The bar at the Wayside Inn was made of wood. Everything in the Wayside Inn was made of wood: the tables and the piano and the staircase and the rooms upstairs and the rooms in the back. The glass was temporary, and so was the flesh: they cycled through, were emptied, discarded. A window might last a year; a bottle, ten minutes. Whore might last a year; gambler, ten minutes. They walked in and stumbled out onto the Main Drag; the sidewalks were made from spruce planking, and the street itself was made of shit.
Horses toppled by, ridden and laden, and you could buy meat and vegetables from pushcart stalls. Buildings abutted tents–a great deal of the neighborhood was still canvas–and everyone was filthy. Mustaches were prodigious, and the hats came in so many varieties: stetsons and bowlers and tops and sombreros and Dakotas and gamblers, in every color that was black or gray or brown. There were no women in the street, which was not even a mile long. Off to the south were the flat fields where the miners camped, their tents laid out in even rows. To the north was the Turnaway Lode. There was so much gold you couldn’t turn away, and the men rushed in to work it and the surrounding foothills. No one ventured all the way up the mountains, but they didn’t have to: there was money just laying there in the rock and under the moss and waiting for you to pick it up.
Freud made the connection between money and shit. We don’t pay much attention to Freud any more, but he got some things right. Money is just like shit: except for a small percentage of fetishists, people prefer to get it away from themselves as fast as possible. There was a need in the valley that would one day be the neighborhood called Little Aleppo, and so solutions presented themselves quickly. The surest way to an answer is a question asked while waving cash. Samperand’s Hardware opened up to overcharge for shovels and sifters and buckets. Anky’s had whiskey and tequila and poker, usually three tables’ worth going all day and night, and the Bronze Colonel has whiskey and tequila and dice, The Wayside Inn had whiskey and tequila and faro.
Faro is played on an oval tables. There is a dealer and as many as five players. The spades are laid out from ace to king, and then a different deck is shuffled. You could make a flat bet, which is that the six or seven or the jack would come up, by slapping a chip onto the proffered spade; you could bet on the Winner or Loser card; you could bet on all sorts of things. The first card is burned off; the next two are dealt face-down, first the Loser and then the Winner. The odds were not terrible if the game was fair. No faro game was fair.
The Wayside also featured girls. Swanny was a chubby blonde, and Tappy was from Pittsburgh, and Bowlegged Louisa still believed in Jesus, and Lulu was 15, and Pansy had slice-marks up and down her thighs she put there with her knife, and Virginia had nightmares so bad her screams woke up the whole building. Peach died–Doc Wallop drunkenly punctured her innards during a routine procedure–and now the Wayside did not feature Peach. Miss Valentine withheld the doctor’s payment for a week or two after that, and he didn’t complain.
Miss Valentine was good with a knife. She kept a Bowie in a black leather scabbard on her hip, right side, and she would make a big deal out of taking it off so you might feel at ease. You shouldn’t, because she always had more: a flick blade in one pocket, and a switch in the other, and another Bowie just as big as the first webbed into her right boot. She could kick up her heel and reach down and gut you in under a second. This is not a guess, or an exaggeration: Miss Valentine had timed herself. And practice made perfect.
She was neither short nor tall for a woman of the time, which was 18–, and she wore her brown hair just long enough to need to pull back into a ponytail when she wrote letters at her desk. Man’s clothes–a blue collarless shirt, black trousers–and freshly-shined boots (brown) with squared-off toes. Her cuffs were spotless and not frayed at all.
It was very early in the morning, because the only light you got for free in the past came during the day. Once the sun went down: that was it, unless you wanted to light something on fire; there is a reason the past burned itself down so much. Breakfast was pork and porridge on a tin plate. Coffee, black, in a tin cup. She wiped her mouth with a bandana, also black.
Canadian Bill was straw-haired and beefy, and he was from outside Saskatoon.
“I can’t have it.”
“Okay. Yeah, okay.”
She sipped her coffee.
“You got any fucking idea what I’m talking about?”
“You could possibly fill in some of the details for me, sure.”
Canadian Bill had been working for Miss Valentine since Tulsa, which he had reached via Carson City and Chicago. He enjoyed stabbing people, which in the old days meant you had to move a lot; Canadian Bill was like Caravaggio, but without all the painting. Miss Valentine was a hell of a blade, but sometimes it was politically propitious for her to be seen in public while someone was getting stabbed. Canadian Bill was also much bigger than she was, and so could carry bodies and whatnot. They found each other very useful.
“The goddamned caterwauling, Bill. The middle-of-the-night shrieking that issues from the fucking Indian girl’s gob.”
“She ain’t Indian.”
“With that nose? And the hair? Fuck me if she’s not.”
“Told me she was from Shreveport,” Canadian Bill said.
“What the fuck does that have to do with it? Fucking Indians are everywhere.”
“Not in Shreveport. They got Cajuns there.”
“I don’t give a fuck if they got Martians there. We’re talking about the screaming. Concentrate on the screaming, Bill.”
“Yeah, it woke me up.”
His shirt was white with brown pinstripes, and his suspenders and pants were brown, too. Completely bald on the top of his head with a ruff of hair around, also brown. Ludicrously large mustache that was the color you would expect. He gripped his fork like a bat and shoveled his breakfast into his mouth; wiped on his sleeve.
“I can’t fucking have it.”
“I gotcha,” he said.
“Do something about it.”
Canadian Bill stopped eating.
“Figure it the fuck out.”
The girls were in the back. They took their meals in the back.
The Morning Tavern technically opened at dawn, but the doors were unlocked before that and the bar was two-deep when the sun came up. The sun was a fascist, in the view of the Morning Tavern’s denizens. At night, you could flick on a lamp or sit in the dark: your level of illumination was up to you. But it was damned tough to avoid that yellow bastard at noon. Some folks need a bit of shade.
There used to be a band–this was back in the Sixties–that set up along the back wall and played 45 minutes out of the hour, five sets a day. Bunch of groups did it: the Slates, and the Earl Of Sandwich, and the Tick-Tocks, and the Sempahore Lightning. The drinkers did the Frug, and they did the Boogaloo. Seven days a week, baby, that’s rock and roll. The Tick-Tocks turned into Lamprey, which had seven Top-40 hits in the 1970’s. The members of Earl Of Sandwich participated in a murder/suicide so complex that the cops had to call in the Mathematics Department at Harper College to figure it out. There was a jukebox now. It glowed blue-and-red in the dim, and there were metal arches and filigree and scalloped edges; it was as tall as a man and twice as wide, and the power cable was as thick as Big-Dicked Sheila’s cock. She hit D3: it was that band from Australia, the loud one that had only written one song. The lead singer needed a lozenge. Sheila needed a cigarette. Her purse was at the bar; Tiresias Richardson was digging in it.
Sheila snatched it from her and hopped up on a stool. Her feet dangled. Bright-yellow Converse high tops with the tongues lolling like dimwitted dogs. Her pants were skin-tight and black and leather and laced up in the front; they were rock and roll pants; they were pants you wanted to get into that, ironically, were nearly impossible to get into.
Tiresias was wearing a pair of navy-blue blue sweatpants with white splotches up and down the left leg where she had splattered bleach. The hood of her sweatshirt was down, and there were no bleach stains, but had it not been rust-colored, then the spilled wine would be evident.
“I was looking for a cigarette,” she said.
Sheila pulls out a soft-pack of Camels, flicks the bottom with her middle finger; two tan filters pop up. Tiresias takes one with her fingers, and Sheila lips the remaining butt from its perch. Feels around in her massive purse like a raccoon at the riverside. Lighter. Plastic, green. FFT. Tiresias juts her head forward, chin-first, and the cigarette is in the middle of her lips. PHWOO. Sheila brings the flame back, her head cocks to the side PHWOO and the two of them are smoking and drinking at dawn on a Wednesday.
“This is lovely.”
“Far better than real life. AAAAHahaha!”
They had meant to go to sleep, they really had. Tiresias was the Horror Host on KSOS, and she worked the late shift because Horror Hosts have to work the late shift. They can’t go on the air at, say, four in the afternoon; that is a very unspooky time of day. Midnight to three, that was the Late Movie on KSOS, and after dark none of the other channels came in all that good if you had rabbit ears–and most of Little Aleppo still did–so everyone tuned in to see Draculette make fun of whatever crap was on that night. Most folks aren’t up real late. Most folks obey their circadian rhythms, and capitalism, and get up early so they go to bed early, too. Can’t be more than ten percent of any given population that’s active at night. The damnable and the dancers went out, met up with each other, bounced, recoiled, ordered another round. The rest stayed in and watched teevee. Procrastinating writers, and deliberate drinkers, and couples on first dates afraid to make the first move; those that could not sleep and those who would not sleep; the overnight shifters at the fire station: everybody caught the Late Movie.
Last night’s flick was called The Girl With A Spider For A Face; in keeping with Late Movie tradition, the plot had nothing to do with the title: the film was about biker draculas who claimed to be from Transmissionvania. Tiresias had very little to work with, as most of the running time was taken up by stock footage of motorcyclists, and so she declared her portion of the show to be in 3D and kept chucking stuff at the camera until her wig fell off.
The Draculette dress–that wicked piece of emphatic fabric–took two to get on and off. There were secret laces in the back that shrank the waist and surged the boobery upwards, outwards, skywards. It was the Mark III costume. The first two had been retired, and then sold to a superfan who Tiresias was 80% sure was going to kidnap and kill her one day but paid in cash. The new model was a leap forward in both tensile strength and stink-wicking.
The first night Sheila brought it in, Tiresias rubbed the dress between her fingers and then against her cheek.
“What is this made of?”
“I dunno. Precarious got a roll of it from a guy he knows. It’s basically sex-kevlar. He said it could stop a bullet.”
“How about bad reviews? AAAAHahaha!”
First the wig caps, two of them to hold down her mop of lazy brown curls, and then the makeup from the hairline down the neck and all of the chest to bring her already-pale skin to deathly. The eyes were green and black, and not subtle; it was not a look for the farmer’s market. Lips redder than a Communist firetruck. Then the supportive undergarments, and next was the dress. This was a two-woman affair: stuffing, yanking, and squeezing were required. It was not unlike trying to put a turtleneck on a cranky ferret. Finally, the wig.
Sometimes, we choose costumes that reveal ourselves. Other times, a gig’s a gig.
At three AM, she signed off with her traditional closer.
“I’ll see you tomorrow night, boogers. Try not to die ’til then.”
Turning back into Tiresias was just as arduous: the wig was wet with sweat and stink, and the makeup took a dozen wipes and half-a-bottle of remover to get off, and the dress clung fast enough to necessitate several occasions of “one, two, three, puuuuuulllllll” from her and Sheila. It was a lot of effort to make a California girl spooky.
They lay there on the shitty carpet, Tiresias naked and Sheila in her leather pants.
“I have vodka.”
“Just one,” Sheila said, but she was not strong in her beliefs and so–four drinks, two joints, and several of Sheila’s pills later–the two women were at the Morning Tavern trying to talk themselves out of buying blow.
They didn’t try very hard.
The Rejection fluttered on every wall, and from columns and even the ceiling. Letters passing on screenplays, and divorce papers, and eviction notices, and unopened envelopes stamped RETURN TO SENDER, and notes left silently on pillows. So many restraining orders. Denial of benefits, dishonorable discharges, and siblings’ speeches from interventions. Nothing succeeded like failure at the Morning Tavern.
“A month,” Tiresias said.
“A month!? You’re fucking crazy. I have a business. And you have a job.”
“They’ll show reruns and no one’ll notice. Bert can watch the shop.”
“I hate Los Angeles,” Sheila said.
“So does everyone who lives there. You’ll fit right in. AAAAHahaha!”
The music was too loud, which is how you know the Morning Tavern was a bar. The music is not loud enough in a lounge, and way too fucking loud in a club, but in a bar, the music is just the right amount too loud. It made you lean into conversations.
“I can’t go alone,” Tiresias said.
“I can’t go with you.”
“I don’t have anybody else.”
Sheila plucked a cigarette from the pack laying on the bar, didn’t offer Tiresias one, lit it FFT with a green plastic lighter and blew out PHWOO, rolled her eyes.
“Los Angeles sucks.”
“We’ll make it fun.”
“It happened again, Miss Valentine.”
The Reverend Busybody Tyndale was not comfortable in the Wayside Inn, and his terrible poker face extended to his whole body: his shoulders caved in when he entered, and his eyes peeked around nervously. He was a small man, and he made himself smaller.
“It happened again.”
“Why don’t you let me buy you a new suit? You look like shit.”
The Reverend’s sleeve was half-detached, and there were holes in the knees of his black pants. His boots were so scuffed that you couldn’t tell what color they were.
“Men from the camp. Miners. They came into the Pulaski village. Uninvited.”
“Maybe they were just being friendly.”
Canadian Bill chuckled, and so did Zeke and Possum. All of Miss Valentine’s guns were standing at the bar eating their breakfasts and drinking their coffees. Their clothes were worn, but clean. She insisted. All three were right-handed and wore their pistols on their right hips. Miss Valentine never wore a gunbelt, and only very rarely used a shotgun or revolver. She was good with her knife. Back in Tulsa, she had been Pammy and belonged to someone just like the girls taking their breakfasts in the back belonged to her now. Her mother had died and her father, a drunk, had sold her. She learned her first lesson the first day in bondage: it is better to own than to be owned. She learned her second lesson the night her face got carved up: be good with a knife. Miss Valentine learned her lessons well.
“They were not. It was only my intervention that prevented an irrevocable outcome.”
“Well, thank God for you, huh?”
“Reverend Tyndale. Seriously, man, you need new boots. I’ll pay.”
“This can’t keep happening.”
“No, it can’t.”
“And you’ll do something about it?”
“There is a treaty.”
“I appreciate that.”
The Reverend smoothed down the front of his suit coat. There were no buttons left.
“God bless you, Miss Valentine.”
He walked out, pretending not to hear the guns laughing at him, and turned left–south–on the spruce planks that lined the side of the shit-river that was the Main Drag. Stepped over shit-caked drunks, and maneuvered through barrels of apples and boxes of nails, and danced through a fistfight, and edged by an opium fiend perched at an unsustainable angle. Then, the sidewalk ended and the Reverend was walking on grass again–south–past the lake and the harbor, and into the woods where the Pulaski used to patrol as their hunting grounds, and where they now lived.
“Can’t have that, either,” Miss Valentine said. Her guns said nothing. She sipped her coffee and thought about the future.