Author Denis Johnson died Thursday at 67, shocking the literary world. This article, the first in a four-part serial written on deadline, originally appeared in the July 2008 issue of playboy magazine. To honor him and his place in our magazine’s history, we’ll be re-serializing Nobody Move over Memorial Day weekend. Return each day to see another part of Johnson’s noir saga. Read our obituary of Johnson here.
Jimmy Luntz had never been to war, but this was the sensation, he was sure of that—18 guys in a room, Rob, the director, sending them out—18 guys shoulder to shoulder, moving out on the orders of their leader to do what they’ve been training day and night to do. Waiting silently in darkness behind the heavy curtain while on the other side of it the MC tells a stale joke, and then-“The Alhambra California Beachcomber Chordsmen!”—and they were smiling at hot lights, doing their two numbers.
Luntz was one of four leads. On “Firefly” he thought they did pretty well. Their vowels matched, they went easy on the consonants, and Luntz knew he, at least, was lit up and smiling, with plenty of body language. On “If We Can’t Be the Same Old Sweethearts” they caught the wave. Uniformity, resonance, expression of pathos, everything Rob had ever asked for. They’d never done it so well. Right face, down the steps and into the convention center’s basement, where once again they arranged themselves in ranks, this time to pose for souvenir pictures.
“Even if we come in twentieth out of twenty,” Rob told them afterward, while they were changing out of their gear, the white tuxedos and checkered vests and checkered bow ties, “we’re really coming in twentieth out of a hundred, right? Because remember, guys, one hundred outfits tried to get to this competition, and only twenty made it all the way here to Bakersfield. Don’t forget that. We’re out of a hundred, not twenty. Remember that, okay?” You got a bit of an impression Rob didn’t think they’d done too well.
Almost noon. Luntz didn’t bother changing into street clothes. He grabbed his gym bag, promised to meet the others back at the Best Value Inn and hurried upstairs still wearing the getup. He felt the itch to make a bet. Felt lucky. He had a Santa Anita sheet folded up in the pocket of his blinding-white tux. They started running at 12:30. Find a pay phone and give somebody a jingle.
On his way out through the lobby he saw they’d already posted the judgments. The Alhambra Chordsmen ranked 17th out of 20. But come on, that was really 17th out of a hundred, right?
All right-fine. They’d tanked. But Luntz still had that lucky feeling. A shave, a haircut, a tuxedo. He was practically Monte Carlo.
He headed out through the big glass doors, and there’s old Gambol standing just outside the entrance. Checking the comings and goings. A tall, sad man in expensive slacks and shoes, camel-hair sports coat, one of those white straw hats that senior-citizen golfers wear. A very large head.
“So hey,” Gambol said, “you are in a barbershop chorus.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I came here to see you.”
“No, but really.”
“Really. Believe it.”
“All the way to Bakersfield?”
That lucky feeling. It had let him down before.
That lucky feeling. It had let him down before.
“I’m parked over here,” Gambol said.
Gambol was driving a copper-colored Cadillac Brougham with soft white leather seats. “There’s a button on the side of the seat,” he said, “to adjust it how you want.”
“People will be missing me,” Luntz said. “I’ve got a ride back down to L.A. It’s all arranged.”
“Good, sure—just find a pay phone, and I’llhop out.”
Gambol handed him a cell phone. “Nobody’s hopping anywhere.”
Luntz patted his pockets, found his notebook, spread it on his knee, punched buttons with his thumb. He got Rob’s voice mail and said, “Hey, I’m all set. I got a lift, a lift to L.A.” He thought a second. “This is Jimmy.” What else? “Luntz.” What else? Nothing. “Good deal. I’ll see you Tuesday. Practice is Tuesday, right? Yeah. Tuesday.”
He handed back the phone, and Gambol put it in the pocket of his fancy Italian sports coat.
Luntz said, “Okay if I smoke?”
“Sure. In your car. But not in my car.”
Gambol drove with one hand on the wheel and one long arm reaching into the backseat, going through Luntz’s gym bag. “What’s this?”
“From what? Grizzly bears?” He reached across Luntz’s lap and shoved it in the glove compartment. “That is one big gun.”
Luntz opened the compartment.
“Shut that thing, goddamn it.”
Luntz shut it.
“You want protection? Pay your debts. That’s the best protection.”
“I agree completely,” Luntz said, “and can I tell you about an uncle of mine? I have an appointment to see him this afternoon.”
“A rich uncle.”
“Coincidentally, yes. He just moved out from the coast. Made a pile in the garbage business. The guy gets a new Mercedes every year. Just moved to Bakersfield. Last time I saw him he was still living in La Mirada. The Garbage King of La Mirada. Told me anytime 1 needed money to get in touch. We had lunch at the Outback Steakhouse in La Mirada. Wow, do they deliver. Choice cuts as thick as your arm. You ever try the Outback?”
“So, in other words, let me give this guy a call before we get too far out of town.”
“In other words, you can’t make a payment.”
“Yes, definitely, yes,” Luntz said, “I can make a payment. Just let me use your phone and work a little magic.”
Gambol behaved as if he hadn’t heard.
“Come on. The guy drives a Mercedes. Let me go see him.”
“Fucking bullshit. Your uncle.”
“Okay. He’s Shelly’s uncle. But he’s real.”
“Is Shelly real?”
“She’s-yeah. Shelly? I used to live with her.”
“The uncle of some bitch you used to live with.”
“Give me a chance, friend. A chance to work my magic.”
“You’re working it now. It ain’t working.”
“Look, man, look,” Luntz said, “let’s call Juarez. Let me talk to the Man himself. ”
“Juarez is not a talker.”
“Come on. Don’t we know each other? What’s the problem?”
Gambol said, “My brother just died.”
“He died exactly a week ago.”
Luntz knew nothing about any brother. How do you reason with someone who throws something like that into the conversation?
Meanwhile they were heading north. Bakersfield stank of oil and natural gas.
In the most unlikely plates, in the middle of a shopping mall or next to one of those fancy new churches, all glass and swooping curves, you’d see oil rigs with their heads going up and down.
“Used to fish up here with my brother,” Gambol said, “somewhere around here anyway. On the Feather River.”
Luntz unclasped his hands from each other and looked at them. “What?”
“Once, to be exact. We went fishing one time. We should’ve done it more.”
The road was a four-lane but not an interstate. The clock on the dash said four p.m.
“Where are we?”
“We’re just driving around,” Gambol said. “Why? You need to be someplace?”
Lunt/ placed his hands on his knees and sat up straight. “Where are we going?”
“On this kind of trip, you don’t want to ask where it ends.”
Luntz closed his eyes.
When he opened them he saw a crowd of bikers on Harleys coming toward them and sweeping past.
Gambol said, “See that? Half those bikers had Oregon plates. I think there’s a convention in Oakland or someplace like that. Guess what. I’ve never been on a motorcycle.”
“Shit,” Luntz said.
“Nothing. Those bikers. Shit,” he said. “The Feather River. Is there a Feather River Tavern or something?”
“The river’s not anywhere around here. It’s more north. Guess what. You’ll never get me on a Harley.”
“Helmet or not. What good is a helmet?”
“The Feather fucking River,” Luntz said.
Standing at the pay phone, Jimmy Luntz punched a nine and a one and stopped. He couldn’t hear the dial tone. His ears still rang. That old Colt revolver made a bang that slapped you silly.
He dropped the receiver and let it dangle a few seconds. He shook his head and wiped both hands across the thighs of his slacks. He jabbed at the one again as he put the phone to his head. Some woman said, “Palo County Sheriff’s Department. What is your emergency?”
“A guy. This guy,” he said. “A guy’s been shot.”
“What is your name and location, sir?”
“Well, we’re at this rest stop north of the Tastee-Freez on Seventy, somewhere past Ortonville. Way past Ortonville.”
“Sir. Do you mean Oroville?”
“On the nose.” he said. He searched with his free hand for a cigarette.
“Do you see a milepost marker, sir?”
“No. There’s these big pines right by the road. Kind of behind there.”
“The rest slop norih of the Tastee-Freez and north of Oroville. What’s his condition, can you tell me?”
Luntz said, “He got shot in the leg. How do you make a tourniquet?”
“Just apply direct pressure to the wound. Is he conscious?”
“He’s fine, honey. But the blood’s just pouring.”
“Apply pressure. Put a clean cloth down and press hard on the wound with the palm of your hand.”
“I’ll do that, yeah, but I mean—can you get here pretty quick?”
She started talking again, and he hung up.
He found his lighter and got his Camel going. Took several deep puffs, threw it aside.
He went across the rest stop under the evergreens to where Gambol sat propped against the left rear wheel of his Cadillac, looking very pale. Very large. He’d removed his white golfing hat. What a head. A huge head. His entire right pant leg was soaked black with blood. The white hat lay beside him.
Luntz bent from his waist and unbuckled Gambol’s belt, and Gambol opened his big foreign-looking eyes.
Luntz said. “I need your belt for a tourniquet.”
He put his foot between the man’s big legs and dragged the belt free through the loops around his fat middle. “Look, brother,” he said to Gambol. “I hope you understand.”
Gambol breathed deep a couple times but didn’t seem able to speak.
Luntz said, “Am I supposed to sit around and wait for you to break my arm? When was the last time you got a broken bone?”
Gambol sucked air in gasps. He felt for his hat beside him. brought it to his chest and held it there. “Guess what,” he managed to say. “I got a busted thighbone right this minute.”
“I called 911, so just hang on.”
With surprising energy. Gambol suddenly tossed away his white hat. The wind caught it, and it sailed a dozen yards into the trees. Then he seemed to lose consciousness.
Luntz dropped the bell in Gambol’s bloody lap. He parted the lapels of Gambol’s camel-hair sports coat and reached inside for Gambol’s wallet and pocketed it.
He hiked his slacks and squatted and felt under the car where the old gun had ended up, found the thing and stood up straight gripping the gun with both hands. He placed the muzzle against Gambol’s forehead and rested one thumb on the hammer.
Gambol seemed oblivious. His hands lay open on either side of his outstretched legs, and his belly went up and clown.
Luntz took his thumb from the hammer and let out his breath and lowered the gun. “Fuck. Put that around your leg. The belt, man. Wake up, man.” Gambol’s face was like a stupid child’s as he grasped an end of the belt with each hand to drag it up under his bloody leg. “Through the buckle there, the buckle,” Luntz said. “It’s a tourniquet,” he said as he got in the car.
He settled himself into the Caddy’s white leather. He turned the key. He lowered the window and called out, “You better move. Gambol, because this Caddy’s about to roll.”
He yanked the stick into drive and floored it out of the parking lot and, at the highway’s entrance, slammed the brake hard.
They’d be coming from the south, he guessed, from the hospital in Ortonville, Oroville, wherever. He turned north.
Alter he passed a Highway Patrol car heading toward him fast, lights whirling, he simply couldn’t drive any farther and hooked into a cafe’s parking lot on the outskirts of a town.
He put the Caddy behind the building and wiped his face with his sleeve. Sweat soaked his shirt and vest. He touched the dials of the climate control tenderly, stupidly, couldn’t make sense of them. Got out and removed the jacket and tie and vest and stood in the breeze, grabbed the door frame and bent double and vomited sour green liquid between his black shoes.
In the men’s room Luntz stood at the urinal a lull minute, but nothing came out of him. He flushed anyway. He put his hands on the sink and bowed his head and breathed several times in and out before raising his eyes to the mirror.
Around 11 a.m. Anita Desilvera went to the movies with a hall-pint of Popov vodka in her purse. As she approached I he building, she caught a glimpse of the poster for this epic: The Last Real Champ.
She bought a ticket from the stone-faced man in the box and went inside. She purchased a large pink lemonade, and on her way into the auditorium she dumped half of it into the drinking Ibuntain with a clatter of ice cubes. Made her way down the aisle in the dark to one of the front rows. She sat down leaving her coat on and bowed her face against the seat in front of her for several seconds, then raised it up weeping.
Opened the bottle and poured the vodka into her drink, kicked the empty under the next seat.
This movie appeared to be about prizefighters. Gigantic boxing gloves plowed great globs of sweat from foreheads and jowls in extreme close-up. A man alone two lows ahead of her jerked and grunted as he followed the action— ‘Huh! Hah! Hoh!“
While men on the screen heat each other’s faces to pieces she sat in the dark and got 30 percent drunk and found a kerchief in the pocket of her overcoat and buried her face in it and wept with greater abandon. There was really no other place for the wife of the Palo County prosecutor to gulp down booze and grieve. She didn’t even have a key to her own house. They’d taken everything but the car.
When her watch said 10 minutes till noon she made her way to the washroom and got her face back together and ran a brush through her hair and went out to the glaring street.
The Packard Room lay two blocks from the theater. She walked briskly and breathed deeply. Outside the place she smoothed her gray skirt and straightened her coat, and as she entered the cool light of the greenhouse dining room she kept her shoulders back and made sure to smile with her entire face.
Hank Desilvera sat over in the corner looking rich. He smiled back at her like the Prince of All Tomorrow while dipping to get papers from his briefcase.
By the time she’d draped her coat on the empty chair and sat herself down, the meanest meal of her life lay at her place: the plea agreement. The letter of resignation. The waiver. Three copies of each.
She picked up the pen and signed. Flushing her life away took 45 seconds.
Hank just laughed and put the stuff back in his briefcase beside his chair. He shrugged. He managed to make all this seem like a tough loss for her in what was sure to be an otherwise glorious season.
He could fuck you, frame you and roll you onto the street—and expect you to be having fun.
"Tanneau has the rest of it.” he said. Tanneau was the judge. The rest of it was the divorce papers.
“Hank.” she said, “can’t we work on this? We can work this out. Look.” she said, “I know how to forgive. 1 believe in forgiveness.” She’d intended to sit all the way through this lunch, display a little style, but two minutes into it she’d already made herself a beggar.
“Not every day comes out symmetrical, Babylove. ”
“Don’t ever call me that.”
“Babylove,” he said, and the word went right down through her. “What about the Cajun chicken?”
“Yeah. Try the Cajun chicken.” “I’d love to! But I’ve got a conflict.” She was already getting her coal on. “Will you mail me my copies?”
“Where to?” he said.
“What’s the address? Where do you live life these days?”
She stood staring at him while they both realized she had absolutely no answer to the question. She grabbed up the papers and stuffed them in the pocket of her coat and left.
And now for Judge Tanneau and the writ of divorce.
Tanneau had his offices in a renovated brick building, formerly a power station, now a high-rent fortress of commerce and law. He owned it. Despite all the vodka, the idea of seeing him had her heart pounding as she walked in the sunshine, in the aroma of evergreens, in all these atmospheres covering the stench. She would take the stairs, she would announce herself, she’d be ushered into the aura of his greatness, and he’d stand politely while she seated herself before his desk. He’d take his place behind it, fold his hands, lean toward her and stare at her in mild confusion and sorrow, as if he couldn’t think of any reason why she’d come. He looked like a TV preacher with his big white coil, sentimental and telegenic. It could only have been a matter of time before he and Hank Desilvera had rubbed together and caught fire and started burning anybody fool enough to get close to either of them. And she’d gotten close to both: secretary to the judge, wife of the county prosecutor.
When she got to Tanneau’s office, the brand-new secretary claimed he wasn’t in. “I’m sorry—did you have an appointment?”
“He needed a signature.”
But this new secretary, Anita’s replacement, a middle-aged woman in a chestnut frock, found nothing in the files for Anita Desilverio.
“Desilver-a. For Jesus’s sake. Mrs. Henry Desilvera? The divorce agreement?”
“Oh. God. Yes,” her replacement said.
She had the copies in her in-basket. Anita signed all three and kept one.
“Allow me.” She dropped two copies in the basket marked out. Six months from now—that would be that. In a single morning with some documents and a little ink. she’d made herself a vagrant. a felon and a future divorcee.
She turned and slapped the judge’s door three times with the flat of her hand. “You know I’m out here.”
Her replacement drew a quick breath. “I told you—the judge isn’t in.”
Anita put both her hands flat against the door. She laid her cheek against its wood. “Eight hundred bucks a month. Forever.”
Her replacement reached for the phone.
“If 1 have to pay restitution for the rest of my life, guess what. You can expect to hear me yell.”
“Yell outside, then. The judge isn’t in there. He’s in the hospital.”
“He went for a biopsy Friday, and they took him right into surgery.”
“I hope he dies.”
“Not yet. But I like the way you think.”
Gambol permitted himself to rest on his back on the tarmac for one minute, checking this interval by his wristwatch, and then rolled himself over onto his belly and put his palms flat against the pavement on either side of his shoulders. He rested 150 seconds before he raised himself. He crawled forward on two hands and one knee, head hanging, taking ragged breaths, hauling his wounded leg toward the protection of the pines.
Propped against a tree trunk he rested for two minutes. When he opened his eyes the branches overhead seemed to rush away into the sky.
He got his cell phone in his hand and punched Juarez on the speed dial.
“Yowsah. Mistah Gambolino.”
“I need a doctor.”
“So get a doctor.”
“I need a friendly doctor. I’m shot, man.”
“That fucking Jimmy Luntz.”
“That fucking Jimmy Luntz shot me.”
“I need a doctor. And I need a ride. I need him to come and get me. I need a ride.”
“You hurt bad? You can’t drive?”
“The fucker took my car.”
“Fuck 'what.’ He shot me through my leg. My right thigh. Through the bone, I think.”
“I got out to open the trunk, and he—bang, man.”
“Where are you? ”
“Gambol, slay with me. Where are you?”
“I’m near Oroville.”
“Where’s Ortonville? You in San Diego County or something?”
“Not Ortonville, man. Oroville. It’s on Route Seventy. Way the hell up here past Sacramento and all that.”
“Which direction from Oroville? Like east. west, what?”
“I think north.”
“North. Near Madrona? I got a friend in Madrona.”
“Get me out of here.”
“I’m on it. Where did he shoot you?”
“In the thigh. I told you.”
“Jimmy Luntz? Oh fuck. Oh fuck. He will die. My promise to you.”
“You bet your ass.”
“My promise and my gift to you. He’s dead.”
Gambol shut his phone and dropped it into his breast pocket. He paused for half a minute before undertaking the effort of tightening the belt around his leg. The leg was numb, and he felt cold.
He laid his head back against the tree trunk and considered the movements to follow and reviewed his consideration carefully before letting himself tip rightward onto his elbow and wrestling himself, by stages, onto his belly. As he stiffened his arms, raised himself and began crawling forward, the phone fell from his pocket, and he stopped. He lowered himself and took hold of it with his mouth.
Gripping his bloody cell phone in his teeth he dragged himself several yards farther into the pines and scrub and lay on his belly while sirens approached and arrived.
When he heard voices getting near he struggled onto his side and saw the ambulance not far beyond the point where he’d entered the small stand of pines and three paramedics talking with two uniformed cops, cursing and laughing. The patrolmen had parked their cruiser right over the large stain on the blacktop. Even from this distance Gambol could make out his own blood trail.
He turned onto his back, buttoned his cell phone into his jacket’s lapel pocket and worked himself into position and dragged his leg farther away from the parking lot and lay in the mouth of a concrete culvert where he waited, staring straight upward, blinking rapidly to keep himself conscious, while the two crews decided they’d been lured here as some kind of prank.
The two crews didn’t slay long. As they passed over the culvert, he heard their vehicles thumping on the highway above his head.
He had difficulty unbuttoning the inner pocket of his jacket and further difficulty working the buttons on his phone. He reached Juarez again. “Did you find somebody?”
“I’m close. Stay with me. 1 think we can get you out of there. I know a vet in Madrona.”
“I’m down in a culvert. I can’t move my legs.”
'Jesus, man, call an ambulance.“
"Luntz called already. They came and went.”
“Call them back!”
“Piss on that shit.”
“Will you just call them back?”
“I’m at the end of the blacktop, in some trees.”
“Tell me again—Route Seventy.”
“The rest stop by the Tastee-Freez north of Oroville.”
“I’m writing it down.”
“I’m in a culvert under the road. You got that?”
“Keep that phone by you.”
“It’s right here. Send somebody.”
“I’ll try. But what if I can’t?”
“Then eat that fucker’s liver while he watches.”
“It’s a promise.”
Gambol closed the phone.
He managed to sit upright against the side of the culvert. The breeze coming through it felt icy. Vehicles rumbled overhead. He laid his cell phone in his lap and tore at his bloody pant leg and got a look at the purple lipless exploded mouth in his flesh. He cinched the belt as tightly as it would go. but his hands were asleep and the wound seemed to well up and spill over, suck back, well up, spill over in a small but relentless way.
The phone rang. He got his fingers around it and raised it to his cheek. Juarez said. “I told you I knew somebody. I’m sending a vet.”
Gambol opened his lips. Nothing came out.
“I found you a vet. Thirty minutes. Stay put now, hear? Don’t run off.”
Gambol failed to laugh. He tried saying “Yeah” one more lime, but his lips didn’t move.
He dozed, woke, had no idea how much time had passed, saw that a rivulet of his blood traveled away from him, moving over the dirt collected in the groove of the culvert, disappearing again under massed brown pine needles. He raised his hand to look at his watch bin couldn’t get it up to his lace.
“Hey—” he said, but very faintly. He himself could hardly hear it.
He put his fingers around the phone in his lap. The phone slipped away with a clatter that echoed in the concrete cylinder, and he let himself collapse toward it. He had his mouth by the phone. He had a finger on the button. He needed the finger to press it. He couldn’t make it happen.
No problem. If he could keep his eyes open, he wasn’t dead. Lying on his belly he stared at the red spectacle of his life as it traveled past his lace and headed away from him through the dust. That’s all he needed to do now. He needed to keep seeing his blood.
In the cafe Luntz sat quite still with his elbows on the counter and a menu in his face.
“Are you going to order?” the waitress asked.
“Is there a Feather River Tavern around here?”
“I don’t know.”
“Feather River Cafe, something like that?”
“I don’t think so. Are you going to order?”
“Ice tea.” he said and look a second trip to the men’s room.
He washed his hands and splashed his lace with cold water and dried himself with hot air from a nozzle. He smoked half a cigarette in several rapid pulls and threw the rest in the toilet, went out the door and lifted the receiver of the pay phone beside the restrooms.
Shelly answered and accepted the charges.
“Hey. It’s me.” he said.
“What’s this collect?” Shelly said. “Are you someplace weird?”
“I’m near Oroville.”
He heard her sigh.
“Listen. Shelly, listen. I got on a very messed-up ride with this guy I sort of know. A guy who intended to hurt me. And 1 think some people are probably coming to see you, Shelly. In fact I’d count on it.”
“You mean cops?”
“Jimmy. Jesus Christ. Oroville? What’s Oroville? What happened?”
“I wish I knew.”
“You don’t know?”
“I wish I could tell you. But if anybody wants me—just tell them you heard from me. I’m long gone. I’m never coming back.”
He heard her breath in his ear, nothing else.
“Shelly, it’s a mess. I’m sorry.”
“Well, sorry fixes everything, don’t it?”
“You gotta be mad as all get-out.”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“I’m sorry, buddy,” he said and hung up.
“How much for the lea? ’ he asked the waitress as he sat down again.
"One fifty. Aren’t you going to drink it?”
“Let me have a pack of Camel straights. please.”
Gambol’s wallet was so fat Luntz had to stand up to pry it out of his front pants pocket. Fat mostly with hundreds. He found a 20.
“There might be a Feather River Inn.” she said. “Kind of way up on the Feather River Road.”
Luntz put the wallet away. “No longer an issue,” he said.
Luntz sat in the car in the cafe’s parking lot, listening to an AM sports talk show and counting his blessings: 43 $100 bills and change, plus a wallet with a tab inside it that said genuine calfskin and lots of credit cards. The cards had to go. And probably the car. And definitely the gun.
In his trembling hands he fanned out the crisp new Franklins. It wasn’t much more than this that he owed Juarez in the first place.
Before he took off he cracked the Caddy’s trunk to see what else Gambol might have bequeathed him. Popped the lid and found a heavy white canvas duffel in there and unzipped it.
The duffel held a shiny chrome-barreled pistol-grip shotgun and some boxes of shells. Five, six—seven boxes labeled 00 buck with maybe eight or 10 to a box.
A pale-green squad car cruised the far edge of the parking lot. A county rig. Luntz zipped the bag and closed the trunk.
First town he hit he bought a $50 card at the Safeway and called Information at the pay phone out front. “Alhambra, California. Dooley’s Tavern. No. Wait a minute. Dooley’s is like a nickname. It’s O'Doul’s. D-O-L’-L. In Alhambra.”
The phone said, “For an additional charge of "fifty cents, you’ll be connected.”
He lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply and blew smoke at the world. He took two clean breaths and punched the buttons.
“Let me talk to Juarez.”
“Ain’t no Juarez here.”
“He’s in the last booth with the Tall Man and that skinny girl the Tall Man hangs with who used to strip at the Top Down Club. Tell him it’s Jimmy Luntz. Say I owe him money.”
Juarez came on the line and said “Jimmy” in an experimental tone of voice.
“Guess what. I smoked old Gambol in a rest stop on Highway Seventy,” Luntz said.
He could feel |uarez swimming around in his own head, getting a grip on this information.
“Jimmy, you say this is Jimmy.” Juarez repeated.
“Try spending five hours in a car going nowhere, and suddenly, oh, come to think of it. let’s pull over here and get a piece of rebar from the trunk and give you a little compound fracture below the knee…. You try it.”
“Jimmy what. I mean, remind me of your last name,” Juarez said.
“I told him let’s go see Juarez,” Luntz said, “and discuss the problem, you know? But he wouldn’t allow it. As it is, I ended up defending myself.”
“Sure. Jimmy. Could we talk about this? Could you maybe stop by?”
“Definitely not. Not in person. Bui I mean, I think you can show some mercy, right?”
“This guy ain’t making sense today,” Juarez said, maybe to the Tall Man. “You are living in a happy dream,” he told Luntz, “if you think there is any such thing as mercy.”
Luntz hung up.
Jimmy Luntz drilled in the coppertone Caddy alongside some kind of river, continuing north on 70, smoking his Camel and dropping the ashes on the floor. Gambol didn’t let you smoke in his ride, but it wasn’t his ride anymore, was it?
Anita took her vintage Camaro—her beat-up near-worthless 1973 Camaro— out under the willows by the Feather River and put on Damn the Torpedoes and dropped the seat all the way back and lay there with both doors open.
When the tape reached its end and would have reversed itself, the silence was such a blessing she hit the button and killed the power. Her hearing came up: the hiss of the river in this wide slow spot and the breeze in the branches, the tick of willow leaves.
Only now did she begin to notice that the day was warm and fine. Or had been. The sunset shone down the river now. and (he willows cast long shadows.
She grabbed her overcoat, a big blue thing with a velvet collar, got out of the Camaro and tossed the coal down on the riverbank in the last patch of sun. A little dirt and leaves—who cares? She lay back and looked up at blue emptiness.
“Try the Cajun chicken,” she shouted at the sky.
Hearing a vehicle, she sat upright. Across the river a copper-colored Cadillac with one of those cushy-looking vinyl roofs pulled to a stop at a campsite among a bunch of cotton woods. A man in black dress pants and a white T-shirt got out holding what seemed very much like a large revolver.
He reversed the weapon in his grip, holding it by the barrel, and tossed it underhand into the river, his gaze following its arc out to the middle of the water and then across, beyond, to meet Anita’s eyes watching him.
This guy didn’t know much about follow-through. His throwing arm wavered in the air and collapsed at his side, and he wiped his fingers on his black slacks. A slouchy guy, a skinny guy. He wasn’t wearing a Hawaiian shin at the moment but undoubtedly owned several.
He took in the fact of her without seeming particularly surprised, and then he got into his Cadillac and shut the door and started backing it up. But he wasn’t leaving. He edged his ride into a shady spot and turned off the engine.
Anita considered this situation a minute before getting up and taking the keys from the Camaro’s ignition and walking around to open its trunk. Inside she located two mayonnaise jars full of washers and screws, put one under each arm and went around to the front of the car and took from the glove compartment a loaded stainless-steel .357 Magnum.
She walked 30 feet across the bare spot where she’d parked and set the two jars on the dirt. She returned to the car. laced her targets and took aim with a two-hand grip in what was often called the Weaver stance, the gun out front of her line of sight and both feet planted wide apart, elbows flexed and her shoulders slightly hunched, and fired twice.
Both jars exploded in a mist of glass and rusty nuts and bolts.
She lay down again on her coat, the gun resting on her belly, and let the day’s last sunshine warm her on one side.
The sound of the Cadillac’s engine came to her across the water, starting up and accelerating loudly as it took off— tires spinning, gravel rattling against the bark of trees—and then fading away.
Since sundown the temperature must have dropped 20 degrees, Luntz stopped in a movie theater parking lot in the town of Madrona and put on his shirt and white lux and sat listening to cool jazz on the Brougham’s radio. The radio’s clock display said 6:45.
When had he last eaten? He couldn’t remember. He had no hunger. This, he told himself, is fear. So live with it.
He played with the radio on the AM band until he found a station that sounded likely—a young girl reading classified ads. mowers and pickups and appliances for sale by their owners. Then the local news. No gunplay reported. They mentioned the closing of a local supermarket.
Was Gambol a corpse? Were the cops after him or not? How had everybody’s day turned out?
He tried the FM band. Jamaican rhythms. Somebody sang
and he listened carefully to the rest of the song before turning off the radio.
The Rex Theater was showing The Last Real Champ, according to the marquee. It was hall Over. l.untz bought a ticket anyway.
He sat leaning forward in the theater’s second row with his forearms on the seat in from of him and his chin on his hands. In the film a guy followed a woman out of a bowling alley and caught her by the elbow, and she turned, and he said. “I’d throw everything away for a woman like you.”
And she replied, “Really?” and you could tell they were heading for a Happy Ending.
In the final seconds of the final round the same guy rallied to destroy an opponent inexplicably 40 pounds beyond his weight class. The defeated champion lay on the canvas, staring straight upward.
Early in his teens Luntz had fought Golden Gloves. Clumsy in the ring, he’d distinguished himself the wrong way— the only boy to get knocked out twice. He’d spent two years at it. His secret was that he’d never, before or since, felt so comfortable or so at home as when lying on his back and listening to the far-off music of the referee’s 10-count.
After the film it was raining, a light, steady rain. Ruthless neon on the wet streets like busted candy. Eight p.m., dark enough to ditch the Cadillac. He drove it over to the town’s tiny airport and parked and took the contents of his gym bag. the socks and underwear and toilet kit, and slipped them into Gambol’s duffel and threw the gym bag into the darkness. He took off his black dress socks and put back on his shoes and wiped the car down with the socks, inside and outside, and left the keys under the floor mat and walked with Gambol’s bag out of the parking lot and across a field of tall wet grass toward a couple of motels, the Ramada Inn and another one whose neon sign just said vacan. The anonymous establishment, made of fake logs and cheap in its soul, looked like a place that didn’t necessarily mess with credit cards.
He went over and booked a room. All wet, no car, no socks, paying cash.
The numbers on the radio read 10:10. Aces and zeroes, Luntz lay on his bed in the Guess What Motel on the Feather River Road with all the lights on, listening to voices from a jerk-off movie in the next room.
Like the building’s exterior, the walls of this small room looked like logs too. He put his hand out and discovered he touched real wood. He hadn’t known they still made things out of actual logs. He’d assumed all logs were fake.
He sat up and pointed the remote control at the television. Nothing happened. He slapped it against his palm and tried again unsuccessfully. He reached down and hefted Gambol’s duffel bag from the door beside him and sat up with his feet on the floor and his left hand resting on the bag for a good two minutes before pulling the zipper all the way from one end to the other.
The weapon nesting in the duffel bag. with its pistol grip and its gleaming chrome barrel about 18 inches long, looked untouchable. He didn’t touch it. He closed the zipper and stashed the bag under the bed and went out for some no-fake mountain air.
The rain had quit. He stood under a lot of stars, too many, more stars, in fact, than he’d ever seen. The chilly night air tasted clean and innocent. That lucky feeling came over him.
He walked across the parking lot to the lounge at the Ramada Inn and went directly to the pay phones by the rest-rooms in the back.
“Look,” he said when he had O'Doul’s on the phone, “I know he’s sitting right there, Put him on. Tell him Luntz.”
While he waited with his back to the lounge he heard the voices and smooth jazz. His hands were shaking and his throat was tight.
Juarez came on the line, “Luntz, is it now. Next thing you’ll want to be Mister Luntz. Mister Luntz Esquire.”
“Yeah—you know how many holes a double-aught buck shotgun shell is going to make in your face?”
“Where are you calling from?”
“From the pay phone right outside where you’re sitting.”
“The fuck you are.”
“I’m right out here on Fourth, senor, with Gambol’s Winchester under my big old shirt. I’m looking right at you.”
Juarez was talking to somebody else now—probably sending the Tall Man outside to verify. “Where you from, Luntz—Luntzville? You ain’t nothing but a little puto.”
“Gambol said something similar. Then I blew him up.”
“Guess what. He didn’t die.”
“Yeah, I didn’t think so.”
“Listen to me, Luntz. Do you remember this fucker Cal from Anaheim, they called him Cal Trans?”
“Ye a h, sure, I heard all about that stuff.”
“Gambol and I sat down and made a meal of his balls. Anaheim oysters. Very tasty.”
“I heard all about it, yeah.”
“What about Luntzville? They make pretty good oysters there?”
Luntz said, “Best oysters in the world, Juarez,” and hung up.
She woke on the riverbank with rain falling on her face. She got up and closed herself inside the car. Burrowed into the big blue coat. Woke some time later stiff and cold, having slept deeply and freely.
She found the key and fired it up. Turned on the AM radio and caught a country station drifting over from Sparks, Nevada while the engine warmed and the defroster blew the mist oil the glass. Giant night of stars out there. She headed onto the highway.
The man from Sparks said it was 10 p.m. She’d slept like the dead for nearly four hours. Eighteen months she’d spent lighting the judge and Hank, politicking the sheriff and the town council and harrying her lawyers and working the press, campaigning against the inevitable. Now it was over. Time for a long vacation. Not that she could afford even a short one.
At the lounge at the Ramada near the county airport she ordered a second tequila sunrise as the waitress delivered the first one. “And please, please,” she said, “don’t turn on the karaoke.”
“I’ll wait till eleven,” the girl said.
“Just wait till I’m gone.”
“Happy hour starts at eleven.”
“Then I’m working on a deadline.”
Why do they call it happy, and why do they say it’s an hour? Happy hour lasts two miserable hours. Aah, she thought—who am I talking to? And how many seconds till some asshole offers to buy me a drink and make me a satisfied woman?
Approximately 18 seconds. The same skinny guy from the river—the one who’d tossed the gun to the currents—coming back from the pay phone and toilets, now sporting a checkered vest and white tux over his T-shirt. He paused beside her booth. Exactly the cheap bastard for whom the $2 window was invented.
“Hey there,” he said.
“Very suave. You silver-tongued devil.”
“Are you a resident of this motel or just a patron?”
“I’m not anything,” she said. “I’m having a drink.”
He dropped something, a quarter, stooped to pick it up, dropped it, picked it up again and stood looking around him as if the room had changed drastically in the two seconds he’d had his eyes off it. Not drunk. A little too vibrant for drunk.
He perched himself on the very outermost corner of the seat across from her, saying, “I don’t usually just walk up and sit down with people.”
“Help yourself. I was just leaving.”
He peered at her, nearsighted or stupid, she couldn’t tell which, and said, “What is your nationality?”
“Are you a spic?”
She stared. “Yeah. I am. Are you an asshole?”
“Mostly,” he said.
“What’s your name?”
He said, “Uh.”
“Uh? What is Uh? Lithuanian or something?”
“You’re witty.” he said. “My name’s Frank. Franklin.”
“Frankie Franklin.” she said, “I have a lot on my mind right now, and I’d like to be alone.”
“No problemo,” he said and kind of oozed out of the booth and dematerialized.
The barmaid brought her a second tequila sunrise while she ordered a third. “Hey, miss,” Anita said, “when do we get this karaoke rolling?”
Luntz watched it all unwind. The woman was the hit of the evening, at least in her own opinion. She sat on a stool she’d dragged from the bar and placed exactly next to the karaoke contraption, nobody daring to interfere with this spectacle, and singing half a song and talking through the rest of it and selecting another through two hours of encores, but nobody called for them.
She wore a blue coat over the same gray skirt and white blouse he’d seen her in this afternoon by the river. A good-looking woman. With or without makeup, in any style of clothes, drunk or sober. “Thank you very much. 1 love this town!” she said main, main times.
She slopped reading the lyrics on the screen and made up her own instead and then stopped singing the melodies and made those up too, closing her eyes and rifling about a guy named Hank who walked with the devil and had stolen her soul, but not all oilier soul, she-sang, not the important part.
“That woman needs a pill.” the waitress said.
Luntz disagreed. “Man,” he said, “she breaks your heart.”
Once in a while Luntz went out to smoke a cigarette under the stars. The rest of the time he stood by the cash-out, playing the scratch-oil instant lottery, rubbing one by one at the numbers in a stack an inch thick, tossing the losers on the counter till he had quite a pile. He spent 80 bucks and made back 65.
By one a.m. she’d cleared the place out and was just drinking and muttering into the microphone while the waitress chatted with the barmaid.
“I believe,” the woman said into her microphone, with plenty of reverb, “that’s Frankie Franklin over there. He’s piling up them Lotto tix.”
He raised a hand high and gave her a thumbs-up.
“What is Frankie about to do with them Lotto tix? Make himself a little bonfire?”
She punched buttons on the machine and after 30 seconds of music jumped onto the chorus—"Come on baby light my fi-yer! Come on baby light my flyer!“ She stopped singing and her gaze drifted down and sideways, and she smiled at nothing.
Luntz walked over. "Can 1 ask a favor? 1 need a ride.”
“I do. I really do.”
“Where’s Frankie’s Cadillac?”
“Oh. The Caddy. Yeah.”
“I saw you by the river. Frankie. Remember?”
“I wouldn’t forget seeing you.”
“Caddy end up in the river too?”
“It was a loaner. So how about a ride to my motel?”
“Call a cab.”
“I was thinking you’d be quicker.”
"The Log Inn over there.”
“Across the parking lot? Very funny.”
“I’m witty too, just like you.”
“The Log Inn. Doesn’t the wood stink when it’s wet?”
“So how about a ride?”
“I don’t drive a cab. Hey, Frankie. Let me buy a round. What are you drinking?”
“This is a Diet Coke.”
“Don’t you drink?”
He paused for a good little while before he answered.
“I gamble,” he said.
“And what about for a living? If it’s not too forward of me. What do you do?” “I gamble. I gamble.”
“What’s the point of gambling?”
“I didn’t realize there had to be a point.”
“This is starting to sound like one of those messed-up conversations,” she said.
“You could get me a can of beer, but I probably wouldn’t finish it. My stomach burns easy. I can’t even drink coffee.”
She raised her mike to her lovely mouth and looked over at the waitress and said. “I better have some coffee myself. Black, please.” Up close, in somber light, he couldn’t say if she was supposed to be a Mexican or Hawaiian or some semi-Filipino mutt.
“Where are you from originally?”
The waitress brought her a Styrofoam cup and she dribbled hall the coffee down her blouse and was completely unapologetic about it. “I don’t need coffee anyway. I can’t sleep anyway lately.”
“You too? Me neither.”
“I didn’t sleep for two days, and then I had a nap.”
“Two days? Why?”
“Because I didn’t have a bed. Frankie. What about you? Why can’t you sleep?”
“Too many plans on my mind. It’s been one heck of a day.”
She peered at him. “You too?”
“So, anyway,” Luntz said.
She stood up, said.
“Thank you very much! I love this town!” and walked out the door into the night.
Luntz went after her because he just couldn’t stand it.
She stood out front digging in her purse with one hand, nearly choking herself with its strap.
“I’d throw everything away for a woman like you.”
“Jesus Christ,” she said and walked with considerable difficulty the 20 feet to her little hot rod.
He stood and watched while she searched for the driver’s seal with her beautiful ass. She saw him watching and gave him the finger and slammed the door.
Luntz headed in the other direction, toward the end of the building and the parking lot across which waited the Log Inn. After 30 seconds listening to his own steps on the pavement he heard her tires screech and next the sound of her engine rising and falling and rising again and then coming up behind him.
Stopping for him. she nearly ran him down. While he got in the car the dome light illuminated her dimly, staring straight ahead, stupid-drunk. “I can do anything I want,” she said.
The first two things she did on entering were to throw her purse on the bed and then go to the nightstand and pick up his checkered bow tie. She examined it and turned to him, holding it to her throat.
Luntz said, “Boy, I’d like to see you wearing just that and nothing else.”
She kicked her high heels oil and said, “May I have a glass of water, please?”
He filled the plastic cup in the John and brought it to her and she drained it in under five seconds, gasping between swallows, and headed for the John herself, saying. “Refill.” She didn’t stagger, but she walked very carefully.
Luntz picked up his bow tie and stood staring at it.
On his bed, the woman’s purse started chirping. Luntz said, “Should I get your phone?”
She came out through the bathroom door, grabbed her cell phone from a side pocket in her purse and went back into the bathroom and tossed the phone in the toilet. She hiked her skirt and yanked her pantyhose to her knees and sat down, all in one motion, and started peeing kind of musically. Luntz said, “Hold my calls.” He stood in the bathroom doorway watching, and as she reached back for the handle, failing to locate it, he said, “Welcome to my humble origins.”
“It does stink when it’s wet.”
She came out with another glass of water and drank it down and exhaled loudly. She kissed him welly on the lips, tasting of booze and just a bit like something else even wor.se. puke maybe, but he didn’t care. She drew back and said. “You think I’m just too hammered to know better.”
“Yeah, I do—and thank God.”
“Nope. I know where I am. I know where up is.”
She stepped away from him and pointed at the ceiling.
“It’s just, it’s just, hey—it’s feeling good right now to be around somebody who’s not full of shit up to his eyeballs.”
“Are you kidding? I’m the most fulla shit guy I know.”
“Well.” she assured him, “you’re not the most fulla shit guy I know.” She grabbed the hem of her coffee-stained white blouse and wrestled it up over her head, but she could only get it so far. and she appeared to be lost in it, wavering side to side in her crimson bra. “Not even close,” she said. Fell backward onto the bed, her arms and head (angled in her blouse, one tit coming out of its red cup and the gray skirt hiked up nearly to her crotch and her feet dangling off the mattress.
Luntz grabbed her ankles and swung her legs around so she lay out straight. He hooked his fingers into the elastic waistline and pulled her skirt and pantyhose down both together. Her body seemed slack. She might have passed out. “Tough break,” he said. But he only meant for her.
He took off his tux, his checkered vest, the T-shirt, the pants.
She was conscious after all. She plucked at the blouse wrapped around her head and got it down below the level of her eyes and looked at him, speaking through its folds, stark naked below her waist. “So—are you a waiter?”
“Is that what the tux is about?”
“No. I’m in a barbershop chorus.”
“Like a quartet.”
“No. Bigger, between eighteen and thirty guys, depending on who shows up. I’m in a quartet sometimes, too. But the quartet’s not that good. We don’t practice.”
“But not your chorus. Your chorus is good, huh?”
“No. We’re not that good either.”
“Frankie Franklin, are you a loser?”
“Not when I’m lucky. ”
“When was a guy like you ever lucky?”
He pulled her blouse over her head and a couple of buttons popped loose and flew at his face. “Shit, honey,” he said, “have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately? I’m lucky now.”
Gambol was able to see, but nothing he saw made sense. Yet it wasn’t quite like dreaming. He closed his eyes.
A woman’s voice spoke some words, then the same words once more, and again the same words.
He said, “Fuck off.”
He seemed to have fallen from a narrow bed and now found himself jammed in a space even narrower. He sighed.
A woman said, “Jesus. Well—at least you’re moving. Can you sit up?”
He said, “Leave me alone.”
“At least get back up here and lie straight.”
He said, “No. Fuck off.”
He realized he was staring at the roof of a car’s interior. Every time he breathed, he heard the slight creaking of plastic.
Later he deduced he must be lying on a plastic sheet inside a car.
The woman was talking again. “Yeah. You’re a major mess today. Can you sit up?”
“If you can move, I want you inside. Sit up. Sit up. One stage at a time.”
He was sitting on a couch, his injured leg stretched out on an ottoman. He was looking at a television in a small living room with a woman who said, “Wow, do you ever feel like you’re just in the future? I mean, like science fiction?”
“Shut up. Who are you?”
“I told you who I am.”
“The fuck you did.”
“Then who have I been talking to for the last half hour?”
“I didn’t hear us talking.”
“How’s the pain?”
The pain, though it belonged to his right leg, radiated in astounding waves out to his toes and up to his jaw. “Real bad.”
She put a bowl beside him on the couch. “I want you to suck on some ice. Just to keep your throat lubricated.”
Some of the pain made it all the way to his right eyeball and also the tip of his nose.
“Are you there?”
“It hurts,” she said. “I know. It hurts.”
“You got any dope?”
“Not yet. It’s coming.”
“Hang in there.”
“Fuck. Jesus Christ.”
“Don’t choke on that ice.”
Fighting the pain only made it worse. Gambol paid attention to the pain, to its shape, its location and its travels, and tried to stay relaxed.
A doorbell rang. Voices spoke in another world, where people had thoughts worth voicing. Laughter. Silence.
She came to him with a hypo and said. “The cavalry has arrived.” By this time the pain had conquered every physical part of him and had begun to involve his soul. Then the sensations flattened out and got hard to locate, and as long as he didn’t try moving, things were pretty jolly.
“You ready for some water?”
She brought him a glass with a straw. He could hardly swallow, but it was sweet. “Drink as much as you can. Watch your IV, hon. Don’t move that hand around. Other hand.”
He hadn’t noticed the drip in his left wrist. “I feel paralyzed.”
“I couldn’t give you any blood.”
“Yeah. A person can’t live on horse blood, right?”
“You’re a vet, right?”
She laughed and said something he couldn’t hear.
She woke him and fed him some pills and held the glass while he sucked at the straw until the glass was empty. The light around them seemed like morning light. But it might have been evening. “You got any coffee?” “Coffee won’t help right now.” 'Just give me a cup of coffee.“ The smell was wonderful, but it tasted wrong coming through a straw. "Just let me drink it.” “Sure.”
His hand felt like a senseless mitten. She helped him hook his finger through the cup’s handle. “Give me the fucking thing.” “1 just gave it to you. Relax.” She turned on the television. He sipped his coffee and stared at the colorful screen. After a while he said, “I need a car. And I need a gun.”