Last call, p.20
Last Call, p.20Tim Powers
Link the yin and yang, she thought, the yoni and the lingam. Other cabdrivers had told her she wasn’t the only one getting a disproportionate number of solo fares to the chapels in the last two weeks. All sorts of people wanted to go to the places, and when they got there, they just stood around in the little offices, staring in a lost way at the ELOPED and HITCHED and WED 90 license plates on the walls and reading the laminated Marriage Creed plaques.
It was as if there were a slowly increasing vibration in the sky and the land, something that had to do with a combining of maleness and femaleness, and on some subconscious level these people felt it. No doubt the bar joints and parlor houses out along the 95 and the 93 and the 80 highways were also getting more visitors than usual.
But that thought brought back memories of DuLac’s outside Tonopah, and of her brother, and of the room with twenty-two paintings on the walls—and she stomped the accelerator and made a left against the light, speeding down Main to Bridger.
“Jesus,” said her fare, “I’m not in a hurry.”
“Some of us are,” she told him.
Only one side of Snayheever’s license plate was screwed down, so it was easy to swing the plate aside and fit the head of the crank through the hole cast in the bumper.
He spread his feet on the pavement and whirled the crank, leaning into it. The engine didn’t start, though the back seam of his old corduroy coat, the one he thought of as his James Dean coat, tore a little more. At least he didn’t seem to be having any of his involuntary twitches; his tardive dyskinesia was quiet tonight.
Cars were honking behind him, and he knew that meant that the drivers were angry, but the people on the sidewalk seemed to be cheerful. “Lookit the guy with the wind up car!” yelled one. “Careful you don’t break the spring!”
“I’d hate to wind up a car,” said a woman with him, laughing.
On the second spin the car started. Snayheever got back in, clanked it into first gear, and drove across Sixth Street toward the El Cortez. He had been driving around the downtown area for nearly an hour before he stalled, and he still wasn’t having any luck in tracking the place where the moon lived.
But the half-moon was still up, though low in the west, and he watched for clouds and paid attention to the wind and any debris it might carry.
Snayheever knew why he had not ever become a great Poker player. Great Poker players had a number of qualities: knowledge of the chances, stamina and patience, courage and “heart”…and, maybe most important of all, the ability to put themselves inside the heads of their opponents, to be able to tell when the opponent was chasing losses, or letting injured ego do the playing, or faking loose or tight play.
Snayheever couldn’t put himself into their heads.
The men Snayheever had played with had all seemed to be…atoms. That is, indistinguishable from one another, and emitting things—atoms emitted photons, and players emitted…passes and checks and bets and raises—without any pattern or system or predictability. Sometimes, Snayheever thought as he drove across Fremont, atoms emitted beta particles, and sometimes players emitted all-in raises or turned up Straight Flushes. All you could do was retreat and lick your wounds.
It was different when he was dealing with things—river and highway patterns, and the arrangement of mismatched jigsaw puzzle pieces, and the postures and motions of clouds. He was sure he’d be able to read tea leaves if he were ever faced with cup of them, and he felt he understood the Greeks—or whoever it had been—who had foretold the future by looking at animal entrails.
Sometimes the people he met seemed like the recorded ladies who spoke to him on the telephone when he needed to know what time it was. But things had a real voice, albeit a far and faint one, like what comes through a telephone if someone has unscrewed the earpiece and taken out the diaphragm disk.
There was someone at home behind the constantly shifting arrangements of things. And who else could his mother be?
He hoped that reincarnation was true, and that after he died as an unconnected human, he might come back as one of the infinity of connected things. He thought of what the woman on the sidewalk had said when he’d been cranking the car’s motor: I’d hate to wind up a car.
You could, he thought now as he turned left to zigzag through the downtown section again, do a lot worse than to wind up a car.
Half a mile southwest of Snayheever, the gray Jaguar was tooling east on Sahara Avenue.
Skinny man waiting to get out.
Vaughan Trumbill’s mouth turned down at the pouchy corners as he remembered the remark. The young woman had had something to do with physical fitness; she guided people in exercises, he believed.
In the back seat of the Jaguar the old Doctor Leaky body mumbled something.
Betsy Reculver was sitting back there beside the old man. “I think he said south,” she said, her voice scratchy.
“Okay,” said Trumbill. He spun the wheel and turned the Jaguar right, from Sahara onto Paradise, east of the Strip. For a while they drove between wide, empty dirt lots under electric lights.
The woman had wanted to get him to join some diet program. Clients, he gathered, were given little bags of dried foods to boil. The idea was to lose weight and not regain it.
I just know that somewhere inside you is a skinny man waiting to get out.
She had said it with a laugh, and a crinkling of the eyes, and a hand on his forearm—to show affection, or sympathy, or caring.
Reculver was now sniffing irritably. “I forget what you said. Is that—that Diana person coming here?”
“I have no reason to think so,” Trumbill said patiently. “The man on the telephone said he knew her, and I got the impression that she lived locally, there, in southern California. Our people have been monitoring Crane’s house since early Friday, and his telephone since Saturday dawn. I’ll hear if they’ve made any progress at locating her, and she’ll be killed if we can find her.”
Reculver shifted in the back seat, and Trumbill heard the click as she bit one of her nails. “She’s still there, then. In California. With the game coming up again I’m real sensitive—I’d have felt her cross the Nevada line like I was passing a kidney stone.”
Trumbill nodded, still thinking about the young woman at the party.
He had made himself smile, and had said, Would you come with me, please? He had taken her by the arm then and led her out of the lounge to the hall, where a couple of the casino security guards stood. They had recognized him. These men will see that you get home, Trumbill had told her. She had gaped at him, taking a moment to realize that he was evicting her from the party, and then she had started to protest; but at Trumbill’s nod the guards had taken her out toward the cab stand. Of course she hadn’t meant any harm, but Trumbill wasn’t going to let even an unknowing idiot thrust that particular card at him.
“That jack, and that fish, are over the line, though,” Reculver said. “I felt them both, at nearly the same time. I wonder if the fish is this Crane fella, coming on his own.”
“It’s possible,” said Trumbill stolidly, ready to parry any suggestions that it was his fault that Crane hadn’t been captured.
But for a while they drove in silence.
“My nerves are bad tonight,” said Reculver, softly from the back seat. She was apparently talking to the old body next to her. “Yes, bad. Stay with me. Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak. What are you thinking of? What thinking? What? I never know what you are thinking. Think.”
Old Doctor Leaky shifted and giggled. Trumbill couldn’t imagine what the two of them got out of this game, this shared reciting of T. S. Eliot poetry.
“I think we are in rats’ alley,” the old man said in his sexless voice, “Where the dead men lost their bones.”
A skinny man trying to get out. Trumbill honked the car horn in a jarring da-daaaaaa-dat at an inoffensive Volkswagen.
“Do you know nothing?” Reculver was apparently still reciting, but her vo
Trumbill glanced in the rearview mirror. Doctor Leaky was sitting upright with his hands on his knees, expressionless. “I remember,” the old man said, “Those are pearls that were his eyes.”
Reculver sighed. “Are you alive, or not?” she asked softly, and Trumbill, not knowing any poems at all, couldn’t tell if she was still reciting or just talking…nor, if she was talking, to whom. “Is there nothing in your head?”
“And we shall play a game of chess,” said the old body, “pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.”
Paradise Road was dark here, south of the neon red-streaked tower of the Landmark, and most of the traffic was southbound taxis heading for the big casinos and avoiding the Strip traffic.
“I…don’t sense them now,” said Reculver. “They might both of them be in town now, and other fish and jacks, too, and I wouldn’t know. Too close, like blades of grass right in front of your binocular lenses. Did you meet anyone, Vaughan? Did you make any—any deals you haven’t told me about?”
“No, Betsy,” said Trumbill. She had told him what to say to her when she got like this. “Remember what you read about paranoia in elderly women,” he said. All of us in this car are just reciting things tonight, he thought. “And about fluid intelligence versus crystallized intelligence. It’s like RAM and ROM in computers. Young people got the one; old people got the other. Think about it.”
“I can’t think. I’m all alone. I have to do everything myself, and—and the Jacks could be anywhere.”
On to phase two, thought Trumbill. “Is Hanari awake?”
“Why should he be awake? Do you know what time it is?”
“I think you should step into his head and look around from there.”
“What’s wrong?” she demanded loudly. “I’m not going into his head! I’m not even going to think about him! Has he had a breakdown? Are you trying to trap me in something like this?” She slapped Doctor Leaky, who just giggled and farted loudly.
Trumbill hoped the old lady would last the two weeks until Easter. He rolled down his window. “You’re not thinking clearly right now,” he said. “You’re upset. Anybody would be. And you’re tired, from handling everything by yourself. But right now is when you’ve got to be extra alert, and the Art Hanari body is calm and well rested. And wouldn’t it be a relief to be a man again for a little while?”
Trumbill turned right onto the dark emptiness of Sands Avenue, driving now between houses and apartments, the Mirage a glowing golden monolith visible over the low buildings ahead. He wondered whether Betsy Reculver had taken his advice or was simply not speaking to him. He sighed.
A skinny man.
Trumbill was sixty years old now, and he didn’t want to lose his position. With Reculver he had his garden and his tropical fish and the arrangements for how his body was to be disposed of when he should eventually die. Among strangers none of those things would be assured, especially that most important last item. Isaac Newton would be able to get at him after all, with his damned Second Law of Thermodynamics, and—and uniformize him, grind off the serial numbers and scavenge away all the customizations, the extra mirrors and fog lamps and seat covers, as it were. Then there’d be just the equivalent of a stripped frame in a fenced-in lot stacked full of other stripped frames.
All indistinguishable from one another.
Any differences that can be taken away, he thought with a shudder, could never have been real differences to begin with. He flexed his massive forearms, knowing that the tattoos were rippling under the cloth.
The cellular telephone buzzed, and he picked it up. “Hello.”
“Vaughan, this is me, in the Hanari. Of course that was all nonsense, all that stuff I was saying. Listen, have I been bathing enough?”
It had never quite ceased to startle Trumbill when the boss did the body switch, apparently as effortlessly as someone shifting in a chair so as to look out a different window.
“Bathing,” said Trumbill. “Sure.”
“Well, watch me. I read that old ladies sometimes forget about cleanliness. Listen, we’re not going to find them tonight. Let’s head back to the house.”
“Back to the house,” Trumbill repeated.
Doctor Leaky yawned. “But at my back from time to time I hear,” he said, “The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring.”
Trumbill heard the Art Hanari body’s flat ha-ha-ha laugh. Reculver had once told him that laughing that way didn’t produce wrinkles. And then the Hanari voice began singing:
“O the moon shines bright on Mrs. Porter
And on the daughter
Of Mrs. Porter.
They wash their feet in soda water
And so they oughter
To keep them clean.”
Trumbill hung up the phone and drove with both chubby hands on the wheel.
The moon had gone down by the time the woman walked out of the bright entrance of the Smith Market on Maryland Parkway, and the sky behind the Muddy Mountains was pale blue. She shuffled tiredly out across the parking lot to a tan Mustang, got in, started it up, and drove out of the lot, turning north on Maryland.
North of Bonanza she passed a dark blue Suburban heading south; she didn’t glance at it, and the three men in it were oblivious of her.
But the high walls and the parking lots of the city echoed briefly to a faint, harsh shout, a grating exclamation that coughed out of the plaster throats of the Roman and Egyptian statues in front of Caesars Palace, and the southern belles and ship’s officers on the deck of the Holiday Casino, and the Arabs on the stone camels in front of the Sahara, and the miner crouched over a panful of gold-colored light bulbs on the roof of the Western Village souvenir store, and from the plywood necks of the two smiling figures in front of the dealer’s school on Charleston, and from the steel crossbeam in the neck of Vegas Vic, the five-story-tall man-shaped structure that towered over the roof of the Pioneer; and the neon-lit paddle wheels on the riverboat facades of the Holiday Casino and the Showboat and the Paddlewheel shivered for a moment in the still air of pre-dawn, shaking dust down into the blue shadows, as if about to begin to move.
And thirty miles to the southeast, beside the curl of the U.S. 93 Highway just short of the arching crest of Hoover Dam, the two thirty-foot-high Hansen bronzes flexed their upswept wings and shifted slightly on their black diorite bases. The star chart inlaid in the terrazzo pavement at their feet vibrated faintly as it reflected the depths of the dawn sky.
From Lost City Cove and the Little Bitter Wash at the north end of the Overton Arm, through the broad basin named for and dominated by the giant square monolith known as the Temple, and out to the farthest reaches of Grand Wash to the east and Boulder Basin to the west, the vast surface of Lake Mead shivered with a thousand tiny random tides, rousing for a moment sleeping vacationers aboard the countless rented houseboats.
And in the mountainside below the Arizona Spillway, the water in the dam’s steel penstocks shook with momentary turbulence, and the technicians in the big control room noted the momentary irregularity in the hydroelectric power through the step-up transformers below the dam, as the blades and stay-vanes of the electric generators hesitated for a moment before resuming normal rotation of the turbines.
On the broad concrete gallery below the dam an engineer felt a tremor and glanced up at the seven-hundred-foot-tall afterbay face of the dam and had to look twice to dispel the illusion that the face was rippled like a natural cliff, and that there was a figure on the wall way up at the top, dancing.
Diana Ryan had changed out of her red Smith Market uniform into a green sweat suit, and now she was sipping a glass of cold Chardonnay and reading the Las Vegas Review Journal. She would try the old man’s number again in a little while. It was Sunday morning, and if
She heard the master bedroom door open, and then water running in the bathroom, and then Hans shambled into the kitchen, blinking in the sunlight slanting through the window. His beard was pushed up into an odd curl on one side.
“You’re up early,” she said. Now she wished she had tried the call as soon as she had got home.
“It’s later than it looks,” Hans said. “Daylight savings is sleep time losings, in the spring.” He plugged in the coffee machine and then sat down in the vinyl-covered chair across from her. She had finished with the Metro section of the paper, and he slid it to his side and stared at it.
Diana waited for people-are-bloody-ignorant-apes. He had said he’d be working on his screenplay last night, and the glow of his late-night inspirations had always become resentment by morning.
She could hear Scat and Oliver moving around now, and she finished her wine and stood up to rinse the glass and put it away before they came out.
“Don’t tell me how to raise my kids,” she said to Hans, who had of course opened his mouth to speak. “And I know you didn’t say a word.”
Hans knew enough not to roll his eyes, but he sighed softly as he looked back down at the paper.
She crossed to the telephone and punched in the number again, impatiently brushing long strands of blond hair out of her face with her free hand. While she stood there listening to the distant phone ring, the boys came into the kitchen and hauled out boxes of cereal and a carton of milk.
She turned to look at them. Scat was wearing his Boston Red Sox T-shirt, and Oliver had on the camouflage undershirt that she thought emphasized his belly. Oliver gave her what she thought of as his sarcastic look, and she knew Hans must have rolled his eyes at the boy.
Hans is just not father material, she thought as the repetitive ringing went on in her ear. Where’s…Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner? Even Homer Simpson.
Hans was shaking his head over some article. “People are bloody ignorant apes,” he said. Diana believed it was a line from Waiting for Godot.
Last Call by Tim Powers / Fantasy / Horror / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes