FREE on Amazon Kindle, Oct 6.
Jackie Simmer rambled around Fetzle Mansion for ten minutes before she found Scootie Jones kneeling at the grandfather clock in the library. Scootie was eyeing the pipe-bells, silver chains and dangling weights as they rang off ten o’clock.
“Scootie, what the hell are you doin’?”
He held her off with a raised hand, letting the final peal fade out. “If you could time a performance for precisely twelve o’clock, you could use padded mallets to play extra notes on the bells. How cool would that be?”
“Scootie darlin’, you know how fond I am of that fertilized egg of yours, but we got a meetin’ right now, with an important trustee. So get off your butt!”
Scootie laughed and bounced form the floor like a Russian dancer. “I’m all yours.” He followed her down the hall, whispering inquiries at her shoulder. “So who’s the big shot?”
“Juliana Kross. A rather intimidatin’ figure. Married to the cash-machine honcho lives up on Blaze Hill.”
“The white adobe?”
“Okay. So I’m intimidated. What’s she going to talk about?”
Jackie shrugged and opened the door to the conference room. The staff was pecking away at a cherry ring danish while their guest sat in the corner, conferring with Garth. Oh yeah, thought Scootie. No forgetting Mrs. Kross. She had thick chestnut hair, cut in a short businesswoman’s wedge, and dark eyes, a shade of coal-pit brown he had seen only in a mirror. She caught Scootie watching her and glanced sideways with a slow-motion smile, causing him a tingle of embarrassment plus something that felt like a baker applying lemon frosting to the back of his neck. He sat down and pretended to read a flyer from a year-old Beckett Festival.
Although Garth Denstrom was ostensibly the director of the Fetzle Theater Center, it was Jackie who ran the meetings. She sat down next to Scootie and slapped the table with her hand. “People, people! Let’s get this thing started. We’ve got company today, so please, behave yourselves.” The staff responded with a general snicker. “We will be forestallin’ the usual boring crap today so that our guest, Miz Juliana Kross, can make a special announcement. Miz. Kross?”
“Please,” she said. “Juliana. Um... why don’t I stand? I’m always more comfortable when I can make a quick getaway.”
She wore black dress pants and a pressed white blouse that lent an air of alarm to her dark features. She stood and whipped out her pirate sleeves before bracing her hands on the back of Garth’s shoulders.
“In 1956, a senior at Hallis High School decided to put on a production of King Lear. He asked the Fetzle trustees for use of the 500-seat Equestrian Theater, and, just to make sure he filled the place, he hung posters on every storefront from Watsonville to Pacifica. He also talked a local studio into donating publicity photos, and hounded every newspaper in the region for coverage.
“Of course, the main job was whipping together a solid cast. Given the large number of roles in the play, he gave many of them multiple roles, and drilled them mercilessly. Shakespeare began to spill out into the halls and courtyards of campus. One student, presented with an unappetizing tray of food, was heard to respond to the cafeteria ladies, ‘There’s hell, there’s darkness, there is the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding, stench, consumption. Fie, fie, fie: pah, pah!’”
The staff remained silent. Juliana went smartly on.
“Well, as you might guess, the production was a smash. They performed on a set designed to look like the Fetzle Mansion itself. The local theater critics said it was better than most adult productions. The only flaw was Mark Zylok’s attacks of spoonerism as the Fool. ‘He that has and a little tiny wit’ became ‘He that has and a little winy tit.’ ‘Look, here comes a walking fire’ became ‘Look, here comes a falking wire.’”
The staff, finally convinced that a trustee was actually being funny, let out a cautious chuckle.
“And the senior boy gave a phenomenal account of the title character, convincing everybody, as one critic put it, ‘that there, within the frame of a young man only recently granted his driver’s license, dwelt the soul of an aging, tormented monarch.
“The show ran for six weeks, continuing for two weeks after graduation. The director donated the proceeds to the Fetzle Theater Center and Hallis High, for the development of a summer youth drama workshop that continues to this day.”
Having paced several times from one end of the table to the other, Juliana returned to Garth and replaced her hands on his shoulders.
“The name of the senior boy was Stephen Swan – winner, as I am sure you know, of three Tonys and one Oscar. And why do I tell you this? Because, on June 26, Mr. Swan is returning to Fetzle to give a gala performance – at which performance, our Equestrian Theater will be re-christened the Swan Theater.”
The dozen members of the staff broke into a mix of applause and excited banter. Garth struggled to think up an appropriate declarative statement.
“That’s wonderful! That is really... wonderful!”
As usual, Jackie ignored the cheerleading and cut to the chase. “One thing, Juliana. What exactly will Mr. Swan be doin’ at this gala?”
“That’s a good question, Jackie. He hasn’t worked out the details yet, but he says it’ll be a kind of ‘greatest hits’ show, a mix of behind-the-scenes anecdotes and performed excerpts from his plays and films. He says it’s something he’s been wanting to do for years. And he wants to finish with Cordelia’s death scene from Lear.”
“Perfect,” said Scootie. “Maybe we can give Mark Zylok another stab at the Fool.”
“Yes,” said Aggie, the box office manager. “Perhaps this time he’ll get the falking thing right.”
Now that the staff was more comfortable with Juliana, they gave Aggie’s joke twice the laughter it deserved. Jackie Simmer let it go for thirty seconds before she started slapping the table again, wishing for the umpteenth time that someone would give her a gavel.
“All right, people, that’s enough hee-haw for one Thursday. Juliana, have you checked with Annie on the catering?”
It was Scootie’s favorite trick, holding the sustain pedal as he ran up and down the keyboard, piling up notes like atoms in an accelerator, shooting off overtones. He see-sawed his left hand along the lower register, building a rumble, then took his right hand to the soprano range, picking raindrops from the ceiling and dropping them into the soup. He reached centerward for a devil’s chord, black key-white key, half-step apart, and struck it repeatedly as his left hand climbed a chromatic scale.
There was something inside this cave of music, and someday he would open the gates to find haystacks of jewels and ice cream. Somewhere in there, like... here? He bunched his hands on a seven-note chord, let it rise like a kite on a string, then played a staccato ping-pong match, a duple meter against a triple. Then he gave up, slammed the sustain, and played every note he could get his hands on, a sonic DNA, tones winding around each other like eels in a barrel. He closed his eyes, letting the sound diminish to a noteless hum, then opened them to find that he was not alone.
“My, that was invigorating.” Juliana Kross entered the library in a white tennis outfit. “Who was that by?”
Scootie had to breathe a little to hide his surprise. “Leonard Jones. An American.”
“My real name. Long story.”
“Well. I like your music. Do you have it written down?”
“I just make it up, really. I think if I actually knew what I was doing, I wouldn’t do it.”
“Like John Cage, right? I mean, in theoretical terms.”
He was thrown off by the sound of his hero’s name. “Well... yes.”
“I’ve always thought that Cage stretched the definition of music in the same way that Marcel Duchamp stretched art. Very liberating. And to some, very threatening. What would a graduate of Julliard think if he found a publicity director making up art music on the fly?”
“I imagine he’d want his tuition back.”
“Yes.” Juliana settled in a burgundy armchair, and crossed her deer-like legs. “Scootie, Leonard – whatever your name is. Why don’t you get off that piano bench, and sit over here on the couch. I’d like to chat.”
Scootie had the uneasy feeling he was in for either trouble or extra work. Why else would Juliana Kross be haunting the Fetzle library in a tennis skirt at seven in the evening?
“Oh, and I’m sorry about the odd attire,” she said. “I just finished a match with Mrs. Benedetti up the road and thought I’d drop by to pick up some letterhead. But I’m glad I ran into you, because I wanted to ask you a few things.”
“Such as... “ She studied the portrait of Harlan Fetzle over the mantelpiece. “Do you know much about Harlan?”
“I have to.”
“So tell me something.”
“Okay.” Scootie slid his legs beneath him on the couch, cat-like. “His father was a German lumber baron who exploited the California coastal forests – some would say savagely – to build his millions. After his father’s death, Harlan did a good job of managing the business, but worried his family with his love of opera, theater and poetry.
“Harlan decided a refuge from the San Francisco estate would be a good idea, so he came here and built a mansion – Richardsonian Romanesque, inspired by the courtyard at Stanford – with an unexpected side-effect. The sandstone was the same color as the coastal grasses, so, except for the green winter months, the place tends to disappear into the hillside. Which is why the locals call it... “
“Chameleon Manor,” said Juliana. “Okay. I’m impressed. But what are your feelings on the central question?”
“Why didn’t Harlan ever marry? I think he was so preoccupied with the arts, and politics, and his mansion, that he didn’t want to bother.”
“But you know what the volunteer ladies say,” said Juliana.
“That Harlan was homosexual. But that’s because the volunteer ladies are hopelessly conventional.”
“What about the story that Harlan kneeled in a carriage to propose to a young lady, only to be dumped onto the street below?”
Scootie laughed. “Harlan may have been German, but that one is pure blarney. He had a reputation for... story-telling.”
They both stopped to study the portrait. Harlan stood with one hand on his desk, intent, statesmanlike.
“You’ve got a little blarney yourself, Juliana.”
“That presentation today. So well-performed. Shakespearean quotes, no less. You must have been an actress.”
Juliana flushed slightly. “Well. Touche.” She smiled for a moment, then performed an internal switch back to business.
“I did want to ask you something, Scootie. My husband is connected with this marketing agency in San Francisco, and he seems to think they’d be a great help in handling this gala. It seems like a huge project to dump on a one-man publicity department.”
Scootie answered with barely a hesitation. “Three reasons I would disagree. One, every performing center has little quirks that take years to learn. Two, assuming your agency would want to use its own graphics, printing and shipping people, we might alienate our core constituency by taking money out of the pockets of local businesspeople. Three, a gala depends more on personal contacts than a regular show, since it’s a chance to see and be seen – and to be seen supporting a worthy cause. We’re already ahead on that account, since you and your husband are possibly the most well-connected couple in Northern California.”
Juliana gave Scootie an amused, close-mouthed smile. “You’re an actor yourself.”
“Very well-rehearsed. And that little surgical strike of flattery at the end. Very impressive.”
“Okay, okay,” said Scootie, laughing. “I was forewarned by Jackie, who – like me – can’t stand the idea of passing every idea we get to a bunch of cocky, no-neck suits in San Francisco.”
“But this, too. Assuming these guys are doing this pro-bono, we will always be on the bottom of the pile when it comes to priorities, and they will respond with dirty looks and evasions every time we make a suggestion, or disagree with what they’re doing.”
Juliana nibbled on a broken fingernail, considering his point.
“Damn! You are good.”
“Tell you what, though. I could use someone to consult with. Could you set me up with one guy from the agency?”
“I’ve got just the guy,” said Juliana. “Kathleen, their purchasing manager.”
“Bingo. Let’s set up a lunch.”
They reached their agreement with a smile, and a look that went on a little long. Scootie spotted the brass clock on the coffee table. “Oh, geez. I’ve got to get going.”
“What’s on the agenda?” Juliana rose with him.
“Cindy,” said Scootie.
“And what do you do with Cindy?”
“Stars. Can I walk you out?”
“No thanks. I’ll stay a minute and chat with Uncle Harlan.”
“Fine. Good night, then.”
“Good night, Scootie.”
A handshake seemed too formal, so they settled for a waist-high wave. Juliana sat in the burgundy armchair, trying to figure out why she felt so unsettled. Eyes she had seen only in a mirror. When the grandfather clock chimed eight, she went to the piano and tried to match the note.
Scootie met Cindy Parker at a group viewing of the Perseid meteor shower. They share a keen interest in the mythologies behind the constellations, so they began meeting for viewing sessions at Cindy’s house.
She lived in the mountains above Hallis with her husband George and teenage son Josh, and had a special viewing spot atop a knoll behind her house. The knoll afforded a wide view of the ocean horizon, and was high enough to stay out of night-time fogs.
“Before we start,” said Cindy, “I brought some coffee.”
She filled a cup from her Thermos and handed it to Scootie.
“Thank you! I forget how cold these clear nights are. Say, that’s good. The new blend at the Bolero?”
“Yes! The new Columbian. How did you know that?”
“I got this town covered like a layer of fog, baby.”
“My. You’re silly. Work going well?”
“Yeah, sure. And... something else. But maybe... not.” He had no idea what he was talking about.
“Well,” Cindy laughed. “Get back to me when you figure that out. So! Tonight – the Pleiades.”
“Sure,” said Scootie. “What’s not to like about seven sisters?”
“Typical male. Okay, let’s see, also a part of the larger constellation Taurus the Bull. They’re often confused with the Little Dipper. In Russia, they’re called the Sitting Hen, and the Greenland eskimoes call them A Pack of Dogs. Woof woof.”
“Arf arf,” said Scootie.
“In Greek mythology, the Pleiades were the daughters of the Titan Atlas and the goddess Pleione. Five of them have symbolic meanings: Alcyone, the winter storm; Celaeno, darkness; Electra, amber; Maia, fertility; and Merope, mortality. Taygeta was a mountain nymph, and poor Sterope doesn’t seem to have an identity at all.”
“Goddess of stereos?”
She stopped for a moment, then clapped her hands together. Scootie knew this meant story-time, so he settled on a concrete bench to listen.
“One day, mother Pleione and the brood were out gadding about when the huntsman Orion wandered by and fell in love with the whole pack, including the mother. Consumed with lust, Orion began a pursuit that lasted five years! Zeus saw what was going on and changed them all into doves, so they could get away. When even that failed to shake the horny bastard, Zeus gave up and changed them into stars. Later, Orion himself was set into the sky, where he continues his pursuit of the Pleiades to this day.”
At her conclusion, Cindy found Scootie peering into the sky with a quizzical look on his face.
“Only six, right?”
“Yeah,” said Scootie. “What’s up wid dat?”
“Well. In the high-society pressure-cooker that is Mount Olympus, six of the Pleiades married gods (and you have to wonder what these schmucks were doing while their wives were being chased by Orion). The seventh, Merope, who you’ll recall represents mortality, married a mortal, and was so traumatized by this drop in social status that she now hides her face in shame. Imagine dealing with a wife like that.”
Scootie broke into a Jewish rant. “Bad enough my fathah has to hold up the Northern sky. Now this?”
Cindy laughed. “Of course, the truth is that the star cluster we call the Seven Sisters is more like Seven Hundred, all of them about 400 light years from Earth and contained within a sphere 30 light years across. And now, Mr. Jones, please step up to the ‘scope.”
Cindy stopped to reposition her target, then Scootie leaned down, feet spread apart, and brought his eye to the lens.
“Wow! Look at ‘em all. And so blue!”
“That’s ‘cause they’re young – 50 million years. And they’re so close together, the light reflects on the interstellar dust and makes it bluer still.”
“Marvelous,” said Scootie. He spotted Merope, just off the side of the handle. He straightened up and found he could see her without the telescope, now that he knew where she was.
“‘Many a night, I saw the Pleiads, rising thro’ the mellow shade, Glitter like a swarm of fireflies tangled in a silver braid.’”
“Nice,” said Cindy.
“Memorized it in high school. Lord Tennyson, I think.”
Cindy returned to the scope for more adjustments, then waved him forward.
“Try this out.”
“Okay.” Scootie rubbed his eyes, then leaned back down. “Ye gods. She’s bright. And bluer than a prom dress.”
“Alcyone. The winter storm. Crook of the dipper handle. Two-point-nine magnitude. Nine hundred times brighter than the Sun.”
“How do you say that again?”
“Al-SIGH-oh-knee. The way I remember it is, she’s got a ‘sigh’ in her heart.”
Scootie stood back and gave the big star a bare-faced look. “Al-SIGH-oh-knee. Wrap her up, Cindy. I’ll take her home.”
Juliana came home to a dark house. Before her tennis date, she spent the afternoon at a work session for Junior League rummage sale, calling local merchants for donations and piling through items already brought in. It was good, busy work, but still she felt like she had not killed off enough hours. Scott was off to Tokyo this time, and she would open the old Mexican doors to find the answering machine flashing its single red eye. A loving message, laced with words like “missing,” “honey” and “darling.” But a message just the same, launched from some hotel room halfway around the globe, bounced off a satellite into the rude, open air. You couldn’t embrace a phone message, couldn’t wind your hands through its hair or play your fingers down its xylophone ribs. It was only digital, a blizzard of ones and zeroes coating the coastline in electronic frost.
Wedding photos shadowed her from the walls as she drifted down the dark hallway to her office. She pulled an appointment book form her desk, found the skeleton line of seven o’clock Thursday and penciled in the name Scootie Jones. The book resembled a graffiti-covered subway car, pushing air through the stations with its hours and people and causes. But she never actually got anywhere. She just rode.
She returned to the living room and switched on the stereo, flipping through the cable radio stations till she got to 23 for opera. It was Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, a scratchy recording from the fifties. The Magic Flute. The Queen of the Night.
Photo by MJV