In which love and graphene create life!
Back in his childhood home, he found the women laughing over his childhood photos. His mom’s house wasn’t cluttered or feminine. Nor did it show any signs of a male figure. It was really quite sterile, nearly empty. The two women sat at the rustic pine dining table, cups of Nescafe Cafe Con Leche in front of them. That was his mom’s apparent attempt at moving up in the world, after she’d discovered the powdered milk and instant beverage can at the new Wal Mart.
An inexplicable impatience crossed by frustration tensed his insides.“Let’s go, Cameron,” he said.
“Huh?” She looked up from the photo album. “Why?”
There was no reason, just as there was no reason not to invite his mom to his private wedding. He scowled. “I want you to meet Oso’s parents.”
“Oh. Why didn’t you just say so?”
“You’ll come back for dinner,” Gilly’s mom said.
“Mom, we’re going back to Albuquerque tonight. Plane to catch. Work.”
“Gilly!” His mom’s generally stoic face showed faint glimmers of pain.
Cameron’s icy blue eyes bored into his soul.
His shoulders hunched, he swiveled around and marched out the door.
Cameron eventually followed him. As usual, she said nothing. He sensed something from her—disdain, perhaps. But then, he’d felt her disdain from the first moment. A man in need of an escort-for-hire wasn’t worth much, except in cold hard assets that purchased material goods.
He bypassed the Beñat house and went straight for the workshop. In his mom’s perpetually empty outbuilding, he’d constructed robots with Oso. This was a workshop of a more traditional variety, where Oso’s dad cut, shaped, and buffed wood for beautiful furniture. The rustic pine table, in fact, had come from this workshop in trade for cash the Beñat family had owed his mom. The table was worth three times the cash, as with most of Jerry’s trades, but nobody in the Beñat family had any sense for money, except Oso. The rest were happy enough to be impoverished.
Gilly peered in the open door to see Jerry painting a finish on a headboard carved with poppies. “Jerry?”
The paternal figure with his scruffy face and Che tie-dye didn’t look up or pause in his work. “Well, look what the cat’s dragged in,” he said.
“I brought my wife Cameron to meet you.”
“Come in and sit down, just dust off the wood curls. I’m sure your wife’s too much of a high-roller to dirty her pants.”
Gilly laughed nervously, but Cameron took the insult in her usual soundless way. Everything she did was soundless. That was why Gilly liked her. It wasn’t her icy blonde appearance. No, he wasn’t that shallow. However, he was a little shallow about the look of his own pants and proceeded to brush the dust and wood curls from a chair before sitting on it. Cameron could care for her own clothes.
For an indeterminate time, silence filled the workshop. Jerry kept right on working until he came to a stopping point and meticulously cleaned the brush he’d been working with. He cleared his throat, pulled a bag and rolling papers from his shirt pocket and rolled a joint. He took a few tokes and then passed it to Gilly.
It was like old times. Gilly took the joint and then passed it to Cameron, who turned up her lip a little before giving a half-hearted inhale.
“What did you say your wife’s name was?”
“Jerry, meet Cameron. Cameron, this is Oso’s dad Jerry.”
“Nice to meet you, Cameron. I take it you know my eldest son.”
“Yes, through Gillilander.” Her tone was icy, with only a hint of contempt. Gilly smiled to himself. Her voice was like fine wine; its tones could only be detected by serious aficionados.
“Does it work like that in your world?” Jerry asked.
It was an ambiguous question, one that could’ve been taken any number of ways. However, Gilly suspected it meant Gillilander could only get close to a woman of this caliber through Oso, and not the other way around.
“Yes, it does. Gillilander asked me to be his date at a business dinner. Oso was there, as well.”
Gilly smiled again and took another hit off the joint. She had failed to mention the money that had exchanged hands. Of course, she didn’t want to be viewed as a prostitute, but he also sensed a wall had gone up between her and the senior Beñat. He sensed…what was the subtle flavor? He ran his tongue over his lips, leaned closer to Cameron to better feel her vibrations, and then handed her the joint.
She took a deeper drag this time and hiccuped.
“How’s Oso doing in the limelight of Southern California these days? We haven’t heard from him in—. I don’t remember how many months.”
Gilly thought the question was not quite honest. They both knew that Oso’s focus never changed. “The usual. Working. Recruiting engineers. Demanding the impossible from them.”
“Tell me something new.”
Cameron hiccuped again and put her hand to her chest. “He’s divorcing Dolores.”
“He decided to invest his funds in a homeless shelter in Skid Row.” Her face somehow remained impassive.
“Really?” Jerry said.
“No.” Cameron giggled.
She actually giggled. Gilly had never heard her giggle before. Nor had he heard her make a joke. This was an interesting development. He guessed she didn’t smoke much pot. Not that he did—he hadn’t since he was a teenager living next door to Oso’s dad. As a younger adult, he’d instead taken up the binge-drinking, which had developed into the more professional having an occasional drink with the boys. But Cameron—he had never seen her imbibe more than a few sips of a glass of wine. The wine was for show, of course. The woman was hell-bent on keeping her cool.
“He’ll always be my most successful child,” Jerry said. “I’m proud of him. Someday, he’ll be a man after my own heart. He’ll start that shelter on Skid Row.”
“Are you sure about that?” Gilly asked.
“He’s always been generous.”
Gilly had to admit Jerry was right. Oso was generous in a way Gilly couldn’t comprehend, as Gilly preferred to pile his money in the bank and live off cold broth. Oso was both a giver and an investor. No, he hadn’t invested his money in a homeless shelter on Skid Row, but Cameron no doubt wasn’t aware that Oso invested his money in ventures, while giving generously from his gains to whomever he saw fit.
“Skid Row’s for other people,” Gilly said. As Jerry passed around another joint, Gilly toked it a few times before reclining with his legs up on the work bench. “Oso’ll come back to New Mexico and invest in his home state.”
“You think so? Hey, get your feet off the work bench.”
Reluctantly, Gilly complied. The pot was making him groggy. “He’s sentimental. He always talks about coming back. It wouldn’t be so bad, would it Cammie?” God, he’d never called her a nickname before.
“If Oso moved far away from us? No, that wouldn’t be bad.”
Did she really dislike Oso so much? Gilly had never noticed this before. “I meant, if we all moved to New Mexico. Albuquerque. We could move operations here. It’s too busy in LA. I don’t like it. It eats away at my soul.” And then, in a fit of sudden pot-induced tenderness for the women in his life, he said, “If we ever have kids, my mom will be closer to her grandkids.”
Cameron made an almost imperceptible but indignant throat noise. “We’re not having kids, and I don’t want to live in New Mexico.”
“I do,” Gilly said and realized that almost imperceptible throat noises might as well be Cameron coming unglued. He searched for a way to change the subject. “Who’s the bed for?” he asked Jerry.
“I’m not sure. I have a booth in the Alamo Gallery. I might just display it there. Nobody will buy it, but that’s not why I build things.”
Here was a point of understanding Gilly could have with the elder Beñat, which was something Oso had no patience for: creating for the sake of creating. “Maybe I’ll buy it. For our New Mexico house. How much?”
“I don’t know. Five-hundred?”
“That seems fair for a headboard. What would the rest of the frame cost?”
“I was going to go with $500 for everything.”
“There’s no money here in Socorro. We’re not Santa Fe, you know. Everything’s gotta be cheaper.”
“Yeah, but you can take advantage of us LA dwellers. Fifteen-hundred sounds like a steal to me.”
“I’ll take $1500. The footboard’s not done yet.”
“When it’s done, then, have it delivered. I’ll pay up front. Tomorrow before we leave.”
“I thought we were leaving tonight,” Cameron said, her voice sounding sleepy.
“For some reason, I lost the incentive after being here. Thanks, Jerry.”
“Hey, anytime,” Jerry laughed. “This is the den of unwinding, where the chaos isn’t allowed in.”
“I don’t have chaos in my life,” moaned Gilly. “I have Oso. God, he’s like a force of nature. A freaking hurricane. I can’t stop him.”
Jerry stroked his long gray beard, giving off an air of the befuddled wiseman. “Tell me about it, son. Tell me about it. I tried to mellow him out. Tried, but it didn’t work.”
“He takes advantage of you,” Cameron said, her voice soft, but still audible.
Gilly looked at her through his bleary eyes. Was that an actual opinion she’d just given? It seemed to him she’d also given a declaration earlier, too. She didn’t want to live in New Mexico, and she didn’t want to have children.
“Or you could say it’s the other way around,” Gilly said. “Maybe we take advantage of each other.”
“All the inventions he’s making money off of are yours,” she said, a little louder.
“And I wouldn’t know how to patent, sell, or market them without him. I wouldn’t know how to hire the best engineers to help me. Without him, I’d be like Jerry, here—no offense, Jerry. I’d be an artist creating beautiful costly goods by myself, without a market.”
“No offense taken, Gilly. I prefer the simple life.”
“In other words, Cammie—” he studied her icy but beautiful Scandinavian face, watched her subtle telltale shudder at the diminutive— “I wouldn’t be rich without Oso. And would you have wanted me as a poor man?”
She raised her delicately pruned eyebrows and shrugged. Of course she wouldn’t answer that question. They never would have met if he’d been poor. How could he have afforded an escort of that caliber without a lot of ready cash? He would’ve had to solicit one wearing a tawdry skirt and heels on a street corner. To be honest, he didn’t know what an average street corner prostitute would cost, as he’d never picked one up. Honestly.
He stared at the various planks of wood lying about, and at the headboard he’d decided to buy, while imagining the woman he’d be sleeping with under those poppies: his icy Scandinavian queen. Artistry was a strange and mysterious process, in this case, brought about by carving away at the outer parts to create and hone an inner part.
“Do you plan what you’re going to carve before you do it?” he asked Jerry. “Sketch it out, picture it? What?”
“Nah, but I plan it out in my head. I can picture it. There’s some element of the muse, too. She guides my hands.”
“The muse. How interesting. I don’t work with wood. You know what I don’t do? I don’t carve things. We play in opposition to each other.”
Jerry spent a few moments gazing at the loveliness of the ice queen. “Gilly, my old friend, I doubt we’re playing in the same playground.”
But Gilly didn’t care about Cameron at that moment. All right, he kind of cared in an offhand way. At that moment, he could only see wood. Wood everywhere. The wood of the workshop; the wood inside the workshop; the dust and wood curls that hadn’t yet been swept up, even though there was a shop broom leaning against one wall. All that mess was created by a process that found the essential object inside another one. It seemed so messy. Gilly didn’t work that way. Rather, he built his projects layer by layer. Or, to be more exact, he designed them and sent his designs to his 3D printer, which built his creations layer by excruciating layer.
It was fine work he, Gilly, did. It was fine work that imagined the world being built on a nano-level. It was art more akin to creation, elemental at core.
“Sure, we do. You know what I do? I take the sand from your playground and build it into something, while you create sand cutting materials down.”
“Very profound,” Jerry said, and coughed as he choked back a laugh.
“I’m like God. Top that.”
“You didn’t make the sand any more than I made the trees.”
“I think I created Cameron from my mind. I don’t think she actually exists.” Cameron, however, was so spaced out from the unusual effects of being stoned that she didn’t respond. He nudged her with his elbow. “I created you, Cameron. I projected you.”
She snapped out of her reverie. “Fuck you, Gilly. Did you know I have parents, too? A mom and a dad. We didn’t even invite them to our wedding. I’ve got to invite them to LA.” And then she fell silent again, staring at an indiscernible something or other on the wall.
“All I have to do is print a big ass ear. A big ear made from cartilage and graphene. I can wake up my creation with infrasound waves. Oh, my God. I need to call Oso. I know how to do it. I can picture it in my mind. Where’s your phone? You do have one, don’t you?”
“Kitchen. Good luck. Cameron and I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about us.” And a big slow smile spread itself across his face.
“Don’t touch my wife,” Gilly said.
“What do you take me for, a pervert?”
Gilly just glared at him. He had no idea; he only knew that Oso’s mom was into polyamory and orgies and hippy circles. He wasn’t clear about what Jerry was into.
He entered through the kitchen door as he’d done when he was a boy, and rather than any shrieking at the strange man who’d just walked in unannounced, the wild-haired young adults present barely glanced at him. There were a couple of toddlers running around—grandchildren? It was hard to say.
The kitchen smelled like heaven or Indian food. At the stove, Oso’s long-haired mother stood, stirring a pot of what appeared to be lentils. She swayed her hips from side to side. She was like a strange feminine apparition of Gilly’s best friend, dark and hairy and very substantial in her body. By comparison, Oso’s dad was tall, thin, and fair—a true Basque.
“Phone,” Gilly managed.
Oso’s mom turned from the stove, pushed a pile of papers from the table, and revealed the phone. She handed it to him. “Oh, Gillilander,” she said, and rose to her tiptoes to kiss his cheek. “So happy to see you again. You smell like you’ve been in the workshop. Do you wanna dance?”
Before he could stop her from embracing him, she’d taken him in her arms and begun to dance a cumbia, as that was what was playing from the speaker mounted in the corner of the kitchen. Clearly, the speaker was a trade, as it was at odds with the level of poverty around the house.
Gilly gagged a little, as the spinning dance and the smell of the unwashed hippy woman made him dizzy. While they spun, Gilly managed to dial his friend’s number from memory, which took him a bit.
Oso didn’t answer the first time, and it went straight to voicemail. He no doubt filtered his phone calls. “It’s me, come on, Oso. Answer your damn phone.”
Moments later, the phone rang. “Oso, you mother fucker, so glad you called.”
“What are you doing at my parents’ house?”
“Smoking weed with your dad and dancing with your mom.”
“You’d have to be wasted to dance with my mom. Poor boy, having the mother creature take advantage of you.”
“I can hear you!” his mother shouted.
“That’s great, Mom. Will you let him go? I imagine you have food cooking on the stove or something. Let’s not burn dinner just because Gilly’s visiting.”
The Beñat matron laughed. “Did he say something about burning down the house? I thought that was what young boys did.” At that, she spun away from Gilly and danced her way back to the stove, where she stirred her pot of lentil dahl.
Gilly felt like he’d been smacked and reeled a little until Oso talked him back to reality.
“How’s married life treating you?” Oso asked.
“Great.” Gilly closed his eyes for a moment or two to recenter himself. “I figured it out.”
“Oh, glad. It’s about time you figured out how all the parts fit together. Makes for a more satisfying sex life.”
Gilly ignored the jibe; it was typical Oso. “I did figure out how all the parts fit together. I can picture the matrix. It’s a matrix made of graphene nanotubes and biological cells.”
“Our robot. The one that comes to life when you speak. Except it doesn’t come to life when you speak exactly. That would cause problems, I think. It has an advanced ear that’s tuned to infrasound. I mean, that might cause problems, too. People respond to infrasound, they just don’t know what they’re responding to. We use infrasound waves to vibrate the graphene matrix. We can instigate life.”
“Gilly, did it occur to you that you’re stoned and this will be preposterous tomorrow?”
“Of course it’s not preposterous. You started it. It can work, theoretically. We just need to figure out the small details, such as how infrasound will continue to affect the graphene eardrum.”
“Just a few kinks,” Oso said drily.
“Let’s move our company to Albuquerque. You know you’d like it better, away from the first and soon to be second ex. I need to come back home.” There was a lengthy silence, as though Gilly had lost the connection with Oso. “Oso?”
“Yeah, buddy? Would you believe it if I told you I was in Albuquerque right now thinking the exact same thoughts?”
“That’s because we’re all in the same playground. You, me, your dad.”
“Let’s talk about this again when you’re not high, okay?”
“Yeah, buddy. Will do. Because I’m onto something big. The playground’s big enough for you, me, the universe. We’re going to do this, Oso. We’re going to move on from my beautiful works of prosthetic limbs and onto life. Real life.”
“Meet me in Albuquerque tomorrow, and we’ll talk about it over lunch. I don’t expect blueprints tomorrow, but I will expect them if I’m going to take you seriously.”
“Oh, yeah, they’ll be so fucking blue you won’t be able to escape my world.”
“That’s great. I’ll look forward to it.” Again with the dry tone.
Gilly threw the phone on the table and after helping himself to some dahl and chapatis, he stumbled back out the kitchen door and into the inky blackness of the Socorro night. He sucked in the air and recognized his destiny. This was it. New Mexico. Life. A matrix of life he would create. Destiny. It was a beautiful thing.
Back in the workshop, he found Cameron and Jerry in the same seats, but Cameron’s frame had relaxed greatly, and she was talking and laughing in an animated way he’d never heard before, though oddly, it appeared that tears were also streaming down her cheeks.
“Hey, Gilly, make your phone call?” Jerry asked. “Cameron and I are getting to know each other a little. She grew up on a farm. She knows about growing things. Grapes, specifically.”
Gilly looked at Cameron, and seeing her flushed face, he could also envision her as a farm girl. But it was a passing moment. “I know,” he said. “She grew up on a vineyard in Sonoma Valley.”
“Yeah, but did you know she worked the land with her dad? Helped him transplant his first grapevines?”
“No, Cameron never told me that story.”
He hadn’t asked, either. Cameron was using him for his money, and he was using her so he would always have an attractive woman on his arm. It was mutual, their relationship. Why did it have to go beyond this mutuality? Cameron was happy talking about her childhood; that was why.
“Tell me about it,” Gilly said.
Her face fell back into its usual mask. “It wasn’t much, really. My parents bought a small plot that expanded over the years. I helped my dad plant his first vine. I watered it every day with my little toy watering can. And it grew, and their vineyards grew, and my parents made me believe I was part of it. If not for me, they wouldn’t have had such bounty. That’s the way they made me feel.”
“That’s a lot,” Gilly said.
She shrugged, and her face lit up again. “We’re going back to California soon, right? That’s what you told your mom. We can visit my parents’ vineyard.”
“I’m having lunch with Oso tomorrow in Albuquerque. We’ll go home after that.” And then they’d move back, Gilly wanted to add, but he didn’t. “We’ll visit your parents’ vineyard. We should have invited them to our wedding. I’m sorry, Cameron.”
She looked up at him, her pale blue eyes suddenly like a child’s. “Thank you, Gilly. But where will we stay tonight? We told your mom we were leaving. We can’t go back over there.”
“My house has a spare futon,” Jerry said. “Or there are a few motels in Socorro. The mayor owns a decent one.”
“Let’s sleep in my backyard,” Gilly said. “And watch the stars.”
Cameron’s jaw dropped. “But what about scorpions? And snakes, and…?”
“We’ll see them in the sky. Constellations. It’ll be beautiful and perfect.”
“I’ve got some sleeping bags for you,” Jerry offered.
Before Gilly could change his own mind, let alone allow Cameron to protest more, the two spread a bundle of sleeping bags in a spot brushed clear of weeds and prickly things. Jerry had left them with a joint, and they passed it back and forth and stared up at the sky.
“The stars are visible. I can’t believe the stars are visible,” she said. “I hate LA so much because the stars aren’t visible. Thank you, Gilly, thank you.”
“Don’t thank me. I’m just stardust myself.” He laughed. He felt young again. Well, technically, he wasn’t old yet, just not as young as he’d been back in high school and had slept in the yard.
He grabbed Cameron and pulled her to him. For the first time, he felt free embracing her. He felt free kissing her, and he pressed her closer, and she relaxed into his arms.
“I love you,” she said.
It was the first and only time she said it. For his part, it was the closest he ever came to expressing the sentiment. The actual words, however, never fell from his lips.
Finally, as they were getting to the meat of the story, Gilly unceremoniously stopped talking and invited Stephanie to show herself to the door. Stephanie left, albeit a little irritated. He was an old man, she reminded herself. And so was her granddad. Time was of essence. She had an appointment with her granddad the following evening, she reminded herself. She would simply show up a little early.