I remember from Psychology that crazy people always laugh at the wrong times, in which case Ruth and I were certifiable. We laughed the first time we made love, Ruth's first ever, in my camper shell with the dome light on, and later we laughed after I rolled the camper near Bridgeport and we wound up wading the Truckee River in the middle of the night to call out Triple A.
So I guess it's consistent that we left each other laughing, as though everything was set between us from that day on. I was a senior in college when I first met Ruth, and I was a senior three years later when we moved into a little duplex out in the Bottoms. It was a stormy nine months to be sure, though I never cheated on Ruth in that time and I had two-timed her in the past. Through all of it, we were still together at our graduation and, as Ruth put it, there was nowhere else but marriage after that. Marriage or a little time off.
"So what do the X's and Y's mean again?" Vicki asks me in her normal voice. She always tries to impersonate Ruth when she reads Ruth's letters out loud, even though she's never met Ruth or even heard her talk. The effect is like one of Vicki's tours--so false it's a type of sincere. "Aren't they some kind of signal or something?"
"Instead of X's and O's," I say, but Vicki does her confused act. She thinks it's good for me to have to explain the next part. "Because chromosomes are a lot deeper than hugs and kisses. We met in Biology, remember?"
Vicki takes a slug out of my Thermos--she has it full of Snap-E-Tom and mostly Everclear--and leans back against the windowsill, smiling profusely. She's wearing a Santa Claus hat and cowboy boots and her backless teal-green dress, the dress that shows off her "noticeable" spine as she refers to it. According to Vicki, this is her most striking feature, though I give the nod to her "noticeable" legs. They're quite remarkable for a woman her age, which I guess is in her forties.
"She's wild about you," Vicki says, but her voice goes mainly in the Thermos. "Who isn't wild about video stars?"
"Ruth," I say and lean back on my campstool. I sent her a videotape of myself that I made at the Radio Shack in Lake Tahoe. The manager was reluctant to do it at first--he was a young guy, about Ruth's age--but when I told him it was for my girlfriend, he said, "Sure, why not?" I had on my graduation suit and the skinny tie that Ruth had sent me for my birthday and I started with a speech about our forthcoming reunion and then broke into "Singin' in the Rain" plus the little dance step that goes with it, which is no mean feat in a pair of Red Wings. Ruth's next and last correspondence came a month later-- one of those post-office postcards that don't have pictures--and all it mentioned was this bachelorette party she'd been to the night before where everyone put on wedding veils and bobbed for little chocolate penises in a bucket of milk.
"Ruth didn't know how to have a good time until she met you," Vicki says.
"That's all she gives me credit for."
"Pee-shaw," Vicki says and puts Ruth's letter back in the shoebox where she found it. She's staring at me like I should know what she's thinking, which, of course, I don't.
"You didn't read the P.S. this time," I say, where Ruth claims she'll meet me at the lighthouse at midnight on Christmas Eve. Vicki's afraid to read that part because she doesn't want to get my hopes up, or at least any specific hopes. I haven't told her that I've got Ruth's present in the back of my camper. It's a ring that I bought in a pawnshop in Reno, like the one Ruth always said I'd buy her at Kent Hartley's when we got married, with a diamond that you Kent Hartley see. I kept the receipt just in case, though. It's tucked in the visor on the driver's side with the vehicle's registration and a swizzle sick I got in an ad for the Mustang Ranch.
"P.S. I love you," Vicki sings in her best Elvis vibrato. The setting sun, flattened against the windowsill behind her, casts a purplish light over her broad, rippled forehead. It was the Beatles who recorded "P.S. I Love You," but I don't have it in me to tell her just now.
"Don't you know 'Heartbreak Hotel'?" I ask.
"I don't do requests," she says. "Not anymore." Vicki's brow tightens and she sits up, her Santa Claus hat pushed back on her head like a Stetson. Wasn't that in a movie?" she says.
"`I don't do requests anymore.' I'm pretty sure Sterling Hayden said it in one of those RKO pictures,. You know, where that little radio tower gives off sparks at the beginning."
"Everything you say is from a movie," I tell her. And it's true. Especially movies where the characters say one thing and mean another. Bogart, Bacall, Bette Davis. But she also loves Westerns--every time they show a guy in a loincloth, she yells, "My people," as if Whitehorse is her maiden name and she's the one who's three-quarters Hoopa Indian. It really used to bother me, all of Vicki's posing, but now I think it's sweet. Ruth says you can't work with a person for any length of time without becoming attracted to them, and I suspect that she's right. I only wish there weren't so many men working at her grade school.
"The hills are alive with the sound of music," Vicki says. "What are we doing in your hotel room?"
"You were trying to cheer me up," I say, "What you've been trying to do for the last six months."
"I can't cheer you up," she says. "You won't take my advice." She sits back down again looking exasperated. "So why should I give it to you?"
"So I'll know what not to do," I say and wait a beat before I laugh. Vicki isn't laughing though, at least not visibly. She spent most of November trying to set me up with the woman who cashes chips in the hotel casino. I gambled there every morning for a while, buying steak and eggs if I won, fasting if I lost, and Carmen, who doubles as a desk clerk, used to wish me good luck and wink at me. Vicki had it on good authority that Carmen thought I was hot stuff, but when I finally asked her out, she acted as though I were a perfect stranger.
I never did trust people who wink.
"It's your turn to do the cheering up," Vicki says. "Us mercury widows are a melancholy breed."
"Sure," I say, "Tell me what to tell you."
She smiles. "Why don't you compare me favorably to one of your girl friends? Somebody you slept with without thinking. Somebody before Ruth."
"You need to get out of this place," I say, and like most of my advice it's really directed toward me. I've never met anyone like Vicki before, for better or worse, though I'm sure Vicki is trying to say it in a nicer way than that. We've been living each other's lives vicariously for so long now that we have to generate some new material. Either that or keep driving on fumes.
"Where should I go?" Vicki asks, more of herself than of me. "Someplace with a decent rainfall, I guess. Florida maybe. Or the Islands." She cranes her head toward mine, giving me those soft, brown doe eyes. "And what about Billy?"
"You don't need a Billy," I say and turn my head. I'm thinking about Ruth again, about the weird little moment when we first kissed each other, and I don't want to project her face onto Vicki's. Nothing scares me more than to think that lovers are interchangeable or, at least, that I might not be able to tell the difference.
I don't need a man to tell me I don't need a man," Vicki says, "That's for damn sure."
"No, you don't," I say. I turn back to see what Vicki's expression is, but the twilight has sunk down to her chest now, leaving her face behind in the shadows.
"What do you see?" Vicki asks me.
The last glint of sun exposes the dust fluttering in the space between us, and makes the room seem smaller and filled with too many things. I stand up and excuse myself, feeling claustrophobic, and tell Vicki that I have to use the bathroom, which is a lie.
In the hall, Maybelline is standing over the ice machine smoking a cigarette and listening to someone on the pay phone. She's got her New Testament under her arms as usual, a habit that for the longest time kept me from guessing she was a hooker, one of the three who live at the Wild Deuce.
They drive up here from Oakland in the off season and leave again before it gets too hot, and every one of them will tell you when they're not in uniform that they're here to clear up some unnamed health condition. I can't imagine who their clientele is--cowboys, I guess, or salesmen on their way to Reno, or maybe even park rangers like me, drunk and lonely and far from home. That was something Ruth was always curious about, whether I'd ever bought sex from a whore. And whenever I told her that I hadn't, she'd poke me in the ribs and say, "Oh, come on," as though I was keeping a secret all the boys shared. My friend Danny got a hand job in the parking lot behind a strip joint once, but that's the only guy I ever knew who paid for anything, and even that was on a dare.
"You'll feel better soon," Maybelline says quietly into the receiver. "Pour yourself an eggnog and turn on the TV." She sees me out of the corner of her eye and smiles shyly. I'm always embarrassed when I run into her because I think she might talk about her work, though I have no real reason to think so--I wouldn't be caught dead discussing tours with anyone except Vicki.
"I know," Maybelline says, running a painted fingernail along the metal cord. "I know. God wants us all to have a merry Christmas." She gently puts the receiver back in its cradle and turns around to face me. "The holidays," she says, shaking her head, "They put a lot of people in a blue funk."
"I've heard that," I say, Maybelline's not wearing any makeup and the difference is startling. Her face reflects the dim light in the hallway much better now and it makes her seem younger, though not as young as me. "I need to use the phone," I tell her.
"Oh, I'm sorry," she says, "I didn't mean to get in your way." She picks up her Bible from the ice machine and steps back a few feet. "You're probably going to call family, aren't you? Or maybe your sweetheart."
"If I can get her at home," I say. The hum of the ice machine is just loud enough to deflect the tenor of our voices and it makes me feel like I've been talking in this hallway for a long time.
"She will be," Maybelline says. "And if she's not then you can be sure the Lord's always home."
"Thank you." I've never been what you'd call a religious person, but I appreciate a kind gesture.
"You're welcome," Maybelline says. She stares at me for a long time and then smiles to herself as though she's seen what she wanted to see. "And if the Lord's line is busy, I'm in room 204," she says. "She put all of us on this earth to perform Her services. If you can't find God, find the next best thing." She turns and struts down the hallway without seeming deliberate and quietly enters 204. I can see her shadow underneath the door for a long time before she steps back farther into the room.
I have change enough for a three-minute call to Phoenix. Ruth should've left by now if she's going to make it by twelve, but she's never been on time in her life and I figure I should go over the directions once more since I gave them a long time ago. I dial the number direct, but the connection doesn't seem to go through and I can hear a hundred other callers saying hello, but without getting any response. It makes me wonder if each of them can hear my voice, and if it sounds as desperate and friendless. On the next call, I have the operator dial for me and when it finally rings another operator answers and says that Ruth's number's been changed.
"Will you connect me, please? I'm on a payphone."
"Yes," the operator says curtly and types in the number. "Thank you for using A T and T." The bell is loud and shrill this time, as though I'm calling a person in the next room. Somebody answers on the fifth ring, but they don't say a word.
"Hello, Ruth?" I say. "It's me, Freeman."
Then this strangely familiar music fades in, a cross between game-show jazz and the music on a porno movie soundtrack, and I realize I'm talking on an answering machine. "You have reached a person who has been disconnected or is no longer in service," a man's voice says--it's a young guy trying to sound like an announcer. "Don't bother redialing. Ruth's in permanent space right now." I can hear Ruth laughing in the background of the tape, that high squeal of a laugh she gets when she watches Looney Tunes. "Ruth," I say, "it's me, Freeman." But then the tape clicks off before I can leave a message and then I get the dial tone.
I turn around feeling Maybelline's presence, but the hall's deserted. Just the long rows of numbered doors and the ice machine. The room next to Maybelline's is open and I can see a TV going but I can't see the person who's watching it. At Christmas every year Ruth looks at Going My Way because her father has a tiny part in it. You can only see him for a second--he's one of the Choir Boys humming along when Bing says, "Or would you rather be a pig?"
I turn and am headed back to my room when the phone rings.
"Hello, Ruth?" I say.
"Thirty-five cents please," a woman with a kind voice says. "Please deposit thirty-five cents."
"OK," I tell her, checking my pockets for change, and when the voice repeats itself using all the wrong inflections, I realize I'm talking to another machine.
"Freebee, honey," Vicki says and throws a silver dollar in the kitty. "You got to have a little faith. Hasn't everything worked out up to now?"
She reaches over to the Coleman lantern on the night stand and turns down the little key until the mantles glow a soft, breathing amber. She doesn't like the hotel lights because they make a person look old, she says, and God knows the desert does enough of that already.
I glance over at Vicki's cards--she's got them fanned behind her head like war feathers--and then check out her poker face, the tour-guide special. She makes me sit Indian-style when she deals Indian poker, which is nine out of every ten hands. The other games she deals aren't in Hoyle either, which usually means that half the deck is wild or that you don't know what your cards are until you turn them over. At least in this game I can see Vicki's hand (two pair, queens and sevens), even if I can't see my own, I don't like what I see and, more importantly, I don't like what I can't see.
"I fold," I say and set my cards face down on the bedspread. Vicki really does look better in this light. Her let-down hair has the consistency of spun sugar and her eyes seem to go deeper than their sockets. She claims she was a Miss Montana once and right now I have every reason to believe her.
"You had a little boat," Vicki says gleefully and flips up my cards, what would have been the winning hand. "Sixes over fives. Maybe you'll bet it next time." She scoops up the kitty--eight pennies and her silver dollar--and lets it trickle into the folds of her dress with the rest of my change. "You should know by now I always bluff."
"I'm a slow learner," I say.
"No you're not," she says smiling, "you're just slow to act." She takes my hand and spreads it open, palm up, and runs her finger slowly across my lifeline. "You have the same hands as Billy," she says. "When I first met him he was exactly like you, only he was staying at his mom's place on the reservation waiting for the draft board to call his number." She picks up the bottle of Everclear that's wedged in one of her iguana-skin boots and takes a tiny little sip. "We were doing shooters one night at the Mad River Rose and he told me he'd marry me if his number was three-sixty or above. Next morning he drew three-sixty on the nose. You should've seen his face. I swear he was thinking of enlisting."
"He wound up marrying you. Isn't that what you wanted?"
She turns and looks absently into the mirror over my dresser, her bare, parched back exploding like a flash cube every time the lighthouse shines into my room. "Bill called me last night from Reno," she says. "He can't make it till tomorrow. The highway's closed on account of black ice."
I start to ask her what Bill's doing in Reno, especially since mercury claims are filed at the BLM office in Lovelock, but I can tell she doesn't know why he's there either. A lot of people quick up quick divorces in Reno, I know that much, though oddly enough that's where my folks got married. Vicki hasn't seen Bill since Halloween night, at a Grateful Dead show in Vegas. They got in a big fracas after Bill spent most of their money on some cocaine that turned out to be Vitamin B-1. Vicki says Bill must have the healthiest nose in the state of Nevada by now.
"So you're stuck here with me," I say. "I guess that's the luck of the draw."
"I would have picked here anyway," she says and sits down on the bed next to me. She leans over and helps herself to a Chesterfield from the pack in my shirt pocket. "What about you, Freeman?" she asks, crossing her noticeable legs. "Is this where you want to be?"
Her face is so close to mine that I can't get a reading from it, and my first impulse is to laugh, though not out of confidence, the way Ruth always laughed and I always wanted to. I try not to think about the future until it's too late, so then it's not the future anymore, but I can't help thinking if Ruth doesn't show tonight the future will be like this forever.
"I guess you don't have to answer that right now," Vicki says and backs away. She sticks her cigarette inside the lantern and lights it on one of the mantles. "We've got a little time yet."
She stands up and paces to the window, heel to toe, not once staggering but somehow swaying her hips, even though she's put away a full pint of Everclear. "Bill and I used to practice this one when we got drunk," she says. "And that little finger exercise where you touch the end of your nose." She demonstrates flawlessly. "He never did get a 502, but he got picked up once for arson. It was about a month after we got here and I wanted him back--I didn't have any friends in town and I figured I shouldn’t have to be alone."
She takes a long drag and blows it out the window. The smoke hangs just long enough for the lighthouse to paint it. "Somebody had just torched the Laundromat in town, so I called up the sheriff--I didn't leave my name--and told him that Bill was his man. I said he was hiding out in the Stillwaters and that he as armed and dangerous, and then I described him right down to his last nose hair. They went their the next day with hounds and they dragged him all the way down the mountain for questioning, and when they kicked him loose, he didn't even come to see me, just hauled himself up the mountain again with his stupid pickaxes. I had to buy a deputy five shots of Cuervo before he'd tell me what happened. Bill never once mentioned getting busted. The bastard wouldn't give me the satisfaction.
She leans out the window, singing softly and a little off key and I swear for a moment that it's not Vicki, that it's someone younger, softer, less rehearsed. "Oh where have you been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy? Oh where have you been, charming Billy?" And then the light floods the room again and drains off and Vicki says in her normal voice, "Fucking lighthouse. It makes it like a prison movie in here."
This is the first time I've ever seen Vicki Whitehorse cry and it makes me want to cry myself, though not because I'm feeling sorry for her. I can't honestly say I want to be Vicki's lover and I can't say I don't want to either. Sometimes I think my heart's stuck on vacillation, like one of those crystals they put in all the new watches.
I gather up the cards on my bed and walk over to Vicki, careful to stay in the dark. "Fifty-two card pickup," I say and hurl the deck of cards out the window and we both watch as they fly out into the desert like the pages from a year-old calendar.
"I'd rather be good than lucky, anyway," Vicki says. "Billy Boy will be here in the morning. Someone's got to help him spend his fortune."
"It might as well be you," I say and shade my eyes from the lighthouse.
I'm watching that sign recede in my rearview mirror as I head due west on Route 50 with all my worldly belongings. There are clouds overhead and I can't see the moon or the stars and it makes me think of the joke my father used to tell when all hope was lost, that the darkest hour is just before the storm. The radio's tuned to a station in Texas and they're playing that old Tom Jones song "What's New, Pussycat?" and it's coming in as clear as if it was being broadcast back in Lighthouse. Vicki gave me a St. Christopher medal before I left and I've got it around my neck "where all good surfers wear them," she told me. I said I'd been waxing my board for six months now, and she laughed out loud for quite a while after that, a happy laugh I don't remember her ever laughing, like the one I hope Ruth and I will share someday. It's hard to know what your choices are when everything's a choice, but at least you know momentum gives you one. And if Ruth Ann Chaney is headed in a different direction, then I'll just keep going in mine, right out into the desert with my high beams blazing, like old Luther Kirschbaum in his lighthouse.
I'm riding in the wake of a semi bearing Louisiana plates and tire flaps that have hula girls painted on them. There's nobody coming in the other direction, so I pull out in the left-hand lane, giving the driver the honk signal as I pass him, and he pulls off a long one that I hear slow down and finally fade away as I turn off down the dark road toward the lighthouse. Bill has told me he's seen the beacon from Dancer's Ferry, which is up in the Stillwaters just outside of Cody, and sometimes late at night I wonder if maybe Ruth has seen it all the way down in Phoenix, even if she couldn't tell it from a shooting star.
I roll down the windows and let the air fill up the camper until I feel like I don't have any weight. All Nite Ray, the deejay, gives the weather for El Paso, and I know it's going to rain before the first drop hits my windshield.