Friday, July 18, 2014

Alcyone, Chapter Seven: The Wives of Rip Scalding

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The morning after the final Kabuki performance found Scootie parked behind his Sunday Chronicle like a statue. And statues tend to attract pigeons, so it was no surprise when a tumble of blue and white feathers descended on his back deck. Scootie stretched his legs and walked stiffly to his coop, where he found one of his veterans, Notlong, creeping into the entrance. Scootie ducked inside and greeted the bird with a handful of seed as he unwrapped the plastic ring around his leg.
(Notlong was named for his white checks, which made him more visible to predators. He had nonetheless survived several of his coopmates, seemingly from sheer spite.)
Scootie unfolded the note and found the blocky, Xerox-reduced printing that typified Audrey’s recent offerings. He retrieved the magnifying strip from his desk and placed it over the paper.

Dearest (randiest) Scootie:
After your near-abstention, you more than made up for it! I have been pleasantly sore and glowing all week.
Am very curious about your last letter. Although we have discussed forbidden fruit before, I suspect we are no longer in the realm of fantasy. Is this why you had those second thoughts? For God’s sake, sweetie, tell me about it. The only thing that will ever make me jealous is if you start hiding things from me.
My preliminary advice? Be damned careful! God forbid he should catch y’all in the altogether. And for God’s sake, boink the woman but don’t get involved. Married folks will always have the upper hand on us singles, because they can always plead their sacred vows and precious children. If it sounds like I speak from experience, well you bet I do, and it’s not something I would repeat lightly.
My turn. Sex in a car wash. Something about the way they pull you through that tunnel of soaping and water and towels thwacking at your windows. Very womb-like. Timing would be crucial – unless you can bribe the attendant for an extra couple of minutes. I’ll look around and tell you if I find anything.
Love, your tail-feathered friend –


Scootie tacked Audrey’s message to the shelf above his desk. He decided to wait a while before answering.

“Honey! These enchiladas are terrific.” Scott Kross sat at the head of the table, chewing and talking simultaneously. “It’s so good to have a home-cooked meal. If I see one more sushi bar...”
“It’s nice to have you home for dinner,” said Juliana. She hadn’t intended any sarcasm, but lately she was like one of those transparent mannequins, the kind they use in anatomy class to point out essential organs.
“I’m very sorry, Juliana. I know I’ve been away an awful lot. If I can just pull us through this international expansion, I swear I’ll slow down.”
“That’s what you said about the national expansion. You’re going to wear yourself out, Scott.”
“I’ll be fine,” he said, shoveling refried beans as if he were late for a meeting somewhere. “My old man spent fifty years building up his bank, and he didn’t slow down one bit until he retired.”
Juliana considered her response, trying to cut through what she was saying to what she was meaning. “Okay, I’m fibbing. I know you absolutely thrive on this stuff. But I don’t thrive on loneliness. The truth is, I want you around, paying attention to me. Your wife. I miss you.”
“And I miss you,” said Scott. He reached across to touch her hand. “And again, I am sorry. But I’m so blessed to have a job I love. It’s like my old man said, ‘Fine a job you love...’”
“’...and you’ll never work a day in your life.’ Yes, I know.”
That was the trouble with marriage, thought Juliana. It was like a comic strip. You could always peek into the next panel and see the dialogue balloons. Next he would say he had to set an example for his employees.
“You know, Juli, I’m doing this for my employees, too. How can I expect hundreds of people to work their asses off...”
“I don’t give a damn about your employees!” Her forcefulness surprised both of them. “Why should they mean more to you than me? God, Scott, look at us. We said we’d never let the fire burn down. I refuse to turn into one of those old, boring couples who hang onto each other just because they don’t know what else to do. You haven’t made love to me in...”
There. She had done it. The wall of Scott’s guilt closed with a bank-vault slam. Overblessed with the aggressive positivism of the business world, he tended to short-circuit on destructive, too-human emotions. He gave her that vaguely scornful look – the one that could dissemble her in a second – then left his vanilla flan and went quietly to his study to bury himself in quarterly reports. Juliana sat there for a long minute, trying to remember how she solved these puzzles five, seven years ago, when their love was a ready commodity. She took her glass of wine to the balcony, where she could watch the lights of freighters headed for the Golden Gate, and listen for sounds. Any sounds. It might be a week before she could bring up the idea of lovemaking again.

Scootie took the acrylic hieroglyphics in his head and strolled downhill to the Cafe Bolero, the Sunday comics tucked under his arm. Halfway through Peanuts, the patches of color were already losing their meanings.
“You actually reading those things, kid?”
An elderly gentleman in a fine old suit hovered over his table, watch chain dangling from his vest, walking stick tucked into his arm.
“Are you the Spirit, sir, whose coming was foretold to me?”
“Dickens!” said the old man, entirely amused. “I am no spirit, young Ebeneezer, but I am a picture of things to come. And for that, you should be scared as hell!” He let out a hearty laugh that deteriorated into a fit of coughing.
“Sorry,” he said, taking the chair opposite Scootie’s. He propped his walking stick on the floor between his knees, and Scootie could see the insignia carved on its ivory tip: the great bear of the California flag. “Get carried away with my own humor sometimes. My first wife said I was worth more yuks than Groucho himself.”
“Got a little Marx blood myself,” said Scootie. “Leonard Jones.” He extended a hand, and the man took it with his worn fingers.
“Chico! My name’s Rip, you infant. Rip Scalding. As in too hot to handle. Used to use that line on my women. Ain’t much, but whattya gonna do with a name like Scalding?”
“Sure,” said Scootie. “I’ve got a friend named Simmer. Live around these parts, Rip?”
“Yep. Used to have a wifie down in Monterey. Lucky for me the gal had an inheritance. Got me a nice place up here once she died.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry about,” said Rip, winking an eye. “Had a grand life, died at seventy-six. Only reason I survived her is on accounta I’m a freak of nature.”
“How old is a freak of nature these days?”
“Ninety-three big ones. Would you believe that? If I’da known, I’da done more boozing, smoking and hanging out with sleazy women. People these days, so fired up about living longer. Believe you me, it ain’t no glorious thing – but then I do prefer it to the alternative.”
“Not ready to cash in your chips?”
“No sir. Say...” Rip scratched his thinning gray hair, a trace of rusty brown holding out at the center. “You’re a rare critter, don’t seem to mind calling the Reaper by his first name.”
“Mom and Dad were philosophy professors.”
“Zat so?”
“That’s where I got my name. During her pregnancy, my mom completed a master’s thesis entitled, ‘Nietsche, the Marx Brothers and the Potential for Anarchy without a Dominant Religious Paradigm.’”
“Fortunately, I didn’t stay ‘Leonard’ for long. Got a middle-ear infection as a toddler and started crawling around sideways like a crab. So they called me Scootie.”
“That’s a friendly name. What’s your line of work, Scootie?”
“I’m the PR flack for a theater center.”
“The Chameleon Palace?”
“That’s what they call it.”
“Went there for a storytellin’ series, couple years back. Large black woman, could scare the bejeebers outta ya – ghost stories.”
“We’ve got senior discounts, you know. You ought to come up again sometime.”
“Well, son, I figure I’m due for a senior-and-a-half discount!”
Scootie laughed. “I’ll see what I  can do. Matter of fact, I got a modern dance group that’s tanking at the box office. Maybe I can swing you a couple comps.”
“Sure. I’ll try anything twice. Only need one, though. One of the few times in my life I’m single, and you know? It ain’t half bad.”
“Sure. You can even eat pizza for breakfast.”

“And,” said Rip, “You can fart at the table without anyone giving you that look.”
“Oh!” said Scootie. “I know that look.”
Rip camped at Scootie’s table for an hour, and Scootie was happy for the diversion. Rip had outlived five wives, and each one came with a well-rehearsed story.
“Now Sofia, she was my exotic wife.” He sipped from a glass of water, running a finger along his lips to soothe his skin. “Dark beauty, half Hawaiian, half Scottish. Those folks go around talking about the evils of mixing races, they never seen a woman like Sofia. Hey, you want a smart dog, you get a mongrel, right?”
“Yes,” Scootie sighed. “I spend many of my working hours with purebred poodles.”
“High-strung, but with beautifully styled hair?”
Scootie looked around the cafe to make sure none of the poodles were present. “Exactly.”
“Well! Sofia was my third. Caught me in the depths of despair, and lifted me right out. I met her at a corner market in North Beach San Francisco, right there next to the mangos, and was in love before I knew it. Those big, dark eyes of hers just burnt holes right through me. And you know, Polynesian women, they learn the ways of lovemaking, and learn to serve their men, and bring them pleasure. I know these days, the idea is not so much in vogue, but when a woman like that meets a man who is ready to give back just as much – there’s nothing so close to paradise.”
“So... how did she die?” asked Scootie.
“Car crash,” said Rip. He cringed, as if, even now, he was hearing the words of the soft-spoken policeman standing at his door. “Maybe that was the one that hit me the hardest, because it was so sudden. Back then, the freeways were brand-new, and not everyone knew how to handle all that speed – especially Sofia, who came over to the States as a teenager. Wasn’t much past twenty-five when she died. Got cut off by a semi and overreacted. Flipped herself right over the center divide.”
They sat at the table for a minute without talking. Scootie took in the sadness of Rip’s unnaturally round, gray-blue eyes. He seemed to recover, and took a hand from his walking stick to give the table an amiable slap.
“Well, listen there, Chico. I hate to leave on such a sorrowful note, but I have a ladyfriend comin’ by to check up on me this evening, and I’d like to spruce up the place.”
“Number six?”
“Oh, no,” said Rip. He laughed and pushed himself to his feet. “Y’ask me, buryin’ five women is ridiculous to begin with. Plus, this one’s already hitched. Pleasure talkin’ to you, sir.”
Scootie rose and shook Rip’s hand. “You come here often, Rip? I’d like to hear about the other four.”
“Oh, you’ll see me. Almost always here on Sundays. Gives me a chance to wear my fancy duds.”
“Great. I’ll look for you.”
Rip turned and ambled out the door, pausing to raise his walking stick. Scootie returned the salute, then went back to his comics.

Photo by MJV

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