Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Alcyone, Chapter Sixteen: Cryptic Language

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Juliana opened her eyes to weak gray light, cutting short a vague, unsettling dream about a cruise ship. She sat at the captain’s table, directly in front of a stage. All the other passengers had returned to their cabins, the captain to his watch. Her only company was a flamenco dancer, a muscular alchemy of leather pants, thieving eyes and dark, bushy moustache, standing at attention on the stage. Finishing her champagne, Juliana turned to him with a smile and placed the empty glass at his feet. He grinned and began to dance, stamping his black boots in a circle inches from the glass, then cupped the stem between his feet, flipped it up to his hand and tossed it over his shoulder. It landed with a delightful smash. Juliana applauded and filled another glass.
And this must be another dream, because it was not her house. Common white flocking on the ceiling above her, a small room bearing in on her. She nestled into her pillow and blinked her eyes, trying to clear her mind.
She heard breathing. He lay back in his elegant black curls, a long tree of a man stretching this way and that under the white sheets, a single calf and foot poking out at the end of the bed. Her head cleared with a whoosh and she remembered the previous night, a thousand small movements, pleasure so harsh and brisk she feared she would lose herself. She rubbed a hand over her stomach, smiled and turned to the face next to her: thin, angular lines, a handsome nose, full lips set in a near-smile. It was tempting to kiss him awake, watch his eyelids flutter open, the lips reach around his teeth. But now, she had a chance to explore.
The bedroom was outlined in ghostly white furniture, a wicker trunk next to the closet, a shoulder-height dresser across from the bed, adorned with a milky, off-white slab of marble. But it wasn’t marble; it was a section of tree, sanded down, coated with milky stain and varnish.
At the foot of the slice lay an abalone shell filled with strips of paper. They had names: Cuesta del Rey, Arturo Fuente. Cigar bands! Over the dresser, she found a diploma – Liberal Arts, Cal Northridge – and two framed black-and-white photographs: a nude male, satyr-like, lofting a tumbled mass of seaweed over his head; and a nude female, walking away from the camera, the slopes of her body mirrored by the rolling hills of the coastline.
Next to the dresser stood a full-length mirror. Juliana formed a photograph of her own: limbs from a willow tree, languid lips puffy and chapped from overuse, crow-s-feet at her eyes, her hair a puzzle of shadow about to take flight from her head. She shook it over her temples, just to complete the chaos, and shifted sideways to include the face of the sleeping man, behind her left thigh, calm as a statue. She took the picture with a blink of her eyes, and moved on.
She followed the hall to the living room, a framework of peach-colored loveseats, milky white coffee and end tables, an entertainment system of neat gray components, CDs arranged alphabetically on a narrow shelf. None of this was anywhere near what she would expect of a bachelor’s apartment. But then, wasn’t this neatness and good taste to be expected? After all, when Juliana Kross fucked around on her husband...
Oh, dear, thought Juliana. The weight of her actions began to take hold, to pull the skin tight around her shoulder blades. Do you know what you’re doing, dear Jewel? You have entered uncharted territory, girlfriend.
Whereupon a roadmap appeared, in a simple frame over the end table. She started at the top and worked her way down: a series of close-knit stripes, a series of circles bracketed by two groups of lines; bold stripes holding faint polygons and symbols – was a treble clef?  Another three staffs, wandering erratically like the ridge of a mountain, then shapes – a cat, a sea lion, and a human hand. Below the diagrams was a typewritten quote. Just like in the old movies, the words came alive in the voice of the beloved.
“In the nature of the use of chance operations,” said Scootie, “is the belief that all answers answer all questions... that meaning is in the breath, that without thinking we can tell what is being said without understanding it.”
“John Cage,” Juliana continued. “Born Los Angeles, California September five, 1912. Died August 12, 1992.”
Scootie crossed the room, clothed in a pair of silk boxers in monarchial stripes of red and gold. He stopped next to her and studied the diagram, clearly his pride and joy.
“Page Nine from the Concert for Piano and Orchestra, 1958.”
“Original manuscript?”
“Dad bought it for my graduation. Found it at an auction for the music department at UCLA.”
“My, my,” she said. “So why aren’t you touching me?”
Scootie laughed. “It’s a new day. I was waiting for permission.”
Juliana took Scootie’s fingers and lifted them to her breast.
“Permission granted.”
Scootie proceeded to a full massage. Juliana shuddered, closing her eyes, then stood on her toes to kiss him, sucking his upper lip into her mouth. From there she worked her way down, licking both nipples and each rib before slipping a finger into the waistband of his boxers and tugging them down. Scootie, meanwhile, seemed determined to continue his explication of Cage’s work.
“Cage believed... that composition could be a form of visual... art as well as a utilitarian... instruction, that the performer could be trusted to interpret... abstract ideas as well as... God that feels good...”
Juliana stopped for a moment, and lifted her lips from Scootie’s cock. “Scootie? Do I hear pigeons?”

After a tour of the pigeon coop, Juliana sat at the kitchen table in Scootie’s red satin bathrobe, studying a poem titled “Sweetwater Vaughn (Route 84” as Scootie tinkered with the cappuccino maker.
“So, explain this again?”
“Well, Cage was able to achieve what he did partly because he wasn’t faking at all. Before he began all those loony experiments, he was considered a talented classical pianist. In that respect, I consider my evenings at the Fetzle piano strictly a recreational pursuit. I do, however, have some facility with language, so I’ve been applying Cage’s chance operations to poetry. That was assembled using words on roadsigns between Sweetwater, Texas and Vaughn, New Mexico. I was returning from a trip to Austin with Jackie.”
“Taking vacations with attractive female co-workers?”
Scootie shot a blast of steam from the espresso machine and laughed. “We were checking out bands for a roots-music festival. Besides, Jackie and I are more Platonic than The Republic.”
The suggestion of jealousy brought Juliana back to her recent crimes. Her tone became suddenly businesslike. “Scootie, I will tell you, honestly, I’m no good at this. I have the gifts of an actress, but not the heart, and I’m deathly afraid I’m going to slip up somewhere.”
Scootie looked back from his work to eye her across the kitchen counter. “I understand that, Juliana.”
“And I’ll tell you what else. I don’t buy into this miniseries bullcrap about biblical justice, and the way that people who engage in adulterous affairs always self-destruct, and lightning flies down from the heavens, and nobody ever likes them again, and they never get invited to parties, and children and young dogs spit at them on the street. We’re in a double predicament, what with our professional relationship and the proximity of my house to your workplace. I want us to be very... I want this affair to be run like an undercover operation, a spy mission to a dangerous country. I refuse to let any of this ruin our respective places in this community, or to have an ill effect on the Fetzle Center.”
Scootie brought cappuccinos to the table. “Understood,” he said. “Tell me what you want.”
Juliana felt a rush of power, from her chest up to her head. So this was what command felt like. She relaxed into a smile and went on.
“While at work, we discuss nothing but Fetzle business, no matter how secluded we might feel. We will treat each other with a slightly detacehd, not unfriendly courtesy, as we always have.”
She blew across the top of her drink and took a sip. “You will never again set foot in my house, no matter how tempting its nearness and how extensive my husband’s absences. In fact, meeting here is not a good idea, either. Maybe we need a neutral location.”
“I have just the thing,” said Scootie. “I’ll check it out, and get back to you.”
“Good. Only, how do you get back to me?”
“A hiding place.”
“I’ve got it,” said Scootie. “The statue of Pan, behind the Equestrian, er, Swan Theater. Around the base, beneath his left hoof, there’s a loose stone. We can leave messages there.”
“No one else knows about it?”
“I was leaning against it, having lunch one day. That’s the only way I would have noticed.”
“All right.” Juliana thought about it some more. “So how do we know there’s a message there? We can’t be hanging around Pan all day – people will think we’re pagans.”
“Guido. When you’ve got a message for me, just slip off his cowboy hat, and place it on the table, leaving it just-so against his neck.”
“And for me?”
“Hmm...” Scootie sank his face into his hands and rubbed his eyes. “Your answering machine? A series of touch-tones?”
“No. Too close to home. But I can see your office window from my living room...”
“Yes! I’ll nab one of those gold banners from the gala, and hang it out my window.”
“Does anyone ever go out there?”
“Maintenance guys. If they ask, I’ll tell them I hung it on the sill and it must have been blown outside.”
“Okay. Just tell me if they ask more than once.”
“One more thing,” said Juliana. “We need to write our messages in code. Not real code, mind you, just vague, cryptic language. For instance, if my husband is gone for the weekend, I’ll write something like, ‘The rooster returns on Monday.’”
“The ship sails at midnight.”
“Exactly. That way, if anyone discovers a message, they’ll just think it’s a couple of kids playing spy games. And just one last thing, Scootie.”
“You are absolutely terrific in bed.”
“Thank you.”

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