“He’ll find himself.”
“He stopped looking.”
“That’s pessimistic,” Dusty said, reduced to Fig’s terse conversational style.
Fig cocked his head, attention drawn to a discussion on the radio, which Dusty could hear only as a faint tinny whisper that escaped one of the headphones. Fig stood with his sanding block poised over the window casing, eyes flooding with an even deeper sorrow that apparently arose from the weirdness to which he was listening, as motionless as if he had been struck by the paralytic beam from an extraterrestrial’s ray gun.
Worried by Fig’s glum prediction, Dusty hurried to the long aluminum extension ladder that Skeet had climbed earlier. Briefly, he considered moving it to the front of the house. Skeet might become alarmed by a more direct approach, however, and leap before he could be talked down. The rungs rattled under Dusty’s feet as he rapidly ascended.
When he swung off the top of the ladder, Dusty was at the back of the house. Skeet Caulfield was at the front, out of sight beyond a steep slope of orange clay tiles that rose like the scaly flank of a sleeping dragon.
This house was on a hill, and a couple miles to the west, beyond the crowded flats of Newport Beach and its sheltered harbor, lay the Pacific. The usual blueness of the water had settled like a sediment to the ocean floor, and the choppy waves were many shades of gray, mottled with black: a reflection of the forbidding heavens. At the horizon, sea and sky appeared to curve together in a colossal dark wave which, if real, would have rushed ashore with enough force to sweep past the Rocky Mountains more than six hundred miles to the east.
Behind the house, forty feet below Dusty, were slate-paved patios that posed a more immediate danger than the sea and the oncoming storm. He could more easily envision himself splattered across that slate than he could conjure, in his mind’s eye, an image of the Rockies awash.
Turning his back to the ocean and to the perilous drop, leaning from the waist, with his arms slightly spread and thrust forward to serve as counterweights to the dangerous backward pull of gravity, Dusty clambered upward. The onshore flow was still just a strong breeze, not yet grown into a full-fledged wind; nevertheless, he was grateful to have it at his back, sticking him to the roof instead of lifting him away from it. At the summit of the long incline, he straddled the ridge line and looked toward the front of the house, past additional slopes of the complex roof.
Skeet was perched on another ridge parallel to this one, beside a double-stack chimney disguised as a squat bell tower. The stucco tower was surmounted by Palladian arches, the faux-limestone columns of which supported a copper-clad Spanish-colonial cupola, and atop the cupola was a shortened but ornate Gothic spire that was no more out of place in this screwball design than would have been a giant neon sign for Budweiser.
With his back toward Dusty, knees drawn up, Skeet gazed at the three crows circling above him. His arms were raised to them in an embracive gesture, inviting the birds to settle upon his head and shoulders, as though he were not a housepainter but Saint Francis of Assisi in communion with his feathered friends.
Still straddling the ridge, waddling like a penguin, Dusty moved north until he came to the point at which a lower roof, running west to east, slid under the eaves of the roof that he was traversing. He abandoned the peak and descended the rounded tiles, leaning backward because gravity now inexorably pulled him forward. Crouching, he hesitated near the brink, but then jumped across the rain gutter and dropped three feet onto the lower surface, landing with one rubber-soled shoe planted on each slope.
Because his weight wasn’t evenly distributed, Dusty tipped to the right. He struggled to regain his balance but realized that he wasn’t going to be able to keep his footing. Before he tilted too far and tumbled to his death, he threw himself forward and crashed facedown on the ridge-line tiles, right leg and arm pressing hard against the south slope, left leg and arm clamped to the north slope, holding on as though he were a panicked rodeo cowboy riding a furious bull.
He lay there for a while, contemplating the mottled orange-brown finish and the patina of dead lichen on the roofing tiles. He was reminded of the art of Jackson Pollock, though this was more subtle, more fraught with meaning, and more appealing to the eye.
When the rain came, the film of dead lichen would quickly turn slimy, and the kiln-fired tiles would become treacherously slippery. He had to reach Skeet and get off the house before the storm broke.
Eventually he crawled forward to a smaller bell tower.
This one lacked a cupola. The surmounting dome was a miniature version of those on mosques, clad in ceramic tiles that depicted the Islamic pattern called the Tree of Paradise. The owners of the house weren’t Muslims, so they apparently included this exotic detail because they found it visually appealing—even though, up here, the only people who could get close enough to the dome to admire it were roofers, housepainters, and chimney sweeps.
Leaning against the six-foot tower, Dusty pulled himself to his feet. Shifting his hands from one vent slot to another, under the rim of the dome, he edged around the structure to the next length of open roof.
Once more straddling the ridge, crouching, he hurried forward toward another damn false bell tower with another Tree of Paradise dome. He felt like Quasimodo, the high-living hunchback of Notre Dame: perhaps not nearly as ugly as that poor wretch but also not a fraction as nimble.
He edged around the next tower and continued to the end of the east-west span, which slid under the eaves of the north-south roof that capped the front wing of the residence. Skeet had left a short aluminum ladder as a ramp from the lower ridge line to the slope of the higher roof, and Dusty ascended it, rising from all fours to an apelike crouch as he moved off the ladder onto one more incline.
When at last Dusty reached the final peak, Skeet was neither surprised to see him nor alarmed. “Morning, Dusty”
Dusty was twenty-nine, only five years older than the younger man; nonetheless, he thought of Skeet as a child.
“Mind if I sit down?” Dusty asked.
With a smile, Skeet said, “I’d sure like your company.”
Dusty sat beside him, butt on the ridge line, knees drawn up, shoes planted solidly on the barrel tiles.
Far to the east, past wind-shivered treetops and more roofs, beyond freeways and housing tracts, beyond the San Joaquin Hills, the Santa Ana Mountains rose brown and sere, here at the beginning of the rainy season; around their aged crowns, the clouds wound like dirty turbans.
On the driveway below, Motherwell had spread a big tarp, but he himself was nowhere to be seen.
The security guard scowled up at them, and then he consulted his wristwatch. He had given Dusty ten minutes to get Skeet down.
“Sorry about this,” Skeet said. His voice was eerily calm.
“Sorry about what?”
“Jumping on the job.”
“You could have made it a leisure-time activity,” Dusty agreed.
“Yeah, but I wanted to jump where I’m happy, not where I’m unhappy, and I’m happiest on the job.”
“Well, I do try to create a pleasant work environment.”
Skeet laughed softly and wiped his runny nose on the back of his sleeve.
Though always slender, Skeet had once been wiry and tough; now he was far too thin, even gaunt, yet he was soft-looking, as if the weight he had lost consisted entirely of bone mass and muscle. He was pale, too, although he often worked in the sun; a ghostly pallor shone through his vague tan, which was more gray than brown. In cheap black-canvas-and-white-rubber sneakers, red socks, white pants, and a tattered pale-yellow sweater with frayed cuffs that draped loosely around his bony wrists, he looked like a boy, a lost child who had been wandering in the desert without food or water.
Wiping his nose on the sleeve of his sweater again, Skeet said, “Must be getting a cold.”
“Or maybe the runny nose is just a side effect.”
Usually, Skeet’s eyes were honey-brown, intensely luminous, but now they were so watery that a portion of the color seemed to have washed out, leaving him with a dim and yellowish gaze. “You think I’ve failed you, huh?”
“Yes, you do. And that’s all right. Hey, I’m okay with that.”
“You can’t fail me,” Dusty assured him.
“Well, I did. We both knew I would.”
“You can only fail yourself.”
“Relax, bro.” Skeet patted Dusty’s knee reassuringly and smiled. “I don’t blame you for expecting too much of me, and I don’t blame myself for being a screwup. I’m past all that.”
Forty feet below, Motherwell came out of the house, single-handedly carrying the mattress from a double bed.
The vacationing owners had left keys with Dusty, because some interior walls in high-traffic areas had also needed to be painted. That part of the job was finished.
Motherwell dropped the mattress on the previously positioned tarpaulin, glanced up at Dusty and Skeet, and then went back into the house.
Even from a height of forty feet, Dusty could see that the security guard didn’t approve of Motherwell raiding the residence to put together this makeshift fall-break.
“What did you take?” Dusty asked.
Skeet shrugged and turned his face up toward the circling crows, regarding them with such an inane smile and with such reverence that you would have thought he was a total naturehead who had begun the day with a glass of fresh-squeezed organic orange juice, a sugarless bran muffin, a tofu omelet, and a nine-mile hike.
“You must remember what you took,” Dusty pressed.
“A cocktail,” Skeet said. “Pills and powders.”
“Probably both. More. But I don’t feel bad.” He looked away from the birds and put his right hand on Dusty’s shoulder. “I don’t feel like crap anymore. I’m at peace, Dusty.”
“I’d still like to know what you took.”
“Why? It could be the tastiest recipe ever, and you’d never use it.” Skeet smiled and pinched Dusty’s cheek affectionately. “Not you. You’re not like me.”
Motherwell came out of the house with a second mattress from another double bed. He placed it beside the first.
“That’s silly,” Skeet said, pointing down the steep slope to the mattresses. “I’ll just jump to one side or the other.”
“Listen, you’re not going to take a header into the Sorensons’ driveway,” Dusty said firmly.
“They won’t care. They’re in Paris.”
“And they will care. They’ll be pissed.”
Blinking his bleary eyes, Skeet said, “What—are they really uptight or something?”
Motherwell was arguing with the guard. Dusty could hear their voices but not what they were saying.
Skeet still had his hand on Dusty’s shoulder. “You’re cold.”
“No,” Dusty said. “I’m okay.”
“Not cold. Just scared.”
“You?” Disbelief brought Skeet’s blurry eyes into focus. “Scared? Of what?”
Motherwell and the security guard headed into the house. From up here, it appeared as though Motherwell had an arm around the guy’s back, as if maybe he was lifting him half off his feet and hurrying him along.
“Heights?” Skeet gaped at him. “Whenever there’s anything on a roof to be painted, you always want to do it yourself.”
“With my stomach in knots the whole time.”
“Get serious. You’re not afraid of anything.”
“Yes, I am.”
“Not you!” Skeet insisted with sudden anger.
Distressed, having undergone a radical mood swing in an instant, Skeet snatched his hand off Dusty’s shoulder. He hugged himself and began to rock slowly back and forth on the narrow seat provided by the single-width cap of ridge-line tiles. His voice was wrenched with anguish, as though Dusty had not merely acknowledged a fear of heights but had announced that he was riddled with terminal cancer:
“Not you, not you, not you, not you.. .
In this condition, Skeet might respond well to several sweet spoonfuls of sympathy; however, if he decided that he was being coddled, he could become sullen, unreachable, even hostile, which was annoying in ordinary circumstances, but which could be dangerous forty feet above the ground. Generally he responded better to tough love, humor, and cold truth.
Into Skeet’s not you chant, Dusty said, “You’re such a feeb.”
“You’re the feeb.”
“Wrong. You’re the feeb.”
“You are so completely the feeb,” Skeet said.
Dusty shook his head. “No, I’m the psychological progeriac.”
“Psychological, meaning ‘of, pertaining to, or affecting the mind.’ Pro geriac, meaning ‘someone afflicted with progeria,’ which is a ‘congenital abnormality characterized by premature and rapid aging, in which the sufferer, in childhood, appears to be an old person.’”
Skeet bobbed his head. “Hey, yeah, I saw a story about that on 60 Minutes.”
“So a psychological progeriac is someone who is mentally old even as a kid. Psychological progeriac. My dad used to call me that. Sometimes he shortened it to the initials—PP. He’d say, ‘How’s my little pee-pee today?’ or ‘If you don’t want to see me drink another Scotch, you little pee-pee, why don’t you just hike your ass out to the tree house in the backyard and play with matches for a while.’”
Casting anguish and anger aside as abruptly as he had embraced them, Skeet said sympathetically, “Wow. So it wasn’t like a term of endearment, huh?”
“No. Not like feeb.”
Frowning, Skeet said, “Which one was your dad?”
“Dr. Trevor Penn Rhodes, professor of literature, specialist in deconstructionist theory.”
“Oh, yeah. Dr. Decon.”
Gazing at the Santa Ana Mountains, Dusty paraphrased Dr. Decon: “Language can’t describe reality. Literature has no stable reference, no real meaning. Each reader’s interpretation is equally valid, more important than the author’s intention. In fact, nothing in life has meaning. Reality is subjective. Values and truth are subjective.