Monday, July 14, 2014

Alcyone, Chapter Three: Blaze Hill

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Scootie spent the next morning repeating the thought, I will not make a first move. As for Juliana, any fleeting attraction was destroyed by the morning’s news: negotiations had hit a snag, and Scott would be an extra week in Tokyo.
Scootie brought his press list, and they spent a half hour discussing which contacts might be open to stories. Juliana had a couple of her own ideas, like trading program space with other theater groups, or linking a website to Scott’s BankNet, Inc.
The villa on Blaze Hill was a revelation. Based on an old Mexican ranchero in San Antonio, its low adobe walls, clay flooring and rough-hewn beams afforded an authenticity rarely found among the dilettante rich. (Hallis’s several Southwest-style mansions needed only giant plastic dinosaurs and Navajo bingo parlors to round out the general effect.)
They sat on unvarnished oak benches and dined on Juliana’s pasta primavera, covered with a feather-light white sauce. “I attend pot-lucks just infrequently enough,” she said, “that no one seems to notice it’s the only thing I ever make.”
“You’ve damn well perfected it,” said Scootie. They sat on a white leather sofa, consuming almond biscotti and cappuccinos.
“It’s how they say in those baseball interviews. You have to cook ‘within yourself.’”
Scootie laughed entirely too long, and realized he had best escape before he lost his composure. He took a stage glance at his wristwatch. “Ooh, I better split. I’ve got to wrap up a few things on this Kabuki troupe.”
Juliana settled her cup on its saucer. “So, what’s on the agenda tonight?”
Scootie rose and shook his khakis over the tops of his shoes. “Tonight it’s Jackie.”
Juliana’s eyes lit up. “Jackie Simmer?”
“That’s the one.”
The game was getting familiar.
“And... what is it you do with Jackie?”
Scootie was beginning to feel slightly defensive about this curiosity – especially, in this case, when it came to a co-worker.
“Actually, we do theater.”
“Really? I would think you’d be sick of that.”
“When we have shows here, I can only give them my undivided attention for maybe five minutes. The rest of the time I’m figuring attendance, shmoozing critics, worrying about the length of the popcorn line...”
“My. That’s disappointing.” Juliana followed him down the hall, where they finished their conversation before the whiskey-colored varnish of the front door.
“I learn a lot,” he said. “But it’s all up here.” He pointed to his head. “When I want to take it through here” – he pointed to his gut – “I venture out with Jackie. Then we have a nice critiquing session at some bar. I suppose it hones our programming skills – but it mostly reminds us how much we enjoy watching strangers play make-believe on a stage.”
“I’m rather fond of it myself,” said Juliana. “At one time, I was considered something of an actor.”
“I knew it!” said Scootie.
Juliana said nothing, but pulled the iron door-ring. They found themselves in brilliant sunlight, looking across the wide cobbled drive to the rooftops of Fetzle, the narrow streets of Hallis, the blue mesa of the Pacific.
“Wow,” said Scootie, squinting. “I can see my apartment from here.”
Juliana spoke in a spooky cartoon voice. “Just remember, I’m watching.”
“So why do they call this Blaze Hill?”
“After Fetzle Lumber got through stripping all the redwoods from the place, they celebrated with a bonfire and a keg of whiskey. Bad combination. A wind rose up, spread the fire into the undergrowth, and the workers were too drunk to put it out. A couple of them had drunk themselves unconscious, and never made it out.”
“Sheesh. So why’d you give up acting?”
“Oh, the usual. I came home with a useless degree in theater arts, and then... then I fell in love.”
“That’s nice,” said Scootie.
“And then, I was obligated to lead the perfect life. So here I am, playing my part.”
She gazed distractedly at the ocean. Then she seemed to recover.
“Well, Scootie. It’s been a pleasure. I’m sure I’ll see you a few more times before we reach ground zero.”
Scootie took Juliana’s long fingers and gave them a courteous squeeze. “And now, sated with your pasta, I will go nap at my desk.”
“Better not! You have Kabuki to sell.”
“Domo arigoto.”
Scootie crossed the drive to his little convertible – the most impractical car his salary would support. Juliana watched the little blue car disappear like a piece of bubble gum down the lip of the dispenser, then returned to her dark hallway. Her head rang with social obligations, and she rushed to her calendar to quell the sound. Ah, she thought, flipping the pages. Here’s the real drug: time. Scootie Jones thinned out to a strip of yarn at the back of her thoughts.

Jackie Simmer had lived in many places, but she came from two: Athens, Georgia and Austin, Texas. The Georgian childhood was clothed in discreet garments; Scootie could see large, fuzzy objects, but no clear identities. Her father’s death the year before had caught her off-guard – because, as she put it, “I ought to be glad the bastard’s gone.” Scootie talked her into attending the funeral, regardless. The trip uprooted long-buried feelings that needed to be dealt with, launching Jackie into a freer, more open field as she entered her forties.
She came to Austin in her early twenties, working her way from a waitress in a diner to a beverages manager at a luxury hotel. She soon began booking musicians for the lounge, an experience that – combined with her arts management degree – got her the job at Fetzle.
But she was still an Austin girl. Scootie would suggest a Mexican restaurant for lunch, and she would say, “You wouldn’t believe this place in Austin, down by the river, they serve the best chiles rellenos...” He would mention a roots-rock band coming to Santa Cruz, and she would say, “Yeah, I saw them on Sixth Street in Austin, this crazy rockabilly joint called the Four-Hand Saloon...” After three years of this, Scootie suspected he could move to Austin the next day and get around like a native. He also suspected that, someday, Jackie Simmer would go back for good.
After a long string of cowboys and world travelers, Jackie entered middle age with a decided mistrust of men, content to spend her time with a gentle, 20-year-old cat named Sable and an impressive collection of antique books. With no romantic sparks in either direction, Scootie was the exception. That night’s fare was a poetic-dance interpretation of a 19th century spiritual text. Scootie came away surprised.
“You know what made it so terrific? So many reference points. It could have turned out completely obtuse, but they attacked it with motion, and poetry, and Ack-ting. I’ve never seen dancers convey so much with their faces.”
Jackie flashed her high-cheekbone smile. “Wasn’t that lead dancer jest the whipped cream on the sundae? That woman has no business moving like that at her age.”
“What age is that?”
“Program says 52. Not that you could tell from that body of hers. My-oh-my.”
“Shore ‘nuff.” Scootie took in a chunk of cheesecake, the graham cracker crust like sweet sand against his teeth. “That Louden Nelson, though – all the charm of a cafeteria.”
“Yeah, they got a real crunch on theater space in Santa Cruz. Can’t use the university – all full up with student productions and the Shakespeare festival.”
“Any chance we’ll get the Shakespeareans up north?”
“Kinda sticky,” said Jackie. “They’re afraid of dilutin’ their local audience. I keep tellin’ ‘em we can pull people from the Peninsula and Half Moon Bay, but I think they’ve got their eyes on San Francisco.”
“Why would anyone from God’s Own City come down here for Shakespeare?”
“Exactly. ‘Course, it ain’t the best time for bringin’ up new ideas, anyway. That drama committee’s got me lower’n a bow tie on a potato bug.”
Scootie let out a crackling laugh. “Do Southern schools have special classes in folksy simile?”
“No. They just slip ‘em into our grits like fortune cookies.”
“But seriously, Jackie. I know I’ve said this before, but you are being used as a human battering ram. Garth and his trustees want to rid Fetzle of those volunteer committees once and for all, but they don’t want to bloody their hands. It’s also a generational thing.”
“How so?”
“Look at the lives these women have led. They were raised to be their son’s mothers and their husband’s wives. Note how many of them still go by ‘Mrs. Thomas J. Rickenbacker’ in the program notes. And now, after achieving some level of achievement in the great dilettante paradise of Fetzle Mansion, along comes this raving bitch, love-generation tiger woman with her Tennessee Williams accent and bolo ties to take away all their toys. It ain’t fair, but that’s how they see it.”
Jackie broke out laughing. “Geez. I don’t think I’ve ever been called a tiger woman before.”
“How about ‘raving bitch’?”
“No. That one I’ve heard.”
“And look at how these fierce matrons turn into mewing calicos when yours truly walks in the door. ‘Cause I’m a guy, ‘cause I don’t take any power from anyone – and because I can get those old-society names into the local papers.”
“Well,” said Jackie. “I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.”
Scootie forked in a last bite of cheesecake and closed his eyes to take in the unintentional symphony of the Davenport Cash Store: the ping and scrape of tableware, the pad of waiters’ feet against linoleum, the quiet creak of the kitchen door. At the next table he spotted the gruff Chinese man who ran the Shell station just south of Hallis, tenderly reprimanding his three small grandchildren. “No, now. You don’t go to the gift shop until you finish your dessert.” The children studied their lumps of tapioca with inconsolable faces.
Jackie was watching the same scene. “Cute. So Scootie, can I tell you a secret?”
“Job secret?”
“Love secret.”
Her lips lifted in a close-mouthed smile. “I met someone.”
“Went down to the Saddle Rack in San Jose with Elsie, my sole defender on the drama committee. And I met this tall glass o’ water from Montana named Rex.”
“Ye gods,” said Scootie. “Are there still men named Rex?”
“Well, yes,” Jackie replied. “And this one can two-step smoother’n JOhnny Cash’s Cadillac. And a hunk, to boot.”
“Boy, Jackie, Montana’s a long way off.”
“That’s the thing! Rex is movin’ to Salinas to help out his father, who’s had some heart trouble. He’s leavin’ his ranch in Montana to his brother Tex...”
“Hold it right there,” said Scootie. “Did you say ‘Tex’?”
“Well, it might be a nick...”
“Rex and Tex!” Scootie gleefully pounded the table. “Rex and Tex, Rex and Tex!”
“Now, Scootie Jones, you behave yourself!”
Scootie apologized with a contrite puppy-dog face.
“Anyway,” said Jackie. “You get the picture. Rex’ll be an hour away for the next two years. He’s comin’ up for a visit first thing next month.”
“That’s terrific, Jackie. You sure about this, though?”
“Nothin’ to be sure of. It’s called dating. Trial and error. Fuckin’ and fuckin’ up.”
“Screwin’ and screwin’ over,” Scootie added. “I just know how fiercely you’re attached to your independence.”
“I’m not gonna crumble away just ‘cause o’ some guy looks like Clint Black times two. I’m forty-two, for Pete’s sake! And at least I’ve got the hots for someone who’s single.”
That one took Scootie back a second.
“Well, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought that up.”
“Brought what up?”
“Now listen, Scootie. Don’t play the innocent with me. I know that look you get when you’re on the hunt, and I very clearly spotted it last week when a certain J. Kross was parading her lovely little bee-hind up the mansion steps.”
Scootie held his palms to the sky. “What is it about this town? Is my every lustful thought transmitted directly to the Hallis Gazette?”
“Oh, Scootie. It’s just me. It’s just because I know you so well. Although...”
“Don’t tell me the whole staff is in on this.”
“It’s just that little lunch you had today on Blaze Hill. It started some tongues to waggin’. Aggie, of course.”
“Oh hell. Aggie comes up with more fiction than Stephen King. Besides, what’s so special about me having lunch on Blaze Hill? Didn’t she invite you and Garth up there?”
“Actually... no.”
Garth and I met with her right after the staff meeting. Bag lunches and stale coffee.”
Jackie could see that she had opened a troublesome door. She reached across to touch Scootie on the hand. “Scootie, sugar, don’t sweat it. Just let it die off. Besides, I for one know that you would never mess around with a married woman. Like it or not, you’re in the middle of a bunch of bored rich housewives who need someone to talk about.”
“Yeah,” said Scootie. “I guess so.”
Jackie surveyed the restaurant, looking for a change of subject. “This place sorta reminds me of a little roadhouse just outside o’ Austin...”

Photo by MJV

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