At the Ephermal City
San Francisco, July, 1915
This was an early Indian summer, heat from the interior pushing back the damp ocean cold that normally dominated the City’s summer weather. Instead of thick avalanches of fog rolling through the Golden Gate, spilling over Twin Peaks and, to the north, shrouding the tall hills of Marin, the Bay Area was baking under a brilliantly clear sky.
The heat reached far and wide, all the way to San Jose and the southland beyond, baking the Salinas Valley and, to the West of that, the Monterey coastline, Carmel, and the Big Sur. North of San Rafael the heat climbed past the one hundred degrees and the distant fields and orchards of Napa and Sonoma burned in the summer sun, the still air magnifying the warming’s effect.
Old timers sniffed the air, smelling the trace scent of fires from the Sierras to the distant east, declaring this would be a long spell of heat, and so it was turning out to be. Each day the crowds roaming the avenues of the post-Victorian wonderland that was the Pan-American Pacific International Exposition looked forward with increased excitement to the late nights, not only for the blazing illuminations that would fill the sky and light the surrounding hills, but the hoped for cooling breezes dropping temperatures into the more bearable 80s and 70s, making pleasant the night time at the P.P.I.E., the great celebration of the completion of the building of the canal in Panama.
The first day of heat took fairgoers by surprise, resulting in an inordinate number of heat emergencies, women and men succumbing to the heat overtaxing the Fair’s first aid infrastructure. But as the days passed the crowds adapted, dressing down, in some cases scandalously so, even to the libertine sensibilities the more bohemian citizens of San Francisco.
Also on that first day of Indian Summer the tall white ship slipped through the Golden Gate, light canvas sails set full to catch the soft air off the Pacific as she cruised with the inflowing tide. She’d come in near sunset, air to her stern, her lazily rippling white sails glowing gold in the light of the descending sun as she cruised past the flotilla of gray warships that stood station off the Fair’s shoreline, a reminder of a different, lost time in the history of this port.
The tall ship’s visit was an unheralded one, and so her arrival was observed with no small commotion by fairgoers, who gathered in growing numbers along the marina as rumors of the majestic vessel spread through the fair, watching as the towering ship tacked north, soon to drop anchor at the mouth of Richardson Bay, off Sausalito. That night, miles distant, light illuminated the tall ship’s silhouette, bathing her in warm ambers easily seen from the marina and the surrounding hills above the fair grounds.
As the passing days warmed so, too, did rumors that made their way across the water, tales of the ship’s complement and events associated with their stay in Sausalito, stories that served to feed the human animal’s need for a taste of the sensational. It was learned the vessel was called the Nile, a name evoking allusions of the mystic and the strange for fairgoers versed with the current fascination with ancient Egypt, and reports soon spread of large dinners and parties running into the early mornings, of exotic women and odd, even unsettling happenings that grew all the more fantastic with each telling.
No mistake: the ladies know how to make an entrance.
Sipping tea at his cafe table situated on the corner of a small terrace overlooking the Fair and the bay waters beyond, the quiet man took in the vision of the graceful white ship, rolling gently in the lazy bay swells, a distant part of him undecided as to whether or not what he felt was anticipation or anxiety.
Do I know these people any more?
Did I ever?
“Did they know you?”
He looked up, and she was there, tall, unmoving, subtle rainbows of color flowing over her dark skin, colors and skin unseen by all except one such as he.
“And here you are.”
He stood to offer her a seat.
Taller than he, she leaned in and down, moist lips caressing his cheek as she whispered her greeting.
“Indeed, sweet prince.” She smiled against his cheek, whispering in his ear. “Here I am.”
She settled and he returned to his seat as a waiter stepped over to their table, that worthy eying the dark skinned woman with an expression conveying both interest and disapproval.
She smiled, then ordered tea and cookies.
The quiet man chuckled as the waiter turned away to fetch her order.
“You know, the Victorians haven’t quite loosed their hold over this era’s moral sensibilities. Even in these modern times, and in this great Bohemian city, well-dressed, respectable women are escorted in public, particularly when visiting entertainments such as our Exposition.”
She eyed him, curious and amused.
“So I’m a trollop, am I?”
“It would appear.”
“Oh, dear. That would explain some of the looks I’ve been receiving.”
“Yes. Our young waiter seems particularly scandalized you should arrive here, without escort, and take a seat at an apparent stranger’s table.”
“Not the first time this has happened in the past day, I must confess.” She laughed and reached across the small table to briefly squeeze his hand. “But I am not yet at the Fair, and I have found my escort.”
He smiled with affection. “In truth, were you not who you are, I would be surprised you were let in here at all.”
“Ah, the skin color silliness.”
She sighed, releasing his hand as she eased back in her chair. “Not to worry. Where I go, that particular prejudice tends to fade from the consciousness of the people around me. While you may see me as I really am, the people about us see me as something else, an unusually tall, pale skinned woman of means. But that is all: they remain blind to pigmentation. The thought never comes to them.”
“Not really a solution.”
“No.” She turned away. “And that’s not my concern.” She looked down from their vantage, west and north, taking in the fairgrounds. “These people are as ephermal as this wonderful amusement they’ve constructed. If they fix this illness in the time left them, it won’t be by my agency.”
The quiet man nodded thoughtfully, sipped his tea as he looked out across the wide waters to where the Nile was moored. Up until now visits from the ship to the Fair had been made across the bay by ferry or by means of the Nile’s pinnace, carrying crew members and passengers taking turns visiting the fair.
Not today. The white ship had lifted anchor, and was slowly moving south from the mouth of Richardson Bay, making sail, the main and fore lower topsails run out to prove propulsion, with jib and brig sheets catching wind to aid in steering. Once out on the bay, the course sails for all three masts would be added for additional speed and better handling, but that would be all. The hot wind out of the northeast was light, and the navigator was going to take her time crossing the expanse, in part out of care for the anchored fleet of warships and the traffic on the bay, but also for the opportunity to put on a show: the Nile was flying all her flags, brilliant rainbows of color outlining the spiderwebs of rigging as she made to deftly wind her way through the small vessels and large ships of war that filled the the bay.
He nodded in the ship’s direction. “How was the passage?”
“Passage? Oh, no. I arrived separately, last night, by train from the south. At the station, I encountered a beautiful young man who graciously bought me dinner, took me dancing, and shared his room with me. We parted but an hour ago. I will be meeting him again, later.” She smiled to herself. “Such a beautiful young boy, so tender, so full of life. I think I will remember him.” Her voice drifted off and she turned to the young prince, expression vaguely amused.
“They’re only now beginning to realize I am here.”
She was quiet once more, head slowly turning, taking in the view from their hilltop vantage, looking first to her right to the rebuilt downtown of the City, and then over and across the bay at the shores and golden hills to the east. She scanned left, looking north, taking in the islands spotting the bay.
“This land, the islands of the bay, all part of a violent geography.”
To the right of Richardson Bay rose the green hills of Angel Island, and those of the Tiburon peninsula behind.
“Yes.” He sipped his tea, thoughtful. “nearly two minutes it went on, tearing the world apart.” He lowered his cup to its saucer, the movement, like his words, slow and deliberate. “But it was the fire that followed that did the old girl in, just as it had in the years following the Gold Rush.”
Eyes still moving, she lifted her gaze to take in the high hills of the coastal range, the ridge elevating up to the forested heights of Mt. Tamalpias. Lastly, she turned to the mouth of the bay, the world famous Golden Gate, eyes finally resting once more upon the Fairgrounds below and to the west, stretching three miles along the northern shore of the San Francisco peninsula.
The Pan-American Pacific International Exhibition.
The Ephermal City, the World’s Metropolis of Dreams.
“This is a good place for you, I think.”
“Yes.” He grinned, nodding. “I live on the fault line at the edge of the world, at the furthermost reaches of everything geographical, in a region of unheralded possibility.”
“Of course.” He eyed her. “But true, nonetheless. This is the newest, smartest place in the New World. There is an energy to this frontier metropolis, and to the sprawling region that surrounds it, a wildness that lives in the roots of the resurrected city, young and vital, literally rebuilt from the ashes. Those who live here in this time understand from vivid experience how everything can end in seconds, as it did nine years ago. That understanding informs them, dictates who they are.” His arm swept out, the gesture lazy, obvious, taking in the surrounding city and bay. “People here, like no other place, live in the moment; they are hungry, some so fiercely they near glow with the fire that drives them. At the same time, they seem blessed with a rough innocence, a raw chivalry birthed in romance, in a tragic pessimism from which they find constant renewal.”
He laughed, an amused chuckle.
“Listen to me. Romance. I sound like George Sterling.”
He grinned. “An acquaintance. Wonderful, tragic man. A Romantic poet born a hundred years too late, I sometimes think, but regarded highly in this retrograde region of the world and, I must add, a wonderful person with whom to spend a day on a beach or in the country, or a night on the town.”
“Yes. Not a Homer, of course. But quite good.”
He was quiet a time.
“There is something unique here, a creative vigor that strengthens the spirit. I miss these things when I travel to the older, more worn parts of the world, especially now.” He sipped his tea, thoughtful. “This sphere is entering a new era, my Lady. I have seen signs during my trip to Europe. The inevitable has begun. This brief time of promise is going to give way to suffering and strife, and for all the great things they will accomplish, it will all come to naught.”
She turned to regard him.
“Ah, finally. There you are. I have missed you, my pessimistic young Prince.”
“Young, eh?” The quiet man smiled ruefully, ignoring the barb, and lifted his cup. “As I have missed you, my Lady.”
“That, too.” He sipped, eyeing her sideways. “There are too few secrets between us, after all.”
The waiter returned, setting tea before her. The man paid him.
The woman prepared her drink, taking in the surrounding people as she added honey. She nodded to the near corner, at a table of young Japanese men.
“Those men over there.”
He followed her gaze.
“The one to the right, in the white cotton jacket?” He nodded. “Does he not remind you of the Ronin?”
The young man eyed her askance before returning his attention to the table. “From a distance, perhaps.”
“Perhaps.” She smiled, touching his hand. “You loved him.”
“I have loved many.”
“Few, if any, as you did the Ronin.”
The young man closed his eyes, breathing softly. “Is there a point to this?”
“No.” Her expression was distant, thoughtful. “Yes. He does look like him.”
The woman sipped the tea, staring at her companion over the rim.
“Your father is here.”
“I know. He visited me yesterday while you were playing with your young man, and we roamed the grounds together, leaving only when they shut the Fair for the night.” He grimaced. “And then we hit the docks and availed ourselves of a drinking establishment.”
He nodded, frowning at the memory. “We did.”
“Was anyone harmed?”
“That does not sound like your father.”
He eyed her ruefully.
“You are being uncharitable.”
He sighed, sipping tea.
“Truth be told, his heart wasn’t in it.”
“Oh. That is unusual.”
“Yes. I fear the Fair has rendered him melancholy. The evanescent quality, I think, at least, in part. It all reminds him of the inevitable. And I think the Beaux Arts troubles him.”
The Elder looked down at the sprawling fairgrounds. “Yes. I’ve seen the brochures. The artistic thought that went into the Fair’s architectural design is remarkable. This Beaux Arts form, in particular, conjures thought of the Mount.” She smiled sadly, gazing absently at the palaces of the Fair. “This is all very grand. The humans dream great things and bring them to pass. They have done well during their run.”
“Indeed.” The young prince of a forgotten land gestured at the white ship as it tacked east, passing Angel Island. As he watched, she shifted course, sails moving and adjusting as her Captain turned the vessel into the light breeze, taking advantage of the outrushing tide to cut sharp into the bay, wind filling her sails, leaning and accelerating as she headed for the mouth of the Golden Gate.
“Consider our beautiful Nile, her current incarnation’s graceful lines informed by the great human shipbuilders of the past century: it is their art infused in her every form and function. You see her and you envision the majestic Clipper ships that brought new populations to this destination from the harbors of New York and Boston, making their runs around Cape Horn in 90 days or better.” He turned to her, sharing. “For long years after, even unto this day, their journeys were legend, and their names are remembered as one remembers heroic creatures of myth: The Glory of the Sea, Thermopylae, Sea Witch … the Flying Cloud …”
He smiled and shrugged, taking a long breath, his expression distant. “Or so it was, once upon a time.” He blinked, rousing from a dream, remembering his companion. “Yes.” There was a resignation in his voice. “Yes. They … we … have done well in our run.”
The woman smiled. “Ships. A new preoccupation, then? Shipbuilding? Sailing?”
“I am, you’ll remember, the heir of an island kingdom.” She smiled again and he laughed. “An interest, is all; at least, in the here and now. One of many explored during our long parting, my lady.” He grinned at her expression. “You need not feign surprise. This is why you enjoy these separations, as they allow me opportunity to accumulate experience. You hunger for what I give you, the personal perspective the Book cannot offer.” He paused, but the smile did not fade, instead becoming familiar, loving. “I am the only one you cannot see, hidden from the eye of time.” He reached out across the table, hand folding over and squeezing hers. “I am honored you regard me with such trust as to allow me to hide these things until such time I choose to share them.” He squeezed her hand once more and released her.
“And speaking of time.” The quiet man removed his watch from its pocket, thumbing the lid open. The smile grew wider.
“I’ve a fresh surprise for you. His name is John Phillip Sousa, and he conducts the most amazing music.” He stood and moved around the table to stand by her, placing his hand on her chair. “We are off to the Festival Hall to hear a wonderful concert and, after, we will stroll the Gardens of the Palaces, until we come to see my discovery, a place where you will behold Beaux Arts at its most compelling and,
with it, a revelation.”
She eyed him, suggesting a heightening of curiosity.
“Something has occurred.”
There was no question or doubt in her words. She looked out over the waters at the Nile.
“Concert first, and no discussion beforehand. After, in appropriate time. There are things to see at this World’s Fair, things to experience. As we make our way through the Exposition and take in the sights, we shall talk and you shall … see.”
“Of course. We always talk.” Her expression was a cypher, but he sensed her suppressed frustration.
He chuckled and stood, coming round the table to offer his hand.
She tilted her head, regarding him, curiosity evident.
“A surprise, you say?”
“Yes. A good one, too.”
The afternoon progressed and the piles of leaves grew. The back yard was huge. The air was thick, the soft wind hot. Even standing in the shade of the trees felt like being in a slow bake oven, sweat evaporating off my skin. My soaked clothes clung and chaffed my skin. The rake kept getting caught on dead vines and ancient trash, slowing everything down. I was tired, cranky and thirsty.
But I made steady progress.
Sienna would appear periodically, bronzed and radiant in the sunlight, drink in hand, admonishing me to stop for a time and cool off. At first she brought lemonade, which tasted like cold, tart nectar in the searing heat. Then she switched up, bringing me another frosted beer while apologizing that the lemonade was gone and there was no ice to chill any water.
Of course, from my impaired perspective, it was all good: the beer was cold, and being served up by a near-naked goddess. From my baked perspective these were the only important considerations.
Before long I’d drank three or four brews.
Maybe. Maybe more. I lost count.
All the while, Sienna moved around the yard in that wispy micro-bikini thingy. Bad enough she would walk toward me, breasts lightly jiggling and threatening to fall out of the near-translucent material straining to hold them in place, worse when she turned to go back to the house, impressive tush gently swinging a perfect figure eight, the bikini bottom, just this side of a thong, leaving nothing to the imagination as far as the firm globes that were her pneumatically muscular nether cheeks were concerned.
There came a time when I found myself standing in the middle of the yard, focus fuzzy from heat, work and alcohol, and the realization slowly dawned I was done.
I was also drunk.
And something else.
Someone was calling my name.
I turned toward the house, staring stupidly. I shouldn’t be this far gone, even in this heat. But there I was.
It’s her, whashername, Ms. Scissors Lifts.
Sienna was walking toward me, her tone questioning.
“Sam, are you alright?”
“M’fine,” I articulated muddily. She moved to stand before me, reaching up to put the back of her hand to my sweat-drenched forehead and cheeks. There came a sudden vision of her as Maureen O’Sullivan and me as John Wayne after he’d shot up the town and beat up the bad guys and was coming home to Maureen for some good old-fashioned mendin’, cookin’ and lovin’.
I laughed happily at the thought.
“Of course you are.” The observation was made sweetly, in a tone suggesting she didn’t believe whatever it was I thought I said. “You’ve done a very nice job here. Why don’t you go upstairs and take a cool shower and I’ll make you some dinner before you go.”
“M’fine,” I mumbled once more, demonstrating the expanse of my impaired vocabulary. “Just gimme m’clothes and I’ll go.”
She smiled. “Can’t do that, Sam.”
This stopped me for a moment as I tried to connect one brain cell to another in a failed attempt to puzzle out whether it was she or me who couldn’t do ‘that’.
Whatever ‘that’ was.
As I’ve alluded, my skull was a charnel house, filled with dead and besotted brain cells.
“Why not?” I asked stupidly.
True, at this point, anything I said was going to be stupid.
“Because, Sam, you’re drunk, and it would be irresponsible of me to let you drive like this.”
“Yes. You keep saying that.” Her voice changed. “Sam …” She was laughing now, pushing and slapping playfully at my chest and arms, even tickling me, causing me to stumble backwards “… you are about as far from fine as fine can get. You are not going anywhere, not only because you’re drunk, but because you’re drunk and you can’t start your truck.”
Sienna stepped back, and I saw she was holding my truck’s keys in her right hand.
I went for my pockets and sure enough, I didn’t have the keys.
Quick on the uptake, that’s me.
“How’d you do that?”
I stared at her with dull eyes, swaying a little side to side. She reached out to steady me, her expression amused.
“I was sidetracked earlier, so I forgot to start the dryer until a few minutes ago. You can’t leave without your clothes, right? So you might as well take advantage of my hospitality.”
“I don’t think so.”
She looked me directly in the eye.
“You are not going anywhere.”
A passing notion of wrestling her for the keys seemed the order of the day. But that’s all it was: a passing notion. With all that beer in me I had the reaction time of a slug; I’d end up tripping over my feet.
And something about her stance was telling me I’d better not.
Exhausted, I gave in, letting her lead me in the house. Once inside she walked alongside, one hand at my elbow, keeping me steady.
There came music.
From somewhere, someplace, there came music.
A woman was singing. The song was familiar, something vaguely remembered. I stopped, resumed walking, then stopped again, transfixed.
The music seemed to be nowhere and everywhere.
All the while Sienna stood at my side, saying nothing, waiting, her beautiful, impassive countenance seeming cast in stone. Had I been a little less drunk, maybe I’d have picked up a cue. Maybe. Truth was, with all that booze altering my internal chemistry I was too numb to catch on to much of anything.
I stopped for the third time at the top of the stairs.
“Don’t you hear it?” I finally asked after straining unsuccessfully to figure out where the music was coming from.
“What do you mean?”
“The music? Can’t you hear the music? Someone’s singing, a woman. It … the music … it’s beautiful.” I paused, remembering. “I think I heard it before. Here. Today. And at the gym that day you …”
My words trailed off, my mind drifting. A new thought came to me, and I fixed her with a vacant stare.
That got her attention, but by the time my muddled thought processes caught on she masked her reaction. I blinked, sure I’d seen something, not sure what. Disappointment? Anger?
“Meadow?” Her expression was confused. “I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I.” I looked at her again, eyes narrowing. Even in my impaired state I could sense she did understand. I thought push things, just to see what she would say, but the singer’s voice rose, deep, guttural, then rising in whispered urgency.
I was entranced, transported.
Sienna gripped my arm above my elbow, squeezing lightly.
The name was whispered soft, from far away, and for a moment I did not understand this was my name.
“Sam? You need to take a shower, remember?”
The music faded to a murmur, soft sounds I could barely hear, still there, but only just.
I nodded slowly.
“Sam.” I touched my chest, looking down, confused. “Me?”
Sienna was silent.
I stared at her a moment, then nodded.
We were moving again. Sienna led me through a doorway set in one of the few standing inner walls in the house. We entered into a huge bedroom that was furnished haphazardly, the most notable feature a large brass-framed bed up against one wall.
Exhaustion was finally setting in. I was barely aware of the music now. She led me through another door into a large bathroom, opened the shower and started running water, testing for temperature.
She turned to regard me. Thick as the fog enveloping my consciousness was, I started having pleasant thoughts about the two of us in the shower.
“Anything you need?”
Her voice was soft, sweet. Expectant. I looked at those lips, wondering at how they would taste.
Oh, yeah, I can think of a thing or two.
Toasted though I may have been, I was still smart enough not to be stupid.
What was it with her? With me around her?
“I think I can get it from here.”
Was that disappointment just then?
What the fuck is wrong with me?
“If you need something, give a yell.”
She left, pulling the door closed behind her.
Shrugging my way out of the sweat-soaked, filthy clothes, I step over to the toilet to relieve my overloaded bladder. Felt good, real good. I thought of Jim Tidwell, my platoon sergeant during my abbreviated tour of duty as a Marine, who once remarked: “Take away everything else and there are still the five great pleasures of life, Marine: fucking, eating, drinking, pissing and shitting, not necessarily in that order.”
As I’ve aged, I’ve come to appreciate Jim’s wisdom, if not his way of putting things.
The bathroom was tiled on the floors and halfway up the walls, promoting the illusion, if not the reality, of a cool atmosphere that went a long way toward clearing my head. When I stepped into the shower I found Sienna adjusted the temperature so the water was chilly and refreshing on my skin. I must have stayed in there a half hour, thoroughly washing and shampooing myself part of the time; enjoying the respite from the oppressive heat for the rest.
There came a time I reluctantly turned off the water. stepped out of the shower to discover a razor and can of shaving cream on the sink. I noted my borrowed clothes were gone. I opened the door to the bedroom.
No one there.
Wrapping the towel about my waist, I padded to the top of the stairs and called out.
Sienna appeared quickly, looking up at me. I was still feeling somewhat dull and exhausted, but not so I didn’t noticed that damned bikini. I positioned the banister post between the two of us to hide my little friend’s extreme happiness as I leaned over the rail.
“My clothes are gone.”
“I took them. Your pants and shirt are done; I’ll bring them up in a minute. You see the razor?”
“Why don’t you use it? If I’m going to feed you dinner, the least you can do is to try to look your best, don’t you think?”
At this point, I didn’t even try to argue. Best to humor the woman, eat dinner, and get the hell out of here.
What a frickin’ day this one turned out to be.
I returned to the bathroom and scraped my beard. I hadn’t shaved for a couple of days now, prepping for the weekend. Chicks loved guys with shadow, particularly guys who bounced for clubs.
figuring I going out tonight with my roommate to catch a flick and an iced cappuccino after. Who knew what would happen after that.
So much for that idea.
I heard the floorboards creaking in the next room, then nothing.
No answer. I shrugged; thinking she’d probably left the clothes and returned to the kitchen. I wondered what we’d be eating. I didn’t smell anything so I figured she must be fixing something along the lines of lunch. Whatever she was planning on serving up, I hoped there was going to be a lot of it.
I was hungry.
I opened the door to grab my clothes and stopped. Sienna stood there, blocking my path. I opened my mouth, but before I could speak she stepped forward, lifting her left hand, bringing two fingers to rest lightly over my lips while raising her right index finger in the universal signal to ‘Shush.’
I was vaguely aware the music was back, the tempo up, the singer anticipatory in mood.
In one fluid movement Sienna moved closer still, right hand slipping behind my waist and up, then running down my back, fingers scratching, her pelvis grinding into mine as she reached up behind me with her free hand, grabbing a clump of hair to pull me down to her waiting lips.
“You’re kidding, right?”
She considered, shook her head.
She regarded me.
“I don’t think I ever ‘kid’.”
1.3 – Digging in the Dirt
Within an hour of finishing lunch I’d removed the debris piled in random spots on the front lawn. I walked over the yard one last time, inspecting the leaf-covered ground for any missed wood or metal. Satisfied, I secured the doors of the dumpster, collected wheelbarrow and shovel and headed to the garage to put everything away, visions of home and a long cool shower in the forefront of my thoughts.
Ms. Scissors Lifts had other ideas.
“Nice work!” Sienna called out cheerily from the back porch. “You did an excellent job out front.”
I stopped at the entrance to the garage, turning my head to look at her.
“I only now realized you might not have understood my instructions.”
There was something in her voice … and that goddamned smile …
“You’re kidding, right?”
She considered, shook her head.
She regarded me.
“I don’t think I ever ‘kid’.”
She remained like that, thoughtful, finally nodding in the direction I’d come. “You can start on the leaves next; there’s easily a year’s worth out front, maybe more, and I need them gone before we uproot and replace the old sprinkler system and lay down a new lawn.
“You will find the rake inside, to the right of the garage door. There are some plastic garbage bags on the shelf next to it. But before you do-”
The words hung as she walked toward me, smiling, a small bundle crooked in her arm. “Your clothes are caked with filth; I noticed during lunch. Given all this heat, you must be suffering terribly. The heavy work is done, I think. Why don’t you change into these? I think they’re your size and you’ll feel more comfortable in the heat.”
I tilted my head, staring sideways at her. Something wasn’t right, though I’d be damned if I could figure out what. I remove my cap and ran the back of my free hand over my forehead, feeling the sweat. The temperature was near the century mark and I was hot, sticky and tired. I looked down at my clothes and then at the bundle she offered.
What the hell…
I took the bundle.
“Go ahead and change in there.” She nodded her head toward the garage. “Toss out your dirty stuff and I’ll load them in the washer.” I hesitated a moment. “Well, go ahead. Don’t worry, I promise not to look.”
That was sarcasm.
I entered the garage, grousing wordlessly under my breath. Stepping out of my shoes, I peeled off pants and shirt, emptied the pockets of my keys and wallet, and threw my dirty clothes out on the wheelbarrow, where she scooped them up and disappeared.
I pulled the T-shirt over my head. It was loose, soft and comfortable. The shorts, though they fit well enough, were a touch on the snug side. I thought about asking Sienna for my pants back. But when I looked out, she’d already disappeared into the house. For a moment, the paranoid little voice was going off in my head again. I didn’t listen.
I slipped into the work boots, not tying the laces. I had a pair of gym shoes in the truck that would be a much more comfortable in this killer heat. I grabbed the rake and some plastic bags and walked down the driveway toward the street. On the way out I looked to my left, scanning the backyard, realizing the ground was covered with leaves and fallen branches.
Lots of leaves and branches.
Everything ends eventually.
I had no idea.
An hour later I was finished with the front and needing to hit the head again. I knocked on the front door. No answer. Once more, with feeling. Still nothing. I tried the knob. Locked.
Great. And here I thought we were making progress.
Grumbling under my breath, I gathered my gear and pushed the wheelbarrow along the side of the house, turned the back corner and nearly tripped over my rake.
In front of me, just a little to the right, centered in a large patch of sunlight between the trees’ shadows, Sienna Rosetti was reclining in a lawn chair, soaking up the sun. And the thing about this particular tableau that was causing a problem for my suddenly impaired motor skills was the fact that she was wearing a bikini sporting just enough fabric to cover the most personal parts of her anatomy. But only just.
There was a part of me – that observational portion of my consciousness informed by all that acting training I threw wads of money at years ago – absorbing this tableau from a dispassionate perspective, even going so far as to marvel at the unexpected vision laid out before me like a banquet for a starving man.
I mean, I knew the woman was fine, but … whoa!
The perfection of shape and form that so riveted my attention whenever I saw her at the gym was all the more evident now. Each part of her body flowed into the next in what seemed an unconsciously proper melding of proportion. She even had a perfect tan: there were with no lines to be seen – none – and I could see a lot. The only marring to this perfection – and it wasn’t, not really – was a small, straight, up-and-down scar centered on the upper part of her abdomen, right where her ribs met below her breasts, set so perfectly it appeared natural, an emerald beauty mark on skin of burnished gold.
And then there were Sienna’s breasts. Did I mention Sienna’s breasts? Firm, not flattening too much even while reclining, gently rising and falling with her breathing in such a way that each and every inhalation brought with it renewed hope the thin string holding the two triangular pieces of fabric in place would snap, revealing what could only be described as small twin patches of heaven until now only hinted at.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, everything was going haywire. Alarms. Big alarms! All going off in a helpless part of my consciousness. Part of me was confused, wondering what the hell she was doing. Wasn’t I not supposed to be staring at her? What was she doing? Sienna was going to see me standing and staring and everything was going to go to hell in record time. All that work, everything I’d put myself through, all the effort to smooth things out shot to shit because I couldn’t avert my eyes. I didn’t know what to do.
Something was very, very wrong. I kept telling myself I needed to do something, but the notion would die aborning. I vaguely understood this should be telling me something. A moment later I had forgot the question and was again telling myself I needed to do something. I was caught in a cycling loop. I realize – again – this should be telling me something important.
And then I forget everything again.
Feeling helpless, I walked forward, drawn to where Sienna lay, not looking directly at her, just in her general direction, finally stopping at the foot of the recliner, a little to her right. There was no reaction. I couldn’t tell through the bright reflection off the lenses of her sunglasses if she were asleep, or watching me.
I cleared my throat.
“Ah, excuse me? Sienna?”
The dark-skinned beauty turned her head toward me and raised her sunglasses, squinting out from beneath the lenses. “Yes?” Her voice was distant, as if nothing were amiss.
I thought I heard someone singing.
“Yes.” I echoed stupidly, having gotten this far and realized I’d forgotten what I intended to say. Yeah. Something was wrong. Something was keeping me from understanding what.
A short silence ensued wherein she arched her eyebrows in what seemed to be concern.
“I … uh … wanted to use the bathroom, if that’s okay?”
Dumb … stupid dumb. ‘If that’s okay?’ Really?
She shifted just a bit, and her right breast slipped out from its flimsy covering to reveal a dark and very erect nipple. Without looking, she absently returned the offending mammary to its home.
As for me, no biggie: by this time I’d pretty much checked out.
Someone was singing. I was sure of it.
“Go right ahead, Sam.” She spoke as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. “You don’t need to ask. Really.”
Thoughts of the bathroom were now secondary: a new, potentially ugly situation had arisen, pun notwithstanding. My shorts, already adhering to me like a second skin, were feeling exceptionally snug. Too snug. Not good. Uh, uh. Not even close.
I need to get the hell in the house right now!
I turned to leave, but her voice stopped me.
“Oh, and Sam?”
I looked awkwardly over my shoulder. “It is very hot.” She raised the sunglasses to her forehead, turning her face to the sky, eyes closed, her voice distantly concerned.
Lady, you don’t know the half of it.
“Why don’t you grab yourself something cold to drink on the way back out? There’s iced water and juice. I also have beer, if you’d like, though you should hydrate first, don’t you think?”
She lowered her head to look at me, one hand lowering the sunglasses over her eyes, masking her eyes. “Refresh yourself. After all, you still have to rake the back yard, and I wouldn’t want you to get heat stroke.”
“Sure.” I said. “Thanks.”
Way, way too creepy.
I turned and tried to keep from running as I made for the sanctuary of the bathroom. All the way across the yard I imagined her eyes on me, and I knew that if I turned to look back she’d be smiling that damned smile.
I got in the john and dug my now painfully constricted member from my shorts, watching as the sucker engorged.
Now I had to wait for the thing to soften up so I could angle it at the bowl. Sienna’s words drifted back to me: ‘Refresh yourself,’ she’d said. I felt the thing throb in the palm of my hand, becoming even stiffer.
I was by myself, traumatized and really needed a little pick-me-up. Urgently. So there and then I decided to give me the joy I so obviously craved. Wired up as I was, a few gentle strokes and everything would be right with my world.
Of course, in keeping with my luck so far this day, there came a knock on the door.
“Yes?” I asked too loudly while hurriedly trying to stuff the damned sausage back into my shorts.
“Will you be very long, Sam? I really need to go.”
“Ah … no,” I replied, again too loudly, flushing the toilet. “Just finishing up.” Fumbling with the latch, I opened the door, shirt hanging out to little purpose, as the hem wasn’t low enough to cover the fact that the thing that distinguishes me as a male was pushing hard against the cutoff’s buttons in an effort to burst free.
Meanwhile, Sienna was standing there in front of me, that wispy micro-bikini still impossibly holding things in place in spite of the fact she was now upright. The sunglasses were resting on top of her head, and her eyes never strayed from my face, yet somehow I knew she was aware of the unhappy bulge in my shorts. “Thanks. I really needed to pee. Oh, and this is for you.” She handed me an open beer bottle. “You do drink, don’t you?”
“Good. Now if you’ll excuse me.” She smiled softly in whispered apology. “I really need to get in there.”
As this pleasant exchange was occurring, a small voice in the back of my head was all but screaming at me: ‘Pretty obvious, dude. Do it.’ And I was listening: I was physically aching to touch her, to stop her with my hand, draw her to me, see her raise her lips to mine as our bodies slid up one another … and then we kiss and she pulls at me and I lower her down, soft and easy, and we’re making love on the hardwood floor.
Not that I was going to act on this sudden impulse. Uh-uh.
There was something seriously wrong about all of this.
I was being played. Had to be. Maybe she was testing just how far I could be prodded …
… or maybe she was one of those weird chicks who liked to play dangerous games …
… Or maybe I was blowing it.
No way to know.
Given our very short, very negative history, no way was I going to try and find out, either.
Which is why, in an act thoroughly out of character, I decided to trust my instincts and got out of her way.
Sienna brushed past me, her hip grazing the bulge in my shorts as she passed. If she noticed she didn’t let on. Instead she turned, smiled sweetly as she closed the door, leaving me frustrated and stupid in the hallway. I stared after her for a long while, not believing this was happening to me, finally taking a resigned swig of beer and headed outside to rake the backyard. I was at the bottom of the porch stairs when I remembered I still needed to take a leak.
I found a spot behind the garage.
The message couldn’t be clearer:
‘Fuck with me and I’ll kill you.’
I got it.
1.1 – In The Beginning…
Two Years Ago…
Early Saturday morning – seven o’clock AM early Saturday morning – and I was driving my truck north along the gently winding curves of the Almaden Expressway. The hour was early, way too early and that made me cranky, almost as much as the hangover from the dinner party the night before. Now I sipped sipped my 24 hour gas station coffee, working the sludge out of my brain, grousing I was getting too old for this crap.
I cruised through the early morning gray, enjoying the smooth ride of my truck in spite of my foul mood. I’d recently bought the thing courtesy of residuals from a commercial for a local brewery. If you watched televised football in the few years before the Shift, you may have seen it. Me, a vampire – a very dim and clumsy vampire – ogling and chasing the local team’s cheerleaders around nighttime San Francisco. Goofy. Sloppy, even; shot with handhelds. Lowest common denominator stuff. I wrote off the exercise as a learning experience, thinking the spot wouldn’t last past the Halloween showing.
Sucker went viral. Halloween came and went and they kept running the spot. That led to a Christmas sequel, another for the playoffs, capping the run with a grand final for the big game. Eight days work and four commercials over four months and come Spring I had myself a new truck and a revitalized bank account. And the cash flow was going to pick up: the agency planned a revival of the commercial for the new season. This meant fewer odd jobs, less waiting on tables and more opportunities for stage work. Hell, I could even run up to San Francisco or down to LA for a few auditions. Maybe even Southern Oregon.
And, yeah, you read right. Commercials, stage work, auditions: I’m an actor. Everybody’s got skeletons. This one’s mine and, at the time, happily so. I was recently returned from summer stock performances in SoCal. I’d had a good run, but more important, my work there got me noticed by a company in San Jose, among other things landing me an invite to audition for The Tempest in the spring.
And that is the reason I was working out in the gym the day I got myself introduced to Ms. Scissors Lifts: I was in physical training for an audition, weird as that might sound. There was a monster in The Tempest, name of Caliban, and with my thoroughly scarred body buffed up to premium shape I figured I had a good shot at being the bastard.
Kinda ironic. After all, here I was at an age where I possessed the right combination of maturity and physicality to take on some great roles. I was being considered for serious parts by directors I admired. Even better, I was in a position where I’d have a shot at performing in some of the best theater companies on the West Coast, something I’d been working at for a long time. Yet with all these possibilities before me, there I was, more interested in bulking up and contorting my body in an extremely painful muscle spasm in order to earn the opportunity to lope around a stage like a maniac man-beast.
Of course, none of this mattered that early Saturday morning in late September. My only objective was I arrive on time at an address given me by the object of my wandering eyes and screwy libido. If I didn’t, Ms. Scissors Lifts was going to fuck me good.
And not in a happy way.
I still had no idea how I got myself in this mess. I couldn’t recall much of anything past sitting on the butterfly apparatus at the start of my workout. The minutes that followed were a jumble of vague recollections. My memories were scrambled with images of beaches and stars and a weird picnic with a beautiful woman, but I couldn’t even bring that into focus. The only things I did understand: one moment I was working out; the next I was caught leering at this woman with no idea what happened in the moments between to get me to do something like that. There was no denying I’d been staring at her. More to the point, staring at her crotch. I felt my cheeks burn with embarrassment. I couldn’t imagine myself doing that, ever, particularly not in a gym. Yet it was the one memory that stood out for from the stew of confusion, the one etched indelibly in my memory. I’d done it. I had a clear mental image of her soft, rounded nether lips pressed firmly against the sweat-soaked fabric of her shorts.
Did I ever.
After she made it clear I was busted, Ms. Scissors Lifts told me – not asked me, mind you – told me to head down to the other end of the strip-mall the gym called home and wait for her at the coffee shop. For the briefest of instants I thought of blowing her off. No one else had seen what happened. Why they hadn’t was beyond me, but they hadn’t.
‘Go ahead.’ I could have said. ‘Complain. Your word against mine.’
Never happened; the idea died aborning. Something to do with the way she oozed self-confidence, perhaps. Maybe those cold blue eyes. Or the fear of being outed as a pervert. Take your pick. Whatever the reason, I backed down before I even realized I was backing down.
And when do I ever back down to a woman?
If I’d had my wits about me, I would have realized there and then something entirely wrong was going on. None of this was normal. Women don’t tell me what to do.
Everything about this was wrong.
I got the urge to skedaddle. I wasn’t listening. Thing was, I didn’t even know I wasn’t listening. I was following instructions and perfectly content to do so.
Ms. Scissors Lifts arrived at the coffee shop twenty minutes later, showered and dressed, taking her time, ordering a drink before joining me at a solitary outside table where I nursed my iced coffee in the late afternoon sun. She sat, face shadowed by a wide brimmed hat, sipped her tea and stared at me. I kept my mouth shut, concentrating on my coffee. Every once in a while I’d look up and she’d still be staring. Just staring. Freakin’ unnerving. I tried a sheepish smile. Nothing. The whole tableau had that ‘you-are-so-fucked’ quality: she’d bypassed playing with her food and gone directly to debating how she would administer the kill.
Brief thoughts of running tickled my consciousness and faded away.
She cleared her throat.
“Some days, you know?” She sipped, staring back at my confused expression like I should know what she means. “I mean, like this, now, the two of us?”
I had no idea what to say.
“Hopeless.” She sipped again, eyeing me. “It appears we have a problem.” She lowered the cup, setting it down, smiling sideways with that unnerving, bared-teeth smile. “I’m kidding. You have a problem. On my way out I decided to complain to the gym manager.”
I stared, momentarily speechless, complacency fading.
“Marvelous.” I shook my head, sensing whatever it was holding me in place losing its grip. “Okay, then. Excuse me while I go clear out my locker.”
Time to find a new gym.
I started to get up.
“Where do you think you are going?”
I stopped halfway, then straightened.
“You just got me kicked out of my gym. What’s left to discuss?”
“I said I complained; I did say about what.”
“Sit down. I am not finished with you.”
“Would you sit down?”
She was obviously annoyed.
I sat, feeling even more confused.
What the hell was wrong with me?
“I told the manager – Sharon, I believe that’s her name – I told her there was an … incident. I did not identify with whom, nor did I offer up particulars of what occurred. I only mentioned there might be a problem that needed addressing, and I wanted to handle the situation privately.” Her eyes narrowed, and her voice took on a tone of menace. “I added that if things weren’t then resolved, I would revisit the matter with her.”
I stared at her, not comprehending.
“What that means is you are safe.”
She smiled ever-so-slightly, veiled menace informing the expression.
Ms. Scissors Lifts once more paused to sip her tea, never taking her eyes off me.
“I do not like men staring at me, particularly the dim sorts who feel compelled to hide while they get their … their …” She seemed to be searching. She gave up. “Well, whatever it is you do get out of it. This is rather perverted behavior, don’t you think? I mean, a grown adult leering at a woman like she’s putting on a show.” She tilted her head, looking at me sideways. “Is this something that started in your childhood? Perhaps you were one of those troubled little boys who would slink around your neighborhood at night, looking for bedroom windows with open curtains?
“No.” She cut me off before I could protest. “Don’t tell me. That is more information than I want or need.”
The bitch was merciless. But there it was: I’d acted like a goon and she was extracting her proverbial pound of flesh. There was no excuse … and I had no explanation. I’d gone off the rails with no idea why. So how could I begin to explain, to a perfect stranger, what happened was innocent, a momentary, unthinking and compulsive lapse of judgment.
And while you’re busy being me, try explaining why you kept coming back for more, or even more special: tell her what it was you were looking at. ‘Well, ma’am, I’m innocent. Really! The fault lies in that moist, sculptured area between your legs; an absolute work of art that left me so deeply in awe that I simply forgot my manners.’
Yeah. That would take the conversation to whole new levels of the bizarre.
Not even trying to look her in the eyes, I mumbled something about not knowing what came over me and I was really, really sorry and embarrassed and it would never happen again and …
I started, surprised, looking around.
“Did you just-?”
She cut me off before I could finish. “Save the excuses. I’m not interested.”
I got the sense I was one of the most disgusting things she’d ever seen. Shaking her head, she opened her mini-pack, producing a pen and business card.
“Here is how we will work this out. I assume you wish to keep your gym membership?”
I nodded slowly, curious and vaguely apprehensive.
“Good. I have some things I need done; yard work, some heavy lifting. The men I have working for me were called out of town, and I need to get this project done now. You look healthy enough. You finish the clean-up they started and we’ll pretend this little episode never happened. Quid pro quo.”
The tension went out of me and without another thought I nodded my head and sighed in surrender. “Fine.” I needed to get this over with.
She never bothered to look up from writing. “I’m giving you an address. This Saturday morning. Be there. Early. 8:00 early. I’ll be waiting for you. I’ll explain what I want you to do when you get there.”
By now I was smiling, thinking a little hard work couldn’t be too bad. She looked up and caught my expression, smiling without humor.
“There are conditions.”
My smile went away like it was never there.
“You will do whatever I tell you, and there will be a lot to do. This will take a while, perhaps more than one day. If you are not done at the end of the first day you will come back and continue until I am satisfied you are finished. Understood?”
I nodded slowly, feeling that special feeling you get when you realize you might be screwed.
She rose, placing the card next to my drink as she did.
“I will see you Saturday. Do not be late.”
She walked off without a backward glance, hips moving in smooth, hypnotic motion.
So there I was, Saturday morning, tired, more than a little hung over, taking a left turn off Lincoln onto Minnesota. My window was rolled down and the morning air washed over me as I’m Only Sleeping crooned on the stereo, John in fine form. Right now the air was cool, refreshing even, but that wasn’t going to last. Thanks to weeks long off-shore breeze, we were in the middle of a late September Indian Summer, and it was one raging mother of a heat wave. The day was going to be brutal.
Three intersections and I made a right, followed by a couple more quick turns, ending up on a tree-lined street with a lot of old houses with big front yards, most of them Victorian mansions dating back to the late 1800s. The homes were all in pretty decent shape, not that the condition of the neighborhood would be surprising. This was a “moneyed” section of the Willow Glen, one of the older districts of San Jose.
I pulled up to the address and killed the engine. The lot was huge, easily two acres, maybe even three or four, with Japanese maple trees planted in the front, lining the house, standing sentinel between windows. There were a pair of tall palm trees standing thick and tall in the middle of the front lawn. Anchored by a oak tree, a row of tall pines lines driveway side of the house, supplying morning shade. Odds were there were trees in the back, as well, though I couldn’t tell as the house was big, a massive three story Queen Anne. Hedges lined the property’s borders, obscuring tall fences, and there was a thick lawn that covered everything between.
The Victorian had a run-down, fixer-upper look to it. Given the large piles of debris planted on the lawn in front of the entrance, it was likely someone figured that out and decided to do something about it. In the parking space in front of me was a trash dumpster, and its twin sat at the foot of the long driveway. It was pretty obvious what was in store this hot, soon to be muggy day in September.
I looked at the card Ms. Scissors Lifts gave me, checking the address one more time. 659. Yep, this was the place. I turned the card over and read her name again: Sienna Rosetti. Beneath, in italics: Professional Architect – Aesthetic Restorations & Renovations, Domestic & Commercial.
“Well, Ms. Sienna Scissors Lifts Rosetti.” I sighed, already regretting the day before me. “I’m here.”
I got out of the truck, finished the coffee, crumpling and tossing the empty cup in the closest dumpster. Tugging on my baseball cap I made my way up to the front door and knocked. Less than a minute later the door opened and she stood there, dressed in dirty overalls, heavy boots and a snug, dirt streaked white T-shirt. Like at the gym, her hair was tied back and she wore no make-up. There was a tool-belt slung from her hip, and a hammer hung in the little loop in the overalls.
“You’re early.” She sounded annoyed.
I nodded. Behind her, from what I could see through the deep gloom of early morning light, the interior of the house looked a mess. The walls were ripped out, though the structural supports appeared new and intact. Electricians had run conduit through the skeletal framework. Shiny new brass plumbing was also in evidence. A lot of work had gone into this place, with plenty more to come.
“Alright, first thing: I need those piles of trash removed from the front of the house to the dumpsters. They’ve been there for two weeks and the neighbors are not happy. You’ll find a wheelbarrow in the garage out back, as well as some work-gloves.”
With that she shut the door and I was alone on the porch. That was abrupt. I turned and was at the bottom of the stairs when I heard the door open again.
“What do I call you?”
I looked at her sideways.
“I go by Sam, ma’am.”
She was staring at me, her expression odd, almost disbelieving.
“No. No, nothing is wrong.”
This is going well. Not.
“Oh. Okay. Well, that’s my name. Sam.” I smiled my winningest. “While we’re on the subject, what do I call you?”
She looked at me, expression suddenly subdued, even upset, then seemed to shake off whatever was bothering her. That weird, predatory smile lifted the corners of her mouth. Only this time, at least, she didn’t show the teeth.
“Ms. Rosetti will do fine, thank you.”
She shut the door, even more abruptly than before. I waited a moment to make sure there might not be a third coming. Finally, satisfied that there wouldn’t, I made my way to the garage.
My granddad used to tell me there was something to be said for good, hard work. Much as I missed the old guy, were he there with me that morning I would’ve had plenty of thoughts to share on the subject, none of them nice. This was one nasty job. I was handling old and rotten wood, plaster, metal and nails, with all kinds of sharp edges to puncture and cut myself on. And don’t get me started on the dust and dead termites that were coating my sweat-soaked body. Adding to my general state of misery: I was slowly suffocating. I’d grabbed a scarf from the truck to cover my mouth and nose, and while it served to keep the dust and deceased insects out of my breathing passages, the combination of sweat, dirt and tiny dead things lodged in the thin fabric were blocking the air I was trying to suck into my lungs.
On the bright side, Ms. Scissors Lifts did give me work gloves, sparing my hands.
I’d been at it steady four hours now and I was hurting. At least the dumpsters were equipped with doors so I could wheelbarrow the debris up a makeshift ramp and unload, instead of having to throw trash up and over the shoulder-high sides. I stopped after my latest load to consider the current state of my bladder. I’d used the facilities once now, an event marked by the uncomfortable sensation of Ms. Scissors Lifts’ standing sentry over the operation. She let me in the house, hammer held lightly where I could see it.
The message couldn’t be clearer: ‘Fuck with me and I’ll kill you.’
I got it.
There was a working bathroom on the first floor. Beyond it, toward the back of the house, an open doorway led to the kitchen. That room looked more ‘finished’ than the rest of the house, at least from my limited view. I refrained from taking a close look, of course, as the boss was standing at the other end of the hall, arms crossed with that hammer suggestively resting on her shoulder. Instead, I entered the bathroom, answered Nature’s call with dispatch, washed my hands and exited.
I walked by her and out the door, which she shut on my heels, without comment.
Damn. Downright frosty.
Minutes later she reappeared with a pitcher of iced water and a glass, setting both down on the front entryway without a word. The temperature was rising with the sun and I was already sweating like a pig, so it wasn’t like I needed an invitation. I filled the glass and drank thirstily. Again I offered my thanks, and again she acted like I hadn’t said anything, turning and closing the door in fluid movement behind her. Whatever. I drank some more and got back to work.
Now, four hours in, I was exhausted, shirt sticking, jeans chafing from all the particulate matter lodged between the cotton fabric and my skin … and stomach grumbling because I skipped breakfast. Hangover broiled out of me, my now-hydrated body wanted more solid replenishments. And speaking of liquid, I still needed to take that damned leak. I figured I’d use the bathroom, then run down to the deli on Lincoln to pick up a sandwich and a beer. No problem.
Except … I was worrying about how best to ask her to let me use the bathroom. If that isn’t intimidated, I’m not sure what is. And it was me being intimidated! This is stupid! There was no reason for me to act this way, psyching myself out for no good reason … but there I was, hemming and hawing.
The hell with that.
I’d just tell her I was going to get something at the deli – after I told her I was going to use the bathroom, of course – and that would be the end of it.
I turned and there she was, standing outside the dumpster. The resolve died in my belly.
What the fuck is this?
“I’ve made some lunch.” Her voice was cool, neutral. “You are welcome to stop and join me on the back porch. Come. I’ve set a table there.” Without waiting for an answer, she pivoted and walked up the drive that led to the back of the house. She stopped after a few strides when she realized I wasn’t following.
The reason? I was staring after her like the clueless dog that I am.
She turned, looked over her shoulder like she was trying to understand what just happened, then came back to stand before me once more. “You are working hard. You are doing a good job. In return, I am offering to share my table. It is customary to treat our … our…”
Her voice drifted off and she looked away, her manner suggesting she was searching for the right word, and I wasn’t going to like it. Don’t ask me how I knew this; I just did. Weirder still: the understanding didn’t bother me.
She shrugged. “Never mind; you don’t have to if you don’t wish to. I could bring the food out here and you could eat alone. Or there are places over on Lincoln.”
I’ve made some bad choices in my life, choices I’ve truly regretted. Not this time.
At least, that was my thinking going in.
“No. No … I’m really okay with your table, ma’am.” I managed to get the words out, stumbling over debris as I stepped forward. “Ah, if you don’t mind, I’d like to clean up first …”
That elicited a nod.
“Go on inside.” She nodded toward the front door. “It’s unlocked. When you’re finished, walk through to the rear, through the kitchen and out to the porch.”
I started across the yard.
I stopped and looked back at her.
“You can lose the Henry Fonda act.”
I stared at her, puzzled. She was almost smiling. Almost.
“Stop being so damned polite and please don’t call me ‘Ma’am’ … My name is Sienna.”
Sienna turned and walked down the path, not waiting for an answer. I stood there for a moment, watching her disappear around the side of the house before finally entering the front door, walking about half-an-inch off the ground as I did. When last I entered the house she stood sentry, holding her hammer and acting like she’d use it on me for even a sideways glance; now she was treating me like we were the same species. Sure, the paranoid in me wondered at this, but for the most part I felt rewarded, like I was in the first grade and teacher just gave me a gold star.
The feeling was good, and I saw no reason to question the mood.
So did Ms. Sienna Scissors Lifts Rosetti.
You just gotta love the suckers.
“Being the linear creatures we are, it would no doubt help if I begin at a beginning. The problem being there are several beginnings, each having its own quirks and oddities, so I‘m never quite sure which start to start from.
“So I’m going to start at my favorite part, the story I know best, the one with a lot of me in it…”
1.0 Shapes of Things
I can close my eyes and we’re still standing on the same tropical beach, under an alien sky, warm white sand filling the spaces between my toes. The Amazon princess is standing to one side, the Goddess who loved her, at the other, the two of us barely conscious of either as the woman I love leans into me. I feel her forehead nestled at the base of my neck, the coolness of her palms flat against the skin of my chest. My chin rests upon her smooth, black hair … the maddening scent of her fills my senses … and in my mind the soft caress of her song echoes in the background, counterpoint to the faint roar of the distant surf. Her head comes up, revealing the amber skin and asymmetrical beauty which long ago took possession of my soul. I watch her step back, cobalt eyes staring into mine, the trace of her fingertips soft on my bloodied cheek, the sensation of her touch slipping away.
“Damn, Sam.” The words are whispered, achingly sincere, a single tear trailing the soft curve of her cheek. “Why couldn’t you have been a woman?”
And she walks away, just like that …
Hell of a thing to say to a guy, but there it is. Or was. At the time I was too numb, not to mention way too banged up, to get myself worked up over the not so subtle slam.
Of course, she was right. She usually was, even when she was wrong. I could have avoided a whole mess of pain, pounded on the bad guys with style, still gotten the girl, and lived sap happily ever after if I’d only been a woman.
In my dreams. Fact is the gender switch would’ve caused more problems than it solved. And the Powers That Be would never have allowed it. The bitch liked things complicated.
Okay, I know. I’m getting ahead of myself. Way, way ahead of myself. Being the linear creatures we are or, at least, used to be, and given how we experience temporal progression from our decidedly one dimensional perspective, while also taking into consideration the relative stability of the localized reality most of us depend upon for our sanity, it would no doubt help if I begin at a beginning. The problem being there are several beginnings, each having its own quirks and oddities, so I‘m never quite sure which start to start from.
So I’m going to start at my favorite part, the story I know best, the one with a lot of me in it.
The setup is simple. The moment responsible for screwing up my life forever occurred on a late and noisy afternoon at my local gym. Think noise and movement: bodies in motion, at rest, in motion, the dank smell of sweat, the sound of metal clanging in rhythm, the floor vibrating from the aerobics class in the next room, the steady bass thump of the music as it kept time for all those wannabe hardbodies. Add to this mix the migraine level pain taking up residence between my ears and Dante’s got an additional circle for his medieval theme park.
There I was, in the middle of all this joy, hating life more than usual and no one to blame but myself. After all, I didn’t exactly have to stay after to shut down the bar the night before. My shift had been over hours before. But Jodi, my bartender, has such an enticing way of getting me to hang around: a little mild flirting mixed with a bottomless mug of beer. Before I know it, I’m helping clean the bar. Then we’re at Jodi’s place. Free beer. A free, home-cooked meal. Even more free beer.
Lots and lots of free and easy Jodi.
For a guy who liked getting things on the cheap, how could I go wrong?
I’m drifting again.
I do this a lot these days. Old age, I’m sure.
I was getting set to tell you how this mess got started.
No, getting started wasn’t the problem. Things had been underway for a long time.
What I’m actually going to tell you is how I got sucked into this mess. Truth be told, the ‘mess’, as some of us tend to refer to the Great Cluster Fuck, has been around a long time. A long, long time. The kind of ‘long time’ I get headaches thinking about, worse than the one currently pounding in my skull as I worked the weights. But at the time, and for quite a while after, I didn’t know about the back story, so don’t get too ticked off if I don’t come right out and tell all from the get go. After all, punch lines aren’t funny if you haven’t first listened to the setup.
And do I ever have a setup.
In your mind’s eye, picture me seated on an incline butterfly lift. For any of you amateur early-21st century historians out there, I’m describing an exercise machine having nothing to do with the angular elevation of small, flutteringly beautiful winged insects.
Trust me on this.
I’m facing a wall, leaning back at a 45-degree angle, working my shoulders, chest and upper back muscles. There’s a wall of mirrors to my left and, to my right, rows of other exercise machines, each one dedicated to the focused torture of a specific muscle group. Beyond, a long wall of windows, allowing bright, late-afternoon sun to stream into the gym, casting long shadows, tinging the atmosphere with an amber haze.
Now, with all this in mind, picture to my immediate right a blue mat, upon which reclines a startlingly beautiful and immodestly clad hottie, lying on her side, her back to me, working her legs, abs and hips. I’m peripherally aware of her while I do my reps: after all, it’s hard not to miss the up-and-down motion of her long, shapely legs as she scissors-lifts.
Lately I’d been seeing a lot of this particular woman as our exercise schedules tended to coincide. We’d even reached the point where we exchanged a polite greeting now and then while navigating the sometimes-packed environs of the gym.
Well, okay, I’m stretching truth here. There were no polite exchanges of greetings to speak of. I sort of mumbled an ‘excuse me’ before stepping aside whenever I found myself blocking her path, whereupon she walked through the space I’d vacated, all the while never showing any indication she saw me, let alone heard me.
Now if you’re one of those happy individuals who know nothing about me, for the sake of context, this would be a good time to point out I enjoy being in the presence of beautiful women. Call it a quirk, an acquired taste, or a fetish, femininity made existence so much more bearable; women made the sun rise, the moon glow, peppers hot and peaches sweet.
And in case you were wondering, yes, as objects of affection, men mostly bored the crap out of me. Still do, rumors notwithstanding.
Anyway, given how much I liked looking at pretty girls, understand then how finding myself averting my eyes and feeling stupid and inept whenever I got within a dozen feet of this beauty was a true mystery to me. Particularly given I rarely lacked for something to say to a femme.
In fact, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should just go ahead and say women were/are the aesthetic center of my universe; I observe and enjoy them in any and all situations. Conversation, working, playing; being with women added color to an otherwise gray and often boring existence. To me, while most men were invariably monotonous, women, by contrast, revealed a never-ceasing, often surprising array of variety and perspective … and distraction, lots and lots of joyful distraction.
And there was always distraction to spare at my gym, make no mistake, coming in all shapes and sizes, hair and skin color, and I derived great pleasure thereof, and always made the most of the occasional opportunity to get close and personal.
But not this particular. Oh, no. And I couldn’t figure out why. As you might guess, this was doing wonders for what passes as my self-esteem.
The beauty on the mat was attractive – very much so – but in a weird, out-of-the-ordinary sort of way. Kind of cold, even icy, radiating a smooth sophistication completely out of place in a gym catering to lower-middle-class types and seedy low-lifes like yours truly. It’s not like anyone minded her being there, especially anyone male. But nobody was kidding themselves: to someone like her, the rest of us were part of the unpleasant reality of everyday existence. We were just there, like worn, used-up furniture, usually getting in the way and managing to be unfailingly annoying while doing so.
Of course, this understanding did nothing to suppress the odd excitement I’d feel whenever Ms. Scissors Lifts showed up for her workout, and with it an even odder sensation: the vague ache of missing something when she didn’t.
The mystery girl looked to be in her twenties, though the self-assured way she carried herself gave the impression she was older. She was shorter than a few, taller than most, skin a darkened tone suggesting more than hours spent reclining by the pool. If I were to guess, I’d say her ancestors came from somewhere along the Mediterranean coast, maybe Italy, or Spain. Her facial features were symmetrical: a straight nose set evenly between coral blue eyes. Her lips seemed thin, but only because her mouth was wide, framed by sharp and angular cheekbones. Her high forehead was bordered by a curving line of long, dark hair, pulled back severely in a ponytail. Her body was like her face, a hard but shapely thinness just this side of average size, her muscles defined by pronounced cuts born of dedicated weight training.
I first noticed this particular vision of loveliness a short time after returning from L.A. Being the curious type, I looked up the gym’s manager and made all the usual inquiries. Sharon wouldn’t say too much. No surprise, confidentiality clauses being what they are. She did let drop the dark-haired beauty’s gym membership was long term. Rumor had it Ms. Scissors Lifts purchased a house in nearby. This news was both exciting and depressing: exciting because it looked like this hot little number was becoming a fixture in my life; depressing because affording a house around here meant she was too high end for a slob like me to even dream of getting close.
So this is the setup, the lay of the land the moment before the moment when the song was sung, the spell was cast and the world – mine and everyone else’s – changed forever.
I finished my set on the butterfly lift, standing to stretch. As I did, she completed a set of leg lifts, shifted on the mat from her right side to her left, and began a fresh series. Now her right leg was moving up and down in the perpetual scissors movement intended to strengthen the inner thighs and other, more intimate muscle groups.
Picture what happens next:
The movement draws my attention. I follow motion with my eyes. And I stop cold. My breathing gets uneven, my heart starts pounding, the blood’s surging, my headache’s a forgotten memory and I’m suddenly thankful my tank top is long and baggy because the particularly tubular thing defining me as a male has a taken on a mind of its own and is all but yelling at everyone to take a look at how big and proud of itself it is. Meanwhile, my mind slows to a crawl and in the distance I swear I can hear someone singing.
Somewhere in the dull fog enveloping my brain the realization dawns I am staring, so I forcefully look away, eyes darting about guiltily to see if anyone noticed my breach of gym etiquette. Lucky me. I’m safe; time for another quick set of reps.
I resume my workout, confused, in a brief instant of clarity wondering what the hell was it I was thinking, staring at her like that, here, in the middle of the gym. The moment passes, and a new feeling comes on me, disappearing my concern. I know something very wrong is happening to me, something scary. And just like that, I forget everything, I check out.
I finish the set of reps and I stand once more. I stare. Really stare. I can’t help myself. I’m breaking rules and likely going to get my ass kicked out of the gym, but I stare all the same. Everything about this woman is firm and healthy and desirable. I have an unobstructed view to confirm this simple truth, starting with those bright, white shoes and socks, moving to and along the smooth, dark skin of her shapely legs up to the gray, skin-tight cotton shorts, climbing even further past the trim waist and rigid abs to the blue, cut-off tank top with the white halter-top showing underneath.
Happily, the view above the shoulders is blocked by the mass of the butterfly machine so she can’t see me as my captive gaze lingers on her body. Like I said, she is doing those damned scissors lifts and she must have done a lot by now and I don’t care because she is raising and lowering her right leg in a perfect and hypnotic rhythm to the unheard music of her headphones. I shouldn’t look but I can’t stop myself. I keep telling myself this is nothing new, I’ve seen this before. But I’ve never seen anything so damned beautiful in my life and I am struggling mightily to force myself to look away but God in Heaven I have to look and I turn back and I look again and I think I am in love and I know I am in lust and I really, really know I better do something quick so I sit down and start another set of reps on the butterfly apparatus.
And as I strain at the weights, the long, jagged scars on my arms and legs a dull white against my exertion-reddened flesh, it suddenly occurs to me I want to have her. The thought comes to me with the same sense of normalcy as “I think I’ll have a piece of this pie.” And the crazy thing – the truly freaky, out of my mind thing – is I am I actually giving the idea serious consideration. I’m losing all sense of self-control and have no clue why. Even nuttier: I don’t care. Something’s taken my governor and ripped it right out. I am thoroughly into the concept of jumping her bones, right now, right there, on the blue exercise mat.
In front of everybody.
Oh. Yeah. This is so not good.
I wake up.
Seriously: I wake up, like I’ve been asleep and suddenly find myself fully awake, perched on the exercise saddle and not knowing how I got there. I’m working my shoulders and doing a ragged job of it. My mind is racing, my lungs are gasping for air, my manhood is trying oh so hard to burst my shorts and I am wondering what the fuck just happened to me. And in the middle of all this lunacy, I hear someone whisper my name.
And I check out again.
I blink. I’m somewhere else, under a canopy of midnight stars, and she is there, the girl on the blue mat, sitting with me on a blanket, smiling sweetly as she sips from her wine. She is also naked. She is stunning, her skin almost glowing in the darkness.
And did I mention she is naked?
I look down. I’m naked, too.
I am holding a glass of wine in my hands. I note it is full and quickly drink to hide my shock. My eyes dart about as I gulp and I see we’re sitting on blanket, on a deserted beach. About us are the remains of a picnic meal.
“How do … how do you know my name?”
“You told me.”
“I did? I don’t remem-.” She’s perched on her knees before me, close. Too close. Noble urges are kicking in.
I drink from my glass, confused, even a little bit panicked. This shouldn’t be a problem. I’m all about noble urges. So why was I feeling embarrassed?
A sly smile lifting the corners of her mouth.
“What was it caused you to … to fall … for me?”
I almost spit up the wine.
Like I’d tell her.
My eyes widen. To my horror, I realize I am going to tell her. Everything.
“Well, you are an extremely beautiful woman.” I hear myself stammer the words, and I pause, thinking, trying to buy time. But it’s no good. I can’t seem to keep myself from confessing. “I’d love to tell you it was your thick, dark hair, or beautiful smile, or the soft, athletic curves of your magnificent body which did me in.” I stop, suddenly uncomfortable, and I understand I am talking about something I shouldn’t be.
“I’m sorry.” My voice is a frightened whisper. “I can’t do this.”
For the briefest instant irritation shapes her features and as quickly as it appeared the expression is gone and she smiles again, and as she does I hear something, a voice, soft and distant, but I don’t know what it is I’m hearing and I become even more confused.
She leans forward and refills my glass. I swirl it around, sniff and drink, the aroma of the wine filling my nostrils as it slips down my throat.
She pours more.
“It’s alright, Kitchen.” Her voice is a gentle purr, and I feel myself relax. “Drink.” I do, gulping down the sweet wine. I shouldn’t drink like this; it’s not the right way to drink wine. The alcohol floods my senses, making me dizzy. “You can tell me. It is safe to do so.”
“But this is stupid. Embarrassing, even.”
“I know.” She takes my empty glass and setting it to the side. “All the same, you must tell me. This sin must be mine. Once it is, so shall you.”
I look at her and for a moment I sense something about this is not right, but the strange sound, a constant pressure between my ears, rises in power and I forget my misgivings as I listen to the singer’s voice.
“Okay.” I feel ashamed. A little boy caught out. “You have to promise you won’t get mad.”
“Oh, I promise.” She smiles, once more sipping from her glass and for an instant her eyes glow with a weird blue light.
I know I’m blushing now, and am thankful for the darkness, but I quickly remember she can see in the dark. And I wonder how I can know this, but the thought fades away. I take a breath and continue. “The thing, the one thing which left me destroyed was the lovely shape of your lips straining against the fabric of your shorts as you exercised on the mat.”
She places her glass next to mine and rises, coming closer, straddling me, sinking and impaling herself in one smooth motion. I am unable to move as she arcs down, losing herself to the penetration.
She breathes the words, preoccupied.
I nod, overwhelmed.
A gently urging whisper, no sign of anger or offense; instead, she’s leaning in close, eyes lidded, near shut, her lips almost touching mine as her pelvis undulates slowly on my lap. “Say the rest.” She groans. “You have to to say the rest.”
“You’re not mad at me?”
“Of course not. How could I be? Continue. Tell the truth of things.”
“Okay. The truth.” I murmur the words dreamily as I breathe her, feeling myself grow even harder as she slides and rocks along the length of me. “The truth is, your thick, firm lips as they moved against the thin, sweat-soaked fabric of your tight, gray workout shorts was hypnotic.” She is kissing me now, lightly, every few words. “As they opened … and closed … in time to the movement of your leg … lifting … and … descending … all I could imagine … were the shorts … disappeared … and there … you were … naked, damp … glistening.”
She kisses me, deeply, thorough, tongue thrusting, her passion stealing my will.
She pulls back, her lips again barely grazing mine.
I am hungry for her.
“In that instant…”
I pause, suddenly afraid.
“Say it, Kitchen. It will be alright.”
I barely nod, lost in the scent of her.
“… I was yours.
“Yes, Kitchen.” She smiles, pulling back. “Forever. Unto the end of time.”
She kisses me, and I feel her pushing me backward and down to the blanket and I see her above me, framed by the stars, and her eyes pulse crimson.
She lowers her lips to mine and we kiss.
I am lost.
And I found myself back in the gym. I blinked, wondering, but unable to remember, what just happened. The worry evaporated, giving way to something else I was only now becoming aware of: I was turned on like I could never, ever remember in my life. Thinking about her sweat-soaked treasure and rerunning in my mind’s eye the little movie of her beautifully muscular nether lips straining against those tight shorts stripped away all reason, all restraint. I resolved to have her. Right here, right now, and I didn’t care who tried to stop me.
I’d kill them.
Kill them all.
Somewhere, in the recessed corners of my mind, I sensed her satisfied smile, and I checked out one last time.
I get up, turn eagerly. Ms. Scissors Lifts stands before me, expression a cipher. I try to move, to get to her, to have her. She gestures and the passion drains from me.
I become aware, consciously aware, of the music. It was always there, from the first time I saw her … I know this … but I’m only now hearing the sound. Someone is singing, in the distance, soft, but clear, the echo of the singer’s voice reaching my ears in spite of the din of the crashing weights and the bass thump from the boom box in the aerobics room … the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard. I’ve been hearing this music for some time, ever since I walked into the gym, but it is only now I’m aware of the sound. The voice I hear is female, of this there is no doubt, and I know, without seeing, the singer is the most beautiful creature ever to grace existence. She’s singing to me, only to me, and she’s voicing her song in a language familiar and alien all at once, words laced with longing and sadness, hope and joy, combined, intertwined … leaving me transfixed. My heart pounds at her voice, the rush of blood leaving me faint, weak … whoever she is, her song compels me … to what? I am held in place as the haunting melody reaches into the depths of me, seeking out the dark and hidden corners, caressing half-forgotten memories and lost dreams while wending its way into my being.
I absently wonder if I am losing my mind and realize I could care less.
For an eternal instant everything comes to a dead stop. But only for a moment; the music disappears as if it never were, leaving me feeling empty and alone. I close my eyes, trying to remember the feelings the song stirred, but they’re gone, and as the loss begins to communicate to me I realize something else is happening, something important. It takes me a moment, but I finally remember. My eyes pop open and she’s still standing there, Ms. Scissors Lifts, pristinely beautiful, frozen like a statue, and I wonder how long we’ve stood like this and if what I think happened to me actually happened. I shake off my surprise, quickly and guiltily looking around once again to see if anyone is paying attention to this little tableau and I’m just a touch relieved no one seems to have noticed anything wrong. I turn back to look at the beauty from the mat. She’s still unreadable, not smiling or frowning – just looking at me. She slowly raises her right arm and points behind me, like I missed something. I turn, expecting a boyfriend or something equally life-threatening, but there’s no one there, only exercise equipment and the wall mirrors. I turn back to look at her again when realization dawns and she sees the sudden awareness in my expression and she finally smiles, but the smile is not a nice smile. More like the pleased expression of something feral upon cornering its dinner, and there’s no doubt in my mind I’m the main course.
The real world kicked back into focus.
I was standing to the side of the butterfly apparatus, she on the other side, no expression, facing and pointing past me, just like in the dream.
I closed my eyes, not bothering to look.
“The mirrors.” My voice was empty, a soft, drawn out sigh. “The fucking mirrors.”
I opened my eyes.
She was smiling now. The expression was predatory.
We stared at each other for a few heartbeats. When she finally spoke, her voice was calm, her tone laced with the promise of trouble.
“I think we should talk.”
“All you fuckers are going to die anyway, so you might as well write the truth.” *
So Sasquatch Bob and I were returning from an early morning constitutional in the Sierra foothills. We were discussing our favorite subject: Women …
“Heinlein’s fault, of course, exposing us to all those incredibly smart and self-sufficient women who were more intelligent and talented than the males they chose to attach themselves to. He ruined us.” His expression became thoughtful.
“In Stranger in a Strange Land, the section of the book after Gillian kidnaps Mike and takes him to Jubal Harshaw is probably the best part of the book for me, and perhaps his best sequence of writing in any of his books. This is where we get the real sense of Mike’s alien-ness, and where it lives in him, and how that alien perspective reacts to the new reality of his existence … and to the women who inhabit that reality, four incredible females of varying talent and abilities, smart, competent and opinionated.”
(And, yes, before we go any further, we are discussing characters using their first names, as one would speak of old friends, because in many ways, that’s just what they are: old friends.)
“Look at the juveniles,” Sasquatch continues. Heinlein wrote a number of what were termed ‘juvenile’ sci-fi novels in the 50s. “All were populated with strong females. There are three that particularly stand out: Tunnel in the Sky, Starman Jones, and Time for the Stars. Tunnel in the Sky featured memorable female characters. Two in particular, Caroline and Jacqueline, are as competent – often moreso – than their male counterparts.” He looks at me. “Caroline is definitely cut from the same cloth as a couple of your girls.” Sasquatch has read my drafts. “A real warrior, fierce and loyal. And Jacqueline has her own brand of kick-ass, just softer, a little more of a … thoughtful … brawler.”
I nod. This is not a point of contention, but a statement of fact: Heinlein permanently marked both of us in the sense he nurtured the perception that females are the stronger, dominant gender. Kidding aside, (if you actually think I’m kidding) there was this subversive and pervasive view of gender roles woven into the stories he told, one where women are rendered as equals, capable of rising to the occasion with a competence and ferocity that rivaled and surpassed their male peers.
No one individual was necessarily dominant amongst his characters. All had strengths and flaws. When he wrote in the first person, as in the case of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the narrator, technically the ‘hero’, reluctantly so, operates more as a participating witness to events than as an initiator of action. Everyone could – and would – be wrong, mistaken, surprised. Everyone contributed; male, female, young, old, everyone acted as part of a team.
Seriously, this was a powerful message, with the added benefit of being threaded into a well-told adventure. Powerful Juju for a young adolescent male.
Slight aside: The hero’s reluctance was another element that peppered Heinlein’s plotting, the desire of the protagonist(s) to stay out of trouble and mind one’s own business, guided by a general philosophy that often the worst outcomes result from the best of intentions – and have a way of getting your ass shot off in the process. Put another way, he understood the principle that ‘Good deeds do not go unpunished’.
“Greatest female characters?” I ask.
He looks at me, then swerves to avoid slower moving traffic. Bigfeet (Bigfoots?) have depth perception issues. At least, that’s what Stu says. No profit in arguing with one imaginary critter about another.
“Wyoming Knott at the top.”
“Yeah, no question.” Lots of strong fems in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, like Hazel Meade, the girl-child who would grow to be the matriarch of the Stone Clan. (See The Rolling Stones)(Not the group; the book.)
But Wyoming is head and shoulders above the rest, probably top three all-time, if not number one. Smart, driven, a valiant woman of honor.
“Now you’re talking his ‘crazy period’.”
I drop back a book. “Maureen Smith?” He nods, but doesn’t say anything. Maureen is difficult, as is Time Enough For Love, the book where she appears. While there are varying arguments about when Heinlein decided to make his females as sexually self-assured as his earlier fems were in all other aspects of competency, it is fairly obvious Time Enough For Love takes this self-assuredness to a new level in a variety of characters and situations. It doesn’t help that Maureen ends up opting for a roll in the hay with an immortal time-traveler from 2000 years in the future who also happens to be her son. And that is not the only neo-incestual relationship in the book
We pull up to the house. The conversation ends and we go inside to prepare for the day.
An hour later I send a message to Sasquatch at his Real Estate office.
“We forgot about Star.”
“Some of them.”
Glory Road is a light-hearted, sexy swashbuckler of a Sci-Fi Fantasy if ever there was one. A satire laced with irony. As a character, Star is tough, weak, beautiful, sensual, sophisticated, a genius, a clotheshorse, sexpot and spoiled brat who could – and would – brawl alongside the boys … and who also happened to be the Empress of Twenty Universes. HELL of a character and, like all Heinlein women, in control even when she didn’t appear to be, always one step ahead of her leading man.
There is one particular irony that really stands out at the end of Glory Road – the Hero gets the girl and discovers … she has a career! And while she loves him and cares deeply for him, two things are very clear: career comes first, and he isn’t necessary to her success … at least, not any more – his job was completed once he insured Star could retain her title. As written, she’s not being a bitch, and she’s not ‘miming’ male behavior. She’s a creature of choice and duty, not a stereotype informed by some myth of hormones and traditional gender roles acting against her best interests (riding off into the sunset with the Hero), but instead someone – someone female – acting as an individual with priorities that don’t necessarily include the Love Of Her Life.
Eventually the Hero gets a clue, accepts what can’t be changed, lets go and gets on with his life.
Neat role reversal.
As I said: powerful juju … heap big medicine. Maybe not from the perspective of 2011, but in a 1963 world, this was a pretty out there concept, even for science fiction that wasn’t trying to be heavy or epic, but fun.
* = Overheard at a writers’ conference.
Next: Urgent Supers.
I think I want to write on truths now.
Personal truths. Truths we keep tucked away because, frankly, we really don’t want people to see certain parts of who we are. The weak parts. The failed parts. The lie-awake-in-the-middle-of-the-night-and-stare-at-the-ceiling parts.
We don’t want people to sense our own view of ourselves as having fallen short.
Sometimes it – life – is all about movement … momentum … momentum that creeps into your existence, wending its way into your affairs, dictating progress, obscuring goals, moving you in directions you may never have intended, taking on a life of its own …
… and then a moment happens, an unheralded, unexpected, a stop-in-the-middle-of-the-whirlwind-of-your-day-to-day-life sort of moment … and everything changes …
I recently traveled to the Sierra Foothills to visit an old and treasured friend. I’d finished the last two parts of Ronin, the second cycle of the series of books I’ve been working at on-and-off for the past decade. It was the stereotypical, metaphorical weight being released thing; the heavy sigh accompanying the long overdue resolution, and I was going to his place, to relax, visit with him, with his wife, enjoy their good company – and turn over the manuscript for impressions.
The monster had other plans, of course. Woke me up in the early morning hours before we set out, whispering softly she wanted to play. On the drive out she came and went, slipping in and out of the periphery, never quite disappearing. By our destination she rose, as if from slumber, stretched and settled in. A beautiful, sun-shining day gone gray, my time in this wonderful place informed by regular retreats to the comfort of shadows and quiet and the medications that could only blunt the assault, but never drive her off. Two days, long days, one side of me clear, unaffected; the other subsumed in a blanket of dull – and sometimes sharp, throbbing – pain.
2:00 AM, Sunday morning, waking from a featureless, distant dream. Darkness. I sit up, ignoring the accompanying thickness that floods my head. The monster wants to be clear with me: she likes it here, and plans to stay past the normal expiration date.
We know each other well, the monster and me. Headaches … the kind of headaches I get, migraine headaches … the headaches that I live with (there really is no other way to describe the condition) … have a life all their own. They become a constant, occasional companion in your life. There is this dance we do, this Monster, the headache, and me, something of a game: she likes to try to sneak up while dropping clues to let me know she’s coming … playing fair, so to speak. And if I’m paying attention, if I’m really listening to the soft murmurs of my body, I can head the bitch off, or at least blunt the arrival and the misery to come.
Not this time, though. Like I said, she’s there for a long haul, an unusual occurrence. Considerations of ice picks and do-it-yourself brain surgery slip in and out of my thoughts, and I breathe again, deep, the effect a dull knife inside as I feel her talons dig in from the base of my skull to the dull socket of my eye, streams of persistent fire that make me dizzy and sometimes nauseous (though, thankfully, not this time). In fact, my right eye has a mind of its own; a long tear slips free, tracing its way down the side of my face, unbidden, followed by another, and another, a small stream of salty moisture. There is no controlling the flow; the right side of my head is pretty much operating in its own reality. The phenomena will repeat itself throughout the morning and afternoon, coming and going.
I get up, putting on sandals, and go outside. Nighttime, summer in the Sierras, the weather unseasonably cool, but not so that I’m uncomfortable. The coolness softens things, helps release the tension, but it is an illusion. This will make the monster stronger, of course. Doesn’t matter.
I look up into the night sky, and for a moment, a very brief and happy moment, I’ve got the universe to myself. I forget my unwanted guest and take it all in, behold the stars as they arc across the night sky. So many stars, stars I never see … the sky is blazingly beautiful.
The beauty is marred, and I feel the energy drain as she bears down, throbbing pulses coursing through the right side of my head, and I finally give in, turn and head back.
The next day arrives and I shamble through, making the best of things until it is time to go. The journey home to my city is a study in quiet agony and traffic frustration, but as we near our destination I feel the pain ease off as she finally begins to relent and I am thankful for the sleep that awaits.
… and so the week began and I never catch this other thing that was talking to me in the foothills, ’cause the Monster was busy dancing with me …
I’d been watching the Civil War again. Just finished, actually. I keep going back. Ken Burns’ documentary is one of those films that never loses its power; it’s 20 years now, and still it retains the ability to draw you in, to stir your heart as it brings to life its long-dead actors. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ fault, this time. I read his achingly powerful blog piece written upon completing Ulysses S. Grant’s memoir and started feeling the scratching in the back of my consciousness. It took a while, but I finally gave in. As always, it was well worth the visit.
Tears come easier these years. It’s something I’m noticing, testosterone is dropping a touch, I guess. Well, I know what can be done for that. Kidding aside, I’ve always been something of a softy, afflicted or gifted – depending upon perspective, I guess – with a gentle core that allows the emotion to play out. Of course, we live in a culture where such tears are frowned upon, even thought a sign of weakness, so my tears are oft reserved for the darkness, for the quiet, private places I retreat to to contemplate my karma and wrestle with my demons. It’s funny, in a way, and perhaps sad, this unspoken prohibition on emotion we seem to value as Americans. I recall how earlier cultures had no such curb, like the ancient Greeks, who felt that two men, sharing grief and emotion together, created a powerful bond between them. Then again, they didn’t have indoor plumbing, so I guess we’ve got something on them there …
It hurts to watch this thing unfold, to see the wrongs that fed it, the determination of Lincoln to save the Union, the sacrifices on both sides for their beliefs. You thrill all at once at both the courage and insanity that led so many to slaughter, sense the ache bubble up, seeking a release, feel those those forbidden tears spring unbidden from the heart. There’s something here in this story, something deep and profound that goes far beyond trite stereotypes and strikes deep into your soul. North vs. South, brother against brother … yes, yes, I’ve heard it all before.
This is something beyond that, far beyond … I just don’t know what that something is.
The not knowing is troubling …
How Do You Feel?
It’s kinda crazy out there, these days, in this world we find ourselves in. Uncertainty is the watchword of the hour … things we’ve taken for granted and assumed, ideas and institutions – foundations we built upon – are shown to be vulnerable to failure. The culture is in what seems a perpetual state of upheaval and fear and anger. And we’re all in the middle of it, caught up in the details – or ignoring them altogether – and losing sight of the bigger picture.
May you live in interesting times …
I grew up in a world that is increasingly distant and alien to the world I live in. I look for it from time to time, occasionally catch glimpses, but such sightings are increasingly rare and illusory. I’m not sure what this means. Everything now is familiar and strange, comfortable and disquieting. I look at places I’ve known for decades and it’s like seeing two realities superimposed upon one another – that which once was, and that which is.
Lately I find myself wandering dank alleyways of the internet, poking my nose in the dark places we humans tend to live. Message boards, Facebook pages, blogs and news reports that seem to share a commonality … an increasing sense of the unhinged. I’ve noticed there are a lot more of these places – these dank alleyways and dark places – and it feels like people are gravitating to them in growing numbers. I wonder at this … sometimes. I’m not a Pollyanna, not by any stretch. I “get” the human condition, I know what we’re capable of, the nuttiness that can inhabit us, the madness that can carry us off on wild tangents, the nightmares we can conjure from the best of intentions. It’s all there in the history books, for one thing, hard to miss, and it seems like we’re watching a familiar story playing itself out right now. Everything feels like it’s taken on a life of its own, the pettiness, lunacy, bigotry – it’s all on display, everywhere you look, tearing things up, and no one seems to be aware or care – they’re just letting it all carry them along.
Momentum. You don’t even feel it sometimes. It picks you up and transports you places, places you never dreamed you were going …
It was a week. On Monday, the Monster tried to make an encore performance, making for a loopy kind of day with little sudden explosions going off in the mess she’d made of my head over the weekend. But her heart wasn’t in it; it’s no fun when there’s nothing left to ruin. Tuesday was the living dead day Monday was supposed to be as the exhaustion of fighting the Monster for three days settled in. Wednesday was okay, but only just. Things are picking up at work, which is good in terms of employment, but there is inevitable baggage. Thursday things got busy. Really busy.
Meanwhile, we’re plotting out a renovation at Dartmouth Manor. This is a good thing, as school resumes for the Elektric One, and I prepare to go to war again – and try and get some blog posts in, some editing, and a few new chapters for the third cycle underway. The editorial staff huddled over floor plans for weeks, drawing up schemes to make the best use of the space – for themselves of course. Critters are like humans – self-interest comes first. Got so bad I rolled everything up and threw it in the trash. We’re upending things: the Elektric One is moving upstairs and she’s commandeering my room, I’m moving into the study, and the downstairs becomes the new study/entertainment room. In the process, we plan to downsize more than a little bit. Of course, the boys have their own ideas about what happens with the downstairs, leading to the inevitable negotiations and drama. It got to where the Elektric One threatened to get a real dog.
That shut ’em up.
But the project is on hold … we’ve not been able to do prep work around Dartmouth for the reorganization ’cause both of us are busy with our day jobs, so we’re putting it off for a week or two …
And still I sleepwalk through it all, ignoring everything I’m telling myself that I can’t hear.
It’s right there.
And I can’t see it.
Have You Seen the Stars Tonight?
“… what you witness happened long ago in the here-and-now, in a time and place that never will be, where neither you nor Sienna ever existed,” she replied in a matter-of-fact manner, like she was discussing the weather.
“Did you look at the stars yet?” I nodded. “Did you see anything unusual, anything strange?”
“Well, it is a bright night,” I replied slowly, looking up.
I heard her chuckle. “Indeed. Look at the sky carefully, Sam. Very carefully.”
Slowly standing to get a better view over the parapet walls, I did as she asked. The stars were blazing, everywhere I looked filling the night sky with a tapestry of brilliant colors that ranged across the spectrum. I took my time, scanning the heavens, trying to figure out what it was Charmayne was getting at. I was about to ask her when understanding finally dawned.
When you look up in the night sky in a city, you see only a few of the stars that would otherwise be visible because of the light pollution. Only when you get really far away from cities and towns do you see the night sky as the ancients did. In those empty places the heavens are a vision of white and amber lights that really bring home a sense of the millions and billions of stars that are out there. I recall seeing the Milky Way while camping with my parents in the Sierras as a child, the bright belt of stars streaming across the heavens, brilliant and glowing, and knew that what I saw then was nothing compared to what I beheld now. There were too many stars, too many colors, and so many of them far too large and close. I squinted, trying to sharpen my focus. I could actually see what appeared to be a glowing haze, green and red and purple, that stretched in places across large swaths of the sky, and in a few areas where there were no stars to be seen, I realized I was seeing black dust clouds, tens, maybe hundreds of light years across. And with that realization came another, suddenly frightening in its implications.
“Charmayne,” I asked slowly, trying to keep my voice calm, “where are we?” She stood up to stand next to me. I pulled my gaze from the sky and looked directly at her, feeling dizzy and disjointed. “I know this sounds stupid, but we’re not on earth anymore, are we?”
She didn’t flinch, didn’t try to ease me into it. “No, Sam,” she replied evenly, “we’re not. Actually, we’re not even in the same region of your galaxy.”
“Oh,” was all I could come up with. I looked up again. “How far?”
“Very far. Um … about sixteen hundred light years, actually, give or take a few.”
“Uh- huh.” I paused again. The panorama really was breathtaking. “Am I going to get to go home again?”
She stifled a giggle and I looked back at her.
“This isn’t funny, you know…”
When I started The War for Evermore and Dark Puppy, I had an idea of where I was going, what I was trying to do. Still do. They’ve been on hold for a while, but things are sort of falling into place and there will be more “stuff”, as Stu likes to put it, coming up soon. It’s something to look forward to, the writing, the creating.
Finishing Ronin was a pain. There were a lot of characters I fell in love with, and I ended up doing terrible things to them. This might sound odd, or even funny to you. I would understand if it did; after all, you have not lived with these “people” for a decade, chronicled their adventures, their loves and hates, successes and failures, thrilled at the discoveries made of who they were, found joy in how they became part of – and worked within – the greater tapestry of your creation.
And you didn’t kill any of them off.
That’s the odd psychosis of writing I’ve increasingly been aware of, the attachment that grows alongside the cold-blooded service to the story a writer is committed to. Even in fiction, there must be truth or, at least, what you perceive as truth.
Truth can be painful. One chapter I wrote involved the death of a beloved character, one I became attached to early on, almost from the moment of her creation. I found myself writing around the event, delaying the inevitable moment of pulling the trigger, so to speak. When I finally did, the event was short, concise and violent, as deaths can often be, and I found myself feeling both satisfied with the ‘truth’ of what I put down … and inhabited by the weird sense of loss and grief that accompanied that satisfaction.
And here it comes again as I write this, bubbling up from nowhere …
Everything springs from your imagination. You craft characters, imbue them with life, learn their histories, grow into their passions and desires, until you know them as you know yourself because, in truth, they are a product of something that lives inside you that you have developed and polished and learned about with naked intimacy. They are a part of who I am; I don’t think I could ‘write’ them any other way. I’m not sure this is how others write fiction; I don’t really care: this is how I write, how I create, wrapping myself around my character, immersing myself in their realities.
Writing those last few chapters was in some ways an exercise in closure. Normally, when I write a chapter I know where I am starting from, and I know where I want to get to – how I get there, however, is never really known until I take the journey. I don’t plot things out beyond a general understanding that certain things need to occur before we – my characters and I – reach our destination. It is a fun way to work.
But in the case of the entire cycle, I knew how it would end, knew who would die, who would be crippled and changed, what would be lost. So the closer I came to the finish, the more difficult it became, as the events were more delineated, the room for exploration more limited.
What I really wanted to do was get started with the next cycle, to move on in the adventure now that I knew the stage was set in my head, the backstory understood, pieces in their place, mysteries laid out.
But, first, there was a blood debt to be paid.
And I paid it.
And there I was …
So I finally caught up with myself.
It was Friday. Friday the 13th. Not that it means anything. The date, I mean.
I missed the insight all last week, just let it slip right on by me. It was right there, right in front of me, but the Monster had my attention.
And I would have kept missing it.
Except … I stopped.
Momentum. Sneaky summabitch. Bad as the Monster is, at least she’s upfront.
But momentum, that’s different. Like I said, you don’t even know it’s happening. You pick up speed, moving along, and everything on the periphery fades, becoming blurred shadows lacking form or meaning. And pretty soon you lose all meaning.
We’ve been living under cloud cover for weeks now, here in the City by the Bay, including my small corner of our hilly metropolis that does get sun even when when the rest of the place is covered in gray. At night the fog settles, thick and moist, and the world around us shrinks to a couple of blocks bathed in dim amber light. As it is, if not for the trip to the Sierra Foothills, I would not have not seen the stars in weeks. “Are they still there?” Reggie asks, his discomfiture obvious. Dogs need the stars, I think. Little holes in the sky through which they search for their dreams …
And all the while I’m living a waking dream, existing in a comatose consciousness, leaving important bits and pieces of myself behind, it seems, to pursue …
What is it I’m pursuing?
I don’t know.
I know the things I want to pursue … but all of that seems distant, disconnected from my existence as momentum carries me forward, as I make ends meet and keep my eye on the ball and all the rest of the cliched crap, worrying at the future as the center increasingly does not hold and things appear to be falling apart all around us.
What happened to the future?
I realize there are days now where I am more weary than others, and the road I thought I traveled seems lost in a maze of detours and dead ends. I’m sure on some level it is a byproduct of aging, of seeing the world with older eyes, with a sense of growing understanding of the finite nature of everything.
I mentioned Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece on Grant that brought me back to that war that did so much to define this land I live in. I mentioned tears, as well, and how I missed something and nearly forgot that I’d done so as the week progressed and I fell into the rhythms and momentums that seem to have a hold of my life these days. Coates put up something else, unrelated, but equally powerful. He talked about a lot of things, current events surrounding civil rights, people resisting bigotry and exclusion and related matters … and he wrote of the oddity of being of the city and visiting, living in the woods; of the fear he felt at what might seem simple things, fed by imagination, like the idea he could not see the animals at night, but knew they could see him; at the fury of nature as it cut loose around him. He talked about having less internet interaction than normal, and about breaking his iPhone, being cut off suddenly from everything and not minding.
And one line stood out:
“But out here in the great green, I’m not convinced that any of it matters.”
And the momentum crashed to a stop, fading out, disappearing as if it never were.
And I suddenly realized what the Monster had obscured that night a week before, even as I stared up into the star-filled sky and traced the faint line of the Milky Way and saw all the clues come together for me.
And then the tears came, and they still come, unheralded, unexpected, uncaring …
Something needs to change …
I woke up in the morning
With an arrow through my nose …
~Neil Young – Last Trip to Tulsa
The Monster returned a week later, Saturday morning. Faint, distant, I could hear her whisper, and as I lay there, thinking on her, I wondered at my life and this thing that shares it with me. I got up and, as always, mounted my defenses, shrugged on my armor, and prepared for the new battle. There followed a shower, coffee, and soon I was in the Buddhamobile and cruising the wet and misty pre-dawn shadows of San Francisco, rolling over slick, reflective streets, winding my way around the City’s periphery until I was at Ocean Beach, by the Zoo, and I drove on, past the Sunset District where I grew up and then the Park where I played with the 40th Ave. gang and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Bar at Beach Chalet where I drank and shot pool while in college, on past the foot of the Outer Richmond, where once upon a time I worked the carnival midway of Playland at the Beach, a ghost that lives on in my memories, now climbing up and around the cliffs where nestled the new Cliff House on the graves of the older incarnations of that structure, finally parking above the ruins at Sutro Baths on 48th Ave.
My walking companion was waiting, and we talked a while in the Buddhamobile while I finished my coffee, and then we were off, treking through the wet along the paths that hugged the coast, through some of the last remnants of wild that still exist in San Francisco. A pleasant walk, if a little tiring as we climbed and descended rough trails and stairs, skirting the edges of Lincoln Park golf course and the Palace of the Legion of Honor, making our steady way through the at times heavy mist, and as we did the darkness faded, giving way to gray.
We lingered here and there a while on our journey, taking pictures and talking of this and that. Before we knew it we were at China Beach, having passed some of the elegant and expensive homes of the Sea Cliff district, and there below us a man was flowing through his Tai Chi, greeting the day in his fashion.
And then it was time to go …
This is the year we lost the artist who may have been the most influential fantasy artist of his era.
In tribute, a revival, of sorts, of an earlier post:
’nuff said …