Taylor and Adora worked on the campus of Console Graphics, but separated by many floors and pay grades. Adora slaved as a lowly prep cook in the basement kitchen. Taylor was minor royalty, a software debugger. His cubicle on the seventh floor was plastered with garish posters of Console’s video games.
Taylor often lunched in the company’s Twork’s Dungeon Café, but had never glimpsed Adora, she was buried that deep in the kitchen. Rather than risk confrontation at work, the ever-cautious Taylor penciled in ladies’ night at the Wonder Bar.
He stopped at Artie’s apartment to invite him.
“Are you kidding?” Artie said. “Nick. The Bulgarian. On stage? The guy’s looking to kill me.”
Artie’s apartment was a wreck. The dominant themes were technology, turtles and takeout pizza. Artie owned three widescreen TVs, two cellphones, four computers and even a landline. Pizza boxes were stacked until they became sculptures. In clouded fish-tanks, turtles large and small lazed under artificial light.
Artie’s old shaggy red dog, Randall, left hairy evidence of himself everywhere. The dog was so arthritic he could hardly move unless Artie fed him drugs.
“Morley, you motherfucker,” Artie shouted at the TV. “You never miss that shot. Ah, Jesus, there goes a grand bouncing off the backboard.”
Losing provided Artie with confirmation that the world was a treacherous place, and he had been right to disengage from it. He hit the remote. That TV went dark, although the other two beamed basketball games from Cleveland and Chicago.
“NBA, America’s most crooked sports league,” he groused.
“And yet, you wager on it.”
“If I won, I was gonna take us to Smuggler’s Cove. I guess I’ll call for pizza now. You get your own, though. Anchovies. Disgusting. Who ever heard of fish on pizza?”
“The Sicilians. You know. The people who invented pizza.”
Taylor moved a greasy Want-A-Burger bag and sat on the couch. An ossified onion ring fell to the carpet. Randall scarfed it.
“Artie, you could afford maid services.”
“I tried. The Mindful Maids. Their estimator ran away screaming.”
“Maybe once Randall dies I’ll just move and leave all this crap right here. Good thing Randall doesn’t understand English, I don’t want to hurt his feelings by suggesting he’s dying.”
Artie leaned down to pet his old panting dog. “Don’t worry Randall, I won’t let you suffer.” Artie shot Taylor a serious look. “He’s a happy boy. Otherwise, I’d euthanize him. I hate suffering. Any kind of suffering. That’s why I like turtles. They can’t feel pain.”
“It’s their shells, man. Hey, I’ve been thinking about you and the spa girl, Cammie. I think I know why you’re into her.”
“Oh, do tell, great philosopher.”
“She’s the opposite of your long lost loudmouth love, Karen. Hey, that was alliteration, right? Long. Lost. Loudmouth. Love?”
“I guess so.”
“I always wondered whether I’d be a good poet.”
“All you need’s a pen and paper.”
Artie waved that off. “I was saying. Cammie. So quiet and shy, at least in high school. Plus, she’s, you know, in another social class. Like from the other side of the river, literally. You’d be four steps up for her. Maybe five! Nobody can resist five steps up the Social Ladder.”
Taylor had heard, during beery bull sessions, all about Artie’s Social Ladder. His theory had nine of them, like the Circles of Hell. #9 was Homeless. #8 was hard-working but hopeless immigrant. That’s where he put Cammie.
#1 was the investor class, like Artie’s parents. #2 was their lackeys, the Trusted Managers. Taylor was in #3, Striver Hitting the Brick Ceiling, or #4, Deluded Libertarian Technocrat.
“Once she stepped up to your class, she’d never leave you,” Artie said. “If she does have boyfriends, they’re burger flippers or bike messengers. Yeah, that’s your play Taylor. You want to work the lower classes and find somebody who won’t break your fragile heart.”
Taylor sputtered. “Nice try. Look. Cammie’s … there’s something … strange going on with her. Lisa told me she drove to the ferry dock Saturday night, but just sat in her truck. So, yeah, I’m curious.”
Artie gave Taylor a skeptical look. He suspected Taylor was in Sir Galahad mode. Taylor hadn’t been able to save his mother, and Cammie was a woman in distress. With that in mind, Artie had news to deliver. He could postpone it no more.
“The cops came by,” he said. “Well, a deputy sheriff technically. There’s some new lead they’re following.”
“Maybe. Yeah, they keep bugging me since I was the last one …. You know.”
Taylor stood at attention. Artie leaned back into the plush couch and sighed. “I said: I’ve told you guys a thousand times, I think I saw her at sunset. Looked like her anyway. Headed with her board toward the ocean.”
“Okay, what else did he want?”
“She. The deputy was a she.” He dug a card out of his wallet. “Bonnie Blanchard. Scares the shit out of me just to look at her homely face. We pay these cops’ salary? God knows why. They’re useless, except for busting in on honest citizens. Here.”
Taylor took the card.
“I tried to pump her, Taylor, but she was playing tight end. If you don’t mind, she said, I’ll ask the questions.”
“I’ll phone her. They should call me if they’re going to reopen this case.”
“You weren’t a witness. As absurd as it may be, I think you might be a suspect now. Never mind. Forget I said that. I’m sorry, too much pink powder lately. Need pizza. My head’s a mess. “
Artie punched a pizza order into his cellphone. “The greedy bastards,” he said. “Now they charge extra for meatballs.”
When Taylor arrived at the Wonder Bar, he was confronted by a wall of women.
“It’s Ladies Night,” said a young blonde, holding up both hands to stop him. “You’re not a lady, are you?”
He vaguely knew this woman. She was a pale, freckly gal in a white skirt and orange cami top. Before he could engage her, green-haired Steffie stepped up, hiding a smirk behind her hand. She said: “You don’t want to see how wild we get, Taylor.”
The wall of women parted. Steffie grabbed his arm and whispered: “How awkward to see you.”
Taylor too felt embarrassed, since just a few nights ago they were in a sweaty drunken tangle at the beach cottage. Intimate then, ironic distance now.
“So you’re here shopping for companionship?” he asked.
“No, I’m a girl on a budget. The cocktails are half price, and the pupus are free.”
That was Steffie, eight years out of school and still living like a student. Taylor looked over her shoulder to see a skinny Asian woman alone in the upstairs lounge.
He dodged clumps and climbed the steps. She retreated to the darkest corner.
“Hello, you’re Adora, right, I’m…”
“So you’re the one calling my cousin.”
“Just to talk.”
“Nonsense. She does not want to talk to you.”
No doubt Cammie had sent him sexy signals. But he wasn’t going to reveal that to her older cousin.
“Her father rules our house,” Adora said, “and he says we must marry the people.”
“People like us. I am not good with words. Stick to your own type.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Her father rules your house too?”
“You don’t know Cammie’s father. Watch out. He is very mean. He loves his girls and will do anything to protect us. Stop calling. Cammie does not like you. She does not even know who you are.”
Well, that was a lie.
Thanks Adora. You bitch.
Taylor retreated to the bar for a drink and to pump Maggie for more info. Maggie Hughes was the owner and chief bartender. She dressed like a slut for her duties behind the bar, which drove her tips up. When she wore that thong and a see-thru blouse, Maggie was boner-inducing, but Taylor was in a flaccid mood.
Maggie didn’t help by blurting out: “So, you’re into male dancers now?”
She patted Taylor’s hand in apology. Maggie knew he was still living in the Heartbreak Hotel. Karen Slater, who’d dumped him, was her lifetime friend.
“Sorry, Taylor. I know you’re down. But there are a lot of single women in this town. Maybe Karen did you a favor.”
“You’ve heard from her?”
A lying evasive look took over Maggie’s face. She’d gotten three emails from Karen in California, each more desperate than the last.
“How’s she doing out there?” Taylor asked.
“Pretty good,” Maggie lied.
“Her and Rick?”
Maggie nodded. “Her and Rick.”
Taylor could admit things to women that he’d hide from a man. Maggie poured him an Irish whiskey and he said: “I had the whole thing mapped out. I was marching along, like I was under military orders, you know?”
Maggie shrugged. “Air Force brat, I can see that.”
“Study hard, focus on math, four years at State, come back to Ship, get a tech job, buy a home, marry your high school sweetheart, pump out the kids to the delight of grandma and grandpa. And then, the bonus: A beach cottage on Poke Island. It was like I was programmed, a living algorithm.”
“Karen never mentioned it?”
“Oh, you mean your mother’s real estate, yes, she did. There’s no … it’s an empty lot, right?”
“Mom wanted to put a cottage on it so The Cousins could spend summers on the island. It would be for the whole family, of course. I mean I figured Karen and I would grow old there, watching the sea from a screened porch.”
“Well, what do you know? Taylor Burns, the last domestic man on earth.”
“I thought Karen cared about me. What a fool. She didn’t care if I lived or died.”
Maggie shrugged. “Karen … is obsessed.”
“That’s what hurts. It hurts to be a fool.”
“You can’t fight an obsession. You know what I think, Taylor? I think Rick will destroy her. He might even kill her. Rick is self destructive. That’s why she loves him. She thinks she can save him. In a strange way, he’s weak, and she can get what she wants out of him. He’s a warehouse that she can turn into a trendy loft. Not you. You are a home in the suburbs, complete with lawn.”
Taylor knocked down a shot of harsh whiskey. “Speaking of lawn, this tastes like peat,” he said.
“Cheer up, dude,” Maggie said. “A man who wants wife, home and family, who’s not bad looking and is earning a few shekels … you are prime territory. And that whiskey’s on me.”
Tasha Wolf whirled into a seat at the bar and called for a glass of house wine. She wore a spectacular dark leather outfit, a melding of Star Wars and the Middle Ages. Its flamboyance, and her shocking purple hair, accented her status as the local queen of rock ‘n’ roll.
She teased: “So, Taylor, you’re stripping tonight?”
“I don’t have the equipment.”
“Most guys are a disappointment,” said Tasha. Her birth name was Natasha Volkov. She was the afternoon D.J. on The Messenger, 88.6 on your radio dial. She not only spun tunes and blathered into the mic, she gathered crime reports, kept the FCC log, and on occasion rewired the failing equipment. But she’d shot to the pinnacle of local fame with her reporting on the Jefferson Road Strangler. Five females had gone to their watery graves, the police and public asleep until Tasha broke the story. The case was finally solved not by the dopey cops but by Taylor’s father, who’d been hired as a private investigator.
Maggie delivered Tasha’s wine. “The love of Taylor’s life bagged it for a job at Google,” Maggie said.
“Not at Google, near Google,” Taylor said. “And that’s not for broadcast.”
“Heartbreak?” Tasha said. “Not my beat. If it bleeds it leads. If it ain’t cop news …”
“Do you remember Karen Slater?” Maggie asked Tasha.
With big pursed lips, Tasha said: “Nope.”
“Of the junkyard Slaters. Oh, wait. It’s Slater Recycling now. Well, our Taylor here … “
“Just pour it on, Maggie,” Taylor said. “The wound’s still open.”
“Embrace your heartache,” Maggie said. “Every dude who ever left me, I was better off. I’m totally boyfriend free.”
This wasn’t a lie exactly, but it wasn’t the truth either, and Tasha knew it. Maggie was co-habiting with a secret sugar daddy, a big wheel on the social scene. If his identity were widely known, the resulting gossip tornado would blow down every building on Jackson Square.
Maggie leaned toward Tasha. “Taylor’s horny for the new spa girl. Her name’s Cammie. Her cousin’s back there, Lady Sourpuss, and she just read him the ethnic exclusion act.”
“Apparently the father is a monster.”
Tasha shrugged. “Fathers.” That was all she said, but the word sent a tide of misery down her spine. Tasha’s father, Leonard Wolf, had been locally famous as a TV news anchor, admired as the embodiment of gray-haired wisdom until that that Easter Sunday when, alone in his hunting cabin, he sawed off his shotgun and blew a hole in his head.
“The Vangs,” Maggie said. “They’re farmers. There are two daughters”
Taylor corrected that: “Adora’s a cousin.”
“They raise what?” Maggie said, “goats?”
Taylor shrugged. “Don’t know, never been there.”
“I was joking,” said Maggie. “Goats? Really? Who knows? Every time Nick performs, Adora sits alone in the corner, pouts, drinks one $5 glass of house white, never tips, never talks to anyone, leaves by MyRide right after the show. Nick sticks around to further impress the ladies.”
Suddenly, Steffie Voss’s arm was draped around Taylor’s shoulder, and Tasha could smell her patchouli.
“So, Tasha, I see you’ve met my husband.” Steffie kissed Taylor on the cheek. She wrapped a bar straw around her finger. “See my wedding ring? Jealous yet?”
“Oh, Steffie.” Tasha said. Steffie was a kind person, but soft all around: heart, head, body. She exuded desperation and the hollow, haunting fear that she was fated to spend her life alone. Tasha figured Steffie was going to take it really hard some day, soon, when Taylor disappointed her.
As Maggie walked off to tend bar, Taylor’s eyes followed her thong butt. Yep, Tasha concluded, Taylor had the Wandering Eye, and Steffie’s chances of hooking this fish were just about zero.
“So, you want a piece of that?” Tasha asked Taylor.
“Maggie? No,” Taylor lied. He sucked in a deep breath. “She was Karen’s good friend.”
“Weren’t you listening?”
“I talk,” Tasha said. “Other people listen.”
Steffie said: “Karen’s the dope who moved to Silicon Valley. That’s a mistake I’d never make. I find a good man, I’m holding on.”
“So Taylor,” Tasha said, “you’re on the rebound?”
“Guys on the rebound,” Tasha said, “tend to be weepy.”
Steffie drank Mountain Man lite beer, straight from the bottle, no craft brew for her. She swigged and said: “I’ll take Taylor, tears and all.” She kissed his ear. “Are you sticking around for the show, Taylor?”
“Male stripper?” he said. “No thanks.”
“You know him,” Steffie said.
“Yeah, Nick. We got a preview at the beach cottage. Where’s he work when he’s not stripping?”
Before Steffie could answer, Tasha said: “He’s a pimp.”
“So I’ve heard,” Taylor said.
“I don’t know the details,” Tasha said. “But I can ask my cops. They owe me, the bastards, for all the bullshit they beg me not to broadcast.”
She sipped wine. “Cops suck. No offense, Taylor. Your father used to be a cop, right?”
“But there’s a couple of leakers on the force. Malcontents. Those are the cops you want to know.”
All the attention in the room shifted as the big Bulgarian sauntered in. He posed and gabbed with the ladies. Taylor played chess on his cell phone as ridiculous stripper music rattled the speakers.
Tasha was bored by the bouncing Bulgarian and his behemoth boner. She was committed to Joey Warkowski, the permanent love of her life, the most famous fellow ever to escape the foggy little city of Shipwreck Bay.
But with Nick dancing, most of the other women at the Wonder whooped it up. A few, including Steffie, danced with the Bulgarian. But when Nick dropped his trousers, the freckled blonde college girl leaped up and ran for the exit.
Tasha checked her phone for news of Joey’s band, WartHogg. Calgary was on this planet, right? Where were the reviews of tonight’s concert? Didn’t they have the Internet in Calgary?
Finally the red spotlight dimmed and the sweating Bulgarian stepped down from the stage and into his shirt and trousers. The lanky Asian woman, the one Maggie had called Lady Sourpuss, strode for the exit. But she stopped in the shadows to whisper to Nick.
“That’s Adora, right?” Tasha asked Taylor. “That’s the woman you came here to see.”
“He’s the pimp,” Tasha said. “So who is she?”