First Novel in a Trilogy

            Through the clouds massing this late Saturday morning, the sun turned Lila’s cowgirl shirt and its mother-of-pearl buttons to warm peach. Lila had shampooed her shoulder-length hair, gathering its graying strands into a ponytail with peach-colored ribbon. Capillaries in her cheeks purpled the powder she applied. Though she often left her shirt open to show cleavage, this morning she also rubbed in Estée Lauder’s honeysuckle-based Beyond Paradise--determined, given Ron’s history in Fort Worth and, apparently, here, to attempt adultery herself before cellulite pocked her flesh in more places than just the backs of her thighs.
            Try Manny Barnes? She stood now with Victor Valdez gazing at the tiles in the upstairs bath, convincing herself the stench of tobacco from his leather jacket turned her on.
            Shorter by two inches than Lila, Victor raised dark eyes to hers. “Termites,” he muttered, removing the black-rimmed glasses that hid his eyebrows and stuffing them into the pocket of a denim work shirt. His belly hid a leather belt holding up gabardine slacks pleated at the waist. Kneeling, he reached under one of the four raised tiles, pinching up a mix of dark specks and sawdust. With his other hand he stroked the tip of a handlebar mustache.
            “Dry-wood termites, you’ve got ‘em.” He dropped the grains into his palm and pushed up the bill of a beige cap whose red band read Proud To Be American.
            “Mr. Valdez,” Lila said, sidling to him until her arm nudged his battered jacket. “Aren’t you hot? Let me take that.” His pocketed box of cigarettes pressed her hip as she reached for the jacket’s collar.
            Squinting at her with his right eye, he stumbled against the shelves that bore her towel-and-washcloth set imprinted with orange trumpet vine. “This powder? Cellulose. The black specks? Excrement. Your subfloor’s riddled. All we--“
            Turning to face him so that he could ogle her cleavage, Lila dipped toward the wastebasket. “Toss it in here, sir. And leave those tiles alone. I’ve left word with our insurance broker to send someone Monday with a camera.” She thrust the green wastebasket at him.
            He brushed off his palm above it as she flipped down the cover of the toilet bowl and, sitting, bent to pull her yellow skirt taut across her knees. “A terrible morning, Mr. Valdez. Mr. Kirkpatrick and I had a spat. Then Triple A came to patch his tire but couldn’t find the nail--I’ve got to learn to tame that white elephant. My husband took my Mustang. I’m trapped here all day. Can you imagine? We left a four-thousand-foot home and stables in Fort Worth because the rich Muslim husband of Mr. Kirkpatrick’s mistress sent him a note threatening his life. Muslims understand methods of torture, don’t they?” Her fingers twiddled the humpbacked Kokopelli that hung on a silver chain playing his flute between her breasts.
            “Who doesn’t?” he murmured, turning to limp toward the bathroom’s doorway. The soles of his alligator-skin boots clacked on the tiles. “You have other problems I can help with?”
            “Mr. Kirkpatrick may be having an affair right now with a woman you know,” she risked.
            He twisted toward her.
            “An affair with the realtor who sold us this heap of shit.”
            Victor formed an O with his lips. He yanked the bill of his cap down over his forehead now a mass of ruts. “About Mrs. Morgan I know nothing,” he said, “except she steers work my way. I’ll bring you a bid on these tiles Monday. They all need to come up. On the phone you mentioned a downstairs deck?” He shoved his glasses back onto his hawk nose.
            “In a minute. That patriotic slogan on your cap, your limp--I notice these things. Have you served the U S of A, Mr. Valdez?”
            “I sure have. We fought for a democracy in Vietnam and ended up with sixty thousand Americans dead and a country full of Commies. The steel ankle’s a gift from that screw-up.”
            “And what do you think this new war will accomplish?” She fingered an end of the ribbon securing her ponytail.
            Raising one arm to brace himself against the bathroom wall, he stared at her. “We got the firepower in self-propelled howitzers and GPS-guided bombs to end this mess in two months, maybe less. Are we gonna add billions more to the billion bucks a month we’re throwing into Afghanistan to try for democracy in Iraq?”
            “You speak in depth, sir.”
            “No way our dollars were going to work in Nam. Mrs. Kirkpatrick? I need to be home to fix lunch for Mom by twelve thirty.”
            “Let’s go see that deck.” She stood and smoothed her skirt over her hips, smiling at him.
            From under Victor’s cap, black ringlets jiggled down his neck as he turned and started across the blue carpet, the right side of his body dipping with each step. A yard from the doorway leading to the landing, he twisted his head to her. “Tell me something.” He peered through his glasses, breathing hard. “Are you--?” But she’d been glancing to the side to see if she’d picked the stuffed panda off the carpet after her fight with Ron, and squashed her breasts against Victor’s back.
            “Oh!” she exclaimed, slapping her right cheek. “I was checking the bed, I didn’t realize you’d stopped.”
            “The hell you didn’t, lady. You want it bad, don’t you? All drenched in that perfume.” He grabbed both her cheeks and rammed his lips to hers. His belt buckle pressed her belly.
            Panting, she threw her arms around his neck. “Slowly, sir. It’s my first time out of wedlock.” Her arms went slack and she backed away. “You take care of your mother? What a good man! Will you come back later? I want to savor you.” Reaching to cup his erection, she laughed to see his eyes bulge behind his glasses.
            Biting a hair straggling from his mustache, he pirouetted from her, throwing the shrapel-blasted ankle toward the landing and smacked his temple on the doorjamb.
            “Unnhhh,” he groaned and staggered.
            “Oh, my dear! The skin’s broken.” She grabbed her desk chair and wheeled it to him. “I’ll go get a washcloth.”
            Blinking at her, he lowered himself to the cushion and gazed at the palm he brought down from the purpling bulge. Lifting his buttocks, he hauled a handkerchief from his rear pocket, wiping off the blood and grasping his genitals.
            Lila rushed back. Kneeling, she squeezed the cold washcloth against the wound as drops of water dribbled down his neck. “Can you walk?” she asked, rising.
            He nodded and stood. She took his elbow and hung on to the banister as they headed down toward the living room’s faux-elkskin sofa and two padded armchairs. A beanbag ottoman upholstered in scarlet vinyl squatted in front of each.
            “I need you whole, sir,” Lila said, watching his buttocks sway under the leather jacket, feeling her vulva wet her black lace bikini. Might small talk comfort him? “Do you think our drought will bring out the millers early this spring? I hate it when they swarm.”
            He paused beside a cabinet across whose doors cavalry raced toward a painted adobe labeled The Alamo. Next to it a cigar-store Indian capped by a red-and-yellow war bonnet guarded Ron’s home office. One of the yellow feathers had snapped. “I gotta pee,” Victor blurted.
            “Of course you do. You’ll find talcumed towels to your right.”
            Massaging the breast with the ingrown nipple, Lila moved to French doors opening on the remainder of the deck that the crosshatched two-by-fours still supported. She peered out at the redwood boards strewn like pickup sticks among the junipers and piñons that rose from the greenbelt. The post that had propped the deck’s outer corner lay broken across a coil of garden hose. Her rattan lounge tilted against a clutch of rabbitbrush. At the base of a Russian olive, its gray leaves fluttering, gleamed a shard of her Chinese urn. “Fuck,” she exploded, anger occluding the buzz that had tickled her vagina. A couple of cottontails, backs arching, scampered under a juniper. The air smelled of trucks and SUVs whooshing along Bishop’s Lodge Road. Snow patched faraway Mount Baldy and the Ski Basin closer by.
            She had just spotted the snapped half of Manny and Joyce’s plum tree pointing like a barbed arrow across the railing guarding their hot tub when Manny appeared in a black vest and long-sleeved plaid shirt. He cinched the lariat of his hat as he strode around the tub sunk in its small deck, fifteen feet from what remained of the Kirkpatricks’ deck. Joyce followed Manny out the door in leather thongs, nubby skirt and sweater matching her blonde mop of hair.
            Behind Lila came Victor’s voice, “What’ve you got here?”
            Lila pulled open one of the glass doors. “Not as cold as I imagined--look at this mess.”
            She waggled her fingers at Manny and Joyce but only Manny waved back. Joyce had thrust her pelvis forward and stood scowling at the severed treetop attached to the rest of its trunk by a strip of bark.
            “Termites or could be dry rot,” Victor muttered as Lila snaked her arm around his thick waist. “Depends on whether--”
            “This was my favorite tree,” Joyce yelled over the drainage ditch, dammed since last night by Lila’s glass-topped table and its bent-in-two umbrella. A few new-growth leaves fluttered from the plum’s nearest branch as Joyce jerked its top upright. “What do you plan to do about this?”
            “What do I plan to do? Nothing. Go splint it back. Or buy another one. It’s not my fault.” Lila glanced at the boulders and buffalo grass exposed by the ripped-away two-by-sixes, and taking Victor with her, backed two paces across the remaining planks to lean against the living room’s stucco wall.
            “Not your fault?” Joyce called out.
            “The screws in the metal anchors must have loosened, Boodie.” Manny dropped a long arm around her shoulder. “An act of God.”
            “Take your arm off me. That’s no act of god. She loaded it with too much trash. You come home late from breakfast with my friend and expect me to have finished our newsletter and now stand here excusing this person’s need to load her deck with trash? Bug off.”
            “Good idea,” Lila shouted. “Crawl into your holes. Embarrassing my husband and I with your Make Love Not War bumper stickers. That was one of you let air from his tire? C’mon, Mr. Valdez, let’s go.”
            Clenching her teeth, Lila pushed Victor sideways into the living room and drove the brass handle down to lock the doors. She grabbed the looped bronze lariats of one of the stand lamps flanking the sofa. “I need you to love me to tears, sir. Now and after lunch. Come on.” Undoing her shirt’s second mother-of-pearl button, she started past him for the stairs. “That furnace is supposed to shut off when it gets this warm.” She looked over her shoulder. “Why are you standing there?”
            Jamming his fists into his pleated gabardines, he shifted from boot to boot. “I have to use the little boy’s room.”
            “Again? Drench that bruise, will you?”
            “The problem is not the bruise.”
            She narrowed her eyes. “Have you a prostate situation?”
            His eyelashes fluttered. The graying tips of his mustache bounced as he shook his head. “Pee-tee es dee.”
            “Pee tee . . .“
            “Post-traumatic stress disorder. From Nam.
            “You poor man!” The lust Lila had conjured for this moment drained as though her bladder had opened and her own hot pee was coursing down her thighs.
            Outside, an electronic horse whinnied.
            “Car horn!” Lila cried. “He’s back.”
            Jerking his hands from his pockets, Victor lurched past the cigar-store Indian, rounded the corner, and slammed himself behind the bathroom door.