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  • Published 20221101
  • ISBN: 978-1-922212-74-0
  • Extent: 264pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

THE LAST TIME I saw Archie he was back in Vegas. It’s only an hour and a half from LA, so I got a cheap flight and went out there hoping (against reason perhaps) to find him flush. He usually lived in rented rooms, moving whenever his fortune changed. I had an address on the edge of the city: Gold Stars Motor Court. It was difficult to know if the woman on the postcard was representative of the clientele or the entertainment on offer. I hadn’t seen him for a long time and I knew this was probably a bad idea. But desperate times, etc. Truth is I’d run up a cocktail bill at the Beverly Hills Hotel so high it made me dizzy to look at it. And my father lived a charmed life once.

The girl at the front desk said, ‘Of course I know your daddy, he’s out there now by the pool – it’s happy hour! We’re all very fond of Archie here, he’s a real character, isn’t he? Just so you’re aware, we’ve had to pause room service until he settles his bar tab.’

I found Archie by the shallow end wearing a short terry-towelling robe open to the waist. Time and tide had left him shipwrecked and bloated, but you could still recognise him from the pictures on his album covers: same dark pouf and ducktail and duotone tan, only now he got his colour from a bottle and his hair from a can. He’d been drinking gin and tonic since happy hour started, brought out by an over-attentive waitress. 

He was glad to see me. Said I was looking fine. Waved the waitress over again and ordered a couple more drinks, which we sipped from striped plastic straws in striped plastic lounge chairs at right angles to each other. He didn’t ask me where I’d come from or where I was going and I did not elucidate. If Archie was broke there was no point in hanging around. Maybe – just maybe – the fine folks at the Beverly Hills Hotel would not press charges as a favour to my mother, Judy, who had once spent a lot of time in the pool there. Archie happened to know there was plenty of vacancy at the Gold Stars Motor Court if I was looking for a place to stay.

After that we didn’t speak for a long time, just sort of lay back in the heat; he was an inherently lazy fellow, which he tried to pass off as contentment. Strange to recall I used to adore the scent of leather and tobacco that surrounded my tall dark daddy like a halo; when I was a little girl I’d empty ashtrays just to be near him. The best times were when he decided I was lucky so he said, ‘Get on up here little one. You stay close to your pop tonight,’ and he pulled me onto his lap while he played poker. ‘Honey Bob’ Stone was always there and Gene ‘Wildboy’ Spencer and Burt Longford and all those type of guys – singing cowboys whose photographs you’ll still find hanging in dim Mexican restaurants. (Archie had had a few hit records back in the day; now I think the really striking thing about those songs is how he got away with warbling such appalling lyrics while so inexpertly strumming a guitar. And where he got that accent from I’ll never know: he was born in Bendigo, he never rode a horse any bigger than a pony, and he couldn’t tell the difference between a six-gun and a duelling pistol.) But that was all a long time ago, before his looks, his luck and his charm deserted him, and he was left singing and strumming – if he wasn’t too drunk to stand – in the community lounges of Lost Paradise retirement villas across the United States.

The motor court was shabby, the concrete dirty, the pool the shape – if not quite the size – of a kidney bean, the few guests sitting round it were invariably elderly, and though there was music playing somewhere, the loudest noise was from the traffic. The view across the pool took in the rear entry sign, which said ‘OLD STARS’ because the ‘G’ was unblinking; the shop across the road sold fried crawfish in buckets, and next door was a valet parking lot presided over by a huge neon Marilyn, who indicated the start of happy hour when she cast a shadow long and black as doom. Needless to say, the patina of crappiness in Vegas is only bearable because it’s a transient place, a mall in the desert built for tourists. I’ve always thought the people who live there must have some dreadful curse on their heads.

I had been watching the poolside waitress make her way back to us. Her right heel was worn down on an angle almost certainly related to the endless clockwise trek round the pool from person to person, to bar and back again.

‘That’s a pretty girl, isn’t it?’ Archie said. And this time when the waitress (scarcely pretty, hardly young) arrived with the clearing tray he pulled her hand onto his shoulder and patted it. ‘Come here, Jeanie,’ he said. ‘I want you to meet my little girl, Sunday.’

‘Hiyah,’ said Jeanie.

Archie slurped the end of his drink and handed Jeanie the glass before he added: ‘It’s lucky you’ve turned up just now, Sunny. Maybe I should’ve told you before – Jeanie’s going to be your new stepmother.’

Actually it wasn’t as lucky as all that. You could turn up any blue Tuesday and find him newly engaged. I’ve lost count of the stepmothers he’d furnished me with. Let me think: Brenda, Sandra, Irene, Eileen and the one I never met, Winona from Winnipeg. ‘Congratulations, you two lovebirds,’ I said.

Jeanie gave a sweetly embarrassed smile and said she had to get back to work. When she was on her way with the tray round the pool again, I said, ‘I’m really terribly thrilled you’ve found true love again, but I have to wonder if you can afford the alimony.’

‘You know I just can’t help it,’ said Archie. ‘I wear my heart on my sleeve.’ (In addition, I suppose, to waving his dick in the wind.) ‘When I meet a good woman I want to marry her.’

I wondered if Jeanie waddled that way because she was pregnant. Or maybe the bar tab would rectify itself after they were wed.

‘You gotta take care of the people you love,’ he said.

‘Of course you do, Archie. And I’m your only legitimate and most devoted daughter, aren’t I? There’s nothing left for me at all, is there?’

Archie tried to sit up, his stomach dangling between his legs, the tie-belt perilously loosened. ‘Now, honey. Don’t be like that. Your old man’s a real smart fellow.’

‘Sure,’ I said.

‘Matter of fact, one of my investments just came up aces.’ He patted his nose to indicate he’d cheated. ‘You should’ve seen me there. I had the bastard over a barrel. Cheque came first thing this morning. What do you think of that? Isn’t that something?’

‘That’s really something,’ I said. ‘I can hardly believe it.’

He leaned back again, sweat shimmering like all of his pleasure had risen to the surface. ‘You know, I’d like to give Jeanie the kind of wedding she deserves. Really do it in style.’ He always had this way of building castles in the air so grand it absolved him of making any effort on the ground. ‘I’m telling you I won a packet. How do you like the sound of that? Might even be a little something for you. Restitution for the years I’ve been away.’

‘Thank you, Daddy, you are kind.’

That inspired even more generosity in him. ‘We should all have dinner tonight and celebrate. You, me and Jeanie. And maybe we could go someplace and double it. My little lucky charm.’

After that he gave me the key to his room, so I left him in the glare for the rest of the happy hour.

IT WAS THE kind of amenably neutral little room you’d expect. The blinds were drawn except for a two-inch crack that pitched a column of hanging dust into the centre of the carpet. I had a quick poke around to find the fabled packet. As a rule it was best to relieve Archie of his cheques before the ink on them was dry. I turned out the pockets of his trousers and his jacket, shook his shoes upside down. Then I went through the room looking for anything that might be worth something – anything he hadn’t pawned himself. He used to wear a lot of rings. Even his belt buckle was silver. It rang like coins whenever he sat down, and when he laughed so you could see the fillings in his back teeth I used to think my adored daddy was a very rich man indeed. But the only thing on the bedside table was Here Comes Charlie Brown, bookmarked with a titty pic. The top drawer held his pill bottles and a spare set of teeth; the bottom drawer was empty except for the Gideons, which I flapped over the carpet to see what fell out, then read where some poor soul had marked the passages most pertinent to tourists in Vegas: All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again…

In the cupboard, in the zip compartment of his curled-up carry-on bag, I found a card-backed photo of his mama. I remembered it from when I was a child; it used to have a silver frame. Then the couple next door had a two-minute fuck, and when the neighbours finished their assault on the asbestos, one of the parties took a thundering piss and neglected to flush. In the horror of that silence, I was seized with a terrible fear my life would be like this forever – if not here then somewhere just the same – if I could never go back to the Beverly Hills Hotel. The pale road through the palm trees, the potted ferns and peace lilies and pink impatiens, the giant birds of paradise and their lush little sisters, the breeze through a sensation of bougainvillea like some grand dame on a knees-up in a flamenco dress, the Brazilian pepper tree. When the Sultan of Brunei came to the Beverly Hills Hotel they took out all the weeping fig trees to banish reminders of death.

Now Archie came in, filling the room with the scent of chlorine, sweat and hair oil.

‘Jeanie gets off at eight,’ he said. ‘I’m going to have a shower. Why don’t you put the TV on?’

‘It gives me a headache.’

He put it on anyway. ‘You could get some of those German beers from the fridge next to reception? They have little sandwiches too.’ The sandwiches came in a little packet of triangles, he said. Only three bucks a piece. You could get tuna salad, egg and lettuce or chicken. He really liked the tuna.

I would die here if I stayed. My only chance was to keep Archie happy and on the right side of sober long enough to extract the money he’d promised, which didn’t give me much time at all. ‘Okay Pop, chuck me your wallet?’

‘Put it on the room charge.’ He picked up the wet towel he’d left on the bed to go into the bathroom. Then he said, ‘I hate that guy.’

‘What guy?’

‘The news guy. Can’t stand the sight of him. Don’t you think he’s got a strange-shaped head?’

Archie was adamant in his hatred of the fella with the strange-shaped head, so I flicked the channel to Turner Classics where they were showing some Technicolor-Panavision-Stereophonic sensation from the ’60s.

‘Wowee, that’s an old one, isn’t it,’ Archie said, with a long whistle. ‘Burt. Burt Longford. Old Burt.’

When I got back with the beer and little sandwiches he was still watching that movie with a faraway look in his eyes, like something behind them had gone out, or been disarmed like a car alarm.

ARCHIE EMERGED FROM the shower unfortunately pomaded, freshly tanned and scented like an aubergine. He was going to take his girls someplace swell to celebrate. ‘The Paris casino has a five-star restaurant,’ he said. ‘But I like the buffet at the Quartz Lounge better.’

When Jeanie finished at eight she had changed into a simple white shift dress with a clacky necklace and put on a bright lipstick and even brighter perfume. She said she was looking forward to a nice dinner and a night out. She didn’t get the night off that often. But remember she had to work in the morning.

‘Don’t worry about that. Just enjoy yourself,’ Archie said. One thing for sure, he’d never in his life let work get in the way of enjoying himself.

The Quartz was a little further out, but Archie preferred it to the big guns because it was friendlier, they did all-you-can-eat seafood and you didn’t see much of the Mob about. And would you believe, old Honey Bob Stone from days of yore did the evening show there. Archie looked even more puffed up than usual as he led the way across the playing floor to the restaurant area, where the carpets were stiff with forty years’ worth of chicken grease, spilled booze and sadness in layers like mineral deposits. He was wearing the kind of suit that can really turn heads, even there in the Sixth Circle of Hell. Our table was covered in a salmon-pink cloth and laid with blood-red napkins.

‘Isn’t this just great?’ Archie said, pulling out his seat. ‘Take a look at that menu. Have anything you want. They do everything here.’ Because everything was cheap he felt generous. He might have been drunk already. You could never be sure with Archie. You might even take him for stone sober till he did something inexplicable.

‘You’ve always been good to me, Daddy,’ I said.

That put him in an expansive mood. ‘You know, I’ve been on the road a long time. Always had to keep on rolling, hither and thither, wherever the music took me. But I never forgot the old folks at home.’

‘And here I thought you rattled in and out of home based on the going price of liquor.’

God give me strength.

‘Isn’t my girl beautiful, Jeanie?’

‘She sure is, Archie,’ said Jeanie. 

‘And she’s got a real mouth on her.’

‘Takes after her father.’

‘She sure does,’ said Archie. ‘Only, my mama used to say, if you’ve got a mouth on you like that, you ought to fill it with song. I learnt to sing in church.’

Archie had spent a lifetime filling his mouth with song and some other things as well. That night it was prawn cocktails, consommé, crab bisque, calamari with squid-ink sauce and a small green salad from which he extracted the lettuce strips as if they were tapeworms. His main was boiled lobster. ‘I always like a female with a big tail,’ he declared (winking, Jeanie taken aback); he laid out his lobster cracker, lobster pick and bone plate like a coroner. When he had the thing in front of him he said, ‘Ever had a lobster before, Jeanie?’

Not like that, she said. She didn’t like the look of it, couldn’t stand the little eyes.

‘Don’t let ’em scare you.’ Archie twisted the tail in two with his bare hands, snapped off every leg to suck the meat from them. ‘You have to scoop the arsehole out, but the liver’s the best bit. Ah, aren’t I lucky, she had eggs!’

It was enough to destroy the appetite of a Gorgon, but the real fear and disgust I felt was something to do with the superabundance of seafood in that desert place, as if Vegas had been an oasis until some shadow passed over it and the water evaporated and the fish were left twitching on the sand.

Archie asked how were we for drinks. This parched and godless realm inclined me towards three fingers of whisky, but Jeanie said: ‘No more wine, that’s enough for me.’

Archie said it’s a special occasion.

Jeanie said she had to get up in the morning.

Archie said one more won’t hurt you.

Jeanie said, ‘Oh go on then, just the one. You really spoil me, don’t you?’ and gave another small sweet smile showing small white teeth, which reminded me of the seeds in a fig.

She looked a bit like, oh, I don’t know, some old-timey sweetheart à la Connie Francis, so her haircut didn’t seem to suit her and I couldn’t decide whether she was an attractive fifty-five who might pass for forty, or the other way around; she was either fifteen years younger than Archie, or fifteen years older than me. I could know and understand nothing about her except that she was a waitress.

Was it a contrived blankness, was she one of those indelible debutantes who mistook inexperience for purity? Or was it a deliberate erasure? In response to a couple of polite enquiries Jeanie told me she had a son who lived in San Francisco.

‘Well, let’s meet the bastard,’ said Archie. ‘I’d like to shake his hand.’

‘He probably won’t be able to come down for the wedding,’ said Jeanie. ‘But he’s sure to send something nice, he always does nice things like that.’

She could’ve been a good-time gal who never really had a good time. Or she could’ve been a very good girl who didn’t really know what a good time was. My baked sole was a little overdone. ‘This fish is nice, isn’t it?’ said Jeanie. ‘Nice and fresh.’ I thought I’d heard it all when she added, ‘You know, I think your father is a wonderful man.’ As if I might suspect she was marrying him for his money. ‘I think he’s a lot of fun.’

By that time I was struggling to see through the whisky and a pain between the eyes, which could’ve been boredom, despair and/or the desert light, which drives you underground into the perpetual season of the casino floor so you never know when to sleep or leave or rend or sew or cast away stones. Perhaps the thing that bothered me most about Vegas wasn’t the fact the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty and all the famous figures that lined the walls of Caesars Palace were tacky and hollow, but that the proportions were clearly wrong. Then Archie broke out singing, ‘I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair…’ as if she were some kind of mythical beauty.

‘He’s got such a big voice, doesn’t he?’ Jeanie said, blushing nicely red from her breastbone upwards. ‘You know, I always thought Archie could move mountains with that voice.’

Momentarily I tried to picture Jeanie as my new stepmother, backlit by the slot machines in the next room. She kept using her napkin to wipe spots from Archie’s cheek with a sleepy inwards smile all for herself; sometimes he swatted her away, but in the middle of another long story about his old mama or how he learned to sing in church, Jeanie could dab away to her heart’s content. It was like she wasn’t there at all.

I HAD TO step out for a cigarette or three, and for a while stood smoking by the bins in a long corridor lined with palm trees in pots, each despairing under its own small skylight. But nothing seemed to taste right, or I couldn’t take a breath deep enough. I picked a bit of tobacco from my tongue and remembered how I used to watch my smoke disappear into the blue summer outside the walls of the Beverly Hills Hotel, waiting for life to start over after I left Nico.

When I got back to the table, Archie’s eyes were wet, his face brighter than Jeanie’s lipstick, as though he’d taken on some of the qualities of the lobster. He’d got a hold of the waiter, literally ringing his hand around the guy’s arm. ‘Another bottle here, buddy.’

Jeanie made a little moue. Archie said he wanted to celebrate. When did he get to see his favourite girls together? We were going to be family, weren’t we?

He was far drunker than I realised because you’d never usually hear him speak of family like that – in glowing tones – unless the bone-handled butter knives provoked some fond remembrance of his dear dead mama. But Jeanie said, ‘Oh, yes, we’re going to be family, aren’t we?’ Her smile, when I sat down, was so genuine it startled me. ‘That was a nice dinner, wasn’t it, Sunny? I’m going to sleep so well. Been on my feet all day.’ She started to rake her nails through her hair to loosen up the spray.

Even then it might’ve all ended well except at that moment old Honey Bob Stone entered the dining area. It was true I hadn’t seen Honey Bob these many years, when he used to roll around for a game of cards in his buttoned-up Pendleton shirt, but I recognised him straight away. The way Archie spoke of him, you’d think he was still a leggy kid trying to make it in pictures, too polite to mention the other guys were cheating. Now Robert Stone was exactly the kind of man you’d pick as a lounge singer: he had a nice black suit, a lot of white hair and teeth, a face that crinkled around eyes that twinkled. He was wending his way through the room with a sure light step, hands out to meet the fascinated widows who’d come to fritter away their husbands’ life savings.

Pretty plummy gig for an old guy, I thought. And Honey Bob certainly got paid in more than salad bar coupons and two-for-one deals at the valet parking place. As he passed near our table Archie said, ‘You bastard!’ with that huge showman’s voice untempered by discretion.

The greeting stopped Honey Bob in transit. A brief searching pause, then Honey Bob said: ‘Hello, old man!’ He clasped Archie’s hand between both of his, gave his most expensive smile and thanked us all for coming down to the Quartz’s famous dinner show very sincerely, in a smoky voice he played as artfully as piano keys.

‘Let me tell you, I had some great times with this kid,’ said Archie. ‘We had a helluva time, didn’t we Bobby.’

‘Terrific,’ said Honey Bob. ‘Absolutely terrific.’ And there was another flash of those radiant dentures at another old friend he’d just spotted by the exit. Honey Bob said, ‘I’ll see you soon Archie,’ and we were forgotten before he’d finished pressing Daddy’s hand goodbye.

When he was gone, Archie said, ‘Honey Bob’s been singing the same songs and making the same jokes for thirty-five years now.’

‘I think he looks nice with that white hair,’ said Jeanie. ‘Distinguished.’

‘Makes him look like an old man.’ After a while he said to me, ‘You probably don’t remember Honey Bob coming round in the old days. He was a real greenhorn then. Other fellas felt sorry for him.’

‘Sure I remember,’ I said. ‘The house in Beaudesert Canyon Drive with the redbrick fireplace.’

‘You were just a baby,’ said Archie. ‘I can’t believe you remember that shithole.’

He was in a real mood and not just because he was soaked. You might’ve seen the heat coming off him except that in Vegas the air conditioning is always set about three degrees below zero to combat the smell of old men sweating in polyester shirts. Now when Jeanie said we ought to head on home Archie shoved a tip into the waiter’s hand as if he never wanted to see the guy again. Then I watched the empty billfold disappear back into that dark impenetrable and imponderable place between his breast and his armpit. So much for my little something. Although I wasn’t surprised. The only thing my daddy’s ever really given me is a large amount of bullshit.

BACK TO THE Gold Stars in a cab. Jeanie’s bright perfume had mercifully evaporated, leaving a chemical citrus and chalk smell in its place. Nobody talked as we drove, and I felt a little sad because she’d wanted to wear something nice, or glamourous even. I thought of the banana-leaf wallpaper at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the cocktail waitress with her white silk tablecloths and silver forks and scent of Joy de Jean Patou (10,000 jasmine flowers and twenty-eight dozen bunches of roses), the pool a temple pond full of Listerine. We turned in past the place that sold crawfish in buckets and I wished that everyone could have beautiful things. But then there was this pain of knowing you could never have them back.

Now I only had to say goodnight and go on with the cab, but there was some kind of a drag on me, whether I was heavy with drink or tiredness, or was it just the fact that without the money I really had no place else
to go?

Jeanie talked to the guy at the desk so we could get some more of those German beers put on her staff tab. Then Archie led the way down the balcony walk, blocking out the light from the exit sign. He had some trouble with the swipe thing, but went on gallantly till the door beeped and he lurched into the room ahead of us. He’d left the TV on while we were gone. ‘Gene Spencer,’ he said to the man on the screen. ‘Ole Gene.’

Archie took the chair in front of the TV. I sat on the bed leaning back against the headboard, while Jeanie perched at the foot of it taking off her shoes. ‘Nice, these German beers,’ said Archie. He was, I could see now, the heavy still centre of that little universe; all the socks and empty glasses fell in concentric circles around the armchair, where he was wedged like a colossus, too full and fat to move.

The Gene Spencer film was an old one, but a good one: one of the best, in fact. Archie exhorted us to watch this bit, to take a look at that. The make-up was so thick he said old Gene looked like he was going to sing ‘Swanee’, and he had some dirty story about the blonde, who couldn’t act for toffee. He only paused his illuminative monologue for scenes of thundering horses. There were so many cuts back and forth between pistols drawn and bodies falling out of bell towers like sacks of wheat that every shadow in the room jumped.

Jeanie looked exhausted in the blue light. She wasn’t drinking her beer, just held it in her lap while she rubbed one foot up and down the calf of her other leg.

‘You ever seen this film before, Jeanie?’

Maybe once or twice, she said.

A cliffhanger. A close-up; dizzying Dutch angle and fade to commercial saying ring this number now for a once-in-a-lifetime $$$ opportunity. Archie used to come home late and stay up till daybreak watching this stuff, in the house on Beaudesert Canyon Drive; I’d climb out of bed because I couldn’t sleep then doze off in front of the movie with my head on his thigh. Why do I remember that old house? Rented furnished. The cracked leather couch, dirty white shag pile, redbrick fireplace and wood panelling, which cast a kind of beer-bottle light; the smell of smoke and eucalypts and the way Daddy kept on talking and laughing about the poker game and the old fond friends he’d cheated until he suddenly went very quiet and still, with his big brown hand resting lightly on my hair. I was almost falling asleep now, on top of a motel bedspread, which is really something. Then there was a news update. Archie said, ‘Christ, I hate that bastard. Can’t stand the sight of him. His head takes up the whole screen. Makes me sick. Lord, change the channel.’ It occurred to me that the fella with the strange-shaped head had the same ample white hair and high-grade dentures as Honey Bob Stone.

Jeanie and I both reached around for the remote, and Archie put his right hand down to feel the carpet beneath his chair. When he sat back up he was holding a handgun.

‘What’s that, Archie?’ A jump in Jeanie’s voice.

‘Jesus, Daddy, where’d you get that old thing?’

He pointed it at the screen.

‘Please don’t play around with it,’ said Jeanie. There was something about the way she said it.

He cocked the hammer and pulled the trigger.

The hammer clacked against an empty chamber.

‘Bang,’ said Archie. ‘You son of a bitch. Got him. Right between the eyeballs.’

That cheered him up no end.

So he cocked and clicked all around the room, filling the stillness with his own ‘boom’ as he shot down the lamp beside the TV, the beer bottles like little ducks in a row. Click, click, click, click; he laughed every time he pulled the trigger, the chamber revolved and Jeanie jumped. Finally his sight came to rest on her.

‘Don’t you point that thing at me.’ She waved him away with the beer. ‘Come on, Archie.’ She was tired. She’d been a good sport all night. The sun was coming up. She had to go to work soon.

Now on screen the hooves were thundering again. Heat rising from the road. The girl with the yellow ribbon peers between the shutters, bell ringing in the wind. Then a solitary figure in silhouette rides up over the crest of the hill. Was it the villain or the hero just in time?

Archie said, ‘Last words, woman.’

Jeanie leaned over to pick up her shoes so I couldn’t see her expression. ‘Please. I don’t like it. It’s not nice to have a gun pointed at you.’

Archie squinted down the barrel.

‘Put it down, Daddy,’ I said. ‘It’s not funny anymore. She doesn’t like it.’

‘Hold still now…’

Jeanie started up, went to the bathroom. He kept the gun trained on her.

‘Stop it,’ she said. ‘Will you stop it. Will. You. Just. Stop.’

She threw her shoes at him. Slammed the door. Archie pulled the trigger. Only a click. And yet everything had been blasted into a million bits and lay smoking on the floor.

‘Got her,’ he said. ‘Six for six.’

I snatched the pistol from him. ‘What in hell are you doing?’

‘Only a little joke,’ he said. ‘It’s not loaded. I’m just having a laugh.’

‘You piece of shit. You stupid piece of shit. Why’d you do that? Why do you always do that?’ I was standing over him, holding the gun just out of his reach. If he wasn’t my father I might’ve smacked him over the head with it.

‘Come on, honey, don’t go crazy,’ he said. ‘That’s mine. It’s mine. Give it back. Stupid woman.’ In that voice that could’ve moved mountains.

I got my things, hurled the gun into my bag with the other shit I’d packed in a hurry, the shit I’d never unpacked.

You don’t get used to it.

Jeanie was still shut up in the bathroom in her stocking feet. I said I was going now; through the door I heard, ‘It was nice to meet you, Sunday.’

That odd white light. The stain in the sink. And the phosphorescent shower curtain that breathes over you in every motel bathroom you’ll ever know.

In the desert the heat drops out of the air as soon as the sun goes down. And just before the colours rise, the sky’s like a sheet of clean glass. The cars had ceased purring around Marilyn’s legs in the parking lot next door; in that moment of quiet freedom she looked like she was hula-hooping the rings of Saturn. I was in a cab halfway down Las Vegas Boulevard before I took out the gun. It was some kind of service revolver from the war. He probably found it under his mother’s bed when he was a kid, probably spent the ’50s shooting at the TV, watching Kit Carson, chasing his brother Lindsay round and round, Lindsay who died in Vietnam. Worth a packet, as they say. I could walk into any shady pawn shop downtown tonight and up the long cool drive to the Beverly Hills Hotel tomorrow, the head waiter of the Polo Lounge with his arms out to greet me, ready to understand all and forgive all. But I told the driver to turn around and left it with a note under the front desk of the Gold Stars Motor Court.

Isn’t it funny you can only see real stars if you look away from the Strip. And they live so long we’ll all be gone before the dust from their birth has finished settling.

This piece is one of five winners of the 2022 Griffith Review Emerging Voices competition, supported by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund. 

Image credit: Getty Images

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About the author

Stephanie Barham

Stephanie Barham studied at the University of Melbourne and RMIT. She was shortlisted for The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award in 2015.

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