The Golden Ratio
Indio was not an early riser, especially after coming off a ten-day tour, but 11PM had been an early night for him and he was awake by nine. He showered and made himself as presentable as possible, given he’d packed only a t-shirt and toothbrush rolled up and strapped to his bike. His jeans were looking rough, but they were kind of supposed to. Staring at his reflection, he debated whether or not to shave, and in the end relented and bought a disposable razor from the motel’s office. Fingers for a comb. Motel bar soap for deodorant. When he was done, he felt like he was going to a job interview.
Which he was. According to Jesse, Rosa thought he was a violent drug-addled pervert. For Wynter’s sake, that one wayward photo notwithstanding, he would attempt to change the woman’s opinion.
He killed two hours with cable TV and free wifi, and shortly after midday rode up to Rosa’s imposing house. In one tall, narrow front window stood a small middle-aged woman, arms crossed, staring severely out at him. He removed his helmet and held her gaze just long enough to assure her, and reassure himself, that he wasn’t going to be intimidated by her.
Wynter came out to give him a hug.
“Are we in trouble?” he murmured in her ear.
“She doesn’t know. So far, so good.”
Inside, Wynter introduced him to Rosa. When he shook her hand, Rosa’s disapproving demeanor wavered. Jesse had described her as jittery, and perhaps that’s all it was. Or perhaps she was scared he was going to punch her. Less likely was that the clean-shaven look and bar soap were working their charms. She offered to take his jacket and spent a long time fussing with it on a hanger before stowing it in the closet under the stairs.
“There’s soup for lunch, if you’d like to join us.” Rosa went into the kitchen and moved a pot from the stove to a thick woven mat on the table. “Did you come up from Portland this morning?”
It was innocently asked, but Wynter threw him a look of alarm as they followed her to the kitchen. He decided to tell the truth, or part of it, so as not to complicate things if and when Rosa found them out.
“Rode up last night and stayed in a motel,” he said. “What a neat neighborhood. You got the river right there and a nice patch of woodland down the street next to the kids’ playground.”
Wynter pulled a face at him for being so conversational.
“Ah, yes. The city rejuvenated that park last year.” Rosa set the table with bowls and spoons, oblivious to Wynter’s confusion. “Wynter, would you please put that buttered bread under the grill?”
By the time they sat to eat, Rosa was waxing lyrical on the city’s various beautification projects.
“There’s a major graffiti problem in the strip mall a few blocks over.”
“They could build a couple of walls in the skatepark and let the kids go wild with their spray cans,” Indio said. “Might keep them away from other people’s walls.”
“What an interesting idea. I’ll mention that to Councilman Nguyen next week at church.”
Yep, he was glad he shaved this morning. Wynter looked increasingly uncomfortable as she slowly figured out what was going on.
“Good soup,” Indio said. “Did you make it, Rosa?”
“I made it,” Wynter snapped. “Rosa’s teaching me to cook. I made a huge batch last week and we froze it. It’s called mini… mini-stoney.”
“Minestrone, dear,” Rosa said, but she was looking at Indio. “An Italian classic.”
“Never had soup that wasn’t out of a can before.” Not strictly true, but close enough. “And I love what you ladies did with the toast.”
“Wynter, use your spoon like this.” Rosa demonstrated how to scoop up the soup. “Then, a gentle sip so you don’t make noise.”
Wynter copied her. “Rosa’s teaching me table manners.”
“Cool. Our big brother was always big on table manners.” May as well throw in a good word there. Caleb could use it. Indio took care to copy Rosa’s method for the rest of his bowl, competing with Wynter to make the quietest slurp. He won, because she kept snorting as she tried not to giggle. And then, every time she glanced at Rosa, her expression sobered and her eyes narrowed with suspicion.
“I noticed you have a spare helmet there on your bike,” Rosa said. “I’m afraid I can’t let Wynter ride, if that’s what you were planning.”
“I understand. I always carry the spare. Would you like a ride?”
Rosa actually blushed. “Goodness, I haven’t been on a motorcycle in twenty-five years. Thank you, but I think I’ll pass.”
“I have art homework,” Wynter told Indio. “Can you help me with it?”
“Sure.” Indio realized his elbows were on the table, which drew not the slightest hint of disapproval from Rosa, so he kept them there.
“I have to design a new school logo. They learned about fonts last year, so I missed all that.”
“Did I hear Wynter say you were studying design at Portland State?” Rosa asked him.
“Yes, ma’am. I’m taking art history, digital illustration, and typography this semester.”
Wynter’s brow shot up when he said ma’am, and Rosa blushed again. Damn, this was too easy.
After lunch, he sat in the front room with Wynter. He was supposed to be closely supervised, he recalled, which meant Rosa should be in the room, but she’d left them alone. While he sketched some ideas for Wynter’s project, she took out her phone.
“Are you paying attention?” he said. “I’m giving you a crash course on the golden ratio.”
“I’m texting Jesse.”
“To tell him Rosa’s acting weird around you.”
“I doubt Jesse cares.”
“Oh, he’ll care. I feel sick watching the two of you.”
“Don’t fight something that works to our advantage.”
Her phone pinged. “He says: I bet he reminds her of a bad boy crush from her past.”
“She did say she rode a motorcycle way back. As we know, only bad boys ride motorcycles.”
Wynter glared at him as she put her phone away. “Can you design a logo for the Clockwork Toys? Something quick. We’re gonna disband on June eighth.”
“What happens June eighth?”
“That’s the day after graduation.”
“How about you mock up your school logo using the golden ratio, and I’ll do something for your band.”
“Thank you.” She gave him a peevish look. She was really pissed about this Rosa thing.
Rosa came in a while later with a mug for him, and juice for Wynter.
“Coffee, Indio? Or if you prefer, I’m sure I have beer in the refrigerator in the garage.”
He gave his most charming smile. “Better stick to coffee. I’ll be on the bike in a few hours.”
“I’m sure one beer won’t be a problem.”
“Coffee’s fine, thanks. Smells good.”
He took a sip. Wynter watched him carefully, swirling the juice in her glass until Rosa left.
“Have you done my logo?” she demanded.
“Show me yours first.”
She twisted her book around to show him a spiral design with the school name written illegibly around the curve.
“You took the golden ratio thing a bit literally,” he said.
“Do you hate it?”
“I think you should stick to music.”
She grinned, taking it well. “Where’s my band logo, please?”
He slid his sketch over—a couple of interlaced cogwheels. She stared at it for a long time. It was a simple design that didn’t warrant such scrutiny.
“Do you hate it?” he said, mimicking her.
She glanced up with a quick smile that belied her startled expression. “Why did you do it like that?”
“Thought it was fairly obvious. Clockwork—gears and cogs…?”
She stared at it again, and he knew he’d triggered something. He remembered her weird description of a mechanical body, and what Jesse had said.
She really is a clockwork toy.
“Baby, if that’s no good I’ll think of something else.”
“No, it’s good. Does it use the golden ratio?” She was attempting a joke, but she looked spooked.
“Sure does. That’s why it looks balanced.” He drew a spiral over the design, showing where the key points touched.
“That’s clever,” she said flatly, fiddling with the braided cuff she always wore on her left wrist. “Who invented the golden ratio?”
“Some ancient Greek dude. Jesse would know.”
“Jesse doesn’t care much about art.”
“The golden ratio appears all over the place in nature. Ask him about fractals.”
Indio felt like he was having a conversation with a brick wall. She was talking but she was barely listening or thinking. He gently grasped her hand and brushed it aside, to stop the fiddling. Then he linked his fingers into hers and and drew her left hand slowly across the table toward him. Giving her time to resist. But she let him.
The cuff was hiding something. The obvious answer was scars from cutting or a suicide attempt. That wasn’t it. He barely knew her but he couldn’t imagine her doing that.
She drew a deep breath and met his eye. “It’s okay. You can look.”
The cuff had two bead buttons with a thread wound around them in a figure-8. He undid the thread and the cuff fell open. On her inner wrist was a tiny black cogwheel tattoo, smaller than a dime, with an X in the center. Not a professional job. The crooked lines added to its charm.
He ran his thumb over it, shaking his head, relieved to discover it wasn’t what he’d feared. She looked, relieved, too, that she’d been brave enough to show him.
“X marks the spot,” he joked. “Why d’you hide it?”
“Who drew it?”
“Just some boy.”
“Roman?” That was the only name she’d mentioned from Arizona. She shook her head and didn’t offer another name. “Has Caleb seen it?”
“No one’s seen it.”
“Caleb’s house rule number two hundred twelve: no tattoos.” He flashed her a smile to show he didn’t think it was a serious infraction in this case, although marking a girl with indelible ink seemed kind of serious to him. “You need to tell him about it. You need to get it checked out.”
“Tell him, please.” He squeezed her fingers and let go. “So—you were special to this boy, huh?”
Instead of answering, she said, “Do you have any tattoos?”
“Yeah, I’ll admit to one.”
“Can I see it?”
His brow went up, teasing her as he said, “No.” Well, not really teasing because he meant it.
“Is this one of those I’ll tell you when you’re older things?”
“Kinda.” It occurred to him that Rosa had probably seen it, if she’d thought to zoom in. Was she the type to zoom in?
“Jesse would show me.”
“Good for him.”
She propped her face on her hand, elbow on the table. “Is it… in a private place?”
“It’s somewhere easy to keep hidden, let’s put it that way.”
“Hidden from Caleb?”
He smirked. “As long as he’s funding my education, I figure I should follow his rules. Or most of them. Or… pretend to follow them.”
“Which other rules have you broken?”
He almost told her about the two arrests, the multiple charges, the suspended license. Almost. And found he didn’t have the courage to do it.
“Pretty much all of them, over the years.”
“Are there really more than two hundred?”
“Sure seems like it. No, the random numbering is a running joke. For the most part they’re good rules, so please don’t follow my example.”
“I won’t. Until I figure out what I’m doing here, I think following Caleb’s rules is probably for the best.” She closed the cuff and expertly laced it together, one-handed. “Thank you for our band logo.”
“Check if the others like it. I can always make changes.”
“I like it, so it’s approved.”
They had a couple of hours at the end of the day, before he had to leave, to sit with their guitars. Wynter started out slowly, shyly, but her confidence quickly built and she showed him the music she’d been working on. Because she hadn’t written lyrics or thought much about melody lines, she was writing melodic guitar parts to make up for it. Still riff-based, some of it pretty heavy, all of it tuneful. He was done being impressed with her—it was no longer a surprise. He was just happy to be throwing around ideas with another musician. They got into a groove and Indio started singing a repetitive line to the main riff.
“Is there more to that song?” she asked.
“No, just fooling around.”
“What would I write about, if I wrote lyrics?”
“I guess the standard answer is feelings.”
“I don’t like my feelings.”
That was a little blunter than he’d anticipated.
“You mean the dark stuff?” he ventured.
She nodded. “I like songs that are darker, like most of yours. But I can’t do it. I need to…” She ran her thumb down her sternum in an odd, unselfconscious gesture. “I need to keep the darkness down.”
He understood exactly what she meant. When he’d started writing songs at ten or eleven he’d felt the same way—when no one around him cared how he felt, it had taken time and persistence to find the words. His disinclination to persist with difficult things meant there still remained dark stuff lurking, unheard.
“Is it a struggle to keep the darkness down?” he said.
“Then you write about the struggle.”
“Hmm. That’s real personal.”
“That’s what it’s all about, baby. Writing is blood-letting—bleeding out all over the page, all over the stage, or you’re not doing it right.” He wasn’t doing it right, not yet.
“But then random strangers know all your dark pieces.”
“Not really. A good song can be interpreted in different ways. Let them think what they want. Don’t correct or verify their assumptions, and never explain yourself. You know my song Barely Hanging On?”
“It’s my favorite Blunderbelly song.”
“Jesse thinks it’s about Frances Feeney, my girlfriend in my junior year of high school. He didn’t like her, thought she was one of the ‘mean girls’. I was always justifying why she was so great. You wouldn’t believe the fights we had over that girl. He was younger than you are now, already thought he knew everything. I wrote the song about a year ago, and over this past Christmas, when I was in Seattle, Jesse decided the song was about Frances Feeney. He picked out all the lyrics to support his argument. You know what he’s like.”
“Jesse can always support his arguments.”
“No kidding. Anyway, it has nothing to do with her—she was the last thing on my mind. It’s about this creek in Anaconda that ran behind the streets in our neighborhood. When I was a little kid, I slipped down the bank in the middle of winter. The water wasn’t even that deep but the current and the cold dragged me down. I grabbed a branch and pulled myself out, but for a moment I thought I was gonna slide into the water and freeze to death. There was no one around to help me. Scariest few seconds of my life. That’s what the song’s about, and now only you know the truth.”
Wynter’s eyes grew wider as she listened to the story, but she wasn’t quite satisfied. “Why were you thinking about the creek a year ago when you wrote the song? Isn’t that when you were getting into trouble in Ohio? Maybe you felt like you were slipping into icy water, like you were barely hanging on with no one to help. Because, really, who writes a song about a kid slipping?”
She was a smart cookie.
“Look what you made me do,” he said, tapping her knee. “I went and explained myself, and already I’m in trouble. I’m gonna withdraw now and say—here’s where I don’t correct or verify your assumptions.”