4. “The Broad”

 

 

 

 

“She’s some kind of broad. Look at her. Bobbing and weaving. Dancing down the stairs like a prize fighter. Like a goddamn prize fighter.” Thin lips in a gargoyle smile, Clete drummed his fingers on the podium pleased with life. Who would have thought he’d snag a broad like Camille. At his age. If you keep playing, odds are sooner or later you’ll score. But this was somethin’ else. I could fuck that sweet little ass from here to Singapore and back and never get tired. His grin widened. “Ever hear of Jackie O’Donovan? Hangs out in Frisco. Featherweight contender. Flashy left jab. She moves like him. Look at that. Ducking and dodging. No one lays a glove on her. Jesus!”

Tony flicked a dry gaze toward a mirrored pillar. “Yeah, Clete. She’s somethin’ alright.”

Camille’s chaste black and white splintered, suffered the restless horde careering around the mirrored room to rim walls, girdle floor-to-ceiling beams, jangly diamond pendants dropping discordant flashes. Not to his taste. Too scrawny. Nothing to hold on to. But Clete always had a hard on for smarts. To each his own.

Sidestepping her way through the onslaught of Adam’s apples surging upward, slashing mouths, painted eyes topping lamé blouses, Camille sized up the action in the pit. A slow night. Low-rent players parceling out pitiful stores a dollar at a time, worrying their bets till time to board the bus. Not a gambler in sight. Brittle Marian spewed out cards to a table of squawky Rotarians. Hunched over the keno counter, chubby hand clutching a stub of pencil, Vince figuring the swing shift payoffs glanced up and nodded. He’s in love with me. Nice guy. Finishes last. But like Marian says, at least he finishes. Three crap dealers, heads down, asses up, raking in chips, indistinguishable except for Tom, Filipino, maybe, a marker in unsunned pallor. Tahoe! What a waste. Not a dealer on the beach.

She slipped past a barricade of arced gaming tables penetrating the composure of the pit, oval sacristy in the middle of bedlam, coolly aloof from the marks three-deep breasting the other side. Beelining for Clete, a jerk of Tony’s thumb halted her midway.

“Take her out. She’s done enough damage for one night.”

“Margo have a headache last night, Tony?”

“Don’t I got enough problems? Take her out.”

Plenty of silver dollars in Marian’s tray, tragically short on blue checks, fewer reds and a gargantuan bite out of the white. Quite a run. She sauntered over, cocking her hip against the table, ignoring the bottoms squirming on faux leather stools.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. They’re coming out of the woodwork.” She shook her smooth bob in mock despair. “Did you hear Jay crossed to the other side? Moved in with Bill. They were pushing a cart at the “Q” this afternoon.”

Marian leaned close. “I always said he was the perfect asshole.”

Camille laughed. “I’m witness to that.”

A moan went up as Marian hit her jack and trey with an eight and sent checks clattering into the tray.

“It’s about fucking time.” She did a quick spread of the cards. “Watch that little bastard on third. Thinks he’s a thief.” A surly brush of the palms and she stalked out of the pit, slowing to glare at Tony in passing.

The tautness carrying Camille down the steps drained away. Dealing soothed her. It was one of those times she was happiest. Without effort, without thought she gave herself to the game. A time of lightness in a run-a-way life, thoughtless, incomplete, heady with fugitive power. Clete taught her to deal, steal, if she wanted. It’s a ballet, he’d say. You’re not swimming. Keep your arms at your sides. Don’t throw the cards. That’s it. Clete born on a crap table, knowing every trick of the trade, brought the love of an artist to the game. Think tutus, think long-legged girls. Her neck drooped in reply, hands gliding toward fanned cards, sweeping them up with soft, sculptured fingers, cradling them tenderly for an instant, flicking the thin wafers out into the world, an artless flow fringing the table’s half-moon. The tension of Marian’s machine-gun delivery dissolved as the marks bent to the game.

Raking in the checks, Camille leaned forward sympathetically. “You’ve had a bad run. Another drink to ease the pain? Doris, can you find another Seagrams for Jim?” Jim, fellow conspirator, pushed a stack of checks toward Camille’s toke pile.

Glamorous night drifted out the door. Sadness shrouded in cigarette smoke and the sour spoor of whiskey piggybacked in on the gray light of day. The crowd thinned. Those left behind slumped between sleep and drunkenness. Releasing the dice with a weary twist of his wrist a nomadic high-roller querulously sought to recoup the night’s losses. Jangling slots muffled the silence. A squad of replacements charged the pit, all starch and chatter, scattering the midnight shift, bringing fresh hope to the stragglers.

Reaching one hand behind her back, Camille pressed the clasp of the short red apron, folded it neatly and laid it beside her on the bar. “Brandy and coffee, please,” she yawned to Pete.

“Little action over on five, huh?”

“Wee flare-up.”

“How much did he get away with?”

“Couple thousand.”

“That’s what I figured.”

Camille leaned on the bar, head in hands, listening to Marian pick over the bones of the night’s customers.

“Did you catch that little sonofabitch giving out to Candy? They ought to start a class for losers.”

“Haven’t got a room big enough.” Camille finished her drink, slid a dollar into the trough. “Listen, babe, I gotta go.”

“Come on, Camille, one more.” Marian plunked down a handful of checks.

“Can’t do it. I’m going down the hill, gotta be there by nine.”

“You off tonight?”

Camille nodded. “Ciao.”

 

Maneuvering out the casino lot, Camille sang softly to herself, turned right toward Reno with the picture of the old woman rocking blotting out the road, rifle across her knees, the preacher on horseback circling the cabin. Low baritone unbroken, old hymn menacing, “Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arm,” her clear contralto harmonizing. Mitchum’s best film. It was a private prank, a Mitchum steal, singing the hymn. Listeners found her religious streak touching. Truth was she believed the whole thing a scam, an easy way to grab the gold ring. Not that it mattered. Who cared if life was God’s little prank or Darwin’s plotted cruelty, it was all the same in the end, and there wasn’t a damn thing anyone could do about it.

She cranked down the windows breathing in the perfume rising from sun-warmed pine needles, evocative as incense. Curving around the lake holding tight to the sky, past the mist-covered pond at the summit to a sudden descent, she spiraled out of the mountain cathedral onto a flat desert of pungent sage arriving at the motel well before nine o’clock.

No baby blue Chrysler. Well, where the hell was he? Camille stared across the blacktopped abyss in fleeting panic. Corralling her legs, she ambled toward the motel coffee shop. In an air-conditioned chill, she gulped water from a sweating glass, ordering the first thing that came to mind. “A side of ham, please. With whole-wheat toast. Thanks.” I can get through this as long as someone else serves me breakfast. Beneath her breath she hummed, pausing to smile at the waitress placing a heavy crockery plate on the paper mat scored with Nevada highways. She chewed slowly, the tasteless bites moved along by draughts of honeyed tea, earnestly requesting more hot water, boiling, please. The lone waitress shuttled uncomplainingly back and forth. Dealers knew how to toke.

Gargoyle grin gone, lean Okie face scowling with worry, Clete pushed through the heavy glass door a few minutes after nine with the Sacramento couple not far behind. They were a foursome in high school, Ace and Connie, Clete and his girl. Clete was a gambler, but Ace ached to be a doctor. What with one thing and another, no money, seat of your pants schools, the kids, he never made it to college. So he settled on an ancillary pursuit, and Connie always said he brought more ease to the world than a gaggle of high priced pill pushers. The three of them kept in touch after Clete and his wife split, their allegiance to the ‘Niners as the only genuine West Coast team a serviceable religion. To their surprise through all the years Clete never called on them professionally, and now that he had they responded by sprinkling a hint of gravitas over an habitual cheerfulness.

Connie hugged Camille not waiting for an introduction. Turning to Ace gently stroking Camille’s hands, Connie murmured in her sweet down home voice, “Isn’t she pretty, Ace? You know how to pick ‘em, Clete.” Ace nodded a slow sympathy while privately approaching the situation with bemused tolerance. He chided Clete when they had a second to themselves, grinning to soften his words. “You’re too old for this sort of thing, Clete. She is a lovely little bit, though.”

The three old friends shot the breeze, dissecting divorces, bemoaned recent deaths, drank coffee to steady Clete’s nerves, smilingly including Camille in the chatter. She sat, not listening, resolutely untroubled, humming under her breath, dark hair a gossamer halo. Clete paid the check, and the four walked into the sizzling heat, sunlight blinding off molded chrome, tar softening under foot. Camille studied the outlines of the block building, sharp and clear as the alpine village which sprang to life when as a child she raised the cover of a pop-up book her father gave her. The remembered gift was mocked as her gaze shifted to the motel’s peeling stucco facade, brightly colored doors, faded, a tawdry mix of gaiety and decay, slyly beckoning. Reflected ripples of the Truckee grabbed the minimalist lines of the police station across the street, morphing the iron bars into a dense spider’s web. Am I going crazy? I doubt it. She shook her head violently, lowering her eyelids to thwart the trickery of fear only to see the black and white of her skirt and blouse merge and mutate into grotesque prisoner’s stripes, Clete’s narrow shadow blotting out shafts of streaming sunlight, black, white, black, white.

Clete resisted the impulse to lift Camille and carry her across the threshold, his bride, his love at last found, stepping aside, instead, with a flourish for Camille’s entrance through the chalky door. He felt a shiver as he put his arm around her, ambushed, but she stood docilely as Ace and Connie sized up the tattered suite. Before he could protest, they detached Camille from his girdling arm and led her into the bedroom leaving him to fiddle with the controls of the television set.

Firmly shutting the door behind them, the two briskly constructed a makeshift operating room. Ace unpacked the Magnin shopping bag, laying out an assortment of instruments on the bureau, wiping the top with an alcohol-soaked towel, covering it chastely with a second. Connie held Camille’s hand, guiding her to a bed swaddled in a thick latex sheet. Ace stroked her hair as he explained what would be happening in a tender, grandfatherly way. An enamel pan bubbled on the electric hot plate ready to sterilize the cupped and curved instruments Connie arranged on the white cloth. Connie held up a tiny blue insertion tube. “Just a little air to help the drugs along,” she leaned over pressing her cheek against Camille’s. “It is really simple. A few cramps. Not for long. Nothing to worry about. All you have to do for now is lie still. We’ll take care of everything.”

Camille couldn’t even do that. The body trembled. The knees jerked. She clenched her jaw, turned her hands into impotent fists, willed her body to rigidity. Humiliated, she didn’t know what else to do so she laughed. “I can’t do it.” Connie put her arms around her pressing Camille to her breast. “It’s not your fault, darling. It’s the bed. It’s too soft, Ace. We have to find a firm surface.”

They discussed alternatives. The floor was impossible. They would have to work on their knees. The bathtub could force them into all sorts of comical contortions. The bureau was too small. They settled on the long low coffee table in the sitting room.

Clete looked up from the Giants’ game, startled, absolved, when Camille walked unsteadily into the room. “Over?” His eyelids sagged with relief.

“No,” Ace said unperturbed. “We’re gonna’ trade places. There’s a set in the bedroom. What’s the score?”

“Who the hell cares?” Clete reached for Camille.

Connie gave him a loving shove. “Out, Clete.”

Flushed and sweating, Camille lay on the table’s Formica top rudely camouflaged by Ace’s latex cloth. Ace and Connie were right. The hard surface steadied her. She closed her eyes.

As Ace worked, Connie petted Camille murmuring words of endearment. “It’s a very, very simple procedure, darling. You and Clete could have done it yourselves, but Clete wanted the best for you, and here we are.”

Ace held up the tiny blue tube. “Electricians call these babies spaghetti. They come in all sizes and colors.” He shook his head at the fortuitousness of the discovery, jabbing the coated wire in a bottle of alcohol. “Germs not allowed at this party.” He instructed Camille on her part. “Remember. No pushing on the pelvis. This is your part of the exercise. The trick is to avoid expulsion. This little blue job has to stay in place until the aborting begins. Might start in an hour. Might take four or five. If it is longer than that, have Clete give us a call. We’ll be back in a flash.”

As he inserted the tube into her cervix, Camille felt a stab, brief and sharp. A look of satisfaction spread over Ace’s earnest features.

“Done.” He turned from Camille and called Clete.

 

In the parking lot, Ace shook Clete’s hand, Connie kissed Camille.

“Be sure to look us up if you’re ever in the valley,” urged Connie. “We never see any of the old crowd. It’s all kids now. They’re fine, but tougher than we ever were. Don’t really care for one another.” She shook her head apologetically. “Pay no attention, Camille. I start talking, I can’t shut up.”

“Don’t worry, now.” Ace looked hard at Camille. “Everything is going to be okay.”

Clete patted the seat next to him hurrying Camille along.

“How do you feel?”

“Great.”

“You really feel okay? You want a drink?”

“No. I want to go home.”

“Nope. You can’t drive up the hill. I kept the room for the night. We’ll stay here. You look terrible. Do you want something to eat?”

“No.”

“Listen. We’ll get a drink. You look awful, honey.” He slipped into a parking space in front of the Two by Four.

Nick greeted Clete with a conspiratorial mutter as they entered. “Did you see those goddamn Giants? Threw it away, just threw the goddamn game away. If I mixed drinks the way they play ball . . .,” his voice trailed off.

He poured a Scotch for Clete, a coffee and brandy for Camille. No one else at the bar. That distinctive morning after smell, sweetly antiseptic, undisturbed since the cleaning man swabbed up, made Camille want to throw up. They were the first customers of the day.

Camille inspected the tiny room holding her drink in both hands. Hadn’t changed since last week. A pile of cellophane-wrapped sandwiches leaned against the shiny microwave. Salt and pepper shakers stood next to the bowl of hard-boiled eggs. Bottles of exotic liqueurs mixed with cheap whiskies on the back bar. Bare walls. No dusty deer antlers or autographed picture of Frank Sinatra. The Two by Four changed hands so often an owner never had time to express himself. Maybe, we’re not just the first, maybe, we’re the only customers. Camille began to giggle. Careful, babe, she cautioned herself. Gotta watch that.

The talk between the two men droned on.

“Did you see the new girls Rico added to his stable?” Nick smirked at Clete.

Clete acknowledged he had. “The dark one is some tomata. I asked her what she was doing at Mustang, and she said, ‘I just love the work, Daddy.’”

“Hey. If I was a broad, I’d do it. Do it all night and get paid for it,” the bartender whistled.

Camille rubbed her finger around the lip of the glass.

Clete, uneasy, stood up. “Catch ya’ later.”

“I think I’ll go back to the motel and lie down awhile.”

“Shall I stay?” “No. I want to go to sleep.”

“Okay, honey. I’ll call you before I drive up the hill. See if you need anything. You might want to see me.” Clete was dangling between relief and guilt. Tony had talked him into 18 holes that afternoon. He didn’t feel much like playing, but he wasn’t going to just sit around, he’d had enough of that.

He touched her cheek with a modest kiss, stopped to look back. “You’re sure I can’t do anything?”

“No. I’m fine.”

Alone, Camille conducted a minute inspection of her hands. Splotchy, a red Rorschach test. Icy cold. She held the palms against her head. Didn’t help. Her insides were being axed apart. What if I die? Don’t get melodramatic on me. Connie said it would be all right. You gotta trust somebody. She drew the blinds and curled up, slow and deliberate. The cramping roiled back on itself. Warm wet blood trickled as bitter vomit reached her throat. She made it to the bathroom, lay face down on the cold tiles trying to lift her body out of itself, trying to relieve the pressure of one organ against another. The effort was like a bludgeon to her head, and she wept. Blood gushed between her legs, spread itself in sticky rivulets over her thighs, became trapped in tiny pools behind her knees, splashed over the floor, cascaded along her buttocks, eddied around her toes.

When she came to she was scaled with drying blood, but the pain had subsided. Crouching to keep her balance, she climbed into the tub holding tight to the towel rack. She pulled the shower lever forgetting to adjust the temperature knob. As the hot water filled the room with steam, she studied the distance between her arm and the faucet handle calculating the effort needed to add cold water. Hopeless. Stoic in the stinging spray, she impassively watched the red torrent drain away, thick and slow. She dried with care, pushed back strings of hair, crumpled as dead on the stained sheets.

The ring of the telephone brought her back to life. It was Clete at the clubhouse.

“Honey. You okay? Can I come by? Should I call Alex? ” He didn’t know how to ask her if it was over. It was a joke, somebody knocked up. What the hell was he supposed to say?

“Yeah. I’m okay. You woke me.” She was groggy and angry. Why was he calling? Why didn’t he leave her alone? She hated the thought of their being together. It made her sick in the mind.

“Listen, baby. You all right?”

“Yeah, I’m okay. I’m tired Clete. I gotta get some sleep.”

“You don’t want me to come by? You’re sure you don’t need anything. I love you, honey, I worry about you.”

“I’m fine, Clete. Don’t worry. I’ll see you at the club.”

 

Marian saw Camille in the mirror, turned, looked again. They were in the dressing room, Marian cleaning her teeth, Camille dabbing ‘Galway Rose’ along her cheekbones.

“Where the hell have you been? That must have been some night off. You look like you were turned every way but loose.” Marian’s eyes narrowed, examining the dark welts under Camille’s eyes.

“Jesus, Marian, leave me alone. Everyone’s entitled to a little fun.” Camille leaned into the mirror, fingertips smudging the blush toward the outer corner of her eye, humming softly .

 

No responses yet

Leave a Reply