Thunderbeck’s Machine (2 of 3)


We don’t make it to the study. Ten-year-old Scott, who never walks when he can run, who actually tries to climb walls, Charlie’s nephew Scott finds us before we get through the doorway. We give up the idea of finishing our smoke and instead listen to his reports of skateboard daring. He brought his board on the walk and managed to terrify both his mother and neighbor Stephanie.

“You should have seen me Uncle Charlie!” he sings out, at once trying to jump up and dance ahead of us as we turn back outside. “I did a one-eighty and a jump off the curb and I almost caught my board when I tipped up,” he continues, and Charlie doesn’t have to give him more than a pat and a nod in response before he dashes off. I say: “Liz doesn’t sound too comfortable right now. I don’t think she’s up for this party.”

“Oh, she’s just a little tired. A margarita will shape her right up. She loves to entertain.” We turn right and through the French doors. The yard is now crowded.

Charlie’s brother and sister-in-law are seated at the table with Liz. Jeff is drinking a beer as usual and Sandy is pretending she isn’t, by refusing a bottle of her own and drinking most of her husband’s. She’s also looking for Charlie, because she quit smoking a year ago and she wants to mooch hits off his cigarettes. Stephanie, the frustratingly lovely lesbian insurance attorney, is standing at the edge of the deck watching the pooped puppies. And Scott’s fourteen-year-old brother Brad is trying to get the dogs to play with him on the lawn.

The animals are having none of it.

Liz and Charlie live in one of the sunniest neighborhoods in Oakland. I’m just outside it, on the other side of a freeway. Their place nestles in a flat triangle between three major roadways, and it’s always at least five degrees warmer than elsewhere in the area. It’s about eighty-five in the yard right now. Their Anya is a two-year old collie, heavy-coated. Stephanie’s puppy is a Bernese Mountain Dog. She calls him Tristan and he looks like an Ewok. His coat feels as thick as a sea otter’s. Both dogs are doing everything they can to cool. Lying on their sides, tongues lolling onto the ground, they are black-brown-and-white mounds of pulsing fur.

We join the folks on the deck with Scott dancing around us. I let myself space through the Jeff-and-Sandy greetings; I know they both think I’m stupid or brain-damaged or something, the weird friend of brother Charlie’s, and I don’t much like them so I do nothing to correct that impression. Jeff may be okay, but he seems too desperate to be happy. Sandy is vain, attention-hungry, and alcoholic. Those sentences simplify them, of course, but since it’s how I’ve heard each of them describe the other, the statements probably are not unfair, on some level…

While Charlie goes into jovial mode by the door, opening the cooler and pressing wet bottles into hands with particular comments about color and body, I move to the edge of the deck, to Stephanie’s side.

“Tristan is growing so fast you can almost see it happen while he rests,” I comment. The puppy is starting to come to life on the lawn. He’s still overheated but too young to stay down long. Stephanie looks fondly at him and then turns her liquid chocolate eyes my way. “He’s such a sweetie,” she murmurs and smiles toward the lawn. Her dark hair shines in the sunlight. “I don’t know what I would have done without him these last few months.”

She and her ex-wife broke up shortly after acquiring Tristan. Karen says the puppy is the one thing she’ll really miss from their marriage. What with Charlie’s hospitality and Liz’s tendency to say nice things, it was inevitable that they’d be friends with their neighbors. And Stephanie and Karen were lovely neighbors. Both in their mid-thirties, both fit, brunette, pretty, smart, and friendly, the only surprise to the other residents at this end of the block was their domestic and sexual relationship. And they weren’t in anyone’s face about that, except when they forgot to lower the bedroom shade all the way, and then only Liz and Charlie could see, and they didn’t have to look. No, it wasn’t the couple’s love that shocked the neighborhood. After a few years of being together, Stephanie and Karen began to fight with each other, and there was the shock. Then everyone learned how much Karen drank. Then everyone heard how abusive and violent pretty Stephanie could be.

When Karen concluded she had no choice but to leave, Liz and Charlie put her up till she could find a new place. So they stayed in the middle of it. And they’re still the audience for Stephanie’s and Karen’s individual stories of what went wrong (everyone’s ex is crazy), and how their dating scenes are going now. I’m over here a lot, and I’ve become audience too. So it’s no surprise to hear Stephanie launch into descriptions of the last four women she dated.

It’s also no surprise that Sandy is fascinated. She hears what Stephanie is talking about (she has to make a bit of a lean-back effort from the table to eavesdrop) and she relishes it. I can’t figure why she’s so fascinated about the idea of women loving women, but she is. Come to think of it, she seems acutely and vulgarly interested in anything to do with sex; her eyes light up when conversation or action becomes suggestive, and she loves double entendre.

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