THG3 – Ch18 – Black Lipstick Pt 1

The original outline intent was to have Deanna and Jackson teeter-totter over the course of Cambridge Year One. He bombed himself out on the front end and works his way back over the year. She hit the ground running, defiant and strong and slips downhill into catatonic after doing a year and a half of Cambridge in 11 months. This is where she starts to spiral with more than a few foreshadowing bits. And some character head time, something unusual for me.

Mid July 1979 / Cambridge UK

Deanna looked at her feet as they moved in slow motion across the mid-summer manicured lawn of whatever college they were crossing, sighed quietly. Summer? Ha. Sixty-three degrees, light drizzly rain half the time before the sun came out. Perfect football weather. Real football, not group kickball or the crazy rugby people her brother’s size who played empty lot, full contact football. Without pads. She could space this way, her mind elsewhere, through just about whatever anyone said, a talent she’d picked up young. She’d keep a small percentage of her ears open for trigger words. ‘Bomb’,‘fire’,‘duck’. Or for a certain pitch in her mom’s voice and a small buffer of whatever the last few words said to her that hadn’t been auto filtered and purged. Now it wasn’t the talk, really, it was the walk that killed her.

Jax used to point out in music, without going on forever beating it to death, the beautiful simplicity of a dead slow groove, and how it was a lot more difficult than it sounded. Whatever. Well, he was right about difficult, but he could eat it, and all the dead slow he could stand because this walk, like the months of ones that had preceded it, was on the other side of the universe from beautiful. Dead slow, and every so often painfully reverential when Alvy slowed even more, turned toward her to be sure she’d lapped up the last drop of his irrelevant insight Oreo built from cross-contaminated history, science, economics and culture. Like really, he couldn’t keep walking if his upper body was a few degrees off axis while he slogged through the most boring quagmire of historical minutiae, desperately trying to relate it to literature, and her?

Today was worse because every couple of weeks he tried to get personal, or be personable, and he wasn’t much for either. Well no, really, nothing was worse than farm and economic growth output prior to 1700. Every time he said 1700 it made her think of the Morisé floor in Oilman’s Bank Tower, and home, and…Until he got to swine production and all the uses of pig parts and their economic impact and…Really? Who gave a flying fuck about livestock and farm employment 250 years ago? Did Dryden and Pope really care about pig parts? And who the hell was getting paid to teach and write that junk, much less read it for fun? No, she knew the answer to that one. It was the speed bump in front of her.

From an out of body upper floor window perspective she knew the two of them must appear proper, if opposite, Cambridge students. His pale lankiness, loose blonde curls that grew in a rolled-up cylinder the size of a toilet tissue tube around his head from eyebrows, bottom of his ears and across the top of his collar like a wheat stalk wreath that bounced with every step. His hands, too small for the rest of him, either escaping in animation or sucked into the white cuffs of the Oxford cloth shirt he wore every day under a sweater with the Selwyn crest. On top of gray or black slacks so tight the pockets pulled open exposing the whiteness inside. As opposed to her bulky layers on a thinner frame than she’d left home with, jeans, leg warmers and worn running shoes. Both walking so slowly they could be contemplatively discussing how ‘realism’ was too broad a term for over a century’s worth of literature. Didn’t she wish…

“They’re a wonderful band. Mates, y’know? I ran with them a bit in school. I fiddled the bass some as well. Don’t laugh.” Instead of the laugh he got no reaction, turned a little further and that brought him from dead slow to dead stop. She was miles away and attached to him only peripherally and stopped a fraction of an inch shy of running him down. “D’anna? Mates, the Quigleys? Bass?”

“Sorry, I…” Maybe he was a year older, but she already had an undergraduate degree that fucking Cambridge wouldn’t accept unless she jumped through hoops taking courses she’d already had and testing her way forward. He was boring as fuck and her name wasn’t Danna. These people could screw up pronouncing everything from taco to Mazda to vitamins. But he was also her lead Graduand study advisor for now, going on two lit class and culture combos and a friend of Merriam’s in chemistry that had shown up the second day after she landed to say “Cheers! Alvin Carrashon. Chemistry’s my game. History’s my passion.” Well, ‘Cheers! Alvin Carrashon’ had bribed or blackmailed and obviously kissed some serious ass to get the study mod’s job in almost every class she’d taken just to be around her. Obvious because he was no kind of scholar. But he knew the rules and the tests and the paperchase and played the game like a good gerbil hauling ass on a wheel going nowhere. Called the Dons and junior lecturers alike “professor” without coming across as too patronizing. Smarmy –

“D’anna?”

After she stopped walking by the lake with Jackson, which was what she’d been doing in her head, she dropped Alvin’s last spoken word on the turntable in her head. Base? Baseball? Not cricket?  He was really reaching for commonality today. “Which base?”

“Oh. Yes, of course. Excellent question. Electric, not upright.”

“I meant –”

“No, no, a legitimate question. Cleanliness in thought and word gets the point over.” He had turned enough to get thirty percent of dead slow back on track, stopped and tapped his head. “Investigate, extrapolate, postulate, articulate. The basics for strong communication and conversation.”

“I must have missed something…”

“Me. A bass player. Only a bit. It was a kick, thumpa thumpa thumpa, one note, one string stuff, but college came first at home, not some band of mechanic’s sons and an art major so I quit at 14, never learned it proper.” He smiled, it faded into somewhere lost dreams go. “Shame, that. I’ll never make a million quid here.”

“Sorry, I still don’t –”

“The Quigleys. D’anna. I was their first bass player. They’re mates and they’re in town and I was wondering if you’d like to come out and…”

“Base, like in baseball, that’s what I was asking. First? Second? Third? Which one, you know? Because you aren’t going to any of them with me.” It went all echoey off down into a cave after that. There she was, watching Jax walk out the door, off to another gig she didn’t want to see, didn’t want to be the band guy’s girlfriend, didn’t want to be alone and get hit on in some bar, didn’t want to share him. “Theater” he’d say. But he had a smile that said he was in heaven. A smile she hadn’t gotten in a long time.

“I don’t like those ‘I know the band’ things, Alvy. They get…Uncomfortable. Loud. Drunk guys and…Unless I like them, the band I mean, and that’s rare. Or I get to dance, and I dance like a cheerleader. Or so I’ve been told,” harrumph built rapidly in her voice. “By a naked, stupid, wrapped in scarves dance major whore who knew my…And he said the same thing, only…” It was her turn to stop, collect. He continued a few steps, until he stopped talking about not knowing what she was talking about, American Baseball and bases and naked scarf whores, not understanding the cross talk from her at all, noticed her missing. He turned, found her holding her books across her chest.

“Who, or what, are Quigleys?”

“Post Punk. Or p’raps Industrial Punk.” He puckered, scratched the side of his head. “Is true Punk dead?”

She snorted a laugh at his earnestness. “I know some true punks who should be.”

“Oh. Yes. Well, we all know Wilcox and Herndon need to shut it, and their lack of respect in our groups is in their CV jackets. It won’t harm them down the line, but they’ll get caught up short next two terms and have to over produce or fall behind.”

“That’s not…” How could anyone so naïve be so arrogant? So assured of his own credibility? Staring at him she thought he was the stupidest, silliest, most posturing piece of vain, vapid guy she’d met since high school. Except maybe for some of Jax’s art school friends…Seriously? Over produce? Alvy had no idea. She’d over produced with Amanda Morisé on her ass telling her to mean it, Jackson with his conductor’s wand telling her to own it. Heard more from Alix and her French infused feminist and historical European literature insight than this shithead in front of her would ever know, then they shoved her into a room with Stacey and her deep rhetorical theory and BAM words. She wanted to tell him all that, peel the skin off his face with it. But not now…Where was her fire? She’d turned into another sleep deprived ass kisser like the waste of space wheel-bound gerbil in front of her, just to get the job done.

He started going on about modernist art and how he had no stomach for the Avant Garde and it was just as well since the punks sold out to a mainstream pigeonhole doing sneaker adverts on telly.

“Alvy, stop. Please. I don’t care. About the punk guard on TV or whatever. Just. Stop.”

From deep left field he blurted “But we do see a lot of each other.” It came out loaded with incredulity and minor hurt that took her a few seconds to process.

Too much’ was the wrong answer. “We do. But it’s not –”

“And we enjoy our talks on these walks.”

You enjoy talking after inviting yourself once and forgetting to ask me if I minded or for a topic I might give a damn about.’ “There are times, okay. Maybe. But really, I mean it, Alvy. Most of the time you can be a real –”

“Then come out,” a midway game barker, arms wide in full plead mode. “They’ll find me an awful dud, the same as you, if I show up alone. I was the one, back then, y’see. All the girls fancied a one note bass player.” He air played bass and gyrated his Goldilocks head in a good imitation of a thrasher. She had to put a hand over her mouth.

I heard it was guitar players with that finger thing. Was it your index finger? Middle finger?” She wiggled hers as fast as she could over an imaginary string at crotch level.

“Well, now that…Yes, it was. Middle, I –”

“Thought so. We’re supposed to believe that’s some indication of sexuality, get us all wound up. Can you believe that garbage? It’s ridiculous because we aren’t all thinking about that near as much as you wish we were. And I don’t ‘fancy’ any of them, really, bass or guitar or any sort of electrified phallus waving…The one I…He had to stand, or sit. And smile too much.”

“Precisely! The lad in your dresser frame. Merri’s said he’s one, a musician of a sort as that’s all you’ll say, and you miss him, and that’s why –”

“What I miss about him isn’t shitty cover bands or screaming punk pub bands or his stupid piano hands tickling my ivory body. Well, okay…But no. What I miss is where the hell is he and, and what did I do that he had to, to, and…What I hate about all of that nonsense is how I, we, are supposed to fall in love with them, musicians I mean, and all they do is have fun and call it work and then just, just disappear like I don’t matter at all and –”

You don’t matter?”

“Literal, Alvy.” But she was shaking. “Look. Bar bands suck. Even when they don’t.”

“The Quigs’re all original.”

“Really, Alvy? I mean that’s worse. Unless they have a record or –”

“They do. An EP. One of the short ones?”

“I’ll bet that’s a relief.” Does no one with a penis listen?

“Then you’ll come out, won’t you? I can make it up to you. Monday and Wednesday nights off next week? I’ll give you my topics for moderation notes. You can read them or ignore them. I know you find me less than enlightening in your arena at times.”

Always…’ But…Two nights off that maybe could be bumped? “What did you say?”

“About modernism? Post Punk, by definition –”

“Right. But wrong. The other part. Four nights off, and we’ll forgo these post class walkie-talkies for two weeks. So I can get on down the road with the Italian poets without sludging your pig parts out of my brain before I can start.”

“A fortnight so…On down the road…Poets? Pig parts? I…”

“On down the road. Something the frame on the dresser used to say all the time. Deal?”

“But…”

“You won’t really be an awful dud, any more than you already are.” Oooops. “Do I need to cut some holes in a sweatshirt or something? I haven’t had time to shave in weeks. If it’s hot in the wherever it is, I’d love that. And I could go sleeveless. Not braless, I hate that. I’d almost kill someone to be really warm. Like hot, sweaty warm.”

“No, I…” He’d never considered there to be anything under her layers but more of her porcelain complexion laid over a perfectly defined, if somewhat thin, textbook female anatomy, certainly not hair and sweat. “Uh…” With his index fingers he drew circles around his eyes in pantomime.

“Eye…shadow? Eye…line – Racoon Eyes! Okay, and?”

“Black lipstick?”

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THG3 – Ch 17 – Affable

Regardless of their price range hookers talk, and it spreads like wildfire. From tricks that are dangerous to what hotels are hot. Word came up from the bottom about the space case kid piano player at the Sea Wind, a place upscale girls wouldn’t work, but a few came to see him off the clock. The kid was funny, didn’t talk hooker smack or ask for favors when he found out who they were. Instead he asked for their favorite songs and sent them off to dreamland low and slow. It was apparent he wasn’t new to after midnight, or how to hang with the late night off work crowd. After they’d taken him to a few two AM breakfasts just to see who he was off the piano bench and found themselves spending too much time at the Sea Wind they went looking for a way to move him.

The tall platinum blonde wasn’t gaudy, but her presence was commanding. Marilyn Monroe as PTA mom, only five-ten without the heels. Cool, aloof, big blue eyes that missed nothing, gave nothing away under often sarcastically expressive eyebrows. Her left hip, parked on the red leather stool that matched her lipstick put her a head taller than Franklin the “bartender”, a short, stocky man with a square head, wiry salt and pepper hair, perpetual five o’clock shadow. A retired enforcer, tenacious, once upon a time dangerous, Franklin managed not-main-room talent and other aspects of a few square blocks of Vegas “entertainment”. He squinted unenthusiastically between the blonde and the polaroid on the bar, the diamonds in his cufflinks sparkled in the dark room like wrist-worn disco balls.

“Sheesh, Savannah…I dunno.” He rubbed his thick neck with a thick hand. “I got these creeps out the wazoo.”

“Billy Joel wannabes, basket case temperamental classicals can’t find work, drunk ex big band sidemen, unemployed music directors waiting on the next has-been to sell out and move to town. Frankie’s carousel of the unreliable and unwanted.” He raised his eyes to hers out of habit to see if there was any insult in what she’d said.

Affable, Savannah. Affable. I hadda look that word up. Know why? ‘Cause Johnny used it all the time to say what he wanted in no-name talent that puts face on the Lost Wages foot traffic. And they’re my unreliable, affable piano players. The shtick is affable. My people know that. Besides,” a big shrug that got a head tilt involved, “somebody misses a shift, nobody misses them, I pay myself.”

“This town is too full of invisible smiles as it is. Do something real for a change. You said yourself what you have in the stable doesn’t work everywhere. Too busy, too flirty, too drunk, too –”

Loud. Everybody is too goddam loud. In the city? Back there you could a find a place, y’know, a quiet place. Somebody there knew how to play piano or maybe some jazz guitar. Somebody understood intimacy. Nobody in this town understands intimacy, that’s what Johnny says. Now…” His big fingers drummed on the bar hard enough to rattle the hostess’ drink garnish tray. “Okay, maybe loud I can do without somewhere and I got nobody.” He looked down the bar at the half dozen top shelf women lined up in silent support of Savannah’s pitch. “Good Golly Miss Molly, I need to meet this kid.” He cocked an eyebrow. “Okay, wiseacre. Where do I put him?”

“The piano in front of the Stiletto has had a cover on it for over a year.”

He checked both ways, leaned into her space like he was letting go of a secret. “People do business in the Stiletto, woman. Johnny’s girlfriend lives in a suite at that hotel and hits all the talent. I can’t put somebody I don’t know in there, somebody that don’t know the rules.”

“Those people leave their women standing around, reading three-month-old magazines in the lobby and looking like a herd of stupid hookers to the cheapskate tourists in that restaurant. Get some plush chairs and cocktail tables out of storage, put them and a cute, affable fag waiter in the anteroom, you have our word the kid will make them happy. Men like their women happy when they’re finished with their other business.” She edged the polaroid closer with a fingernail. “Don’t they?”

Aunty-room?”

“The big dead space full of dusty palms and ratty bamboo and the leaky roof wastebasket stash between the restaurant and the lounge, Lumpo.”

“Ida broke your nose for that ten years ago.”

“Ida cut your intestines out and fed them to you right after. I have other options, I came to you first. Going once…”

“Awright.” He scowled at the picture. “Johnny’s girl’s been putting him on a bitch lately about the Aunty-room lookin’ like that in her lobby anyways.” He blew his nose on a bar napkin, tossed it over his shoulder. “Can you do something about the hair for me? You know how those guys get about hippies and niggers, no matter how good they play.”

“Ponytail?”

“Ponytail is good. Heard Johnny’s girl say she liked that Paul Revere’s Paraders show. Broad can call a bucket of shit a vase of roses and sell it to Johnny, ponytail’s no problem. Kid has any decent bullshit at all, keeps it low key and knows his place, don’t talk politics… It could work.”

“Raiders, Lumpo. Paul Revere and the Raiders.” She twirled the polaoid with her fingernail, a sly smile sneaked out. “I can just see Johnny in a George Washington get up, dancer tights, three-way hat and a powdery ponytail. High heel boots, maybe. You?”

“What Johnny gets up to with that broad ain’t any of my – an stop callin’ me –” He caught her eyebrows, eyes.  “Goddammit Savannah, I’m workin’ with you here. Put a lid on fuckin’ with me, will ya? All you damn women these days… What happened to hookers with some respect?”

“Same thing that happened to broken noses.”

“Fuck a duck…” He followed a long pause with a sigh and a deeper, arms flexed lean into the bar. “Tomorrow, four-thirty, the Stiletto. I’ll have the Aunty-room set up, dust the palms, get the piano tuned. You gotta get Johnny’s squeeze in on this, figure the decorating.” He made a few notes on a bar napkin, stuffed it in his vest pocket. “Lotta goddam work. Your little darlin’ better be right, ladies.” He peered down the bar again, eyebrows knitted together. “All I’m gonna say.”

***

Savannah and a shorter, sun freckled brunette of the same ilk snaked from a red SEL convertible they parked in front of Michael’s cold Coke box, blocking the drive. They helped themselves, gave him a ten, stated their business and waited.

Michael knocked on the window of Jackson’s car in the service bay. When the window came down he blurted “Coupla put your lights out babes…and dude I mean,” looking over his shoulder, “lights fucking out. Wanna talk to you.”

After a brief conversation with the “lights out babes” Jackson backed his car out of Michael’s garage and followed them across town to a two-bedroom apartment on the new, far west side where he was told seven working girls rotated in and out, took showers, changed clothes. Savannah handed him the key at the foot of the iron railed stairs.

“None of them live here, the smaller bedroom is yours.” She tilted her head slighty toward her friend. “Paris you know. The rest are taking you on faith. Keep the place clean, do their laundry or anything else they ask, don’t be any kind of retard with a hard on.” She opened the door of the red SEL, shifted her gum to the side. “Do us right on this, Junior. In this town friends are hard to come by and enemies are hard to lose.” He watched them drive away, sixteen again, Marcus admonishing him to do them right on a lounge piano gig full of big-time politicians as an indirect favor to Amanda Morisé. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same. ‘Don’t be that guy. Do us right’.

He took the cash Savannah had given him, followed his instructions to buy a blouse-y white shirt, a black vest and pants, run them through a one-hour dry cleaners and be at the Stiletto a couple of blocks off the strip by four-thirty. And don’t forget the black ribbon for his Paul Revere ponytail.

***

“He doesn’t play any real music. Not that I recognize.”

“You have to listen, he doesn’t run over you with it. That’s Moon River, Johnny baby. I asked him to play it just for you.”

He listened, found the melody at last, sipped his drink. “He knows me already?”

“For a friend, I said. He’s a doll. Look around.” The dead yesterday anteroom had become the pre-lounge for the Stiletto. “Businessmen” enveloped in darkness through the Stiletto’s oak door left behind women, some theirs, some rented, a lightweight movie starlet or two all talking, smoking, drinking, laughing over inside jokes, bumping desert sun-kissed bare arms, jangling bracelets, looking over their shoulders to see if they were being seen. Mixed in with a few tourists and mid-range double knit sport coat gamblers exiting the restaurant it was an oasis in the desert between the rattle of slot machines and dishes and the off-limits inner sanctum.

“Frank tells me this was all his idea, like a present to get the Tarzan and Sambo shit out of here for me.” He nodded, smiled, lifted a glass to someone. “Looks like it cost too much. Tell me what you hear.”

“Savannah brought it to him. Frankie called me last night, asked what we’d like to see in here.”

“We? You and Frank and that mouthy whore did this?”

“Careful, she’s a friend and we did it on the cheap. Frankie got the chairs I wanted out of the old Montrose, had a crew steaming them all night. Savannah and I found the cut glass vases and ashtrays in a box in the poker room and I ordered the flowers.”

“You shouldn’t be friends with or be seen running around town with that whore thinks her shit doesn’t stink. Keep it up with her and I’ll see she has to move.”

“Do that.” Her turn to smile, lift a hand off his arm in acknowledgement. “They’ll find you with a .25 caliber hole in your heart and your dick in your mouth.”

“How, in some crazy dream world, do you see that happening?”

“A man with a hardon and his pants down is the easiest target there is, Johnny. You know we’re the ones really make it all go,” she tugged on his tie, smoothed it back, stepped in so he could feel her breath, “and we’re the only ones who can get close enough.” She smiled, turned away, chirpy. “This keeps up I’ll just have to order new carpet.”

THG 3 – Ch 13 – Don’t Talk to the Whores

Most of this is in here elsewhere, but here it is, straight out of Scivener, unedited for short story consumption –

Easter Sunday 1979 / Albuquerque – Las Vegas

Jackson had a knack for filling the Taco Bell with people. He changed the Muzak channel to something resembling FM radio, turned it up, jived. Set up impromptu dance and sing along giveaways, made happy customers. But he gave as much Taco Bell away to hungry students with the late night munchies as he sold. A grand humanitarian effort that got him fired in the middle of April, Good Friday the thirteenth.

He stopped to say goodbye to his roomies, left them his second half of the month’s rent. Génene asked why he had to leave, he was such a good listener. He shrugged, told her it was time he put himself closer to L.A. He couldn’t tell her when Carmel walked straight into her bedroom leading a grad instructor at least ten years older than all of them it hit him a lot harder than he expected.

He should have told Carmel thanks, and goodbye, but he couldn’t drop his baggage on her, either, and couldn’t lie. He knew she’d be sitting on the small fenced porch tomorrow afternoon, looking to talk to him about the failure of the educational system for young children while she petted the black lab mix that was fatter, and lived better walking the student housing than most dogs with homes. Thinking of her juxtaposed that way, between the tweedy poser and the bright, tuned-in girl he knew, forced him to look deep for the phenomenon in the first years of college that killed romance. For what made intimacy a string of offhand, often leveraged sexual commerce one-hit wonders. Whatever it was, it seemed to be universal. With Deanna in England, probably doing the same things as his roomies, he’d seen all he needed to see and it was time to change scenery.

***

Jackson rolled into the east side of Vegas on Easter Sunday, and out the corner of his eye caught “Peeno Player Wanted” on the marquee of a shit-hole Turquoise and rust motel called the Sea Wind. He pulled a U-turn on the two lane asphalt and skidded into the parking lot. The same sign, on laminated pink construction paper, was stuck on the window of the motel office. He grabbed it, banged the bent aluminum framed screen door open and offered the sign to a swarthy bearded guy in a sweat stained white shirt who ignored it, and him.

“Peeno player is me.”

“Yeah?” Swarthy gave Jackson’s hair a frown. “When this was?”

“I tried it once. Liked it. It’s my destiny.”

“Funny guy. You know songs people like? Last guy want to be Elvis. All time with the rollin rockin and everybody is babb-ee babb-ee babb-ee.”

“I thought being Elvis was mandatory in Las Vegas.”

“Maybe, babb-ee.” He squinted a little tighter at Jackson. “Me? I don’t like so much.”

“This is your lucky day because I don’t sing or do sing along.”

“Is good day for you, too, funny hairy guy because I think I’m liking you more, now. You have better clothes?”

“Like yours?”

Swarthy man raised one eyebrow like he’d practiced it a thousand times. “Peeno player only. Everywhere in Vegas?” He swept a thick, hairy arm in a wide arc, leaned over the counter into Jackson’s face, “I can find asshole who wants to be comedian.”

He showed Jackson some gold dental work, snatched the sign away from him and stuffed it in a wire basket full of paper. “I show you the place.” He flipped up the hinged counter, grabbed Jackson’s shoulder and turned him around. “First. Don’t talk to the whores. They waste your time to stay inside better air conditioner when should be working. You want to fuck one you pay the same for a room as anybody. If you cheapskate on me don’t fuck in your car where customer can see or they all start to do it. Shit happens that way I go broke in big hurry.” He pointed out the piano in a dim corner of a bar lit with red bulbs. “No blowjobs from under piano. Last guy banged hooker’s head on bottom, cost twelve stitches and too much shit to me and too much talk to cops. Play what you want. Until customers ache their bellies to me and I fire you.” He turned, put a hairy finger almost on Jackson’s nose. “Don’t never play along with jukebox like Elvis guy.” He put on a pained face and silent scream and with both hands over his ears he tilted his head side to side. “Same shit different ways gives me headache,” he held his hands open wide around his head, “this fucking big.”

“When do I start?”

“When you put on long pants. And socks. You can wear bow tie, no shirt, I don’t care. But long pants. And socks.” Swarthy held out a foot clad in a black sock, encased in a Mexican Bazaar tire tread sandal that Jackson figured for a Sea Wind fashion statement.

“Right. Bow tie, long pants. Socks.”

“Good boy! Maybe you get hair cut sometime.” He lumbered back toward the office where two hookers stood in front of the door arguing over a room key that kept changing hands and left Jackson in the doorway between mildewed cool and the desert. From the Regent to the Sea Wind. But it wasn’t Taco Bell, and he wasn’t dead. And he could play piano for the first time in four months.

The Sea Wind sat right on the east edge of Vegas and the desert, so close the far north end of the parking lot faded into sand. It was a “plus tips” gig, and there weren’t many, and most of those were so he’d stop so someone could play the jukebox. The door was always open because the air conditioner was half-dead, flush the urinal in the men’s room and the plumbing groaned the soundtrack for The Exorcist and finished with a metal pipes thumping a Latin beat on sheetrock.

The housekeepers called it the Hot Wind, Jackson called it the Breaking Wind. The lobby smelled a little like vomit, the tiny casino smelled a lot like cat pee, and he learned there was a stabbing every weekend. Usually on Saturday night. Usually in the doorway to the lobby. Usually about somebody not paying somebody else for something they shouldn’t have been doing in the first place. They wanted to charge him more to stay in a room than he was making, so for a week he slept in his car at the end of the lot where the sand started.

***

He drove around on his second Sunday in Vegas, looking for gas. He pulled into the Lucky Lady, an ancient gray brick obil station, because of the giant, metal sign featuring a Nineteen Forties cheesecake pin-up girl sitting on an oil can. He made friends with a guy named Michael who said he ran the ancient rust and cinder block station for his “lost inside his own mind Grampa.” They talked, drank a couple of almost frozen Nehi strawberry sodas from a cooler, moved on to beer.

Michael heard Jackson out, told him he could park his car inside and sleep in the service bay. Jackson took cold showers in the blue and white tiled men’s room with a garden hose and hosed it down when he was done. Every now and then at the Sea Wind he could get into a room before housekeeping and take a hot shower, even though he was a little leery of what might be living in the plumbing. He shaved in the ladies room at the Mobil because it had a real mirror instead of the piece of bent chrome in the men’s room that made him look like one of those pictures of a kid, or a dog, that was all nose. Michael’s hospitality was Spartan but manageable. He was a little older than Jackson and had his own heartbreak story, and he was the first person to ever cast doubt on Jackson’s manhood.

Michael popped the kitchen match to life with his thumbnail. “She just got tired of you, man. She didn’t want to hurt you, you know.” He lit the joint, hit it solid but not too deep. “Didn’t want to call you pencil dick or nothin’. You were probably just a crummy piece of ass, girl had to roam.”

Jackson hadn’t considered that. Didn’t want to, either. “Man, I’ve known girls who knew how to fuck. Crazy ass sex girls that ran me through the Kama Sutra and a couple of other books full of ideas. I never had any complaints before.”

“You ever ask her?”

“No.”

“Should have. Me, too, on that should have. We were engaged. She was a first-year third grade teacher, right here in Vegas. I came home and found a note on a Friday night sayin’ she’d run off with a textbook salesman from Baton Rouge.”

“If it’ll make you feel any better my dad used to say ‘There’s hell, and then there’s Houston. If the devil thinks you’re a miserable son of a bitch, there’s Louisiana.’”

“Never been anywhere but the desert myself. I hope she hates it. I used to hope he beat her, and if she came back? No more Mr. Nice Guy. But I couldn’t, you know, beat her or nothin’. Now I just hope she’s happy. Not too happy. Like his dick falls off and he can’t screw unhappy.”

“She tell you why she left, call you a pencil dick?”

“No. The note was the last of it.”

“‘Later, fool’ is a cold shot. You find a new girlfriend yet?”

“Nah. Hard to find one, even to have time to clean up and go lookin’. They got all the pussy, hold all the cards, man. Maybe Cinderella will pull in here one day, need a tank of unleaded and a self-service grease monkey.” He frowned, killed the joint between his thumb and middle finger. “Snowball’s chance in Vegas of that shit.”

***

Jackson couldn’t stop thinking about what Michael had said. Maybe he was useless, that way. Maybe if he’d tried some things on Deanna. Maybe some of what that girl welder and her Kama Sutra book and waterbed thought was fun, or some of Monica the waitress’s gymnastic sexual circus madness, Deanna might still be around. She made lots of noise all the time, though. The apartment neighbors would complain or beat on the wall, particularly on Sunday afternoons. Maybe it was just this Michael guy’s weed fucking with him. It didn’t work. He pulled the quilt out of his trunk, pulled out the bolt that held his passenger seat up, dropped it and passed out.

He dreamed, fitfully, of all the things he should have done with Deanna that she had someone else doing now. All of them laughing about him, how inept he was, what kind of pussy whipped idiot he’d been. She’d grabbed both sides of his face and pulled his head up. “Now,” she’d whispered through a kiss, before she pushed his face away to look at him. “Before I give you all of me, promise me you’ll love me forever. Please?” What a load of it.

At three in the morning he gave up on sleep, raised the service bay door and ran tepid water from the hose over his head. For lack of anything better to do he rotated his tires by hand under a sliver of moon that dared the puddles in the drive to last till daybreak.