Blessed with a situation in which I was absolutely alone in the world, and had no witnesses to my find, I had only one problem to prevent: no showing off. And I had one quite famous example to follow: The Great Train Robbery, in which the British perpetrators kept their secret for decades simply by giving away no sign of financial gain.
I kept my job. I kept my little cottage. For the big layouts, I continued using my checking account. But for everyday expenses, I dipped into the cooler. Groceries. New tires. Dinner on a Saturday night. Only a psychic could have detected a difference in my spending patterns – and even that could be explained by a larger-then-expected insurance settlement.
Meanwhile, my checking account grew, and eventually I was able to move to Aptos, to take on the mortgage payments for this house, to pay for tuition and textbooks, and eventually to earn my psych degree at UC Santa Cruz. After that, I became a life coach.
Suzanne and Jack are both feeling a little astonished and disoriented – and halfway expecting Ben to confess that he made it all up. This is not the kind of thing that happens in the life of a real person. It’s apparent from Gina’s bemused expression that she has already heard the story. Ben is taking in their reactions with an excited attention; he has obviously had few opportunities to relate this particular series of events. He takes a sip from his wine and plants it on the table, signalling the second phase of his presentation.
“So here’s where I get all Wizard of Oz on your ass. I have had occasion to give out portions of my cooler fund to noble causes. One of these was Barbie, when she first moved to New York to further her career. The money comes with the understanding that it will be used in the same manner that I used it. Just for the everyday stuff. You want a new car, you save up your own money, and write a check from your account. No spending large amounts of cash. No ostentation.
Jack realizes that Ben is giving them instructions. He feels a flush of heat rising to his face, and takes a sip of wine just to have something to do. Ben shifts so he’s facing Suzanne across the table.
“Suzanne, I don’t need to explain my decision to include you. You are extraordinarily talented. Your pursuit of your dream is both inspiring and courageous. It was the news of your recent travails, in fact, that inspired me to fast-forward this meeting. I was originally going to wait until after the wedding. But when I saw how dire your situation was…”
“I…” That’s all she can get out, because she’s crying.
“I’m giving you twenty thousand dollars. I’m giving the same amount to Jack.”
Despite proverbial mandates regarding gift horses, Jack is unable to keep the word from his lips. “Why? I mean, why me?”
“Well may you ask. Your cause is not so clear-cut as Suzanne’s. But I do believe there’s something equally of value at stake. I realize that our New Year’s escapades cost you any future you might have had with numbers. But I think that you don’t appreciate your own talents. I am a pretty keen observer of human intuition and empathy, and am generally able to recognize those who have exceptional skills in these areas. That’s you, Jack. I believe you were a savant just waiting for the right opportunity to blossom – for the right disaster to thrust you out of your comfortable existence. The way you took in all of these different lives – the monkey, the burner, the opera patron – mulled them over, adapted to them, understood them. In an earlier time, you would have been drafted into a life as a shaman.
“So that’s what I’m doing. I’m drafting you. And I know all about your house, your mortgage, your severance deadline. That’s why I want you to move here, to this house. I’ll be moving to Gina’s ranch, but we’d prefer to hang onto this place till the market improves. So we’d like you to be our caretaker, to keep my mineral squares polished – and to keep a room open for Suzanne, whenever she’s in town. Meanwhile, I would ask that you take some classes in psychology, occupational therapy, sociology. Find your niche. You have talents, Jack, and I’m betting the remainder of my treasure on your devoting those talents to the betterment of your fellow Californians. Is this all acceptable to you?”
This should be a difficult and complicated decision. This should take days. But the barometer in Jack’s head has lined up to perfection, and the gathered light from 15 mineral squares is brewing inside his brain.
Ben raises his glass and stands. Suzanne and Jack follow.
“To your futures. Your brilliant futures. Gina – the containers?”
Gina goes to the pantry and returns with two ordinary-looking red aluminum toolboxes.
“So not that I don’t appreciate it, honey, but any reason for this fancy-ass lunch?”
Jack gazes past Audrey’s shoulder at the pier outside. A squad of sea lions are waddling along a series of rafts, begging scraps from the Cannery Row tourists.
“What? Can’t spend a Benjamin or two on my honey?”
Audrey smiles in her most appealing fashion. “I’m just concerned about your near future.”
“Came into a windfall,” says Jack. “I’ll be staying at Ben’s place for the next couple of years. Rent-free. And I’m going back to school.”
Jack halts a forkful of salmon. “Someone told you?”
“We’ve all known it, Jack. For a long time.”
Jack laughs. “Well I wish someone woulda told me.”
Audrey chuckles. “We didn’t want your girlfriend to get jealous.”
“Long may she weep.”
Photo by MJV