— for Al Neipris
On the day that Hot Springs, Arkansas, became an underwater city, I got up at about ten in the morning and heated some leftover spaghetti for breakfast. I was living in a furnished corner flat that rented for two hundred a month, utilities paid, above Prince Electronics and was pleased to have my own bathroom and also a small kitchen for the first time in a period of extended itinerancy. I have fond memories of this apartment, even though the landlord did not rent to “coloreds,” and it was the hottest apartment I’ve ever known, and I was unexplainably sick much of the time. I read a lot of books in those rooms, listened to a lot of rain. This was in 1990, and I bought my first computer there, a souped-up 286 upon which I composed many novels that exploded on me like joke-shop cigars.
Dizzy Reeves, who worked with me in the kitchen of the Arlington Hotel, came over about two that afternoon to discuss our plan to go to Las Vegas in a month and become millionaires. Dizzy was a barrel-chested, balding ex-con in his early forties, about five foot nine, with only two and a half fingers on his right hand (printing-press accident) and glasses so thick the lenses distorted his blue eyes. Looking into them was like staring into an aquarium. Dizzy had won the state eight-ball championship in 1985 and was still regarded by many as the best pool player in Arkansas, even if he looked, with his thick specs and amputated fingers, to be about the last guy in the room who could play.
He fell into one of my two big armchairs and lit up a Camel.
“You want some spaghetti?” I asked, shaking out one of his cigarettes for myself. “Or coffee?”
“Instant all right?”
“Long as it’s hot.”
From his shirt pocket he produced a scrawled-upon napkin that he treated with great care, as if it held the formula for the transmutation of base substances into gold. It was actually a ten-team parlay table. For the nongamblers: a ten-team parlay is a sort of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire betting ladder in which all the seed money and profit of each bet — in this case on a football game — is placed upon the next until you’ve won ten games in a row and have a million bucks or you’ve crashed in a fuming heap like a Conestoga wagon gone over a cliff, which is all he and I had managed to do so far.
Dizzy had spent most of his life in and out of foster homes, juvenile courts, reform schools, detention centers, youth camps, jails, and finally two state penitentiaries — the first in Raiford, Florida, setting of the novel Cool Hand Luke, and the second in Bentonville, Arkansas, where his “perspective got revolutionized” after he saw a fellow inmate brutally murdered. Dizzy’s crimes had mostly involved theft. He’d made it a point never to hurt an “innocent,” he said. The mantra of his rebellious youth had been that he did not care. Now, disgusted with his life, he claimed he was unafraid to die — indeed, he welcomed death, which is all you really need to know about a ten-team parlay.
Dizzy had one son, Junior, and I’d once spent a whole night talking Dizzy out of getting a gun and going to Louisiana to kill a man who was threatening his boy for having welshed on a bet. Dizzy lived in various rooming houses, never staying long in one, because he was always broke or getting into fights. Sometimes I tagged along to watch him play in local tournaments or the ten- and twenty-dollar games he’d rustle up for his own entertainment down at the Hide A Way or Gator’s or over at Tommy Boatwright’s place.
I fixed him his coffee and sat down in the recliner opposite. My computer was on, and Dizzy stared at the screen’s amber glow as he sipped from his cup.
“You got your table refined yet?” I asked.
“I’m getting it.” He studied his napkin while I studied his pasty complexion and the band-aid on his forearm, covering a cut that hadn’t healed in three weeks. He had gained considerable weight in the previous months. In tournaments he had trouble making balls off the break. Dizzy’s sister was diabetic, and I should have guessed that he was diabetic, too. But I didn’t worry about his health. He was too young to die, I thought. We were all too young to die.
The sky was cloudless as Dizzy and I came down the stairs from my apartment and out the screen door into daylight. We walked down Ouachita Avenue, a hodgepodge of bars, nightclubs, antique stores, and rooming houses full of pensioners, horseplayers, and drunks. A notorious gambling resort for a century, Hot Springs had once been a haven for such underworld luminaries as Lucky Luciano and Al Capone. The latter had kept a year-round suite on the fourth floor of the Arlington Hotel, where we were heading to work. Gambling was the passion of many who migrated here, Dizzy and myself included. Besides regular pool tournaments, poker games, and a major racetrack — Oaklawn Park — there were at least a dozen storefront bookmakers operating throughout the city, and we’d managed to lose thousands of dollars to them with Dizzy’s cockamamie scheme of ten games in a row or bust. It rankled me that we’d sometimes hit five or six in a row and still end up with nothing. I was not accustomed to losing thousands of dollars on football bets, or any kind of wager, but Dizzy had won and lost hundreds of thousands in his high-stakes hustling days, and each time we walked away empty-handed, he was ready to “fire another barrel at them.” I don’t know how many times I said, “Dizzy, do you realize how much money we could make if we just bet these games straight?”
I’d recently announced to Dizzy that, after the current football season was over, if we still had made no dent in anyone’s pocketbook except our own, I planned to go to Las Vegas and try my luck there. His pale eyes had gone wide behind those fishbowl lenses, like the eyes of a child who has taken Jesus into his heart, and he’d vowed to come with me.
Now Dizzy and I turned up Bathhouse Row, and the twin towers of the Arlington Hotel loomed feudally before us. We clocked in, picked up our uniforms, changed in the basement locker room, and ascended the stairs to the cavernous hotel kitchen. We were early, so we went to the break room for a cup of coffee.
A few minutes later Lily, a sweet, uneducated woman of twenty-six who worked in the pantry, came in and sat with us. Lily had two boys, six and eight, and her husband was in the slammer for dealing drugs. A few months earlier I’d learned that she’d never eaten lobster, so I’d cooked her some in tequila, cream, and tangerines, and she’d liked it so much she’d given me her recipe for “pudd’n.” I’d called her that ever since.
“Your hair is all wet, Pudd’n,” I said.
“It’s raining outside,” she replied, opening wide her brooding, heavy-lidded eyes.
“Well, tell me something new,” drawled Dizzy, for it rained just about every day in Hot Springs, sometimes three or four times a day.
“Must be raining pretty hard,” I said. I knew that Lily’s aunt, who watched her children while she was at work, dropped Lily off right out in front of the hotel.
“It is,” she said, swiping a wet lock of hair out of her face. “That sky just opened up, and it all busted loose.”
Dizzy described Lily’s husband as a “turd.” He hated drugs and drug dealers and thought that, since I liked Lily and her husband had abandoned her, I should move in with her and help care for the kids. Dizzy’s mother had turned him over to the state when he was seven, and he didn’t even remember his father. I suppose that’s where his chemistry-set concept of a happy family had come from: just add parents.
I liked Lily; that much was true. In the beginning I had admired her as one admires anything vital and graceful, and for a while I had angled for her favor — though the tricky business of her children, her convict husband, her poverty, her confusion, her bad luck, and her underlying sadness had all gotten in the way. My recently developed moral theory was that if you sacrificed your principles for the acquisition of some desired item such as money or “love” (and I had seen plenty of “love”), all you were left with when it was gone was the memory of the ignominious deed by which you’d procured the goods. So I’d determined it was infinitely better, as corny as it might sound, to be an upright lad.
Lily was a hard worker, and I’d recommended that she be promoted from the dish room to the pantry. I felt pretty good about myself for this, and also for the time I’d given Lily forty dollars to buy Christmas presents for her boys. Once, just after her husband had been locked up, Dizzy and I had brought groceries over to her apartment, and we’d played with her kids. There was a lot of good feeling all around, but it had made little essential difference in Lily’s circumstances, and I wanted to make a difference. So Dizzy and I had made the bold decision to invite her and her boys to come with us to Las Vegas and share in our get-rich-quick scheme, and, after much persuading, she had agreed. Lately, however, she seemed to be having second thoughts.
Today was Wednesday, prep day, and I’d already seen the cartful of frozen veal bones, quail, saffron, butter, parsley, and Spanish onions that the storeroom had delivered for me.
“Got to get to work,” I said.
“Yeah,” sighed Dizzy, who had played and beaten some of the best pool players of his day — Vernon Elliott, “St. Louis” Louie Roberts, U.J. Puckett, Jimmy Mataya — and would now be a pot washer for however long he chose to obey the law and remain in the free world.
Lily trailed us in her hotel-issue white dress, looking like a nurse from a tuberculosis sanitarium walking through the snow with a bottle of cherry-flavored cough syrup in her pocket. When I’d first met her, she’d been a cheerful person, singing and sweating as she’d pushed the great carts full of china about the kitchen like ocean liners, but lately she was somber and had dark circles under her eyes. The Peasant Bruegel would’ve been pleased to paint Lily, I believe — those sturdy arms and calves, the set-back shoulders, her solemn industry and dignity. I know now that, like Dizzy, she was sick, though at the time I thought it was only Rotten Marriage Malaise, soon to be assuaged by yours truly in the desert heat.
I was a cook for the Fountain Room, one of three restaurants at the Arlington. A note attached to the ticket wheel read:
1) Ballerina, pirouette
2) Soup (use saffron and quail)
3) demigloss [sic]
4) clarify butter
5) chop parsley
6) check racks
7) get maintenance to fix heat lamp
Responsible for items two through six, I thought I might be able to knock them out by 9 PM, grab a six-pack and a Racing Form on the way home, and cap tomorrow’s Oaklawn card by midnight. Prepping is mostly knife work, so I steeled my ten-inch Forschner and started in. The onions were old and made me bleed from the corneas and swear. Into the oven went two big pans of veal bones, whole black peppercorns, bay leaves, a handful of thyme, and the mirepoix. While the cattle bones roasted, I braised the dozen tiny, loose-skinned quail, their dollhouse skeletons and skin going into a pot with another, smaller, mirepoix and bouquet garni to simmer for stock. I also daydreamed about Vegas and watched Lily putting together three fruit plates in the pantry across the way.
Ajka Bumpo, the sous chef, stumbled in on his black wooden clogs at twenty minutes after three. Ajka was a second-generation Hungarian raised in Detroit who’d moved to Hot Springs eight years earlier to learn the art of “fine cuisine” from his grandmother. He was usually late and in some state of inebriation. With an air of exaggerated industry he spilled an armful of paperwork across the counter. I could smell booze on him.
“How’s it going?” he asked.
“Starved,” he said, turning and clattering across the kitchen to the pantry to grill himself a bacon and Swiss on rye, which he then ate while he watched me work.
“It’s raining like hell out there,” he said, draped over the counter, crumbs in his beard and eyes glowing like rubies. “You wouldn’t believe it. Listen.” He cupped a hand around his ear.
I listened, but it was hard to hear anything over the steam-hissing, plate-clashing chaos of that enormous kitchen.
“I’ve lived here eight years and never seen rain like this,” he said. He clopped up onto the wooden mats to peek into my pot. “What smells so good?”
“Quail burgoo with saffron dumplings.”
He rubbed his fingers together. “Fine cuisine.”
“I need some apple brandy from the storeroom.”
Ajka was the only one besides the chef who was authorized to get liquor from the storeroom. “I’ll get it,” he said, stuffing the last corner of sandwich into his mouth and brushing off his hands. “But first I’ve got to do an ice carving for the party tomorrow,” he said. “Little Rock Ballet Society.”
“Do you need help with the block?”
“No, I can get it.” He searched absently through his pockets. “Coffee,” he said.
Now I heard the distant rumble of thunder and what might have been rain. The kitchen was so deep in the hotel that I had never heard rain down there before. Another line cook tipped his ear eagerly to the horse race on the radio. “They’re gonna suspend the ninth race,” he said. “Do you believe it?”
“The track is swamped,” he said.
Ajka returned with his ice chisels and picks tucked inside a canvas roll-up kit under his arm, the sandwich crumbs neatly combed out of his beard. He reached for a bottle of cognac, dribbled a jigger into his cup, and gave me a wink. In most restaurants you’re obliged to follow a strict food budget, but at the Arlington the profit came from the rooms; the restaurants were there simply to accommodate the guests. So whatever we wanted — truffles, morels, snails, quails, lobster tails, Grand Marnier and VSOP cognac (some of which we actually used for flambéing) — we got.
I made a tan roux with onions and garlic and thyme. Lily strolled over and stood shyly in her long nurse’s whites, arms crossed over her chest.
“Something smells good,” she said.
“I think that’s you.”
She shook her bangs and regarded me seriously. She couldn’t quite figure me out, it seemed, and now that I would be leading her out of her Bog of Despair, she required a good deal of reassurance. She had never traveled outside of Arkansas and must have imagined Nevada as a landscape of vultures, bleached cow skulls, and the litter of burning Conestoga wagons.
“What’cha making?” she wanted to know.
“Quail burgoo with saffron dumplings.”
She wrinkled her nose.
“Quails are like little chickens,” I said, “and burgoo is just a thick soup, that’s all.” I fished up a quail skeleton to show her.
“The poor thing,” she said. “They oughta let it grow up.”
“That’s about as big as they get. You need a dozen of them to get a pound of meat.” I spooned her up a bit of the quail meat, and she tried it. “Not much different than chicken,” I said, “but it’s ten times the price. That’s why the rich folks like it.”
Her finger strayed along the collarbone of her strong but lovely neck.
Louis the testy desk clerk passed through on his way to the lobby in his usual headlong, Groucho Marx fashion. He stopped and blinked at me. “You seen that rain outside?” he asked.
“I can hear it,” I said.
Louis often accused me of being a Yankee, not because I had come from the North with all my fancy ideas, but because I liked my grits with butter and sugar and milk and I soaked the black-eyed peas overnight. “It’s up over the curbs.” He raised a hand to eye level. “You should go out and look. We’re getting three inches an hour, the radio said.” And off he went.
“I’d better get back,” Lily said.
I watched her cross the room. The lights flickered appropriately. Thunder rolled in the distance. Dizzy was on the public phone by the walk-in coolers, shouting in frustration at Junior, who had turned out exactly like his father, an angry, peripatetic pool hustler from a broken home who “did not care” and was therefore on his way into the Arkansas correctional system. Dizzy was unable to communicate to his son how it was exactly that, through a series of poor choices, you ended up a seven-and-a-half-fingered pot washer living in a rooming house with no future and your dreams haunted by an inmate murdered viciously in his bed.
My bones roasted nicely in the oven. The carrots got soft. I stirred everything in the pans, scraping all the goodies down from the sides. It was time for the apple brandy, but Ajka had forgotten me. I grabbed a cup of coffee and walked back to check on him.
He worked in the old ice room, where in the days before refrigeration ice had been poured by the ton through a chute in the ceiling. The tiled floor sloped to a giant drain in the center. It was a cool chamber but not cold, a good place to carve ice sculptures. Ajka in his goggles, blapping chain saw in hands, was chipping out the crude image of a ballerina with one arm in the air. Your creator is drunk, I thought. What kind of ballerina will you turn out to be?
The head steward entered the room and signaled Ajka to turn off his chain saw.
“If you got any stuff down in the locker room,” the steward said, “get it out.”
“Why?” said Ajka.
“That water getting mighty high.”
“Hotel won’t flood,” Ajka replied stubbornly. “It’s thirty feet above street level.”
“Basement’ll flood,” said the steward. “Basement’s already flooding.”
“They got storm drains under the street you can drive a truck down,” said Ajka crossly.
The steward shook his head and lifted his long hands from his sides. “OK,” he said, turning for the door. “Can’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Ajka shook his head. “Basement ain’t gonna flood. I’m gonna finish this ballerina.”
“I have to start the demi-glace,” I said. “I’ll need the apple brandy.”
“Right,” he said. “Just let me carve the outline on this.” He yanked the cord on the chain saw. I went to get the brandy myself, rules be damned.
On the way back from the storeroom, bottle in hand, I stopped to talk to Dizzy beside his mountain of dirty cookware. He was still angry about his son and was taking it out on the scorched bottom of a pot.
“You heard about the rain?” I asked.
“Couple dozen times. I hear they’re closing the racetrack.”
“Everything all right with your son?”
“If he had bail money, it would be.”
“What’d he do this time?”
He shook his head. “Just some stupid shit. His mama will bail him out, because you know I won’t.”
The pans of roasting bones foamed as I poured in the brandy. Then I carried them around back and drained their contents into the great, chest-high steam kettle. The demi-glace had to cook at just under a simmer for twenty-four hours. We made fifty gallons at a time. Out of sixteen sauces on the line at dinner service, ten of them were demi-glace based.
From where I stirred the big stockpot, I could watch Ajka carve. He was proficient at dolphins, cornucopias, and swans, but I had never seen him attempt a ballerina before. She stood about four feet high and looked good from a distance, her left leg raised in a frozen arabesque.
I returned to my station and mixed the dumpling batter with a pinch of paprika and nutmeg and fennel, stirring in the saffron until the flour turned a sunny yellow. The dumplings swelled like golden eggs along the sides of the burgoo.
I was beginning to chop six bunches of parsley when Ajka came clopping around the corner. “I’m done with the ballerina,” he said.
“How’d she come out?”
He kissed the tips of his fingers.
“Do you need help moving her?”
“No, I already parked her in back. If someone breaks this one, I’ll murder ’em. You want a drink?”
“When I’m done with the knife.”
Thunder shook the frame of the old hotel. Ajka looked around. The employees were filing out. The hotel manager, who reminded me of a football coach, stood in the doorway talking to Louis the front-desk clerk.
Lily hustled by, handbag clutched under her arm. “They’re gonna close the hotel,” she said.
Ajka shrugged. “You staying?” he asked me.
“I’ve got no choice. I’ve got to wait for this demi-glace to come up to temp.”
“Good,” he said, draining his cup.
Lily returned in a few minutes.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Water’s up over the parking meters,” she said, out of breath. “We’re stuck for the night.”
The parking meters? This I had to see.
I walked through the hotel lobby and out the brass revolving doors onto the long veranda on the front of the hotel. The flight of stairs leading down to the street was two-thirds covered with water, and Central Avenue was a brown, fast-flowing river. The hotel had become an island. A car floated by upside down. Another followed with a driver inside trying to steer.
I returned to tell Ajka, who didn’t believe me and had to go out and look for himself.
I stirred the demi-glace and stuck in the thermometer: 178 degrees. Almost there. I checked the butter.
Then the lights went out.
A few cigarette lighters flickered up. Lily lit some birthday candles. The hotel manager strode over with one in hand.
“We’ve lost power,” he said. “All the wiring is down in the basement. The alternate generator is down there too. We’ll be stuck without power for a while.”
“What time is it?” I asked.
I saw the green radium dots on his watch as he turned his wrist. “Seven thirty.”
“Is it still raining?”
“Pitchforks and bull yearlings. Don’t know how long it’ll last. We’ll just have to stick it out. You might want to take some precautions. Turn off your equipment. Put away all the food you can.”
He walked off, holding up his birthday candle.
I covered the butter and switched off all the ovens. The soup was too hot to put away. I found a flashlight in the liquor cabinet and walked down the hall. The hotel felt strange without the whir and clank of machines and the spinning of fans. The air was heavy and dank.
Dizzy was sitting in the break room, scrawling on a napkin by candlelight. I pulled up a chair. “So now what do we do?” I asked.
He slid the napkin across the table as if it were the catalyst in the redemption of mankind, which in a way it might have been, for Dizzy intended to share his half million with all the poor, deserving people he knew, including Lily and his ailing mother. “If we start with two thousand, we only have to hit nine games,” he said.
Then he went to shoot some pool on the hotel table.
I poured a cup of coffee and walked back down the hall, throwing my flashlight beam past anonymous shapes that were unusually lively of step. It was fun being at work when you didn’t have to work, like summer camp, or a stormy night in a medieval castle, or a return to the fire-lit caves of Lascaux. The hiss and metal rip of opened soft-drink cans mingled with the murmur of mischief and the dim rain drumming on the roof far away. I found Lily in her work station behind the refrigerators. She was covering dishes with plastic wrap. “What are your plans for the night?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
“They’ll be giving rooms to the employees soon,” I said.
“I never stayed in no hotel before.”
“There’s not much to it.”
“I’ve got to finish up here first,” she said.
“I do too.” Her profile in the half light of a candle was elegant. We had talked once about sex, and she’d admitted to losing her virginity at age ten. I think that was the point at which the nature of my interest in her had changed. “You be careful, Pudd’n,” I said. “The wolves are out.”
“Oh, I know all about those,” she said.
She turned to face me. “What?”
“Never mind. You just be careful.”
I wandered back to my own station. My fifty gallons of demi-glace had dropped to 173 degrees. No power overnight and it would spoil. Ajka had disappeared and was likely enjoying himself in the darkness. He often boasted of his extramarital affair with a cocktail waitress. I had once boasted of my affairs, too, though I couldn’t remember why.
I went outside again to look at the magnificent rain tumbling steadily down, the rushing street-river roiling four feet up the shop windows. A picnic bench coasted by, then two trash cans and a couch with a cat riding on it. I recalled all the stories of Great Floods and how, when the waters receded and all the sinners like me were drowned, the world was reborn. The guests and employees of the hotel stood along the rail of the veranda like bewildered passengers on a slowly sinking ship.
“Raining pretty hard,” observed one guest.
“Pitchforks and bull yearlings,” I said.
Back in the jungle-themed lobby, employees mingled with guests — probably for the first time in hotel history — as the bartender mixed free drinks. Kerosene lamps glowed on tropical-print tablecloths. Pool balls cracked from the game room, and I went in to watch Dizzy beat a cocky kid who ran the table except for the eight ball. Dizzy calmly ran out his balls, dropped the eight, and collected his twenty.
“I almost beat you,” the kid said proudly.
Dizzy chuckled and said, without disdain, “What does almost mean?”
Dizzy claimed to hate Arkansas and had once asked me to make sure, if he happened to die here, that his body got shipped back to his home state of Washington, but I think he was more attached to the place than he would admit. His son, his ex-wife (whom he still loved), his triumphs, his reputation, most of his friends, his lost fingers, and his misspent youth were all in Arkansas.
A pack of revelers strolled past, slapping each other on the backs and laughing.
“The rain’s letting up,” one said.
“I heard on the radio another storm’s coming,” another said hopefully.
I returned to the kitchen and poured what was left of the Courvoisier into a coffee cup. I fancied in those days that I was only curious about people, that I didn’t really need them, and therefore Las Vegas, a magnet for hardened and lost souls, would be just my kind of town. But there in the thick of an anarchic, primitive darkness I felt the desire for company — specifically, feminine company. I went to look for Lily.
I checked in the steward’s office, where the black employees had gathered; then the chef’s office, where our garde-manger was drinking brandy with his crew; then in the Venetian dining room, where the waiters had banded together with their bottles, cigarettes, and horse talk by lantern light. I lingered at the edge of each group and inquired about Lily. I got a few sly smiles, but no one had seen her.
At last I found her sitting in the dark on a bench by the parking-lot elevator.
“Hey, Pudd’n, what are you doing back here?”
She wrung her hands. “Oh, just sitting here.”
I sat down next to her. “You’re the only one besides me not having any fun. You want a drink or something?”
She set her palms on her knees. “Oh, no, I’ll be fine.”
I could see that she’d been crying. I thought she might be missing her kids, who were safe with their aunt on higher ground outside of downtown.
“You gonna get a room?” I asked.
“I reckon,” she said, folding her arms and looking away.
“I’ll help you if you need it,” I said.
She grew quiet then, shivering a bit, and I began to talk about our trip to Vegas: how we would rent a house on the outskirts and how, even if Dizzy’s scheme didn’t work, there were still plenty of jobs in Vegas that paid three times what they paid in Arkansas, and how in the desert your towels actually got dry, which I thought would cheer her up but only made her hang her head and cry.
I put my arm around her. I had never touched her before. I figured maybe she was torn between loyalty to her convict husband and the two millionaire-babbling lunatics who wanted to drag her off to a strange land with vultures, one-armed bandits, and dry towels. “Look, Lily,” I said, “if Las Vegas doesn’t work out, you can always come back. Dizzy and I will make sure you get your old job back.”
She raised her head, sniffled, and dabbed at her eyes with her handkerchief. Her body felt good next to mine. It had been a long time since I’d held anyone I cared about. I’d once thought that being alone was a sign of strength, but now I wasn’t so sure.
“Pudd’n,” I said, “you OK?”
“Yeah, I’m just feeling sick.”
She didn’t tell me how sick she was.
“Why don’t you come out and be with people for a spell?” I asked. “We’ll shoot a game of pool or watch the rain.” I flicked on my flashlight and pointed it at the ceiling. “It might make you feel better.”
Her cheeks shone with tears as she blew her nose into her hankie. “Just let me sit here a bit longer,” she said.
I considered kissing her then, a peck on her wet cheek, but I wanted her to trust me, so I turned off my flashlight and left her there in the darkness.
At the front desk Louis, cranky and resentful about having to work while everyone else got to plunder and roam, toiled by candlelight to find accommodations for all.
“What floor you want?” he asked me.
“Is the Capone Suite available?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Give me the penthouse, then.”
“How about seventh?”
He scribbled down my name, slid across a key. “Elevator’s out, remember.”
The old hotel creaked in the wind as I traveled down murky halls to the stairwell, past the locked doors of the powerless rooms. Shadows flowed and merged like phantoms along the walls. I heard cackling, then singing and the clinking of glasses, then dense, deliberate silence. A scream echoed eerily from somewhere. I heard a couple making love.
In my room on the seventh floor I looked down over the glittering, submerged city, cars and tree branches still sailing down the streets. The rain thudded like lead against the windows. The sky split suddenly with a fork of blue-green light. I sipped on my cup of Courvoisier and had another fantasy of going to Las Vegas.
I did go as planned, but by myself, the way it turned out. If I’d known then that Dizzy and Lily were both going to die on me, Lily before she was thirty from a tumor under her tongue that you might as well say was the will to die, and Dizzy not long after from a diabetic coma, I would’ve insisted that they come. But I went alone that spring, as always, and I did well enough, though the empty life of the gambler I wouldn’t wish on anyone.