Thursday, July 17, 2014

Alcyone, Chapter Six: Like Cats to Fish-Heads

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The single advantage of Scott Kross’s trips was that his returns were like small honeymoons. Scott would range through the door and be immediately pounced upon by his wife, who showered him with kisses as he lifted her from the floor. (This was no small feat, as Juliana was five-foot-ten.)
When the ceremony was complete, Scott would return to the car and fetch some small gift from overseas. From Tokyo he brought a simple white fan, tied at the bottom with white silk camellias. Juliana ran her fingers over the intricate weave, and hid her face with it, rewarding her husband with seductive geisha glances.
Scott would then carry his wife to the bedroom, where they would spend the rest of the day making leisurely love as the sun tracked it way across the skylight. Except lately. This day, he pleaded exhaustion and went to the bedroom alone for a nap. Juliana was left to her spotless kitchen, sipping coffee as she wondered. Was it the growing burden of long flights on man turning forty? Was it the natural waning of desire that comes with a ten-year marriage?
Of course not. It was a mistress. Her name was BankNet, Inc. and who could resist a woman who gave out cash at the press of a button? Even now, standing forty feet from the island of her husband’s sleeping body, she missed him. Missing him was her only occupation.
Juliana called Lorraine Kim and renewed their meeting to talk about the gala invitations. Perhaps she shouldn’t have cancelled in the first place, but that was a door she refused to close.

Scootie was standing on the loggia balcony, chewing on Aggie’s oatmeal cookies, when he spotted Scott Kross’s black Porsche ripping up Blaze Hill. He’d seen him at the occasional fundraiser, a tall, blond man who seemed to live entirely in finely tailored suits – but who never looked like the suit was wearing him. He’d never given him much thought, but then he’d never played with his wife’s footwear in the Fetzle Library. He wouldn’t be playing the piano this evening, since no combination of overtones would bring Alcyone down from the northern sky. He went to the Humpback Diner instead, for a good, thick cheeseburger.

Juliana went to bed happy – for Lorraine’s quick sense of humor, for the warmth of the big, lovely man next to her. She woke with a ten o’clock sun sweeping her face, and found that the man was gone. The note on the refrigerator said, Wrapping up things at the office, be back aft. Me. She crumpled it up and tossed it in the sink with the dishes.

The Lane family came to the Santa Clara Valley in the 1880s and purchased a 200-acre farm. As the region became more of a place for living than farming, they sold off all but five acres and opened a stationery store in Palo Alto, near the new Stanford University. The store took immediate hold, and made it through the years of depression and war in surprisingly good shape.
George Lane took over the shop in the early fifties, soon after graduating from Stanford’s business school, and opened up new branches in Redwood City and San Jose. As the electronics industry took hold at the end of the decade, the Palo Alto and San Jose stores expanded into office supplies and furniture.
None of this could have happened without George’s wife, Margaret, whom he had met at Stanford. Margaret left her hometown of Philadelphia largely to escape her domineering preacher father, received a business degree the year after George, and became a pivotal reason for the success of Lane’s.
George and Margaret purchased a large Greek Revival home (what today would be called a mansion) on University Avenue, four blocks from the original store. In 1968, Margaret gave birth to her only child, Juliana. Ten years later, at the age of 44, George Lane died of heart failure while hiking above Crystal Springs Reservoir. The doctors blamed it on a congenital neural defect – related to cardiac arrhythmia – that caused his heart to lock into an overdrive of 200 beats per minute. Had George not been walking alone, in a remote area, they might have been able to save him. Margaret was haunted for years by the image of her dear husband alone in the foothills, fighting the grip of panic as his heart steadily tore itself to pieces.
To an ordinary mother, especially one from a generation that had not enjoyed the freedoms won by the women’s movement, this might have been the time to sell the business and make do. But not Margaret Lane.
She developed an acute instinct for the next big thing, and the office supplies the next big thing would feed on. Attending fundraisers and seminars with the leaders of what was now called Silicon Valley, she recognized the great potential of the personal computer. Lane’s was the first retail outlet to carry computer paper, and ribbons, floppy disks and software. She soon opened a Cupertino branch selling nothing else. Surrounded by Hewlett-Packard to the north, IBM to the south and the upstart Apple nearly next door, the Lane stores achieved unimagined success.
The big house in Palo Alto (nicknamed “Tara West” by the locals) was exactly where Juliana Lane Kross headed on the morning of her abandonment. She entered through the Doric columns, slipped down the east hall and found her mother on one of her frenetic phone calls, dressed in blue jeans and a handcrafted sweater emblazoned across the back with a golden Chinese dragon.
“Yes, that’s right Kelly... Oh!” She smiled at Juliana. “No, nothing – my daughter just came over! But yes, let’s get some of those Mac displays for the Walnut Creek branch. They say there might be some compatibility issues with PCs, so let’s try them out there before bringing them to the other stores. Yeah, ring me back next week and let me know. Thanks, Kelly. ‘Bye.”
Margaret hung up and greeted her daughter with a boisterous hug. “Jewel! How are you, sweetie? I was just going to call you. Uncle Les is having his sixtieth birthday, and he’s taking us all for a midnight cruise on the Bay. Isn’t that glorious?”
As usual, Juliana found herself a little snowed under by her mother’s exuberance. “Hi, mother,” she said, and laughed.
“Well, I’m glad to see you’re in good cheer.” Margaret sat on the edge of her desk to study Juliana’s face, then hopped down and grabbed her by the hand. “Come on, I want to show you something.”
“I’m not interrupting business stuff, am I?”
“I didn’t build up this business so it could run me, honey. Now, come on.” They went down the hall and turned into a small library. The center of the room was occupied by a large copper cone, aiming its big glass eye onto some sort of reflective mat. Margaret hit a toggle switch, and the cone hummed to life, sweeping a light back and forth until it produced a Bengal tiger, snarling and pawing at some unseen intruder. “Isn’t that something?” said Margaret. “It’s a hologram machine. I got it yesterday from this wonderful store down in Carmel. It’s got twenty different images.”
“That’s marvelous, mother.” The tiger was so small and realistic, she felt like she could lure it off with a hot dog and lift it to her shoulder.
“What would your father have thought of this?” Margaret chuckled and made a ticking sound with her tongue. The sound was a sort of mood indicator, from the rapid ticks of amusement to the slow, evenly spaced beats of contemplation. Juliana suspected that her mother was raised in one of those African tribes where percussive clicks and pops were a part of the language. Margaret wiped out the tiger by ejecting a CD from the side of the cone, then slipped in another that produced two bodybuilders, strutting and flexing in tiny Speedo briefs.
Juliana laughed. “I know what Dad would think of that.”
“Just because I am old,” said Margaret, eyeing her minihunks, “does not mean that I don’t remember things.” She flipped the switch and sent her bodybuilders to a sudden death. “Let’s trot down to the Mulberry, daughter, and get some lunch.”
The Mulberry Cafe sat across the street form the original Lane’s, and Margaret enjoyed going there to spy on her customers. Juliana watched the contented glow in her mother’s eyes as she watched the familiar double doors.
“I don’t know, Mother. I may be coming to the wrong person with my troubles.”
“You have troubles, Jewel?”
“My husband seems to be more in love with his business than with me.”
Margaret refocused on her daughter and found the halo of sadness she had missed before. “I’m sorry, dear. Has he been away again?”
“Four weeks in Tokyo. He got back yesterday, and he went right to sleep. This morning, he left early for the office.”
“Did he tell you he was leaving?”
“He left a note.”
“Oh, my.”
Juliana wiped away a tear. She didn’t like tears; she didn’t have that much of herself to give away. “I can see it all going steadily downhill from here, and I’m not willing to watch it. The trips get longer, the times back shorter – and when he gets back, he doesn’t... it’s not the same.”
“Two months.”
“Goodness. Have you tried anything?”
“To get him interested.”
“Once or twice. But subtle. Scott doesn’t respond to frontal attacks.”
“Likes to think it was all his idea?”
“Do you think he’s cheating on you?”
“Mother!” Juliana let out an anguished laugh.
“Your mother is a businesswoman,” she said, looking her daughter in the eye. “And she doesn’t like side routes when she can take the interstate.”
Juliana considered the question, her hands fluttering together over the mesh table. “No. I’d say it was something else.”
“Those damn teller machines,” said Margaret. “No, he’s not the type to cheat. He’s meticulous that way.”
“I wish he would.”
“Would what?”
“Cheat on me.”
Margaret reached across to settle her daughter’s hands. “Why would you want that?”
Juliana gave full course to her tears. “I don’t know,” she answered. “It might... bring him back to life. You can’t make love to a corporation.”
“Oh, my,” said Margaret. “For once, sweet Jewel, I don’t know what to tell you. Here, have a tissue.”

Juliana settled herself, enough to have a few bites of her lunch. By the time they left, she felt much improved. They were two blocks from the house, two shades under the tree-branch ceiling, when her mother said,
“Have you thought of having an affair yourself?”
“Mother,” Juliana scolded. “You talk as if we were in a French movie.”
“Don’t get involved with someone. Just a one-timer to get Scott’s attention.”
“You mean, I should have an affair, then devise some crafty slip-up through which to reveal the horrid truth to my husband?”
“Well, I...”
“Leave a used condom in the toaster? Pair of whity-tighties on the roof?”
“You’re really stretching reality, Mother.”

“Listen, kid. I may have stayed single since your father died, but don’t think I haven’t had my flings, and I know one thing for certain: a man finds nothing quite so appealing as a woman who is being properly serviced. They have no idea what causes that irresistible aura, poor darlings, but they respond to it like cats to fish-heads.”
“Mother, not only are your metaphors going decidedly purple, your romantic stratagems are... well, sleeping around is just not in my vocabulary. It is a trick I do not perform.”
Three seconds later, approaching the wrought iron gates of Tara West, Juliana was struck by a sound, a Russian composer, a man with wild black hair who held her feet with strong, graceful fingers. And this she could not even tell her mother.

Photo by MJV

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