Last call, p.1
Last Call, p.1Tim Powers
For Gloria Batsford
With heartfelt thanks for more than a decade’s worth of help and advice and great dinners and sociable friendship; may we all have many decades more.
And with thanks, too, to Chris and Theresa Arena, Mike Autrey, Beth Bailey, Louigi Baker, Jim Blaylock, Lou and Myrna Donato, Don Ellison, Mike Gaddy, Russ Galen, Keith Holmberg, Don Johnson, Mike Kelley, Dorothea Kenney, Dana Kunkel, Scott Landre, Jeff Levin, Mark Lipinski, Joe Machuga, Tim McNamara, Steve and Tammie Malk, Dennis Meyer, Phil Pace, Richard Powers, Serena Powers, Randal Robb, Betty Schlossberg, Ed Silberstang, Carlton Smith, Ed and Pat Thomas, and Marv and Carol and Rex Torrez.
1948: A CASTLE IN THE WASTELAND
“I’ll Still Have You, Sonny Boy”
No Smell of Roses
Good Night. Sleep Peacefully…
The People in Doom Town
A Real Clear Flash
Chasing the White Line
We’re Now Thirteen
It’s All Yours
Just Back from the Dead
The Only Fat Man I Know About
Irrigating the Cavity
How Did I Kill Myself?
To the Chapel Perilous
Come Back Here on New Year’s Day, You See Nothing but Dirt
Toward the Terminal Response
What Would Your Husband Say to That?
God, There’s a Jack!
The Sound of Horns and Motors
A Skinny Man Trying to Get Out
Isis, I Have Your Son
Old Images Out of the Ruins
Go Ahead and Shape It into a Pig
Fragments of the Book of Thoth
And You’ve Saved Yourself for Me
Thanks a Million, Diana!
I Don’t Mind the Car, but Could We Go Now?
The Play of the Hands
Bedtime at Last
Mr. Apollo Junior Himself
Work Up to Playing with Trash
Did You Meet Your Father at the Train Station?
Get In Close
I’ve Got a Present for Scott, Too
The Partition of Poland—1939
Some Kind of Catholic Priest?
A Dead Guy Who You Don’t Know Who He Is
Not the Skinny Man
Combination of the Two
Bolt-Hole and Hidey-Hole
Beam Me Up, Scotty
Pot’s Not Right
The Hand Under the Gun
No Use Taking Half a Dose
We’re Now Thirteen
The Flying Nun
I’LL STILL HAVE YOU
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
OTHER BOOKS BY TIM POWERS
ABOUT THE PUBLISHER
1948: A CASTLE IN THE WASTELAND
In March of 1951, testifying before the Kefauver Senate Crime Investigating Committee, Virginia Hill stated that Siegel had told her the Flamingo Hotel was “upside down”—though she was able to cast no light on what he might have meant by that statement.
—COLIN LEPOVRE, Siegel Agonistes
And upside down in air were towers
Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours
And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.
—T. S. ELIOT. The Waste Land
Son, I have seen the good ship sail
Keel upward, and mast downward, in the heavens,
And solid turrets topsy-turvy in air…
—ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON. Idylls of the King
“I’ll Still Have You, Sonny Boy”
Georges Leon held his little boy’s hand too tightly and stared up from under his hatbrim at the unnaturally dark noon sky.
He knew that out over the desert, visible to any motorists along the lonelier stretches of Boulder Highway, the rain would be twisting in tall, ragged funnels under the clouds; already some flooding had probably crept across the two lanes of Highway 91, islanding the Flamingo Hotel outside town. And on the other side of the earth, under his feet, was the full moon.
The Moon and the Fool, he thought desperately. Not good—but I can’t stop now.
A dog was barking a block or two away, in one of these alleys or parking lots. In spite of himself, Leon thought about the dog that appeared on the Fool card in the Tarot deck and the dogs that in Greek mythology accompanied Artemis, the goddess of the moon. And of course, the picture on the Moon card generally showed rain falling. He wished he were allowed to get drunk.
“We’d better be heading for home, Scotty,” he told the boy, keeping the urgency out of his voice only with some effort. Get this done, he thought.
Palm fronds rattled overhead and threw big drops down onto the pavement.
“Home?” protested Scotty. “No, you said—”
Guilt made Leon gruff. “You got a fancy breakfast and lunch, and you’ve got a pocketful of punched chips and flattened pennies.” They took a few more steps along the puddled pavement toward Center Street, where they’d be turning right toward the bungalow. The wet street smelled like dry white wine. “I’ll tell you what, though,” he said, despising himself for making an empty promise, “tonight after dinner this storm will have cleared up, and we can drive out of town with the telescope and look at the stars.”
The boy sighed. “Okay,” he said, trotting along to keep up with his father, his free hand rattling the defaced chips and pennies in his pocket. “But it’s gonna be a full moon. That’ll wash everything else out, won’t it?”
God, shut up, Leon thought. “No,” he said, as though the universe might be listening and might do what he said. “No, it won’t change a thing.”
Leon had wanted an excuse to stop by the Flamingo Hotel, seven miles outside of town on 91, so he had taken Scott there for breakfast.
The Flamingo was a wide three-story hotel with a fourth-floor penthouse, incongruously green against the tan desert that surrounded it. Palm trees had been trucked in to stand around the building, and this morning t
Leon had let a valet park the car, and he and Scott had walked hand in hand along the strip of pavement to the front steps that led up to the casino door.
Below the steps on the left side, behind a bush, Leon had long ago punched a hole in the stucco and scratched some symbols around it; this morning he crouched at the foot of the steps to tie his shoe, and he took a package from his coat pocket and leaned forward and pitched it into the hole.
“Another thing that might hurt you, Daddy?” Scott asked in a whisper. The boy was peering over his shoulder at the crude rayed suns and stick figures that grooved the stucco and flaked the green paint.
Leon stood up. He stared down at his son, wondering why he had ever confided this to the boy. Not that it mattered now.
“Right, Scotto,” he said. “And what is it?”
“Right again. You hungry?”
“As a bedbug.” This had somehow become one of their bits of standard dialogue.
The desert sun had been shining in through the windows, glittering off the little copper skillets the fried eggs and kippered herrings were served in. The breakfast had been “on the house,” even though they weren’t guests, because Leon was known to have been a business associate of Ben Siegel, the founder. Already the waitresses felt free to refer openly to the man as “Bugsy” Siegel.
That had been the first thing that had made Leon uneasy, eating at the expense of that particular dead man.
Scotty had had a good time, though, sipping a cherry-topped Coca-Cola from an Old Fashioned glass and squinting around the room with a worldly air.
“This is your place now, huh, Dad?” he’d said as they were leaving through the circular room that was the casino. Cards were turning over crisply, and dice were rolling with a muffled rattle across the green felt, but Leon didn’t look at any of the random suits and numbers that were defining the moment.
None of the dealers or croupiers seemed to have heard the boy. “You don’t—” Leon began.
“I know,” Scotty had said in quick shame, “you don’t talk about important stuff in front of the cards.”
They left through the door that faced the 91, and had to wait for the car to be brought around from the other side—the side where the one window on the penthouse level made the building look like a one-eyed face gazing out across the desert.
The Emperor card, Leon thought now as he tugged Scotty along the rain-darkened Center Street sidewalk; why am I not getting any signs from it? The old man in profile, sitting on a throne with his legs crossed because of some injury. That has been my card for a year now. I can prove it by Richard, my oldest son—and soon enough I’ll be able to prove it by Scotty here.
Against his will he wondered what sort of person Scotty would have grown up to be if this weren’t going to happen. The boy would be twenty-one in 1964; was there a little girl in the world somewhere now who would, otherwise, one day meet him and marry him? Would she now find somebody else? What sort of man would Scotty have grown up to be? Fat, thin, honest, crooked? Would he have inherited his father’s talent for mathematics?
Leon glanced down at the boy, and wondered what Scotty found so interesting in the rain-drabbed details of this street—the lurid red and blue hieroglyphs of neon in tiny round bar windows, the wet awnings flapping in the rainy breeze, cars looming like submarines through the filtered gray light….
He remembered Scotty batting at the branches of a rosebush during a brightly sunlit walk around the grounds of the Flamingo a few months ago and piping out, “Look, Daddy! Those leaves are the same color as the city of Oz!” Leon had seen that the bush’s leaves were instead a dusted dark green, almost black, and for a few moments he had worried about Scotty’s color perception—and then he had crouched beside the boy, head to head, and seen that the underside of each leaf was bright emerald, hidden to any passerby of more than four feet in height.
Since then Leon had paid particular attention to his son’s observations. Often they were funny, like the time he pointed out that the pile of mashed potatoes on his plate looked just like Wallace Beery; but once in a while, as had happened at lunch today, he found them obscurely frightening.
After breakfast, while the sun had still been shining and these rain clouds were just billowy sails dwarfing the Spring Mountains in the west, the two of them had driven the new Buick to the Las Vegas Club downtown, where Leon held an eight-dollar-a-day job as a Blackjack dealer.
He had cashed his paycheck and taken fifty cents of it in pennies, and had got the pit boss to let Scotty have a stack of the old worn chips that the casino defaced by die-punching a hole through the centers, and then they had walked to the tracks west of the Union Pacific Depot, and Leon had shown his son how to lay pennies on the tracks so that the Los Angeles-bound trains would flatten them.
For the next hour or so they ran up to lay the bright coins on the hot steel rails, scrambled back to a safe distance to wait for a train, and then, after the spaceship-looking train had come rushing out of the station and howled past and begun to diminish in the west, tiptoed out to the track where the giant had passed and tried to find the featureless copper ovals. They were too hot to hold at first, and Leon would juggle them into his upended hat on the sand to cool off. Eventually he had said that it was time for lunch. The clouds were bigger in the west now.
They drove around, and found a new casino called the Moulin Rouge in the colored neighborhood west of the 91. Leon had not even heard that such a place was being built, and he didn’t like colored people, but Scotty had been hungry and Leon had been impatient, so they had gone in. After Scotty had been told that his flattened pennies wouldn’t spin the wheels of the slot machines, they went to the restaurant and ordered plates of what turned out to be a surprisingly good lobster stew.
After Scotty had eaten as much as he could of his, he shoved the sauce out to the rim of the plate; through the mess at the center peeked the harlequin figure that was apparently the Moulin Rouge’s trademark.
The boy had stared at the white face for a moment, then looked up at his father and said, “The Joker.”
Georges Leon had shown no expression as he followed his son’s gaze to the face on the plate. The androgynous harlequin figure did resemble the standard Joker in a deck of cards, and of course he knew that the Joker was the only member of the Major Arcana figures to survive the truncation of the seventy-eight-card Tarot deck to the modern fifty-three-card playing card deck.
In previous centuries the figure had been called the Fool, and was portrayed dancing on a cliff edge, holding a stick and pursued by a dog, but the Joker and the Fool were unarguably the same Person.
A piece of lobster obscured one of the grinning figure’s eyes.
“A one-eyed Joker,” Scotty had added cheerfully.
Leon had hastily paid the bill and dragged his son out into the rainstorm that had swept into town while they’d been eating. They’d driven back as far as the Las Vegas Club, and then, feeling conspicuous in the big car, Leon had insisted on leaving it there and putting on their hats and walking the few blocks back through the dwindling rain to the bungalow on Bridger Avenue that was their home.
Scott’s eighteen-year-old brother, Richard, was on the roof, scanning the nearby streets and housefronts when they walked up, and he didn’t glance down when they unlocked the front door and went inside.
Leon’s wife was standing in the kitchen doorway, and the smile on her thin, worn face seemed forced. “You two are home early.”
Georges Leon walked past her and sat down at the kitchen table. He drummed his fingers on the Formica surface—his fingertips seemed to vibrate, as if he’d been drinking too much coffee. “It started raining,” he said. “Could you get me a Coke?” He stared at his drumming hand, noting the gray hairs on the knuckles.
Donna obediently opened the refriger
Perhaps encouraged by the drumming, or trying to dispel the tension that seemed to cramp the air in the room, Scotty ran over to where his father sat.
“Sonny Boy,” Scotty said.
Georges Leon looked at his son and considered simply not doing this thing that he had planned.
For nearly twenty years Leon had worked toward the position he now held, and during all that time he had managed to see people as no more a part of himself than the numbers and statistics that he had used to get there. Only today, with this boy, had he begun to suspect the existence of cracks in his resolve.
He should have suspected the cracks earlier.
The boat trips on Lake Mead had been strategy, for instance, but he could see now that he had enjoyed the boy’s enthusiasm for baiting hooks and rowing; and sharing some of his hard-learned advice about cards and dice had become, as he should have noticed, more a father sharing his skills with his son than mere cold precautions.
Donna clanked the bottle down in front of him, and he took a thoughtful sip of Coke.
Then, imitating the voice of the singer they’d seen in the lounge at the Las Vegas Club one night, he said, “‘Climb up on my knee, Sonny Boy.’”
Scotty complied happily.
“‘When there are gray skies…’” Leon sang.
Last Call by Tim Powers / Fantasy / Horror / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes