Vacancy & Ariel, page 1
For many of us, the Ace Double Novels of the ’50s and ’60s have long been a source both of pleasure and nostalgia. This new double volume from Subterranean Press stands squarely in that distinguished tradition, offering a pair of colorful, fast-paced novellas from one of the finest writers currently working in any genre: Lucius Shepard.
In Vacancy, a washed-up actor, a mysterious motel, and a Malaysian “woman of power” form the central elements in a riveting account of a rootless man forced to confront the impossible—but very real—demons of his past. This is Shepard at his harrowing, hallucinatory best.
Vacancy & Ariel Copyright © 2009 by Lucius Shepard.
All rights reserved.
“Vacancy” Copyright © 2007.
First appeared in Subterranean Online.
Dust jacket and interior illustrations Copyright © 2009
by J.K. Potter. All rights reserved.
Interior design Copyright © 2009 by Desert Isle Design, LLC.
All rights reserved.
PO Box 190106
Burton, MI 48519
CLIFF CORIA HAS been sitting in a lawn chair out front of the office of Ridgewood Motors for the better part of five years, four nights a week, from mid-afternoon until whenever he decides it’s not worth staying open any longer, and during that time he’s spent, he estimates, between five and six hundred hours staring toward the Celeste Motel across the street. That’s how long it’s taken him to realize that something funny may be going on. He might never have noticed anything if he hadn’t become fascinated by the sign in the office window of the Celeste. It’s a No Vacancy sign, but the No is infrequently lit. Foot-high letters written in a cool blue neon script: they glow with a faint aura in the humid Florida dark:
That cool, blue, halated word, then…that’s what Cliff sees as he sits in a solitude that smells of asphalt and gasoline, staring through four lanes of traffic or no traffic at all, plastic pennons stirring above his head, a paperback on his knee (lately he’s been into Scott Turow), at the center of gleaming SUVS, muscle cars, minivans, the high-end section where sit the aristocrats of the lot, a BMW, a silver Jag, a couple of Hummers, and the lesser hierarchies of reconditioned Toyotas, family sedans with suspect frames that sell for a thousand dollars and are called Drive-Away Specials. He’s become so sensitized to the word, the sign, it’s as if he’s developed a relationship with it. When he’s reading, he’ll glance toward the sign now and again, because seeing it satisfies something in him. At closing time, leaving the night watchman alone in the office with his cheese sandwiches and his boxing magazines, he’ll snatch a last look at it before he pulls out into traffic and heads for the Port Orange Bridge and home. Sometimes when he’s falling asleep, the sign will switch on in his mind’s eye and glow briefly, bluely, fading as he fades.
Cliff’s no fool. Used car salesman may be the final stop on his employment track, but it’s lack of ambition, not a lack of intellect, that’s responsible for his station in life. He understands what’s happening with the sign. He’s letting it stand for something other than an empty motel room, letting it second the way he feels about himself. That’s all right, he thinks. Maybe the fixation will goad him into making a change or two, though the safe bet is, he won’t change. Things have come too easily for him. Ever since his glory days as a high school jock (wide receiver, shooting guard), friends, women, and money haven’t been a serious problem. Even now, more than thirty years later, his looks still get him by. He’s got the sort of unremarkably handsome, rumpled face that you might run across in a Pendleton catalog, and he dyes his hair ash brown, leaves a touch of gray at the temples, and wears it the same as he did when he was in Hollywood. That’s where he headed after his stint in the army (he was stationed in Germany near the end of the Vietnam War). He figured to use the knowledge he gained with a demolition unit to get work blowing up stuff in the movies, but wound up acting instead, for the most part in B-pictures.
People will come onto the lot and say, “Hey! You’re that guy, right?” Usually they’re referring to a series of commercials he shot in the Nineties, but occasionally they’re talking about his movies, his name fifth- or sixth-billed, in which he played good guys who were burned alive, exploded, eaten by monstrous creatures, or otherwise horribly dispatched during the first hour. He often sells a car to the people who recognize him and tosses in an autographed headshot to sweeten the deal. And then he’ll go home to his beach cottage, a rugged old thing of boards and a screened-in porch, built in the forties, that he bought with residual money; he’ll sleep with one of the women whom he sees on a non-exclusive basis, or else he’ll stroll over to the Surfside Grill, an upscale watering hole close by his house, where he’ll drink and watch sports. It’s the most satisfying of dissatisfying lives. He knows he doesn’t have it in him to make a mark, but maybe it’s like in the movies, he thinks. In the movies, everything happens for a reason, and maybe there’s a reason he’s here, some minor plot function he’s destined to perform. Nothing essential, mind you. Just a part with some arc to the character, a little meat on its bones.
THE CELESTE MOTEL is a relic of Daytona Beach as it was back in the Sixties: fifteen pale blue stucco bungalows, vaguely Spanish in style, hunkered down amidst a scrap of Florida jungle—live oaks, shrimp plants, palmettos, Indian palms, and hibiscus. Everything’s run to seed, the grounds so overgrown that the lights above the bungalow doors (blue like the Vacancy sign) are filtered through sprays of leaves, giving them a mysterious air. Spanish moss fallen from the oaks collects on the tile roofs; the branches of unpruned shrubs tangle with the mesh of screen doors; weeds choke the flagstone path. The office has the same basic design and color as the bungalows, but it’s two stories with an upstairs apartment, set closer to the street. Supported by a tall metal pole that stands in front of the office is an illuminated square plastic sign bearing the name of the motel and the sketch of a woman’s face, a minimalist, stylized rendering like those faces on matchbook covers accompanied by a challenge to Draw This Face and discover whether you have sufficient talent to enroll in the Famous Artist’s School. Halfway down the pole, another, smaller sign to which stick-on letters can be affixed. Tonight it reads:
WELCOME SPRING B EAKERS
The Celeste is almost never full, but whenever Number eleven is rented, the No on the No Vacancy sign lights up and stays lit for about an hour; then it flickers and goes dark. Once Cliff realized this was a reoccurring phenomenon, it struck him as odd, but no big deal. Then about a month ago, around six o’clock in the evening, just as he was getting comfortable with Turow’s Presumed Guilty, Number eleven was rented by a college-age girl driving a Corvette, the twin of a car that Cliff sold the day before, which is the reason he noticed. She parked at the rear (the lot is out of sight from the street, behind a hedge of bamboo), entered eleven, and the No switched on. A couple of hours later, after the No had switched back off, a family of three driving a new Ford Escape—portly dad, portly mom, skinny kid—checked in and, though most of the cabins were v
It’s conceivable, Cliff tells himself, that a massive kink is being indulged within the bungalow. Those blue lights might signal more than an ill-considered decorating touch. Whatever. It’s not his business. But after three further incidents of multiple occupancies, his curiosity has been fully aroused and he’s begun to study the Celeste through a pair of binoculars that he picked up at an army surplus store. Since he can detect nothing anomalous about Number eleven, other than the fact that the shades are always drawn, he has turned his attention to the office.
For the past four years or thereabouts, the motel has been owned and operated by a Malaysian family. The Palaniappans. The father, Bazit, is a lean, fastidious type with skin the color of a worn penny, black hair, and a skimpy mustache that might be a single line drawn with a fine pencil. Every so often, he brings a stack of business cards for Jerry Muntz, the owner of the used car lot, to distribute. Jerry speaks well of him, says that he’s a real nice guy, a straight shooter. Cliff has never been closer to the other Palaniappans than across a four-lane highway, but through his binoculars he has gained a sense of their daily routines. Bazit runs the office during the morning hours, and his wife, a pale Chinese woman, also thin, who might be pretty if not for her perpetually dour expression, handles the afternoons. Their daughter, a teenager with a nice figure and a complexion like Bazit’s, but with rosy cast, returns home from school at about four PM, dropped off by a female classmate driving a Honda. She either hangs about the office or cleans the bungalows—Cliff thinks she looks familiar and wonders where he might have seen her. Bazit comes back on duty at six PM and his wife brings a tray downstairs around eight. They and their daughter dine together while watching TV. The daughter appears to dominate the dinner conversation, speaking animatedly, whereas the parents offer minimal responses. On occasion they argue, and the girl will flounce off upstairs. At ten o’clock the night man arrives. He’s in his early twenties, his features a mingling of Chinese and Malaysian. Cliff supposes him to be the Palaniappan’s son, old enough to have his own place.
And that’s it. That’s the sum of his observations. Their schedules vary, of course. Errands, trips to Costco, and such. Bazit and his wife spend the occasional evening out, as does the daughter, somewhat more frequently. In every regard, they appear to be an ordinary immigrant family. Cliff has worked hard to simplify his life, though the result isn’t everything he hoped, and he would prefer to think of the Palaniappans as normal and wishes that he had never noticed the Vacancy sign; but the mystery of Number eleven is an itch he can’t scratch. He’s certain that there’s a rational explanation, but has the sneaking suspicion that his idea of what’s rational might be expanded if he were to find the solution.
WHEN CLIFF WAS eighteen, a week after his high school graduation, he and some friends, walking on the beach after an early morning swim, came upon a green sea turtle, a big one with a carapace four feet long. Cliff mounted the turtle, whereupon she (it was a female who, misguidedly, had chosen a populated stretch of beach as the spot to lay her eggs) began trundling toward the ocean. His friends warned Cliff to dismount, but he was having too much fun playing cowboy to listen. Shortly after the turtle entered the water, apparently more flexible in her natural medium, or feeling more at home, she extended her neck and snapped off Cliff’s big toe.
He wonders what might have happened had not he and the turtle crossed paths, if he kept his athletic scholarship and, instead of going to Hollywood, attended college. Now that he’s contemplating another foolhardy move—and he thinks taking his investigation to a new level is potentially foolhardy—he views the turtle incident as a cautionary tale. The difference is that no pertinent mystery attached to the turtle, yet he’s unsure whether that’s a significant difference. When he gets right down to it, he can’t understand how the Celeste Motel relates to his life any more than did the turtle.
Cliff’s scheduled for an afternoon shift the following Saturday. Jerry thinks it’ll be an exceptionally high-traffic weekend, what with the holiday, and he wants his best salesman working the lot. This irritates the rest of the sales staff—they know having Cliff around will cut into their money—but as Jerry likes to say, Life’s a bitch, and she’s on the rag. He says this somewhat less often since hiring a female salesperson, the lovely Stacey Gerone, and he’s taken down the placard bearing this bromide and an inappropriate cartoon from inside the door of the employee washroom…Anyway, Cliff comes in early on Saturday, at quarter to eleven, and, instead of pulling into Ridgewood Motors, parks in the driveway of the Celeste Motel. He pushes into the office, the room he’s been viewing through his binoculars. The decor all works together—rattan chairs, blond desk, TV, potted ferns, bamboo frames holding images of green volcanoes and perfect beaches—canceling the disjointed impression he’s gained from a distance.
“Good morning,” says Bazit Palaniappan, standing straight as if for inspection, wearing a freshly ironed shirt. “How may I help you?”
Cliff’s about to tell him, when Bazit’s pleasant expression is washed away by one of awed delight.
“You are Dak Windsor!” Bazit hurries out from behind his desk and pumps Cliff’s hand. “I have seen all your movies! How wonderful to have you here!”
It takes Cliff a second or two to react to the name, Dak Windsor, and then he remembers the series of fantasy action pictures he did under that name in the Philippines. Six of them, all shot during a three-month period. He recalls cheesy sets, lousy FX, incredible heat, a villain called Lizardo, women made-up as blue-skinned witches, and an Indonesian director who yelled at everyone, spoke neither Tagalog nor English, and had insane bad breath. Cliff has never watched the movies, but his agent told him they did big business in the Southeast Asian markets. Not that their popularity mattered to Cliff—he was paid a flat fee for his work. His most salient memory of the experience is of a bothersome STD he caught from one of the blue-skinned witches.
“Au-Yong!” Bazit shouts. “Will you bring some tea?”
Cliff allows Bazit to maneuver him into a chair and for the next several minutes he listens while the man extols the virtues of Forbidden Tiger Treasure, Sword of the Black Demon, and the rest of the series, citing plot points, asking questions Cliff cannot possibly answer because he has no idea of the films’ continuity or logic—it’s a jumble of crocodile men, cannibal queens, wizards shooting lurid lightning from their fingertips, and lame dialog sequences that made no sense at the time and, he assumes, would likely make none if he were to watch the pictures now.
“To think,” says Bazit, wonderment in his voice. “All this time, you’ve been working right across the street. I must have seen you a dozen times, but never closely enough to make the connection. You must come for dinner some night and tell us all about the movies.”
Mrs. Palaniappan brings tea, listens as Bazit provides an ornate introduction to the marvel that is Dak Windsor (“Cliff Coria,” Cliff interjects. “That’s my real name.”). It turns out that Bazit, who’s some ten-twelve years younger than Cliff, watched the series of movies when he was an impressionable teenager and, thanks to Dak/Cliff’s sterling performance as the mentor and sidekick of the film’s hero, Ricky Sintara, he was inspired to make emigration to the United States a goal, thus leading to the realization of his golden dream, a smallish empire consisting of the Celeste and several rental properties.
“You know George Clooney?” she asks Cliff. That’s her sole reaction to Bazit’s fervent testimony.
“No,” says Cliff, and starts to explain his lowly place in hierarchy of celebrity; but a no is all Mrs. Palaniappan needs to confirm her judgment of his worth. She excuses herself, says she has chores to do, and takes her grim, neutral-smelling self back upstai
Among the reasons that Cliff failed in Hollywood is that he was not enough of a narcissist to endure the amount of stroking that accompanies the slighted success; but nothing he has encountered prepares him for the hand job that Bazit lovingly offers. At several points during the conversation, Cliff attempts to get down to cases, but on each occasion Bazit recalls another highlight from the Dak Windsor films that needs to be memorialized, shared, dissected, and when Cliff checks his watch he finds it’s after eleven-thirty. There’s no way he’ll have time to get into the subject of Number eleven. And then, further complicating the situation, the Palaniappan’s daughter, Shalin, returns home—her school had a half-day. Bazit once again performs the introductions, albeit less lavishly, and Shalin, half-kneeling on the cushion of her father’s chair, one hand on her hip and the other, forefinger extended, resting on her cheek, says, “Hello,” and smiles.
That pose nails it for Cliff—it’s the same pose the Malaysian actress (he knows she had a funny name, but he can’t recall it) who gave him the STD struck the first time he noticed her, and Shalin, though ten-fifteen years younger, bears a strong resemblance to her, down to the beauty mark at the corner of her mouth; even the mildness of her smile is identical. It’s such a peculiar hit coming at that moment, one mystery hard upon the heels of another, Cliff doesn’t know whether the similarity between the women is something he should be amazed by or take in stride, perceive as an oddity, a little freaky but nothing out of the ordinary. It might be that he doesn’t remember the actress clearly, that he’s glossing over some vital distinction between the two women.
After Shalin runs off upstairs, Bazit finally asks the reason for Cliff’s visit, and, fumbling for an excuse, Cliff explains that some nights after work he doesn’t want to drive home, he has an engagement this side of the river, he’s tired or he’s had a couple of drinks, and he wonders if he can get a room on a semi-regular basis at the Celeste.
Other author's books:
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