Montecito: Chapter 1
Montecito is packed with writers. Exceptional ones. So I’ve always thought this would be an ideal platform from which to give our readers a sneak peek of some of the yet-to-be-published novels generated by members of our community. And nothing brings a community together (in a good way) like reading the same good book. So, I’m excited to kick off the Montecito Journal Book Club with the perfectly titled novel: Montecito!
Michael Cox’s gripping (and close to home) novel, Montecito, seems like the perfect story with which to begin. Over the next month, we will run a consecutive weekly chapter of Cox’s novel in the Montecito Journal. Subsequently we will post a new chapter in each of our twice-weekly Morning Mojo newsletters. There’s enough real bad stuff in the world to think about. How about distracting ourselves with some fun summer reading that contains bad stuff that is written as fiction; but is it?
Montecito is a story that could only be written in Montecito! – Gwyn Lurie
I was once told, Montecito is “a sunny place for shady people,” and history suggests there is truth to this statement. The number of grifters, con artists, and fraudsters who have infiltrated our community only to leave it in handcuffs is startling. Like the good neighbors they pretend to be, these white-collar bandits cloak themselves in the vitality of our community — volunteering at the MUS carnival, attending bonfires at Hammond’s, trick or treating on Ghost Village Road, and hobnobbing at local charity galas. It is a well-thumbed playbook — as predictable as it is shocking.
Montecito, a novel by me, Michael Cox, is a fictional story inspired by tales of true crime THAT HAPPENED HERE. While con artists know no geographic borders, this is a story that could only be set in a rarified place like Montecito. When Gwyn Lurie and I first spoke about the idea of serializing this novel in the Montecito Journal before its publication, it made perfect sense. For better or worse, this is “our” story, and no one deserves a sneak peek more than Montecito’s residents. I hope you enjoy. – Michael Cox, Author Montecito
As the knickknacks and novelties which formerly adorned my office rattled unhappily in the trunk of my car, I wondered how different life would be if I had been born with the slightest understanding of when to keep my mouth shut. Nothing extraordinary mind you; an upgrade to average would suffice. Just enough to have the good sense to recognize when my opinion was not needed, when a point had been made, when to nod and smile instead of argue. Considering that this was the third time in the last seven years I had been told to clean out my office, it certainly couldn’t have hurt.
I took one of the many, many hairpin turns of Highway 192 a little too aggressively, sending my cardboard box of trinkets from one trunk sidewall to the other, causing a clatter distinctly similar to the sound of breaking glass. Perfect, I thought, picturing the one framed photo I had proudly displayed on my former desk: my daughter, Isabel, in braces, squinting into the sun; my son, Trip, in a Stephen Curry jersey that hung to his knees; my wife Cricket’s toned arms – tan from endless flip turns at the Los Baños Del Mar municipal pool – draped over them both. The bright, optimistic eyes of my family begging me for an explanation as I hastily packed their picture face down in the box o’ shame.
I was driving too fast because – in addition to getting fired and being escorted from my office by a rent-o-cop whose sole purpose seemed to be ensuring that I did not steal a stapler or a stack unused of Post-It notes on the way out — I was late. Late for my kids’ elementary school recital: the Spring Sing. I had already missed the beginning of the recital, but there was time to make the finale, which was the only other moment I could be noticed. I texted Cricket before I started the car: Running late, but I will be there. Don’t save my seat. Sorry. The rest of the news could wait.
My chosen route from downtown Santa Barbara to Montecito Union Elementary School was not for the faint of heart, especially when the driver was imitating a poorly trained Mario Andretti. Alternately known as Foothill, Mountain, Mission Ridge, Stanwood, Sycamore Canyon, or East Valley Road – depending on where a driver merged – Highway 192 was a quintessentially local road. Its twists, double-backs, unexpected stop signs, and inexplicable name changes had no explanation; it was a road you learned only by getting lost.
Twenty-five minutes after putting my Subaru Outback in drive, I walked past a rainbow of parked Teslas, Range Rovers, and BMW’s, through the school’s arched breezeway, and into the auditorium lobby, where all the other shamefully late parents crowded the doorway, craning their necks to see and be seen.
All except one, that is. Standing in the corner of the lobby with a cell phone pressed to his ear, was a dapperly suited man I had never seen before. He stood at least six-feet-four and paced a triangle while conducting an orchestra with his free hand; a hand that even from my distant vantage appeared disproportionately large. I could not hear his voice for the sound of the elementary singers, but it was safe to call the conversation animated.
I turned my attention back to the performance, hoping to find the eyes of my people.
Cricket would be sitting where she always sat: center section, five rows back, just behind the parents and grandparents who had purchased multi-thousand-dollar reserved seats at the school’s annual gala. I teetered on my tippy toes, finding the back of her head, her glistening chestnut hair reflecting the sunlight streaming from the auditorium’s windows. The chair next to her was still empty; I cringed. Cricket had left her job on time, arrived early, secured the seats, and then likely fended off inquiries from multiple parents. Sorry! It’s for Hollis, she would have said, defending the territory for my feckless honor. While the implications of my firing from my most recent employer, CryptoWallet, were still burgeoning and would not peak for days, the meaning of this smaller failing cracked me with the weight of an anvil.
Among the performers, I spotted Isabel, our sixth-grader, first. She was stage left, middle row, and appeared to be singing through giggles, though from my poor vantage I could only see one-half of her face. And then I caught sight of my son Trip’s right arm, waving from the top row of the stage right first-graders. Judging by the way his body swayed, he too was on his tippy toes, hoping to find the eyes of his people in the mass of parents. Found me he had, there among the truants. Again, as was becoming a pattern, I cringed.
Just as I raised my arm to return Trip’s wave, a gargantuan hand landed on my shoulder. “What have I missed?” I heard the hand’s owner say just as the unexpected weight of his appendage toppled me sideways into the diminutive woman to my right. My elbow came down on the top of her head, sending her iPhone clattering to the floor.
“What the hell, Hollis?” the woman groaned, both hands clasping the top of her head.
“I am so sorry,” I groveled. I did not know my victim’s name, but I recognized that I should have known it. “I …,” I looked back at the man whose massive hand had caused me to fall and recognized him as the same man who had been having the animated phone conversation in the corner of the lobby minutes earlier. He looked at me wide eyed, his hand hovering in the air like a satellite; I resisted the urge to lay blame. “I lost my balance,” I said.
She squeezed out an, “it’s ok,” through gritted teeth, then squatted to retrieve her iPhone.
I turned back toward the singers, attempting to pretend that I had not just executed a professional wrestler’s flying elbow on a fellow first-grade parent. When the coast was clear, the owner of the hand bent down to my height and repeated his whisper: “So, what have I missed?”
I took the stranger in for the second time that afternoon. On a good day, the man had four inches on me; today it felt more like a meter. With his wavy, blue-black hair, mocha skin, and impossibly white teeth, it was hard not to stare. His nose was Roman, his accent British with a pinch of Middle Eastern, his long fingers – now intertwined at his waist – were skeletal like those of Harry Potter’sDementors. “Not much,” I said, suspecting that he was not interested in a serious recounting of the recital’s milestones, though I was not sure; I was never sure.
“Cyrus. Cyrus Wimby,” he said, extending his tentacled hand.
“Nice to meet you,” I said, shaking his hand.
“And you are?
“Oh, sorry,” I said. “Hollis Crawford.”
“Shhhh!” said the woman who I had cracked in the head seconds earlier.
I shrunk at her admonition, cutting my eyes to Cyrus. He raised his eyebrows and shrugged. “You have a child performing today, my friend?” he whispered.
“Yes, two,” I whispered back. “A sixth-grader and a first-grader.” I began to point, then realized the futility. “You?”
“I have a first-grader as well,” he said. “What is your first-grader’s name?”
“His name is Trip,” I answered.
“How ironic!” Cyrus said, putting all thirty-two sterling teeth on display. “My daughter’s name is Priscilla; our children are in the same class.”
I exhaled reflexively. Remembering names was not one of my strengths. I knew none of Trip’s classmates’ names and almost none of Isabel’s, even though she had been a student at Montecito Union Elementary for six going on seven years. I had a fuzzy recollection of countless stories involving a disproportionate number of Sophias, Jacksons, and Rileys, but the individuals remained faceless. “Really?” I said, wondering whether I sounded aloof or clueless.
“I’m almost certain of it,” he said. “I never forget a name.”
“That makes one of us,” I said, which made him laugh.
“Tell me, Hollis,” he said. “Do you golf?”
“Are you a horseman?”
I was on the verge of cracking a joke about not being a horse-man, but instead a hu-man — a joke I was certain would have killed it — but I paused. Maybe just try to play it straight for once, Hollis, my inner voice, which resounded in Cricket’s dulcet, encouraging tone, counseled. “No. I don’t ride horses.” I answered.
He pursed his lips and shook his head. “Ok then. Do you like wine?”
No jokes here, but I did resist the urge to roll my eyes. I liked wine perfectly fine, but, in Santa Barbara County, liking wine in the colloquial sense was insufficient. People in Montecito and Santa Barbara did not just like wine, they owned wineries. Santa Ynez and Los Olivos — made famous by the book and movie Sideways — were a half hour away. Wine tasting rooms dotted Santa Barbara’s State Street and Montecito’s Coast Village Road. Wine, horses, boats, golfing, and surfing: these were not the mere pastimes of Santa Barbara County but its passions. And since I could not surf, did not enjoy riding horses, got seasick on boats, and possessed a golf game best suited to a Putt-Putt course, I defaulted to liking wine with just enough zeal to retain my local-in-good-standing badge. “Yes. I like wine,” I answered with an enthusiastic nod.
“Fabulous,” he said as the children finished their finale and the crowd rose for a standing ovation. “Bravo!” Cyrus hollered over the heads of the rest of us in the lobby, then put two pipe-sized fingers in his mouth for an ear-splitting whistle.
“Wine it is then,” he said, placing his palm back on my shoulder, his fingers reaching past my scapula. “Let us put a date on the calendar to get together for a glass.”
“Oh. Uh, ok,” I muttered. This was moving fast. Was I really progressing to a man date with this stranger? I needed Cricket by my side to interpret these otherwise hieroglyphic social cues. That was how our marriage partnership worked: Cricket was my high EQ, social butterfly, subtly translating the signals that were so obvious to everyone else. When it came to reading people, I was in the fog as Cricket kindly put it, and never more so than with this man and his colossal hands.
Cyrus removed his hand from my shoulder and thrust it back at my chest. I reflexively stuck out my hand only to see it swallowed in a two-handed sandwich. “Now, I must be off to find my wife in that crowd. She will not be happy that I abandoned her during Priscilla’s first school recital.”
“You and me both,” I said, amazed by the easy camaraderie I felt with this stranger. Unfortunately, his comment also reminded me of the ninety-nine percent of my day preceding this moment, and the painful conversations that still lay in front of me.
“Genevieve,” Cyrus hollered through cupped hands over the heads of the crowd now pushing toward us. “Gather Priscilla and I’ll meet you in the courtyard.”
Again, he turned to me: “See you soon, Hollis Crawford,” he said, and in two giant strides he was gone.