"Time's too precious for that." He lifted the tankard while taking in the dark length of her hair and the deeper dark of her eyes. For the first time he read her name tag. She had a fragrant name. Rose.
"What's yours?" she asked.
He told her and for a second or so looked at her without seeing her, aware only of the flashes of red that were her fingers spreading fire into the ice in her ginger ale.
"Been to Vegas before, Manning?"
"Drove." He rubbed an eye and made it red. "Are you feeling me out, Rose? Trying to determine if I pose a threat of some sort?"
"That's part of my job. Are you a widower? You have the look. Are you on the run? You have that look too."
A table away a young couple was involved in a timeless kiss, like Eros and Psyche. Divinities at play. Lingam and Yoni personified. The image firing Manning's mind was of himself and his wife, a wedding band not yet on her finger, their passion in full blaze, fates not yet sealed. "I'm not on the run, simply on the move."
"Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference." At the bar a belligerent drunk turned loud, with ugly words slopping from his mouth and his flailing arms upsetting someone's drink. Rose's smile did not alter. "Not to worry. It'll be taken care of."
And it was. As if nothing had ever happened. The kind of world Manning wanted to live in.
"So tell me," she said. "What do you teach?"
"Do I have that look too?"
What did he teach? He taught that a chimpanzee is a breath away from being human, that religious beliefs are acts of aggression that justify bloodshed, that a passport photo shows you at your worst or at best gives you the look of a minor criminal.
Rose leaned forward, baring cleavage. "Tell me who you are, Manning. Break the suspense."
Watching Eros and Psyche leave arm in arm, he felt he was glimpsing life only from the tail of his eye. He remembered glimpsing his wife standing quite still, unearthly, as if faintly painted on the air. Illness had given her body a false economy and etherealized her voice. He raised the tankard. "Do I have to be somebody?"
He was the child in a sailor suit on the Cracker Jack box, he was the young soldier playing dead and pissing his pants while the enemy picked the pockets of the fallen, he was the married man coping with consequences of a deed that left him with the agony of loss. "Who would you like me to be?" he asked.
"I need a straight answer, Manning. The problem is you don't like to gamble, so I have to ask myself if you're a lost soul who's come here to cash in, to retire gracefully to your room, leaving the maid to find your remains in the morning. Never a pretty picture, I guarantee it."
"I'm just passing through, Rose. That's the whole of it." He gazed at the classical structure of her face, as much Roman as Greek, and stared as deeply as he could into her eyes. "You're a beautiful woman, Rose."
"I've got good bones. I'm off in an hour. Does that interest you?"
In the men's room, which smelled hygienically clean, old duffers in young men's duds told jokes at the urinals, their laughter extravagant, as if they were winners not only at the tables but in the daily grind of life. After awaiting his turn, Manning stepped forth and stood beside a balding man with a ponytail and tinted glasses, who gave him the once-over and spoke through the stain of old teeth.
"I saw you talkin' to Rose. Her husband use to be somebody. You anybody?"
"You look familiar."
"I have that kind of face," Manning murmured.
"You ain't by chance Jake Spiegal's nephew? The one went to college but didn't finish. Made his money buyin' and sellin'."
Besides the tinted glasses and ponytail, the man was shod in spotless white shoes with plaid laces. Throwing frail shoulders back, he waggled his thing to shed the last drop. "How about Fat Freddy Fasullo. You related to him?" He waited. "No, huh?"
Manning moved to a sink, ran water, and soaped his hand with pink foam from a dispenser. In the stark mirror a face, undeniably his, appeared unreasonably large. He tried to shape his mouth into a smile of acceptance and couldn't. Glancing down he glimpsed white shoes. Looking up, he saw the tinted glasses.
"Sure wish I could place you. You gotta name?"
"Not really." Manning, seeking anonymity in the fluorescent glare, stepped swiftly to dry his hands under a rush of hot air. The tinted glasses reappeared.
"Case you're wonderin', my name's Tommy. Tommy the Gun. Course that was the old days. Old days I was a take-charge kinda guy."
Moving toward the door with a mild sense of madness, Manning felt eyes following him every step of the way, mirrors recording the distance. At the door Tommy's voice caught up to him and swelled in his ear.
"You figure out who you are, let me know. All right?"
Manning's car was a nondescript rental. Rose looked at the license plate and said, "You're a long way from home."
Home was anywhere he chanced to be for more than twenty-four hours, but once it had been the hills of New Hampshire and a short commute to Dartmouth, where students sought him out for bull sessions. "Sir, can something simultaneously happen and not happen?" "Yes, indeed. What happens in a dream doesn't necessarily happen outside it. If you murder someone in a dream you won't be arrested when you wake up." He rummaged for his keys.
"Let's take my car," she said.
Hers was parked in a privileged place. It was tomato red, a two-seater, the convertible top lowered. "Pretty fancy," he said.
She drove beyond the pageantry of the Strip, fast enough so that the night air blowing in on them was a tonic. The moon, nearly full-size, was a discarded bone. She sped past entrances to gated communities that suggested exquisite prisons for the well-to-do, then past endless residences built low to the ground, with many still in progress. Heavy-duty equipment abandoned for the night cast shadows like the hulks of prehistoric beasts.
"Building boom?" Manning asked.
She shrugged. "Vegas is a balloon. Newcomers keep blowing it bigger with their hot air."
As they approached the city's edge, moonlight stirred waves in the desert to create shifting illusions of a moving ocean. Manning's brain provided the roar. Gazing up at the Nevada sky, he viewed the moon as an ancient coin imperfectly crafted and crudely stamped, which rendered it priceless and its beholder worthless. He saw mountains in the distance as the little two-seater slid onto an isolated side road that took them to a house lying low and flat and seemingly divorced from the world.
"You live here?"
"It's an investment."
The car purred into a courtyard, where ornamental trees surging out of tubs threw sculptured shadows. Stones that looked like chunks from a meteorite were spaced beside the pathway leading to the front door, which she opened by fingering a keypad. Manning was shown into a large pale room, the furniture minimal, modern. She told him to sit, and he eased into the well of a director's chair and stared hard at a drip painting that looked like a Pollack. It was.
"Another investment, Rose?"
"Everything here is my portfolio." She dropped into a chair identical to his and raked her hair back. "I don't usually look for company, but now and then I find it comforting. My husband and I have been separated for years, but he expects me to have no men in my life. If he walked in right now it wouldn't be good for you."
"Is he likely to?"
"Hard to say. He lives in Chicago, but he still has casino interests or thinks he does. It's an illusion like everything here. Cappy's much older than I and lives in the past. I never know when he's going to pop in."
Manning was a little nervous. "Is he a gangster?"
"Retired, more or less. The old days he came to Vegas once a month and carried back money in a suitcase to the big boy in Chicago. When he stayed the night he took the suitcase to bed with him."
"Perhaps I should leave."
"Take a chance, Manning, you might come out a winner." Her eyes conveyed what passed for friendly curiosity. "Do you have a family?"
"My wife is gone. I have two sons, but they don't have much to do with me. They have their own lives."
"Don't we all," she said. "You look tense, really uptight. Is anything the matter?"
"Nothing I can't handle. The bone of my skull protects the business of my brain."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Without warning, she was out of her chair and peering down at him. "You need to unwind," she said and dangled a hand. "Come with me."
A sauna was off her bedroom. While she prepared it, he used her bathroom. While a gleaming mirror queried him, he bared his teeth in a smile that said nothing. Curiosity got the better of him, and he opened an outsize medicine cabinet. She was a vitamin and medication junkie, every shelf crammed, the sight of which shifted him into a memory of a healthy man dancing slowly with a dying woman. Toward the end his wife had eschewed all medication except aspirin, her placebo, swallowed dry, swallowed hard.
Rose's back was to him when he rejoined her. She glanced over her shoulder. "Help me, would you?" He unhitched the back of her bra. "Be a gentleman and turn your head." She shed the rest of her clothes and bandaged her torso in a terry towel, with one available for him. "See you in there."
Moments later, toweled, he invaded the sauna's high heat, which briefly stopped him in his tracks and made him struggle for breath. Plunging ahead into the vapors, he felt he was drifting into a dimension that bore the breath of Hell. Seated, he let the heat crawl over his skin and his own wetness bathe him. Rose sat across from him.
"I still can't figure you out," she said.
"And I know little about you."
"Want it in a nutshell? I was a kid totally hooked on heroin when I came to Vegas. Wasn't for Cappy, I wouldn't be talking to you now. He put a ring on my finger and became husband and father wrapped in one. My own dad abandoned me. He was a builder, always in hock. After my mother died, he used a carpenter's pencil to write his suicide note."
Heat and wet swaddled Manning, depriving him of energy, anchoring him in place. His voice was soggy. "Why aren't you in Chicago with Cappy?"
"I could never live there. I'm Vegas through and through. Sad thing for Cappy is that his Vegas doesn't exist anymore. Back then, Vegas was dishonest in an honest way. Now, it's honest in a dishonest way. If you get my drift."
He did. And he didn't. It didn't matter.
Rose sighed. "What hit Cappy the hardest was when Sinatra died, then Peggy Lee. He idolized one and adored the other."
Eyes closed, Manning sat in his own fertile sweat, as if to take root, never to leave. Hearing movement, he knew she was on her feet.
"Stay put and relax," she said. "I'm going to take a quick shower and get into pajamas."
"How will I get back to the hotel?"
"Not to worry."
He didn't relax, he no longer knew how. Hair squished back, skin vivid as if from a sunburn, he took hot breaths, tightened the towel around his waist, rose all at once, and padded through the vapors. He heard a shower running but sensed she wasn't in it. She was picking through his wallet in the bedroom. Glancing up, she smiled with no embarrassment while he kept his face tight.
"Not much money, Manning. Just a whole bunch of credit cards." Her fingers peeled one from another. "Good God, how many do you have?"
"I live on them."
"How many have you maxed out?"
"Those I've thrown away."
She scrutinized his driver's license. "You're not quite as old as I thought." She withdrew a newspaper clipping tightly folded into a square.
"That's private," he said.
"Then I won't read it."
He watched her replace the clipping and return the wallet to his trousers. She crossed the room, opened a drawer, and came up with a small object that fitted snugly in the bed of her hand. At first he thought it was a weapon.
"Smile," she said and with a click of the camera fixed a moment of him forever.
"Why'd you do that?"
"It could come in handy later. Who knows, if you're notorious or something I might be able to sell it. Money's at the front of my mind. It's the nature of the game here, Manning." She placed the camera back in the drawer and withdrew men's pajamas. She put aside the top for herself and tossed Manning the bottoms. Her towel fell to the floor, and she posed with her hands on her hips. "Not bad for an aging broad, wouldn't you say?"
His eyes, which had been dimming out, came doubly alive.
"Don't look at me too closely, Manning. I tend to deteriorate."
"I doubt that."
"I'm going to take my shower." She gestured for his hand. "Come on, I need someone to do my back."
He lay listening to creature sounds from the desert. Howls. Hoots. They added to his sense of well-being. He was sharing a bed with a woman and felt blessed. Rose, sound asleep, was living and breathing, healthy and wise, years stretching ahead of her. He wished she was in his arms again, but it was enough to have her near, to know she was there, alive and breathing. He merely had to extend his hand to verify her. His thoughts must've awakened her.
"Can't you sleep?" she asked.
He usually needed to take something. Autosuggestion never worked. Under the covers Rose's foot found his ankle and warmed it.
"Were you and your wife close?"
"I think you could safely say that."
"The death of somebody you love, it's never easy, is it?"
Some things he couldn't express. He expected her to divine them. She inched closer, redolent of the Dial soap he had generously applied to her shoulders and to the small of her back.
She said, "A fellow I knew, educated like you, said when you're slipping away someone lowers the lights and then, for a second or so, makes them extra bright so that you see things you never saw before. What do you think?"
He responded at once. "I think each of us has an inner brain buried in the big one. When we die, the inner one continues functioning for a while and lets us sort things out."
"Do you have much to sort out, Manning?"
"Don't we all?"
She went back to sleep, and he lay awake listening to a desert that had gone silent, to memories that lacked music, memories that weighed on him. He remembered his wife telling friends she was healthy as a horse when one look told them she wasn't. "Life," he told his students, "is a drug that's terribly addictive and notoriously cheap."
He dropped off. Sleep was a blessing, dreams were not. "Dreaming, you live on the edge of yourself," he told those same students. He knew he was asleep. How odd. "Your brain is brawn, your thoughts muscles." He got giddy. "Sleep is the forest of the night. Dreams are the mushrooms." How marvelous to be asleep. Then, without warning, he wasn't.
The ceiling light blinded him. The covers were ripped off. Rose's voice beside him was unnervingly calm. "Don't panic."
The man standing at the foot of the bed had to be eighty years old at least, with a long face, skin coarsely meshed, dark eyes sunk deep, and with veiny arms dangling from a loose short-sleeve shirt. He wore his watch with the face under his wrist, which made Manning think of gunfighters in westerns who wore their six-shooters with the handles facing forward. Outraged, the man said, "You two share my fuckin' pajamas? Who is he, Rose?"
Rose slanted herself out of bed. "I just met him."
"He's got no hair on his chest. What kind of man is that?"
"He's got some."
Manning was on his feet at the other side of the bed. Rose said, "This is my husband Cappy."
Manning said, "How do you do."
"Never mind how I fuckin' do. You look familiar." He shot a glance at Rose. "He anybody?"
"Then how come he looks familiar?"
"I don't know. How come you look familiar, Manning?"
Cappy snapped his fingers. "You been in the papers or somethin'? I watch a lotta Court TV, that where I seen you?" He fired a look at Rose. "Gimme his wallet."
"He's harmless, Cappy. He's a teacher. A professor, I'm pretty sure. Am I right, Manning?"
Manning stayed silent, his thoughts safe inside his skull. The window told him sunrise was near, though he heard no birds. Passivity consumed him.
Rose had it in her hand, along with a passport, retrieved from his inside jacket pocket. She tossed Cappy the wallet and scrutinized the passport. "Picture doesn't do you justice, Manning. You planning to travel?"
Manning felt his face turn awkward. Nowhere was far enough. No plane was swift enough.
Cappy shuffled credit cards, pondered a driver's license, glanced at snapshots cut to fit their windows, and pried loose a newspaper clipping, which he unfolded and, donning glasses, held to the light.
Rose said, "Why are you smiling, Cappy? What's funny?"
"This guy snuffed his wife. I followed the case."
Rose secured a button of the pajama top to remain decent. "That true, Manning?"
He told his class that in dreams all truths are naked, even those in disguise. When at her worst, his wife lay with her head to the wall, as if she were a piece on a game board, no control over her moves. He gave her control by obeying her commands, by loving her more than himself.
"Two mistrials," Cappy said. "They let him go."
"Did you mean to do it, Manning?"
"Sure he meant to do it!" Cappy raised the front of his shirt and removed a small pistol wedged in his waistband. "I don't believe in mercy killin'. I'm a Cath'lic. Was me layin' there, I don't want no one puttin' me out of my misery. That's God's job. Ain't that right, Rose?"
"Put that damn thing away," she said. "Never do what you don't have to do, isn't that what you told me?"
"I want him on his knees prayin'."
"He's not scared, Cappy. And I don't think he's the praying kind."
Cappy waved the pistol. "I wanna know what he's doin' in Vegas."
"What are you doing in Vegas, Manning? For someone who doesn't like to gamble, what's the attraction of a casino?"
Manning spoke in his classroom voice. "A Las Vegas casino is a prime example of the quantum world. The lights are whirling, the odds are hidden, the dealer is devious, and the whole casino is a field of force. Yes, of course I'm attracted."
Cappy snorted. "What the fuck's he talkin' about?"
"Over my head," Rose said.
"You makin' fun of us?"
"Of myself," Manning said quietly. "Would you mind not pointing that gun at my face?"
"It's not loaded," Rose said. "It's not even real."
"For chrissake, you gotta tell him everything? It's real all right. It just don't work right."
Rose moved around the bed toward Manning, who liked the way she met his eyes, frank and direct, no games. His fixed mind gave him a solid face. She said, "Cappy needs his sleep, so I think you'd better get dressed and go." She handed him his pants and turned her head as he shed pajama bottoms. "Take my car. You know where I park it. Leave it there, keys under the mat."
Dressed, he wanted to say something to her but didn't know what. So he looked at Cappy. "Nice meeting you."
"The old days, the gun woulda smoked."
The window told Manning sunrise was near. He turned to leave. "I ain't finished," Cappy said. "I'm old, but I'm big bills. And you, you're small change. A penny-ante guy."
"Long as you do."
He slept away the day in his hotel room, waking from a dream in which he'd acquired the ability to float with the random ease of milkweed silk and floated here and there and everywhere and nowhere all at once. In the evening, after a light meal in his room, he rode the elevator down to the casino, sifted through the crowd, and for a while worked the slots, winning nothing. The players at the poker table looked as if each had a mathematical mind. Well, he did too, but it didn't help. The best he could come up with was a monkey flush, good for nothing. Someone tapped his shoulder.
"You're at the wrong table." The voice was familiar, and the tinted glasses unmistakable. "You should go for higher stakes. That's what she told me to tell you."
"Who do you think?"
Manning scanned faces. "Where is she?"
"Where she should be. With her husband." The glasses came off as the man rubbed his nose. The toe of one of the white shoes looked as if it had been bruised and hastily chalked over. Glasses back on, he squinted. "You sure I don't know you?" The voice was accusatory.
"I'm not sure of anything."
Manning weeded his way to the blackjack table where he had played the previous evening, the same humorless dealer presiding. The dealer was tall and thin, too thin, as if his body were on a budget, and his eyes were slivers. The only other players were two elderly women who seemed not to know what they were doing.
Manning hit on sixteen, caught a five, and raked in chips, receiving smiles from the two women. He stayed on fourteen and watched the dealer bust. The cards were spitting his way. He drastically increased his bet, peeked at his cards, and flipped over an ace and a queen. The women cheered.
"My lucky night."
"Traveling money," the dealer said in a cold voice and, while the two women applauded, pushed chips at him. "Quit while you're ahead."
He should've known, should've guessed. "Is that what she told you to tell me?"
The dealer ignored him. "Put your bets down, ladies."
Manning said, "I want you to tell her something for me."
"I'm not a messenger boy."
"Tell her a rose bursts into bloom solely to surprise itself."
"That supposed to mean something?"
"Only if you don't think about it." Manning gathered his chips. "And tell her I'll never forget her."
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