Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Alcyone, Chapter Forty-Four: RIP

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Forty Four

Now that he was done at the Shoreline, Scootie could bear down on the Lighthouse gig, mailing releases and photos to every editor in the area and pursuing stories with the old Fetzle-era weapon of friendly persistence. When he thought he was all tapped out, he thought of young Stephen Swan posting flyers for his King Lear and did the same, attacking every shopping center in a fifty-mile radius. He then sent out cards to the Lighthouse mailing list and booked the boys on a couple of community access TV shows. (He couldn’t wait to see them with Ethel and Rupert, a pair of septuagenarians who tended toward barbershop quartets and clog dancers.) Finally, he seized an abandoned billboard near the Lighthouse turnoff and turned it into a roadside monument to things Gelatinous.
By the following Sunday, he had finally run out of work, and allowed himself a day of rambling, beginning with a bike trip to Davenport and a couple hours of tidepooling at Bean Hollow. Still possessed by nervous energy, he hiked halfway to Miguel’s cabin before thinking better of it, then returned to town with thoughts of food.
He was passing by Derry’s Doughnuts when he caught the headline of the Hallis Gazette through the newsbox: Local Philanthropist Dead at 93. Scootie fished for a quarter and dropped it into the slot. He wandered inside, feeling strangely weightless in the warm, sweet-smelling room, ordered six maple bars, and ate them all as he sat in the corner, reading Rip’s obituary.

Scootie grabbed his navy blue blazer and drove south to Carmel. The funeral took place in the Carmel Mission, with a burial following in the mission cemetery. The service was brief and traditional: a few passages of scripture, a few words from the priest, but no real eulogy. Scootie arrived at Rip’s plot to find him in a neighborhood of nuns and priests. Dull company, he thought – and where had all this sudden Catholicism come from? Rip had never mentioned it.
There fifty in attendance, but most seemed to be maintaining a sort of professional distance. Aggie was there, with two others from the Hysterical Society. She gave a barely discernible finger-wave, not wanting to distract from the sanctity of the occasion. Scootie smiled back, but was hoping that would be the end of it. He didn’t feel like sharing his small slice of Rip’s life with anyone.
The priest, young and gaunt, read the rites in a tepid baritone. Scootie couldn’t see how any of this had much to do with the man in the coffin, so he took the time to study the surroundings, stripes of fog and sunshine coming in over the shoreline. He was jarred back by the machine they used to lower the casket. Just over the priest’s shoulder, further back in the crowd, he spotted a pair of dark eyes, sheltered beneath a formal black cap, and knew at a moment what she was doing here. The eyes came his way, then grew darker and glanced away.
After the service, the dark-clothed strangers filed past the grave and walked away, exchanging whispered admirations with their cohorts. Juliana and Scootie strolled along opposite sides of the cemetery, studying the headstones, harvesting the dead. Fifteen minutes later, when the last trio of mourners had disappeared around the corner, the two of them took circuitous routes to Rip’s headstone, a burnished white marble with flecks of gray, lying face-up on the cinnamon earth. They stood on either side, studying the clean lines of Rip’s name and years. Finally, the found the momentum to look at each other.
“You’re the young lady,” said Scootie.
Juliana smiled. “You’re the young man.” The smile faded, the corners of her mouth twitching with three horizons of loss. Scootie took a step to the side, the beginning of a waltz, and met her behind the headstone, wrapping her in navy blue.
“Oh God, Scootie. What have I done to you?”
Scootie laughed quietly. “A lot, Juli. A lot.”
A breeze blew through the eucalyptus, freeing a squadron of lunar-slice leaves. Juliana recovered and stood back, wiping her eyes with a black handkerchief. “I have a lot to tell you. About Rip. Can we go somewhere?”
Scootie had an immediate notion, but wasn’t ready to leave just yet. He guided Juliana to a bench and returned to the grave, where a couple of Mexican workers had arrived with shovels. Scootie went to the older of the two, a kindly looking man with a bushy gray moustache, and spoke to him in Spanish. She could hear momentito and por favor, then the man smiled and handed Scootie his shovel. Scootie drove the blade with the heel of his wingtips, then pulled out a load of coffee-colored soil and let it slide sideways, marking the percussion of the clods as they fell on Rip’s casket.

They spent an hour of half-conscious browsing through the gift shops of Cannery Row, then headed for the Monterey Aquarium. They stood at the otter tank, where Scootie waved at one who reminded him of Rip. Juliana quickly refocused his attentions.
“Rip was Harlan Fetzle’s nephew.”
Scootie blinked his eyes in reverse. “Pardon?”
“You remember Harlan’s sister?”
“Katrina Marie. Joined a convent and changed her name to Claire. Spent a week at Harlan’s deathbed, trying to talk him into giving the estate to the church.”
“Which he declined to do, being not entirely fond of organized religion.”
“For good reason,” said Scootie, thinking aloud.
“Nothing. Go on.”
“Well. The reason Katrina Marie ended up at the convent was that she took up with a young man from Berkeley, son of a successful gold miner, who got her pregnant and rascalled off to New York. The Fetzle family sent her off to Carmel, where she was taken care of by the sisters. She was so touched by their charity, so traumatized by the cost of her sin, that she decided to join up.”
“And the baby was a little boy,” Scootie guessed.
“Ripley Bergdorf. Given the made-up name of Scalding by his Uncle Harlan, who took him in, arranged for him to be raised by his household servants, and eventually put him to work as a stable boy.”
“Do you suppose he knew Miguel?”
“I’m sure of it. In fact, he occasionally joined his uncle for expeditions to Villa Califa. Years later, though, he could no longer remember the route.”
“Now wait a minute,” said Scootie. “How come you didn’t tell me any of this before?”
“Because I didn’t know. Rip named me the executor of his estate – most importantly, his literary estate. I’ve been reading his books for three days straight.”
Scootie cocked an eyebrow. “Books? Plural?”
“Yes. One on Harlan. And one on his marital adventures, called Old Wives Tales.”
“Ooh! That’s bad.”
“I’m checking with the lawyers to see if we can change it to something more subtle. In any case...”
“Hold it,” said Scootie. “Go back a second. How did you and Rip meet?”
“Chamber of Commerce luncheon. He was there with the Hysterical Society. YOu know my family history – I’m always shopping for father figures, and who could resist Rip? In any case, I knew you only as the ‘young man’ he would play chess with on Sundays.”
Just then, the otters spotted their trainers arriving with buckets of shellfish, and celebrated with joyous somersaults through the water. Scootie laughed, then returned to Juliana. “He also never mentioned this ‘Local Philanthropist’ stuff.”
He was pretty private. All his donations were anonymous. Children’s funds – everywhere. Children’s literacy, childhood diseases, Little League, 4-H. With one exception: a gay rights group in San Francisco.”
Scootie smiled secretly.
“He had a trust fund from Uncle Harlan, but he gave most of it away. He seemed to have a strong desire to be his own man.”
“Oh, he was that. By the way, that piece I used to play for you in the library? It wasn’t Tchaikovsky – it was Liszt.”
“That’s... nice,” said Juliana, puzzled.

They sat before a bust of Steinbeck and three triangles: the terraces of the Aquarium to their left, a spanking new tourist mall to the right, and in between, an inverted spike of royal blue ocean. A yellow kayak came straight down the middle, skimming the kelp beds in a left-right bob. Scootie inhaled the salt-trace air, and finally felt ready to venture into rockier terrain.
“So. If we have decided Rip Scalding was his own man... Are you your own woman?”
Juliana took Scootie’s hand and produced the most gradual slow-motion smile yet. “Almost.” She tapped a finger on the back of Scootie’s knuckles, thinking. “After conducting a little controlled burn on my personal psychic fields – my little euphemism for the unforgivable things I did to you...”
“Answer the question, please.”
“Okay. I... focused my energies on the Fetzle finances, and my own troubled marriage. Fetzle is doing okay. My marriage is not.”
“Scott wouldn’t change.”
“Oh, at first he was very enthusiastic. I made him agree to some counseling, alone and together. He promised to start right after this trip to Edinburgh, and that trip to Venezuela. The weeks grew into months and I began to understand who my husband really is. He’s an energetic, beautiful boy, a son of Apollo, passionately devoted to his art... and not necessarily to the people he loves.”
The corners of her mouth began to twitch again. She had resighted one of her three horizons.
Scootie took the crumbs from his sandwich and threw them into a mob of pigeons circling Steinbeck’s pedestal. “So where does that leave us?”
“I am legally separated, which implies some hope of reconciliation, but there is none. For the past month, I have reigned as the widow queen of Blaze Hill, have even resorted to throwing new paint on those godawful white walls.” (Scootie smiled secretly again.) “Scott hasn’t actually moved out, but I don’t believe that man actually requires a home, not in the usual sense. He is at home in any place on the globe where the lights congregate and send their glow up to the astronauts.”
“And you can always call room service for a midnight pizza,” added Scootie.
“Hmm. This is a guy thing, isn’t it?”
“I know a cowgirl in Austin who would tell you otherwise.”
“But still, your husband is a fool.”
If there were any doubts, these last words erased them. Juliana lifted Scootie’s hand, opened his fingers and pressed her lips to his palm. “That’s a very sweet thing to say, Scootie.”
Scootie felt a certain mail pressure to to follow up on this lead, but he owed it to himself to wait for an invitation. He didn’t have to wait for long.
“Scootie. It’s pretty outrageous for me to expect anything from you, but... would you come to Blaze Hill tonight and let me cook you dinner?”
Scootie smiled as slowly as he could manage. “Only,” he said, “if you don’t make me hide in the wine cellar.”
Juliana leaned into his shoulder and answered in a low voice. “You can dance naked on the rooftops, for all I care.”
Their laughter faded into the ring of tourist noises, families with wandering children, the chatter of foreign languages, Japanese students photographing each other in front of every available landmark, and a tall old man in his Sunday best, parading a blazing Dalmatian through the collective chaos. Scootie watched him go, and found Juliana matching his gaze.
“I’m gonna miss that old man,” he said.
“Me too.”
Scootie straightened up and propped his elbows on the back of the bench, a familiar motion. Juliana snickered. “You’re going to tell me a story, aren’t you?”
“Matter of fact,” said Scootie. “I am. John Cage was at this concert, talking about how he learned to cope with a friend’s death. Years before, this friend had moved to Buffalo. Cage talked with his friend about once a week, and eventually got used to his not being in New York. ‘So now,’ he said, ‘I don’t have to think of him as being dead. I just think of him as being in Buffalo.’”

Photo by MJV

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