Robert loaded the last of the laundry baskets full of dishes into the bed of the pickup. The sight of a truckload of clean dishes did not raise his spirits nearly as much as he thought it would. He was still depressed. He was still heartbroken. And he was still hung over.
For a moment he thought that washing the dishes might have been a mistake. Having created a single bright spot, no matter how small, seemed to make the rest of his life look even more dismal by contrast. Maybe he should have just gone with the downward flow, like the pilot who pushes down the stick to pull out of an uncontrolled spin.
Secretly, Robert believed that if things got so bad that he couldn't see his way out, something would come along and not only save him from disaster but improve his life overall. It was a skewed brand of faith that he had developed through years of watching television – where no problem was so great that it could not be surmounted by the last commercial break – and through two events in his own life.
As a boy in Ohio he had taken his first summer job at the local county fair, picking up trash on the midways. The job had been great fun for the first two weeks. He and the other boys on the cleanup crew spent their days wandering the midways using long sticks, with nails extending from one end, to spear paper cups and hot dog wrappers as if they were hunting lions on the Serengeti. They were paid in cash at the end of each day. The next day they spent their pay on games of chance and repeated rides on the Zipper, which was the beginning of Robert's lifelong habit of exchanging money for dizziness and nausea.
The day after the fair ended, Robert and the boys were told to report to the livestock area of the fairgrounds. They arrived before dawn, wondering what they would do now that the colorful carny trailers and rides were gone and the midways were as barren as airport runways.
The man from the county met them outside the big exhibition barns with a dump truck, a pile of pitchforks, and some wheelbarrows. "Clean out those pens, boys. Load the manure on the truck," he had said. Then he went away, leaving the boys unsupervised.
Robert had loaded only three forkfuls when he and the boys ran out of the barn gasping for breath, the odor of ammonia burning in their noses and lungs.
Again and again they tried to clean the stables only to be overcome by the stench. As they stood outside the barn, swearing and complaining, Robert noticed something sticking up out of the morning fog on the adjacent show ground. It looked like the head of a dragon.
It was beginning to get light, and the boys could hear banging and clanging and strange animal noises coming from the show ground. They stared into the fog, trying to make out the shapes moving there, glad for the distraction from their miserable task.
When the sun broke over the trees to the east of the fairgrounds, a scraggly man in blue work clothes walked out of the mist toward the barn. "Hey, you kids," he shouted, and they all prepared to be admonished for standing around instead of working. "You want to work for the circus?"
The boys dropped their pitchforks as if they were red-hot rods of steel and ran to the man. The dragon had been a camel. The strange noises were the trumpeting of elephants. Under the mist a crew of men were unrolling the big top of the Clyde Beatty Circus.
Robert and the boys worked all morning beside the circus people, lacing together the bright-yellow canvas panels of the tent and fitting together giant sections of aluminum poles that would support the big top.
It was hot, sweaty, heavy work, and it was wonderful and exciting. When the poles lay out across the canvas, cables were hitched to a team of elephants and the poles were hoisted skyward. Robert thought his heart would burst with excitement. The canvas was connected by cables to a winch. The boys watched in awe as the big top rose up the poles like a great yellow dream.
It was only one day. But it was glorious, and Robert thought of it often – of the roustabouts who sipped from their hip flasks and called each other by the names of their home states or towns. "Kansas, bring that strut over here. New York, we need a sledge over here." Robert thought of the thick-thighed women who walked the wire and flew on the trapeze. Their heavy makeup was grotesque up close but beautiful at a distance when they were flying through the air above the crowd.
That day was an adventure and a dream. It was one of the finest in Robert's life. But what had impressed him was that it had come right when things seemed the most bleak, when everything had gone, literally, to shit.
The next time Robert's life took a nosedive he was in Santa Barbara, and his salvation arrived in the form of a woman.
He had come to California with everything he owned packed into a Volkswagen Beetle, determined to pursue a dream that he thought would begin at the California border with music by the Beach Boys and a long, white beach full of shapely blondes dying for the company of a young photographer from Ohio. What he found was alienation and poverty.
Robert had chosen the prestigious photography school in Santa Barbara because it was reputed to be the best. As photographer for the high school yearbook he had gained a reputation as one of the best photographers in town, but in Santa Barbara he was just another teenager among hundreds of students who were, if anything, more skilled than he.
He took a job in a grocery store, stocking shelves from midnight to eight in the morning. He had to work full-time to pay his exorbitant tuition and rent, and soon he fell behind in his assignments. After two months he had to leave school to avoid flunking out.
He found himself in a strange town with no friends and barely enough money to survive. He started drinking beer every morning with the night crew in the parking lot. He drove home in a stupor and slept through the day until his next shift. With the added expense of alcohol, Robert had to hock his cameras to pay rent, and with them went his last hope for a future beyond stocking shelves.
One morning after his shift the manager called him into the office.
"Do you know anything about this?" The manager pointed to four jars of peanut butter that lay open on his desk. "These were returned by customers yesterday." On the smooth surface of the peanut butter in each jar was etched, "Help, I'm trapped in Supermarket Hell!"
Robert stocked the glass aisle. There was no denying it. He had written the messages one night during his shift after drinking several bottles of cough medicine he had stolen from the shelves.
"Pick up your check on Friday," the manager said.
He shuffled away, broke, unemployed, two thousand miles from home, a failure at nineteen. As he left the store, one of the cashiers, a pretty redhead about his age, who was coming in to open the store, stopped him.
"Your name is Robert, isn't it?"
"Yes," he said.
"You're the photographer, aren't you?"
"I was." Robert was in no mood to chat.
"Well, I hope you don't mind," she said, "but I saw your portfolio sitting in the break room one morning and I looked at it. You're very good."
"I don't do it anymore."
"Oh, that's too bad. I have a friend who's getting married on Saturday, and she needs a photographer."
"Look," Robert said, "I appreciate the thought, but I just got fired and I'm going home to get hammered. Besides, I hocked my cameras."
The girl smiled, she had incredible blue eyes. "You were wasting your talent here. How much would it cost to get your cameras out of hock?"
Her name was Jennifer. She paid to get his cameras out of hock and showered him with praise and encouragement. Robert began to make money picking up weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, but it wasn't enough to make rent. There were too many good photographers competing in Santa Barbara.
He moved into her tiny studio apartment.
After a few months of living together they were married and they moved north to Pine Cove, where Robert would find less competition for photography jobs.
Once again, Robert had sunk to a lifetime low, and once again Dame Fate had provided him with a miraculous rescue. The sharp edges of Robert's world were rounded by Jennifer's love and dedication. Life had been good, until now.
Robert's world was dropping out from under him like a trapdoor and he found himself in a disoriented free-fall. Trying to control things by design would only delay his inevitable rescue. The sooner he hit bottom, he reasoned, the sooner his life would improve.
Each time this had happened before, things had gotten a little worse only to get a little better. One day the good times had to keep on rolling, and all of life's horseshit would turn to circuses. Robert had faith that it would happen. But to rise from the ashes you had to crash and burn first. With that in mind, he took his last ten dollars and headed down the street to the Head of the Slug Saloon.
THE HEAD OF THE SLUG
Mavis Sand, the owner of the Head of the Slug Saloon, had lived so long with the Specter of Death hanging over her shoulders that she had started to think of him as one might regard a comfortable old sweater. She had made her peace with Death a long time ago, and Death, in return, had agreed to whittle away at Mavis rather than take her all at once.
In her seventy years, Death had taken her right lung, her gall bladder, her appendix, and the lenses of both eyes, complete with cataracts. Death had her aortic heart valve, and Mavis had in its place a steel and plastic gizmo that opened and closed like the automatic doors at the Thrifty Mart. Death had most of Mavis's hair, and Mavis had a polyester wig that irritated her scalp.
She had also lost most of her hearing, all of her teeth, and her complete collection of Liberty dimes. (Although she suspected a ne'er-do-well nephew rather than Death in the disappearance of the dimes.)
Thirty years ago she had lost her uterus, but that was at a time when doctors were yanking them so frequently that it seemed as if they were competing for a prize, so she didn't blame Death for that.
With the loss of her uterus Mavis grew a mustache that she shaved every morning before leaving to open the saloon. At the Slug she ambled around behind the bar on a pair of stainless steel ball and sockets, as Death had taken her hips, but not before she had offered them up to a legion of cowboys and construction workers.
Over the years Death had taken so much of Mavis that when her time finally came to pass into the next world, she felt it would be like slipping slowly into a steaming-hot bath. She was afraid of nothing.
When Robert walked into the Head of the Slug, Mavis was perched on her stool behind the bar smoking a Taryton extra-long, lording over the saloon like the quintessential queen of the lipstick lizards. After each few drags on her cigarette she applied a thick paste of fire-engine-red lipstick, actually getting a large percentage of it where it was supposed to go. Each time she butted a Taryton she sprayed her abysmal cleavage and behind her ears with a shot of Midnight Seduction from an atomizer she kept by her ashtray. On occasion, when she had rendered herself wobbly by too many shots of Bushmill's, she would shoot perfume directly into one of her hearing aids, causing a short circuit and making the act of ordering drinks a screaming ordeal. To avoid the problem, someone had once given her a pair of earrings fashioned from cardboard air fresheners shaped like Christmas trees, guaranteed to give Mavis that new car smell. But Mavis insisted that it was Midnight Seduction or nothing, so the earrings hung on the wall in a place of honor next to the plaque listing the winners of the annual Head of the Slug eight-ball tournament and chili cook-off, known locally as "The Slugfest."
Robert stood by the bar trying to get his eyes to adjust to the smoky darkness of the Slug.
"What can I get for you, sweet cheeks?" Mavis asked, batting her false eyelashes behind pop-bottle-thick, rhinestone-rimmed glasses. They put Robert in mind of spiders trying to escape a jar.
He fingered the ten-dollar bill in his pocket and climbed onto the bar stool. "A draft, please."
"Hair of the dog?"
"Does it show?" Robert asked in earnest.
"Not much. I was just going to ask you to close your eyes before you bled to death." Mavis giggled like a coquettish gargoyle, then burst into a coughing fit. She drew a mug of beer and set it in front of Robert, taking his ten and replacing it with nine ones.
Robert took a long pull from the beer as he turned on the stool and looked around the bar.
Mavis kept the bar dimly lit except for the lights over the pool tables, and Robert's eyes were still adjusting to the darkness. It occurred to him that he had never seen the floor of the saloon, which stuck to his shoes when he walked. Except for the occasional crunch underfoot identifying a piece of popcorn or a peanut shell, the floor of The Slug was a murky mystery. Whatever was down there should be left alone to evolve, white and eyeless, in peace. He promised himself to make it to the door before he passed out.
He squinted into the lights over the pool tables. There was a heated eight-ball match going on at the back table. A half dozen locals had gathered at the end of the bar to watch. Society called them the hard-core unemployed; Mavis called them the daytime regulars. On the table Slick McCall was playing a dark young man Robert did not recognize. The man seemed familiar, though, and for some reason, Robert found that he did not like him.
"Who's the stranger?" Robert asked Mavis over his shoulder. Something about the young man's aquiline good looks repelled Robert, like biting down on tin foil with a filling.
"New meat for Slick," Mavis said. "Came in about fifteen minutes ago and wanted to play for money. Shoots a pretty lame stick, if you ask me. Slick is keeping his cue behind the bar until the money gets big enough."
Robert watched the wiry Slick McCall move around the table, stopping to drill a solid ball into the side pocket with a bar cue. Slick left himself without a following shot. He stood and ran his fingers over his greased-back brown hair.
He said, "Shit. Snookered myself." Slick was on the hustle.
The phone rang and Mavis picked it up. "Den of iniquity. Den mother speaking. No, he ain't here. Just a minute." She covered the mouthpiece and turned to Robert. "You seen The Breeze?"
Into the phone, "Who's calling?" Mavis listened for a moment, then covered the mouthpiece again. "It's his landlord."
"He's out of town," Robert said. "He'll be back soon."
Mavis conveyed the message and hung up. The phone rang again immediately.
Mavis answered, "Garden of Eden. Snake speaking." There was a pause. "What am I, his answering service?" Pause. "He's out of town; he'll be back soon. Why don't you guys take a social risk and call him at home?" Pause. "Yeah, he's here." Mavis shot a glance at Robert. "You want to talk to him? Okay." She hung up.
"That for The Breeze?" Robert asked.
Mavis lit a Taryton. "He got popular all of a sudden?"
"Who was it?"
"Didn't ask. Sounded Mexican. Asked about you."
"Shit," Robert said.
Mavis set him up with another draft. He turned to watch the game. The stranger had won. He was collecting five dollars from Slick.
"Guess you showed me, pard," Slick said. "You gonna give a chance to win my money back?"
"Double or nothing," the stranger said.
"Fine. I'll rack 'em." Slick pushed the quarters into the coin slot on the side of the pool table. The balls dropped into the gutter and Slick began racking them.
Slick was wearing a red-and-blue polka-dotted polyester shirt with long, pointed collars that had been fashionable around the time that disco died – about the same time that Slick had stopped brushing his teeth, Robert guessed. Slick wore a perpetual brown and broken grin, a grin that was burned into the memories of countless tourists who had strayed into the Slug to be fleeced at the end of Slick's intrepid cue.
The stranger reared back and broke. His stick made the sickly vibrato sound of a miscue. The cue ball rocketed down the table, barely grazing the rack, then bounced off two corner rails and made a beeline toward the corner pocket where the stranger stood.
"Sorry, brother," Slick said, chalking his cue and preparing to shoot the scratch.
When it reached the corner pocket, the cue ball stopped dead on the lip. Almost as an afterthought, one of the solid balls moved out of the pack and fell into the opposite corner with a plop.
"Damn," Slick said. "That was some pretty fancy English. I thought you'd scratched for sure."
"Was that a solid?" the stranger asked.
Mavis leaned over the bar and whispered to Robert. "Did you see that ball stop? It should have been a scratch."
"Maybe there's a piece of chalk on the table that stopped it," Robert speculated.
The stranger made two more balls in an unremarkable fashion, then called a straight-in shot on the three ball. When he shot, the cue ball curved off his stick, describing a C-shaped curve, and sunk the six ball in the opposite corner.
"I said the three ball!" the stranger shouted.
"I know you did," Slick said. "Looks like you were a little heavy on the English. My shot."
The stranger seemed to be angry at someone, but it wasn't Slick. "How can you confuse the six with the three, you idiot?"
"You got me," said Slick. "Don't be so hard on yourself, pard. You're up one game already."
Slick ran four balls, then missed a shot that was so obvious it made Robert wince. Slick's hustles were usually more subtle.
"Five in the side!" the stranger shouted. "Got that? Five!"
"I got it," Slick said. "And all these folks got it along with half the people out in the street. You don't need to yell, pard. This is just a friendly game."
The stranger bent over the table and shot. The five ball careened off the cue ball, headed for the rail, then changed its path and curved into the side pocket. Robert was amazed, as were all the observers. It was an impossible shot, yet they all had seen it.
"Damn," Slick said to no one in particular, then to Mavis, "Mavis, when was the last time you leveled this table?"
"Well, it sure as shit went catywumpus fast. Give me my cue, Mavis."
Mavis waddled to the end of the bar and pulled out a three-foot-long black leather case. She handled it carefully and presented it to Slick with reverence, a decrepit Lady of the Lake presenting a hardwood Excaliber to the rightful king. Slick flipped the case open and screwed the cue together, never taking his eyes off the stranger.
At the sight of the cue the stranger smiled. Slick smiled back. The game was defined. Two hustlers recognized each other. A tacit agreement passed between them: Let's cut the bullshit and play.
Robert had become so engrossed in watching the tension between the two men and trying to figure out why the stranger angered him so, that he failed to notice that someone had slipped onto the stool next to him. Then she spoke.
"How are you, Robert?" Her voice was deep and throaty. She placed her hand on his arm and gave it a sympathetic squeeze. Robert turned and was taken aback by her appearance. She always affected him that way. She affected most men that way.
She was wearing a black body stocking, belted at the waist with wide leather in which she had tucked a multitude of chiffon scarves that danced around her hips when she walked like diaphanous ghosts of Salome. Her wrists were adorned with layers of silver bangles; her nails were sculptured long and lacquered black. Her eyes were wide and green, set far apart over a small, straight nose and full lips, glossed blood red. Her hair hung to her waist, blue-black. An inverted silver pentagram dangled between her breasts on a silver chain.
"I'm miserable," Robert said. "Thanks for asking, Ms. Henderson."
"My friends call me Rachel."
"Okay. I'm miserable, Ms. Henderson."
Rachel was thirty-five but she could have passed for twenty if it weren't for the arrogant sensuality with which she moved and the mocking smile in her eyes that evinced experience, confidence, and guile beyond any twenty-year-old. Her body did not betray her age; it was her manner. She went through men like water.
Robert had known her for years, but her presence never failed to awaken in him a feeling that his marital fidelity was nothing more than an absurd notion. In retrospect, perhaps it was. Still, she made him feel uneasy.
"I'm not your enemy, Robert. No matter what you think. Jenny has been thinking about leaving you for a long time. We didn't have anything to do with it."
"How are things with the coven?" Robert asked sarcastically.
"It's not a coven. The Pagan Vegetarians for Peace are dedicated to Earth consciousness, both spiritual and physical."
Robert drained his fifth beer and slammed the mug down on the bar. "The Pagan Vegetarians for Peace are a group of bitter, ball-biting, man haters, dedicated to breaking up marriages and turning men into toads."
"That's not true and you know it."
"What I know," Robert said, "is that within a year of joining, every woman in your coven has divorced her husband. I was against Jenny getting into this mumbo jumbo from the beginning. I told her you would brainwash her and you have."
Rachel reared back on the bar stool like a hissing cat. "You believe what you want to believe, Robert. I show women the Goddess within. I put them in touch with their own personal power; what they do with it is their own business. We aren't against men. Men just can't stand to see a woman discover herself. Maybe if you'd exalted Jenny's growth instead of criticizing, she'd still be around."
Robert turned away from her and caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror behind the bar. He was overcome by a wave of self-loathing. She was right. He covered his face with his hands and leaned forward on the bar.
"Look, I didn't come here to fight with you," Rachel said. "I saw your truck outside and I thought you might be able to use a little money. I have some work for you. It might take your mind off the hurt."
"What?" Robert said through his hands.
"We're sponsoring the annual tofu sculpture contest at the park this year. We need someone to take pictures for the poster and the press package. I know you're broke, Robert."
"No," he said, without looking up.
"Fine. Suit yourself." Rachel slid off the stood and started to leave.
Mavis sat another beer in front of Robert and counted his money on the bar. "Very smooth," she said. "You've got four bucks left to your name."
Robert looked up. Rachel was almost to the door. "Rachel!"
She turned and waited, an elegant hand on an exquisite hip.
"I'm staying at The Breeze's trailer." He told her the phone number. "Call me, okay?"
Rachel smiled. "Okay, Robert, I'll call." She turned to walk out.
Robert called out to her again. "You haven't seen The Breeze, have you?"
Rachel grimaced. "Robert, just being in the same room with The Breeze makes me want to take a bath in bleach."
"Come on, he's a fun guy."
"He's a fun-gus," Rachel said.
"But have you seen him?"
"Thanks," he said. "Call me."
"I will." She turned and walked out. When she opened the door, light spilling in blinded Robert. When his vision returned, a little man in a red stocking cap was sitting next to him. He hadn't seen him come in.
To Mavis the little man said, "Could I trouble you for a small quantity of salt?"
"How about a margarita with extra salt, handsome?" Mavis batted her spider-lashes.
"Yes, that will be good. Thank you."
Robert looked the little man over for a moment, then turned away to watch the pool game while he contemplated his destiny. Maybe this job for Rachel was his way out. Strange, though, things didn't seem to be bad enough yet. And the idea that Rachel could be his fairy godmother in disguise made him smile. No, the downward spiral to salvation was going quite nicely. The Breeze was missing. The rent was due. He had made enemies with a crazed Mexican drug dealer, and it was driving him nuts trying to figure out where he had seen the stranger at the pool table.
The game was still going strong. Slick was running the balls with machinelike precision. When he did miss, the stranger cleared the table with a series of impossible, erratic, curving shots, while the crowd watched with their jaws hanging, and Slick broke into a nervous sweat.
Slick McCall had been the undisputed king of eight ball at the Head of the Slug Saloon since before it had been called the Head of the Slug. The bar had been the Head of the Wolf for fifty years, until Mavis grew tired of the protests of drunken environmentalists, who insisted that timber wolves were an endangered species and that the saloon was somehow sanctioning their killing. One day she had taken the stuffed wolf head that hung over the bar to the Salvation Army and had a local artist render a giant slug head in fiberglass to replace it. Then she changed the sign and waited for some half-wit from the Save the Slugs Society to show up and protest. It never happened. In business, as in politics, the public is ever so tolerant of those who slime.
Years ago, Slick and Mavis had come to a mutually beneficial business agreement. Mavis allowed Slick to make his living on her pool table, and in return, Slick agreed to pay her twenty percent of his winnings and to excuse himself from the Slug's annual eight-ball tournament. Robert had been coming into the Slug for seven years and in that time he had never seen Slick rattled over a pool game. Slick was rattled now.
Occasionally some tourist who had won the Sheep's Penis Kansas Nine-Ball tournament would come into the Slug puffed up like the omnipotent god of the green felt, and Slick would return him to Earth, deflating his ego with gentle pokes from his custom-made, ivory-inlaid cue. But those fellows played within the known laws of physics. The dark stranger played as if Newton had been dropped on his head at birth.
To his credit, Slick played his usual methodical game, but Robert could tell that he was afraid. When the stranger sank the eight ball in a hundred-dollar game, Slick's fear turned to anger and he threw his custom cue across the room like a crazed Zulu.
"Goddammit, boy, I don't know how you're doing it, but no one can shoot like that." Slick was screaming into the stranger's face, his fists were balled at his sides.
"Back off," the stranger said. All the boyishness drained from his face. He could have been a thousand years old, carved in stone. His eyes were locked on Slick's. "The game is over." He might have been stating that "water is wet." It was truth. It was deadly serious.
Slick reached into the pocket of his jeans, fished out a handful of crumpled twenties, and threw them on the table.
The stranger picked up the bills and walked out.
Slick retrieved his stick and began taking it apart. The daytime regulars remained silent, allowing Slick to gather his dignity.
"That was like a fucking bad dream," he said to the onlookers.
The comment hit Robert like a sock full of birdshot. He suddenly remembered where he had seen the stranger. The dream of the desert came back to him with crippling clarity. He turned back to his beer, stunned.
"You want a margarita?" Mavis asked him. She was holding a baseball bat she had pulled from under the bar when things had heated up at the pool table.
Robert looked to the stool next to him. The little man was gone.
"He saw that guy make one shot and ran out of here like his ass was on fire," Mavis said.
Robert picked up the margarita and downed its frozen contents in one gulp, giving himself an instant headache.
Outside on the street Travis and Catch headed toward the service station.
"Well, maybe you should learn to shoot pool if you're going to get money this way."
"Maybe you could pay attention when I call a shot."
"I didn't hear you. I don't understand why we just don't steal our money."
"I don't like to steal."
"You stole from the pimp in L.A."
"That was okay."
"What's the difference?"
"Stealing is immoral."
"And cheating at pool isn't?"
"I didn't cheat. I just had an unfair advantage. He had a custom-made pool cue. I had you to push the balls in."
"I don't understand morality."
"That's not surprising."
"I don't think you understand it either."
"We have to pick up the car."
"Where are we going?"
"To see an old friend."
"You say that everywhere we go."
"This is the last one."
"Be quiet. People are looking."
"You're trying to be tricky. What's morality?"
"It's the difference between what is right and what you can rationalize."
"Must be a human thing."