Scootie lay in a haphazard clump, trying to hinge his jaws back together with a perpendicular yawn. A single woodshaving had attached itself to the inside of his mouth, and he had to whack his head against the side of the tank to knock it loose.
“Can you imagine every single meal being such a trauma?” asked Juliana. “I’d lose weight for sure.” She watched the softball-size lump making its way down Scootie’s body.
“Maybe so,” said Scootie. “But you’d only have to eat once a week.”
“Yeah,” said Audrey. “He can even go two or three if you’re on vacation. Makes him a little snippy...”
“You know,” said Juliana. “I knew a man once who had a friend with one of these, and it got out one night and strangled the kid next door.”
Audrey broke out laughing. “Oh God. Do you know how many times I’ve heard that? ‘My uncle’s next-door neighbor...’ ‘This kid who went to school with my cousin...’ ‘...got into the crib and swallowed the baby whole!’ Hee!”
“Oh,” said Juliana. She was feeling a little defensive to begin with, and this wasn’t helping. “So you mean, none of these stories are true?”
“Not a single one, is my guess. And even if there’s a mishap here or there, it’s nothing compared to how often some kid gets their face chewed off by a dog. There’s just something morbidly fascinating about snakes, so we make up stories. We’re all a little hung up on Tarzan movies and the old Adam and Eve con job. Want some potato skins?”
“Yeah, try one,” said Scootie. “’Sgot parmesan cheese, and garlic.”
Juliana adjusted her vision from Scootie to the toothless grin of his namesake. If only the rat hadn’t been so cute...
“I, uh, I’ll try some a little later.”
“Okay,” said Audrey. “But don’t wait too long. You’re going to need a lot of stamina tonight. I’ll be right back with some juice.”
Juliana watched Audrey tap down the stairs, then spoke to Scootie in low tones. “What’s she got up her sleeve?”
Scootie shook his head. “I really have no idea.” In truth, he did, having noticed the depleted state of Audrey’s store, but he didn’t want to spoil her fun. She returned with glasses of mango nectar.
“Thanks,” said Juliana. She lifted a potato skin and tried a bite.
“So you’re not in the captain’s mansion,” said Scootie.
Audrey smiled. “Roger is ensconced with his mother and stepfather for a week of family bonding.”
“So, what? We’re sleeping in the loft?”
“Who said anything about sleeping?” said Audrey.
The mystery escalated when Audrey ushered them into Roger’s four-wheel-drive and headed straight for the mansion. When she got to the driveway, however, she bore right, and kept going for half a mile, pulling in at a dirt lot bordered by undergrowth.
“Come on down,” said Audrey, holding a jungle-size flashlight. They followed her to the corner of the lot, where she split the bushes onto a narrow trail. “It’s a little treacherous,” she called back. “Watch out for low branches.”
The trail emerged on a clearing of palmetto fronds, sweeping the hillsides like limp broomheads. Around a bend, they climbed a band of small boulders and landed on sand, a small cove bracketed by overhangs of pockmarked rock. At the midpoint, Scootie could make out a jumble of shapes, like sculptures in a dark gallery.
It didn’t stay dark for long. Katie McGregor sent a pyramid of logs into broad orange flames (with help from one or two buckets of lighter fluid). The light revealed just about every percussion instrument known to mankind, plus a Deadhead-looking young man, smiling through a beard and two-foot dreadlocks.
“Juliana, this is Katie McGregor, my assistant manager and best pal, and this is Sal, Katie’s pal and bedmate.”
“Hi,” said Juliana, shaking their hands. “Nice to meet you.” Katie, a little overawed at the evening’s grand romantic overtones, squirmed her feet in the sand, rattling the jingle bells tied to her ankles.
“Well, that said, you may now leave us, troops.” Audrey handed Katie the keys to the four-wheel-drive. “And thanks for helping us out.”
“Eight o’clock?” asked Katie.
They slid away with a flashlight, then Audrey took Juliana’s hand and led her to the other side of the fire. “I’ve got a few other friends I’d like you to meet.”
Scootie followed, and watched as Audrey gave names to the animals of her kingdom, and demonstrated their playing. She finished by handing Juliana a cabasa and spelling out the night’s activities. It was Scootie’s job to man the large membranophones – a trio of congas, the ceramic djembe, the Japanese taiko – and lay down the basic rhythms. She and Juliana were free to wander a shopper’s paradise, picking up smaller instruments – frame drums, rattles, gourds, bullroarers – and adding to the mix. They were allowed breaks for water, for working out sore appendages, and for exchanging instruments – but preferably one player at a time, lest the beat be allowed to die. The object was to produce an unending string of sound from the present time – a little after midnight – to sunrise, which arrived about six o’clock.
“Now. All that said – are you up for it?” asked Audrey.
“Do I have a choice?” asked Juliana.
“Smart girl,” said Audrey.
The everlasting hum of body against instrument, instrument against air, contained too many small niches for Scootie to recall. Some he would have to reassign to dreams. Four exceptional moments, however, managed to leave a mark, and he would return to them later whenever the opinion-infested path they were destined to trod got him down.
The first was the discovery of Juliana’s innate rhythmic sensibilities. For the first two hours, he stuck to the straight-ahead drive of four/four, but eventually he got bored and had to shed a few articles of his musical clothing. He began with a 7/8 (which always reminded him of Jewish folk dances), delved into the triplicate of waltzes (rarely associated with drum-jams) then spun off into a circular string of syncopations that he must have picked up from some Indian tabla recording (the changes were so random, in fact, that he couldn’t even assign numbers to it). At each of these turnoffs, he would catch Juliana tilting her head quizzically, hands running a stall on her instrument-of-the-moment till she could sort out the new pattern and begin punching in accents. He was thrilled by the flash of recognition, the thoughts rising from hands to head. She was, in short, a natural.
Moment number two arrived at about four hours. With reddening palms and Jell-O forearms, Scootie swore off the hard edges of the djembe and relaxed on the tumba, largest of the congas. He thumped a beat in the soft center while slapping the sausage links of his free hand against his jeans, praying for resuscitation.
This is crazy, he thought – and not the “oh, ain’t we nuts” jocular kind of crazy. Literal mental dysfunction. If there were local authorities within their sound waves, they would drag them off in a second, before they wore off one of their limbs. But then he had no choice, did he? If he were ever to attain the silver bracelet charms that make life worth living, it would be with this flame-kissed goddess, shaking and slapping international trinkets before him. His reward came at sunrise, and it required only that he ignore the pain, and lay down a beat.
At moment number three, Scootie found the crescent moon rimming their southern overhang like the point of a can-opener. The other crescent was Juliana’s smile, as she snapped two blondewood sticks together in rapid divided beats, then flipped them over to reveal their marshmallow tips. Timpani mallets. And wasn’t that something, sweating from her brow on a forty-degree morning/night, halfway to walking pneumonia, drum cancer or some other rhythmic disease, but still thinking of him, of his tortured hands. He took the mallets and rang them down on his congas, eliciting a tropical chime like steel drums, the round handles rubbing smoothly in the pocket of his palms. Juliana strolled back to the fire, down to coals, blue snake-tongue flames flicking out here and there, then lifted an orchestral triangle and dropped a shower of tinkerbells into his hair.
Vision number four. The three of them had spoken no words for an hour, but knew, the way that jazz players know each other’s riffs, that the sun was approaching. The Apollo-worship began in earnest, the gauging of eyes to eastern shades of blue – the kind of blue that Renoir swirled around his wife’s parasol, that Matisse set into tall glass panels, that Warhol set around prints of Campbell’s Soup cans. Any of these would do.
When it finally arrived, pulling baby blue sheets over the ceiling, Scootie set his ruined thumbs into a samba. Audrey motioned Juliana to a sack of objects near the boulders, and they returned with Indonesian chimes on their forearms, Peruvian sheep’s-hooves around their ankles. They pulled their feet into a skip around the fire, then, suitably warmed up, stamped their feet and shook their arms with a miraculous physicality (the final giveout before the long-awaited rest).
Drawn up by this view of the city limits, Scooite beat his flapjack palms in a happy generic dance over his congas. He spied the first buzz of sunlight striking the ocean and accelerated to the tempo of “Don’t Wanna Be Your Adolf, Baby.” Audrey skipped by, smiling deliriously, having dropped her Irish sweater somewhere. A little later, she cackled by with no T-shirt, her breasts barely contained by a black lace bra. Scootie retained enough native anxiety to hope that none of this was inspired by female competition, then found Juliana cavorting his way, topless, breasts bobbing as she lifted her face to the lightening sky and howled.
As Scootie raced the tempo into speed metal, more and more laundry fell to the sand, and the two of them finally abandoned ship, stripping their bells and racing to the waves, where they slapped Alaska-cold water all over each other. Scootie raised his arms over the congas, let his palms fall with one final exclamation point, then strung a trail of clothing across the beach as he ran to join them.
“Pretty neat trick,” said Scootie, flopping back on Miguel Barran’s bed. “How did you manage this?”
Juliana smiled and stashed an informational plaque under the mattress. “I’m the president of the board, sonny. For all the shit I put up with, I deserve an occasional historical-site roll in the hay. Besides, I think I owe you one. If you hadn’t figured it out, I was the one who slipped Aggie that anonymous tip.”
“And granted her enough local-history brownie points to last the length of her forced retirement,” said Scootie.
Juliana straddled him, holding her fists like sledgehammers. “Are we even on guilt yet? Can I bop you on the head for that comment? Please say yes.”
Scootie managed a sit-up and planted a kiss on Juliana’s snarling lips. “I have for you a token of my esteem – a diploma of sorts – but first, some final questions. Are you eternally, helplessly drawn to me, like a Greek sailor to sirens, like a Republican to country clubs, like a teenager to the kind of his music his parents can’t stand?”
Juliana smiled sweetly. “Yes.”
“Are you ready to support the proposition that two people can share wildly disparate worlds, no matter the differences in their upbringings and social standings – provided a bond of core values like petting cute dogs on public sidewalks and never leaving the movie theater until the end of the credits?”
She placed a hand on Scootie’s chest like a faith healer and shouted, “Amen!”
“Lastly,” said Scootie. “Do you pledge, here before the sacred woodcarvings of Miguel Barran, that you will never, ever conspire to deprive Scootie Jones of his position as publicist and manager of the rock band which shall henceforth be known as Gelatinous Bubba, nor any other positions of gainful employment which he should henceforth fake his way into?”
“Hands off,” said Juliana, and crossed her heart.
“All right, then.” He fished in his pocket and pulled out a pair of rawhide loops, each of them strung through a New York City subway token.
“Scootie!” She pulled one over her head and studied the double ring of nickel and brass.
Scootie ran a drum-callused hand along the side of her face. “Thirty-Fourth and Broadway, Juli. From here, we can go anywhere you want.”
“How about Houston?” she said.
“Yes. I have tickets for tomorrow morning. We’re driving from there to Galveston, where we will meet Jackie Simmer at a restaurant called the Balinese Room. We will sit on a terrace overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, eat oysters on the half-shell, then adjourn to the beach for a sloppy messy dessert of papayas.”
Juliana nodded vigorously. “Yes. Papayas.”
Overcome with boyish glee, Scootie took the top button of Juliana’s blouse between his teeth, ripped it out, then twisted sideways to spit it like a watermelon seed. It landed on the nightstand, next to a charcoal sketch of Harlan Fetzle.
Photo: the author and the inspiration for Scootie, Jr., "Simic."Photo by Hilary Schalit, Willow Glen Resident.