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“So I have to attend the gathering?” Jacob Walden said. His wife snuggled with her gassy labradoodle on the living room couch of their Pasadena condo, so he maintained distance.
“Yes.” Suzanne raked a hand through her dark hair.
Was it straight and she had it curled, or was it wavy and she straightened it, then curled it?
“You’re finally getting promoted,” Suzanne said. “Ridiculous that Armand Zucker is still running things. What is he, ninety?”
“Google lists different birth dates. Probably hired someone to muddy the water.” Jacob shook his Martini. “I’d guess eighty-five.”
“With a wife half his age.” Suzanne sighed in disgust. “He looks a hundred to me.”
“What does a hundred look like?”
“Like death. The walking dead.”
Jacob gasped when the vodka gulp hit him. “So what are you saying?”
“That you’re going, but I’m not.” She frowned. “I mean, it’s over in San Bernardino. Someone has to stay with Pizzles.”
God he loathed that name. Something British royalty would name their pampered pets.
“Fine,” Jacob said. “I’m curious to meet his wife, Bianca.”
“Bianca Auberge?” Suzanne shoved Pizzles off the sofa. The dog circled about in confusion before collapsing dejected in a corner. “She’ll be there?”
Jacob nodded. “Didn’t you read the invite? ‘Your hosts, Armand and Bianca’.”
“Nobody has seen her in five years. No photographs.” Suzanne stood, as if the new information had raised the DEFCON level. “She retired from modeling at forty. Apparently developed an extreme skin sensitivity. Breaks out in rashes, hives.” She flexed a cruel smile. “I must go.”
Jacob drove east on I-210, the rear-view obscured by a back-up dress Suzanne had slung on a hangar. “Your clothes are fine,” he told her. “The invite said casual.”
“Look, you came from Ass Fork, Arizona where casual really means casual.”
“It’s Ash Fork.”
Suzanne laughed. “They stuck a fork in your ass and said, get going, you’re done here.”
“It’s autumn in my soul.”
“Jesus, is that poetry? The world’s too expensive to be a poet.”
Jacob winced. “Armand doesn’t want to give up power, running things.”
Suzanne sniffed. “He’ll remain Executive Director or some bogus title so he can pretend to be in charge. Nothing kills a person faster than retirement.” She grinned. “With a promotion and a raise, who cares who’s the top dog?” She squeezed his shoulder. “We’ll finally have our timeshare in Hawaii, and I can open a little French restaurant in Santa Barbara.”
Sometimes Jacob felt as if he was riding a moving walkway at an airport. He could either stand still, or try to pass other people ahead. In a recurring dream, he went against the flow – causing total chaos. “I won’t ask Armand for the raise.”
“That’s why I love you, Jake. Because you take orders and just wait your turn in the corporate roulette.”
Jacob concentrated on the manic Southern California drivers careening through the lanes. His wife’s compliments always landed as insults.
“Respect,” she said. “At Noblesse Academy, they taught us girls to do whatever necessary to get ahead.”
He turned up the radio until he recognized it was “Taking Care of Business” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive.
“Remember, don’t overstay our welcome,” Suzanne said. “We eat, then you two smoke cigars.”
“I hate cigars.”
“Not tonight.” She poked him. “We leave right after Armand’s offer. No time to change his mind.”
“Anyway, we need an exit strategy.”
“Will you use Pizzles?”
She crinkled her eyes. “My poor little doobie-boobie, home alone.”
Beyond San Bernardino’s downtown, Jacob exited into the outskirts. Palm trees and strip malls: Whole Foods, Staples, Home Depot, and Target. At Mesa Seca Lane, he motored upward until they went through a security gate on a private road to “L’il Xanadu.”
“Wow.” Suzanne pointed. Roadside cages and pens displayed tigers, two gorillas, ostriches, and a zebra. The climbing route ended a hundred feet from the summit. Beyond the rise lay green foothills, the beginnings of the San Bernardino Mountains.
“I heard the house was huge,” Jacob said.
While the two-story modern structure backed-up against the hill looked impressive, he guessed it held maybe eight rooms. Office gossips had mentioned dozens. Clearly, just exaggerated second-hand reports.
They entered into the living room. Faux Roman columns rose to the twelve-foot ceiling, while statues of multi-armed Indian goddesses appeared as if they’d been spray-painted gold. Dusty antique tapestries covered the walls and a giant painting that resembled flayed sides of raw beef hung at room center.
Jacob and Suzanne wandered through the assembled guests. Strangers. Finally, Jacob recognized another coworker, a groveling two-faced, ass-kisser.
“Marcus.” Jacob gripped his shoulder. “So good to see you.”
“Aha,” Marcus said, his eyes goggling. “This is your wife? You described her as mature, matronly.”
“No matter,” he said. “Delighted to meet you, Susie.”
She emphasized, “Su-zanne.”
Marcus chortled. “Here to beg a few scraps from the table, eh?”
“Same as you.” Jacob gazed around. “Where are our hosts?”
“Right. This is your first visit here.” He laughed, all smarm and forced frivolity. “Bianca’s never attended before. Armand usually joins us at dinner.”
“We thought it might be bigger,” Suzanne said. “Considering his wealth.”
Marcus allowed a flat smile. “Because of San Bernardino temperatures, Armand built most of the house within the hillside. Very cool in the air-conditioned interior. Tennis courts, an Olympic-sized pool, a gym, sauna, stables, the works.” He yawned as if it had been oft-repeated. “This part is just the tip of an iceberg.”
A deafening Chinese gong rang and someone announced, “Please be making your way into the dining area.”
A long slender table with place cards awaited. Thankfully, Jacob was seated next to Suzanne, not near Marcus. Seatbelts dangled from the chairs.
“I can’t wait to see Bianca,” Suzanne said. “Probably in some beekeeper suit to protect her skin. Heavy makeup too.”
As servants poured wine, a cranking noise of pulleys and gears sounded from the twenty-foot ceiling. A few audible gasps came when a slim wooden and metal closet made its herky-jerky descent into the room.
“What is that?” Suzanne gripped Jacob’s hand.
“An old-fashioned elevator, I think.” He smiled. “What a dramatic way to make an entrance.”
The chamber halted, hanging in space. The servers ignored the spectacle and brought salad plates to the guests.
Suzanne took one bite, then held a cloth napkin over her mouth.
Jacob asked, “What is it?”
“Organic meal-worm salad, with slices of gluten-free bark,” the server behind him said. “An annual tradition here.”
Guests cleaned their plates, grim faces set in endurance mode. Perhaps a test. Hoops you had to jump through to curry favor with Armand. As Jacob lifted a viscous fork-full, a fanfare of horns began.
The gathered froze in astonishment when a seemingly naked woman strode into the dining area followed by a uniformed marching band. Jacob noted she was unblemished, absolutely gorgeous.
“Don’t stare, but don’t look away,” Suzanne whispered. “Maybe this is normal.”
The woman circled the entire room before sitting by the head of the table. Jacob realized that she wore a sheer type of gown, so transparent as to seem invisible – except up close.
“Welcome, welcome. I am Bianca Auberge. My husband Armand will join us momentarily.” She gestured toward the suspended closet. “I thank you for visiting our humble chateau.”
In the nervous silence that followed, Suzanne said, “That’s a very chic outfit.”
“This old thing?” Bianca touched the gauzy material. “I have extreme dermal sensitivity,” she said. “I can only wear certain silks and satin.” Bianca frowned. “My wardrobe is custom made to not provoke hideous rashes.” She gazed outward. “I so envy you ladies here tonight who can wear whatever you wish.”
The women around the table smiled back with a Serengeti fierceness.
Jacob felt uncomfortable having Suzanne nearby, gauging his reactions. Their ten-year marriage a routine, a tax benefit, now reduced to a bi-monthly date night.
“Your husband is above?” Jacob pointed. “What’s he doing?”
Bianca erupted in raucous laughter. “Armand’s private elevator runs from his upstairs quarters to dinner.” She restrained herself. “It’s also a water closet.”
“A what?” Suzanne said.
“A loo,” Bianca replied. “An indoor outhouse, if you will. At my husband’s age, he feels it best to multitask, to combine an elevator with a bathroom for efficiency.”
There was nothing to do but stare upward agog as servers removed the salad plates. They soon returned with steamy soup bowls.
Suddenly a mammoth flushing occurred, liquids sluiced through pipes snaking along the ceiling. A great ratcheting noise followed and the elevator dropped gradually, inch by inch, to finally land in the corner. Accordion gates slid open; a door swung wide as cloudy vapors emanated from the fogged interior. Two servants used peacock fans to dissipate the haze.
Out of the mists staggered Armand Zucker in a huge cowboy hat; a once tall fellow who stooped at present, his body skeletal. “Greetings, friends,” he spoke into a wireless microphone on his collar. “I finished my business, so now let’s get down to yours.”
Guests gave him a standing ovation, which he shooed away with a bony hand.
Armand’s outfit was best described as a Texas gambler visiting Las Vegas – bolo tie and piping on both jacket and trousers. “Don’t wait on me,” he said. “Eat up while it’s hot.”
Guests looked pallid, hoping the eel head soup course had been forgotten. Jacob bravely took a spoonful, his stomach in immediate revolt.
A tremendous vibration shook the house, causing the chandelier to swing, empty chairs to topple, and soup to slop across the table. Lights blinked, while the foundation groaned. Then it stopped.
Armand cackled. “The San Andreas Fault runs right under San Bernardino. We get tremblers every day. Adds a little spice.” He winked at Bianca. “Fasten your seatbelts.”
Everyone buckled-up. After a course of breaded octopus, the dinner broke for dessert served in the living room. Guests split into groups and took self-guided tours of the vast house.
“Divide and conquer,” Suzanne told Jacob. “We’ll compare notes later. Remember, do whatever you have to. Hawaii awaits us.”
Left alone, Jacob inspected the gory-looking painting. A familiar woman sidled over.
“Francis Bacon. His work is so raw, so intestinal.” She cocked her head.
“Yes, we dated just before you married… her.” She struggled to smile. “I’ve always wondered. Why didn’t you follow-through? You basically ghosted me.”
“Sorry.” He studied the petite attractive woman and wondered too. Stuck in a dreary marriage to a ruthless social climber, Lydia suddenly seemed very intriguing to Jacob. Then a familiar scent wafted up.
“Are you still teaching Dressage at Malibu Stables?”
“Yes.” She nodded, eyes curious. “Why?”
Lydia had been perfect: wavy brown hair, a nice figure, and a sarcastic but flirtatious expression. Except for the tang of horse manure she carried from work. No amount of showering and perfume could remove or mask it. So in a clinch, he smelled that odor and lost his resolve. However, months after their dating, whenever his nose detected actual horseshit, he imagined Lydia and grew aroused. Clearly this subject should not be broached now. Jacob could barely explain it to his last three therapists. “What brings you here?”
“I married your coworker, Chad.”
“Oh, right,” Jacob said.
Bianca Auberge, wearing a black silk kimono, interrupted. “Let me show you the den, Jacob, darling.” She led him down a long dim hallway. Doors on either side opened, spilling guests into the corridor.
“I wanted to chat privately since you’re headed straight to the top,” she said inside the den.
“Armand mentioned that?”
“People invited here either get fired or promoted,” she replied. “You follow orders, never ruffle any feathers, so I’m confident in my prediction.”
“Shush for a moment.” Bianca tapped her hearing aid.
“A microphone’s planted in Armand’s jacket. I can hear his conversations.”
Jacob stared at her.
“Don’t judge,” she said. “He’s ancient. I monitor his health condition so I can prepare a public reaction of concern, shock, or sorrow.”
Bianca remained focused on eavesdropping. “Your wife’s alone with Armand.”
“Are you jealous?”
She rolled her eyes. “Of course not. Suzanne is basically offering herself. I love how ruthless she is.” Bianca’s face drooped.
“Suzanne just told your tragic story,” Bianca said. “About the grenade clutched between your knees that went off in combat. Your manhood blown clear into the atmosphere.”
“That’s absurd,” Jacob said. “I wasn’t a soldier.”
Bianca nodded. “She clarified, it happened during basic training for the National Guard.”
“No, it’s perfect.” Bianca’s expression lit up. “Armand will have Suzanne and I’ll have you.” She fluttered her eyes. “Because of dermal sensitivity, no one can touch my skin. But you’ll watch me, admire me as I… Well, you know.”
Was he in too deep to run? “It’s raining in my heart.”
Bianca soured. “God, I hate poetry.”
“May I talk to Armand now?”
She smiled evil. “Naturally.”
A floor panel opened beneath Jacob and he slid down a metal heating duct. He popped out of the slanted aperture onto a plush sofa.
The chair at an antique desk swiveled about revealing Armand, massive cowboy hat and a cigar clutched in one hand. “Come on over, pardner.”
Jacob obeyed, tucking into a leather armchair.
“You probably know why you’re here tonight.”
“No time for modesty.” Armand’s dull eyes became laser-focused. “I need you to run things. Going to put you in our penthouse suite.”
Jacob was stunned. “The Pasadena building?”
“No, the tall one you can see from Highway 101. Oxnard.”
“I, uh, forgot about that holding.”
Armand grinned. “You’ll be the king of the castle, the Wizard of Ox.”
“What are my new duties?”
“Maximizing cash upflow to top management.”
Jacob leaned forward. “But how?”
“Theoretical optimization. You’ll be proactive, a proactivist.”
Armand sighed. “You’ll develop new ideas.”
“For us to market?”
“Hell no.” Armand frowned. “You’ll leak product ideas for other companies to develop in a rush to compete with us, then we swoop in, buy them out, destroy them.”
“What part of Vulture Capitalism do you not understand?”
“We have an obligation to our stockholders.” Armand blew his nose. “Your good wife shared your painful history.”
“I never fought in any war.”
“Sure. It happened at a firing range, in the grenade grotto.” He tamped out the cigar. “Your family jewels, blown sky high. Very Hemingway.”
Jacob sighed. “I still have them.”
“Fine, fine.” Armand’s face brightened. “Because you’ll need brass balls.” The old man twisted his lips. “Part of the deal is Suzanne helping brighten up my golden years.”
“It was her idea.” Armand looked Jacob over. “I can use Suzanne in my performance assessment branch.”
“For job termination?”
“Relocation is the preferred term.” Armand began flossing his thin teeth.
Jacob stared away. “It’s the winter of our disconnect.”
“Am I talking or are you listening?” Armand spit into a cuspidor. “My wife Bianca’s taken a hankering to you. You’re in good shape for near sixty.”
“See I can’t touch her. Damn dermatologists.” Armand slapped his desk. “So you’ll be her court eunuch. Hear her thoughts, type her screenplay, read her memoir.”
Can I get away? Jacob wondered. Could I survive alone in a mountain cabin or a shack out in the desert? I’d be lonely, but I’m lonely now, and disgusted. Is peace or freedom attainable in this life, or are they just imaginary conceits?
“First assignment: downsize your entire department,” Armand said. “You’re moving up, so they have to go.”
“Some are friends,” Jacob replied. “I hunt and fish with Ted.”
“We can go helicopter hunting together in Alaska.” Armand winked. “No elk can outrun my pilot. Dynamite fishing is really something too. Boom! They float to the surface and you scoop ’em up in a big net.”
The ground shook violently again.
“You’ll get a 40% raise,” Armand said. “I’ll double your salary if you take it in cryptocurrency.” He paused. “Triple it if you take it in Zimbabwe dollars.”
“I need to think this over.” Jacob rose to leave.
“Fine. Tell me by morning.” Armand limped after him. “Yes means you get a Porsche Cayenne Turbo. No means a PT Cruiser.” He laughed. “Either way, your wife’s my new hatchet-girl.”
Jacob exited into the dark hallway, encountering disoriented guests. “East or west?” one man asked. Faint yellowy light emanated from sodium lamps affixed to the walls.
“Jake, it’s you.” Suzanne embraced him. “The power went out after the last earthquake. Did you get your raise, can we leave?”
“Yes, but which way?” he asked. They reached a crossroads where the corridors split off.
“I’m not sure.” Her voice trembled. “You go that direction, I’ll take the other passage. We’ll meet back here in twenty minutes.”
Before he could argue, Suzanne vanished. Jacob tried various doorknobs along the hall until one opened. An ancient woman reclined on a poster bed, the flames from an unseen fireplace illuminating her features.
“Hello, ma’am.” He approached her. “Are you Bianca’s aunt?”
The woman in a nightgown and frilly nightcap groaned. “No, I’m Armand’s first wife. His high school sweetheart.”
“Really? You stayed on after your divorce?”
“We’re not divorced.” She drank something syrupy. “Servants call me Mother Zucker.”
Jacob noticed the half-eaten wedding cake, then smoke. “Uh, Mrs. Zucker. The corner of your room is on fire.” He pointed to the flames curling around a table and curtains.
“It’s a controlled burn,” she replied. “This house is made of stone and a forest of wood. We need to thin it out on occasion.” When smoke began to gust over, she attached an old-fashioned oxygen mask to her face.
Jacob studied her and the room, started to say something, but instead left.
Moving on, he sensed the corridor slant downward until the floor became slippery and wet, the air salty. Ahead, Jacob could see a single-file line of bedraggled people approaching. They clutched a long rope and looked both soaked and somewhat scorched.
“Stop. Where are you going?” asked their leader in a nautical uniform. “We’re heading to the ship’s aft to escape. The hull is breached, taking on seawater, and there’s a fire in the engine room. Come with us, man.”
“We’re on a boat?”
The line of passengers gazed at him in astonishment then continued hiking upward.
Jacob could hear water sloshing about so he turned right at another crossroads in the endless passageway. The floor leveled off. It was dank and windy with a feculent odor. Out of the darkness, a figure clutched Jacob.
“Take me with you,” said a man encrusted in grime.
“Marcus? I thought you’d been here before.” Jacob felt sudden sympathy for the fool.
“I lied. First visit,” he said. “Armand flushed me down a drain pipe. Means I’m being demoted.” Marcus coughed. “Scuttlebutt is that you got promoted. Bring me along to Oxnard, please.”
“You’re not part of my team.”
“I’ll do anything. Don’t let me be sent to Zucker’s chemical plant in Juarez.”
“Yes, hazardous chemicals and trigger-happy drug lords.”
“I just want to leave this stupid gathering.”
Another group appeared. Jacob didn’t recognize them as they hadn’t been at dinner. Their formal clothes were soiled and torn, faces filthy, and they reeked of body odor.
“Is that you, Jacob?” a man in glasses asked. “We’re lost. Do you know the way out?”
“Oliver?” Jacob said to the accountant. “I haven’t seen you downtown in months.”
“No.” Oliver wiped his sweaty face. “My department came to the annual party. We were to be relocated to a new branch. Instead, we’ve been wandering Armand’s house since then. No office, no salary.” His voice sounded raspy. “We found a food storage unit a mile further east. Need sunlight though.”
Jacob realized that they had attended Armand’s last party, a year ago. They were human leftovers. “Keep going. Eventually you’ll hit the Pacific Ocean.”
The besmirched group continued on.
“Your only hope is to leave out the front door,” Marcus said to Jacob. “Alone.”
Marcus led him over to an antique nickelodeon machine and inserted a quarter.
Jacob pressed his eyes to the viewer. It showed weary guests traipsing through corridors, then Bianca trying on expensive nightgowns, and finally Suzanne in a Harem costume dancing for Armand as two servants feather-dusted his groin. “Okay,” he eventually said.
Using Marcus’s compass, they walked due west for what seemed like miles. Whenever others tried to dissuade their direction, they ignored them. Eventually they reached a large oak door, and with both men using their shoulders, it opened into the empty dining room.
Marcus peered through the connecting door to the entryway and living room. “Armed guards everywhere. What now?”
Jacob noticed the elevator closet. “I’m riding that electric outhouse upstairs. Maybe I can escape from there.”
“Too risky for me,” Marcus said. “But if you should make it, send help back.”
Jacob worked the manual gears until the odd contraption rose. The second floor appeared empty. Peeking out a window, he saw the driveway outside lit up with Klieg lights. Security paced the parking area.
Instead, he found a skylight, and forming a pedestal of furniture, pushed his way out onto the roof. Stars shone overhead; the night air felt cool and refreshing. Jacob’s phone had been lost during the last trembler, but he guessed it to be late, three a.m.
Rather than chancing capture by security, Jacob went east to where the house’s roof merged with the hillside. From there, he hiked up the scrappy terrain. At the top of the mound, the ground leveled off into bushes before a gradual rise on foothills toward the Santa Bernardino Mountains. Jacob rested, eventually nodding off.
When he woke, the first colors of dawn showed to the east. A young girl of seven or eight, in pink dress with a bow, stood nearby. She dug into the dirt using a plastic shovel and pail.
“What are you doing?” Jacob asked.
“I’m planting seeds.” She returned to work.
“Will plants grow in this desert climate?”
“Succulents will,” the girl said. “And I have wildflower seeds. They’re beautiful and live a short life, sort of like us.”
Jacob couldn’t argue.
“I need your help though.” She pointed at the foothill. “Keep planting until you run out.”
“What about back there?”
She frowned. “Your only chance is to keep moving, away.”
He scooped seeds from the pail then filled his scuffed jacket pockets. Jacob concentrated, digging and planting, digging and planting. When finished, he turned. The girl was gone. Two rabbits scampered about, and farther away, a coyote watched them.
As a young man, Jacob had seen old movies that featured grizzled prospectors, mountain men living alone in shacks, bearded and mumbling to themselves. He had feared of someday becoming one. To be isolated, detached from the agreed-upon collective reality of schools, marriage, work, retirement. Now, he no longer felt afraid. Everything ahead would be a challenge, with nothing guaranteed. And yet that was an improvement. Jacob smiled. At present, he just needed to find water.
About the author:
Max Talley was born in New York City and lives in Southern California. His writing has appeared in Bridge Eight, Vol.1 Brooklyn, Santa Fe Literary Review, Atticus Review, and The Saturday Evening Post. Talley’s curated anthology, Delirium Corridor, debuted in 2020 and his fiction collection, My Secret Place, was published last September by Main Street Rag Books. www.maxdevoetalley.com
Max Talley is a writer and artist from New York City who lives in Southern California. His fiction and essays have appeared in numerous journals, including Fiction Southeast, Entropy, Vol.1 Brooklyn, Bridge Eight, Santa Fe Literary Review, and The Opiate, Talley's novel, Yesterday We Forget Tomorrow, was published in 2014 and his fiction collection, My Secret Place, is forthcoming from Main Street Rag Publishing.