Scootie’s three-month severance provided some flexibility in considering his options, but it also gave him way too much free time. This was dangerous, because any time he let his mind drift, it was bound to drift into a funk.
Of course, his friends were more than happy to have more time with him. He met with twice a week for Scrabble and cigars. He saw Cindy often enough that she asked him to construct some of the “lesson plans” as well, since the constant research was beginning to be a load.
He saw Audrey every other weekend, and savored the opportunity to get away from Hallis. This did, however, present a problem. Audrey was growing more and more flirtatious, while Scootie’s libido was a light switch duct-taped in the “off” position. He also suspected that, after three years of friendship, Audrey’s interest had gone beyond lust to something deeper. Explaining his devotion to a married woman who had just screwed him over was difficult – especially when his orders came from a caffeine-induced spirit.
When he complained of his time-trouble, Audrey got that witchy look, and took him to a shed behind the percussion shop. She opened the door to reveal a pair of matching ten-speed bikes, tires flat, wheels rusted, but looking oddly unused.
“A wedding present from Tiger’s sister – his ‘n’ hers. I’ve been meaning to get rid of them, anyway. Maybe if you take the salvageable parts from each, you can come up with one workable bike. That is, if the parts don’t fight with each other.”
With the help of a bike shop in Half Moon Bay, Scootie did just that, and was soon discovering the pleasures of biking Highway One, with its long, even stretches and impressive vistas. He began to develop a surprising stamina, along with the kind of superhero calves he had always admired in others.
His trips also brought him an exposure to fresh, direct environments, the heightening of senses so often cut off by the insularity of automobiles. (He also rediscovered the thrill of accidentally swallowing bugs, but it was a small price.) He especially enjoyed pedaling through the streets of Hallis at eventide, taking in the aromatic buffet of home-cooked meals. A whiff of T-bone steak or tuna casserole could knock him straight back to his childhood in suburban Santa Ana.
Still, there was no protection from the dread late-night thoughts, the white adobe that could be seen for miles – the motel room mere feet from his Scrabble games. And what of his occupation? In a town like Hallis, there weren’t many openings for a theater publicist. He would obviously have to try something new: typist, gas station attendant, surfing instructor? Unemployment benefits wouldn’t quite cut it. They would necessitate a smaller apartment, and he hated giving up on his pigeons. (Even if he disassembled the coop, they would stay right there, terrorizing his neighbors and their cars for generations to come.)
The winter’s final curse was the departure of Jackie Simmer. He had underestimated her decisiveness. Two days after revealing her intentions to Scootie, she walked into Garth’s office and handed him her resignation – one and a half pages of prose striking a fine balance between her admiration for the organization and her disappointment in its actions. Underneath the kitschy regional similes, Jackie embodied elegance, good taste and acute intelligence.
So effective was her resignation, in fact, that she earned a personal visit from the new president, who offered a raise and certain administrative concessions if she would reconsider. What she didn’t offer, of course, was the reinstatement of Scootie Jones.
“And yes, damn yer hide, I made no mention of your private humpin’ sessions. I still don’t understand why that’s so important. She knows that I know about it, and she could shorely read the snakebite venom shootin’ from my eyes, that goddamn Ivy League whore. I wouldn’t... oh, stop lookin’ at me like that!”
Jackie was kneeling on Hallis Beach, tracing a series of Egyptian-looking symbols in the sand.
“That’s nice,” said Scootie. “Any particular meaning?”
“No, and don’t change the subject! Oh, Scootie, you don’t have to go to Austin with me, but why the hell are you stayin’ here? I can’t stand to see you suffering like this.”
Scootie took a driftwood stick and scratched out the name Barran. “I can’t explain it, darlin’ Jackie. Something tells me I’m not done here, and that’s why I have to stay.”
“It just goes against all my instincts. She already broke your heart and took your job. What’s she gonna go after next? Your liver?”
Scootie let out a high donkey laugh. “And I suppose you will never again go out with another cowboy, as long as you live?”
Jackie raised a hand in pledge. “Never.”
“To borrow a phrase, honey – yer a lyin’ sacka shit.”
“Sadly, yes. Hey, look, Scoots – the sun’s about to go.”
Scootie looked up to find an orange ball mutating in the vapor, a time-exposure triplet over the water.
“Aha! It’s time.” He reached into the crumpled bag at his feet.
“Whadja bring? Bottle o’ whiskey?”
“Better.” He extracted two mangos, red with splotches of green and yellow, and offered one to Jackie.
“And what to you expect me to do with that?”
“Eat it,” he said. “And be good and sloppy about it.”
Jackie eyed it suspiciously. “Right through the skin?”
“That’s how the natives do it.”
Jackie took a breath and dove in, through the leathery skin to the juicy yellow pulp. “Mmm... Scrumptious. Y’know, Scoots, I swear this is the first time we’ve ever come to the beach together. We gotta do this again sometime.”
“Name the place.”
“Galveston. We’ll have oysters on the half-shell and hush puppies.”
Scootie picked a point of entry and assaulted his mango, leaning forward to let the juice drip on the sand. “Hmmph... I will bring you... papayas!”
In ten minutes, the sun and mangos were gone. They left the pits to the seagulls and drove to Santa Cruz for a revival of Chinatown. In the morning, he drove her to San Francisco International, Sable mewing anxiously in the back seat. A week later, Scootie got a postcard, the capitol building, pale red in the Texas sunset.
Photo by MJV