Here is this week's chapter of my serialized comic novel "Four Bidding For Love." (Those who find absurdist humor and adult situations offensive, please read no further.)
Water turns glossy pages into a pulpy sort of glue, and as a result all of Ross's magazine and catalog collection was irrevocably ruined, with the exception of the plastic-bound bundles of Tarzan comic books, Ramparts and Liberation in the protected dining nook. Safely sequestered in his tiny kitchen, his melamine plate collection and cherished small appliances escaped harm; but all his possessions in the main room were a total loss to either the fire or the water: his computer, desk, bed, and his Tarzan figurines. His towels and clothing in the small linen closet also escaped damage, though the cloth had absorbed the acrid scent of smoke.
After breaking down the door to douse the last smoldering embers, the stunned firefighters surveyed the narrow canyon of open passageway threading through the towering stacks of paper and instantly became alarmed by another threat: that the tons of water-logged paper had absorbed enough weight to crash through the sagging floor boards into the basement. Forming a human chain, they quickly reduced a number of the neat stacks to a jumbled pile of soggy paper outside the shattered window.
While Vonda held bathrobe-clad court on the windswept sidewalk, surrounded by curious neighbors, Kylie waited for the firefighters to leave and then led Robin into the charred remains of Ross's lair. Anticipating her friend's dismay at the loss of most of what he valued and held dear, Kylie suggested they move his undamaged appliance collection and bound vintage magazines into her room for safekeeping. After Robin recovered from his shock at the narrow passageways in which Ross had somehow lived—like a rat in a maze, Robin reckoned—the two made fast work of the transfer.
They'd just completed the move when Ross rushed up, wild-eyed, with his T-20Z toaster, camera and movie posters in hand. His eyes told him all he needed to know, and his stricken look might have been comical had it not embodied all of human loss and despair. Though Kylie took pains to explain the apparent cause—a candle—and describe their efforts to secure his remaining valuables, Ross seemed deaf to all language, nodding automatically and mouthing "my room" in a voice drained of his usual vigor.
A sweat-streaked firefighter came up to question him, and he answered in the small flat voice of someone deeply hypnotized by shock. No, he'd blown out all the candles before leaving, he was sure of it; no, he did not have the landlord's phone number; it was in his melted computer.
The immensity of his transformation—from a happy creature, secure in his carefully tended maze, to a homeless castaway bereft of his valuables and comforts—was apparently beyond his comprehension.
After the firefighter had finished questioning him, Ross glanced into his blackened, water-soaked room. "I have nowhere to go," he said dumbly, and Kylie said solicitously, "How about Dewey?"
"Dewey lives in a trailer on the warehouse parking lot," he answered, and it was apparent to both Robin and Kylie that the fire had not just destroyed his comfortable cubbyhole; it had also extinguished the spark of his life force.
The fire engine pulled away, the crowd of onlookers dissipated except for one poor windblown fellow who'd been collared by Vonda, and Ross sat down miserably on the front porch step. "Kylie, would do me a favor?"
"Drive me to the Golden Gate Bridge so I can jump off."
Glancing uncertainly at Robin, she said sternly, "Don't be absurd. You still have your collection, and you're going to Las Vegas next month as an exhibitor—remember?"
"All the photos were in my computer," he said in an uncharacteristically lifeless tone. "I can't even send the application."
"You still have your camera, silly," Kylie said, and he gazed at her sympathetic face for the first time. "Those catalogs and magazines were my retirement. Now I'm penniless, and homeless."
"You still have the disability checks," she replied, and he waved his hands in a gesture of futility. "For a few months, but what can I rent around here? There's nothing this cheap."
Kylie had no answer to this, for it was true, and she flashed Robin a helpless look. His face creased with deep thought, and then he drew her aside.
"This is a crazy idea, but it might work," he whispered. "Alexia owes me a favor for negotiating this deal. Now—"
"And we know how she pays off her favors," Kylie interjected acidly, and Robin heaved a frustrated sigh. "Do you want to keep chastising me, or do you want to help your friend?"
This challenge effectively silenced Kylie, and Robin continued in a low voice. "Alexia is leaving tomorrow for two weeks to housesit for a friend in Sonoma. We could move Ross into her spare bedroom, and explain the poor guy's house just burned down. That would give Ross two weeks to finish his preparation for the Vegas show and find a place to stay. Alexia would never have to know it was him."
Kylie puzzled over the plan, searching for flaws, and then gazed up at Robin with admiring eyes. "It's brilliant. But will she really let a stranger live in her house?"
Robin's expression darkened and he said, "I think so, as long as I vouch for him as an absolutely trustworthy friend, and promise he won't touch a thing. She's worried about her cat, so I'll say Ross adores cats."
"But he hates cats," Kylie murmured. "Dogs, too."
"What a wonderful specimen of human kindness," Robin remarked dryly. "Well, for two weeks he's going to love cats—unless he prefers the homeless shelter."
The two glanced in near-unison over at the dejected figure slumped on the step, and Robin said, "What about tonight?"
Kylie leaned closer and whispered, "He's like a zombie, isn't he?"
"Yes. He's in deep shock."
"Then I have just the place for him tonight."
Trotting lightly down the steps, Kylie approached Vonda and the windblown neighbor and spoke confidentially to her upstairs neighbor. Robin's watched in consternation as the two women made their way up the steps, skirt and robe fluttering in the stiff gusts. Vonda peered closely up at Robin's face and then offered him a smile which slipped into a lopsided leer. "I understand you two want to be alone tonight, sweetie," she whispered huskily, and then turning to Ross, she bent down and touched his shoulder. "Come on, Dearie, I have a nice comfy sofa for you tonight."
As Kylie beamed pure gratitude at her, Vonda acknowledged the success of their conspiracy and then guided her distraught charge up the stairs to her room, talking the whole time in her reassuring cackle.
A self-satisfied look of triumph crept over Kylie's expression, and Robin offered a mordant critique. "He'll either find great comfort with Vonda or be on the Golden Gate Bridge by midnight."
Kylie punched her companion's shoulder in mock punishment. "You're terrible."
Robin gazed down at her beatifically reproachful face and said, "You don't know the half of it. If Alexia ever finds out who's staying at her house, I'll be the one choosing between Vonda's sofa or a cot in the shelter."
To read the previous chapters, visit the "Four Bidding For Love" home page.