Vast, empty red crags. There are bombs in the desert, she’d read. She is moving toward the light. Need to be blasted, need heat, to bare skin to scorching. Need to radiate the piled-on pain of 33 years. Need the heat in order to need less, to melt herself down. Fingers on the wheel. Bare basics—money, food, sleep, touch.
The last time they made love, he must have known. As she’d leaned over to put on her creams and take her pill and turn off the lamp, he had trailed his fingers down her spine, traced them from hip to hip and up along her curved side. She felt his eyes on her skin, a rare thing in itself. She had taken her time over the creams, the pill, reaching toward the lamp. Holding this touch, faint with it.
Blink. Don’t think about it.
She’d seen the Las Vegas strip in a movie. It is just as technicolor in real life. The radio plays ‘Be My Baby’ by the Ronettes and she flicks it off because love songs are ice. The lights make sound in her eyes. On one sign: the soprano crescendo of pink. On another, a swooshing fan of green-blue. Everything is tall. The buildings, the cars, waterfalls and feathers. It is orange desert dusk. She does not know where to go. The money has to stretch out until she gets a job. So where is the off-strip, less tall area where the workers live? But she could just pull in here, under this sparkling roof, and let the valet park the car. She could walk into that casino and play the games her father used to play in Brisbane. Swear like him. Drink like him. Another dead man. Don’t think about it. She’s not dressed for the casino, she supposes. She will find a place to sleep and come out in the day and take care of that. She should probably swap out this old Anglia anyway, just in case anyone wants to find her. She feels confident she can disappear, here, change her name. Become tall.
Send a letter to Mother:
Jack is dead. I am staying in America.
Past the strip and there’s a more squat neon sign, buzzing pink: vacancy vacancy vacancy. Pull up in front of the reception. Smooth down the hair around her part. Press lips together to spread any remaining lipstick. Push the door open and it jangles. Smile.
On a notepad in her handbag is a list:
Joan smokes. She buys a packet of cigarettes from the machine in the concrete corridor. Her room is three doors down. She opens the door. An apple-skin tang over something more stale. She will get her suitcase soon. First, she unbuttons her dress and steps out of it—it is hot—and turns the dial on the television. She wriggles up onto the head of the bed in her cream bra, panties, suspenders and stockings, and settles into the pillows. She opens the packet of cigarettes and puts one in her mouth. She has no lighter. She sighs. She holds it there, thinking about the way Jack would hold a cigarette in his mouth. She had shared them with him sometimes, when they’d been drinking and close. She takes the cigarette out of her mouth and sits it in the ashtray on the little fake-marble bedside table. There is a rim of pink on it now, from her lipstick. She puts both hands over her belly, as she has that sensation coming—that inward, sucking black hole, as though she were about to implode. The emptiness makes her gasp. Watch the TV. Bette Davis. Look at the things other women bear on their faces.
One man is as good as another, her mother said.
You can let the feelings develop.There is a little boy staring at her from the booth across. Children always stare.
Her mother was frustrated. Her girl had turned down Reggie and Ben already. You’re getting fussy, her mother said. But there was something she knew inside herself—a certain capacity that wasn’t being filled. And then Jack came along and it was filled, in moments. But filled entirely, in those moments, so there was no going back, no matter what happened around those moments, no matter the moments he lived entirely in his own head. They met at a dance in Brisbane, during the war—American soldiers, Australian women. Or, mainly, girls. Gloves and tulle, sweat. She observed her friend’s lip trembling and thought about the parts of a woman they kept to themselves, looking at the men like pieces of caramel, dancing with them and inhaling whatever was at head height, enjoying the men’s noses in their hair. There was a war on. And the men were in some small position of control over the outcome, or were connected to that control, and that made them powerful—their uniforms; their fit, straight bodies.
Jack’s eyes were a startling pale blue. He smiled confidently, as though he saw her secret parts. Only later would she come to know what it took for him to develop that way of seeming sure about things, and how it was already what she could sense beneath that, what many women could—the vulnerability—that made his eyes seem bluer. Because rarely did you get to look into them.
He was beautiful, a beautiful man. But that’s a kind of power a man can find uncomfortable.
Joan wakes in the motel room and watches the dust motes float across the air. Light is streaming in through the thin blind. Today is a day of tasks. She doesn’t want to get up. But stay here too long and the thoughts will curdle.
Swap the car. Buy a lighter. Find a job.
She gets up and thinks about what dress most befits Joan. Something floral, something fitting. She will wear the red lipstick, curl her hair.
Add to list:
Dye hair. Dark. Joan has dark hair, like Liz Taylor.
The lighter first. Joan would have a cigarette with her coffee. Black, strong coffee.
Once she is dressed she drives to a diner down the road, down the off-strip. She sits in a red booth and orders a black coffee. Black for the empty stomach. They sell her a cheap lighter and she holds the flame to her sober cigarette. Inhaling sends swirls to her head, and she leans back into the leather. She supposes she should eat something.
There is a little boy staring at her from the booth across. Children always stare. She smiles at him and he turns away. She sits back up taller, getting used to the cigarette. She refuses to feel sad every time she sees a child, but something happens to her physically. Ache is too soft a word.
She orders some bacon and toast. She will just eat a bit of it.
Everything is bright and glinting. This butter, the clean table, the child’s hair.
The car salesman is condescending, in that way men are. But Joan knows how to deal with it. She is older than she looks and will have none of it. She doesn’t want something so big anymore, she tells him. And refuses the first three bombs he shows her. Even she, as a woman, can see they are all rust. In the fourth one, the driver’s seat and steering wheel feel right. The view out over the hood feels right. It is more expensive but what else is she going to use the money for?
And she will get a job. She will definitely find a job.
This kind of trust is not something she had in the old life. But when Jack was gone she untwisted. There is no more wondering about what he thinks and feels, what he wants, how they affect each other. There is no worrying left.
In the hair parlor the young woman asks questions, and Joan has to find her voice, and tell the woman that she just arrived, that she is looking for a job.
“What brings you to Vegas?”
“I’d rather not talk about it.”
“Oh, that’s perfectly alright. There are a lot of folks here for all kinds of reasons. Me, I grew up in Nevada. I probably won’t ever leave. Are you English or something?”
“Australian, but I’ve been in America for a while.”
“Well, this color is going to suit your complexion just fine. You’ll see.”
The young woman’s reassuring tone, and the way she looks into Joan’s eyes in the mirror, and those fingertips gentle at her neck. Why is it that women can so readily care for strangers?
“Thank you,” says Joan. Manages a smile.
When the dryer is on it blasts out all noise, which is calming, and she looks out at her new powder blue car. There is a small, unfamiliar tickle of excitement in her belly. Color and heat to start all over.
Joan pushes coins into the slot and each pling satisfies her ears, and the cjunk cjunk grind of the handle as she pulls it down, and then sluck sluck as each row comes into place, revealing cherries and mustard cans and cowboy hats, never completely lined up, but she won’t play for too long; she just wanted to see the inside of a casino. There aren’t many women alone, except working. In the bar, walking around in slippery dresses with trays full of champagne cocktails and old fashioneds, or coins, and she also saw a troupe of showgirls in olive green feather-tails.
Greens. The first many times she saw him he was always in green, in uniform. She remembers that first time she saw the other him, after an Australian soldier made a crack about his hat. They sat by the river afterwards and he was quiet and fuming.In the bright casino, in the day-night nowhere, the four am thoughts are settled somewhere at the base of the spine, and not a bother.
“Do you think it’s too big across here?” he asked her, pulling his uniform out at the sides of his chest.
“No, I think it fits just fine.”
“You’re just saying that to make me feel better.” His eyes were cold and closed-off; his skin almost looked paler, sheened with sweat. She took his hand, to reassure him.
“Those fuckers don’t understand what we’re doing for them, this country.”
She flinched at the swear word, but said, “They’re just intimidated. It’s bravado.”
Then it was like the sun came back up. “Yeah,” he said, “You’re right.”
And he squeezed her hand and smiled and seemed to shake the thoughts out of his head.
“Sorry. Sometimes I get really . . . furious.”
“That’s okay,” she said.
That’s okay. It’s okay. It’ll be okay. I’m here. They’re not out to get you. No one is out to get you. I love you. You’re safe. It’ll be okay.
If she had known that he never would have believed her, or not for long at a time, what would she have done?
Sluck sluck sluck—so close to three cherries, and she draws on her cigarette and waits for the girl to bring her a champagne cocktail.
“Love,” she says, as that’s what Joan calls other women, “How does one get a job around here?”
They still come at four am, the thoughts about Sylvia—the young redhead who’d lived next door to them. Thoughts about how perfectly round her arse looked in those gingham shorts, how he must have been noticing it too. How a man so sensual must notice other women like that, and think about them.
When the door to his room was closed—she thought of it as his room, not the spare room—and it was quiet in there. And she strained to hear but didn’t want to, and sometimes even blocked her ears with her hands to stop herself from straining. When he wasn’t playing his guitar, was he just lying there in his own head? Was he thinking about her? No. Was he thinking about Sylvia, or another woman? Was he touching himself? How often did he touch himself? Such a sensual man must touch his own body. Such a sexual man must take his own pleasure. Especially when, for a whole weekend, he would be apart from her, in that room of his own.
Why, now, does she still think of Sylvia and experience that rush of fury and fear? Because she still cannot ever really know. How does the mind learn to let things go? She twists in the scratchy sheets. It is too light in this room, neon flare. She needs to add to her list: eye mask. What does Joan do with four am thoughts? She reaches for the packet of cigarettes, and the remote. If there is no one here to curl towards, to take comfort with, she needs banal voices, dull cut-outs of people, well-dressed neat people coming in and out of frame.
In the bright casino, in the day-night nowhere, the four am thoughts are settled somewhere at the base of the spine, and not a bother. Daytime is being together and capable. She is upright and strong and sexy in her uniform. She practices her exercises on the floor of her room. The chest and back are taut, the belly dips in at the button, the ankle is elegant after the curve of the calf muscle, leading into red, glittering pumps.
She is attending the floor with May, a redhead with dimples and big teeth. Young but motherly. Showing Joan the ropes. Joan is still getting used to the tray, not tilting or tipping it and spilling the cocktails. The good thing is that no one asks her any questions. They’re all in their flashing-light worlds. They take a moment over the drink to eyeball her figure, then they get back to feeding the slots. She witnesses her first jackpot. A machine makes fireworks and trumpets and her floor manager rushes down into the pit. The winner has his arms lifted as though someone were holding a gun to him. Big rings of blue sweat. Eyebrows to the sky, but silent. Completely speechless. Everyone around him doubles down, feeds harder, faces pinched, backs curved over like shamed dogs.
On her way out of the casino, aching from hips to toes, she hears the doorman say, “Goodnight Miss West.” Halfway across the car park she remembers that “Miss West” is her. She turns back and he is still looking after her, a young black man. She smiles awkwardly in apology and sends half a wave.
He went to the cinema for the newsreels. He read everything coming out about what had happened. He told her all about the Nuremberg trials while she was at the sink, his face haunted and emphatic. All about the gas chambers. About the purses made from humans.
“I don’t want to know,” she said.
“But everyone should know,” he said.
He wanted to think about the faces of people while they were being tortured. She saw the whirring in him, the wanting to understand. So it won’t happen to him? Or so he would never do it to someone else? His eyes were so wide and she thought of him as broken when he was like this. Like a stuck clock. She’d touch him gently, wanting to soothe, but he’d flinch. Madder at her than at the Nazis. Mad at her vulnerability and softness. She never knew what to do. He was so difficult. But you cannot tell a difficult person they are difficult, because the difficulty then turns towards you—that self-protectiveness.
“I am not your enemy,” she wanted to tell him, but instead she asked if he would like a cup of tea.
There is a rich, composed woman at this table, with tight curls. There’s a short man with his cowboy hat tipped back. And a big man with a dark mustache. She’s seen him before. He keeps winning and begins to think Joan is good luck. He presses the sweaty die into her palm. She smiles at him, for the tip.
His suit is a thick material, rich black, a little silken under the lights. His attention is relieving. He isn’t her type—wouldn’t look good in swim shorts—but he has a confident smell about the cheeks and hair, making her want to lean in close.
She walks across the floor to refresh her tray, pausing when she sees two policemen standing in the yellow light of a chandelier. The gamblers are giving them a wide berth. Something goes cold in her stomach. She goes to the furthest side of the bar, away from them. They are looking for someone. Who are they looking for?
Her hands shake a little when she picks up the tray of cocktails. She has to concentrate on the step and wiggle. She glances at them, and is relieved to see them now talking with the casino manager, actually smiling, as he shepherds them toward a door in the wall.
She feels foolish. That was an old life, and all questioning had been tied off.
Just these last couple of steps to the table but she’s gone jelly-like and when the big gambler reaches for a drink she somehow misses putting her foot down correctly and the cocktails topple forward in the tray. Her arms reach around to catch the glasses but that means the liquid and bits of fruit spray out the sides and all over her, too. She stands still, looking down, not sure how to recover. The lights and the laughter and the sounds of the slots, the whir of the wheels, the tuk of the dice—all goes on. A firm hand is at her elbow and she is being steered back down the stairs. He whispers in her ear, “Don’t worry sweetheart, it’ll all be forgotten in about 20 minutes.”
It is the big gambling man. His face is gentle and open. When the bar manager sees her coming the anger in his eyes is only a flicker, and he smiles warmly at her escort.
“It was my fault,” says the gambler.
“Give her the night off.”
The gambler turns to Joan. “You have something other than your uniform, sweetheart?”
“Come join me when you’re cleaned up.”
There is no question in it.
From Joan Smokes by Angela Meyer. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Saraband UK. Copyright © 2019 by Angela Meyer.