By Tom Drury
All rights reserved.
Joan had to find a school for Micah in the fall. She made packets with an eight-by-ten glossy, transcripts, and an essay he'd written. This is how the essay started:
When I was small I survived a tornado that blew the van in which I was a passenger through a silo. The wind was so loud that all the world and its things seemed to be made of sound waves. Tools floated about like you might pick one from the air as an astronaut would in zero gravity. The tornado taught me that you can get in and out of trouble in unexpected ways. I used to have a goat who would knock things over and pin them with her forelegs as if to say, "Now it is mine." My favorite subject is world history. I think it was a bad deal when the citizen farmers were forced to move to Rome where they had nothing to do in the second century.
Joan thought the essay was thoughtful and creative and she appreciated mention of the tornado which they'd gone through together.
She mailed applications to the Weaving School, Adamantine Prep, Mary Ellen Pleasant Country Day, Brentwood Polyphonic, and Our Lady of Good Counsel on the Hill. None of the schools had an opening for Micah. Our Lady of Good Counsel on the Hill put him on a waiting list.
"That sounds promising," said Joan.
They drove up to the school for an interview. The road climbed the foothills and Joan pointed out a section of roadway that had fallen down a ravine across the valley.
One sunny day of so many Micah took a bus west on Sunset Boulevard to see Thea. Palm trees listed south, leaves fluttering in the wind. The Chateau Marmont rose above trees. He knew it was important but not why.
Billboards lined the boulevard—a bottle of tequila lit up like an altar, a watch too complicated to be useful, a man and two women coated in oil and shirtless in lowrider jeans.
Then the bus went down the hill into Beverly Hills, where businesses and billboards gave way to hardwood groves and hedges and walls and pillars.
Thea's place had a mechanical gate with a warning depicting a stick figure pinned between gate and post, limbs splayed in alarm.
Micah walked up the broad and curving driveway, making way for a plumber's truck that was leaving and got Micah thinking of Tiny. His world and this world seemed to occupy different dimensions. Micah was a traveler who had gone between them.
The house was enormous and ornamental as if a government should be in it and Thea met him out front by a fountain with a statue of a headless woman holding an open book.
"So, this is my crib," said Thea.
"How many people live here?"
"Just us four. My dad built it so his family would have a place to gather. But my aunts and uncles built their houses with the same idea. They're in Ojai and La Jolla and north of San Francisco. So now they can't agree where the family should gather."
They walked around to the back gardens, where hedges radiated from a great tree with smooth gray bark and hundreds of branches thick with purple leaves. Hidden in the leaves was a treehouse with glass windows and cedar shakes.
"God damn," said Micah.
They climbed a ladder to the treehouse. It was messy inside. Clothes and books and food wrappers lay wherever Thea had dropped them. Micah began picking things up and organizing them and Thea joined him.
"I spend a lot of time here," she said. "I don't sleep well in the house. The vertical space is oppressive."
The treehouse had a futon, a bumper pool table, a refrigerator, a desk, and a chair. They played pool. Thea leaned over the table, biting her lower lip with her little front teeth. She won the game in no time. Bumper pool was harder than Micah thought.
"Well, I get so much practice," she said. "You'll get better the more you play."
"Then you'll invite me back."
"Of course. As now we are friends."
After the game they sat on the futon and Thea took a dark green tin in her lap, opened it, and rolled a joint. She lit up and inhaled, waving her hand beside her throat.
"What do you think of Charlotte?" she said.
"Is she in those Boston shoe ads?"
"Yeah. Hold it in."
Micah held his breath. "I like the one when they're on a boat," he said in a deep voice.
"I want you to think about something. Charlotte's going around with people who aren't good for her. They drink all the time, and the only reason they follow her is ... well, you know how she looks."
"Yeah, beautiful," said Micah. "You both are."
Her ears turned red, just like that. "I'm not Charlotte."
"You're very pretty, in my opinion."
She looked at him sadly, as if trying to arrange the thousand and one things he didn't know into a manageable list.
"Have you ever asked anybody out?"
"Sure," said Micah. "Well, not really."
"I want you to ask Charlotte out."
"Isn't she kind of old for me?"
"How old are you?"
"Hmmm." Thea was quiet, and Micah thought she might forget the whole idea.
"That is young," she said. "But I saw how she looked at you, Micah. She really cared about you, making sure your high was okay. That was the old Charlotte."
"Where would I ask her out to?"
"It's not a big thing. Just say you'll get some coffee."
Micah agreed and Thea hugged him. He climbed down from the treehouse, walked out the way they had come, opened the gate, and waited half an hour for a bus.
The lights were coming on over Sunset and people sat talking in restaurants that spilled onto the sidewalks. Hollywood pigeons strolled the globe of the Cinerama Dome.
Eamon was typing on a laptop and watching History's Mysteries in the family room when Micah got home. The TV showed an aerial view of a metal warehouse among trees.
"Soon sounds of hammering and sawing begin to emanate from their headquarters," said the narrator.
"What is this?" said Micah.
"I don't know. World War II something or other."
Eamon muted the television. The scene cut to two men sitting at a table covered with blueprints. They seemed elated over whatever they were building.
"Did you ever go out with Charlotte?" said Micah.
"We just did. Why?"
Micah sat down and retied the laces of his sneakers. "I was thinking of asking her to have coffee."
"Everybody falls in love with Charlotte. It's like a law of nature. Gravity, then Charlotte."
"It's not love. It's coffee. Thea said I should."
"You're a big coffee drinker, huh?"
"No. I hate it."
"Have latte. But now, Thea told you. This is interesting. Where did you see Thea?"
"At her treehouse."
"Really." Eamon gave Micah a little push. "You're just the latest thing, aren't you?"
Early every morning Joan ran in the park. She did not wear earphones but heard music in her head, Ode to Joy or Alegria or The Munsters Theme. One day at the soccer field she saw a young woman sleeping on the grass. Coming closer, she realized that it was Charlotte Mann.
Charlotte wore a short black dress, one red shoe, and a black leather jacket with rawhide fringe and brass studs. She was asleep on an orange blanket in the grass. Joan covered her legs and touched her shoulder.
Charlotte sat up and looked around and scratched the back of her head with both hands. Unbraided, her hair fell in waves to her shoulders.
"Well, this is embarrassing," she said.
She got up, took the blanket by two corners, and gave it a shake. Cigarettes and a lighter shot from the blanket. She walked toward them, crooked on one shoe.
"What happened?" said Joan.
Charlotte flopped down, took the shoe off, lit a cigarette, and blew a smoke ring. "What time is it?"
"Twenty after seven."
"What day is it?"
"Do you see my phone?"
Joan looked around. "How did you get here?"
"I don't remember. We were at a house and then we were at a club. Then maybe a house again. Or that might have been the first house. People kept stepping on my ankles. Maybe I'll stay here till someone comes."
"No one is coming. It's morning."
"They might be driving ever so slowly."
"Charlotte. Honey. Wake up. You can't be doing this to yourself."
They walked across the soccer field. Wearing the blanket like a shawl, Charlotte dropped the mateless shoe into a trash can.
"I'm sorry you found me this way."
"You don't have to worry about your place with me," said Joan. "I know you. I know what my boys think of you. You have a good heart."
"No I don't. My heart is a mess."
Micah and Charlotte did not go for coffee. Instead she picked him up in a small yellow Datsun pickup and they drove up to Mount Wilson on Angeles Crest Highway. Charlotte wore khaki shorts, green sneakers, and a pink tank top with a border of shiny green stones against her copper skin.
The mountain road climbed, steep with switchbacks. Rocks had fallen in the roadway, and Charlotte cranked the wheel, steering carefully around them. The sky was deep blue, with lavender clouds around faraway peaks.
A famous observatory stood on top of the mountain, white domes rising from forests with pinecones big as footballs. Charlotte knew all about the place. George Hale had worked here, and Edwin Hubble. Observations of the sun gave way to observations of all space. Einstein came up to talk things over. The universe expanded.
Micah and Charlotte looked at Hubble's chair in the gloomy vault of the Hooker Telescope while listening to a recording by someone named Hugh Downs. The chair appeared to have been borrowed from the Hubbles' dining room table.
"Imagine being Hubble," said Charlotte.
"I can't. He's too smart."
"It's late, it's cold. You write down this number, you turn some dial, you write down another number."
"Something doesn't add up."
"The things you are learning are going to turn this world upside down."
They were quiet then. Breathing quickly, Charlotte ran her hands beneath her hair and lifted it back over her shoulders. They walked down with the voice of Hugh Downs fading in the stairwell.
They ate at the Cosmic Cafe in a wooded pavilion between the observatory and the parking lot. Charlotte drove past a cluster of communications towers and a little way down the mountain before stopping at a turnout.
A dusty trail took them along the mountain wall, where they sat cross-legged on a flat rock projecting over nothing. Someone had run a power line out here on scarred poles, but the line stopped and there was one last pole in the sand with nothing attached to it.
"Look at that," said Micah.
Charlotte stared at the column of sky, drawing her knees up and wrapping her arms around them. "Would you mind if I bit you on the arm?" she said.
"Is this a hypothetical question?"
"I wouldn't break the skin."
"I don't know. Sometimes I just get nervous and have to bite something. Do you know what I mean?"
"Do it to yourself how you would do it."
She raised her forearm to her mouth and bit. Her eyes opened wide. Then she presented her arm and they examined it together. Slowly the pale white of teeth marks turned the lion-mane color of her skin.
"Are you afraid it will hurt?" she said.
She shrugged. "Some?"
Micah rolled the sleeve of his work shirt above the elbow and brushed off his arm.
"Do you want to?" she said.
"Can't be that bad."
"Good man! I'm so excited." She gathered her hair in an elastic band, settled beside him, and took his arm in both hands, drawing the two of them shoulder to shoulder.
"Now you say when to stop," she said.
She bent her head and closed her eyes. At first Micah felt only the warmth of her mouth and the softness of her lips.
Her teeth closed, gathering a cord of flesh. It didn't hurt much at first, and then he felt the pressure inside his arm. He saw that it would be easy to play this game till blood was drawn.
Charlotte opened her mouth when she realized he would not call it off. Her teeth had left an oval of perfect dashes, inside of which the hair on his arm was swirled and wet. His arm cooled as it dried.
He looked at her and saw that she had tears in her eyes and realized that he did too. Maybe the bite had hurt more than he thought and maybe it was something else. They leaned their faces one toward the other without thinking and kissed for a long time.
This was Micah's first kiss, and he knew he would remember it all his life. When it was over they sat with their hands on the hot flat rock and legs stretched before them.
Excerpted from PACIFIC by Tom Drury. Copyright © 2013 by Tom Drury. Excerpted by permission of Grove/Atlantic, Inc..
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