When eight of her pigeons arrived at once, Audrey knew what had happened. She adapted readily to the role of caretaker, keeping Scootie occupied with drums to play, videos to watch, meals to eat. She even showed him all the shuffling tricks she had picked up in Vegas. Scootie was numb, and quite happy to let Audrey do all the talking.
After two days, even with the rationale of extreme injustice on his side, Scootie couldn’t fight the need to put his office in order. He didn’t want future publicists to be hindered by what he left them; he didn’t want his name ever to be cursed within the halls of Fetzle Mansion. On Thursday morning, he drove north.
Jackie, on the other hand, couldn’t give an armadillo’s ass what future generations thought of her. Having gathered hearsay evidence from all sides of the matter, she declared Juliana the Antichrist, and would have loved to have a one-on-one with her, preferably somewhere dark and out-of-the-way.
She was seated at her desk with a chocolate-covered doughnut, dreaming up ever-crueler punishments, when she heard the familiar whine of Scootie’s computer botting up. He was hunched over his keyboard, leaning on a fist, when Jackie came up and caressed his shoulders.
Scootie turned, eyes circled in gray, and patted Jackie’s hand. “Hi.”
“You wanna re-kuh-nooter at the Bolero?”
“Not just now. I need to do a little organizing.”
“I don’t see why you bother,” she said. “If I were you, I’d set fire to this place. Screw the sonsabitches.”
“I’m not doing it for the sonsabitches,” he said. “I’m doing it for me.”
Jackie stroked the top of Scootie’s head. “Eagle Scout till the end. How ‘bout in an hour or two?”
“Sure. I’ll come fetch you.”
You could generally read Jackie’s mood by the amount of chocolate she took in. She sat down at the Bolero with a plate of chocolate-dipped strawberries, a fudge brownie known as Devil’s Downfall, and a double mocha in a tall glass. She topped the mocha with a shake of cocoa powder, then filled Scootie in on all the layoff details he had already figured out. Ten minutes later, she smushed a finger on the last crumb of brownie, put it in her mouth, and declared her intentions.
“I’m leavin’. I’m goin’ back to Austin.”
Scootie leaned forward on the table and thought about it.
“You can’t do that, Jackie. It’s just melodrama. And you love this job.”
“I may love this job, but I suddenly ain’t so crazy about the people I’m workin’ for. What makes you think they wouldn’t screw me over someday just the way they did you?”
“Because you’re not sleeping with the president of the board.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, Scootie. Did you hold a gun to the bitch’s head to make her sleep with you?”
“Of course not.”
“Then get out the scarlet paint, sonnyboy, and plaster a little graffiti on Juliana Kross’s forehead. Blab it all over town. Scorch this shithole!”
Scootie peered out the window. A sea lion was surfing the breakers, holding his head over the white and green boil.
“The same reason I’m cleaning my files, Jackie. The people running Fetzle right now can do what they want to me, but it doesn’t change the fact that I love the place. Juliana Kross can do whatever she wants to me, it doesn’t change the fact that I love her. You don’t hurt something just because it hurts you.”
The furls in Jackie’s brow smoothes out like Venetian blinds, and she smiled. “You’re the most Christian man I know, Scootie Jones.”
“But I’m an agnostic.”
“I’m talkin’ behavior, not denomination.”
“Okay,” said Scootie. “But my reasons are practical, not moral. When it comes to my conscience, I like to travel light. Takes a lot of energy to hold a grudge.”
“So where you goin’?” asked Jackie. “Come to Austin! I’ll show you all around Sixth Street.”
“That would be nice. And I’ve got family in L.A., theater friends in Boston and New York. Maybe it’s time for a little drifting. You know what else, Jackie?”
“I always knew you’d end up back in Austin.”
“That’s funny,” said Jackie. “’Cause so did I.”
He waded through a day of co-workers wearing that godawful sympathetic expression, then managed to straighten out his files by sundown. He was contemplating a stack of old photos that needed to be dated and identified when he decided to head out for some fresh air. Instinctively, he took the trail toward the cabin, and was standing at Virginia’s memorial when he heard a rustling of twigs, and a light flared up from the edge of the redwood grove.
The voice sounded familiar. He made out the silhouette of a hunting jacket and a feathered Bavarian hat.
“Rip!” Scootie rushed over, hand extended. “What the heck are you...”
“A find like no other,” said Rip, short of breath. “Scootie, young dog, I couldn’t even make up something like this. You remember Fetzle’s Mexican woodcarver? Miguel Barran?”
Scootie didn’t need to hear a word further. But he played along with Rip’s excitement, if only because the many-fingered path of his heartbreak was too large a burden to pass on to others.
“And you wouldn’t believe the condition of the place! It looks almost like someone’s been livin’ there – though we haven’t found any personal effects.
At least that much. “Who discovered it?” he asked.
“Aggie got a note in her box at Fetzle. Anonymous, with detailed directions. Come on up and take a look – we got it all lit up.”
She had taken care of Aggie and Villa Califa in one stroke. Aggie would be queen of the Hallis Historical Society; the legendary lost cabin would keep her happy and occupied for years.
Scootie could feel the boundaries of the game widening out. There were no longer any rules, but there was an objective: to strip him of everything that could be stripped. To see just how light a man could travel.
Following a tour of the cabin full of pretended surprise, Scootie descended the trail with music filling his head. He fetched a coffeemaker from the lunchroom and set it to brewing on Harlan Fetzle’s desk. Next to the coffeemaker he set two framed photos from his office – one of Harlan, the other of John Cage – and a Cage biography from the Hallis Library. His mission was to prove Oskar Fischinger’s Buddhist hypothesis, to draw some kind of spirit from the overtones – this one last time. He believed that the Fetzle library was the only place in which it might happen.
He began at eight o‘clock and worked the keys for two hours, trying every trick he knew, stopping only to down cups of coffee and brew a second pot. After that, he had to come up with new things. He held down the lowest note on the keyboard and matched it with the remaining 87, one at a time. Then the same with the second lowest, and so on. This took an hour. Afterwards, he flipped through Cage’s bio, trying out each invention and concept, following print after print of his geometrical diagrams.
By the end of the book, after playing even the footnotes, he was out of tricks and nearing one o’clock. Lord knows why one of the caretakers hadn’t kicked him out, but perhaps they knew his story and were taking pity. Between the morning trip from Big Sur, his fourteenth cup of coffee and the burst blister on his right middle finger – now leaving spots of blood on the keys – he had succeeded mostly in working himself into a trance. He was down to the accursed Tchaikovsky, the song that had once brought Juliana, and staring at Cage’s photo: the space-hero jaw, small dark eyes, razo-sharp fifties buzzcut, expressionless flatline mouth. Then he remembered something. He hurried to the table, his heart fluttering with the sudden movement, and used his Shakespeare Santa Cruz keychain to pry the staples from the back of the frame. Beneath the cardboard backing was a newspaper clipping he had planted there years before. The New York Times, a review of Maro Ajemian premiering the Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano. The photo showed Cage standing at the open piano, a torture-chamber array of clamps, springs and nails affixed to the strings, designed to alter the timbre of the instrument in unexpected ways.
It was worth a try. But he couldn’t just copy. Cage himself would tell him that. All answers answer all questions.
Scootie pulled out the glossy photo, opened up the piano, and wove it into the strings just above middle C, making it appear that Cage was behind bars. The he freed up Fetzle’s photo and did the same, just below middle C. He silently begged the old man’s forgiveness.
Studying the noble heads embedded in his instrument, Scootie tore off a piece of his shirt and wrapped it around his blistered finger. But what to play? Go back to the beginning, he thought. He embarked on his untitled chance piece, the only structured work he had created. He began with Juliana’s theme, then the repeated middle F-sharp against the descending black keys, on to the ringing boomerang majors and into the chance section. But this, it was different – a hundred new variations, expanding to five minutes, ten. His hands traveled of their own accord, infected with alien ideas, from dissonance to assonance to alarming clarities of consonance, changes of rhythm and tempo that approached near-perfect randomness.
(“With all the chaos in the world,” someon asked, “why do you make more?” “Perhaps, when you go back into the world,” Cage answered, “it won’t seem to chaotic anymore.”
The twentieth minute found Scootie pounding his fists along the lower registers, with a fervor he couldn’t possibly maintain, holding the sustain pedal to draw the thunder to full force. He lifted his hands and let the overtones swim in the air, a feral wind – twenty, thirty, forty seconds – then touched his right hand to the ringing majors, the bridge over the floodgates, up and back to the concluding C-major triad, a choir singing aluminum notes from the sidewalk. He waited till they had spelled out every available vibration, had sucked the oxygen from the room, then slowly lifted his foot from the pedal. The silence was stunning. The photographs were no longer inside the piano. They lay on the floor at his feet, face-down. And he was not alone.
“I like it!” said the old man. “A little frantic in spots – but such passion!”
He was seated on Fetzle’s desk, holding a walking stick against his crossed legs.
“And that quote,” he said. “Hungarian Rhapsody Number Two, by Liszt. Am I correct?”
Scootie was frozen, the only sensation his throbbing fingers and caffeine-shortened breath. The man came closer, towering over him in a loose-collared tan suit – his “safari outfit,” he recalled, the one he wore on his travels. The man rested the walking stick on the edge of the piano, revealing the carving on its tip: the great bear of the California state flag. He repeated the question.
Scootie nodded slowly. “Y’yes, um, Liszt. Exactly.”
The old man laughed. “Nice to know Franz is still being played.” He walked around the piano and peered into the main ballroom. “Place looks nice. You people do a good job.”
“Thank you,” said Scootie. “They’re doing a seismic retrofit next year.”
“A seis... Oh, earthquakes, yes. I did some fairly extensive reinforcing after ought-six. Lost one of the family estates in San Francisco that day. Scared the bejeesus out of us.”
“They had one in ’89,” Scootie reported. “Not as big as, um, ought-six, but it was scary.”
“They’re all scary. The ground staying put is something we tend to take for granted. When even that falters, I’d say paranoia is a perfectly legitimate response.”
He came closer and scrutinized his young subject. Scootie could see things that never came through in the photographs: the ruddy complexion, the bulbous nose, laugh-lines at the corners of his eyes, and the eyes themselves, distinctly gray-blue, unnaturally round.
“You know a lot about me, don’t you, Leonard?”
“Yes,” said Scootie, flustered by the sound of his real name. “I’ve made, um, quite a study of you. I work here, and... well... I used to work here.”
Fetzle smiled, close-lipped. “Yes, I know. So tell me, do you know of Miguel Barran?”
“Yes. I used to... stay at his villa.”
“Do you know why he left Mexico?”
“No,” said Fetzle. He strolled away toward the portrait of himself over the fireplace, planted his stick against the hardwood floor and turned. “Miguel was in love with Fernando Enriquez, Jr., eldest son of his wealthiest patron. What was worse – so far as his physical well-being was concerned – was that Fernando, Jr. was in love with him. When Fernando’s father discovered a note to Barran in his son’s handwriting, containing details of an intimate nature, he immediately hired an assassin. Through his wide network of friends, Miguel was alerted to this peril, and boarded a ship to California a mere hundred yards ahead of his pursuers.”
“But all those women...” said Scootie.
“A cover. A sacrifice to the gods of normalcy, and sooner or later he was bound to slip up. I warned him about that. He worked a little too hard at... compensating.”
Scootie’s thoughts were swirling, putting so many pieces together. Fetzle pierced the fog with a question.
“Tell me, honored historian. Why did Harlan Fetzle never take a wife?”
“Because... he fell through the bottom of a carriage?”
Harlan broke into laughter, a throaty bellow resounding from his broad chest. “Egad! I told that story so often, they actually started believing it. No, no. If I had fallen through the bottom of a carriage, I would probably have been trampled.”
Harlan’s laughter worked its way down to self-amused chuckle, and he stooped to study a telegram from Teddy Roosevelt on the bookcase. He spoke softly into the glass. “He was a dancer. Beautiful, elegant creature. A ballet dancer in Paris. I was on my world tour, just after college, and when I saw him... I understood. I carried that difference all the way through adolescence, through the pain of losing those teenage limbs and growing into the great oak of an adult. But there in Paris, finally, I knew.”
Scootie cleared his throat. “You were... a homosexual?”
Harlan turned away from the glass to face him. “We didn’t have a name for it then. Not in my time. Certainly not in my circles. I was never really my own man, Leonard. I was my family. I was the men who worked for me, and the city I grew up in, the state I loved, the country I fought for. I belonged to all of them, but not to myself. I fulfilled my love only once – with that young Parisian dancer – but I knew from that moment on I would have to take my difference and lock it away, and throw my love upon other fields. California, my business, this mansion – and art, especially art. I could not have lived without it.”
Scootie’s curiosity was overcoming his shock. “Were you... involved with... Miguel?”
Harlan came to Scootie’s side, close enough to touch, and smiled. “Leonard! You embarrass me. No, no. Though at times Miguel and I seemed as one soul divided ‘twixt two bodies, we were not lovers. He was – how do you say this? – not my type. For one thing, he was extremely short.”
“Yes,” said Harlan. “It is funny, isn’t it? I owe that man my life, however. When I was a child, he introduced me to the power of creative expression, to a love of life, and art, and music. And then, twenty years later, he returned to save my soul, to listen to feelings and fears that only he, amongst all my friends, could possibly understand.”
“Quite a gift.”
“Yes.” Harlan stopped and slapped a palm against his thigh. “But enough! I am not here for tender rhapsodizing, Leonard Jones. I am here to tell you that you are not finished with Hallis. There is a woman up on that hill who is like no other to you, and now matter how desperate your current straits, you cannot possibly leave until you’ve seen this through.”
“But... how will I know when it’s done?”
“You’ll know,” said Harlan, smiling. “One way or another. Do you know the cigar story, Leonard?”
“The cigar story?”
“Yes. A man from the San Francisco paper once asked me why my father smoked nickel cigars while I smoked much more expensive ones. I told him, ‘Because he doesn’t have a millionaire for a father.”
Scootie laughed. “That’s very good.”
“Yes,” said Harlan. “And I might even have said it.” He gave Scootie a sudden, direct look. “Remember this, Leonard. I never had the liberty to follow my love. You have a duty to follow yours.”
“I will. I’ll... try.”
“Now! Will you please play those final measures for me again? That wonderful hymn-like motif. Very striking.”
“Sure.” Scootie shook out his ragged fingers and sought out the beginning chord, from one to four and back again, then one from one to seven and back, and...
He was alone. His foot slipped off the pedal, abruptly cutting the overtones. The top of the piano was closed, and there on the slick black surface stood the two photographs – Fetzle, Cage – back in their frames. Scootie lifted Harlan’s and studied his face – the slope of his shoulder, the thick silver beard, and how much his eyes resembled those of Rip Scalding.
Photo by MJV