Friday, August 8, 2014

Alcyone, Chapter Twenty-One: Charcoal Sketch

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Twenty One

To Scott Kross, the management of family affairs was tiresome and puzzling. There were too many sticky emotions involved, too many minds to read. Certainly a large part of his success in business was his ability to motivate people, to put the right pieces in place and make them work. But there he could always pull rank – and if that didn’t work, fire people. You couldn’t fire your wife. He pondered the complications two or three years down the line, when he and Juliana started having children. More personalities, more puzzles.
He was packing his suitcase. He heard the muted scufflings of his wife in the kitchen, smelled the Belgian waffles she was making for breakfast. Soon he would be finishing his cappuccino, complimenting his wife on another lovely Sunday brunch, and looking for a cue, a certain opening of her attentions through which he might nudge his words.
“Honey, I hope you won’t mind too much, but I’m afraid I need to check out to Chicago for a few days. I hate to leave, but there’s a matter that’s come up very suddenly, and they really do need my help.”
He could see the news sink into his wife’s pretty face, could see the way she would level her dark eyes at the tablecloth as she considered her response. After that, he had no idea – especially after that mess with Montreal and the Fetzle gala.
Juliana lifted the serving plate with a neutral smile, neither crestfallen nor elated. “That’s all right, honey. You’ve been very good to me the past three weeks, being around so much. I suppose I can lend you back to the company.”
Juliana watched as the weight lifted from her husband’s brow, as his eyes grew wide and relaxed. She had carried around this carefully crafted response for a week, hoping for a chance to use it. The problem now was, she had just left Scootie a message full of bad news. How to signal him that she was suddenly a free woman? She set the coffee cups in the sink, went to the living room and peered through the window, attempting to conjure a gold banner from the Fetzle battlements.
She decided it was time to break a rule. After replaying the familiar scene, kissing her husband goodbye and watching him tool off for the airport, she picked up the kitchen phone (an old-fashioned land line, giving off no free-flying radio waves). She dialed a number that she had memorized but never used.
“Are you alone?”
“This makes me very nervous, Scootie, but I couldn’t help it. The jayhawk has flown to the great lake.”
“Where and when do you want me?”
“You’re not busy?”
“Not anymore.”
“Good. How about the Villa? Three o’clock?”
“Good. And Scootie, I’m...”
“I’m very sorry.”
Her half-whisper played minor chords along the back of his neck. “That’s all right,” he said. “Nothing you could do.”
“Bye,” she said, and hung up in a rush.
Scootie held the phone away and studied the peppering of dots over the receiver, his mouth still forming the letter ‘b.’

The regular August fog had settled over the coast and was not about to loosen its grip. By a quarter past three, as Juliana hopped over the barricade of sticks, the air was cold and thick. She hoped that Scootie had thought to bring a blanket. She found him at Virginia’s memorial, mesmerized, rocking from one foot to the other.
“What are you doing, young man?”
“Oh, hi.” He went back to both feet and greeted her with a kiss. “I was seeing how many crackles and rustlings I could produce with a single step. The ambient noise is amazingly low; it’s as if the fog is walling everything off.”
By the end of his explanation, Scootie was talking on autopilot, since Juliana was roaming all over his neck, planting kisses every half-inch. “God, Scootie Jones, I could take a knife and fork and have you for dinner. Let’s clear out a spot and fuck like animals.”
Scootie laughed and held her shoulders. “I feel exactly the same, but first I’ve got something to show you. Come on.” He led her down a path, newly created, edges lined with logs and fallen branches.
“What have you been up to, you skunk? This path must have taken you days!”
“Anything to keep the goddess safe from poison oak. But there’s more.”
The gate marker had been swept of debris and cobwebs, the large boulder scrubbed to a rough sheen. At the base lay a foot-tall iron bell, similar to the ones Juliana had seen at San Juan Capistrano.
“Is that the doorbell?” she asked.
Scootie picked it up by a loop of iron and swung it to one side. The clapper rang out somber tone that hung in the air for twenty seconds.
“Thank you, Dr. Cage.”
“Old habits,” said Scootie. He led her down the front path, where those first tell-tale stones had turned into a stream, flattened and mortared in a graceful meander toward the door. The door of the cabin – risen like a phoenix from the forest flor.
“Scootie! You dug it out!” Juliana ran around the cabin’s exterior, gleeful as a child. Scootie flexed one hand in the other, sore from two weeks at the shovel and rake.
“There’s a fireplace!” said Juliana.
Scootie said nothing but pressed the latch of the front door and waved her in. The interior was lit by kerosene lamps and two large grated windows. The cabin’s musty odor had been replaced by the tang of disinfectants and lemon wood polish, and the surfaces glowed with warmth: the checkerboard tiles of the entryway, the blond hardwoods of the walls and ceiling, the redwood burl table with its mismatched chairs and overseeing griffins.
“There’s more,” said Scootie. “Try that door to the right.”
Juliana undid the wooden latch and entered the next room, even larger than the first. In the left-hand corner stood an escritoire, a sprawling black oak carved into its side, its upper shelf full of books with Spanish titles and a beaten-up wool cap. At the center stood a fireplace, its mantel hewn from sandstone the color of Fetzle Mansion. A trio of logs burned briskly on the grate, a dozen more stacked neatly nearby.
The far end of the room was commandeered by a large bed. Juliana lifted a hand along its dark walnut headboard and found an intricately carved pattern of acorns, grapevines and sun motifs. She looked back at Scootie, who was watching her from the doorway.
“Is it all right?” she asked.
“Sure. Like everything else, it’s remarkably well-preserved. Although I did bring in my own mattress and comforter.”
Juliana turned her back to the bed and lifted herself up. “How do you suppose our mystery dwarf got up here?”
Scootie pulled a handle under the bed, releasing a small stepladder affixed to the railing.
“Nifty.” Juliana laid her head back on the pillows and studied the beamwork criss-crossing the ceiling. “My God, Scootie. How did you ever do all this?”
Scootie lay down next to her and slipped a hand around her waist. “It’s amazing what one can achieve when one is deprived of sex for long periods of time.”
“Poor baby,” said Juliana, running her hands through his hair. “I’m so sorry for putting you through that. I thought that husband of mine would never leave. Come on, let’s un-deprive you.”
She drew a hand over his belt buckle, but Scootie stopped her. “One more thing,” he said. “Check out the portrait next to the door.”
Juliana looked back and spotted a small cream-colored square. She crossed the room and found a handsome frame of manzanita, holding a charcoal sketch of a boy in front of a large church, smiling awkwardly, hands in pockets. The inscription read Harlan Fetzle, twelve years old, Mexico City. It was signed, M. Barran.
Scootie patted the bed next to him. “Sit down, sweetheart. I’ve got a story to tell you.”

Photo by MJV

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