Sarah at the Palace
[Photo by William Rugen]
Harlan is in Las Vegas, in the dining room of his dead sister’s condominium. Through a Mylar-coated window he can see the Strip in the distance, tall and sun stricken above a wall that surrounds the condominium complex. He sees the Luxor, Excalibur, the futuristic spire of the Stratosphere. The city, which once held the power to thrill him, now seems garish and bleak. He looks at it only to escape the condo, which is even bleaker. It has been six years since he visited, and everything in the condo seems intended to remind him of that fact. In the dining room, hundreds of Styrofoam cups cover the avocado carpet, all in clusters of three.
Most have numbers on the inside rim, written in Sarah’s nervous hand — 207, 64, 5078. Harlan has no idea what the numbers mean. In the living room, she stacked four-gallon ice-cream tubs into low walls, dividing the room into smaller rooms, giving the place the look of an excavated Mayan village. Aluminum foil has been taped neat as wallpaper over most of the walls and windows, casting the room in an eerie, reflective glow, like a laboratory in an old mad-scientist movie. Dead plants hang over the rims of their pots. Dozens of cats dart in and out of the rooms.
His ex-wife, Marlene, moves between the rows of ice-cream tubs with the careful stride of an archaeologist. They have been divorced five months, and she has recently begun a new life in Tempe — working as a paralegal, seeing a lawyer named Ron. But she agreed to fly from Phoenix with Harlan to help settle Sarah’s estate, and he is grateful. She was always good with Sarah, even near the end, when Harlan could hardly bear to talk to his sister on the phone.
Sarah went crazy — that’s how the thought keeps coming to him now, as he sorts through the cluttered evidence of her insanity. As a girl she was eccentric, wearing vintage movie-star dresses when everyone else wore tie-dye; in her twenties, when she moved to Vegas and worked as a waitress and part-time showgirl, her life seemed unimaginable to Harlan, though he knew it was the life she wanted. It wasn’t until the last few years that she began to unravel, and because Harlan was unraveling too at that time, he did little to help her. Marlene became more like a sibling to Sarah than he’d ever been.
He watches Marlene pick her way across the living room, her melon-colored shirt untucked, her upper lip damp with sweat. She looks prettier than she has in years, thinner and more fit, with a stylish new haircut that softens her features. She leans over a kind of makeshift desk, which Sarah assembled out of several overturned ice-cream tubs. On it are a princess phone and a stack of papers.
“This must be where she talked on the phone,” she says, and glances at Harlan gravely. “God, I sure didn’t picture the place like this when we talked.”
“Me neither,” he says.
“You remember coming here after we were married? The place so neat and modern? She had that white furniture and the mirrors everywhere?”
“She used to be neat,” he says, remembering his sister’s bedroom in their childhood home — the dresses hung according to color and style, her vanity as precise as a surgeon’s tray. He remembers Sarah coming downstairs in a cloud of Jean Naté and the way her appearance silenced the Maricopa High boys who waited, slick, lanky boys who seemed like men to Harlan. He was proud of the effect his sister had on those older boys.
“I wish I’d known how bad it was,” he says, frowning.
“How could you know?”
“I should have come,” he says.
She sighs. She had urged him to come — many times. She had even offered to come herself. But he’d said no, he’d do it eventually.
Now he glances into Sarah’s bedroom, where the vanity table is piled high with stacks of old fashion magazines. On the walls are construction-paper signs with motivational sayings, things like “HANG IN THERE KIDDO!!” and “POWER TO ME!” Near the window is the place where her body was found. Harlan still can’t believe it in any sustainable way. It defies prolonged acceptance. Even harder to believe is what the police told him this morning: on the day after Sarah’s death, while her body still lay naked on the floor, a group of boys broke a window and came inside. They poked around for an hour or so, judging from the cigarette butts left behind. A neighbor woman who saw them dash out the front door called 911, and that was how the body was discovered. The police didn’t think the boys had taken anything or done any harm, but Harlan can’t stop thinking about it — strange boys moving through his sister’s cluttered condominium, seeing her naked and vulnerable and dead.
“All these tubs have things inside,” Marlene is saying behind him.
He turns and watches her pry the lid off an ice-cream tub. Inside it is a Folger’s coffee can. Inside the can is a baby-food jar stuffed with tissue.
“They’re little mysteries, see?” She unfolds the tissue, and a blue ten-dollar chip falls to the floor. “It’s from the Dunes,” she says, picking it up.
“Too bad the Dunes went bust,” he says. “We could use the money.”
“Should we go through all of these, though? I’d hate to throw away anything of value.”
Harlan knows there will be money in the condo, and jewelry, too. As a girl, Sarah hid everything — cigarette packs in her underwear drawer, twenty-dollar bills between the pages of teen magazines. He’d rifle through her room when she was out on a date, his only way of being close to her once the boys started to come around.
Now, with only the weekend to empty the place, he knows they can’t go through everything. Marlene will fly home in the morning.
“Just open the ones you have a feeling about,” he says finally. “Use your intuition.”
She gives a laugh. “I seem to remember you calling my intuition bullshit.”
Harlan remembers saying it. Still, it’s hard to believe he was ever that unappreciative. There was a time when he was certain Marlene had a special sense for things — which mechanic to trust with the Buick, when to plant tulip bulbs. But when her intuition told her it was time for a new life without him, he came to hate the idea of intuition altogether.
“Just do what you think is best,” he says, and carries two bulging trash bags to the door. His ankles throb. Basketball ankles. They’re going to give him hell before the weekend is over.
* * *
There is the kitchen and one back bedroom to clear, along with a small blue-carpeted den that has been overrun by cats. Marlene refers to it as the Cat Den, and each time Harlan opens the door a dozen snarling cats dart to their hiding places under the bed. They are lean and angry, and Harlan will have to put every one of them into carrier boxes tomorrow, in order to take them to the SPCA. He’ll do this after Marlene has flown home, since she hates the idea of it.
In the phone book, he finds a place that will deliver an industrial-size dumpster outside the door, and once it arrives everything moves more quickly. Load by load, the condominium becomes less cluttered, more the kind of place where any normal woman might live. Seeing the carpet and the bare white walls, Harlan feels almost as if he’s curing his sister after the fact, though occasionally he’s laid out by the sight of some object she loved — a beaded necklace or a mother-of-pearl-inlaid comb. Almost all of it goes into the dumpster. A stab of guilt moves through Harlan each time he throws away something she valued.
Marlene is in the kitchen, emptying cabinets, losing herself in the work. She hums Van Morrison’s “Caravan,” a familiar sound that puts Harlan in mind of better days. He thinks with vague despair of the night they will spend at the hotel, both of them self-conscious and awkward.
Outside, the neighborhood is hot and sun drenched. On a dead lawn across the street, two Asian boys spin the wheel of an upside-down ten-speed bike. Harlan throws the last of the ice-cream tubs into the dumpster, then turns and sees a pretty red-haired woman coming across the street. She waves in a friendly, sympathetic way, dressed in a black knee-length skirt and a white blouse.
“Were you a friend of hers?” she calls.
“Her brother,” he says. “Did you know her, too?”
“A little,” she says, and steps up onto the lawn. “I’m not sure if anyone here knew her, really. She was always nice to me, though.” The woman’s face is full of grim understanding.
“You live in the complex?”
“Across the street.” She points to a unit in the middle of the block. “Sarah used to sit on her lawn right here and drink a diet root beer. We’d talk sometimes. She always loved to talk. She had a vivid imagination.”
“She had problems,” Harlan says, carefully.
“I didn’t mind,” the woman says. “I thought she was sweet. She mentioned you a couple of times, if I’m not mistaken. Are you Harlan?”
Harlan feels a sudden rush of pride, as he did when Sarah’s girlhood friends used to talk to him. “I am.”
“Audrey,” the woman says, and they shake hands. “It’s funny, I would have guessed you were younger, the way she talked about you. I’d have put you at about twenty or so.”
“It’s probably how she thought of me,” he says. “I think of myself that way sometimes.” He has noticed the woman’s legs, which are freckled and lovely. He has to keep from staring at them. “You work at one of the casinos?”
“The Sands,” she says. “One of the worst ones, actually. They’re about to tear it down. I’m trying to get a job as a dealer.” She gIances over her shoulder at the Strip, where lights are blinking on as the sky darkens. ‘‘I’m told they like tall girls.”
“You’d be perfect,” he says. “I’d sit at your table.”
“So what do you do? Back in — what is it? Arizona?”
“I’m a writer,” he says.
“Wow, impressive. What kinds of things do you write about?”
“Mostly celebrity profiles and interviews.” In fact, Harlan is a technical writer and works for a company that makes LCD panels. He has never lied about it before.
‘‘I’ll bet you know famous people,” she says.
“I’ve met them,” he says. “That’s different from knowing them.”
She nods, seeming to appreciate the difference. “Sarah talked about knowing famous people —Jerry Lewis, Johnny Carson. I didn’t believe her at the time, but she must have met them through you.”
“A few of them.” Harlan wishes he could take it all back.
“She said you had the best tenor voice she ever heard in her life,” the woman says.
“When did she say that?”
“She told me a number of times. She said you’d sing ‘Wild Is the Wind’ in the shower and hit all the high notes, which impressed me. I’ve tried to sing that song.”
“I never knew she heard me,” he says. “She was the entertainer in the family.”
“And you have a younger brother? Hap? Happy?”
“Actually, no. Hap died when we were only kids.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“It’s been a difficult time,” he says, then realizes how little sense he’s making. He glances at the condo. “I should get back. There’s a lot of work to do.”
‘‘I’d offer to help if I didn’t have my shift,” she says.
“I wouldn’t let you, though. It’s bad in there.”
She smiles a sad, knowing smile. “She loved those cats,” she says.
“That’s right,” he says. “The cats were a problem.”
“Well, good luck,” she says.
He watches her turn and walk down the sidewalk, her heels clicking on the concrete.
* * *
Inside, he rubs his ankles, sitting on a crushed velvet ottoman. A striped cat bounds into the room, then sees Harlan and stops, its panicky eyes frozen for a moment before it darts back down the hall.
“So who’s the redhead?” Marlene asks.
“A friend of Sarah’s. They used to talk sometimes.”
Harlan can’t keep from smiling. “Sarah told her I had the best tenor voice she’d ever heard.” He stands and tests his ankles. “I guess she must have heard me in the shower.”
He goes to the dining table, where Marlene is leafing through a stack of old photos. She hands him an eight-by-ten of Sarah in a powder-blue bikini, standing in front of the fountains of Caesar’s Palace. One of her legs is cocked behind her, à la Betty Grable.
“What the heck is that from?”
“Pretty swank, huh?” She hands him another: Sarah in a lowcut sundress, holding a white parasol. Harlan gives a low whistle.
“They’re call sheets,” Marlene says. “They’re for modeling and things. I was just wondering who would have paid to have them done. They’re expensive.”
He leafs through a few more: Sarah leaning against the shining hood of a glitter-gold Corvette; posing in front of the Stork Club an evening dress.
“Eddie, maybe,” he says. “He got on that kick where he wanted to make her a star. Any of those guys, though — Goldberg, Domini. They all had big bucks.”
Harlan thinks of the men Sarah dated during her first years in Vegas, gangstery club owners and businessmen, older guys with silver hair, stickpins, and ruby rings. Eddie Depaolo was actually her husband for two years, though they were together only half that time. He installed her in a pink stucco mansion, and they had cocktail and dinner parties nearly every weekend. The thought of Sarah as a homemaker was hilarious to Harlan, who couldn’t imagine her cooking a meal or serving anyone. God knows she never cooked when he and Marlene came to town. Instead, Eddie would take them all to Caesar’s Palace, where they’d be “comped” lavish meals through Eddie’s mysterious connections. “Just get the tip, kid,” Eddie would say, not realizing forty bucks was more than Harlan, a kid just out of college, could afford.
Marlene is handing him more photographs: Sarah in a full-length sable coat; wearing lime-green hot pants; riding a carousel horse at a carnival. There are dinner-table shots of Sarah and attractive men, casino magnates with pearly, capped teeth. Harlan hated these guys, and he hated Sarah’s attitude when they were around, the way her tone seemed to say, “We’re with important people, Harly, don’t mess up.” It made him think of the Maricopa High days, with those greasy-haired athletes coming to the door. Boys he’d later overhear laughing about Sarah at school, mimicking the sounds she made having sex — or so he gathered. When they saw him, they buckled over, laughing into their fists. The humiliation of it stayed with him for years.
“Look, here’s one of your father,” Marlene says.
Harlan takes the snapshot, sees a man with close-set, dark eyes. He’s in front of a drained swimming pool, pretending he’s about to dive in. His hands are folded and his knees are bent. The shot is taken from below, as if the person holding the camera were a child. Harlan can’t remember taking it or even a time when his father looked so jovial, so benign. He hands the photo back to Marlene, and she buries it in the pile.
“Look, here’s one of Happy.” She gives it to him. Dressed in overalls and a button-down shirt, Hap grins at the camera.
“Jeez, what a kid,” Harlan says, and a rush of happiness overtakes him. This would be the time to go back to, he thinks, if such a thing were possible. Go back to Hap, for crying out loud, and with a little luck things might work out fine from there.
They work until Harlan’s ankles swell to the size of softballs. They clear the living room, the dining room, both bedrooms, and the kitchen; they empty the cupboards and closets and strip the tinfoil and posters from the walls. Only the Cat Den remains, along with a few details that will be handled by professionals — exterminators, carpet layers, painters. Harlan will buy cat carriers at a pet shop and take the animals to the SPCA in the morning. He has started a list so he can check everything off. He has always found lists comforting.
Minutes before they leave, Marlene finds a diamond ring in the freezer, wadded in Saran wrap, tucked into an empty ice tray. She gasps as she uncovers it. The stone is nearly the size of an M&M.
Harlan hurries over and studies it under the kitchen light. He remembers the man who gave it to Sarah, Heinrich something, a tall German banker who favored bow ties and wire-rimmed glasses.
“It’s gotta be two carats at least,” he says.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she says. “My God, I almost tossed it out with the frozen dinners!”
“You could buy some Lean Cuisine with that baby,” he says.
“I bet you could,” she says.
“You should keep it,” he says, and feels a sudden warmth in his belly, as if he’s the hotshot for once in his life, the club owner, the banker. “It’ll cover your expenses.”
‘‘I’m not keeping it, Harlan,” she says.
“I don’t want it. It’s not mine.”
“Come on.” He takes her hand and tries to slide the still-cold ring onto her finger, laughing as she protests, even as she tries to pull her hand away. Finally she jerks it hard and says, “For Christ sakes, Harlan. I don’t want it, okay? Can’t you listen?”
He glances at the open freezer, at the frozen meals in the sink. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I guess I didn’t understand.”
“I guess not,” she says. She sets the ring on the counter, washes her hands at the sink, and goes down the hall to find her purse.
* * *
They drive past the Bellagio as jets of lighted water shoot above the Romanesque pools. A crowd has gathered. Old women stand with their faces upturned, the beaded lights playing across their spectacles. In front of Treasure Island a volcano erupts. To Harlan, all the glitz seems intended to hide the fact that his sister has died in a cluttered condominium half a mile away and that they are all dying, slowly and quickly, everyone inside and outside his rented Mercury. With the possible exception of a brief trip to meet with a realtor, he knows he will never visit Las Vegas again.
As he pulls under the enormous Circus Circus clown, he feels small and foolish. He has booked the cheapest room in the cheapest hotel in all of Las Vegas because, he thinks, that is the kind of half-assed Henry he is. And now, stepping out of the car, walking through the desert air, he tells himself, You’ve got to do better than that. You’ve got to stop living a life of failure.
* * *
They wait for a key at the reception desk while the slot machines ring all around them. The lobby is overrun with Shriners, most of them wearing maroon fezzes and sport coats. A group of them sit on a couch behind Harlan and Marlene, playing kazoos. Harlan watches a blind man tap his way toward a row of nickel slot machines. He holds a bucketful of coins.
“The spectacle of the human condition,” says Marlene.
“I can’t believe we used to like this place,” he says.
“We smell awful,” she whispers, sniffing his shoulder.
“You can see people cringe when they smell us.”
The hotel clerk returns, and Harlan watches her wince.
As they walk through the casino, Marlene says, “We’ll have to burn our clothes or bury them, one or the other.” She has always been able to make him smile, even at the most unbearable times. He met her in the ASU library his junior year, when he was studying differential equations, a subject that brought him close to despair. She sat down across from him, a playful glint in her eye, and said, “That bad, huh?” Now he’s happy to be able to spend a night with her, even as a friend. Having a meal together, watching a movie — these are the simple things he misses.
They take a mirrored elevator to the eighteenth floor. Their room is at the end of the hall: red curtains and a pink-and-white bedspread; two oil paintings of sad-faced clowns.
“Not exactly high rollers, are we?” he says.
“Not this time around.”
Her demeanor has changed. She avoids his gaze now, glances at the phone on the night table. He is sure she wants to call the boyfriend.
“You mind if I use the shower first?” he asks.
“That’d be fine.”
As he crosses the room, he feels as if his insides might fall out onto the floor. He runs the shower in the bathroom and lets the room fill with steam. Then he puts an ear to the door and listens: the sweet tones of her voice, her laughter. He is hearing the beginning of something.
* * *
He is awake most of the night, kicking the coarse hotel sheets. When the sun finally brightens the curtains, he is almost relieved. He eases his throbbing ankles to the floor and winces into the bathroom.
He has been thinking about a conversation he had with his sister five months ago. She called to tell him someone had broken into the condo.
“They took my hairbrush!” she said, her voice shrill and taut with panic. “They took some vitamin C’s and a great big box of Ritz crackers. I’m afraid they’re still in the house somewhere.”
“No one wants your crackers,” Harlan said. “They’re not in the house, Sarah.” He’d been eating a plate of spaghetti in front of the TV. Now he sat up and hit the mute button on the remote control.
“They’ll probably wait till I’m sleeping and slit my throat,” she whispered.
“Don’t be melodramatic.”
Through the earpiece he heard the scrape of her lighter. “They took money, too,” she said, exhaling. “A lot of money.”
“Money Ihad,” she said. “My money.”
“You just misplaced it,” he said. “For all you know, the cats are hiding things under the bed.”
“That’s crazy,” she said. “Don’t say that.”
“I just don’t know what you expect with the place like it is.”
“It’s not the cats!” she shouted. “Cats don’t want money!”
“All right, all right,” he said. “Just try and come down.”
“How can I calm down?” she said. “People break in here, Harlan. You think I don’t know that? You think I don’t know whatcrackers I have?” She started crying — quietly at first, then louder. The phone seemed to bump the countertop, and a long wail broke into static over the line. “Those kids come in and take my things!” she screamed into the room. He listened to her sobbing for what seemed a very long time.
Eventually she picked up the phone again, and he was able to calm her down, though it took most of the night. By the time the sky turned gray he’d convinced her that no one had broken into the condo, that no one had taken her things.
But as he steps into the shower in his Circus Circus room, a terrible thought occurs to him: What if she had been right? What if the boys who came in after she was dead had come in while she was living? What if they reallyhad taken her things and her money? What if they had terrorized her?
He lets the water pull his hair down. It can’t be true. His brain is moving beyond the speed of reason. He breathes in slowly, trying not to think at all. He is in a pink-tiled shower stall in a hotel in Las Vegas. His ex-wife is in the other room. These are the facts. His sister died four days ago. He is forty-one years old.
* * *
At the airport he and Marlene stand in front of her gate, waiting for her plane to board. Harlan can’t stop talking.
“I should have done more,” he says. “I should have insisted she see a psychiatrist.”
“We tried that, Harlan,” Marlene says. “She wouldn’t do it.”
“I should’ve gotten rid of the cats. It’s unhealthy to breathe that.”
“Sarah died of a heart attack,” she says. “Her lungs had nothing to do with it.”
On the car ride over, he begged her to leave the new boyfriend. He needed her, he said, and would possibly die without her. Listening to himself was like listening to a stranger — a crazy man on a city bus or in a barroom. There seemed nothing he could do to stop it.
“I can’t even say for sure that I loved her,” he says now. “That’s the thing. I didn’t even like her most of the time.”
“Come on, Harlan. Let’s not do this.” Marlene glances at the gate counter, where the check-in agent has announced general boarding.
“I was mad at her after she moved out and left me alone with Dad,” he says.
“I have to go,” she says.
He wants to ask her what will become of him, because he feels as if she knows. He has come to rely on Marlene for solace, for absolution. Now she will give him neither.
What she gives him is a hug and a quick, sisterly peck on the cheek. He watches her turn and walk toward the gate door. It is hard not to think of her arriving in Phoenix, where the tall, smiling Ron will be waiting to meet her. Meanwhile, he’ll be at Sarah’s chasing the cats.
He smells Marlene’s cinnamon-scented perfume as she walks to the gate. It is still in the air long after she’s gone.
* * *
In the Cat Den he tears foil from the windows and opens them to the desert air. The room is small and so filled with clutter that it’s impossible to tell what’s underneath it all. The cat smell makes his eyes water. He puts on gloves and begins to stuff clothes and urine-soaked newspapers into Hefty bags, flushing several cats out of their hiding places as he works. Most of them dart under the bed, where they mewl and hiss. There might be two dozen cats under there.
The rest of the house is empty, a surprise each time Harlan sees it. The only thing left in the kitchen is the diamond ring, which he folds into a piece of pink tissue paper and stuffs in his pocket. He hauls load after load from the Cat Den, uncovering an armoire, a dresser, a rolltop desk. They are all made of a beautiful mahogany that has been horribly warped by cat urine. They must have come from the Eddie Depaolo house, though Harlan can’t remember seeing them there. Inside each drawer is a small black heart, burned into the wood, with the wordsfait à la main.
By the time the sun touches the horizon, Harlan has hauled most of the debris outside. The work is slow, and he can’t get through the door without tripping over a cat or being scratched. His wrists are streaked with thin red lines. So far he has managed to get only two cats into the carriers, and both of them scream and paw the grates without ceasing.
He takes a breather at the window, watching a jet rise from Vegas Airport, its navigation lights flashing red and white. Marlene will be back in Phoenix by now. Harlan realizes with a flash of shame that he didn’t thank her for coming. It’s typical of him — going on like a child, whining about his guilt. She’s better off without him, no question about it.
A motorcycle speeds past, the rider bent low over the gas tank. Harlan sees the Asian boys across the street, sitting on the same dead lawn, smoking cigarettes. They are older than he imagined, fifteen or so. And as they flick their cigarette butts into the yard, a thought occurs to him: what if they are the boys who came into the condo? It is a reckless notion, completely unsubstantiated, but just as he thinks it the boys turn and see him in the window, and their expressions seem to confirm it: they are frightened.
He calls out to them, and they scramble to their feet, picking up two red ten-speeds in the driveway. By the time Harlan reaches the yard, they are halfway down the block, standing on their pedals, pumping hard. He calls again but they don’t even turn around.
“Bastards,” he says.
He looks at the flat brown lawn across the street. The condo is a duplicate of Sarah’s, but with the carport on the opposite side. He crosses the street and reads the name on the mailbox — Ng. Vietnamese. He realizes he didn’t suspect the boys because of their ethnicity and wonders what sort of prejudice that is. He rings the doorbell, but no one answers. Through a gap in the blinds he sees a dark living room, a yellow bird flapping in a cage.
He remembers the red-haired woman, Audrey, and considers trying to find her, but what would he say if he did?I know I smell like the insides of a cat, but I may have found some boys who smoked cigarettes in my dead sister’s condominium. What could she do about it anyway? The police know what happened and have taken no interest. Harlan limps back across the street.
In the Cat Den, an orange tabby the size of a beagle stands near the closet, raising its hackles at Harlan and snarling.
“How’d you like to get put in a box?” he asks it.
The cat takes a step forward, its agate eyes on the door.
“If you want to leave, leave,” Harlan says. “You think I care?” He rushes the cat, and it streaks past him into the hallway.
Another cat shoots out from under the bed, and Harlan shoos that one into the hallway, too, then goes to the bed and yanks the bedsprings up with both hands. Cats dart in every direction, an explosion of cats: tabbies and toms, all colors and sizes. They tear the carpet trying to get away. Shuffle-stepping toward the door, he scares them into the living room. “Everybody moves!” he shouts. “Everybody rallies!” He picks up a broom and sweeps the slower ones down the hall.
The front door is open, and a lot of cats have gotten out already. Harlan steps outside and chases them across the yard.
As they vanish under bushes and behind parked cars, he feels better than he has all weekend. He should have thought of this yesterday — just letting the cats fend for themselves. They’ll have a better chance in the wild than they’d have at the pound, and God knows it’s the easiest solution for Harlan. For the first time he feels as if he’ll finish his work and make it back to the hotel room. He’ll shower and have dinner at one of the casinos, maybe plunk a few dollars into the slots. If he wants, he can even book the room for another night. It is a city of fast-changing fortunes, after all. His luck can’t get much worse than it has been.
But as he chases a black cat out of the yard, he sees the two Asian boys round the corner, weaving slowly on their bikes. A girl on roller skates struggles to keep up with them, her blond hair blowing back over her shoulders. Harlan’s first impulse is to duck behind a palm tree and pretend he hasn’t seen them, then slip unseen into the condo once they’re gone. But something — the memory of Sarah’s phone call, maybe, her strained, hysterical voice — swells his chest with anger. He turns and runs as fast as he can in the boys’ direction.
The girl is the first to see him coming. She calls out to the boys, who hit their brakes and try to get the bikes turned around. Harlan goes after the smaller of the two, who manages to pop up onto the curb and rattle over a lawn. When Harlan gets hold of his seat post, the boy scrambles off the bike and runs. Harlan goes after him, ankles burning. He has no plan except to stop the boy, to keep him from getting away. Twenty feet down the road, he reaches out and grabs the boy’s black T-shirt and holds it tight.
“Turn around,” he shouts. “Don’t make me tear this thing.”
The boy turns. His eyes are sharp and insolent. He spits on the pavement and shouts something in Vietnamese.
“Did you go in there?” Harlan asks him. “Did you go into her house?”
The kid jerks his shirttail back and looks up the street. The girl is coming on her skates.
“What’s your problem?” she yells at Harlan, skidding to a stop.
“They went into my sister’s house,” he says. He turns to the boy. “Tell her what you did in there.”
The boy glares at him, his upper lip curling. “Fut you,” he says.
Harlan imagines taking the boy’s skinny neck in his hands and squeezing. The thought sends a thrill through his body.
The rattle of a bike chain comes from behind, and he turns and sees the other boy riding in, a wooden croquet mallet in one hand. It takes a moment for Harlan to understand what’s happening. The boy swoops in, raising the mallet like a polo player, and Harlan has to duck and turn to keep from getting cracked on the skull.
“My God,” he shouts, as the boy pedals away. “You’re crazy!”
The smaller boy is crouched in front of him, fists cocked, eyes flicking around. The boy steps in and tries to kick Harlan in the crotch, and Harlan barely blocks it.
“Stop it!” he shouts. “I mean it.” He searches the boy’s eyes for a hint of understanding.
“Kill him, Tuyen,” the girl says, circling them on her skates. “Karate-chop that fucker.”
Harlan hears the chain again. When he turns this time, he sees Audrey, standing on the dead lawn in front of her condo, her eyes wide. She raises a hand to Harlan, and he waves back. But suddenly the boy is upon him, the mallet coming down. Harlan feels a burst of pain at his temple, and the sky flashes white for an instant. His legs buckle. A breath of wind passes through his hair. The first thing he feels upon waking is the hot pavement beneath his cheek.
He tries to raise his body, but his brain tips like the ball of a compass. He hears Audrey’s heels clacking over the pavement.
“My God,” she says, crouching down beside him. “You’re really hurt, aren’t you?”
“They came into the condo,” he says. “Or I think they did.”
She helps him to a sitting position. The boys are at the end of the block, rounding the corner. Audrey touches the side of his head, where the pain thrums like a heart. With the Strip behind her, she could almost be an angel, her eyes bright, her hair filled with red and gold. Harlan sees Sarah’s condo across the street — the door open, the living room empty. All this really happened, he thinks, amazed. It’s as if he’s understanding it for the first time, as if the pain has taken away his guilt and allowed his grief to finally bloom.
A car is coming. He has to stand, which is no easy task. Audrey helps him to his feet. They take tiny steps across the blacktop.
In her condo, she leads him to a long white couch. The scent of lilies comes from somewhere in the room. The condo is so bright and clean it’s impossible to believe it’s an exact replica of Sarah’s.
‘‘I’ll get something for your cut,” she says, and goes down the hall.
He looks through the front window at Sarah’s, seeing it as Audrey has seen it: the ruined lawn, the naked-looking windows, the dumpster overflowing with Hefty bags. He can remember coming here for the first time thirteen years ago, when the palm in the yard was no taller than he was. It was the day after his wedding. Sarah wanted to take him and Marlene to the Stork Club for their first lunch as newlyweds. She’d come to the wedding in Valentino and pearls and had made a big impression on Marlene, who was meeting her for the first time. Harlan wanted to show his sister off again.
But when he knocked at her door, it was several minutes before she answered, and then she was dressed in a terry-cloth robe and slippers, her hair a wild tangle atop her head. Despite her elaborate excuses about a Mexican alarm clock, Harlan knew she had simply forgotten about the lunch. That was Sarah: capable of throwing a great light on your life, then completely forgetting you. As she got ready in the bedroom — a process that took nearly two hours — Harlan turned to Marlene and said, “Now you’ve really met my sister.” Audrey comes back with a washcloth and first-aid kit. She sits on the couch beside Harlan.
“That was my mallet,” she says, and gives him a wry smile, “I just realized. The thing he hit you with. I must have left it in the yard.” She puts a hand to his cheek. “So this is all my fault.”
“No,” he says.
“Turn your head, now. This might sting.”
It does. On the street, Harlan sees a black cat slink out from under a pickup truck.
‘‘I’d like to catch those cats,” he says, and thinks suddenly of what they’ll go through, surviving for the first time on instincts dulled by years indoors. “They got out. Or I chased them out. I shouldn’t have done that.”
“Hold still,” she says, and continues her painful ministrations.
* * *
As he washes his face with Audrey’s almond-scented hand soap, he’s reminded of how awfulhe must smell — even worse than yesterday, since he’s been working in the Cat Den. A rush of embarrassed gratitude comes over him, because she has given no indication of noticing. He dries his face, then reaches into his pocket for Sarah’s diamond ring. He unravels it from the tissue and sets it on the counter beside a dish filled with potpourri. It feels good to pass on something of Sarah’s, especially after throwing so much away. He imagines it’s what his sister would have wanted him to do.
Audrey rises from the sofa when he comes out. He attempts to smile at her.
‘‘I’m so sorry for the — ” he almost says “smell” but stops himself “ — for everything, really. I must seem like a disaster, crashing into your life on a Saturday.”
“I was very glad to meet you,” she says, her face a perfect balance of gravity and assurance. “It’s too bad you had to get hit over the head with my mallet.”
“And I’m really sorry about Sarah.”
Harlan’s eyes begin to tear. He mumbles his thanks, shakes her hand, and walks out the front door.
Above the cinder-block wall surrounding the complex, the Strip is lighted like a beacon for those desperate enough to follow. He’ll follow it as far as Circus Circus, but only to shower and have a meal. In the morning he’ll fly back to Phoenix. He imagines Audrey finding the ring in the bathroom. Already, it seems an embarrassing gesture, the crazy act of a crazy woman’s brother.
He cleans up quickly, not wanting to be there if she comes to return the ring. There are only a few more loads to haul now, and no cats to impede his progress. The final load is a Hefty bag of stinking throw rugs, and once it is in the dumpster he walks back inside and goes from room to room, looking at the bare walls, checking the closets and cupboards. Here are the rooms where his sister lived, where she was a waitress and a showgirl and a lunatic. He can’t get out of there fast enough.
As he’s locking up, he hears a meow from the kitchen and sees a cat come out, small and gray, with patches of black on its paws. It stares at him — not wildly like the others, but in a timid, curious way. It glances at the open door, then at him.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I think we just have to leave.”
He steps back from the door and lets the cat go through. As it ambles across the grass, it is touched, like everything else, by the glow of the Strip. Harlan steps out, locks the door, and follows it over the lawn.
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