Scootie caught up with Juliana on the trail and told her about Jackie’s troubles. They arrived at the cabin just ahead of a rainstorm, and sat there marveling at Miguel Barran’s handiwork – not a single leak.
“So how is she now?” asked Juliana.
“Better. She’s back at work, booking the spring shows. She has her moments, though. She seems to hit a wall about three o’clock each afternoon, so I’ve instituted a two-thirty trip to the Bolero.
“You’re a good friend, Scootie. But then, I knew you would be.”
“Because you have so many. It’s strange, though. You seem to have assigned each of them a specific activity: Cindy and stars, Jackie and theater, Audrey and pigeons, Geoffrey and Scrabble.”
“Okay, Geoffrey gets two. But it’s all very... compartmentalized. And it makes me wonder where I fit in. Am I your fucking friend?”
“Definitely,” said Scootie.
Juliana had worn a long floral print, for a very specific reason. She crossed the floor with precise steps, swishing the hem back and forth. Scootie turned on his mental video for workday playback. Juliana pivoted and pulled herself up to the bed, dangling her legs over the side. “I should slap you silly for answering so quickly. But I happen to agree. She fell back on the bed and lifted her legs, straight up like a gymnast. The dress fell down to her hips, then she opened her legs in a V.
“Ah,” said Scootie. “I think also you are my licking friend.” He knelt before the bed, slid his hands under Juliana’s bottom and dove into his work. Overcome by her own aggression, Juliana found her body going places without her. When Scootie added a thumb she hit the edge, the warmth rising in a wave from her pelvis to her temples. Scootie held his mouth in place, pressing a palm to her abdomen till her movements subsided. He lifted his head, wiped his mouth and declared, “You... are a wet girl.”
“I think I am,” she said. Juliana reached up to find her face and hair covered with water. The source was directly above her: a rapidly dripping leak over the center of the bed. Scootie took a towel from the nightstand and handed it to Juliana, who laughed as she dried herself off. “Oh, honey! What’ll we do? The bed’s getting all wet.”
“Let’s try to move it,” he said. “Over here.” They joined forces at the headboard and pushed it a foot, then did the same at the foot, seesawing forward until the drip was striking the stone floor. Juliana found a bucket and placed it underneath. The first drop struck the bottom with a hollow “putt!” followed by a steady, percussive march.
“Listen to that!” said Scootie.
“Don’t even start on that shit, mister. I’m not done with you.”
“Haven’t lost the mood?”
“It would take Niagara Falls.” She kissed him and ran a hand over his crotch.
“Wait a minute,” said Scootie. He crouched to look at something on the floor.
“Look. Miguel is such a perfectionist – why would he leave this here?” He pointed out a six-inch slot where the mortaring suddenly left off. “And it cuts off so neatly.” He fit his fingers into the slot and lifted, raising the stone to reveal a concrete recess. At the center lay a small bundle wrapped in leather. Scootie drew it out and unfolded the covering. At the top he found a photograph, a young Mexican man in a formal suit and shallow derby, watching the camera with grim, dark eyes. Scootie flipped it over and found handwriting.
“Fernando Raul Enriquez, Ciudad de Mexico, 1887.” He looked at Juliana.
“I have no idea,” she said. “What about the letters?”
“All in Spanish. Addressed from Mexico City. Do you know Spanish?”
Might be tough to find a translator who could keep a secret. Wait a minute...”
“This one’s in English.” Scootie extracted a card with ornate, engraved lines, and opened it to find a graceful medium-sized cursive in a vaguely familiar hand, letters slanting to the right as if they were fighting off a windstorm. “Dated March Eight, 1908,” he said. “Dear Señor Barran...
I am enormously grateful the winds of fate delivered you to our land of Amazons some twenty years ago, even though I realize the exile from your homeland has been difficult to bear.
I cannot thank you enough for presenting such a steady, understanding ear to my most perplexing problems. Having long since resigned myself to the hostile purgatory of this frontier society, as well as to the unrelenting obligations of family and business (which in my case are two heads of the same beast), I cannot tell you what joyous relief I have found in finally speaking my heart. If it weren’t for you and Jennifer, I would most certainly be reduced to a shell of a man.
I am your friend always,
“H.F.?” asked Juliana.
“It ain’t Howard Fink,” said Scootie.
Scootie knew where to find answers, but not necessarily how to ask the questions. After a doughnut breakfast with Jackie (that faraway rodeo look still in her eyes), he plodded through a dripping mist to the Bolero. He had worked his way through most of the Sunday New York Times before Rip finally showed up, with a Sherlock Homes trench coat and an English umbrella with a carved mahogany handle. At a mention of the weather, he launched directly into the story of wife number one.
“I met her in the rain. Genevieve Florence Walker. I called her Genny. Tiny, sweet thing, but the heart of a lion and the disposition of a rhino. Left Oregon at the age of sixteen to be a schoolteacher in Seward, Alaska. Summers she worked as a cook in the mining camps, serving up the sweetest pork and beans you have ever set tongue upon, laced with brown sugar and molasses. Made it by the ton. Those miners – I should say, we miners – could really pack it away.
“I was choppin’ wood in Washington State when someone told me I could double my pay in Alaska. I was off on the next ship. First caught sight of Genny front of the Seward General, standin’ in the rain, tossin’ sacks of flour like they was Teddy bears. Sparkling blue eyes, and a smile that sorta snuck up on you. Saw that smile for the first time when I asked her if she needed some help loadin’ up.
“I was a little shy back then – believe it or not – and it took me till the end of summer, watchin’ that iron angel dish out meal meal after meal, before I asked her to a church social. I had saved up enough for a nice wool suit, and I guess she was impressed.
“Things happened fast on the frontier. I called on her three times more before I asked for her hand. Before I knew it, we had a cabin outside of town, and Genny was pregnant. I got a job at a saloon, servin’ drinks and tryin’ to keep the miners from killin’ each other, and Genny and I would spend our days taking our little boat out on the Blying Sound. ‘Cept for the skeeters, Alaska summers are the most beautiful I’ve seen.
“She delivered just fine – beautiful little girl, Margaret, died eight years ago in Chicago – but two days later she started hemorrhaging. No apparent reason. Before we could get her to the doctor – there was only one in town – she’d lost too much blood. She left us three hours later.”
Scootie knew from previous tellings that Rip didn’t expect sympathy, but still he respected the old man’s silence, as he turned his blue-gray eyes to the rain over Hallis Beach. He came back in a minute with his habitual wink.
“So. What’s up with you, young Leonardo?”
“Jennifer,” said Scootie. “Friend of Harlan’s Do you know her?”
“Jennifer Coleman Brisk,” said Rip. “Glamor girl. Something of a novelist, thought she never did apply herself. Happy to churn out semi-scandalous romances, then run off to parties at Fetzle Mansion. Rumor had it she even wrote a few dime Westerns under a pseudonym: Jumpin’ John Brisco.”
“Any involvement with Uncle Harlan?”
Rip rubbed a thumb over the handle of his umbrella. Scootie could see the carving now, a young man grooming a stallion.
“Why do you call him Uncle?”
“Oh,” said Scootie. “I don’t know. Guess I’ve been at Fetzle for a while and...”
“Oh, I see. Yep, I guess I feel the same way. But to answer your question – I’m pretty sure Harlan and Jennifer were just pals. Harlan didn’t seem much interested in romance and marriage. He was too busy with the arts, and his lumber company. And his favorite state. Would’ve run for governor, hadn’t been for the war.”
“So I heard,” said Scootie.
“‘Course, you know how people talk. Lifetime bachelor like Harlan, anytime he consorted with a female, ‘specially a racy character like Jennifer, the rumor mill revved right up. Still does. Did I answer your question?”
“Pretty much.” Scootie couldn’t see any way of bringing up Harlan’s “perplexing problems” without giving away Villa Califa.
“So,” said Rip. “How would you like to do a typical old man thing, and play a game of checkers?”
Photo by MJV