Two days later, Scootie kept his ill-gotten knowledge tucked in his pocket. Still, riding in the cavernous back seat of the DePlombs’ DeSoto, the object of his concern a few feet away, he couldn’t help picking up additional clues.
For one thing, clothes. It was a bright, pre-summer morning, and Scootie dressed accordingly: khaki pants, cream-colored jacket and a florid jungle tie. Juliana wore a charcoal blazer, navy blouse and pleated gray skirt. And then there were her physical gestures. She kept picking pieces of lint – real or imagined – from her clothes. She placed the back of her knuckles in various contemplative poses about her face, and ran her fingernails over her teeth. Her eyes remained fixed on a spot two hundred yards to the side of the car.
Scootie tried several times to initiate innocuous conversation, but each time had to repeat himself when Juliana failed to hear him. Mrs. DePlomb had no such problem. She was more than happy to speak for the four of them, inevitably comparing things to something she had seen on one of her world travels. Mr. DePlomb, who had years before learned his place in the marriage, grunted amiably.
Even considering her recent traumas, Scootie was not at all surprised when Juliana tapped into some auxiliary tank of charm. They found Stephen Swan in baggage claim, looking exactly like his publicity photos. He was a thin, spry man of 58, wearing a black leather jacket, brown corduroy pants, and a shock of gray-blond hair seeking some semblance of equilibrium (a style Jackie had termed “Andy Warhol redux”). Juliana led the way, approaching Mr. Swan with an extended hand and the usual knockout smile.
“Mr. Swan. I’m Juliana Kross. It’s a great pleasure to meet you.”
Stephen returned her greeting with a sideways smile and a roving actor’s eye. “And a pleasure to meet you, my dear. Excuse my surprise, but you are not precisely what I expected.” He pulled her closer with his handshake and whispered, “Something more like the matronly, and I’m sure delightful, grand dame behind you.”
The comment reminded Juliana of her duties, and she quickly stepped back to introduce the DePlombs and Scootie. Stephen checked off each handshake with the remark, “Delighted, delighted,” but added a comment for Scootie.
“Used to know an actor named Scootie. Funniest thing how he got his name. Had a middle ear infection as a toddler, used to scrabble around sideways like a crab. Can you imagine?”
“No,” said Scootie.
“He used to demonstrate it for us backstage. Ah well – lead me to my carriage.”
Scootie and Mr. DePlomb carried Stephen’s estimable baggage – no doubt loaded with costumes. Scootie noted with some chagrin the complete lack of media; two stations had expressed interest, none had come. He thought of the 150 tickets lined up like maroon soldiers in Aggie’s file box, and felt his butt settling further into the sling.
Knowing how eager the ladies were to shower their attentions on the celebrity, Scootie rode shotgun and cocked an ear toward the back seat.
“I am a linguistic man, by nature and occupation,” said Stephen. “And I am dying to learn the many inflections of the word ‘dude.’ I am told one can carry on entire conversations with it. Of course, after all these years of Shakespeare, there’s not a soul believes I grew up among beach bums.”
Once at the mansion, Stephen lagged behind the others to smoke a cigarette, then interrupted Scootie as he was lifting a suit bag from the trunk.
“Scootie. Are you a golfing man?”
“I’ve been known to dig a few divots.”
“Well. I will tell you. I am bound to the blue-haired ladies and the overserious Rotarians tonight, but I would love to spend tomorrow belching, scratching and inventing new curse words. Do you know a little nine-holer hereabouts?”
“Sure. There’s one in Scotts Valley.”
“Fan-tastic.” Stephen tossed his cigarette to the ground and grabbed a hank of his unwieldy hair. “I am told also that you will be assisting me backstage, you unfortunate soul, so this will give me a chance to prepare you.”
“I’d be honored,” said Scootie.
“Fine.” Stephen turned to the Fetzle’s front entrance to find Mrs. DePlomb and Juliana smiling at him. He made a stage aside to Scootie. “I may be working on my third divorce, but it’s a damn shame that woman’s married and twenty years too young for me.”
Scootie looked the same direction and said, “Yes, it is.”
A few hours later, Stephen stood in a corner of the ballroom, doling out backstage stories like a priest handing out wafers. He had some unexpected competition from 82-year-old Fay Swanson, who lived next door to the Swans during Stephen’s childhood.
“Well, I’ll tell ya. I knew young Mr. Swan was an impresario long ago – when I discovered him in an old abandoned barn, putting on a burlesque show with all his little girlfriends.”
Stephen slapped a hand to his forehead. “Yikes! I am uncovered.”
“So were your little girlfriends,” said Fay. “But even at seven, Stephen had a sense for production values. He had a dozen flashlights bundled together for a spotlight, a red felt curtain he had purloined from God-knows-where, and I’ll tell you what else – them girls had tassles!”
The circle erupted in scandalized laughter as Stephen played the good sport, hiding behind his hands in mock shame.
Scootie was spying from the entrance to the library. Jackie snuck up from behind, saying, “Isn’t that ol’ girl a card?” and letting out her husky Texas laugh. He had noticed a lot of this sneaking up of late, as well as a greater general degree of affectionate behavior. All of which seemed to indicate that Jackie was receiving special attentions from her cowboy friend.
“She is my absolute favorite,” said Scootie, watching the sparkle in Fay’s fading blue eyes. “She reminds me of my crazy Armenian grandmother.”
Jackie began kneading Scootie’s shoulders like a trainer prepping a boxer for a big fight. “So. Have you seen your lady-love?”
Scootie had given up fending off Jackie’s implications. “No, I haven’t. And have you been getting laid a lot?”
“Now that you mention it. We went to a weddin’! Grand ol’ Mexican gent, foreman of the ranch, married off his daughter. Oh, Scootie, they had an Aztec dance troupe and... Hey! You wanna know about Juliana, or what?”
“As long as you seem so eager to tell me.”
“She’s in the kitchen, ostensibly helpin’ out with the horz-dee-orves, but in actuality shootin’ down glasses o’ wine like they was Orange Nehis. And you should see what she’s wearin’!”
There was no need for description. Juliana entered on the arm of Virginia Mendheart, not obviously drunk but definitely loose in the limbs. She was wearing a full matador’s outfit, pantalones reaching just below the knee, gold spangles down the sides. a crisp white pleated shirt and a high-waisted jacket shooting out sequin geometrics of white, gold and sunset orange.
“She looks like she’s on the attack,” said Scootie.
“And she’s comin’ your way, El Toro. See ya!” She gave Scootie a smack on the butt and retreated to the crowd around Stephen Swan. Scootie stood there helplessly as the tag team of Kross and Mendheart bore down on him. He produced his best phony smile and extended his arms in Virginia’s directions. She slapped them away.
“Scootie, we want to talk to you about something.”
Trouble. Big trouble.
Juliana fixed a hand to either bespangled hip. “It’s about this ticket giveaway.”
“We think you should give it a shot,” said Virginia. “And this time you’re not going to talk us out of it.”
“We are not going to sit around and let that talented man come home to a bunch of empty seats,” said Juliana. “Why should we let those tickets sit around and rot when we can damn well give them away and at least put some butts in the seats?”
Virginia placed a firm hand on his shoulder and stared bullets into his eyes. “And make no mistake, Scootie. We are willing to pull rank.”
Now he was getting pissed. He tried hard to cool his jets, but couldn’t help producing a level of intensity equal to theirs.
“You two have the power to overrule me on this matter, but not before I’ve had my complete say. I have worked pretty damn hard to build relationships with my radio contacts, and to establish a reputation as a savvy, intelligent media buyer. This gala may be a one-shot, do-or-die proposition for its esteemed chairwomen, but next week, and next month, you will be gone and I will still be here, trying to sell tickets for shows that are much less spectacular but no less essential to this center. Every single media person I deal with knows that to give away gala tickets two days before the show is a desperate, circus maneuver performed by amateurs, and forgive my bluntness but I do not appreciate your attempting to cover your respective butts with my professional reputation.”
Juliana had been balancing on her toes, waiting for the bull to charge, leaning farther forward with every word. Now, she exploded.
“I am sick of this! Sick! Sick! Sick! Sick of you men always telling me what to do! I have had it! I have had enough for three lifetimes! I am the head of this gala, and from now on I will...”
Juliana stopped when she saw the look in Scootie’s eyes, the look in Virginia’s eyes, and her right hand gripped around the crumpled wad of Scootie’s shirtfront. She let go and heard a button drop to the floor, rolling toward the fireplace of a crowded but very quiet room. She thought it best not to turn around.
“Take me to your office,” she said.
Scootie turned and ascended the stairs, feeling Juliana’s heavy breath behind him. He opened the door to his office and reached for the switch, but Juliana grabbed his arm.
“Don’t,” she said.
Scootie made his way to the desk, following the scant light seeping in through the window. He turned to find Juliana inches behind him – a cold, mannequin face.
“Don’t say a word.” She stared him down with black eyes then placed her hands on his waist and lowered herself to her knees. Her hands moved with mechanical grace as she undid his belt and drew down the zipper.
Juliana pulled out Scootie’s cock and studied it in the faint light – a noble, passive birdhead over a nest of dark, soft wire. She cradled the warm, pliable eggs of his scrotum and watched as the birdhead blossomed.
Now here, she thought, is something I can control.
Photo by MJV