Last call, p.21
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       Last Call, p.21

           Tim Powers
 

  At last she hung up the phone.

  “Grampa still not home?” asked Scat, looking up from his Rice Krispies.

  “He’s almost certainly just off with your brother,” Hans told Diana. “You worry too much.”

  “Maybe they’re gonna come here,” said Scat. “Why don’t they ever visit?”

  “They prob’ly don’t like little kids,” said Oliver, who, at ten, was a year older than his brother.

  “Your grandfather likes little kids,” said Diana, going back to her seat. Probably Scott convinced Ozzie to leave, she thought, to move somewhere else. Ozzie’ll get the same phone number tranferred to his new place. Probably the people who killed my mother didn’t follow Scott and kidnap the two of them. Or hurt them. Or kill them.

  “Okay we ride our bikes to Herbert Park?” asked Scat. “That’s what everybody calls it,” he added to Oliver, who predictably had started to remind him that it was called Hebert Park.

  “Sure,” Hans told the boy, and that annoyed her.

  “Yes, you can,” she said, hoping her tone made it clear that it was her permission that counted.

  “I’ve got to have peace and quiet, get my treatment typed up today,” said Hans. “Mike at the Golden Nugget knows a guy who knows Harvey Korman. If he can get him to read it, that’s just about a sure fifty K.”

  Since the boys were in the room, Diana made herself smile and knock the underside of the table.

  But after they’d finished their cereal and put the bowls in the sink and gone charging out of the apartment to get on their bikes, she turned to Hans.

  “I thought you weren’t hanging around with that Mike guy any more.”

  “Diana,” said Hans, leaning forward over the newspaper, “this is biz. Harvey Korman!”

  “How did you find out that he knows somebody who knows somebody? You must have been talking to him.”

  “I’m a writer. I have to talk to all sorts of people.”

  Diana was standing at the sink, rinsing the cereal bowls.

  “He’s a dope dealer, Hans,” she said, trying to speak in a reasonable tone and not seem to be nagging. “And the one time we went to his place he was all over me like a cheap suit. I’d think you’d…resent that.”

  He was giving her his lordly look now, and it looked particularly foolish with his snagged-up beard. “Writers can’t be judgmental,” he told her. “Besides, I trust you.”

  She sighed as she toweled her hands. “Just don’t get into anything with him.” She yawned. “I’m going to bed. I’ll see you later.”

  He was making a show now of being absorbed by the newspaper, and he waved and nodded distractedly.

  The sheets were still warm from him, and when she had pulled the covers up to her chin, she blinked around in the dimmed room and wondered if he would come back to bed when he was done with the paper.

  She hoped he would and she hoped he wouldn’t. In the springtime, around Easter, she was always…what? Hornier? That was a word Oliver would use, and if she rebuked him, Hans would say, in his most satirical tone, To me, sex is something beautiful shared by two people in love.

  Over the buzz of the air conditioner she heard the kitchen chair squeak, and she smiled derisively at herself when she became aware that her heart was beating harder. A minute later, though, she heard the muted snap-snap-snap of the electric typewriter, and she rolled over and closed her eyes.

  He’s better than nothing, she thought. Is that what they all are, just better than nothing? Wally Ryan was a pretty sorry excuse for a husband, bringing home the clap because he had to go screw other women. He told all his friends that I was frigid, but I think any of them could see that he was just intimidated by being married to a woman, and having actual children. Women are safely two-dimensional, hardly more than magically animated animals from the pages of Penthouse, if you don’t have to…live with one of ’em, deal with her, every day, as a actual ’nother human being.

  She wondered how Scott had got along with his wife. Diana was pretty sure it had been the wife’s death that had upset him so badly just before New Year’s. It had been a strong, deeply personal emotion of loss. She had thought she ought to call him then, but after a week or so she had decided it would be awkward to call so late, and she had let it go. Still, his grief had kept her from sleeping well for a week or so.

  Diana had always thought of Scott’s wife as that slut, though she knew it wasn’t fair; after all, she had never met the woman or spoken to her or even seen her.

  Diana had tried to rationalize her strong disapproval by telling herself that her foster-brother was a drunken Poker-bum, and that any woman who would marry a man like that wasn’t worthy of her brother, who was, after all, a good person at heart; but she knew that her real resentment stemmed from the shock she’d felt on that summer day in her eighteenth year when she’d realized he was in the process of getting married, was actually saying I do to some priest somewhere and staring into some woman’s eyes.

  By that time she hadn’t seen him for nine years—but she had always somehow assumed that he would marry her After all, they weren’t blood-related.

  She could admit now that she had married Wally Ryan a year later just as a kind of revenge on Scott, knowing that he would be aware of her wedding, too.

  Wally had been big on fishing and hunting, and he was tanned and had a mustache, but he had been uncertain and blustering and mean behind his macho front. So were all the boyfriends she’d had since. She was just a sucker for broad shoulders and squinty, humorous eyes. But by the time of the inevitable breakup she had been sick of every one of them. When she’d learned from the divorce lawyer two years ago that Wally had died drunk in a car crash, she hadn’t felt anything more than a faint sadness that had been mostly pity.

  She had told the boys that their father was dead. Scat had cried and demanded to look at old photographs of Wally, but in a day or two his friends and school had distracted him from grieving over the father whom, after all, he hadn’t even seen since he’d been six or so. Oliver, though, had seemed oddly satisfied with the news, as though this were what his father had deserved—for abandoning them? Probably, though the divorce had been Diana’s doing. And Oliver’s schoolwork, good until then, had become mediocre. And he had got fat.

  She should marry again, give the boys a real father—not a succession of Hanses.

  She shifted to her other side and punched the pillow into a more comfortable shape. She hoped Ozzie was all right. And she hoped Scott’s stabbed leg was healing.

  Some boys had made a ramp out of a log and a piece of plywood and were riding their bicycles over it—the braver ones yanking up on the handlebars as they flew off the end, so as to go unicycling for a few seconds up on the back wheel after they landed—and Scat watched for a while and then got on his bike and took a couple of jumps over it himself. On the last jump he stood up and really yanked the handlebars and wound up sitting down hard on the dirt and watching his bike go wobbling away upright across the grass. The other boys applauded.

  Oliver, meanwhile, had climbed the chain link backstop and now sat up on the saggy top of it, pointing his plastic .45 automatic at each airborne rider in turn.

  He was thinking about nicknames. When he and his brother had first moved to North Las Vegas, they had been known as the Boys from Venus, because they had moved into one half of a duplex on Venus Avenue. That hadn’t been too bad—there had also been a couple of Boys from Mars, which was the street four blocks north—but while Scott had kept the same individual nickname he’d always had—Scat, which was all right—Oliver had soon become known as Hardy, because he was fat.

  That wasn’t all right. Even if they were just calling him that because they were scared of him.

  Some of the parents were scared of him, or at least didn’t like him. He liked to startle grown-ups by springing in front of them and shoving his toy gun in their faces. Since the gun wasn’t real, they couldn’t really object, especially when he laughed and yelled
something like Pow, you’re dead!

  But this Hardy business wasn’t any good.

  Lately they’d begun calling him Bitin Dog, which was distinctly better. A dog belonging to one of the neighborhood boys had been found dead on the street a month ago, and the animal was generally assumed to have been poisoned. When someone had asked Oliver if he’d poisoned it, he had looked away and said, Well, it was a bitin’ dog. As he’d hoped, everybody took that to mean that he had done it…though, in fact, he had not.

  He had seen Scat take the spill jumping the ramp, and for an instant he had been scared—but when Scat had got up, grinning and dusting off the seat of his jeans, Oliver had relaxed.

  The chain-link under him squeaked now as he shifted around to a more comfortable position. He wished he had the nerve to go over the ramp himself, but he was too aware of the bones in his arms and legs and the base of his spine. And he was heavier. He could do things like climb this backstop, but it didn’t get much attention.

  What the hell kind of a name was Oliver anyway? So what if it was his grandfather’s name? Probably he hadn’t liked it much either. And it wasn’t like they ever saw the guy. It didn’t seem fair that as the oldest he had had to get the joke name, while his younger brother got to be named after their uncle. Whom they likewise never saw.

  Way up here off the ground he could admit to himself, but only very softly even so, that the name he wished he had been given was…Walter. He couldn’t imagine how that had not happened; his father couldn’t have been too ashamed of him right from birth to give his firstborn his own name, could he?

  Suddenly there was a snap and sag as one of the wires tying the chain-link to the crossbar broke, and Oliver convulsively clawed his fingers into the lattice pattern. His face was dewed with sudden sweat, but as soon as he was sure he wasn’t going to fall, he looked toward the ramp. Luckily none of the boys had noticed. The fat-boy-Hardy-breaking-the-backstop jokes would have lasted for weeks. Shakily he tucked his gun into his belt and began inching his way back to the vertical section of the fence.

  When he was back on solid ground, he sighed and pulled his damp shirt away from his chest and belly.

  School tomorrow, he thought.

  He wished something would happen. He wanted to stop living the life of an obviously worthless little kid.

  Sometimes he watched the gold and red clouds terraced across the still-blue sky at sunset, and he pretended that he might see a horse-drawn chariot, tiny in the immense distance, racing along the cloud ridges. If he were ever to see such a thing, and if the chariot were to sweep down and land in this field, like for a breather before taking off again for the cloud kingdoms, he knew he would race across the grass and jump aboard.

  He played Mario Brothers a lot on the Nintendo set on the TV at home, and as he walked across the grass now, he thought of the invisible bricks that hung unsupported in the air of the Mario world. If a player didn’t know about one of them, he would have the little Mario man run right on by, but a savvy player would know to have the little guy jump up at just the right spot—and bump his head on what had looked like empty air a moment before but was now a brick with one of the glowing mushrooms on it. Catch the mushroom and suddenly you were big. And if it was a lily instead of a mushroom, and you caught that, you could spit fireballs.

  He jumped now. Nothing. Empty air.

  As he drove around on the Strip in the dusty Morris—even as he walked along the morning sidewalks downtown, under the shadow of the Binion’s Horseshoe Casino—Snayheever’s cheap feathered Indian headdress had not excited much attention. He had bought it for five dollars at the Bonanza souvenir shop at dawn, and had worn it out of the store and not taken it off since, but it was only now, driving the little old Morris slowly through the streets of North Las Vegas, through these little tract-house-and-apartment-complex suburbs west of Nellis Air Force Base, that adults laughed and pointed and honked their car horns, and children shouted and ran madly after the car.

  It couldn’t be helped. He had to wear feathers today.

  Traffic was light this morning. He looked around, nothing palm trees throwing long shadows across quiet sidewalks. The residents he saw seemed to be mostly Air Force personnel, and student types who probably went to the Clark County Community College behind him on Cheyenne.

  This was his third pass along this section of Cheyenne, and this time he made himself turn right on Civic Center—though he instantly pulled over and put the car into neutral so that he could check his figuring one more time.

  He unfolded the AAA map and with a dirty fingernail traced the pencil outline he’d drawn on it.

  Yes, there was no mistake, the outline did still look to him like a stylized, angular bird; he thought it was probably a crow or a raven. Usually he traced out patterns that were implicit in the tracks of roads and rivers and boundaries, but this bird pattern was imposed over all such.

  The points of the angles were streets with names like Moonlight and Moonmist and Mare. The high point of the bird’s tail was a couple of streets called Starlight and Moonlight alongside the 95 out toward the Indian Springs Air Force Base, and the tip of the beak was three streets called Moonglow, Enchanting, and Stargazer at the east edge of town on Lake Mead Boulevard. The diagonal straight line between those two points would contain the point that was the eye of the bird, and sure enough, he had found an intense cluster of streets at the right point, about two thirds down the line toward the tip of the beak—a whole tract with streets named Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Comet, Sun, and Venus.

  That tract was now only a block ahead of him.

  Venus was obviously the street his mother would live on.

  He tromped the clutch and muscled the car back into gear and started forward again. At Venus he turned left.

  Along Venus Avenue he saw a lot of two-story apartments and duplexes. He drove slowly down the center of the right lane, lugging in first gear, squinting in the already hot breeze that was blowing in through the rolled-down windows.

  How was he to know which place would be his mother’s? Would there be clues in the kind of plants out front, the paint, the—

  The street number. One of the duplexes had four weathered wooden numbers bolted to the street-facing white stucco wall. The numbers were 1515, but Snayheever read them as letters:

  ISIS.

  Isis, the Egyptian goddess of the moon.

  He had found her house—but he drove on past, tromping the little steel gas pedal and grinding the stick shift into second, for he couldn’t approach her today.

  If he made contact on this here particular Sunday, it would be like—like a king bringing along his army to visit another king. Snayheever was too powerful today; he’d be perceived as imperious rather than how he wanted to be perceived, which was…as supplicating, as humble. He might, it was true, have to do something a little heavy-handed in order to get her attention, but he wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to use…protocol. And right now the moon was still half a hair on the new side; she’d still be in the weak half of her cycle. And of course she was always weaker in the daytime and only really herself at night. That was why she slept during the day.

  Tomorrow night, Monday, the second of April, the moon would be precisely at its half phase. He had discovered that valuable fact only an hour ago, in a newspaper.

  He would approach her then.

  Crane sat up in the sleeping bag on the motel room floor and tried to shake dream images out of his head.

  A rusty lance head and a gold cup. Where had Crane seen them before? Hanging on wires over a chair, long ago, in a—a place that had been home? The memory made his plastic eye ache, and he wasn’t sorry that he couldn’t trace it. In this last, disjointed fragment of dream the two objects had been set out, with apparent reverence, on a green felt cloth draped over a wooden crate. The light on them was red and blue and golden, as if filtered through stained glass.

  Crane’s mouth was dry now, though somehow he thought he could taste…what, a
dry white wine. A Chardonnay?

  The air conditioner was roaring, and the room was cold. There was white light beyond the curtains, but Crane had no idea what time it might be. This was Las Vegas, after all; it could be midnight, and the light outside could all be artificial.

  He sighed and rubbed his face with trembling hands.

  Again.

  He had dreamed about the game on the lake again.

  And he had been so exhausted this time—having gone forty-eight hours without sleep—that he had not been able to recoil awake when one of the two vast faces below him in the night had opened its canyon of a mouth and sucked him downward like a wisp of smoke.

  He felt the inside of the sleeping bag now, and was glad to find that he had not lost control of his bladder during that part of the dream.

  He had spiraled down helplessly through the moonlit abyss of the mouth and down the throat into darkness, and then he was deep under the water of the lake.

  Things moved far below him, vast figures that he couldn’t see, and that had no real form anyway—but the vibrations of them shook images loose in his mind, as earthquakes in succession might wring chords out of a piano and thus remotely express themselves:

  …he saw his real father, weary and old, dressed in a red ermine robe and a hat like a horizontal figure-8, sitting at a table on the wavy edge of a cliff, and on the table was a round collection of coin stacks, and on the table was a round collection of coin stacks, and a knife, and a bloody lump that might have been an eyeball;

  …and he saw his real father’s ’47 Buick, as shiny and new as he remembered it, being pulled along the glistening pavement of a rainy street by two harnessed creatures that had the bodies of horses and the heads of men;

  …and he saw his foster-sister, Diana, crowned with a tiara like a crescent moon embracing a sun disk, dressed in papal-looking robes and attended by dogs that howled at the moon;

 

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