Montecito: Chapter 2
Take a sneak peak of Montecito by Michael Cox, in this ongoing serialization of his yet-to-be-published book. This fictional story is inspired by “tales of true crime THAT HAPPENED HERE.” We have been introduced to the main character, Hollis Crawford, and his family at an MUS recital, where he has met the suave and intriguing Cyrus Wimby. Chapter 1 is available here. – MJ Staff
Montecito: Chapter 2
To her credit, Cricket took the news of my latest failure with remarkable grace. If I had shown a tenth as much decorum in the face of disappointing news, I might still be employed. Nevertheless, I could tell she was frustrated with me. For months, she had listened to my growing complaints about CryptoWallet cutting corners, lowering standards, and – her favorite – destroying product integrity – gently warning me that she had seen this movie several times before and that it did not have a happy ending. When I would get particularly frustrated, she would remind me that sometimes in life, one needs to get along to go along. I nodded in acquiescence even though I had no idea what the hell that meant.
Cricket’s trite suggestions were not recycled mom-speak. They were the cold truths of corporate survival. Iron laws that she had mastered while I – erstwhile family provider – stomped on the business end of a rake like a cartoon fool. This was the ironic twist to my professional narrative: I had tremendous skills, but Cricket was the far better entrepreneur, employee, and executive. She was quite literally my better half.
Desperate to be of some use to the family, I vowed to take over the role of getting the kids to school and picking them up until I found another paying gig. This modest offer would allow Cricket to rejoin the Masters swimming program at Los Baños Del Mar where she could pound water for seventy-five minutes before her workday began. Swimming was Cricket’s only private passion; she had been an All-American at the University of California Santa Barbara, adding better athlete to her list of marital superlatives. The water was her big blue pill, curing the occasional bad mood and always leaving her in higher spirits. Thanks to me, she needed all the big blue pills she could get.
My first day as the kids’ unpaid Sherpa was a Friday, but not just any Friday. It was a Friday Flag Day at Montecito Union Elementary, known locally as MUS. On Flag Day, instead of reporting directly to their classrooms, the kids would gather in the school’s central courtyard, sing the school song, hear a few announcements and perhaps a special presentation, then be off to their classrooms for the start of the day – all under the watchful eye of a surprisingly large group of parents who had nowhere else to be and plenty of time to get there.
“Sounds good,” I said to Cricket as she reminded me of this on her way out the door with her heavy swim bag over one shoulder and steely determination in her eyes.
She correctly decoded the why are you telling me this look on my face, adding, “if possible, parents are encouraged to stay for Flag Day.”
I stared back blankly.
“I want you there,” she clarified.
“Got it,” I said, practicing the go-with-the-flow attitude I so dearly needed to develop. But inside, I felt a rush of chauvinistic shame, imagining myself standing in a crowd of Montecito mommies while the other dads went into the fields, armed with bows and arrows to gather the day’s kill.
At breakfast, Trip presented me with a permission slip for the following week’s off-campus jaunt. “What are you kids doing?” I asked.
“Horseback riding,” he answered.
“Horse-what?” I replied incredulously, imagining ambulance-chasing lawyers licking their lips at the prospect of first-grade heirs to millionaire fortunes bouncing along the narrow trails in the Los Padres National Forest.
“Priscilla got a horse for her birthday,” Trip explained, “and her dad rented all the other horses so that we can all go riding!”
“Priscilla?” I asked, recognizing the name as vaguely familiar.
“Priscilla Wimby,” Isabel chimed in, balancing a cereal bowl, spoon, and gallon of milk atop a sideways-turned Cheerios box. “They’re, like, super rich.”
Wimby. That was the name of the gregarious man with the obscenely long fingers who seemingly tried to make friends with me in the lobby of the MUS auditorium; I did not forget people who tried to become my friend. Funny that I had never seen nor heard of Cyrus Wimby before yesterday, and now I had a two-day streak going.
“Do you want to go horse riding?” I asked Trip.
“Shuh, dad,” he said, repeating a new phrase of his sister’s.
“Then ride you shall,” I said, signing the permission slip with a flourish. Trip said ‘thank you’ while Isabel rolled her eyes at my dramatic flair. I was used to eliciting eye rolls, but Cricket had warned me that other emotions might be in play: she believed Isabel had already decoded my defeated body language for the signal that it was.
The kids finished their breakfast, brushed their teeth, announced they were ready to go, and then disappeared. I wandered the house calling their names to no answer. Then I walked out the front door and found them sitting in my Subaru. “Let’s go dad,” Trip called.
“We’re not driving. Out!” I demanded, waving them from the car like a traffic cop. “We live a mile from campus; it’s sunny out. We’re walking.” Groaning, they disembarked.
“The valet line is really easy, dad,” Trip said, reluctantly securing his backpack.
“Valet?” I repeated, my face a scowl.
“Yeah,” Isabel said. “All you have to do is pull up. The Assistant Principal and three teachers swarm the car, open the doors, unbuckle the little kids, and pull them out. It takes like ten seconds, and you don’t have to move a muscle. Easy peasy.”
“Yeah, dad,” Trip added, “It’s like one of those race cars getting new tires.”
My inner grumpy old man petitioned for a chance to speak. He wanted to lecture the kids about walking to school in snow; about yellow busses with no seatbelts controlled by seat-hoarding gangs. But I told the old man to put his hand down. The kids had heard his stories before, and I did not want to invite more eye-rolling from Isabel.
I kickstarted our walk with a litany of questions that received grunts and monosyllabic replies, but I was undeterred. I was a filibustering Senator, intent on stuffing every second of our one-mile journey with conversation, no matter the quality.
On our arrival, the scene at MUS on the morning of a bright blue Friday Flag Day was both surreal and expected. This was not my first rodeo, yet I always managed to banish the memory of MUS in its all-hands-on-deck glory as if it were a dream. Laughably, this was because – when I was still employed at CryptoWallet – I spent my days on the relative mean streets of Santa Barbara, Montecito’s larger, better-known northwestern neighbor. Despite the proximity, Montecito was a world unto itself. It was the sort of town where having an office job made you feel like an unaccomplished outcast. Young and old, Montecito was a town for those who had already made it, and MUS – one of the premier elementary schools in the state of California – was its centerpiece. The school’s average class size was fifteen students with two full-time teachers per classroom. The second graders got violins; cellos for fourth graders; personal computers for all. To Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, Rob Lowe, Ty Warner, and countless other millionaires whose property taxes funded this largess, Montecito’s parents of school-aged children prayed, thank you.
Of course, nothing is truly free. The hidden cost of MUS was imbedded in Montecito’s restaurants, boutiques, and – most noticeably – real estate. Nevertheless, Cricket and I decided it was worth the sacrifice. We put off our dreams of home ownership and rented a tiny, overpriced house as part of an eight-year plan to knuckle down for the kids.
It was a solid plan. A noble plan. Side note: no part of the eight-year plan provided for me getting fired three times. But, as I watched my fellow parents sip their soy lattés and cold pressed celery juices, sharing upcoming weekend plans and talking of last night’s Lumineers’ concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl, I was overwhelmed with an un-noble emotion: jealousy. Planting yourself in a place where you are destined to feel inadequate is not a recipe for good mental health.
Isabel and Trip joined their classes, sitting crisscross applesauce in the courtyard while the horde of parents stood, surrounding them like an amphitheater audience. A quick scan of the parents revealed my premonition about the mommies to be erroneous. There were more fathers in the audience than mothers; I was officially a neanderthal.
Flag Day began with the pledge of allegiance followed by the school song, a beautiful tune written for the school by Kenny Loggins of Footloose and “Danger Zone” fame. Only the best forMontecito.
MUS’s Principal took the microphone next, making announcements about the upcoming sixth grade play and new MacBook computers for the second graders. Then he turned the microphone over to the president of the school’s PTA, a whisp of a man born into real estate royalty and now making his name as a cannabis entrepreneur.
“The deadline for participating in our Annual Fund is only a week away,” Mr. PTA President began. “As you all know, the expected contribution is one thousand dollars per family. Of course, you are welcome to give more,” he paused for a few rolled-eye chuckles. “This year, I am proud to say that we have 92% participation at or above that one-thousand-per-family level!”
The parents and students clapped as expected, but I cowered. Cricket had been hounding me to write our check for the Annual Fund for weeks. Every time she mentioned it, I swore I would take care of it. I even had the gall to act like she was being a nag.
Needless to say, I had not taken care of it. I was one of the 8% of the school that had not met the expected contribution level, and worse, I had given nothing. I am sure some of my fellow scofflaws had given what they could, but how many had done zippo like me? Fair or not, I had to write that check. I would not feel comfortable on this campus ever again unless I did. But oh, how badly would that thousand-dollar drain feel now that I was unemployed.
Panic gurgled in my stomach. As great as this school was, as beautiful as this town was, as happy as my wife and children were here: I was failing.
I reflexively took a step back from the swarm of children as the school’s Computer Science teacher announced that two new 3D Printers and one new Laser Cutter machine would be fully operational in time for the upcoming Science Fair.
Another step back. I wanted to disappear; I needed to flee.
Another step back.
I crossed my arms over my chest and tucked my chin, shrinking from the crowd.
Another step back and then a yelp.
“Whoa there,” came the voice of the man whose toe I had just stepped on.
I turned, embarrassment lighting my face on fire. “I’m so sorry,” I muttered.
“It is no problem, my friend,” the man said, patting me gently on the shoulder with a hand the size of a palmetto frond: it was Cyrus Wimby.
I glanced down at his foot; size sixteen, at least. I felt slightly better about my mistake; it must happen to him all the time. As yesterday, Cyrus was dressed like a man who had business to attend to: wool slacks, polished cap toes, French-cuffed shirt with an English spread collar. By description, it was general business casual. But even a fashion dolt like me could tell that his clothes were elegant. He had accepted the tieless norm of a coastal California businessman, but that did not mean he had to look like a slouch.
I nodded – a normal shade of pasty returning to my face as I repeated my “sorry” – and turned back toward the sea of children.
“Yesterday it was that poor lady’s head,” Cyrus whispered in my ear, “today it is my foot. You’re a dangerous man, Hollis Crawford.”
Another cringe; the expression was becoming my default. Though I suspected Cyrus was joking, I wanted to crawl under a rock. “That was, uh, nice of you to invite the class to go horse riding at your, uh, stable,” I stammered, hoping to change the subject.
“Oh,” he shook his head. “We only have four horses. It is hardly a stable.”
Four horses seemed like a lot of horses to a horseless man, but I accepted his attempt at humility. “Well – still – thank you,” I whispered, making sure not to draw the ire of the art teacher who was excitedly informing the crowd of parents about the school’s new ceramics kiln.
“You are so welcome, my friend.” Each time I thought Cyrus’s grin could get no larger, his lips continued to spread. Was it possible that he had extra teeth? “We are new to town,” he continued. “It is hard on Priscilla to bounce her from place to place. We thought this might help her make new friends.”
“Where did you move from?” I asked, struck with sudden doubt about the appropriateness of ending my question with a preposition. This second guessing was out of character. After a lifetime of bewilderment, I had largely given up any attempt to manage how others perceived me. Not because I did not care, but because I could not solve the riddle. But now, I felt a strange urge to impress Cyrus Wimby, or, at least, to avoid giving him an easy reason to write me off.
“Most recently we were back in my native Saudi Arabia. Before that, we bounced between Shanghai and Beijing as I was setting up a new business enterprise. Before that, Paris, where I met my darling Genevieve.” He paused to pull a drawn-to-perfection creature from the crowd. “Sweetest,” he said, “this is Hollis Crawford.”
I stuck out my hand; she brushed past it to kiss my cheek.
“Enchanté,” Genevieve said. “Lovely to meet you.”
I blushed again, this time like a teenager who thinks there is something intimate about a cheek-kiss greeting. Genevieve was at least a foot shorter than Cyrus, but, perched atop a pair of ankle-breaking wedge espadrilles, she managed to cut the gap by one-third. In contrast to most of the moms, she was not dressed for Pilates; she looked plucked from the pages of ELLE. “Nice to meet you too,” I said, her perfume of star jasmine sending my eyes darting left and right for a flowering vine.
The crowd of children erupted in applause. Without my paying attention, Flag Day was officially over.
“This is the man I met yesterday,” Cyrus said to Genevieve. “His son, Trip, is in Priscilla’s class. He and I were having such a great conversation that I lost track of time and missed out on the end of the recital.” With that, he turned his head back toward me and gave me a nearly imperceptible wink.
Even from the fog, I understood the meaning of his wink. For reasons that defied logic, Cyrus Wimby was pulling me into his confidence.
“How lovely,” Genevieve said. “Priscilla raves about Trip.”
“I said the same thing, my dear,” Cyrus added.
“Who is your wife, Hollis?” Genevieve asked. “Do I know her?”
“Well, probably,” I answered. “Her name is Cricket, and–”
“Oh my, Cyrus!” Genevieve said, grabbing her husband by the elbow. “Cricket! She’s the one I was telling you about. The adorable room mother for Priscilla’s class. Oh, Hollis,” she turned her eyes back to me, “I have been dying to get to know your wife. Do you have plans for this Sunday afternoon? We are hosting a dinner party, and we would love the pleasure of your family’s company.”
“Oh,” I said, my eyes wide. Cricket managed our social lives, briefing me only when necessary. This was efficiency at its finest as I almost never made plans for anything. “I’m … I’m not sure,” I stammered, turning my eyes back to Cyrus, pleading for man-to-man help.
“Your wife is named Cricket?” he asked, ignoring my SOS. “Is that her given name?”
“Stop it right this instant, Cyrus!” Genevieve said, slapping him with the back of her hand. “I won’t have that rudeness.”
Cyrus put his hands to his heart, feigning a wound. “My deepest apologies, Hollis.”
“No offense taken,” I said, “at least, not by me. Cricket is indeed her given name, and she wears it well.”
Genevieve grabbed both of my hands as if we were about to Dosey Doe. “So, you’ll come on Sunday? Really, you must.”
I did not enjoy being touched by strangers, and between the kiss hello and the hand holding, the hairs on my arms were saluting the heavens. Despite the discomfort, I managed to smile and nod affirmatively, hoping Cricket would be pleased by my foray into social planning.
Cyrus’s phone rung. He whipped it from his pocket. “Apologies, I must answer this. It’s after midnight in Shanghai, so this call must be urgent.” He pushed the receive button then placed the phone to his chest, hooking Genevieve’s arm to leave. “It’s settled then. Our place at 5 pm on Sunday.” He returned the phone to his ear and gently tugged Genevieve’s arm as the pair walked away.