Sunday, November 7, 2010

A selection from "Four am at the Emerald City Windsor" by H.F. Gibbard

Four am at the Emerald City Windsor
by H.F. Gibbard

nce upon a time, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz gave a girl named
Dorothy Gale a brick made of solid gold. He meant it to remind
her of the long and winding yellow brick road that she had traveled through the Wonderful Land of Oz.
That was her story, anyway. More likely, she turned a trick for the brick. With a Munchkin, maybe. Either over or under the rainbow. It didn’t much matter when Dotty was in slut mode.
When she got back to Kansas, Dorothy gave the gold brick to her Uncle Henry for safekeeping. Five years later, when she married The Great Cagliostro of Knoxville, Henry re-gifted the brick to the two of them, pretending it had been his all along.
A bribe was what it was. Bert understood that now. Baksheesh, to get him to make an honest woman out of the wiliest whore of Oz.

1:21 a.m.
Bert Lister, formerly known as the Great Cagliostro, walked the thin green carpet of Room 143 of the Emerald City Windsor Hotel, drunk, muttering to himself, trying to forget why he was here. A pungent smell of cigarettes, marijuana, and cheap incense followed him around the dimly-lit room.
It was ten years today that he’d married Dorothy Gale. Their nuptials had taken place at the biggest Unitarian Church in all the Land of Oz. All of Oz had turned out, from the hammer-heads to the flying monkeys. The Wizard himself performed the ceremony. In the centerpiece at their reception had sat Henry’s gold brick, looking like something crapped on the table by an aureate Pegasus.
Now the brick was long gone, long spent. As were all the illusions that went with it.
Bert paced like an animal in a cage, his drunken words mumbled in rhythm with his wobbly footsteps.
“I bet she fucked ‘em all before she met me. Cowardly Lion, with his gigantic cock. Tin Man, Mr. Iron in the Pants. Scarecrow, gave her a rash. Winkie Soldiers, two or three at a time. Maybe even ol’ Witchie-Poo herself.”
Surrender, Dorothy indeed!
Admittedly, it was hard to imagine Dot pleasuring an old biddy like the W.W.W. She liked men too much. She was the only girl Bert had ever screwed who could come three or four times in a row without help. She’d been fun, at first, sure, but then. . .  
He halted and stared over at the cracked emerald mirror above the bedside table. Below it, the numbers on the clock glowed an angry red at him. 1:21. Just over two and a half hours to go.
He resumed pacing, thinking of how it had all gone so wrong. She’d loved him as Cagliostro, thrilled to his feats of might and magic, in bed and out. But then, after they’d married, she’d shown a practical streak. A certain parsimonious attitude she must have inherited from Uncle Henry and his dour grey Kansas ways.
He began muttering again.
“Made me quit the magic biz. Steady employment, she wanted. After that it was shit work. Desk job at a carriage factory. Plastered allatime. They fired my ass. What’d she expect? Then she stopped sleeping with me. Just screwing my friends. And then—”
But he didn’t want to think about what happened then.

1:24 a.m.
 Scraps of memory tumbled around in his wasted brain like blood-soaked rags roiling behind the glass door of a Laundromat dryer. He remembered fleeing their suburban palace, drunk, leaving Dotty sobbing, screaming. He remembered her hand bent weirdly backwards, her bleeding, blood, blood on her face—
He shuddered and moved back along the wall, breathing hard, swallowing heavy, steadying himself by slipping his fingertips along the paneling. The room seemed to sway with his steps, like a ship. The green shade on the bedside lamp cast a ghostly glow onto the battered chest of drawers and the narrow space between the twin beds.

 1:25 a.m.
He was at the back of the room now. His tan jacket hung neatly in the closet on the single hanger provided. The jelled spatter on it made it look like he’d come through a shower of red rain. Gnawing his lip, looking down at his sticky legs, he noticed a similar pattern of still-damp spots on his black jeans.

1:31 a.m.
It was all her fault. He’d had a hard day looking for work, with nothing, nada, no leads even. To feel better he’d stopped at a bar and had a couple of mint juleps to calm his nerves. Just a couple. He’d walked through their front gate, feeling no pain. And then she’d been all over him, riding his ass, about the job, and the money, the booze. . .and their tenth anniversary, where the hell was her friggin’ present?
Now he stood washing his arms with rolled-up sleeves at the sink in the little bathroom in the back of Room 143 of the cheapest fleabag hotel in the Land of Oz. The soap sliver fell to the cracked emerald-tiled floor. He bent to pick it up. He peered down at the soap for a minute, watching it spawn red bubbles that slid languidly onto the floor. The bubbles reflected the fluorescent light from the fixtures flanking the mirror.
The bubbles suddenly struck him funny. He laughed, a hard laugh, nearly without sound.
He stood and gripped the sink, looking over his own muscled forearms, admiring them. Hard brown eyes, bleary and bloodshot, stared back at him from the dirty mirror. The steam and the cracks in the mirror warped his reflection, made it look like a stranger staring back at him.
He twisted his head around, inspecting himself. His face and thick neck were clean but unshaven. He felt a tremor go through him.
No one saw, he whispered to himself.
No one.
The flophouse lobby was poorly lit with garish green neon. He’d been holding the jacket, folded over his arm. And the spots on his pants and shirt just looked like old, dark stains.

1:35 a.m.
Tinny was the real problem.
The Tin Man had warned him after last time, with a theatrical tremor in his hollow, metallic voice: Lay a hand on her again, asshole, and I’ll chop you up into fish food.
This time, though, he had ol’ Metal-Head covered. At least, he hoped he did. She’d call by four, and that would be that.
He’d fled the house too fast to change clothes, jogging toward downtown dodging traffic with his bloody flannel shirt tail hanging out, leaving her screams behind him. He’d checked in and stumbled through the door to number 143 and headed straight for the room phone, an ugly avocado plastic fixture with filmy gray push buttons.
Somehow he’d managed to stab in their home number. Reached automated voice mail. Threw the phone in a rage on the bed. Then picked it up again, after the beep, and bawled out his message into the silent receiver.
Amid the agonized apologies, he’d given her a deadline to call him back. Four o’clock. 
Smart. Now he couldn’t leave the room. Couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t even shower. He had to sit here and wait for her damned call. Until four o’clock. Hours away.
He sat down on the bed again, his head in his hands, sweat seeping down his fingers, rocking autisticaly. For all he knew, the Winkies were there already, at his house, their red flashing lights playing over the for sale sign, over his crumbling driveway. Over the neighbors’ driveways.

1:42 a.m.
On a sudden impulse, he jerked open the drawer to the bedside table. The Gideon Bible lay alone inside, its faded jade cover worn from use.
He wasn’t a religious man. But any port in a storm.
An unexpected warm feeling rose in his chest and forced open his mouth. He was remembering something now, through the boozy haze. Something from his childhood in Knoxville, long before he came to the Miserable Land of Oz.
He remembered the dotted lines on maps in the back of the Bible that traced the progress of the Children of Israel through the Promised Land. He remembered happy little colorful maps in blue and pink and bright yellow thumb-tacked to a bulletin board and ice cream cups with wooden spoons and him singing “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” at the top of his lungs to impress the big-chested high school girl who ran the Vacation Bible School  class. . .
A tear slid down his cheek.
“Oz, you’re such a shithole,” he muttered.
The Gideon Bible fell apart in his hands. The binding had been sliced through, the cover cut away from the pages. He peeled away the cover in a daze. The pages, too, had been cut, hollowed out and removed to form an empty niche in the center of the book.
In the abyss carved into the middle of the Gideon Bible, he found—what? A whiskey flask? No. Something else. Another, smaller book, bound in smart brown leather. As he shook it loose he felt his eyes widen slightly with wonder and fear.
He’d flopped in plenty of cheap hotels before. As a teenager he’d toured with his garage band, Space Ghost. Then later on, he’d done the magic biz. He knew what went on in these places. People gave birth in the rooms, went crazy in them, cheated in them, died in them.
And sometimes they left things behind when they checked out.
The little book’s leather cover felt strangely warm to the touch. He picked it up slowly and held it under the table lamp, turning it over in his hands. The cover was inscribed with a hand-tooled title: “The Magnificent Secret of Oz.”
He opened the book. Inside the front cover, clipped to the first page with a large paper clip, he found a hundred dollar bill. He raised the bill up to the light with both hands. Ben Franklin stared back at him, looking prim and self-satisfied.
Bert let out a whoop. The almighty green dollar was good here in Oz. All the shops took it, at a favorable rate, and you didn’t even have to hit the bank for an exchange.
He shot a squinty glance around to see if there was anyone watching. That was stupid; the room was locked. The night latch and chain were busted, but there was nobody else in here with him. He’d checked already.
He stuffed the bill in his right front pocket, snickering to himself. He shouldn’t be this glad. Not when he was facing jail time. Not when Tinny would probably cut his dick off before he even got to jail. But right now, damn it, he was glad. Lady Luck was back from her long trip to the toilet. He was sure of it.
With the C-note, he could afford another drink while he waited in this overheated hell-hole for Dotty to call. Some of the good stuff, even. He picked up the room phone from the cradle. He’d have to keep it short. 
That guy who checked me in. Come on, come on. . .
He snapped his fingers.
Some Hispanic name. . .Pedro? Pedro?
No. No. Francisco!      
Francisco was still on duty at the front. He agreed to bring him a bottle of absinthe for forty bucks.
“I only have a hundred,” Bert said, “Bring change.”
After he hung up, he wondered if that was so smart, telling Francisco about the hundred. Maybe he’d show up with a pistol and rob him. But you have to trust somebody in this world. And right now, Francisco was it.
A stupid happy grin played over his face. With the sixty he had left, and the hundred overdraft on their checking account, he could catch a balloon out to Wichita, then hop a Greyhound back to Knoxville, where he grew up. Get a fresh start. Still have some cash left for meals and booze.       
He toyed with the idea of leaving right away, as soon as the bottle arrived. Screw Dorothy. Screw four a.m. She’d probably call the Winkies anyway. It was time to trade up, time to write off his ten dismal years with that bitch.

1:50 a.m.
He picked up the little brown book again, ran his thumbs over its fine, high-quality paper, ruffled its gilt edges. On the first page, underneath where the C-note had been, English words in Gothic script stared at him. The print swam under his bleary eyes.
DEAR FRIEND,” the words began,
Please accept this small token of respect as an incentive to continue your journey through the pages of this treatise, which offers the most important of all paths, that which leads to the true desires of your heart.
“Heard that one before,” he muttered.
He’d done it all before, in fact. Started young, just after dad left and mom finished drinking herself to death. Amway, multi-level marketing, telephone soliciting—even some three-card monte before he figured out where his real talents lay.
“I took your cash, okay?” he lectured the book, “But I’m the one in charge here, pal. Not you.”
He punctuated his words by stabbing the book with his index finger. The stabbing felt good.
He turned the page.
The title read: “A Spell for Control of an Inconstant Woman.”
He busted out laughing.
“Oh, you little SOB,” he told the book, shaking it fondly under the lamp, “Oh, you SOB. Control a woman! Yeah, yeah, that’s the ticket.”
Then he stopped laughing. What did “Inconstant” mean, anyway? He didn’t know that word. What if it meant something weird, like the gal was on her period?
He closed the book, feeling wary of it. Then he opened it again and ran an index finger over the words of the spell. They were Latin words. He could tell that much. He mouthed a few syllables, massacring the ancient language.
He tried to flip to the next page. The book wouldn’t let him. Its remaining pages stuck together now like they were glued. He felt a chill rise up his spine.
Maybe he should throw the book in the trash right now, get rid of it. He’d read all those stories as a kid, stories of monkey’s paws and magic lamps and deals with the devil that never quite turned out like you’d planned...
But the book had just given him the hundred. A hundred in cold, hard cash, and not just some empty promise. That was more than the devil usually fronted you, in those stories.
So he would read the spell. Out loud, but backwards. No, not backwards. Every other line, the odd ones, then back to the even ones. No, no, all the words, but chopped up. Like a sobriety test. That way, it might still work. But if there were any funny hoodoo associated with it, he’d have broken it up.
It had to work.
You still got it, pal.
That’s what he told himself.
He read the spell, out loud, chopped up like he‘d planned.
Nothing happened.
Nothing, except a wave of fatigue crashed over him. He tried to stay awake, to keep his eyes open, but his limbs suddenly felt like lead. He couldn’t sit up any more. He felt himself collapse into the bed.
The last thing he saw was the words inscribed on a dusty brass plaque at the head of the bed.


Then he was falling, falling. . .