Alf Said, "I'll give you five hundred bucks, kid."
Linda wasn't listening. She had stopped sketching Alf the Albino to watch the gaudy faces and glassy eyes, all tensely casual, jammed against the green felt crap island and the red-and-black roulette world of the luxury hotel, in luxury-ridden neon-glutted Las Vegas. The gamblers were ecstatic compared to the desperate wanters in the bar, old powdered jowled tan slacks ignoring old pulled up breasts under straples hoists and, along with the few young men, watching young bouncy ones in anything and almost young wiser ones in something lower. They watched Linda very much, in her plain gray skirt and gray cashmere and saddle shoes, thinking she probably would because of the loose sure body and the eyes with thick folded lids. In spite of their movie-sex shape, they were also watcher's eyes, astute in their own way as the dealers and the boxmen and Alf's nimble fingers.
"I said," Alf placed the tips of the hairless old diamonded fingers on the table. "Are you listening?" His shirt had diamond buttons.
Linda stared through him, still seeing dissonant color patterns, glittering facades of faces, one painting after another in the crowd, wishing she could get it all down now while she had it, make hundreds of sketches, fast paintings, chuck the job and forget about the rent and the divorce.
"Hey!" Alf snapped his fingers.
Linda refocused his face. The quintessence of blond decay, she called him. Of blond evil, she'd once told him, smiling, and he'd smoothed the yellow toupee like an ancient juvenile delinquent.
"Jesus. I said I'll give you five hundred bucks for the night." Alf's wet bead eyes were placidly baby blue, as if he'd offered ten bucks for the sketch or bet on a sure hand.
For once Linda opened her eyes wide. Then, remembering where she was, her mouth curled for the punch line.
"Listen, kid," Alf leaned forward.
"Oh God!" Linda coughed, laughed and with Alf patting her on the back started to roar. But she stopped, seeing the yellow toupee and the smooth poreless skin like thin dough about to tear, the same sick blue underneath, an old baby with a withered turkey neck and chin. "Are you serious?" she said. Sometimes his face looked naked and unborn as a monkey's.
"I got more cash than any jerk in this dump," Alf said and he probably had. His protective Swedish coloring– the Albino was only honorary–had helped him to more loot than any Sicilian could ever hope for operating alone.
A puffy Mafia type tapped him on the shoulder. Alf stood up and they mumbled together. People turned, not because of Alf's white fringed leather jacket and striped frontier pants, but because Alf the Albino was the greatest poker shark in the West, the badman hero of the movies' barroom legend of the Old West, to which the lost vagrants of town attached themselves.
Linda pushed the schoolgirl loose hair out of her eyes and sipped her vodka and orange, inspecting the sketch. Her hair was plain brown, a rare color in Las Vegas. It wasn't the first time she'd been offered money in this town. But it was the most. But then it was common knowledge that Alf never played poker at less than a hundred dollars a chip. She slung an arm over the back of her chair and her hand was taken by a jet base seated at the next table. He whispered something about her being the only natural looking girl in the place and she winked and wiggled her hand free. If she had been in New York instead where it was smarter to dress fashionable, she'd have dressed sexy. The one way she'd never dress was arty with the gypsy bangles in dirty pierced ears and the dirty red toenails in thong sandals. She watched the jet pilot, quietly finding out, and he gave her a broad beefy leer. She decided she liked the jet pilot at the bar better because she couldn't see him so well and he was talking to another girl. She lifted her shoulders slightly as she turned back to Alf.
His man left and Alf said, "Now."
"Eee-yo-leven," the nearest dealer yodelled.
"I love that," Linda grinned.
Alf's rubbery lips stretched in annoyance. "Well? How 'bout it, kid?"
"Only five hundred?" Linda assumed an attitude. "What do you think I am?" But he wasn't playing. One hundred was standard but five hundred wasn't unusual in a town where people gambled away many times that, mainly because it wasn't a sure thing. The cocktail waitress who lived in the one-room hovel next to Linda's had lost her job by refusing five hundred from an important customer. And only last week a well known hustler had made two thousand off a doting easterner for gambling and smiling with him in this very bar, without ever leaving it. There were all kinds of sex and money legends. "No thanks, Alf."
The skin above his eyes stretched up to scanty brows. "Why not?"
Linda looked into fifty-sixty years of accelerated decay that couldn't be renovated by barbers and masseurs or hidden in fancy western duds and dimbars. "Everything's not for sale, Alf. Why don't you buy the sketch? For fifty bucks." She usually asked ten but it sounded like peanuts now.
"I never seen anything yet I couldn't buy." He reared back, lips rolling up from the perfect store teeth, "Once I hit the right price."
"Youth," she said.
"Every day of the week," he grinned.
She shrugged because of his age and wondered why Alf and all the other hobbling creaking roués didn't want an older woman who might like them as well as their money. But then Alf was his money. And he was also old.
"Come on, kid. Why not? I ain't asking you to marry me."
"I don't want to, that's all." If the jet pilot at the bar, who wouldn't and couldn't, offered her five hundred, she'd race him to the door. She probably would anyway before the night was over. The elaborate showgirl he was talking to had a cold cash mouth. She pointed at the girl. "Why don't you try her?"
"Fifty a throw," he said. "I can tell you the price of everything in this room. Hey! You like the guy?"
She smiled. "Not bad." He wasn't a salivating leer like the pilot behind her. He looked like he might like it without having to think of himself as triumphant or naughty or animal or spiritual, like he accepted his virility along with the sun's warmth and the endlessness of the mind.
"And whaddya think the knight in blue can do for you?"
She knew what she thought but she said, "Nothing, probably." And probably that was so, a fairly pleasant one-night stand and a week later she'd be thinking it had been a long time then remember and be surprised it had only been a week. But a week was a long time to be unloved. Then she'd miss Ed. They had been separated six months, after a marriage that lasted hardly longer, and she was discovering the kind of man she'd spend more than one night with was hard to find. Usually she held off till she got starved. And she was almost always starved, a gnawing craving that left her alone hardly more often than the other hunger. Then she'd get tight and someone would look good to her. Afterward she didn't want to see him again; he'd served his purpose. There had been only one since she'd come out for the divorce that she wanted to see again, a private at the bomb project who had been an opera tenor. They had reached each other so easily, only admitting they needed each other, something she and Ed had not been able to do. Ed, the noble confused solitary, would've considered that a weakness. But then in three weeks the army sent him to Japan. She couldn't see the jet pilot up close and hadn't tried to hear him yet and so she thought perhaps.
"Perhaps is the loveliest word in the language," she said. "At the moment." And began moving her shoulders, humming Quizas Quizas Quizas, trying for the pilot's eye.
"Next to yes," said Alf. "Five hundred for a throw."
"Oh. That's what I thought you meant anyway. Hey," she remembered, "what about your blonde? She's a beautiful little girl. Younger than I am too," she teased, the heavy roll of her eyelids typing her forever in the movie-sex minds of the wanting drinkers.
"Man can't take blondes twenty-four hours a day."
Linda wondered if the baby-blue Cadillac was in her name. People said he'd even given her an apartment building. He kept her luxuriously, a display case for his wealth that dimmed the glossy foyers of the Strip hotels with the radiance of a young virgin queen.
"I'll raise you," the blue eyes were lighter harder beads. "A thousand bucks for a throw." Alf took out his money clip and counted off a thousand dollars in hundred dollar bills, holding the clip at table level. There was a lot left after he reached a thousand.
Linda's eyes grabbed at the money then released it and, fascinated, tried not to watch. She had never seen a hundred dollar bill. It was preposterously much for one piece of paper and there were enough to look like toys. A thousand dollars was cheap green bait to him, not even enough to get in a game. To her, it equalled ten solid months of painting, here or in a little hole in the wall in New Mexico or the Village, meant a chance to record the bawdy greedy sterility and expensive starvation of the Las Vegas dying, a chance to find out if she would be a painter.
"How 'bout it, kid?" Alf watched her.
Linda didn't answer. Just for fun she was figuring, like when she was a kid she used to figure what she'd do with a million bucks. It would come to ten months easy. She lived on about a hundred a month now, saving for the divorce. She could even stretch it to twenty months with a part-time typing job. Twenty months of time that was gold that was time. Her eyes snatched the money and ran to the foyer where she spotted Alf's bodyguard.
"Why don't you just give me the money?" she said in a cold clenched voice. "I need it and you can spare it. If you lost it at the crap table, you wouldn't even know it."
While she talked Alf snickered, his mouth rolling delightedly around the false teeth. "For nothin'? You believe in fairy tales, little girl?"
"Get me another drink," Linda said, hating him for the fun he was having, idly dangling the bait because he had nothing better to do, not caring whether the fish hooked or not. He already had the prize catch on display.
Alf flashed two diamonded fingers at the cocktail waitress.
Linda saw the turkey neck swallow, saw the gray dough face smile easy and avid at her. He might've had a fresh girlish bloom when he was young since he'd never had to shave. She glanced at his wrists. There was no hair on them either. She turned toward the gamblers, hopelessly hopeful, trying to get something for nothing as the cowboy's wink on the "Howdy Pardner" signs all over town implied that you, endowed with your luck, could do.
The drinks came. "Here's to it," Alf said and raised his glass to hers. She clinked his glass and Alf smiled more and leaned back in his chair and took a big deal closing gulp of Scotch.
Linda drank her drink watching the knight in blue who could do nothing for her at the bar. He looked at her and she could tell by the way he did that it wasn't the first time. Separately together, they indulged in the world's most speculative intrigue–perhaps. Alf twisted in his chair and she looked back at him, at his smooth skin, like a spoiled gray tomato the moment before the decay reaches the outside.
With card shark timing he took out the money clip and counted off five bills. His experienced fingers hid the money as he pulled it loose, rolled it into a cigarette-size cylinder and reached for Linda's hand. She glanced at the jet pilot who had turned back to the bar. Alf put the roll into her hand which lay awkward as an extra left foot for an exposed moment on the table before she put it in her lap and counted the money. Five hundred.
"The other half afterwards," Alf said.
She put the money in her purse. If someone had offered her a thousand dollars to let them throw a rotten tomato at her, once she was sure they weren't joking, she'd probably do it. Because the only barrier was pride and what did she care about that. She hadn't liked most of them anyway. She had been lonely starved drunk hoping curious bored full remembering. It had been her, not them. And so the degree that she didn't like Alf shouldn't matter. Remembering, mostly. Ed with his touchable tasteable smellable young skin and his proud still clean lost eyes. Suppose he could be here invisible. She was always bringing him someplace invisible. She saw the shock cross his face, smiled pleased at it till it turned to disgust then asked him why the hell not and started explaining. But he looked at her like she was kidding herself. And so she started in on him, for ruining Medea's life, for causing this degrading revenge, a tribute Ed would sneer at. And it was romantic compared to what had happened. Since the breakup she'd lost her protectiveness, both the part that alienates you from people and the part that keeps you hanging together as a person you see and can care about. She glanced at the divorcees at the bar scouting out a man for the night, acting like they thought their husbands had. Those that didn't start caring again sometimes stayed and made good money.
"Got some vodka in the suite," Alf said, blue bead eyes shining with yes, his loveliest word in the language. "Get some orange juice sent up."
She smiled, sad for a thousand reasons, and her watcher's eyes considered Alf, poor Alf with his pretty false hair teeth diamonds and duds and his ugly real withered decayed hairless self. An old baby, like most people still in love with youth, willing to buy steal or fake it, anything to stop the softening stiffening reminder. Poor rich Alf, thought rich poor Linda. And caught the jet pilot's eyes on her again. Hers protectively spread around him and focused in front of him. blurring out his question.
Alf set his drink down, final. "Ready, kid?"
Linda polished off hers and rose with a stiff excess of poise the saddle shoes couldn't carry off. She clipped the sketch of Alf to her board, her loose easy dignified body prim and tight with rage at its fate. She saw unfilled shapes, not faces and bodies, through a gauze she seemed to push away and cover herself with simultaneously. Lights and movement and noise and shape as he indicated for her to walk ahead and she walked through the bar haze to the foyer and the blue elevator uniform and the faces she looked beyond in the elevator and the carpeted hall of buy and sell to the large chrome know on the plain modern door.
Alf switched on the indirect lighting as they walked in. He put his arms around her and she pushed him away without thinking. The shock of the strong colors made her see they were real chairs couch rug bar stools cocktail table poker table. It was a modern playground, only smaller than downstairs. The bar was upholstered in white leather, branded in the center at knee level with a small fancy diamond "A".
Alf watched Linda. "The real thing, kid. Nothing but class for this baby." Grinning, stretching the inner tube lips, he went into the bedroom and turned on the bedtable lamp.
Linda watched him empty his change on the bedtable and take out the money clip again.
He walked back into the living room counting off five bills. He patted the blond toupee lightly and began. "Look, little girl. This horsing around ain't getting us nowhere. If you want the grand, you know what you do to get it. I raised you," he flipped the bills out, "and I'm calling."
Linda looked into 56 years of decay holding five more solid months of painting and sat down on the couch, leaning back into a toothpasty grimace. "Who, me, mister?"
Alf stared like a good poker player. "Look, Linda. You know what you're gonna do. You ain't changing your cards by stalling."
Her stomach jerked around like a floor of those carnival cars that bump each other. She crossed her arms and pressed her ankles into a tight pretzel. "You're pulling my leg, aren't you, Alf?" She giggled tartly and stopped.
"You got five bills in your purse."
She looked around at the silent waiting playground. And suddenly heard her hard careless voice say, "Okay. Alf. For one thousand dollars." She bent over the lurching inside, looking at the scuffed toes of her shoes, turned in like a young girl's.
Alf's face didn't change. He counted the five hundred again for her benefit then went in and put it under the ashtrary on the bedtable.
Linda looked at the door and at her purse and sat up. She could get to the door and out of the hotel with the money she already had. And then receive a visit at home from Alt's bodyguard. She slouched back. She could still give the money back and walk out, untouched, released to eight hours a day, five days a week sold to the office typewriter. He wouldn't even argue. She opened her purse and looked in. Alf came back. She closed the purse quickly.
"Now that's settled, name your poison." All indulged in a hit-the-right-price grin, rubbing his successful hands together.
"Vodka and orange."
He called room service and ordered orange juice enough for three people, making much of his victory which was all he had since no amount of fifty dollar, thousand dollar, or baby-blue Cadillac girls could show him the unbuilt highway to the fountain of youth.
Linda smorted, remembering the old song about working for the Yankee dollar, unmentionable now. Now, as after any business deal, she was supposed to act like love ran the world. She wondered about the first two cavemen who decided not to kill each other, all at once. She pressed her arms against her stomach to make it quit. Maybe they should've, she thought, smiling dimly at Alf who stood grinning her over like a pleasure craft gotten wholesale.
"Be right up, baby," he winked. "They jump for this boy." He fixed himself Scotch on the rocks.
She thought of the gamblers downstairs who also couldn't beat the game and knew it and still thought they could. You can always refuse to play, go to a deserted island by yourself and do sand drawings. But you couldn't beat it, in Las Vegas or any other outpost of civilization, with a normally developed habit of eating. You pays your money and you takes your choice, she thought–of how you'll get it because you'll damn well have to pay it. But even as she thought it and shared into the bedroom, she hallway expected the knight in blue or Mama or Jesus or something.
She jumped at the knock on the door. In came the orange juice and he did have on blue. She stood up. Like all good bellhops, he looked around her and closed the door and left. But there was something, the orange juice, and she went for like it could stop the flow of life. She poured a glass and gulped it down. "I love orange juice," she explained smiling nervously.
Alf put his arm around her. "Taste better with vodka. Fix you one." He squeezed her waist then took the pitcher to the bar and fixed her drink. He brought it to her." Now, " he said. "Couple of fast ones to relax." He sat on the couch and patted the space beside him.
Linda sat down about a foot from him, very absorbed in her drink.
"Come on, baby. What's this?"
"Huh?" she said innocently.
Alf chuckled and pulled her over to him.
"Watch out. You'll spill my drink."
He chuckled again, putting his arm further around till he was touching her breast.
She wiggled away. "Wait a minute. I–Let me tell you something." She frowned. "I've never done anything like this before. With money involved. I mean."
The blue bead eyes were light and wet and through with nonsense. "You don't have to tell me. But you ain't no virgin. So stop acting like one."
"Okay." Linda nodded soberly, cold with goose bumps, and polished off her drink. "I'll fix me another." She got up apologetically and went to the bar and fixed one without glancing at him. She came back smiling and sat down. "Sorry I'm so silly." She looked at the spoiled gray tomato skin and turned away.
"Yeah." Then he giggled. "Them goddamn eyes look to me like you spent your life in bed. Hey?"
"Sure," she said.
He put his arm around again and she let him, gulping her drink which was getting hard to swallow.
"Alf, frankly. I'm not much on preliminaries." She stopped to make her voice include him. "Messing around, I mean. I don't need it. I'd—just as soon go ahead."
He shrugged. "Okay by me. Finish your drink."
She did. "Can't we take one with us?"
His mouth rolled around. "Jesus. Want to take the poker table too?"
She laughed. "No, but what's on the radio?" She wanted it to stay funny but he laughed and slapped her fanny and it wasn't any more.
He handed her a new drink. "Ladies first," and indicated the bedroom.
She walked briskly ahead of him, as conscious of him as if she were behind him, feeling his eyes like dirty words scribbled all over her back. The bed was big and soft with a green silk cover turned down. The five hundred dollars was under the ashtray on the bedtable. There was a light on in the dressing room and in the bath beyond. She wiped her hands on her skirt and turned to face Alf.
"You're shaking, kid. You ain't got stage fright over old Alf?" He nudged her breast, and pointed to the dressing room. "There's a bunch of women's nightgowns and stuff in the closet there. Take your pick. I'll undress out here."
She went into the dressing room and shut the door, breathing deep to stop the undulating nausea. It was a chic powder room, brightly unconcerned, slick as a perfume ad. She wondered about the others who had undressed there. She slid back the panel expecting a burlesque assortment and found instead a rack of the finest gowns and negligees she had ever seen. There was a pale lavender one Ed would love. She held it up in front of her at the mirror feeling the softness and the lace. Then she put it back and searched methodically for the least sheer. She picked probably the ugliest, a gray one that was mostly ruffles and left something to the imagination. Slowly she took off her clothes and slowly hung them up and finally got into the gown. She wondered if he could. But it didn't matter. He'd try.
Alf knocked on the door. "You fall in?"
The goose bumps came back. "Just a minute." She looked in the mirror expecting now at the last moment to see something, some green horror, some sneaking decadence in her face that would stop her. But she looked only mildly scared: the turned inside out sick nakedness didn't show. Disappointed, she thought of herself as a martyr, a 20th Century martyr to money, and an appropriate look came over her face. Suddenly she peeled it off, disgusted at the anthropomorphic lies she fed herself. She marched to the door concentrating on nothing but ten-twenty months and started to turn the knob. God! she thought, suppose he's naked. She opened the door.
Alf was sitting on-the bed, considerately covered by baby-blue silk pajamas, long sleeved, buttoned to the neck, that hid the skinny lack of form underneath. His feet were old and purple.
"Thought I was gonna have to pull you out." He grinned, the gray skin almost working up some color. "Not bad. Not bad at all."
Linda padded, shoulders lifted, arms crossed tight subtly trying to cover her breasts, exposed like in that old dream where she was trapped downtown naked, his prying eyes digging into her skin. She dropped her arms which did no good. "Got a cigarette?"
"Marilyn Monroe ain't got nothin' on you, kid." He moved down on the bed. "Come here."
She walked around the bed to the bed-table, stared at the money and picked a cigarette out of the pack and lit it trembling. She sat on the edge of the bed facing the bedtable, thinking of Ed. Then she felt an old hand on her back and thought she would suffocate. The hand removed both shoulder straps and the gown fell. Still she didn't move. She felt a wet kiss in the small of her back and put the cigarette down. As the hand pulled her over, she stared at the money. Then she closed her eyes.
She tried many things. She tried to keep her eyes closed but each fresh insult opened them to see things that forced them shut only to be shocked open again. She remembered the exact feel of Ed and the curve of his body and placed him there with her. But he wouldn't stay. And all she could see was a look on his face like she was untouchable. She tried other people but they wouldn't stay either. He smelled old. She felt dry heaves inside. She turned and watched the money. Then she tried to be somewhere else, at a blue ocean blue ocean. Blue. Ocean. Or in a gray vacuum beyond air up in the sky. She swallowed quickly. She was afraid she'd scream and hit him, break him in two, those brittle bones. She thought about it, pleasurably hearing the bones snap. The nausea got worse. She tried to turn herself off like a light. Years later he moved slightly and it was over.
She got up without looking at him and went into the dressing room and closed the door then into the bathroom and closed that door. She saw a face in the mirror she hadn't seen before. And she started crying. She got into the shower to wash off the contact with age, like it was catching. She tried to hurry for fear he'd come in to joke around and look now that they supposedly knew each other. But she had to wash too hard to hurry. She thought she heard a door lock click and imagined chains dragging and waited for the exorcising crackle of a whip on a floor. She let the water run till she stopped crying. She found some gargle and used it and dabbed perfume all over her body. Then she dressed, still queasy. She looked in the mirror and thought it showed and put on her makeup very carefully.
She opened her change pursue. The five hundred looked out of place next to her singles. She took out the five big bills and closed the purse. She checked the mirror again and blotted her lipstick again, feeling like all the neon on the Strip. Then she opened the door and went back into the bedroom. Alf was sunk down in the bed, grinning rumpled triumphantly half dead. As she passed the foot of the bed, she placed the money there and went on out the door to the living room.
Alf snickered. "You're too good a kid. I figured you wouldn't take it."
She stopped in the middle of the living room, turned around and came back. She picked up the bills on the foot of the bed, ignoring the surprised grin, and went around to the bedtable and lifted the other five hundred from under the ashtray. She put all the money in her purse and closed it. Then she looked up and smiled. "Thanks for the reminder."
He shrugged, still the poker player. "It's yours."
"Yes," she said. "I almost made a futile gesture." She turned smiling. "Goodnight, Alf." And picked up her clipboard in the living room and went out the door. She laughed out loud. A pudgy orange sport jacket stopped and said Baby She nodded and went on. It was simply a matter of choice, your way of selling yourself. And this one wasn't suitable for sensualists.
She walked to the elevator obstinately humming Quizas Quizas Quizas, went downstairs and back into the bar to get rid of the hangover of a bad touch. When she saw him, she knew she had never been so aware of the infinite worth of a man. She sat down next to him at the bar.
He turned smiling. "I was hoping you'd come back."
She smiled shyly, dazzled by youth and touchableness. "I was afraid you'd be gone."
"Look," he said. "I don't have any money. Except for drinks."
She looked at him. There was no accusation, no leer. There was nothing in his face except the hope that that was all right.
"That's good," she said gratefully. Then she laughed, relaxed. "God! Have you ever thought that just because you can't find any reason not to do something doesn't mean you have to do it?"
He grinned the way only some people seem to, from inside without barriers, with affinity.
And she thought, as usual, perhaps.
"Perhaps is the loveliest word in the language," she said.