Chapter One of Wrack and Ruin
All through the end of August, things kept breaking down on Lyndon. First the PTO on one of his tractors gave out—an expensive and untimely repair. Then his computer crashed and burned, his dishwasher died, he cracked a molar on a popcorn kernel, and he got flats on consecutive days, both times from shiny new truss nails, the barbed shanks sunk deep into the same front right tire, very mysterious, since he had not been anywhere near a construction site.
Lyndon considered the string of breakages a sign, a harbinger of misfortune. His brother, Woody, after all, was coming to visit over Labor Day weekend—Woody, ever greedy and malevolent, sure to wreak some sort of havoc on Lyndon’s life. Despite all evidence to the contrary, their mother used to say that Woody, whatever his faults and transgressions, meant well. Maybe he couldn’t be trusted with the silverware, maybe he’d embezzle and lose his parents’ entire portfolio (which, Lyndon had to keep reminding his mother, was exactly what Woody had done), but at least he meant well,she always insisted. He didn’t mean well, Lyndon knew. Woody was a huckster, a misfit. He was a charlatan and a cheat. He was a liar. He was a thief. Until last summer, Lyndon had not talked to him for sixteen years.
But Lyndon wasn’t focusing just yet on Woody, who wouldn’t be arriving until the end of the week. He was too tired, too beleaguered by the everyday preoccupations of running his Brussels sprouts farm and welding business. He ordered a new transmission for his tractor. He had the flats on his tire patched and drove all the way over the hill to San Vicente, hoping to rescue his hard drive. He got a temporary crown on his tooth. He decided he could live without a dishwasher for a while, but then—what in the world was going on here?—he developed a migraine, accompanied overnight by a searing, debilitating neck spasm.
He could barely move, he was so paralyzed with pain. Multiple doses of ibuprofen provided no relief. Neither did a hot bath, stretching, ointment, or mentholated pads. What he really needed was a massage, which in Rosarita Bay presented a problem.
When Lyndon had first moved to the town, it had been a sleepy little backwater with a population of ten thousand. Less than an hour south of San Francisco on the coast, Rosarita Bay had been isolated and quiet, with no industry to speak of, surrounded by rolling foothills and farmland. It had been the perfect place for Lyndon, who, at the time, with his money and fame, could have chosen to live anywhere in the world, and several factors had assured him that the area would remain remote and bucolic. The first was geography. There were only two roads into town, Highway 1 along the coast and Highway 71 over the peninsula mountains, both of them just two lanes and prone to landslides, the traffic murderous going to and from San Francisco and San Vicente. The second was the weather. Gray and dismal almost year-round. It rained unceasingly during the winter, spring was cold and windy, and fog shrouded the town during the entire summer, leaving just two barely tolerable months, September and October. The overriding factor, however, had been the town’s reputation as a developer’s graveyard. Nothing ever got built in Rosarita Bay. Backed by some of the most stringent zoning regulations in the country, it was the prototypical land of NIMBY (Not in My Backyard), BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything), CAVE (Citizens Against Virtually Everything), NOPE (Not on Planet Earth), and NOTE (Not Over There Either). Of course, with no tax base, no commerce, no easy way to commute to jobs, businesses kept failing, people kept moving out, and Rosarita Bay fell into disrepair. This was an acceptable trade-off to a lot of residents, who weren’t so much environmentalists or conservationists but isolationists—independent spirits, loners, libertarians, iconoclasts, garden-variety curmudgeons, people such as Lyndon, who, on principle, did not like other people, regardless of whether they meant well or not. It was a wonderfully sad, forlorn, gone-to-seed town with gone-to-seed inhabitants, a good majority of whom, for one reason or another, preferred to be forgotten.
But in the past few years, a group of new, younger residents had somehow managed to get themselves elected to the town’s governing council and planning, sewage, and water commissions, and things began to change. Subtly at first, then dramatically. A gated community of fancy homes sprang up one day. Hip coffeehouses and art galleries and restaurants starting dotting Main Street. Near the Safeway a mile up Highway 1—heretofore the lone chain store permitted within town limits—a strip mall with, of all things, a McDonald’s emerged. Revitalization was now the call of the day, and developers and builders and realtors were appearing in droves. Most startlingly, a proposal that had been shot down time and time again for thirty years—a massive hotel and conference center and golf course along prime oceanfront—all of a sudden got the go-ahead. The only thing stalling the project, in fact, was Lyndon, whose twenty-acre Brussels sprouts farm sat smack between the parcels for the hotel and golf course, meaning he was being pestered incessantly by attorneys and various developer minions, offering him ever more ridiculous sums of money to vacate.
All this growth and gentrification meant that Lyndon had a mystifying choice of remedies for his neck spasm. He could get reflexology, myofascial bodywork, or custom aromatherapy; he could get his body contoured and enlightened, detoxified and moisturized; he could get his polarity unblocked, his meridians balanced, his lymphatic fluids flowing; his life force could be integrated and viscerally manipulated; he could be empowered and stimulated and released with hot stones, seaweed wraps, salt scrubs, and parafango cellulite treatments; but he could not, apparently, get a simple old-fashioned massage wherein his muscles would be pounded and kneaded into submission.
California. After all of these years living in California, Lyndon still harbored certain prejudices from his former life as a New York artist, with an attendant East Coast disdain for anything New Age or holistic. The closest thing to a real massage he could find in Rosarita Bay was shiatsu, a Japanese variant of acupressure, and even that didn’t look very promising, seeing the list of available “practitioners.” Not an Asian name among them. Lyndon Song was half Korean American and half Chinese American, and although he didn’t subscribe to any Old Country notions, he still would have been more comfortable with a shiate—if there was such a word—who had at least a dollop of Oriental blood.
The Coastside Institute of Shiatsu was a block off Main Street near the library, in a two-story house that had been divided into “medical” suites. Lyndon had called in advance for an appointment, but when he opened the door to the shiatsu institute, there was no one in the foyer. Though it was a bright day outside, the office was dim, the windows blocked off, lit by a few incandescent lamps. Music was playing—airy-fairy flutes and synthesizers and water effects. Beige linen curtains served as partitioning walls for the single large room, which was decorated here and there with the requisite shoji screens, bonsai trees, Japanese scrolls, and woodblock prints.
Lyndon took a seat in a chair and flipped through a magazine, Massage & Bodywork, forced to hold the pages directly in front of his face since he couldn’t tilt his head.After five minutes, someone stepped from behind a curtain, and painfully he turned his body to look the person over. The woman wasn’t the tie-dye-and-braids, earth-mother flake he had expected. She was petite, late thirties, Latina, dressed in a well-tailored blouse and slacks and nylon stockings. He opened his mouth to introduce himself, but she abruptly swung her finger to her lips and shushed him.
“Lyndon Song?” she whispered. She handed him a clipboard. “Could you fill this out? As completely as you can. I’ll be right with you.”
It was a four-page personal and medical history questionnaire, which seemed a bit excessive for a massage. In short order, the woman returned, escorting a blond teenage girl out the door, and then she sat down in front of Lyndon, who was laboring to finish the questionnaire.
“I’m Laura Díaz-McClatchey,” she said. “It’s your neck?”
“I woke up with it. I think I slept on it funny.”
“You don’t have to whisper anymore. Here, let me help you with that,” she said, taking the clipboard from him. “Has this happened before?”
“Once last summer.”
“You’re, let’s see, forty-three? And you’re a welder on a farm.”
“They’re two separate jobs, farming and welding. I also fill in once in a while at the Oar House. As a bartender. I didn’t put that down.”
“Is your life stressful?”
“Any old injuries? Were you an athlete?”
“You look fit.”
“I kayak. I run with my dog.” The latter wasn’t actually true anymore. He no longer ran the redwood trails every day, down to a two-mile jog on the beach every couple of weeks, and his dog no longer accompanied him. He didn’t know why he was lying. Perhaps because his vanity was being engaged, and he wasn’t above attending to his vanity. Despite her clipped, businesslike manner, Laura Díaz-McClatchey was undeniably attractive.
“What kind of dog?” she asked.
“I love Labs,” she said. “Injuries?”
He was, in fact, falling apart in middle age: severely worn cartilage in both knees, the patellas floating on nothing, bursitis in his rotator cuff, a perpetually stiff lower back, a hip that clicked and hitched as if geared on an oblong.
She noted what he was willing to reveal—the knees and rotator cuff—on the questionnaire. “How have you been sleeping?” she asked.
“Okay. Once in a while I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep.”
“Why is that? Are you thinking about things?”
“What kinds of things?”
This was like going to a shrink, Lyndon thought. What kinds of things? His life, money, weeds and aphids, sparks and puddles and slag, sex, his aloneness, cormorants and least terns, reality TV, blue elderberries and flannel bush and cellulose and lamina and the transparency of shed snakeskin, the fetch of wind swells, pecorino cheese, the cholo in the low-rider who had nodded and let him go through the intersection first, X-ray machines, global destruction. A few other things. Laura Díaz-McClatchey waited for an answer. Brown eyes, skin that didn’t need makeup. “I’m not sure,” Lyndon told her. “Just random thoughts.”
“What about your digestion?”
“What about it?”
“How are your bowel movements?”
He found the question highly invasive; this whole line of inquiry was far too hinky for his taste. “My bowel movements are fine.”
She made another notation, raised her hand to scratch her nose, and said, “Song. Lyndon Song. I don’t know why, but your name’s very familiar to me. What about sexual activity?”
“Are you sexually active?”
“Yes,” he said automatically, although it had been a while.
“Girlfriend? Or boyfriend?”
He looked at her. “None at the moment,” he said, then realized this contradicted his answer about sexual activity.
“Girl?” She paused. “Or boy?”
She stared at him without a hint of mischief or irony. “I prefer women,” he said, unable to read her. Was she flirting with him? This had always been one of his acute failings: even when women were throwing themselves at him, he often wondered if they were interested in him at all.
She nodded. “All righty. Shall we?”
She had him take off his shoes and led him into one of the curtained areas with a tatami floor. She asked him to remove his belt and anything from his pockets and lie on his back on the thin white futon on the floor, and she left him to settle in. Usually he would have been mortified by the idea of a stranger touching him. He was in too much pain to care, however, and from his research on the Internet at the library, he knew that the massage would be with his clothes on, a deep-tissue treatment with Laura Díaz-McClatchey applying pressure with her thumbs and palms on his muscles and joints.
“How are you feeling?” she asked, again whispering, when she rejoined him in the room. “Beginning to relax? Let me put this eye pillow on you.”
It was a tiny pillow, maybe filled with flaxseeds, smelling of lavender. It weighed next to nothing, but it sank pleasingly into his eye sockets, blocking out all light, and instantly soothed him.
He sensed her kneeling down beside him. “I’m just going to take an assessment,” she said, and she laid her hands on his stomach, probing and almost shifting aside his liver, stomach, and intestines, a weird, disquieting sensation that startled him and made him feel vulnerable.
“It’s just my neck that’s the problem,” he said.
“It’s all connected,” she said. “Everyone assumes that things are isolated, but they’re not. Every part speaks to another. Did you eat recently?”
“Hm,” she said, sounding concerned.
“Shhh. Can you turn onto your side?” The little pillow slipped off his face. “Close your eyes,” she whispered. He lay on his side, and she positioned a large pillow under his knee as she gently angled his upper leg and straightened his arm. She placed her hands on his ribs and hip and pressed down with her body weight. She drew back momentarily, then pressed again.
“You can go harder than that,” Lyndon said.
“Are you sure?”
“Don’t hold back. The harder, the better. I want the full treatment.”
“I don’t know if you’re ready for the full treatment. It might scare you.”
A strange thing to say, Lyndon thought. “I’ll be okay.”
“Are you prepared for what might happen? People always think they’re prepared, but they seldom are. They just become overwhelmed.”
A tad melodramatic? “I’ll be fine,” he told her. “Really.”
“Breathe in, breathe out,” she said, and she pressed harder. He could hear her own breathing, inhaling and exhaling deeply through her nostrils as she weighted and unweighted, and he found himself mimicking her, breath for breath. As she turned him onto his other side, he caught a faint scent, not lavender, but something else, feminine, sensuous, her shampoo perhaps. Wait, was that…chocolate? No, it was ice cream. Chocolate ice cream. Did ice cream have a smell?
“Breathe in, breathe out,” she said.
She was strong, and she worked fluidly, moving to different parts of his body in a rhythmic, regimented sequence, his arms, his legs, flipping him to his stomach, then to his back again, pushing, pulling, stretching. It hurt at times, but he could feel his muscles loosening bit by bit. “Let it go. Relax,” she said. He gave in to her touch. Her hands were emanating a discernible heat. It had been a while since he had been touched like this, and for a second he felt himself getting an erection and worried he would embarrass them both—this was why he had worn briefs instead of boxers, afraid of exactly this sort of involuntary response—yet he managed to contain it, and he let his mind sag into an agreeable nothingness. Eventually she moved up to his shoulders, neck, and head. He rode the current of her warm hands, allowing his body to ebb and flow with her propulsions, losing time until she roughly grasped his ankles and lifted his legs high into the air in a wide circle. She set his legs down and tugged on the cuffs of his pants and said, “Don’t rush. Lie here till you’re ready.”
When he collected his wallet and keys and watch, he was surprised to see that an hour had passed. He walked out to the foyer, where she was sitting at the desk.
“How do you feel?” she asked.
“A little disoriented.”
“You might feel achy later, but it’ll go away.”
He wrote her a check, including a small tip.
“Thank you,” she said. “Come back if you need to.”
“I will,” he said fuzzily, and walked out blinking into the afternoon light.
He was groggy all evening, and the next day he didn’t think the massage had helped that much, his neck still locked and rigid, his body indeed achy. He had difficulty driving, unable to see the periphery, which contributed to something bizarre happening. He was heading home in his truck when an object flew through the window directly past his eyes, almost hitting his face. He swerved and fishtailed and nearly collided head-on with a telephone pole. He was able to steer away at the last moment, but still ended up sideswiping the back panel of his truck, scraping it up good and busting out a taillight, as he saw when he stopped to examine the damage. He got back in the truck and looked at what had sailed through the window. It was a paper airplane, made with lined school paper, and there was a message written on it in a girl’s looping script: “The First Noble Truth is that life is suffering. That must be why I met you.” The curious thing was that he was on a broad swath of Highway 1 with nothing around except artichoke fields. Who had thrown the airplane? Had the message been meant for him? What were the chances it could hover and float across two lanes of highway and then dive through his open window as he was going sixty miles an hour? And what, pray tell, was the Second Noble Truth?
The paper airplane stuffed into his pocket, Lyndon returned to his farm. He grabbed the mail from his roadside box and unlocked his new driveway gate, which was plastered with signs: Private Property, No Trespassing, Keep Out, Do Not Enter, This Means You, Asshole, the last a handwritten amendment, owing to recent events. As he entered his kitchen, the telephone was ringing. He dumped his mail without looking at it into the trash can and opened his refrigerator door. The telephone was still ringing. He lifted the handset two inches from the cradle and dropped it down and resumed staring at the contents of his fridge. He had a hankering for ice cream. He had been craving ice cream since getting the massage the day before from Laura Díaz-McClatchey. Alas, there was none in the freezer, the closest substitute strawberry yogurt. He took the yogurt out to the porch, where long ago he had set up two Adirondack chairs to enjoy the view. The house—a large California Craftsman built in 1912 with wide eaves, gabled dormers, and shingle siding—sat on a rise of coastal bluffs. It was shaded on one side by a stand of red alders and blue gum eucalyptus and flanked on two other sides by his trucks, converted barn, two greenhouses built with plastic sheeting and aluminum frames, and a shed for his old Kubota and Massey Ferguson utility tractors. Around the shed were all the usual farm implements—row planter, cultivator, disc plow, spools of drip tape, compost spreader, everything looking rather rusty and worn. Down the dirt-and-gravel driveway was a muddy irrigation pond, bordered by stacks of aluminum pipes.
But from the porch, Lyndon couldn’t see any of this. There was the Pacific Ocean on his right, his fields before him, and the inland hills. Sometimes, in the spring, he could see gray whales migrating north, seals and sea lions bobbing in the swells, brown pelicans skimming the surface. He could see his cover crops undulating in the breeze, the lush green of bell beans and barley broken by explosions of color from patches of wildflowers—the blue of Douglas irises, the orange of California poppies, the pink of hollyhocks, the gold of buttercups. He could see jackrabbits hopping behind the sagebrush and coyote bush at the edge of the bluff. He could see birds as they flew to the marsh preserve to the south, riding currents of air, the great blue herons and snowy egrets and red-winged blackbirds, the wrens and northern harriers, kites and gulls, and, all around the house—singing—white-crowned sparrows. He could see the terrace of foothills, the gentle slopes of pastureland leading to the canyon preserve of coastal redwoods, grass spotted with yellow mustard and red thistle.
Even today, absent of spring’s colors, the view was magnificent, a screaming-red sunset with cirrus clouds on fire, and Lyndon, spooning yogurt into his mouth, wondered why he had ever stopped sitting on his porch. When had he begun to take all of this for granted? He felt good suddenly, calm and exhilarated and, inexplicably, very, very horny. He finished his yogurt, and instead of starting dinner, as he’d planned, he walked upstairs to his bedroom to masturbate—an uncharacteristic activity for him in his advanced age, at least before bedtime. Maybe once, twice a week, he would masturbate in bed before dropping off to sleep, more out of habit than anything else, but now he felt as randy as a pubescent boy, and he stroked away on his bed with urgent concentration, a vague picture of Laura Díaz-McClatchey—with her pantyhose and chocolate smell—in mind.
He heard a series of soft thumps. It was Bob, standing in the doorway, staring at him openmouthed, a new tennis ball on the floor between his feet.
“Get out of here, Bob!” Lyndon yelled, fumbling to cover himself with a sheet. He was appalled and chagrinned, as if caught by his mother. “Git!”
Bob stood his ground until Lyndon threw a book—The Stories of John Cheever—at him, then he trudged down the hallway.
Lyndon thought of continuing with the matter at hand, but the mood had been lost. He went downstairs to the kitchen, fed Bob, and began preparing his own dinner, chopping zucchini and chicken to stir-fry and popping on the rice cooker.
Bob was ten years old. When he was younger, he used to follow Lyndon wherever he went, but now they were like roommates who’d grown disinterested in each other, occupying opposite ends of the house. No more trail-running together, no more sleeping at the foot of Lyndon’s bed. Bob had his own dog door through the mudroom, and he came and went as he pleased. Sometimes Lyndon did not see him for days. In point of fact, Bob seemed depressed—listless. Lyndon couldn’t remember the last time he’d even heard him bark. “You might think of it for yourself, you know,” Lyndon said to Bob. “It might do you some good.”
In the morning, Lyndon awoke feeling remarkably refreshed. His neck was loose, completely unencumbered, as if he’d never had a problem at all. He recalled the way Laura Díaz-McClatchey had tugged on his head and stroked the nape of his neck and cradled it in her hands, and he thought now—despite his resistance to such hokiness—that he had sensed a transference of some sort, that she had been channeling something—dare he say it?—a regenerative energy from her body to his.
Whatever the case, he was happy to be ambulatory again, for he was late in installing a job, a decorative iron doorframe for an art gallery. September was his busiest month, with everyone trying to gussy up their stores before the annual pumpkin festival in mid-October. (Rosarita Bay, along with a hundred other towns across the country, proclaimed itself the pumpkin capital of the world.) This year, though, August had been equally busy. There was going to be a chili and chowder cookoff on Labor Day weekend—another of the new mayor’s ideas to drum up tourists.
Lyndon specialized in ornamental welding, although he was certified to weld anything from sheet metal to structural steel with gas or arc. Truth be told, he preferred down-and-dirty industrial jobs—tire rims, boat anchors, mufflers, and chassis—where he could simply lay down a bead and be in and out. Yet the money was in the fancier decorative work. He wasn’t set up to cast or forge, but if he could order the components and fabricate them in his shop, if he could work cold with mild steels, bending wire or bars into scrolls, similar to the process he’d used for the delicate, ornate sculptures for which he had once been famous, he would take the job. Welding now brought him almost as much income as farming Brussels sprouts.
That afternoon on Main Street, after drilling into the masonry and caulking cracks with sealant, he bolted the iron archway and frame to the art gallery’s entrance. The frame fit precisely, for which he took a moment of pride, and he thought, perhaps, that his streak of bad luck was over. He was finishing with some touch-ups of paint when Laura Díaz-McClatchey appeared, asking, “How’s your neck doing?”
She was standing on the sidewalk behind him, wearing an outfit similar to when he’d last seen her—fitted polyester, pumps, another object lesson in rectitude—with a folded copy of The New York Times tucked underneath her arm.
“Better,” he told her. “It’s amazing, how much better it feels, actually.” He swiveled his head from side to side to demonstrate.
“Good. I’m glad.”
“Can I ask you something?” Lyndon said. “What exactly did you do to me? What was the full treatment?”
She was wearing sunglasses with small round lenses, and she slid them off her face and perched them on top of her head. “Why?” she said, scrutinizing him. “Do you feel different?”
“How so?” For the first time, he detected a glint of playfulness in her manner, a crack in the all-business façade she’d maintained throughout his visit to the institute. “How has it manifested itself,” she persisted, “this feeling?”
She smirked at him, as if she knew exactly what was up.
“How long have you been doing shiatsu?” Lyndon asked.
“Oh, I’ve practiced since I was a teenager,” she said. She tossed the Times into a trash bin near the door. “My mother was a therapist in Berkeley. She trained me early. It goes back generations to Japan.”
“You’re part Japanese?”
“Middle name Kobayashi. But I’ve only done it professionally for a couple of months. It’s not my life work, you know. I have a gift for it, but it’s not what I was planning to do as a vocation. It’s a punishment of sorts. I guess you could say I’m serving penance.”
“I had a fall from grace. I’m in exile. I did a bad thing.”
“What did you do?”
“I’m not ready to tell you yet.”
Lyndon nodded. “Okay.”
“I’ll tell you about it when I get to know you better.”
The implication intrigued him—that she intended to get to know him better. Laura Díaz-McClatchey dressed like an insurance agent (what was with the stockings? He remembered the sound of nylon sticking to tatami. Very impractical. They had to run all the time), but she was sexy in her own way, and she was becoming more mysterious, more appealing, with each exchange.
“Do you know anything about art?” she asked, turning toward the gallery.
She regarded him skeptically. “Really? Nothing?”
“I’m just a farmer.”
“And welder-cum-bartender,” she said. “Look at this shit. Who buys this crap? Who would want this on their walls?”
This gallery was like all the others on Main Street, filled with kitschy oil paintings of flowers, beaches, landscapes. “This town,” Laura said. “There’s no movie theater. There’s no record store or bike shop. Yet they have a dozen so-called galleries wherein you may procure endless iterations of moonlit waves crashing onto rocks. I worry sometimes about the foundations of our democracy, the future of our cultural heritage, the sanctity of artistic integrity. Of course, then again, I’m an elitist snob and could give a rat’s ass about the hoi polloi.” She smiled—she was being facetious. Wasn’t she? “Do you want to get some ice cream?” she asked.
Ice cream, Lyndon thought. Of course.
He stowed his tools and tarps and moved his truck around the corner to a side street, and they strolled down to Udderly Licious, an ice-cream shop with a faux-rustic décor near the creek bridge. They opened the door and walked in on two teenagers behind the counter in a passionate liplock, making out with hands grabbing and squeezing and clawing—oblivious.
Laura cleared her throat. The teenagers disengaged their mouths with—Lyndon swore—an audible pop. They stared at the adults in a confused haze, faces flushed and wet with saliva. “Hello, Jen,” Laura said.
“Hi,” the girl said slowly. “Hi.” She let go of the boy, and they wiped their mouths and sorted their aprons. “This is André.” The boy winked at them and carried two empty tubs into the back room.
“Isn’t he beautiful?” the girl whispered to Laura.
The boy was beautiful, way out of the girl’s league, really, tall and lanky, with stiff dyed-black hair.
“I don’t know what happened. Last month, he didn’t know I was alive. Can you believe it?”
Lyndon now recognized the girl—blond, a touch overweight, plain—as the client Laura had treated before him at the shiatsu institute.
“I’m happy for you,” Laura said.
“I’m happy for me.” The girl laughed. She pulled on a pair of disposable vinyl gloves. “The usual?”
“Well, what do you recommend today?” Laura asked.
“You’re going to get something different?” the girl said.
“I don’t know. I’m feeling adventurous.”
They all looked at the signboard of flavors, of which there seemed to be as many varieties as there were massages in Rosarita Bay. Chunky Cantaloupe. Adzuki Beano. Almond Tofu Fruity. Chewy Louie. Ginger Molasses. Caramel Prune. Tullamore Dew.
“Go first,” Laura said to Lyndon.
“A scoop of chocolate.”
“Chocolate?” the girl said.
“Double Dark? Rum? Amaretto? Mint? Cheesecake, Fudge, Peanut Butter? Tiramisu? Loco Mocha?”
“On a cone or cup?”
“Vanilla Cinnamon? Honey Wheat, White—”
He was afraid to ask.
“Walnuts, raisins, cookie dough, granola, gummy bears, pecan pralines—” the girl began.
“Nothing,” Lyndon said.
“Okay, that’s cool,” Jen said. “You’re a retro minimalist. Or maybe just a copycat.”
Naturally, plain chocolate on a plain sugar cone, hold the sprinkles, was Laura Díaz-McClatchey’s customary order.
“Who is that girl?” Lyndon asked as they walked out of the shop with their identical cones.
“Jen de Leuw.”
“What’s her story?”
“What do you mean?”
“Who is she?”
“I just told you.”
“But what’s she about?”
“I don’t understand what you’re asking. She’s in high school. She was born and raised here. She works in an ice-cream store. She’s in love with a boy. She came to me because she tweaked her back in field hockey. I don’t really know anything more about her.”
“Are you a Buddhist?” Lyndon asked.
The Second Noble Truth was that the origin of suffering was attachment. There were four Noble Truths in all, four tenets of Buddhism, which had been easy enough to track down on the Internet with the new computer he had been forced to buy, his old one beyond repair. All along, he had assumed that Laura Díaz-McClatchey had been the root of his erotic insurgency, all the mishaps and bad breaks and odd occurrences, his cosmos seemingly atilt. (The evening before, after his nightly bowl of 420 for dessert, he had masturbated in his bedroom, with the door locked, and once again this morning.) Now he reconsidered. Was Jen de Leuw, this dull, pudgy high school girl, responsible for everything? Had she written the message on the paper airplane? Had she, not Laura, been the source of the ice-cream smell, the font of weird energy that had been channeled into him, or was he imagining things, overanalyzing what was mere coincidence?
“Are you all right?” Laura asked.
“Fine,” he told her.
She gave him a napkin, and they crossed the street.
“How long have you lived here?” she asked.
“Almost seventeen years.”
“Extraordinary. Where were you before this?”
“New York,” he said, licking his cone. “What about you?”
“San Francisco, by way of Chicago and Manhattan and Berlin and London and L.A. and Berkeley. I’ve circled the globe, and I ended up here, a rather sorry circumnavigation, wouldn’t you say? What were you doing in New York?”
“Nothing very interesting.”
“No? Just another anonymous soul in the Big Apple?”
“I suppose so.”
“Really? Just another faceless cog?”
He was irritated by her tone. She seemed to be mocking him, and his sense of privacy felt infringed, much as it had been when she’d asked about his bowel movements. His response, then, surprised him. It came out before he’d even had time to construct it with any intent or meditation. “Do you want to go out to dinner sometime?” he asked.
“There’re actually a couple of decent restaurants in town now. You might—”
They rounded the corner, and they happened upon a woman in a squat, hammering a nail—no doubt a shiny new truss nail—into the front right tire of his truck. After a final punctuating whack, the woman rose and turned. It was Sheila Lemke, the benefactor of Lyndon’s most recent sexual activity and also, incidentally, the new mayor of Rosarita Bay. The three of them stood facing one another, Lyndon and Laura with their ice-cream cones, Sheila with her hammer, her expression caught between rage and horror and mad elation.
“Let me give you a piece of advice, sister,” she said to Laura tremulously. “You’re new here. You don’t know this man’s history. You don’t want to get involved with him. You’ll regret it. It’ll be the biggest mistake of your life. He won’t leave you alone. He’ll haunt you. You won’t be able to get rid of him. He seems nice enough on the outside, but he has bad intentions. He’s not honest. He’s a miserable excuse for a human being.” She began to cry. “Oh, fuck me,” she said in frustration, and swung the hammer against Lyndon’s truck, leaving a nice little circular indentation on his door.
They watched Sheila as she broke into a full sprint down the street.
“I should explain,” Lyndon said.
Laura’s ice cream was dripping onto her hand. “I need to go,” she said.
For the third time that month, Lyndon took out his jack and tire iron. He tightened the lug nuts on his spare, then drove to the service station on the corner of Highways 1 and 71, where he had the flat patched. The mechanic tried to convince him to let him, while he was there, fix his broken taillight, but Lyndon refused, which he immediately had occasion to regret, since he was stopped by a sheriff’s patrol car just after he left the station. Lyndon rolled down his window and saw who was approaching in the side mirror: a tall, handsome man with prematurely white hair, splendidly combed in a short pompadour. Lieutenant Steven Lemke. Sheila’s ex-husband.
“License and registration,” he said.
“Steven, I’m not in the mood. I’ve had a bad stretch.”
“And that’s relevant how?”
“You’re not really going to do this, are you?” Lyndon asked.
Steven rested his palm on the butt of his holstered gun. “Do you want me to add Section 148, obstruction?” he said.
He gave Lyndon a ticket not only for the taillight, but also for not wearing his seatbelt.
It was seven when Lyndon got home. A northwest breeze was stiffening, and it was noticeably colder. Fall would arrive in earnest soon. In a matter of weeks, it would be time to start harvesting his Brussels sprouts.
He entered the house through the mudroom. As usual, Bob was nowhere to be found, but Lyndon heard something odd inside—water running. Someone was taking a shower. Hesitantly he climbed the stairs, and as he reached the second floor, the valve to the shower squeaked shut. He stayed on the landing, unsure what to do next. The door to the bathroom was open, the light on, and he could hear the bather drawing back the shower curtain, toweling off, and running a brush through long hair, wet tips licking the air when the brush traveled past the ends.
The person—a woman—came out of the bathroom and pivoted down the hallway toward the bedrooms, away from Lyndon. She was naked, Asian, lean and muscled, skin slick and water-beaded. Lyndon took a step forward, and the floorboard beneath his foot creaked. They both stopped moving, a tableau vivant, frozen in identical positions, one foot in front of the other. Then Lyndon watched the woman’s haunches and legs contract, and she whirled around, spinning twice in a spectacular fashion that was at once balletic and terrifying, and threw a roundhouse kick into his face. As he crashed against the wall and was going down to the floor, about to black out, he was cognizant of swallowing the temporary crown that had dislodged from his cracked molar—or what was now left of it.