Vacancy and ariel, p.2

Vacancy & Ariel, page 2


Vacancy & Ariel

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  “For tonight? It would be an honor!” says Bazit. “I think we have something available.”

  Suddenly leery, Cliff says, “No, I’m talking down the road, you know. Next weekend or sometime.”

  Bazit assures him that Dak Windsor will have no problem obtaining a room. They shake hands and Cliff’s almost out the door when he hears a shout in a foreign language at his back. “Showazzat Bompar!” or something of the sort. He turns and finds that Bazit has dropped into a half-crouch, his left fist extended in a Roman salute, his right hand held beside his head, palm open, as if he’s about to take a pledge, and Cliff recalls that Ricky Sintara performed a similar salute at the end of each movie. He goes out into the driveway and stands beside his car, an ’06 dark blue Miata X-5 convertible, clean and fully loaded. The April heat is a shock after the air-conditioned office, the sunlight makes him squint, and he has a sneaking suspicion that somehow, for whatever reason, he’s just been played.

  Chapter 3

  SUNDAY MORNING, CLIFF puts on a bathing suit, flip-flops, and a Muntz Mazda World T-shirt, and takes his coffee and OJ into his Florida room, where he stands and watches, through a fringe of dune grass and Spanish bayonet, heavy surf piling in onto a strip of beach, the sand pinkish from crushed coquina shells. The jade-colored waves are milky with silt, they tumble into one another, bash the shore with concussive slaps. Out beyond the bar, a pelican splashes down into calmer, bluer water. Puffs of pastel cloud flock the lower sky.

  Cliff steps into his office, goes online and checks the news, then searches the film geek sites and finds a copy of Sword of the Black Demon, which he orders. It’s listed under the category, Camp Classics. Still sleepy, he lies down on the sofa and dreams he’s in a movie jungle with two blue-skinned witches and monkeys wearing grenadier uniforms and smoking clove cigarettes. He wakes to the sight of Stacey Gerone standing over him, looking peeved.

  “Did you forget I was coming over?” she asks.

  “Of course not.” He gets to his feet, not the easiest of moves these days, given the condition of his back, but he masks his discomfort with a yawn. “You want some coffee?”

  “For God’s sake, take off that T-shirt. Don’t you get enough of Muntz World during the week?”

  Stacey drops her handbag on the sofa. She’s a redhead with creamy skin that she nourishes with expensive lotions and a sun blocker with special cancer-eating bacteria or some shit, dressed in a designer tank top and white slacks. Her body’s a touch zaftig, but she is still, at thirty-eight, a babe. At the lot, she does a sultry Desperate Housewife act that absolutely kills middle-aged men and college boys alike. If the wife or girlfriend tag along, she changes her act or lets somebody else mother the sale. Jerry plans to move her over to his candy store (the new car portion of his business) in Ormond Beach, where there’s real money to be made. For more than a year, he’s tried to move Cliff to Ormond as well, but Cliff refuses to budge. His reluctance to change is inertial, partly, but he doesn’t need the money and the young couples and high school kids and working class folk who frequent Ridgewood Motors are more to his taste than the geriatric types who do their car-shopping at Muntz Mazda World.

  As Cliff makes a fresh pot, Stacey sits at the kitchen table and talks a blue streak, mostly about Jerry. “You should see his latest,” she says. “He’s got a design program on his computer, and he spends every spare minute creating cartoons. You know, cartoons of himself. Little tubby, cute Jerrys. Each one has a slogan with it. Every word starts with an M. What do you call that? When every word starts with the same letter?” “Alliteration,” says Cliff.

  “So he’s doing this alliteration. Most of it’s business stuff. Muntz Millennium Mazda Make-out. Muntz Mazda Moments. Trying to find some combination of M-words that make a snappy saying, you know. But then he’s got these ones that have different cartoons with them. Muntz Munches Muff. MILF-hunting Muntz He took great pains to show them to me.”

  “He’s probably hoping to get lucky.”

  Stacey gives him a pitying look.

  “You did it with Jerry?” he says, unable to keep incredulity out of his voice.

  “How many women do you see in this business? Grow up! I needed the job, so I slept with him.” Stacey waggles two fingers. “Twice. Believe me, sleep was the operative word. Once I started selling…” She makes a brooming gesture with her hand. “Does it tick you off I had sex with him?”

  “Is that how you want me to feel?”

  “How do I want you to feel? That’s a toughie.” She crosses her legs, taps her chin. “Studied indifference would be good. Some undertones of resentment and jealousy. That would suit me fine.”

  “I can work with that.”

  “That’s what I love most about you, Cliff.” She stands and puts her arms about his waist from behind. “You take direction so well.”

  “I am a professional,” he says.

  Later, lying in bed with Stacy, he tells her about the Celeste and Number eleven, about Shalin Palaniappan, expecting her reaction to be one of indifference—she’ll tell him to give it a rest, forget about it, he’s making a mountain out of a molehill, and just who does he think he is, anyway? Tony Shaloub or somebody? But instead she says, “I’d call the cops if I was you.”

  “Really?” he says.

  “That stuff about the girl…I don’t know. But obviously something hinkey’s happening over there. Unless you’ve lost your mind and are making the whole thing up.”

  “I’m not making it up.” Cliff locks his hands behind his head and stares up at the sandpainted ceiling.

  “Then you should call the cops.”

  “They won’t do anything,” he says. “Best case, they’ll ask stupid questions that’ll make the Palaniappans shut down whatever’s going on. As soon as the pressure’s off, they’ll start up again.”

  “Then you should forget it.”

  “How come?”

  “You’re a smart guy, Cliff, but sometimes you space. You go off somewhere else for a couple hours…or a couple of days. That isn’t such a great quality for a detective. It’s not even a great quality for a salesman.”

  Slitting his eyes, Cliff turns the myriad bumps of paint on the ceiling into snowflake patterns; once, when he was smoking some excellent Thai stick, he managed to transform them into a medieval street scene, but he hasn’t ever been able to get it back. “Maybe you’re right,” he says.

  AFTER A THERAPY day with Stacey, Cliff thinks he might be ready to put l’affaire Celeste behind him. She’s convinced him that he isn’t qualified to deal with the situation, if there is a situation, and for a few days he eschews the binoculars, gets back into Scott Turow, and avoids looking at the Vacancy sign, though when his concentration lapses, he feels its letters branding their cool blue shapes on his brain. On Thursday evening, he closes early, before nine, and drives straight home, thinking he’ll jump into a pair of shorts and walk over to the Surfside, but on reaching his house he finds a slender package stuck inside the screen door. Sword of the Black Demon has arrived from Arcane Films. A Camp Classic. He tosses it on the sofa, showers, changes, and, on his way out, decides to throw the movie in the player and watch a little before heading to the bar—refreshing his memory of the picture will give him something to talk about with his friends.

  It’s worse than he remembers. Beyond lame. Gallons of stage blood spewing from Monty-Pythonesque wounds; the cannibal queen’s chunky, naked retinue; a wizard who travels around on a flying rock; the forging of a sword from a meteorite rendered pyrotechnically by lots of sparklers; the blue witches, also naked and chunky, except for one…He hits the pause button, kneels beside the TV, and examines the lissome shape of, it appears, Shalin Palaniappan, wishing he could check if the current incarnation of the blue witch has a mole on her left breast, though to do so would likely net him five-to-ten in the slammer. He makes for the Surfside, a concrete block structure overlooking the beach, walking the dunetops along A1A, hoping that a couple of vodkas will banish his
feeling of unease, but once he’s sitting at the bar under dim track lighting, a vodka rocks in hand, deliciously chilled by the AC, embedded in an atmosphere of jazz and soft, cluttered talk, gazing through the picture window at the illuminated night ocean (the beach, at this hour, is barely ten yards wide and the waves seem perilously close), he’s still uneasy and he turns his attention to the Marlins on the big screen, an abstract clutter of scurrying white-clad figures on a bright green field.

  “Hey, Cliffie,” says a woman’s voice, and Marley, a diminutive package of frizzy, dirty blond hair and blue eyes, a cute sun-browned face and jeans tight as a sausage skin, lands in the chair beside his and gives him a quick hug. She’s young enough to be his daughter, old enough to be his lover. He’s played both roles, but prefers that of father. She’s feisty, good-hearted, and too valuable as a friend to risk losing over rumpled bed sheets.

  “Hey, you,” he says. “I thought this was your night off.”

  “All my nights are off.” She grins. “My new goal—becoming a barfly like you.”

  “What about…you know. Tyler, Taylor…”

  She pretends to rap her knuckles on his forehead. “Tucker. He gone.”

  “I thought that was working out.”

  “Me, too,” she says. “And then, oops, an impediment. He was wanted for fraud in South Carolina.”

  “Fraud? My God!”

  “That’s what I said…except I cussed more.” She neatly tears off a strip of cocktail napkin. “Cops came by the place three weeks ago. Guns drawn. Spotlights. The whole schmear. He waived extradition.’”

  “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

  She shrugs. “You know how I hate people crying in their beer.”

  “God. Let me buy you a drink.”

  “You bet.” She pounds the counter. “Tequila!”

  They drink, talk about Tucker, about what a lousy spring it’s been. Two tequilas along, she asks if he’s all right, he seems a little off. He wants to tell her, but it’s too complicated, too demented, and she doesn’t need to hear his problems, so he tells her about the movies he did in the Philippines, making her laugh with anecdotes about and impersonations of the director. Five tequilas down and she’s hanging on him, giggly, teasing, laughing at everything he says, whether it’s funny or not. It’s obvious she won’t be able to drive. He invites her to use his couch—he’d give her the bed, but the couch is murder on his back—and she says, suddenly tearful, “You’re so sweet to me.”

  After one for the road, they start out along the dunes toward home, going with their heads down—a wind has kicked up and blows grit in their faces. The surf munches the shore, sounding like a giant chewing his food with relish; a rotting scent intermittently overrides the smell of brine. No moon, no stars, but porch lights from the scattered houses show the way. Marley keeps slipping in the soft sand and Cliff has to put an arm around her to prevent her from falling. The tall grasses tickle his calves. They’re twenty yards from his front step, when he hears the sound of boomerang in flight—he identifies it instantly, it’s that distinct. A helicopter-ish sound, but higher-pitched, almost a whistling, passing overhead. He stops walking, listening for it, and Marley seizes the opportunity to rub her breasts against him, her head tipped back, waiting to be kissed.

  “Is this going to be one of those nights?” she asks teasingly.

  “Did you hear that?”

  “Hear what?”

  “A boomerang, I think. Somebody threw a boomerang.”

  Bewildered, she says, “A boomerang?”

  “Shh! Listen!”

  Confused, she shelters beneath his arm as he reacts to variations in the wind’s pitch, to a passing car whose high beams sweep over the dune grass, lighting the cottage, growing a shadow from its side that lengthens and then appears to reach with a skinny black arm across the rumpled ground the instant before it vanishes. He hears no repetition of the sound, and its absence unsettles him. He’s positive that he heard it, that somewhere out in the night, a snaky-jointed figure is poised to throw. He hustles Marley toward the cottage and hears, as they ascend the porch steps, a skirling music, whiny reed instruments, and a clattery percussion, like kids beating with sticks on a picket fence, just a snatch of it borne on the wind. He shoves Marley inside, bolts the door, and switches on the porch lights, thinking that little brown men with neat mustaches will bloom from the dark, because that’s what sort of music it is, Manila taxicab music, the music played by the older drivers who kept their radios tuned to an ethnic station—but he sees nothing except rippling dune grass, pale sand, and the black gulf beyond, a landscape menacing for its lack of human form.

  He bolts the inner door, too. Resisting Marley’s attempts to get amorous, he opens out the couch bed, makes her lie down and take a couple of aspirin with a glass of water. He sits in a chair by the couch as she falls asleep, his anxiety subsiding. She looks like a kid in her T-shirt and diaphanous green panties, drowsing on her belly, face half-concealed by strings of hair, and he thinks what a fuck-up he is. The thought is bred by no particular chain of logic. It may have something to do with Marley, with his deepened sense of the relationship’s inappropriateness, a woman more than twenty years his junior (though, God knows, he’s championed the other side of that argument), and she’s younger than that in her head, a girl, really…It may bear upon that, but the thought has been on heavy rotation in his brain for years and seems to have relevance to every situation. He’s pissed away countless chances for marriage, for success, and he can’t remember what he was thinking, why he treated these opportunities with such casual disregard. He recalls getting a third callback to test for the Bruce Willis role in Die Hard. Word was that the studio was leaning toward him, because Willis had pissed off one of the execs, so one the night before the callback he did acid at some Topanga cliff dwelling and came in looking bleary and dissolute.

  Looking at Marley’s ass, he has a flicker of arousal, and that worries him, that it’s only a flicker, that perhaps his new sense of morality is merely a byproduct of growing older, of a reduced sex drive. He has the sudden urge to prove himself wrong, to wake her up and fuck her until dawn, but he sits there, depressed, letting his emotions bleed out into the sound of windowpanes shuddering from constant slaps of wind. Eventually he goes to the door and switches off the lights. Seconds later, he switches them back on, hoping that he won’t discover some mutant shape sneaking toward the porch, yet feeling stupid and a little disappointed when nothing of the sort manifests.

  Chapter 4

  HE’S WAKED BY something banging. He tries to sleep through it, but each time he thinks it’s quit and relaxes, it starts up again, so he flings off the covers and shuffles into the living room, pauses on finding the couch unoccupied, scratches his head, trying to digest Marley’s absence, then shuffles onto the porch and discovers it’s the screen door that’s banging. Thickheaded, he shuts it, registering that it’s still dark outside. He walks through the house, calling out to Marley; he checks the bathroom. Alarm sets in. She would have left a note, she would have shut the front door. He dresses, shaking out the cobwebs, and goes out onto the porch steps, switching on the exterior lights. Beyond the half-circle of illumination, the shore is a winded confusion, black sky merging with black earth and sea, the surf still heavy. The wind comes in a steady pour off the water, plastering his shorts and shirt against his body.


  No response.

  With this much wind, he thinks, his voice won’t carry fifty feet.

  He grabs the flashlight from inside the door, deciding that he’ll walk down to the Surfside and make sure her car’s gone from the lot. She probably went home, he tells himself. Woke up and was sober enough to drive. But leaving the door open…that’s just not Marley.

  He strikes out along A1A, keeping to the shoulder, made a bit anxious by the music he heard earlier that evening, by the boomerang sound, though he’s attributed that to the booze, and by the time he reaches the turn-off in
to the lot, his thoughts have brightened, he’s planning the day ahead; but on seeing Marley’s shitbox parked all by its lonesome, a dented brown Hyundai nosed up to the door of the Surfside, his worries are rekindled. He shines the flashlight through the windows of the Hyundai. Fast-food litter, a Big Gulp cup, a crumpled Kleenex box. He bangs on the door of the bar, thinking that Marley might have changed her mind, realized she was too drunk to drive and bedded down in the Surfside. He shouts, bangs some more. Maybe she called a cab from his house. She must have felt guilty about coming on to him. If that’s the case, he’ll have to have a talk with her, assure her that it’s not that she isn’t desirable, it’s got nothing to do with her, it’s him, it’s all about how he’s begun to feel in intimate situations with her, and then she’ll say he’s being stupid, she doesn’t think of him as a dirty old man, not at all. It’s like the kids say, they’re friends with benefits. No big deal. And Cliff, being a guy, will go along with that—sooner or later they’ll wind up sleeping together and there they’ll be, stuck once again amid the confusions of a May-September relationship.

  As he walks home, swinging the flashlight side-to-side, he wonders if the reason he put some distance between him and Marley had less to do with her age than with the fact that he was getting too attached to her. The way he felt when she popped up at the Surfside last night—energized, happy, really happy to see her—is markedly different from the way he felt when Stacy Gerone came over the other morning. He’s been in love a couple of times, and he seems to recall that falling in love was preceded on each occasion by a similar reaction on his part, a pushing away of the woman concerned for one reason or another. That, he concludes, would be disastrous. If now he perceives himself to be an aging roué, just imagine how contemptible he’d feel filling out Medicare forms while Marley is still a relatively young woman—like a decrepit vampire draining her youth.

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