Bill goes into his top pocket, hocks up phlegm into a crusty spitrag and peers sideways through his burning Pall Mall. He leans in on a forearm and drops his voice.
‘I own this casino. But you didn’t know that when you shared those beans with me outside Oklahoma City in the rain and Bill -- I just want to say thank you. I got a little bit of my faith in human nature back. Thank you, Good Bill.’
Bill’s glad toothless face shines in the overhead light as snow streaks past the darkening windows and the train rocks along. His eyes are closed again, wandering in the past or in a dreamtime that was never real. His wrinkled hands shake a little on the table as he thinks his thoughts. His grey spittled lips twitch and I think it’s how a hanged man must look in the last seconds of brainlight before death; Bill is probably more alive right now in that toothless bulb of his than he’s ever been out here in the world.
‘And then’ he says, hushed, eyes still closed ‘Howard was kind enough to give me money to get back to Pennsylvania to my wife. I took him up on it and I swore off gamblin when I walked in the door and saw her sittin alone on that livin room couch. It was then I done quit for good.’
The train clacks along for about a half-hour with both of us quiet. The snow’s blizzing down hard, tapping against the windows: you can see small towns getting buried as we flash by in the dark. We’re far out in the desert now, there’s no turning back and even if there was there’s no place to go back to. The palm trees and searchlights of Los Angeles have disappeared behind the snow and the world of yesterday or last week is as lost to me as if it were dead centuries.
Maybe Bill’s got it right, maybe the only way to deal with the present is to fix up the past. To hone it, whittle it, cut out the boring and painful parts, to invent the people and places as they should have been: like grafting and pruning a sick tree back to health. Then who knows— whole new futures might shoot up from anywhere: a rainy overpass outside Oklahoma City; the boardwalk in Venice Beach; even from the dead barcar of an empty train that drags like a chain through desert snow.
And that story about Howard Hughes in disguise, drifting around the West? Pretty sure I’ve seen that movie.
I’m sitting in a low-slung cloth chair on the shore of an ancient ocean. The wind is blowing hard and a hundred bodies in flapping robes look out over the water. Near me is a chalice flooded with dark wine. ‘H’yah!’ shout two servants, dressed in white suits. ‘H’yah!’ They whip a bony-shouldered old cow ahead of them, tripping her in panic toward the heavy surf, her eyes bulging with fear. Offshore a dorsal fin slices through filthy water. A woman sits on the sand beside me, long red hair wound in a beehive around her face, mummified but for the smile. Snow tornadoes spin in a web of trances on the surface of the sea. A hundred bodies clack their hands as the cow’s skinny legs collapse into a wave and she’s dragged out, upside down in the undertow. The dorsal fin disappears and the woman presses the wine to my lips. I push it away but it spills down my yellow chest. The beach crowd is a-swarm with laughter and chatter. The cow surfaces and sucks for air, her eye-whites aglow in the wave as the fin flashes beneath her. Her ripped udder belches blood into the sea and the white-suited servants fall into the surf, red foam circling their knees and coating their arms. They shoot spears, cinched to a threadbare white net, into the dorsal fin. The shark flaps and rolls, bleeding and spinning until it dies and drifts like an old bottle in the waves. Whistling applause mixes with the shriek of gulls; the wind rises to a high whine and the servants take a bow.
The snow’s stopped and the lights are way down.
Bill’s dozing with his head on the table and Sam the bartender is nodding on his stool, a newspaper spread open on the counter. The dim fluorescent light makes a wrinkled line on the oil-spotted surface of Bill’s black coffee. Outside the train crosses a bridge beneath a cold quarter-moon that just jumped out of the clouds. The rock looks like water frozen in midstream, like somebody snapped their fingers and everything just stopped moving. Laura must still be sleeping, some thousand miles behind my left ear.
Morning splits open in gummy pink beams on the frozen desert and our faces reflect in the windows as we speed through it. Me and Bill are sunk low in our seats. The first thing I remember on waking is sitting here at the table and Sam the bartender with his rainy eyes in our direction; he must’ve bent the hours for us last night. The car’s empty again: I can’t recall seeing a conductor since I got on. I have a glass of water in front of me, and Bill’s smoking.
I remember the dream: the wind and clacking bodies: humiliation of the beasts. The way we watched the cow driven down in panic and brute confusion, slaughtered by white-suited servants, and us nothing but a gang of low clowns and phonies. How we drank and taunted the animals and made their deaths desperate because we were dull and thinly comic. How life was disappointing so there was nothing left but to mock it.
Sam’s staring at me through his water-eyes. I want to get up and crawl away into another car, see other faces. I want to see Laura again. I’m stuck in this green morgue light that gives way to morning; I get up and go to the bar and back to the table, to the toilet at the end of the car, but that’s all I can manage. The sun flashes on the windows and I can smell that Sam’s got a new pot of coffee going. Bill’s been talking since he woke up but I’m only tuning in now.
‘Is how I lost my teeth’ he’s saying. ‘Workin in a steel mill. I seen guys burned, skin melted like ice cream so their own kids wouldn’t recognize em, no noses, hair, legs, arms, hands ripped right offa them. Liquid steel in big vats, gigantic beams swinging through the air, shit…’ he shakes his head and grinds out his cigarette. ‘It was worse than the fuckin war.’ He’s waiting for me to ask how his teeth went missing.
I watch him like I’m watching TV but I’m not in the mood for back and forth yet so I say nothing.
‘I’m sittin at home lookin at that show where they spin a wheel’ he says finally ‘with the good-lookin gal, an I holler for my wife to gimme the cookie jar.’ Bill wheezes and his pink gums split wide. ‘She thows it, man, she musta been mad at me for somethin. Knocks me right in the face! Twenty years in a steel mill, man, coulda got busted up sixteen ways to hell and the old lady knocks out my teeth with a cookie jar!’
Bill laughs until the wheezing stops him; he leans back with one arm over the nearby chair. ‘Sam-u-el,’ he calls finally, wiggling his white eyebrows.
I’m still slumped in my seat, staring at him like he’s a painting or a postage stamp. I hear Sam moving behind the bar and after a minute I get up and fetch Bill his coffee and whiskey because he’s an old cripple; I get a wine for myself. Apparently the hours are permanently bent.
I can see Laura sleeping on her mama’s couch, a pillow imprint pink on the side of her bandaged face. Most Serene Mother’s up early, standing in the kitchen in the dark eating walnuts and cooing to a tiny vicious dog. Across town, well after the sun rises, Julie the Slasher will call in sick so she can wait for an insurance guy to show: no complaint will be lodged against me because that could get complicated what with the assault. Today in Hollywood it’ll be hot and another low-grade smog alert will be issued.
It’ll all be just the same, almost. Like it is when you’re dead only now you think you’re actually going somewhere down the tracks.
‘So come on and tell me, man’ Bill says ‘your girlfriend kick your ass out, didn’t she?’
I laugh the giddy hiccup that comes before grief. ‘I got an old friend in Chicago I need to see’ I say.
Bill frowns. ‘I thought you said you didn’t know no one there.’
He’s right. I did say that.
‘I said I didn’t know what I was gonna do when I got there. I just decided, just now.’
‘Hmm.’ Bill says. ‘He from LA too?’
‘Yeah. He’s got red hair and he works in a shoe store on the South Side. He’s an adopted kid, fucked up in the head. He’s an idiot but I promised him I’d stop in. He used to play bass.’
‘Adopted don’t necessarily mean fucked up in the head’ Bill says. ‘I know plenty of good adopteds.’
I shrug. ‘He is.’
Bill doesn’t care about my fake plans. He wants to know what happened back in LA. ‘So’ he points ‘who whacked your cracker?’
I press the bandage on my forehead with two fingers but my head’s wine-numb and I can’t feel the bump. ‘Laura got attacked by a psycho bitch. My ex-girlfriend. I had to fight her off.’
Sam’s got the TV on the bar turned up and canned laughter breaks like ocean surf through the car: this must be the ambient noise of Hell. Above the agonized groans, gnashing teeth, shouted blasphemies, mutual accusations, laments, above the tearing of hair and rending of clothes laughs an invisible choir of heavenly laughers. All that you knew on Earth, in life, on whose shore you lived and loved and hated: all gone, effaced by the ceaseless compulsive erasure of mocking waves of laughter sent down from on high.
‘She got attacked? Wait a second, which one’s your ex, the psycho bitch or Laura?’ Bill asks.
‘I dunno’ I say shaking my head ‘both, now. I’m psycho.’
I light a cigarette and peer sideways through the smoke like Bill did when he told his story. ‘But this first ex’ I say ‘I knew her way before I knew Laura…we grew up together in New York and she’s a nut. Once she told me she had a séance at a friend’s house in the Valley and got herself hypnotized. Said she was carried down to Hell and forced to sit on the lap of the Devil’s son.’
‘Man’ Bill says. ‘So she was always a looney tunes.’
‘He was twelve foot’ I say ‘made of solid gold. His eyes were chandeliers and his mouth was a fucking klaxon. He told her that if she ever thought a single impure thought, even for one second, she’d forfeit her soul and he’d suck her back down to Hell to serve him for Eternity. She said that ever since that séance streetlights go dark when she comes near and flick back on when she walks away.’
Bill’s pink chops are half-open; he scratches a bat-like ear. ‘How come?’
I put the heels of my hands over my sore eyebulbs and the soft yellow sparks float like butterflies behind my lids. ‘Because they do’ I say.
I look up. He’s staring at me, wanting me to keep on with the story but I’m blank. ‘It just happens…I don’t know man.’
‘Anyways’ he says ‘that don’t explain how come she hit your girlfriend. That part still don’t connect. I mean, you got to assume she was jealous.’
‘Could be.’ I didn’t think it likely.
‘And it don’t show how you got that bump or why it look like your now-ex-girlfriend told you to hit the road. What about that.’
He’s right. The séance thing doesn’t connect. But I’m not done living the story that Bill wants to hear and to tell it right I need to see how it turns out myself.
When it’s really over, when I can see the busted glass and blood from a right distance, say down a tunnel of many years…when the faces don’t rise in my sleep like queer luminous beasts that float up from deep water... maybe then I can go back and dress the story up and put strings on it and make it spin and dance and come out alright.
I swear on the grave of this toothless old cripple sitting across from me that someday I’ll see Laura and the slumped palms of Los Angeles again and set things right. I’ll see her and I’ll be wise and forgiving and patient. I’ll be rich and generous and I won’t treat every day like a dimestore gag. I’ll wipe the blood from her holy face. I’ll raise her to heights of Serenity the likes of which her mother’s never dared dream and I’ll glorify those days and yank their nuts from the fire in the same way Bill’s story set things right with his wife, with Vegas— with whatever was left of his own life.