It had turned out to be one of those days along the far northern California coast—cold, damp and dreary with a steady drizzle falling and the low gray clouds woven in among the forested hills. If you have ever been up in that neck of the woods, you know what I mean. There are times when it rains hard for days on end, but when the storm finally breaks the sky is scrubbed clean and the whole world feels brand new. Then there are days like that one when it’s simply wet and damp and dreary and it makes you want to crawl in a hole.
I had driven down to Eureka about ten that morning, more or less in that gray mood and not gaining much ground on the feelings by the time I stepped into Stella’s Café around two that afternoon.
I found the inside of the café deserted, save for a lone waitress cleaning up out in front, a cook scrubbing down his grill in back and an attractive brunette with short cropped hair seated alone at a window table. The brunette had a mug of coffee in front of her, the remnants of various sweetener packages scattered around the mug, a Corgi curled at her feet, two, large gym bags on the vinyl floor next to the table and no signs of a meal. She was staring out the window with a funereal air. The scene had shopping cart written all over it.
I headed over to the waitress and ordered an espresso. She had been wiping down the lunch counter and went to work on my espresso without saying a word. The cook gave me a sullen look from in back. Neither of them appeared to be all that thrilled about seeing me. No doubt they were wanting to go home at that point. The place did not serve dinner.
While the waitress was busy with my espresso, I stole another glance at the brunette. She was a delicate little thing and in her early thirties somewhere, as far as I could tell. The light dusting of freckles across her face caught my attention as much as anything else. Young girls in white blouses and plaid skirts came to mind, carrying their books home from school.
I was off on that reverie when the waitress came back with my espresso. I paid for it and headed out the door.
Halfway onto the sidewalk, I stopped and thought, hell. The situation was crying out for help. I could feel the anguish from forty feet away.
I went back in and approached the woman. Her eyes darted once in my direction and nervously back out the window. When I pulled to a stop across from her, she glanced up at me. Something resembling a smile appeared on her face but failed to stick. Meanwhile, her hands had started to rearrange things on the table, as if building turrets and ramparts against all would be intruders, me included.
I gestured at the opposite chair.
“Mind if I join you?”
“Oh…you know…thanks but I’d really rather be alone.”
I sat down anyway. The Corgi shifted away from my invading feet. The woman continued with her turret building. When she looked up again, it was with the fierceness of a hawk having broken wings, both enraged and helpless over its condition.
“I’m Steven,” I said.
The woman looked past me, not at all liking that she had been cornered. When her eyes came back, I shrugged ever so slightly. Yeah, I’m waiting here.
“Oh, Colette,” she said and looked out the window.
“Colette. That’s a beautiful name.”
She nodded. I waited until she looked back.
“So, it’s probably none of my business, Colette, but it sure seems to me like you’re having a roll in the barrel here.”
I glanced down at her two bags on the floor. Her eyes followed mine and came back.
“It’s that obvious.”
“Something doesn’t feel right.”
“And that’s your job? Checking on the needy and downtrodden.”
“Well, you look like you’re taking it hard. What’s a man supposed to do under the circumstances? Ignore you?”
“That’s usually how it works in this world, isn’t it?”
With another one of her failed smiles, Colette looked back out the window. A moment later, I noticed her wiping at tears.
“Hey,” I said with a touch of her arm. “It’s all right.” I handed her one of the unused napkins from the table. “If I have this pictured right, we can fix it.”
She looked back, her eyes clutching at hope from a sea of despair. The Corgi, having sensed all the emotion, sat up and looked from her face to mine.
“What’s his name?” I said.
The big ears pricked up. I called and he waddled gloomily over to my side of the table.
They were a pair, those two.
“So, you were saying?…About fixing this?”
“Oh, if you need a place to stay, I have a spare cottage you can use.”
“There isn’t one. Just don’t burn the place down.”
Her head shook slowly from side to side.
“This is starting to feel like a reality TV show or something. You’re not secretly filming this, are you?”
“Of course not.”
Colette sighed and looked back out the window.
“The truth is, Hugo and I were down to sleeping in my car tonight.”
“And now you don’t have to.”
Colette suddenly reached for my hands.
“Please tell me you’re not making this up.”
I squeezed her hands in return.
“No. Why would I make up something like this? You need a place to stay and I happen to have one.”
Colette bowed her head and mouthed the words ‘thank you’.
“Truly, Steven,” she said with a squeeze of my hands. “I don’t know who you are or why you’re trying to help me, but even for one night off the streets, I’d be eternally grateful.”
“Hey, it’s all right. Everything’s going to be all right now.”
Colette let go of my hands and looked askance, as if I had tried to deceive her, and I stared back, somewhat at a loss for what to say next. My first impulse had been to reassure her but it quickly dawned on me that if you were broke and faced with the streets, platitudes about everything ‘being all right now’ might tend to rub you the wrong way.
“Are you hungry?” I asked in place of more platitudes.
“Oh…no…Really. I’m fine.”
“No, no, it’s all right,” I said and went over to grab the waitress’ attention again.
A moment later, I returned with the last three muffins of the day.
“Thank you, Steven…Again. And forgive me for being overly cynical. I just don’t seem to have any hopes or dreams left in this world.”
“It’s okay. I feel the same way half the time.”
“You? Really? Why’s that?”
I held up my hands as if to say, look at the goddamned situation we were in.
“You know, it just feels like there’s nothing left but madness now. Doesn’t it?”
“Please. Don’t get me started.”
Colette broke off a piece of a muffin and pushed one of the uneaten ones my way. I held up a hand.
“I’m fine, thanks.”
“So. You were saying?”
“Oh, what? About the madness?”
“Well, I loathe to speak this out loud but it just feels to me like the bullet of modern civilization has been spent. You know, like we’re Rome at the end? I was reading a biography about Caesar the other day and found myself thinking, Jesus, this is us. The parallels are frightening. The institutions of government had become so completely effete and useless in the years before the republic collapsed, you couldn’t get a goddamned thing done.”
I gave Colette an ironic look.
“Please. Don’t get me started,” she said again.
“Yeah. Well, the joy’s definitely gone out of things. I get to thinking some days, let’s just take up the wood flute and find ourselves a cave.”
A glimmer of real humor crossed Colette’s face as she stared at me.
“It’s true, isn’t it? And the worst part is, we’re all half mad, just from trying to keep all this crap stuffed inside of ourselves.”
Colette nodded in agreement and looked out the window.
“Steven. Everything that could possibly have gone wrong in my life over the past few years has. Then I walked out of a job three weeks ago.” She looked back. “I know…foolish of me but I just couldn’t take one more day of working for the Mastuh.”
“What?” she said at seeing me smile. “You mean about the Mastuh?”
“It’s true, Steven. That’s how it is in the corporate world.”
“I know. Or, should I say, I don’t know. I’ve never been there.”
“Well, I never wanted to be there either but I was and finally could not take one more minute of it. It’s like someone is forever looking over your shoulder, waiting for the chance to grind you down and give you crap.”
“So, how did you find yourself in that situation in the first place? You don’t look like the corporate type.”
“Oh, I’m not. I assure you.”
“I’m a Julliard trained dancer, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
“Wow. Okay. So what happened with that?”
Colette shrugged and looked away.
“The Russians. Really. And what did they do?”
“I know, real funny.”
I shrugged penitently.
“Oh, I had run my own private dance studio for a number of years. Successfully, mind you, but once the Soviet Union collapsed, thousands of refugees from the Russian dance troupes started emigrating this way. And they’re so cutthroat, they’ve made it impossible to make a decent living at it anymore.”
“Tell me about it. So, I became a lackey in the business world.”
Over the next half hour, Colette filled in the details. How, after five years of being kicked around on the lower rungs of corporate America, she had been chewed up, spit out and left with an aging car and thirty grand of credit card debt. Forced to give up her apartment three days earlier, she had started up the coast, with no idea where she was going.
Driving off a cliff had become an option. And there we were.
“I have a great book idea for you,” I said when she stopped.
Colette looked up hopefully from her muffin.
“The Confessions of a Julliard Trained Bag Lady.”
Seeing my words had thrust a knife into her heart, I quickly reached out a hand.
“Sorry. I suppose that wasn’t very funny under the circumstances.”
She sighed deeply.
“So, please. I’m so fucked up right now…”
My mouth dropped open. I would have expected a nun to swear first.
“Oh, yes. Fuck is one of my favorite words.”
“I never would have guessed it.”
“Yes…well…we all have our dark sides, don’t we?”
“I guess I’ve been deceived.”
“So you were saying.”
“So, I was saying. Please explain about this cottage of yours. I’m so afraid this bubble is going to burst.”
“It’s not going to burst. I have some land up the coast and the cottage is tucked away in the woods. And, as I said, you’re welcome to use it.”
“With running water and everything?”
“Ooohhhhhhhh, so you wanted the one with running water and electricity. Well now, that’s a completely different story.”
Colette stared, waiting, her tentative smile wavering between anguish and uncertainty.
“Yes, running water and every little amenity. I assure you, it’s quite cozy.”
“And when would I have to leave?”
“When would you want to leave?”
“Probably never,” she said with another nibble at her muffin.
“Well, I suppose we’ll all be long dead before that eventuality comes around.”
She reached for my hands again.
“And you really mean this.”
“Of course I do.”
“So, is it too much to ask to go look at it right now?”
“No, that’s fine. I need to get back to the ranch anyway.”
I stood up. Colette took the last bite of the muffin she had been eating, gathered the remaining two into a napkin, stuffed them into her purse and grabbed her espresso.
I downed the last of mine and grabbed her two bags. They felt like they had rocks in them.
“I did a splash bath and change of clothes in the bathroom,” she said.
I nodded. Colette had one last look around the table and joined me in heading out the door.
It was a quiet street, and particularly so at that hour.
“Are you parked nearby?” I asked.
“It’s the convertible Celica over there.”
I nodded. It was an early ‘90s model with the red paint rusted down to metal in places and the top held together by duct tape.
“Come on, let’s get you loaded up,” I said and walked her across the street.
With Colette and Hugo safely inside the car, she hit the power window. It required an extra hand to get it down.
“So, I guess I’m following you?” she said.
“You can lead if you’d like.”
She took a playful swipe at me.
“I’m in that truck up there,” I said with a laugh.
She looked at my brand new rig with another pained look.
“So which way are we going?” she said.
“North up the coast a few miles. Just follow me.”
Seeing Colette’s hesitancy, I touched her forearm.
“It’s okay. Just relax and accept this gift from the gods.”
“I know. We’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”
I touched her arm again and headed up to my truck.
All the way out of town and up the coast, I kept an eye on Colette in my rearview mirror. She was glancing this way and that as if she might lose heart and turn back. For all she knew, I was a serial killer. And the farther we went, the more concerned she seemed to grow.
When I turned onto a long gravel road, shrouded by redwoods, Colette paused for a long moment before finally following me in among the trees. No doubt she had been expecting a driveway, not a mile long journey into the forest.
I kept to a slow pace, so as not to spook her any further, and kept a constant eye on the rearview mirror.
Eventually we came to a large, rolling meadow with a gravel parking area graded into one corner of it. I pulled to a stop there and climbed out. Forest ringed the meadow and the sweet scent of pine filled the air.
Colette parked next to me and climbed out with Hugo. Several gravel roads and foot trails led off among the trees and the sounds of sawing and hammering echoed from deep in the forest.
“So, what is this place?” Colette said, referring to several cottages you could see tucked away along one of the meandering trails. “It looks like you’re starting a retreat or something.”
“To be honest with you, I’m not so sure anymore.”
Colette shook her head, smiling.
“You must have some idea. My god, the money you’ve spent.”
“Yeah. Half the town thinks I’m crazy. The other half thinks I’m nuts.”
Hugo suddenly caught a scent and bolted off.
“Hugo!” I called after him.
“Better keep him near,” I told Colette. “We’re not alone out here.”
She grabbed his leash from the car and put him on it.
“So, shall we have a look around?”
She nodded and we started up a winding trail towards the cottages. Every fifty yards or so, there was another one tucked away in the forest, each one built around a Craftsman theme and each one whimsical in its own special way.
“Oh, I love that one!” Colette said of the fifth cottage we passed.
It was a bit more whimsical looking than the others, and tucked a bit further back among the trees.
“Let’s have a look inside then,” I said.
Unlocking the door, I allowed Colette to go in ahead of me. The interior was commensurately whimsical, in keeping with the outside, but the kitchen and built-ins and bathroom were still built along a basic Craftsman’s theme. All the rooms were furnished with a matching Craftsman style of oak furniture.
Colette went around opening cupboards and drawers in the kitchen, as a lady is wont to do.
“My god. Look at the dishes and silverware. What wonderful, old fashioned stuff.”
“I thought the forties would be a fitting touch.”
I went back to the living room and flopped down in an oak and brown leather chair. Colette had a quick look at the two bedrooms and bathrooms and took a seat opposite me on a matching oak and leather sofa. The forest was alive with bird song around us. The sound of construction echoed now and then from far off.
“Peaceful, isn’t it?” I said.
She shook her head.
“I feel so restored in just five minutes.”
“And you like the cottage?”
“Then it’s yours to use for as long as you wish.”
“Thanks…I’m still waiting for the catch.”
“I told you. Just don’t burn the place down.”
Colette glanced out the door.
“And I’m it? I mean, nobody else is living in the other cottages?”
“Not yet. It’s just you and me, kid.”
She shook her head again.
“So, help me here. I’m still struggling to understand where this thing is headed.”
“Oh, I guess I had envisioned a tribe of people gathering together. I don’t have a better way of explaining it.”
“And what would said tribe be doing, once it gets together?”
I stared, drumming my fingers on the oak armrest.
“You would have to bug me about the details.”
“Look, just go back to our earlier conversation. You know, about the world being so fucked up?”
“And the path we’re heading down being unsustainable?”
She nodded again.
“Everybody knows it, right? Somewhere deep down inside all of us, we know we’re hurtling towards the abyss but we just put our heads down one more day and forge ahead, with some vague notion that the big Kahuna up there in the sky is going to turn this thing around at the last second. But I don’t see that happening.”
Colette sat there biting her lip in thought.
“You do know what I mean, right?”
“See? Deep down in our guts, we all have the same feeling. Where is this madness headed? How is this going to turn out well? The population keeps exploding and those fuckers in the petroleum industry have us addicted to oil and despite all the good folks out there fighting the good fight, we keep pumping out fumes and choking in our own waste.”
Colette sat there staring.
“Did I lose you at fuckers?”
She smiled and shook her head.
“Well, forgive the rant but don’t get me started, because this stuff drives me crazy. I lie awake at night, unable to sleep. Anyone with half a sense knows we need to change course but our leaders are either bought off or useless, or both and we just keep hurtling towards the abyss like everything’s dandy.”
I stopped to catch my breath.
“There, there,” Colette said.
“I know. Fuck.”
“No, it’s all right. I’m totally with you, Steven. So what?”
Colette held out her hands.
“So, there I was at a crossroads a few years back. Do I sit here like Buddha and say, oh hell, why worry? It’s all in a dream anyway. What’s the point of trying to fix this mess we’re in? Or do I roll up my sleeves and try to do something about it? And this.” I waved my arms at the forest around me. “Whatever you want to call it, is my meager attempt at an alternative path.”
“By being sustainable?” she said.
“Well excuse me but that is a really big deal right there.”
Colette feigned repentance.
“Sorry. Like I said. Don’t get me started.”
“I think you already are.”
“Yeah, well, being sustainable is a big thing. Beyond that, it’s not easy to explain in a couple of seconds. Like I said, being tribal is a big part of it.”
Colette smiled sadly at me.
“Well, please don’t take this in the wrong way, Steven. I admire your idealism, but I can’t see how this…”
She threw out her hands.
“…is going to change the world all that much.”
“You see? That’s the problem. As long as they can keep us from working together, we’re screwed. So this will be a place where we can gather around a common core but retain our individuality. No cult BS. But no dog eat dog either. No scrambling over each other to make a buck. No knocking around like a bunch of disconnected pieces.”
Colette looked askance with her dubious smile.
“Well, let’s say this tribe does work together collectively. You still have to go out there and compete with everyone else. Right? You’re still in the dog eat dog world, trying to make a buck.”
“You’re a lot of fun,” I said.
“Sorry. Just trying to be realistic.”
“Yeah, well, call me naïve, but as Roosevelt once said, try something, and if it fails, try something else, but for chrissakes, get out there and try to move the goddamned ball forward.”
“Is that a direct quote?” she said.
“Yeah, pretty much.”
She smiled. I tried my best not to.
“Of course, you realize none of this is possible without a lot of money, Steven.”
She held out her hands again.
“Oh. You’re wondering if I have a bunch.”
She shrugged, then waved a hand at me.
“No, I’m sorry. It’s really none of my business.”
“No, it’s all right. My old man passed away and left me his fortune.”
“Oh,” Colette said as if I had thrust a sword through her heart. “I could only wish for such luck. My parents died in poverty.”
“Well, you’re on the team now so you don’t have to worry.”
“Oh yes I do,” she said with glass in her voice. “You want a rant? I’ll give you a rant. I worry about money every single day. There is no greater yolk of oppression than being poor in this world. You may as well be a slave. The well-off can smile at this or that calamity, but when you’re poor, you shrink at every dismal event, expecting it’s just one more ball and chain around your neck. You struggle through every ordeal, with no idea how things will work out. It’s a slow, sad, dismal, hopeless form of torture, so don’t tell me not to worry.”
We sat staring at each other.
“Oh, so you do get pissed off every once in a while,” I said.
Colette’s turned her head askance.
I nodded and looked out the open door.
“I do feel safe here,” she said after a moment.
“Yeah, well, that was one of the basic ideas.”
I looked back at her.
“Then, thank you.”
I nodded. We sat there for a spell in silence.
“But Steven, I still don’t get where this is headed. You know. Those pesky little details?”
I shrugged and stared back out the open door, playing with my lower lip in thought.
“I’m winging it, but I think for good reason. It just seems to go against the very nature of a tribe, cluttering up things beforehand. First we have a tribe. Then we start deciding things.”
Colette tilted her head with a forlorn smile.
“It is very sweet of you, you know. Using your money to help others in this way?”
I nodded. Helping others had not been my first impulse. A destiny undone had led me to this place, and I had no interest in talking about that.
“Like to see the rest of the joint?” I said, standing up.
“Oh sure. What else is there to see?”
“Lots. Come on. I’ll show you.”
I helped Colette to her feet and we went out and started down a path towards the sea. Hugo trotted along ahead of us, his stubby little legs working overtime.
“By the way,” I said, pointing back. “The roof shingles on the cottages? They’re all solar. It’s part of an overall system that helps us to stay off the grid.”
“I do like that part of it a lot,” Colette said.
“Thanks. I’m much relieved now.”
She took another playful swat at me.
Eventually, we passed through a dense thicket of trees and stood above an array of solar panels, four small windmills and some heavy machinery.
“Wow, very impressive,” Colette said. “And what’s that tank and machinery for?”
“It’s a human waste recycling plant. There’s electric power for backup but it’s designed to run off of the methane in those tanks. Which comes from us.”
I smiled wanly at Colette.
“Not much raw material at the moment but we’re gunning for more.”
She smiled back.
“The methane also supplies fuel for heating and cooking in the cottages. My truck runs off of it too.”
“Wow, it’s just marvelous what you’re doing, Steven, but I can’t help but wonder. Why didn’t you do this in a place like New Mexico, where it’s really sunny?”
“Oh, well, let’s tear the whole goddamned thing down and start over.”
“Oh god, Steven. I’m sorry. I just keep talking off the top of my head.”
“Well maybe you shouldn’t talk off the top of your head so much.”
“Well maybe you shouldn’t be so sarcastic.”
“Well? ‘Why didn’t you just do this in someplace like New Mexico, where it’s sunny?’ ”
She looked away.
“Oh Christ,” I said. “This is ridiculous.”
“Well, you started it.”
“No I didn’t.”
“Yes you did.”
I walked away, of a mind to ship Colette right back to Eureka. I was sorry I had invited her out here. I was even sorrier about starting this whole goddamned stupid pipedream of mine. I walked around in circles for a spell, steaming.
When I finally cooled off, I walked back.
“Look, Colette, I’m sorry, and you’re right. I’m totally impractical at times but I didn’t want to live in New Mexico. I can’t stand the hot, dry weather. Or being that far away from the sea. And I wouldn’t have met you if I was in New Mexico, now would I?”
“I guess you’re right about that. And I’m sorry too.”
I reached out and touched her shoulder.
“Look, it’s hard enough battling the world and my own demons. I was hoping for a little support around here.”
“Okay, I’ll try to be more supportive.” She made a sad face and rubbed my arm. “I guess we’re both being a bit sensitive today.”
“Yeah we are.”
She studied my face.
“You having a rough time too, Steven.”
“Oh, Colette. I look back at my life and think the whole thing has been a total waste. If not for the money, I’d have nothing but regrets.”
Suddenly, Colette was in tears again.
“Hey, what’s the matter, kid?”
“Well, think about it. All I have are regrets. And no money.”
She broke down then and I held her. I held her for a long time until her emotions were spent, then pulled back to look at her.
“Are you okay now.”
She wiped at her cheeks and nodded.
She nodded again.
“We’re in this together now, okay?”
She nodded again.
I gave her another big hug and a kiss on the forehead and we started back up towards the cottages. Hugo went out ahead of us with his stubby little legs still working overtime.
“Maybe we should just concentrate on getting more people out here,” Colette said.
“Now there’s an idea.”
“Do you have any thoughts?”
“Keep hitting that café?” Colette smiled sadly. “Seriously, I don’t know. I was thinking to run an ad or something.”
“Couldn’t you just spread the word around town? It seems to me you’d have this place filled up in no time.”
“Yeah but we have to be a bit more selective. Get a cross section of skills and talents out here, you know? Otherwise things will never work well.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
“Yeah. I’ve given it that much thought.”
She smiled sadly again.
A minute later, we had arrived back to the cottage area.
“Okay, then. I imagine you’ll be wanting to grab some supplies in town but if you’d rather not drive back today, I can serve you dinner. And breakfast in the morning and supply you with whatever necessities you might need to get through the night. Coffee. Tea. Dessert. Whatever you like.”
“Thanks. I think I’ll take you up on that. I need to look for a job but I’d rather stay here and enjoy the peace of the woods for the rest of the day. If that’s okay with you.”
“Of course. Let’s walk back down to your car and I’ll show you where you can park.”
Once there in the meadow, I pointed to a winding gravel road that ran along behind the cottages.
“If you follow that, it will lead you up to the back of your place. You’ll find two parking spaces there. Oh, one other thing. I have some lingering zoning issues with the county building department, so if you take a walk, come this direction, away from the construction noise up there, okay?”
She nodded. I glanced down at Hugo.
“And keep him on a leash. The coyotes are wary, but you let him wander off the beaten path and all bets are off.”
“So which of the cottages is yours?”
“None of them…I have a tree house.”
“Yes, really. It’s the other way. Down that path over there. It’s a good distance back but if you keep walking, you’ll come to it. Stop by for dinner. Around five? Or if you need anything in between.”
“Thanks but I’m fine for now. I have some bottled water and the rest of those muffins.”
“Okay. We’ll see you for dinner then. It’s gowns and black tie.”
“Neah, he can skip the black tie for tonight.”
“I mean is he welcome?”
“Of course. We’ll bring him up in the basket.”
“Oh god no.”
“Just kidding. There’s a proper set of stairs and all.”
“Okay. See you later then. And thanks again. From the bottom of my heart.”
“Sure. Just relax and enjoy yourself and we’ll discuss the bigger picture later on.”
I reached for the door of my truck and waited to make sure Colette was headed in the right direction before climbing in.
There in the meadow, with my truck window rolled down, I heard a woodcock call off in the forest somewhere. A bee buzzed by on its way up to a distant meadow. I heard the sound of a hammer striking again and was enjoying my little Eden when I noticed the building inspector pull up from the highway and turn down an access road towards the cottage in construction. I dropped my truck into gear and sped off after him.
So much for Eden. That bastard had been a thorn in my side since day one.
By the time I had pulled to a stop in front of the cottage, Dan was already marching up to the door, a clipboard in hand, his wiry frame stooped over at the shoulders, a dour look on his face and baldness staking out a sizable bit of terrain at the back of his head. You struggled to picture Dan having fun with the kids.
“Hey Dan,” I called out after him.
He glanced over his shoulder without acknowledging me in the least. I hurried to catch up with him. As much as I didn’t like the man, my contractor Dale liked him even less, so the least of my duties was to run interference.
Dan checked his clipboard and went into the kitchen first. The cottage was roofed and sided but otherwise still in raw framing. Dan had a quick look at the plumbing and moved on to the electrical.
“What the hell is this?” he said, squatting down to inspect a row of wall plugs. “You’re supposed to be running 3/14 in the kitchen, not 2/14. These should be GFI plugs. All this will have to be torn out and redone.”
Dale came in, as taciturn as Dan, but with shaggy hair and a heart. I looked at him for answers.
“It’s the dining room,” Dale said matter-of-factly.
He whipped out his tape measure, marked off where the kitchen counter would end and measured over to the last wall plug. It was just a tad over four feet. Dale looked up at Dan.
Dan harrumphed and went about inspecting all the wiring above the kitchen counter area, taking each section in hand and turning it around to read the label, clearly hoping it wasn’t 3/14, when anyone who knew his stuff could see at a glance that it was. Dale and I watched him.
Dan jotted down something on his clipboard and headed for the bathroom, where he again checked the wiring, as if still hoping to nail us on that one issue. All through the cottage he performed his duties with cordiality or mirth.
Finally, Dan went outside to sign the inspection card.
“Asshole,” Dale said under his breath as soon as Dan was out of earshot.
“Careful,” I said and went out to check on Dan.
“You’re lucky those floor plugs were over four feet away,” he told me, looking up from the inspection card. “Next time, don’t cut it so close.”
I nodded, holding my tongue. There was no point in arguing with the prick.
As Dan was climbing back into his truck, he noticed something down towards the finished cottages and climbed back out. I stepped out from under the covered porch and saw Colette coming up the path, chasing after Hugo, his leash dragging along behind him. Down at Colette’s cottage, some of her belongings were scattered around on the front porch. It looked as if she had been outside sunning herself.
Dan was already on his way down there. I hurried after him. He barged inside before I had chance to catch up with him and was already storming back out as I arrived. Colette had Hugo gathered up in her arms and looked horrified as Dan brushed by her on the way to his truck. I motioned for Colette not to worry and hurried to catch up with Dan again.
“Look, it’s not what you think.”
“Yeah, right,” he said with a quick look my way. “You know you’re not supposed to have anyone occupying these places yet. This whole circus of yours is still under zoning review.”
“Look Dan. She was down to living in her car so I told her she could freshen up in there until I figured out something more permanent.”
“So you’re running a homeless shelter now.”
“That’s not what I said.”
“Well, that’s what it sounds like and if that’s what you’re doing out here, you’d better get the right zoning permits.”
With that, Dan sped up even faster. I reached out to grab him by the shoulder.
“Goddamn it, Dan. Haven’t you ever been down on your luck?”
He shook himself free.
“Keep your hands off of me.”
Off he went, at an even greater pace now.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” I said, catching up with him again. “Have you got a rock for a heart?”
“Don’t give me any bleeding heart crap. There are codes and ordinances and it’s my job to make sure that everyone lives by them.”
“So I’ll have her stay at my place until things are settled with zoning. Let’s not make a big deal out of it.”
“It’s already a big deal,” Dan said with a quick look my way. “She’s living there and I’m red flagging the entire development. I don’t want another nail pounded around here until you get things straightened out with zoning and the county board.”
Again I hurried to catch up with Dan.
“What’s the deal, Dan? You’ve had it out for me on this project since day one.”
“I don’t have it out for you. Or anybody. I’m just doing my job.”
“Your job? You know what? Fuck your job for a moment.”
That spun his head around.
“Yeah. What do you think? St. Peter’s going to be up there with a clipboard at the Pearly Gates. ‘Oh yeah, Dan did his job all right. Come right on in’. The only thing you’re going to be known for is being a petty little man who couldn’t see the real life around him.”
“You’re treading on thin ice, buddy.”
“Yeah? Well fuck thin ice, Dan, and fuck you.”
Dan reached his truck and quickly had a red tag card in hand.
“Why don’t you answer me? What the hell happened to you? Had a rough childhood and you’re taking it out on everyone else?”
Dan was writing away furiously. I nearly tore the red card out of his hands.
“Forget the goddamned paperwork for a second and look around you, Dan. There’s life. People, destinies, real flesh and blood hardship. That woman was down to sleeping in her car. That’s what some people have to go through these days to survive, but I guess that doesn’t matter to you, huh?”
Dan tacked his notice on the wall next to the front door and went inside to announce that all construction was to stop. Dale and his helper looked at me. I motioned for them to hang loose and followed Dan back outside.
“Why don’t you answer me, Dan? Never been down on your luck? Never had a tough break? No guilt whatsoever about sticking it to people who have?”
Dan threw his clipboard into the truck and jumped in with it.
“I’ve given you every break I could over the past two years and now I’m done.”
“Yeah right, Dan. The truth is, you haven’t been cordial to me for one damned second. You showed up with a hard on the first time you came out here and you’ve had one ever since. What do you think? I’m building a getaway for bin Laden?”
“Funny. You know what I mean.”
“You know, you rich people are all the same. You come in here throwing your big time money around like you own the place. No respect for the rules or local traditions.”
“Oh, so that’s it. Us rich people, throwing all our money around.”
“I don’t want to see another nail being pounded around here until you get this straightened out.”
Dan slammed his door shut, started his engine, and backed out in a cloud of dust. I watched to make sure he had turned back down towards the highway before going in to talk with Dale. He was already wrapping up.
“Fuck him. Just keep working.”
“Hey, I’d just as soon shoot the fucker but I’ve got a license to protect.”
“I’ll protect you. I’m calling my attorney right now. I’ve had it up to here with that son of a bitch. I’ll sue the county if I have to. I don’t know exactly what for, but I’ll come up with something.”
Dale stood there staring at me with his power cord in hand. I whipped out my money clip and counted out ten, one hundred dollar bills.
“Here. That’s a show of good faith. Take your wife down to Frisco for the weekend. Give Jason here a bonus. Whatever. Just don’t quit. I don’t care if I lose. I’m going to put the fear of the lord into these fuckers. When Mayor Twilling gets a whiff of the city’s legal expenses, he’ll come suing for peace.”
“Yeah, well, like I said. I don’t care what it costs at this point. I figure I’ve got more money than they do, so screw ‘em.”
“If I end up with attorney fees, you’re paying.”
“I’m paying. Absolutely. Have I ever left you hanging so far?”
Dale nodded warily and started rolling out his power cord again. I headed for the door.
“Excuse me. I have a lady in distress to comfort.”
Sure enough, Colette had packed her bags and was carrying them down from the porch as I pulled up. I rushed to intercept her.
“Colette, wait,” I said.
She set her bags down.
“No, I shouldn’t have let Hugo run off.”
“Colette, that bastard would have found some other reason to fuck with me, with or without you.”
She looked unconvinced.
“Seriously. It’ll all be fine. Let’s just sit down here for a minute and I’ll explain.”
I grabbed the bags and encouraged Colette to take one of the Adirondack chairs on the front porch. I sat opposite her and rubbed my temples in thought. When I looked up, Colette was staring at me.
“Look, I don’t even want to get into all the trouble that man had caused me. All you need to know is this. Everything’s currently hung up over a zoning hassle. I don’t know what to call the place and smoke would come out of their ears downtown if I suggested I was starting a tribe. We left off with me getting a hotel license, which I don’t want to do, so we’re still slugging it out.”
“Is that a big hassle? Getting a hotel license?”
I rubbed my thumb and fingers together.
“Which is not the real issue. I certainly don’t want to spend any more than I have to but it’s more about the paperwork and all the hoops I’d have to go through if we called it a hotel. Anyway, that’s not what this is so we battle on. My lawyer suggested that I start a foundation. Purportedly that would give me the wiggle room I need but I’ve got a neighbor out here who’s going to make a stink, no matter what I do.”
“Exactly. You could live up here a hundred years and never see the bastard but if you’re in this neck of the woods, it probably means you’ve got money, which probably means you’re a right wing prick.”
“Yeah, trust me. They do tend to go together. Attend one of these local board meetings and you’ll see what I mean. That son of a bitch spends half his life making sure no riff raff moves into the neighborhood. And to him, I’m riff raff.”
“Fucking world,” she said.
I smiled, then grew dark with another thought.
“What?” Colette said.
I glanced over at her.
“Oh, just realizing. I’ll probably have to apologize to that fucking Dan now for going off on him.”
“Why? Would someone at the city make you do that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe but it’s mostly my own conscience. I’m trying to live in a world where we don’t start wars over our differences.”
“There’s an impossible dream for you.”
“Difficult, I’ll grant you, but once you realize something is wrong, you can never go back to doing things the way you once did. And this is how wars get started, if you hadn’t noticed.”
Colette nodded and sighed.
“Well, I’d best get going. If Hugo and I have to sleep in my car tonight, I need to scout around for someplace before it gets dark.”
“Colette, please. You don’t have to leave.”
“But I heard him say he wanted me out of here.”
“Yeah, this place, but you and Hugo can come and stay with me.”
“Oh, no, Steven. I really couldn’t.”
She went to stand up again and I stopped her.
“Colette, look, let’s establish some ground rules right here and now, and rule number one is, if I have a problem with something, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, please stop trying to run off at every turn. This is your new home.”
Colette bit her lower lip and stared.
“Oh, Steven. Please. You know how fucked up I am.”
“I know. You’re so beautifully fucked up.”
“But this is your new home and we’ll make it work. It may take a bit of shuffling but we’ll make it work. Okay?”
Colette shook her head doubtfully.
“No, we’ll make it work.”
I stood up and offered her my hand. She took it and stood up with me. I went inside to check the kitchen. It was clean. I went back out to the front porch.
“I gather you have the muffins.”
She patted her handbag. I locked the door.
“Okay, off we go then.”
Colette had Hugo on his leash. I grabbed her bags and we went around back to her car. Once everything was situated inside, I jumped into the ragged front seat.
“Let’s go grab my truck and I’ll lead you around to my abode.”
We drove up the cottage in construction and Colette followed me from there back down to the meadow and up another narrow, winding lane that led to my treehouse.
“Oh my God,” Colette said, getting out.
“Nice Valley Girl imitation.”
She laughed at herself.
“But how whimsical and wonderful. And big.”
“You were expecting a kid’s fort, no doubt.”
“Something a bit closer to that, yeah.”
With her bags in hand, I led the way upstairs and opened the door. Colette stopped on the landing to wait for Hugo. He was struggling with his stubby legs to make the climb. With every other step, he stopped and looked up at us mournfully. Finally Colette went down to retrieve him.
I took the bags inside, set them down in the living room and stood staring out the windows at the forest. The sea would have been visible off through the trees, had it not been for the gray, dreary day.
“God, this is so enchanting,” Colette said, coming in with Hugo. “Oh, the drawings.”
She immediately went to the Japanese ink drawings on one wall.
“Sumi-e, isn’t it?” she said.
“Yes. Actually, Suibokuga, but they’re more or less of the same school. I suppose to be entirely accurate, you’d call them of the one-corner school. A figure over here, set against the vast emptiness over there.”
“Yes. It’s very Zenny, whatever you want to call it. Stops you in your tracks.”
“That’s the idea. Please, god, awaken me from the prison of my own mind. But here I am, caught up in more words.”
“Oh, and originals too.”
“It’s not very Zenny to talk about that. The rest of the tour?”
“Sure,” Colette said with a final look back.
I took her upstairs to my personal quarters and work area first. At my request, the architect had designed it at the far end of the structure. The lower landing of my stairs was bordered by a quiet room and library to ensure my further privacy and quietude.
Back downstairs, I grabbed Colette’s bags and led her through the kitchen and great room to the three bedrooms and three baths on the other end. I dropped the bags in a bedroom decorated especially with a lady in mind, showed Colette the rest of that wing and we returned to the kitchen.
“Anything you want, it’s here,” I said with a wave at the refrigerator. “I presume you have dog food.”
“Well, please, make yourself at home and feel free to cook up anything you’d like. Mi casa es su casa.”
“Okay, I need to go take care of some business upstairs. As in, call my attorney.”
“Oh god, I feel so awful again.”
“Remember our pact?”
“I do. It’s just so hard to accept.”
“Accept it. This was going to come to a head, sooner or later, and maybe it’s just as well that you’ve sped up the process. Everything happens for a reason.”
“Are you okay then?”
She nodded. I swept a hand over the house, offering it to her again and headed up to my office. Richard was on the phone a few minutes later. Richard the Lion Hearted, I liked to call him. He was a short, stout Irishman with a florid face that could be merry one minute, then utterly dark in the next. For the most part, he was very cerebral, but if something got in his way, cannons roared and steeds came galloping.
I explained the situation.
“And you want from me?”
“Sue the bastards.”
“For doing their jobs?”
“There has to be something we can nail them for. That bastard has a hard on for me and I’m tired of taking his crap.”
“I think you’d have a better chance incorporating than you would beating the building department in court.”
“Okay, then we’ll incorporate.”
“I meant, as in your own separate city, and I’m being facetious.”
“All right, you son of a bitch. How about that foundation?”
“I’m looking into it.”
“Well quit looking and do something.”
I heard Richard sigh.
“Look, I don’t care how you go about it, but put the fear of the lord into these bastards and get me some way to move people in. I have this lady here who needs a place to lay her head. And there will be others soon. I need this vacancy issue resolved or I’ll go mad.”
“I think you already are.”
“Fine. Then all the more important that you do something.”
“I’ll work on it tonight and give you a call.”
“The sooner the better.”
“I’m busy today but I’ll work overtime tonight on your behalf. That’s the best I can do.”
“You get this done and I’ll send you down to Cabo fishing, all expenses paid.”
“And I’ll take you up on it.”
“You’ve got a deal. I’ll talk with you tomorrow.”
I hung up the phone, kicked my feet up and stared out at the forest. The sky had suddenly cleared with the afternoon wind and sea was very blue and white-capped off in the distance. It appeared to be both stationary and drifting continuously south down the coast.
My thoughts fixed back on Cabo. Why hadn’t I gone down there to build myself a lordly place overlooking the Pacific, buy a big boat, go fishing every day and sit back watching the sea from my favorite bar every afternoon, let go to the Zen of every moment and finally accept that this world is what it is and you’re never going to change it?
It was nothing anyway, so there was nothing to change.
Fucking Fitzgerald’s Folly. That’s what I had. Chasing your wild dreams and look what they’ve brought you. Nothing but trouble.
But some deep rooted instinct that I did not understand or particularly trust told me to hold steady and go forward. Hell, I had to now. I was in so deep, there was no turning back.
I sat there reaching for Eden while slouching my way towards Bethlehem.
While continuing to work upstairs in my office that afternoon, I occasionally heard Colette shuffling around down in the living room but when I went down to start dinner at four-thirty, she and Hugo were gone. At a little before five, I heard footsteps coming up the stairs and looked over my shoulder. Colette’s face appeared in the half opened Dutch door.
“Hi,” she said from outside.
“Come in, come in,” I said and waved to her from the kitchen.
She opened the door and tentatively stepped inside. Hugo hesitated too, as if mirroring her energy.
“Please, come in,” I said again. “And you can go ahead and close both doors.”
She did so and came towards the kitchen. Hugo followed along, his nails tapping against the hardwood floors, his ears up at the scent of my cooking.
“Smells wonderful,” Colette said with a peek around my shoulder.
Her cheeks were flush from the walk.
“Just a Thai vegetable stir with shrimp.”
I let her taste it.
“Mmm, very good. With mint?”
“And lime and coconut. Put the lime in the coconut and fill you right up.”
Colette chuckled and went to wash her hands.
“You’re being careful with Hugo out there, right?”
“I am, thanks. Oh, I came across this wonderful cottage up the lane the other way,” she said while drying her hands. “Who lives there? Or lived there? It looks like it was inhabited at some point in the past.”
“Oh, that’s a long story…So, did you want to give me a hand here?”
Colette studied me.
“How about slicing up the bread?” I said with a smile and pointed at a loaf of hard crust bread sitting on a cutting board. As I went back to work, I heard the sound of the crust cracking against the cutting board, like ice breaking up.
“Mmm,” I heard Colette say behind me. “So good. Where did you get this?”
“There’s a French gentleman in town. A regular boulangerie.”
Colette brought over a bite for me.
“Butter?” I said.
“Oh, so we’re really going to get sinful.”
“Why not? We’re in deep already.”
Colette came back from the fridge with the butter and we had a minor orgy while I finished up with the salad.
“I don’t usually eat at this hour, but with winter.”
“God, I know. It gets dark so early these days.”
“And we blew right through lunch.”
Colette wandered over in the direction of the French doors and the adjacent balcony. “So lovely, though. This hour of dusk in the forest.”
“Yes. Spirits are afoot. You’re welcome to go out and have a look if you’d like.”
“Thanks but I’m enjoying the warmth inside. By the way, I hope you don’t mind that I threw Hugo’s waste in the trash enclosure around back.”
“I trust you used a plastic bag,” I said over my shoulder.
“Of course. I have my own supply.” She came back into the kitchen. “That’s quite a fortress you have back there. I mean for the trash cans.”
“We have bears around here, too, in addition to the coyotes. Maybe even wolves. They tracked a male crossing over into the Siskiyou’s this past spring. Apparently he marched all the way down from a population in northern Oregon.”
“And they didn’t shoot him?”
“No. This isn’t Wyoming. They’re actually hoping he finds a mate. It’s the first wolf sighting in California since 1924.”
I continued tossing the salad.
“Should I get the plates out?” Colette said.
“Sure, thanks. They’re in that cupboard.”
With the table set, Colette filled Hugo’s bowl with dried dog food. I placed the salad on the table. There were two covered bowls with the stir fry and brown rice already waiting.
With everything on our plates, Colette was suddenly overwhelmed with emotion and touched my hand.
“I don’t usually do this, but a little prayer of thanks seems fitting.”
She bowed her head. I closed my eyes.
“Thank you for your many blessings, God,” Colette said.
While I waited for more, I heard Colette buttering up more bread.
“That’s it?” I said, opening my eyes.
“Short and sweet.”
“Okay. Works for me.”
I too buttered up a piece of bread and dug in.
“So please tell me more about how you came from Julliard to the current state of affairs.”
“I’d rather forget.”
“No, it’s all right.”
I listened to a somewhat typical story of a marriage in Manhattan that went south, then a westerly trek, with stops in upstate New York and New Mexico along the way. Other men had come and gone, but mostly she had concentrated on building up her own dance studio down south, only to see the Russians sink her.
I found myself chuckling frequently as Colette described the details of her foray into the corporate world.
If only I had been willing to fuck this guy. If only I hadn’t slammed the lid of the scanner down on this guy’s hand.
“Actually, if I had been willing to utter the word Mastuh out loud, I probably would have gone far.”
I chuckled again at her chutzpah.
“So, tell me about you, Steven. You haven’t said a word about your life.”
I waved a hand at the forest around me.
“I was a bad person last time around and this is my punishment.”
I smiled and bit into my bread. Colette stared.
“What?” I said.
“You still haven’t answered my question.”
“Oh, I was hoping you hadn’t noticed.”
“Yes. Well, here’s how it is for me. I wake up every morning with a gasp. Then I get myself pointed in a positive direction somehow. Then I wake up the next morning with the same gasp. It’s like the Groundhog movie. Every morning, I wake up to this fucked up world and can’t believe it. Like, is this really my karma? Of course I quickly realize that I’m not alone and feel driven to try and do my part to make this a better world. Maybe as a form of redemption? I don’t know but then I wake up the next morning with the usual gasp.”
I shrugged and dug back into my meal. She studied me for a long moment.
“I guess I feel the same way.”
“Yeah. It’s going around.”
She laughed and we ate.
“Actually,” I said. “I’ve been planning to build an arts center out here as part of the project and it’s occurred to me that…given your presence…maybe we might want to add in a little dance studio?”
Colette was quickly wiping at tears again.
“Is there anything I can say that won’t make you feel miserable?”
“Oh god, no. I can’t tell you how happy that idea makes me feel. Are you really serious?”
“Sure. We’ve got to have some cultuah around here.”
Colette chuckled while wiping at tears.
“Where would you put it?”
“Oh, somewhere in or around that meadow and parking area. That’s the basic idea. Folks scattered about in the woods and a central community area.”
“You really mean to do this?”
“You mean build the arts center?”
“Of course. The arts are essential. Probably the most essential part of our humanity, don’t you think? Consider. What was the first thing man put up in a cave? Not an accounting ledger. It was a painting. Maybe art is our humanity.”
Colette smiled, bit into her dinner and then dabbed delicately at her mouth with a cloth napkin.
“What about rules?” she said. “You’ll have to have rules out here, right?”
“Oh, yeah. We’ll have lots of those.”
“But that’s the age old question, isn’t it? You need some way to maintain control. Then you have to figure some way to control those governing.”
“So, any ideas?” Colette said with another bite of her meal.
“My motto is, when all else fails, attack the neighbors.”
Colette gave me a look. I shrugged.
“It helps to keep your mind off your own problems.”
“Oh. Well, I suppose if chaos evolves, we’ll hold a town hall meeting.”
“It will, you know.”
“So? We’ll deal with things as they come along. No? You’re not buying it?”
“I don’t know. It just seems to me that you’re being awfully Rousseaunian. Is that a word?”
“It is now.”
“But you know what I mean.”
“Sure. I admit it. I’m a seat of the pants kind of guy but I did poke around a bit into the history of communes and it appeared to me that there was always a tendency to overdo things. The rules, I mean. ‘You’re required to do this. There’s no doing that.’ Even those sixties’ communes had their ten commandments. It seems totally counterproductive to me in hindsight. You know, from one state of bondage to another?”
“Probably those early Israeli kibbutzims are the closest thing to my own vision. At least in terms of structure. Or lack thereof. Everybody just chipped in as necessary and made it work.”
“Were you ever in one?” Colette asked.
“No, a commune.”
“God no. How old do you think I am? I’ve just heard the stories and seen some of the documentaries and everything seems to support my impressions. It was a short trip from hippiedom to fascism.”
“Banished for drinking a Coke.”
“Ah, so you have been in one.”
“Well…yes, briefly. While living in New Mexico.”
“Yeah? Make your skin crawl, did it?”
“Yeah. I prefer a simple premise. Everyone has to do his or her fair share. Beyond that, there are no rules. We’ll just deal with stuff as it comes along.”
“I foresee a lot of town hall meetings.”
“The fact is, I’m not even sure about the ‘contributing’ part. At least there has to be some latitude at the start. What if we drag in a helpless soul who’s not capable of doing anything?”
“Well, Colette, I expect there are people in a lot worse shape than you are.”
“A few,” she said. “Maybe.”
She smiled facetiously.
“But you get the idea. Create a sense of community and trust that everyone will get into the spirit of it. It’s that or you get booted off the island. You included, Hugo.”
That got Hugo up from his prone position. Colette gave him a snow pea, which he chewed with a curious expression.
“So, back to acquiring more volunteers,” she said.
“Yeah, there’s that and getting approval from the powers that be.”
Colette looked down and played with her food.
“Hey, don’t worry. You can stay here until we get things straightened out. In the meantime, we’ll set up an appointment with the architect and see what we can do about moving this arts center forward.”
“Do you have any ideas for it?”
“What do I know? You’re the artist. I’m sure I’d like to add my input at some point but it’s up to you. Envision whatever you think we could possibly need for the arts and we’ll go from there.”
“Do you have any idea how big this structure would have to be?”
“Some. We’ll want a good sized theater and spacious rooms for the dance and art studios. Why don’t you draw up a list of the separate spaces you think we’ll need and some approximate idea of the square footage for each and we’ll go see Connor.”
“That’s the architect?”
“Yeah. Scottish fellow. It’s a kick just listening to him talk.”
“And you don’t care at all about the cost.”
“I believe in being frugal wherever possible but if you’re asking me whether or not this project is going to break the bank? No. Not hardly.”
“You’re dying to know, aren’t you?”
“Oh god,” she said with a grimace. “Forgive me. I shouldn’t be prying.”
“It’s okay. I’d be curious too. Let’s just say, far more than a man could ever spend in a lifetime.”
Colette looked as if she had just watched someone else win the lottery.
“Look, I can’t change what happened but I can surely do something more constructive than hording it. Consider. If you had a billion dollars, you could live on a million dollars a year for a thousand years. I mean, how much fucking money does one person need?”
“I’ve often asked myself that same question.” Colette shook her head and looked out at the now dark forest. “It’s just so incomprehensible. Especially when you’re worrying over your next tank of gas.”
She suddenly seemed very sad again. I reached for her hand.
“Hey. I’m really, really glad you came along. It’s just the perfect fit for the first member of the tribe. Someone in the arts. That’s really the kind of focus I wanted to see. Concerts at night, dance and stage performances, an art school. Whatever.”
“It does sound wonderful.”
“It will be wonderful and you’re going to help me make it happen.”
Colette looked out at the forest again.
“Oh, I don’t know. I still feel like this bubble is going to burst at any moment.”
“Look, Colette. I’ll go you one further. Let’s establish a fair salary and I’ll put you on the payroll. That way this situation won’t be so nebulous to you. You’ll have a job and responsibilities and we’ll forge ahead, okay?”
“Oh, Steven, honestly. I couldn’t.”
“Why not? Let’s just decide on a figure. How about thirty grand a year?”
Another tsunami of emotion washed over Colette and she turned away with her napkin.
“Jesus, Colette. I’m going to stop giving you good news if this is how it’s going to affect you.”
She smiled through the emotions and touched my hand.
“I’m sorry. It’s just like some dream, everything that’s happened today.”
“Yeah, I can see. And a delightful one.”
She waved the napkin at me.
“All right, all right. I understand. You’ve had a thousand pound weight on your shoulders.”
“Oh god. You don’t know. Right, Hugo?”
He looked up, as all dogs will do when confronted by human grief, baffled but caring.
“So, we’ll call it thirty grand a year. It’s a bargain for me and with the housing thrown in, it’s a good deal for you, right?”
She nodded and shook her head all at once, still not knowing how to take her good fortune. I reached out to shake her hand and she threw herself at my shoulder instead.
When her emotions were somewhat spent, she pulled back and looked in my eyes.
“Thank you. Again.”
“It’s all right. I’ll go see my accountant tomorrow and make sure your checks start flowing right away. Okay?”
She reached out impulsively to kiss my cheek and looked out at the now darkened forest.
“Oh god, my mind is already spinning with ideas for the building design.”
“Hey, feel free to brainstorm. To your heart’s content and we’ll arrange to meet with Connor this week, as soon as he’s available.”
I took another bite. Colette was playing with her meal.
“Did you want a title?” I said.
She made a face.
“How about, Grand Director of the Trinidad School of Arts & Dance. I’ll have some cards made up.”
“All right. Just trying to bring a bit of levity to the situation.”
“I know, but trust me, I’m already excited enough.”
“Good. That’s what I want to hear.”
I buttered up another piece of bread.
After the meal, I led Colette and Hugo up a trail to the creek and fern grotto.
“Oh god. How lovely. Did you ever think of building the cottages up here?”
“Yes, but that would have triggered some serious watershed issues. Anything that has plumbing within a couple hundred yards of that creek and you’re now dealing with the federal government.”
“No, no. I’m all for protecting the environment and I’ve already had enough roadblocks with the county as it is. Building the cottages up here would have penciled in two more years for review. Lovely, though, isn’t it?”
“So, we’ll consider it a place of sanctuary for all to use. I think once the dust settles, I’ll see if I can build a simple Zen pagoda out here. With one of those Zen sand gardens. We’ll have gongs and incense and that sort of thing.”
She smiled and we continued our walk.
Later, back at the treehouse, I poured two brandies and we sat up late in the living room, talking about life and the arts center. Colette had curled up on the sofa and was seemingly at home now as a cat contentedly twitching its tail.
At a bit past one, I glanced at the clock, yawned and stood up.
“Better hit the hay. Much to do tomorrow. Richard doesn’t know it yet but he’ll be seeing me first thing in the morning.”
“Is that the attorney?”
“I feel awful again.”
I leaned over and gave her a kiss on the forehead.
“Sweet dreams. I’ll see you in the morning.”
I gave the spellbound Hugo a rub on his head and went upstairs.
In the middle of the night, I awakened with the rain pouring down and my head going round and round with the same old thoughts. Why had I done this to myself? Like I could change the world when nobody else had much succeeded. I had upended my cherished privacy and little else. Plus, the project was beginning to look like a hundred million dollar pick up line, what with Colette being the first member of the tribe.
Round and round I went and found sleep only a short time before dawn.
A few hours later, I awakened to find the storm had broken. White clouds marched across a cheery blue sky and the sea danced with white-caps far off through the trees.
Feeling a bit more optimistic that I had a few hours earlier, I headed downstairs. Colette was seated at the kitchen table with the remnants of an omelet in front of her, along with a cup of coffee.
“An early riser, I see.”
“From all those years as a corporate hack,” she said.
I laughed and went for a cup of coffee.
“There’s more omelet.”
I uncovered the pan.
I quickly nuked the eggs and sat down with my breakfast and coffee.
“Very nice. I see broccoli and cheese. What else is in here?”
“A bit of tomato, garlic and onion.”
I dug in.
“Hmm, delicious. Thank you again.”
“No, thank you.”
She smiled. I continued eating and chatting with Colette and had quickly finished up.
“So, did you want join me in town today?” I said while depositing my dish in the sink.
“And do what?”
Go see the accountant.”
“Oh god. I’m so embarrassed by this idea.”
“Okay. Let’s see if we can find you another job in the corporate world.”
“So when did you want to go?” she said.
“Let me brush my teeth and I’ll be ready.”
With a last gulp of coffee, I dashed upstairs and dashed back down a few minutes later.
“And did you want to take separate vehicles? So you can do some running around on your own after we hit the bank?”
“I guess. What you think?”
“It’s probably best. I’ve got a million things to do of my own.”
“Okay. Let’s go.”
Colette started to gather up one of her bags and I grabbed it for her. Hugo followed us out the front door and I locked it.
Downstairs, I started my truck and waited for Colette to get her car going. I saw the brake lights go on but nothing else happened. Finally, I climbed back out and found Colette with her head against the steering wheel. I opened the door. She looked up at me in tears.
“What’s the matter?”
“It won’t start.”
She beat her hands against the wheel.
“Hey, hey, come on. Don’t worry about it. I’ll call AAA and have it towed into my mechanic.”
“And then what?”
“We’ll have it fixed.”
“Your new salary.”
Without further warning, she completely broke down.
“Hey, hey, come here.”
I got her out of the car and held her tightly in my arms until her grief was spent. She looked up at me, wiping at tears.
“I know. There’s a great burden upon you right now, Colette, but in the end, it’s just a goddamned car repair.”
“I know. I’m sorry,” she said, wiping at her face again. “I’ve just had too much grief of late. I don’t know if I can take any more of it.”
“It’s all right. Hey, look. I’ve got so much to do in town today, it doesn’t make much sense me dragging you along. Let’s just wait until I’ve arranged an appointment with Connor. That way we can get your first check from the accountant and get this arts center moving forward all at once. Are you all right with that?”
Colette nodded and dabbed at her nose with a tissue.
“Okay. Let’s go back upstairs.”
I grabbed her bag, she grabbed Hugo and we went back up to the house.
“So, will you be okay here by yourself for today?”
Colette nodded and tried to smile.
“You’re sure,” I said.
“Yeah. I’ll be fine.”
“Okay. I’ll set up that appointment with Connor and your checks will be flowing in a couple of days.”
“Please stop talking about it. I feel so embarrassed.”
“All right. Why don’t you work on some preliminary sketches for the art center? There’s a desk and computer in the library. Paper in the drawer. You can go online and poke around if you want. Whatever. Just make yourself at home and I’ll have things rolling here in a couple of days.”
Colette reached out to touch my hand.
“Steven, I can’t thank you enough.”
“Hey, you’re helping me too.”
“I don’t see how at this point but I so appreciate everything you’re doing for me.”
“No, don’t you see? It’s all meant to be. Our meeting and everything?”
“Well, we did meet. I can’t argue with that.”
Determined to make my point clear, I leaned forward in my chair.
“Did you ever read Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle?”
“Oh god, somewhere long, long ago. Yes.”
“So, you remember Bokonism, right? And the karass?”
“So, I’ve often felt that way when certain people come into my life. This is a really profound connection, except life is so fucked up now, they just drift away and disappear again. All of them are gone. Long gone. So, karass or whatever you want to call it, I’m determined to make these new connections stick. That’s the whole idea of the tribe. We work together so we’re no longer alone in this world.”
“It sounds lovely,” she said with a sad smile.
“No, we’re going to do great things out here together. Trust me. And I’m telling you all this because I want you to feel like you’re on solid ground. Not like the rug is going to be pulled out from under you every time you turn around. Okay?”
“Okay. So, I’ll probably be in town until late afternoon. Make dinner if you want or wait until I get back. Either way, I’ll call AAA on my way into town, so look for a tow truck.”
“No problem. Just make yourself at home in the meantime.”
I gave her a final hug of assurance, patted Hugo on the head and went out the door.
On my way out to the highway, I called AAA and arranged for the tow, then called my mechanic.
“Louie, Steven here.”
“Hey buddy. What’s up?”
I explained about Colette’s car.
“Never mind the embarrassment. The poor woman’s thoroughly depressed so what I want you to do is run the car next door to the body shop, have it painted and then have somebody take care of redoing the top and upholstery.”
“Do I smell love here?”
“Oh, she’s a doll all right but that’s not really the point. It’s just somebody who’s been kicked around by life for too long and needs a break.”
“The man on the white horse.”
“That’s me. Hey, look. Get this done as fast as you can and tack on whatever you need to make it worth your while.”
“Consider it done, my friend. Three or four days and it’ll be ready.”
“Thanks, man. Oh, and fix the power windows. You need a monkey to help you move them up and done.”
Louie laughed and said he would take care of it.
In town, I stopped at a bakery and left with a dozen espressos and a lavish assortment of muffins for Richard’s office staff. Richard was in his back office when I arrived. At the sound of all the commotion, his door promptly opened.
“I just laid odds in Vegas that it was you,” he said with a hand still on the doorknob. “Come on. Get in here.”
“I’ll take one of those espressos, thanks.”
Richard frowned at the orgy in progress behind me and waved again.
“Gloria, let’s get that brief done. I’m due in court in two hours.”
Richard closed the door and took his princely seat. I sat in the wood and leather chair opposite him.
“I suppose you’ll want this before the Supreme Court by next week.”
“The 9th Circuit will do.” He nodded sarcastically. “Look, I just need to settle on a course of action and get it done, that’s all. Whatever you think will get me residency permits the fastest.”
“I jest not. If you want the most expedient way of moving folks in, adopt them. No one can stop a family member from living with you.”
“Fine. I’ll have them all sign a prenuptial. I don’t care. Let’s just get it done. I have that woman staying at my place and I want to get her situated in one of the cottages.”
“All right, just hold your horses. I had a talk with Toni and she thinks she can get at least four of her fellow board members to sign off on the foundation idea. Then all you have to do is make everyone living up there with you an employee of the foundation and you’re good to go.”
“Then do it.”
“You understand that you’ll have to abide by all the requirements of a foundation. It’s like a corporation, only on steroids, as far as the paperwork goes.”
“Fine, fine. You set it up and I’ll adopt some son of a bitch who knows how to run a foundation.”
Richard smiled ironically, the eyes twinkling a bit, the corners of his mouth moving up ever so slightly. With him, that was no minor achievement.
“So, the sooner the better,” I said.
“Go talk with Toni.”
“The board meets tomorrow night, doesn’t it?”
“Christ, Steven. I can’t get this done by tomorrow night.”
“Richard, how much do you want to draw up the charter?”
He shrugged and drummed his fingers in thought.
“Rough estimate? Ten to twenty grand. Probably on the higher end of things if the board throws this back at me for some tweaks.”
“Fine. Now you double whatever it is and put everyone on overtime. I want an answer this week.”
“You don’t ask for much.”
“I only ask for what my money can buy me.”
“Fine.” Richard hit his phone intercom. “Listen up everyone. We’re on overtime as of this minute.”
There was a chorus of groans.
“Be prepared to sleep on the floor tonight.”
Richard clicked off, had a second thought and clicked back on again.
“And you can thank Mr. Fitzgerald here for the privilege.”
I heard sounds of mutiny. Richard smiled. I flipped him off.
“Anything else, your highness?”
“Yes. About that prick Dan red flagging the project. Please get him off my back.”
Richard shook his head. I stood up.
“Just have your secretary send me your dates for that fishing expedition.”
“It’ll be a party of four the way this thing is going.”
I started to leave.
“Oh, just curious,” Richard said. “This dame. Is she…uh…?”
He motioned with his hands.
“Yeah, she’s a doll but that’s not the point. She’s part of my karass.”
“Yeah. Bokono. Look it up. Anyway, she’s Julliard trained so I’m making her the director of my art center.”
Richard shook his head with another smile.
“I’d say you have more money than sense, but I know you’re really serious about what you’re doing out there.”
“Yeah. Just look at all the good it’s doing for you.”
He smiled yet again and closed my file.
“I’ll let you know how things go with Toni, but I trust you’ll have everything ready for tomorrow night’s board meeting.”
“Indeed you are. Well, off on my steed here.”
On my way out of the office, I dodged a gauntlet of criticism. I could have my espressos and muffins back. That pretty much summed up the reviews.
I drove straight downtown to Toni’s office. She ran a small consulting firm out of a two story historical building, upstairs in back with a view of the harbor. It was definitely low key. Much of the time she was leveraging her days on the Coastal Commission to help folks work through the review process.
Toni had her liberal allies on the county board, but none were as liberal as she.
Toni peered over her glasses as I barged in. She had a pencil in her auburn hair and a set of blueprints on her desk. Something about her wide-set eyes, glorious smile and rose petal skin made me want to settle down to white picket fences.
“Well, sunshine,” she said. “How goes it up there at your Valhalla?”
I sat down and explained my run in with Dan.
“Oh, that’s not good.”
“Yeah. I’d like to put him on the rack but I’ll probably end up apologizing instead.”
“So, I had a chat with Richard yesterday. Is that what you’ve settled on? A foundation?”
“That’s what he recommends. My next best option is adopting everyone.”
“Everything is on the table if it solves my problems.”
She smiled broadly.
“So, the question is, can we run this by the board tomorrow night?”
She raised her eyebrows.
“You don’t ask much.”
“That’s what Richard just told me. I’m paying him and his staff overtime to get the paperwork done.”
I looked around as if checking for cameras and leaned forward.
“Any way I can bribe you and the board.”
“You’ll have to be more subtle than that.”
“I’m giving away fishing trips to Cabo.”
“More subtle yet.”
“I was thinking to make a large donation to the Natural History Museum.”
“Really? Do tell.”
“Yes. In fact, I think I have the check right here.”
I produced my checkbook and wrote out one for fifty grand.
“Well! How generous of you, Mr. Fitzgerald.”
She reached for the check but I held it back.
“I’ll be there at the meeting tomorrow night with my proposal.”
“Well, I’m sure the board will be very deferential under the circumstances.”
“I trust they will.”
“I’m sure they will.”
I handed her the check and got up to leave.
“I’ll see you tomorrow night.”
“Oh,” Toni said before I could close the door. “I’ve always wanted to take a fishing trip to Cabo.”
“You’ll have to be more subtle than that.”
I winked and dashed back down on the street. The day was brisk and cold after the rain, but gloriously sunny. It was the kind of weather that lent itself to optimism, and I had mine.
On my way over to Connor’s office, I stopped for two more espressos and found him alone in back when I walked in, his tall, wiry frame hunched over his drafting table. With a look up, he waved for me to join him. He had cut his black hair short a few months back and it remained that way. His chiseled, Rock Hudson good looks came with an impish smile.
“Ah, a cuppa. Thank you, sir,” he said, taking the espresso. “How is it? Still regular Baltic like outside?”
“A bit shy of that, but chilly, yeah.”
I sat down and explained everything that had taken place over the past twenty-four hours.
“The man sounds mental,” Connor said of the inspector.
“Ya ‘ave a fine way a puttin’ things, McTavish,” I said in my best Scottish accent.
“And I was being kind at that.”
“Well, that’s business for the attorney. I’m here to set up a meeting about that arts center.”
“Oh aye, any time you like. Is she a nice lass, then?”
“Lassie enough, and let’s say tomorrow afternoon? I want to introduce you two and pass it along. She’ll be on point. Entirely. I’d like to be kept in the loop and I might offer up a few suggestions, but this is her baby.”
“Terrific. We’ll put together a proper Opera House.”
“Something this side of the Met will do.”
“Aye, already footering in the works, he is.”
“I’ll footer ya.” I stood up. “What time tomorrow?”
“Say threeish like. That’d be fine with me.”
“Threeish, it is. See you then.”
Back down on the street, I made for Tillie’s office on foot. Her place was two blocks up and one over, hardly worth getting back into my truck.
I went along taking in the fine, crisp day and all the shops done up in holiday spirit. Seeing a lady’s red cashmere sweater, I thought of Colette and went in to buy it. Red seemed to be her color.
Back out on the street, my phone rang. It was Richard again.
“Done already,” I said, stepping out onto the sidewalk.
“You have a fine imagination. We haven’t even started.”
“So, what’s up?”
“Your neighbor, Chaplin. I received a call from his attorney. He wants to meet with you.”
“What the fuck for?”
“To talk, I am told.”
“And you would recommend this?”
“I don’t see why not. Just comb the place for bugs first.”
“Sure, I’ll grab my spy kit. So where and when did he want to arrange this?”
“Lunch today at the Baywood Golf and Country Club.
“At least it’s hard to bug. Can you make it?”
I weighed things in my mind for a moment.
“All right. Tell the bastard I’ll be there. What time?”
“He said at 12:00 noon.”
“Fine. I’ll see him there.”
When I stepped into Tillie’s office a minute later, she looked up from her desk with a smile. Tillie was the white queen, all chin and jowls, but as smart as a whip and equally honest. I had never caught her filching a penny, and she had millions of my dollars to filch.
“What’s up?” she said with her nervous laugh and a look at the box in my hands. I set the box down.
“I put somebody on payroll and need you to set up regular salary checks.”
I explained about the arts center. Tillie laughed nervously.
“What?” I said.
“Well, just worried about you and your money.”
“Think I’ve lost my head?”
“I’m sure you already have,” she said with another nervous laugh.
“Ha ha and it’s not what you think. Yes, she’s a doll but that’s not what’s going on here. Every community needs the arts and she fell into my lap.
Believe me, if anyone ever deserved a break, she does.”
“Well, it’s your money.”
“Exactly. Just put her on as an employee of my company for now and once the foundation is set up, we’ll make her the full time art center director.”
“And when did you want all this to start?”
“Oh, she’s broke so we’ll pretend she started last week.”
Tillie laughed nervously.
“Look, I know this goes against the grain of your fine-tuned sense of ethics.”
“My fine-tuned understanding of the tax law,” she said with yet another nervous laugh.
“Okay, whatever you need to do to cover your butt, but do it. Put it in writing and I’ll sign it. Just get it done, please.”
“Thanks. I’ll be by with her tomorrow to pick up the first check. Say, about two?”
“Okay, we’ll see you then.” I stopped at the door. “You can make them biweekly after that.”
She grimaced as if she was seeing me in prison orange. I winked back, grabbed my box and went out the door.
The drive out to the country club took about ten minutes. The golf course itself was dotted with shallow lakes from the rain. Several members of the grounds crew were out there with power equipment, furiously trying to dry things out for the landed gentry. The early lunch crowd was just heading out to the first tee. A gaggle of ducks made its way across the course as I pulled into parking lot.
Inside the clubhouse, I announced my name and a hostess promptly led me to Chaplin’s table. He stood up and shook my hand.
“I know. Steven.”
“Something to drink?” he said.
“Scotch,” I told the hostess.
Chaplin made sure she was bringing the most expensive brand.
“Please, have a seat.”
“It’s a hundred grand just to get in on the ground level here these days so I try to make good use of my money. I had to earn every penny of it.”
With that jab at my ego, he tipped his glass my way and sipped his Scotch. I was considering which water hazard to drown him in.
“Have you ever enjoyed my line of products?” Chaplin asked me.
I shook my head.
“Of course I’ve sold out and retired now but we revolutionized the boutique wine market. Particularly to the 18-30 crowd. We also had our pinot noirs and chardonnays and zinfandels for the more sophisticated connoisseur. When we came out with a line of flavored olive oils, even I was amazed at how well they sold but it’s all in the brand, as you know, and the Chaplin name still has enormous cachet, even after all these years.”
“So, you wanted to see me.”
Chaplin looked both shocked and peeved at my lack of interest in his BS.
“Well,” he said. “Let’s not get off on the wrong foot again. It just occurred to me that, as neighbors, we ought to get along. That’s why I’m holding out the olive branch here.”
“You’ve been harassing me for the past two years. At every step of my project. Is that your idea of getting along?”
“Well, let’s face it, Steven. That circus of yours…or whatever you want to call what you’re doing out there…it is highly unusual. You can hardly blame me for being concerned.”
“Circus or not, Chaplin, you filed a complaint against me and that leaves us at war, as far as I can see.”
“I’d rather not think of it in that way.”
“Okay. You tell me how I should think about it. You’re the one who arranged this meeting.”
“Well, to be completely frank, I was wondering if I could somehow prevail upon you to drop the whole thing. For the right price, of course.”
“Drop the whole thing. Really?”
“Yes. As I said, I’m willing to offer you some sort of generous dispensation. Something to help take the sting out of it.”
The Scotch came and I leaned out of the way for the obligatory cocktail napkin.
“Are you gentlemen having lunch?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m not so sure we can put up with each other for that long.”
The waitress blushed. Chaplin tossed back his Scotch.
“Bring me another. I’ll let you know about the meal upon your return.”
She thanked us and scurried off. I smiled back at Chaplin.
“So, you were saying.”
“My god, man. Have you no civility?”
“Perhaps not, but I do know how to be honest, so why don’t we start with that and see how things go?”
“Then why don’t you give me your take on our situation.”
“I don’t like you. You don’t like me. You want the world your way and I’m goddamned well determined to have it mine. That doesn’t seem to leave us much wiggle room, does it?”
“Honestly, I don’t understand you, Steven, or what you’re trying to do over there. I assumed we all came up here to get away from the clutter down south. Why on earth would you want to drag it up here with you?”
“Maybe that’s why you came up here. I wouldn’t speak for anyone else.”
“You know I’ll simply file another complaint against you. And I’ll keep filing them until I get this nonsense of yours stopped.”
I nodded and leaned over the table.
“I presume you know how much money I have, Chaplin.”
“I have a vague idea.” He flung a hand at space. “So what?”
“So, I have a vague idea how much you have and it’s simple math. I can outspend you at least a hundred to one. I can spend you right into the ground and still have enough money left over to live for a ten thousand years. And I’m quite prepared to do that, if that’s what it takes.”
His fists clenched, his face turned red and he trembled like a tea kettle ready to boil over. I smiled and tossed back the rest of my Scotch.
“So, now that we’ve laid our cards on the table, I guess we can call it a day.”
The other Scotch came and Chaplin quickly tossed it back. Then he leaned over the table.
“Listen, you bastard.”
“Oooohhhh. So the polo club veneer finally comes off. Now we’re getting somewhere.”
“Yes, so be forewarned. Don’t fuck with me. I know your deepest, darkest secrets. Like that little incident over in the Mediterranean? How would you like that to get leaked to the press?”
“Yes. You see? You think you want to play rough with me but you don’t. You think I’ve been a thorn in your side so far? I haven’t even taken off the gloves.”
“Chaplin, you pompous ass. The great white hunter in khaki pants and leather riding boots. You fancy yourself Hemingway but you’re actually Macomber, the guy whose knees went weak when he saw a lion.”
“Listen, fuck head. I’ll drive you right into the…”
“No, you listen to me, you phony piece of trash. You think you can buy me out? I could have built a palace big enough to fit your whole place in my foyer, but I didn’t. I set about trying to help a few lost souls. And maybe build a better world in the process. But you had to come along and fuck it up. And why? Because it doesn’t comport with your hunt club image of the great northern coast. Frankly, I can’t stand the sight of you, you fat arrogant prig, but I forgive you. Because you don’t know any better. I’d even make peace with you, if there was some way to do that. But let’s face it. You don’t want peace. You just want to order me around, the same way you’ve been ordering people around your entire adult life. Well, screw you and your façade of respectability. I know underneath it all, you’re just a two bit crook.”
The waitress reappeared about the time I was standing up. I smiled at her. She had instinctively found a safe spot several feet away. There were two glasses of water on her tray and Chaplin noticed me eyeing them. It did occur to me to toss one in his face but I wasn’t into that kind of theatrics. I was more inclined to punch him. Instead, I threw some bills on the table.
“It appears Mr. Chaplin and I were unable to stand each other’s company after all.”
The waitress stood there stunned as I made my way towards the exit.