In my pocket the index finger feels like a bent piece of stale licorice across my warm palm. The finger is Thomas’s dead father’s finger, and Thomas and I are in Reno trying not to go broke. I’m wearing the green sharkskin suit I bought this afternoon for $7.82 at the Humane Society thrift store, walking around beneath all these shutter-boarded casinos —the Comstock, the Old Reno, the original Harvey’s—all dead, too, yellowing and dusty and completely out of business, which somehow seems perfect for 1999.
I’m supposed to meet Thomas at the El Dorado poker room by eight—though I can’t remember which day, or which eight, and I can’t find the El Dorado. Last time I saw Thomas was across town at the Hilton. Couple of days ago. He was playing Let It Ride, drinking gin and pineapple juice. I got bored and walked into the spangle-lights and slot song. Thomas yelled after me: “El Dorado, poker room, eight o’clock!” waving me back to the crowded table, leaning in, pressing the finger into my hand and telling me to take it for a while, it was bringing him no luck. He pushed me away, saying go, go.
The streets are painted with gum and oil. The streets stick to my sneakers. Spent keno tickets and broken bottles crowd the gutters. The air is old fruit, warm beer, dry pine. The Sierras loom west.
Amid the dead casinos I land in the West Second Street Bar, feeling frayed and lonely. It’s difficult to be in Reno for a week.
I meet a man named Scotty who buys me a second shot of Jack, which seems the nicest gesture, one full of compassion and possibility because I don’t need the drink, he can probably tell that, but I need the drink, and Scotty, he can tell that, too. I thank him, set the index finger on the bar between us.
Thomas and I have been on the road a month. His father died in Palm Desert, that’s what started us out from Seattle. Thomas hadn’t known his dad well since 1985, not since his mom had her accident, and his father quickly remarried Ginny, a deeply tanned real estate agent who loved golf even more than Thomas’s father did. When Thomas talked to his dad, maybe once a year, it was always a stiff, contrived obligation.
Thomas got the call saying his dad was found dead of a heart attack on July 10th, and though services had already been held, his father had left a few boxes, and maybe a check, for Thomas. It was a real estate agent who called, not the lady his dad had married, but the guy selling his dad’s two-bedroom. Thomas asked me if I wanted to go see where they buried his father, retrieve the boxes, figure out just why no one had called him before the funeral, figure out just what happened to Ginny, etc.
“I’d like to go for a couple of weeks,” Thomas said, seeming low and excited. He had a look on his handsome, freckled face like this was a way we could shirk off some of our ordinary living. We’d been tending bar too long, and sitting in too many dim lounges with pale women, trying to figure how to make our lives memorable.
We sat on our warm concrete front steps smoking cigarettes at dusk. Cars on the Ballard Bridge crept in the distance. Our neighbor mowed his tiny lawn as his young, blonde daughter watched. The blurt of the engine and the silhouetted lurch of traffic were soothing.
I’ve lived in that Seattle house for two years, ever since I moved from Fresno—where Thomas and I grew up—for a girl. Thomas followed me north there a couple months later when that girl left me. It was typical heartbreak, but I loved her, and nothing like that is easily gotten over.
I’d been sad, then angry, then cynical. But it all felt static and desperate by the time Thomas got the call about his dad, and I thought going someplace strange for a strange reason would help.
“I’ll go,” I said, and Thomas patted me on the back.
And it did help, even the thought of going. As the lawnmower cut out and Thomas lit a new cigarette with the last, the scope of my worries faded and our small lives seemed almost big again.
We drove south on I-5 in my Pontiac the next day without paying rent, or quitting our jobs.
The West Second Street Bar is dim, but not dirty, and has a backbar lined with personalized glass mugs. Scotty sits next to me, looking serious and content. Twenty-two men line the bar—elbows atop the burled wood—most of them telling two stories at once. One man is louder than the rest, and Scotty and I turn on our barstools to listen. No music plays—no Johnny Horton, no Hank, no Merle, not even any Zeppelin—which makes it easy to hear the loudest man in the bar telling his two stories about women and troubled love.
The first story is about the very best girl he ever had, a blonde Czech girl he met in Buffalo when he was in Jump School. He and she were part of the military, something he is still very proud of. She was independent. She was wet all the time. She was like dating a spy, but she was on our side, man. She was one of us. That’s how this guy talks.
His second story is about Jim Plunkett, the famous Indian quarterback, the guy who won the Heisman at Stanford back in ’70, who played for New England, then San Francisco, then Oakland, where he won Super Bowls in ’81 and ’84. His story about Plunkett is that Plunkett stole his girlfriend at some long-ago San Francisco party. Plunkett had been loaded, but very suave, and this guy’s girlfriend apparently really loved football. She knew the end around, the wishbone, the quarterback draw, and all about the tight end rolling out into the flat.
This loud guy down the bar, boy, he really hates Plunkett. He keeps saying his name in this low growl—fuck Plunkett, Jim fucking Plunkett, if Plunkett were here right now I’d kick his ass silly. This is getting to me because Plunkett is what we used to call Thomas when we were back at Fresno High. Thomas and I have known each other from our own beginning of time, way back in kindergarten, but up until this guy started telling this Plunkett story I’d just about forgotten we used to call Thomas this.
We called him Plunkett because of a bowl haircut he got in the ninth grade. We all called him the butt-ugliest, the king of the uglies. Thomas’s only comeback was that he didn’t look nearly as ugly as Jim Plunkett, who at the time was my favorite NFL guy.
It’s true that Jim Plunkett is not the very best looking man in the world—pock-faced and wide-nosed—but I’d never thought he was flat ugly. Apparently Thomas did, though, so of course we all started calling him Plunkett. It was funny, a little mean and sad, just like everything back when you’re a kid.
Anyhow, this guy down the bar finally finishes his love story by stating that he slapped his lady around the day after Plunkett had his way with her, told her to suck (pointing down) his cock, and when she wouldn’t, he bent her over and gave her a grudge fuck that no way she’ll ever forget, then sent her out the door to go find “Tonto.”
The other men applaud. The bartender shakes his long skinny head like he’s heard this stupid story five hundred times. The loud man raises his glass, and everyone but Scotty and me drink off the last of their watery booze.
This is a very crude loud man, clearly, but in Reno, Nevada, people like him crouch in every smoky little corner—whether you’re uptown at the Silver Legacy, or way down at the Cal-Neva, or right here at the West Second Street Bar.
I’m not surprised by the way the loud man’s story ended, but it makes me angry, and though I haven’t been in a fist fight since eighth grade, I want right now to pummel this loud man.
The girl who came to live with me in Seattle had once been date-raped by an ex-boyfriend. The shitty, sad way she told me that story early one morning over eggs and oatmeal punches into my tired mind like a fist as this loud man laughs out the last of his messy story. And I want in this moment to undo event and time, to undo this man.
I look down the bar at his spotty beard, his red-rimmed eyes, his Raiders cap, of all things, propped on his mullety head, then I take a deep breath and look at the finger on the bar. I unfocus my eyes, and start humming “Penny Lane” trying to find a calmness, which usually works for me, but I’ve always admired Plunkett, and now admire him even more for once having his way with this loud man’s lady. Plus, I’m thinking hard about Thomas, about our lives together back in ninth grade when both his parents were still alive, when we were just decent, unformed humans, and dirty moments like this one were nothing we could imagine.
I stand and slip the finger back into my pocket, a little wobbly. “Hey,” I say, but not loud. Scotty grabs his drink and walks away.
“Hey!” This time the storytellers turn, looking tired and vaguely surprised. A couple of them murmur insults as someone in the back starts racking a game of pool. “Why you have to be so hard on Jim Plunkett?”
“He’s a prick,” the loud guy says. “You heard the story.”
The bartender looks at me like, don’t start in with this piece-of-shit guy, I’ve tried too many times, and it’s never been worth it. “No troubles,” I say to the bartender. “I understand.”
“He was a hell of a ball player,” I continue.
“What kind of football star has to steal some other man’s pussy by giving her blotter acid and about twenty Tom Collinses?” the loud guy says.
“That is a good question,” I say. “You want me to get him so you can beat his ass silly?” I’m being a little too sarcastic, and the bartender bristles. No one says anything for a long moment.
“I’m not lying about this,” I lie. “I know Plunkett.” I look at myself in the backbar mirror, and in my green suit and knotted blue silk tie I look like the lying sort.
“Where’re you from?” a quieter guy next to the loud guy says.
“Know Plunkett from Stanford?”
“That’s right. My dad’s his friend. We’re all here for the bowling tournament. He’s the guest of honor.” I don’t know where I’m getting this bullshit from.
“Go get him, then,” the quieter guy says, a bunch of the men nodding yes, by all means go get the football star. “I’d absolutely like to meet him.” He seems sincere, all of them do. They believe me. Even the loud man himself.
“All right, then.” I walk past the lineup at the bar, one or two of them patting me on the back like I’m going into a game. “All right, then!” I say again, stopping in front of the loud man.
I look him in his dark eyes. I ball my fist. He holds my stare for a moment, then begins to say another stupid thing, so I hit him in the mouth – a fast, shocking motion that hurts my knuckles and scares me. I run out the front door and down Second Street amid Reno’s dusky eight p.m., the storytelling men yelling “Hey, motherfucker!” behind me.
A blur of gold and red lights smear above downtown. My breath is tight, my tie fluttering up and over my shoulder as I churn the air, imagining real danger, intrigue, noble violence.
Down in Palm Springs we found the index finger in a purple velvet Crown Royal bag. We didn’t find it right away, though it was on top of the one box sitting in the living room of Thomas’s father’s squat, two-bedroom ranch house. The whole place was carpeted and painted the color of a key lime pie, and the white box looked like a lonely pearl, the only thing left.
Bob was the realtor who called Thomas and told him about his father, and when we arrived in Palm Springs, we drove to his office. Bob was a rail-thin, white-haired man who wore blue Sansabelt trousers and a brown-striped La Quinta golf shirt. He was kind, helpful. It was clear he felt bad about the circumstances. Standing in his office above his beige metal desk, Bob told us Ginny had cremated Thomas’s father three days after he died, and that she’d flown to Florida with the ashes a day later. Bob told us there’d been a ceremony at a mausoleum across town, and a small memorial at the golf course. He said she’d be back sometime in the fall to sell the house, and though he didn’t know about the legalities, he felt what Ginny had done was wrong.
Then Bob hugged Thomas, and he shook my hand firm, looking me in the eye. The air conditioning rustled the polyester of his shirt and swept the aroma of Brut over the Naugahyde furniture and wood-paneled walls. Thomas had the serious look in his eyes—just like before he asked Jenny Baxter to the prom in eleventh grade, just like after we saw a boy get hit by a car on Herndon Avenue in seventh grade, just like after those yearly conversations with his father. It was a flat, knowing look where he just stood, frowning slightly, rocking back and forth.
Bob’s radio began a Conway Twitty song. Thomas motioned with his eyes that it was time, and we followed Bob’s Lincoln Continental to the far edge of a beat, patchy golf course in Palm Desert. Bob let us in and pointed out that box that looked like a pearl.
“Can we have a minute, Bob?” Thomas said. The three of us stood, hands in pockets, eyeing the box. It must have been 110 in that living room, everything smelling of wet smoke and carnations.
“Oh, of course, yes,” Bob said. “By all means, yes. I’ll leave you. Meet back at my office. I have that check he left. Twenty-two hundred dollars. I know it’s not much these days, but, well, your father, well, this was about all he ended up with.” He nodded at the box, then we nodded to him, and Bob left through the sliding-glass door.
“Okay,” Thomas said, walking to the box quickly and squatting. “Let’s see what a man leaves his son.”
I had a hard time figuring what to say, but said something like, “I’m sure he meant for things to work out right.” Something too trite, or too heavy, and Thomas shot me a look, and my chest went tight. We’ve never been friends who fought.
Thomas took the box out the back door where the small cement patio and yellowing lawn opened onto the patchy golf course. There was a narrow, half-full swimming pool sunken into the shaded concrete. Three short palm trees leaned above us. The pool looked like an aquamarine bathtub, slightly jaundiced, and it was hard to imagine anyone ever swimming in there.
We sat, dangled our legs over the edge, and began looking through the box. Thomas handed me snapshots from times way back—shots of him and me at baseball camp, of him and Jenny Holdcraft at a junior high dance, of him and his father fishing the American River, his whole family riding a float at the Fourth of July parade. We smiled in sad ways. We remembered how our lives had assembled, and that we were the only people left with those stories to tell.
There was an old baseball and mitt in the box, too, and Thomas held it to his nose, breathed in.
“This was his,” he said. “He always liked to tell me what a player he was.”
“Remember his story about getting a tryout with the Giants?” I slipped the stack of photographs into the webbing of the glove. “He told that one weekly.”
There were four books on how to make it big in real estate, which Thomas threw into the stagnant water of the pool, an old pocket knife, an awl, a plane, a deck of naked pinup-girl playing cards, and five sleeves of plastic poker chips.
“We all did like to play cards, though,” Thomas said, slipping the deck into his breast pocket.
“I remember the backyard seven-stud games.” I lit a cigarette, handed it to Thomas, and lit one for myself.
At the bottom of the box were four cloth-bound journals. I had a hard time imagining Thomas’s father huddled over these pages, writing his worries, longings, even the everyday-life stuff.
Thomas opened one. “Dear Diary,” he read quietly. “Today is Saturday, November 14, 1965. I haven’t written in almost six months. Did you miss me?” He snapped the book shut, shaking his head, smirking.
“We should read them,” I said, pausing, pulling a lungful of smoke. “If you think that’s cool.”
He held the four books at arm’s length in that dry air above the pool, but did not drop them, as I thought he might. Thomas, he wanted to save something, or try to.
“Later,” he said, setting the books on the hot concrete beside the Crown Royal bag and a handful of logoed golf balls and tees. I started flipping poker chips into the yellowing water, where they floated.
Soon he picked up the purple bag, spun it by the golden tie, held it in his lap, turned the bag upside down beside him. A square-folded piece of paper fell to the concrete. The finger followed.
“Holy hell, what is that?” I stood quickly, nearly tipping into the pool. “It’s a finger?”
Thomas picked it up – brown and wrinkled, just crooked – and pointed it toward the golf course where two blue-haired ladies eased by in a cart.
Thomas sat, turning the thing over, saying, “Wow. Perfectly, perfectly wow.”
He picked up the note—a note I’ve read many times this last week—unfolded it, and began to read aloud:
“Son, I hope this small gift has found you. I lost this finger years ago, trying to repair my car. This wasn’t long after I left with Ginny, but I’ve never told you, and maybe you’ll never get this so you’ll never know. I hope that’s not the case. The doctor who stitched me up let me keep this thing, though it’s against the law. He did a fine job, and I likely play better golf now than I ever did with it. I don’t quite know why I wanted to keep the finger, but once I started thinking about it, it seemed right. A nice gift he gave me, or at least that’s the way I think of it.
“Maybe if you ever lose a digit, or a limb, or some little part, you’ll know what I mean. I asked Ginny to cremate me when I go, which lately I’ve been having dreams with my heart giving out after I sink a long birdie putt on the eighteenth hole at Pebble Beach. It’s a scary feeling to think about being gone from this life. Do you ever think about it? I know death is closer than it should be for me. I drink too much, and still smoke like I shouldn’t. If she cremates me this is all that’s left. I cured it so it’ll always look mummified and almost real. Every once in a while, I’ll pull it out and roll it around in the palm of my hand.
“Last night, when I was talking on the phone with you about what Ginny and I did in Key West, I was looking at this thing sitting on my kitchen table. As you were telling me about Seattle and how you and Brendan were getting along way up there, I was deciding that I’d try and give this old finger to you when I went. So, here, a piece of your old man, how about that? Love, Dad.”
We left Palm Springs later that afternoon.
After punching the loud man, I keep running down SecondStreet, cut left toward the Truckee River, stop beside the Comstock, catching my breath and realizing no one is chasing me. I’m sweating bad, but the river is a calm hush, a close presence, and I feel an easy relief, like I’ve gotten away with something big, like in high school when Thomas and I used to shoplift Swatch watches and Polo shirts from Macy’s out at the mall. That feeling when you know you’ve gotten away, when you now own what you’ve stolen, that’s the best.
My chest throbs, and my hand flutters as I light a cigarette and walk, checking over my shoulder every ten steps. I don’t necessarily want the mob giving chase, but I’m a little angry knowing those men are too lazy, or too uninterested, to run down an enemy. Maybe they still think I’m coming back with Plunkett.
I wander toward Virginia Street and sit on a bench made of molded, woodlike plastic. I’m tired even through the coursing adrenalin, and am thinking pretty hard about how it seems that if we can win a little money here with the last of that twenty-two hundred, we can ease back into Seattle with spending cash and an armload of new stories, rest for a while, then maybe head out again.
The moving, that’s what seems important now.
I shut my eyes, and maybe fall asleep for thirty seconds, a minute, thinking how after collecting the twenty-two hundred dollars in Palm Springs, we started driving around, just to see some open land, just meet strangers and make friends, hear stories, look for a kind of warbly truth in tiny Cross Plains, Texas, and Hills, Iowa, and Wells, Nevada. Investigative pushing, driving.
But it can’t really last? Or, maybe? All I know is we’ve been in Reno for a week, with plans for old Seattle home next, one long day’s drive. But plans are nothing, most of the time. I have to find Thomas first.
This, here in Reno, does seem a logical last place—punching hateful men in bars like the West Second Street, stacking chips and father’s fingers on Let It Ride tables at the Hilton, taking power naps on fake-wood benches like this one on Virginia Street. There is a sense of finality about this glassy evening.
I wake with a lurch here on Fourth and Virginia across from the Fitzgerald’s hotel and casino where a very pretty girl is dressed as a leprechaun and handing out slips of green paper, barking at the walkers-by like an old carnival pro: “The luckiest of the lucky places is right through these doors!” “Believe in the Blarney Stone!” “Each of ye get a free luck o’ the Irish pull on the big green slot machine!”
It’s a terrible Irish accent, and she’s too tall to be any sort of leprechaun, but across Virginia she keeps up the chanting, the wooing. She’s good at it, and people follow her words, stepping with hope through the oily Fitzgerald’s doors. I walk across Virginia to stand near her.
“Behold the man in the green suit!” She points. Heavy-set couples and skinny white kids in NBA jerseys slip around us. “This, lucky ladies, is a man to follow!”
I take a step closer, smiling, tightening my tie and reaching into my pocket. I bring out the finger, clutch it. I want to ask her questions. I want her to tell me how to live and what to believe in. She winks and hands me a flyer.
“Question,” I say. “Where is the El Dorado?”
“You don’t want to go there.” Her shoddy accent wanes further.
“I’m supposed to meet a friend,” I say, opening my hand to show her the index finger. “I need to return this.”
“He shouldn’t go far without that,” she says, unflinching, still smiling. “The El Dorado’s a hundred and fifty yards that way, laddie.” She nods up Virginia.
“What’s your name?”
“Gwendolyn,” she says, winking again, handing flyers to ancient men scooting by on Rascals. “Lora-Lee. Tinkerbelle. Ophelia!”
“Come with me?”
She snatches the finger from my palm, pointing it at me. “Tell me one important thing, and maybe . . .”
“This finger belonged to my friend Thomas’s dead father.” I cup my hands. “And, I just punched someone in the face who deserved it. And, we are dressed to match.”
She smiles, handing back the finger. “It’s a lucky day. I’m off in fifteen minutes.”
“A lucky day for Brendan,” I say, putting my hand out. “That’s me.”
“I really do go by Ophelia.” She reaches to shake my red-knuckled, slightly swollen hand.
She asks, “Does it hurt much?” her eyes gray-green and knowing, and I see, in a slow instant, what I hope this girl’s life will be—a high-rise loft in a real city, so many miles from here, where assured and wealthy men will buy her flowers and mink stoles, where she will wear pearl bracelets to martini bars, where she will walk through a city park in autumn with a man in a camel’s-hair coat. Maybe one day I’ll be a man like that, and there’ll be a woman like her on my scope. Maybe today. Maybe forty years from now. Maybe never ever.
“He was insulting Thomas, so…” I say. “That’s who I’m meeting at the El Dorado, Thomas.”
“Justice is done.” She lifts my hand, kissing the veiny backside with her red-lacquered lips. “Wait here,” she says, and walks into Fitzgerald’s.
Ophelia and I find Thomas in the poker room at the El Dorado, sitting behind tall stacks of red and blue chips. He looks at me like, it’s so good to see you again, friend. I wave and Ophelia waves and Thomas waves back. The light is gold above the tables of players crowded shoulder to shoulder, fingering and stacking clay chips, the sound like the click-clack song of cricket wings—soft and easy until you begin to pay attention to the charge and secret volume of it.
I walk to Thomas, and he looks happy as he stands and grips my shoulder.
“I thought we’d finally lost each other,” he says. “Nice suit.”
“Never.” I grab his neck, looking around the poker table, smoothing my lapel and laughing a little too loudly. “When were we at the Hilton?”
“Day and a half ago,” Thomas says. “Let me rack these and we’ll get a drink.”
“You can meet Ophelia.” I point, and she’s smiling tall and so happy, too. “We met in front of the El Dorado. I showed her your dad’s finger.”
“And she followed you?”
“I invited her. That thing’s finally brought some luck.”
“For me, too,” he says, reaching for his chips. “As long as I don’t own it.”
“How much is that?” I say, as Thomas takes the columns of red chips, then blue chips, and lays them neatly in four or five plastic racks. “Five hundred eighty-five dollars?”
“I’m up twelve hundred.”
The others at the table look up in admiration and anger. I suppose it’s their money he’s taken, and that’s got to make you mad, to see the man who’s got your money walk out of the room with his loud, strange friend in a green suit. But still, it’s what they wanted to do to Thomas.
“Who gave us this gas money?” I say, looking around at the strangers in Hawaiian shirts and stained rugby jerseys, strangers in miniskirts and drooping velour blouses. “You,” I say, pointing at them one by one, like I’m counting and figuring out what they’d each contributed to our campaign. “And you gave us motel money, and you gave us drinking money, and you gave us cheeseburger money.”
Thomas puts his hand on top of my head, and I feel a syrupy warmth press through me. He’s saying I’m out of line, which is okay, but it’s time to go. But, fuck them for thinking any sort of low thought about Thomas. Fuck them for believing that the rules of this little game don’t pertain to them.
“Sorry,” I say, as Thomas cashes out. “That was a bit much, but I’m in a fighter’s mindset now.”
“Tell Thomas about the one-punch fight,” Ophelia walks over saying, then turns to Thomas and holds her hand out. “Ophelia.”
“Pleasure,” Thomas says.
Out on the casino’s main floor I tell Thomas about hitting the loud man. Ophelia stands beside us and listens with wonder. Slot machines sing, roulette croupiers tell stories, women march the corridors in sequins to match the bump and flicker of the ceiling lights. Ophelia scratches the back of my neck. The hum of wanting is everywhere.
She asks, “Do you have a room here?”
“We do,” Thomas says, nodding my way. “And so, you still have the finger?”
“Of course,” I say, and go to hand it back to him.
He holds up his hand. “No,” he says, “I’m done with that thing.”
“I don’t want it,” I say, following Thomas down a gauntlet of slot machines.
Ophelia says, “Hey, mind if we meet up in your room, in, like, half an hour? Forty-five?”
“That’s perfect,” I say, and Thomas nods.
“It’s thirty-seven sixteen,” he says. “The tower.”
“Okay, good, I’ve gotta change,” she says, looking toward the blackjack pit. “The pit boss is giving me the eye, like I’m the competition and fuck me for being in here dressed like the Fitz leprechaun.”
“I wish you didn’t have to,” I say.
“The play’s the thing,” she says. “Thirty-seven sixteen. I’ll bring a bottle.”
Thomas nods. “We’ll be waiting.”
Ophelia leans into my neck, kissing me behind the ear, saying too loud in her brogue, “I clean up nice.”
A shiver runs along my neck and arms and middle, and I can only say, “Thank you.” And then she is walking away, quick and happy.
“She likes me,” I say. “Or, something.”
“Something is good. Maybe it’s that you punched a guy?” Thomas says. “That’s good. I think that’s good. It’s hard to remember what that was like.” He slips a twenty into a Jeopardy machine. Electronic bells chime, rattle. Alex Trebek says something about knowledge.
“It hurts your hand.” I squeeze my fist in the air. “That’s one thing.”
Thomas pushes buttons, and the machine trills as lines of purple and orange dart across a screen of numbers, fruits, contestants’ disembodied heads.
“Winner,” Thomas says. “Five ways.” He pushes the cash-out button. “See. That finger’s no good.”
I reach up, smoothing and shaping my hair, then smelling the oil and dust and old dead finger on my palm. I tighten my tie, sweep the lint and ash from the front of my suit coat.
“Remember when we used to call you Plunkett?”
“Jesus, yes.” Thomas holds up the cash-out ticket, kissing it. “Another two hundred.”
“That guy at the bar,” I say, “he was talking shit about Plunkett. I don’t know why it made me so mad.”
“Holy shit, Brendan,” he says. “What time is it?”
“I lost my watch somewhere.”
“There’s a girl in our room,” he says. “Upstairs taking a nap. I told her I’d wake her up before midnight.”
“We do have a room, then?”
“I met her over in the high limit room’s bar,” Thomas said. “She was drinking Old Fashioneds. She’s some kind of nurse. Rather attractive. And she has a friend, but she couldn’t find her friend, so who knows. Jesus, I can’t believe I forgot Holly.”
“You didn’t, though,” I say, as Thomas cashes out the two hundred dollars. “I hope Ophelia comes.”
“She loves you.”
“I know,” I say, happy to hear about the other girl, Holly, and so pleased with this Ophelia turn, too. It’s been a long time since I’ve touched a pretty girl, or any girl.
There was a night three weeks ago in San Francisco when Thomas and I met two beautiful sisters at some Fisherman’s Wharf bar. They were these East Indian women who smelled like a good meal. We took them all around North Beach, trying to buy them whatever they wanted, which was fifteen-dollar martinis, so we could only afford two. But they seemed to understand we were traveling, going as far as we could on very little, and they remained sweet, kind, interested, it seemed, in us, our story. We thought they would take us in. But sometime around midnight we lost them. We were inside this blue-lit bar. Thomas and I wandered through to the other end, getting the lay of the land, and when we turned back, the whole place seemed changed—it was a sports bar, or a wine bar, or a satay bar—and the Indian sisters, they were gone.
In the warm, musky elevator Thomas says, “I think we should do something with his finger.”
“Like a ceremony?” The elevator rises and rises.
“Like, dispose of the evidence.”
Holly stands at the window smoking a cigarette in her black bra and green panties, her skin pink and freshly showered. The air is heavy and soapy, even with the smoke, and she’s laughing into her cell phone and barely turns around when we walk in. But she smiles like good news has arrived, nods her blonde head, pleased. She’s a pretty girl, and a little heavy, nice and round, and I like how it looks on her. My neck and cheeks bloom warm, and I have to turn away.
“Cigarette?” I ask Thomas.
Thomas points to Holly, who’s saying, “Yeah, okay, I understand, sure, I’ll call you later. Take care of him, yes, I’ll be fine, these guys are nice guys.” She holds out a pack of Salems, touches my fingers as I reach for one.
At the window I smoke, looking out at the gold-dotted expanse of Reno. Grids of light lie before the silhouette of the Sierras, and cars roll the same dirty streets I was walking minutes ago. The western light is deep blue in the distance. Holly hangs up and walks to Thomas, kisses him on the forehead, and purrs. I turn back to the window and watch a Cessna silently float the horizon. The menthol smoke tastes nice, and the smell, mingled with Holly’s perfume and the smoky wool and silk of my suit, makes me think of a black-petaled rose.
Thomas comes to my side, introduces Holly. I shake her cool hand, then point out the window. “I was drinking in a bar right there,” I say. “The West Second Street Bar.”
Holly says, “We used to go there, when I was at the university.”
“Get ahold of your friend?” Thomas says, reaching to set his hand on Holly’s bare lower back.
She leans into him, smiles a little distant. “Claire? Her dad got in a fight,” she says. “He’s kind of an asshole, but he pays her way, and I guess he needs her help for a while tonight.”
“I punched a guy in the mouth.” I look over at Thomas, like, could it be the same guy? Thomas shrugs, raises his eyebrows, like, wouldn’t that be fucking crazy, and perfect. “At the West Second Street. People in there are talking shit about Jim Plunkett.”
“Good for you,” Holly says.
Some minutes later Ophelia is standing in the doorway, saying, “Brendan? Thomas?” knuckling the frame.
“Come in, come in,” Holly says. “Water’s fine.”
“I still adore this suit,” Ophelia says, walking straight to me. “And the tie.” She knots it tighter, kisses my cheek.
“It cost me seven dollars and eighty-two cents,” I say, looking this kind-eyed, red-haired Ophelia up and down in her yellow-flowered sundress and orange cowgirl boots. “You’ve changed.”
“Not in my heart.” Ophelia nods toward her chest and holds up a blue bottle of vodka, shaking it like a maraca. “Another bargain. Four bucks at Liquor Den.”
“A four-dollar party,” Thomas says.
“Nothing but the best for my friends.”
Introductions are made between these girls, these pretty strangers, and I’m off strolling down the hall and filling our ice bucket.
And then, we start.
Holly is full of stories, and sitting on the little burgundy couch across from Ophelia and me, she’s still just wearing bra and panties. She crosses her legs and lets her hands dance in the air as she tells us of ex-lovers, traveling to New Zealand, about her father walking across the United States pulling a giant pine cross with a little wheel attached to the long end.
“He was a zealot?” Ophelia asks, her green eyes wide.
“Yes, he was,” Holly says, finding her purse and scooping out a baggie of yellow and blue pills. “He’d set up on the corner of Fourth and Virginia every Saturday night. He had a little pulpit, and he told all the dirty sinners about the perils of the other side.”
“I remember him.” Ophelia nods when Holly offers the pills. “I work at the Fitz. I’m the world’s tallest leprechaun.” She opens the baggie, doles out pills, and we thank Holly as we each wash a couple down.
“She’s a nurse,” I tell Ophelia, who nods like she already knew this.
“He walked,” Thomas says, “to the East Coast?”
“It seems possible to me,” I say. “Once you go, you go.”
“But we’re driving,” he says. “He was carrying a cross.”
“Rolling it,” Holly leans to her waist and lightly bites Thomas’s right big toe. “My dad thought it was a Christ-like sacrifice. But screw that, it was just arrogant.”
“That’s a long walk,” Thomas says.
“All the way to Savannah,” Holly says. “A year and two months.” She pauses, pressing her chin into the top of her chest. “He never made it back here, though. Fell in with some Baptist sect and then he died on a deep-sea fishing boat in Florida. There was a storm. I was in college then. Last time I ever saw him, he was rolling his cross toward the Three Ninety-five, a couple of miles from here. Wearing a yellow jumpsuit, his hair shaved off, and like twenty of his goddamned apostles rode bicycles alongside him.
“We had a funeral for him, even, in Carson City where he’s from, but there was no body. An empty hole, a coffin and everything. I still go visit sometimes.”
I take Ophelia’s hand. She looks sad, and a little confused. We all fall silent, just sit watching the bright shapes of a sit-com on the soundless television. Holly’s story is the type of story that makes you want to admit something, too. I don’t know what I have for her, but Thomas cocks his head and stretches his arms, readying the story of his dad, his mom, the finger, our driving. And it makes me jealous in a certain way.
In this moment I want a story like hers, like Thomas’s, of my own. Just so I can know what it’s like tell it to Ophelia, to Thomas or Holly, here on the thirty-seventh floor, holding Ophelia’s slender hand. But Thomas’s story is a lot my own story, too, and it’s a good one, so that’s going to have to do. Plus, he needs it more than I do, right now and always.
“Want to know why we’re in Reno?” Thomas opens. He stands, and the ice in his drink ticks against his teeth as he finishes the last of his vodka. He spreads his arms, turns his back to us, walks to the window where his narrowed eyes reflect. Smoke hangs above us. Holly’s father rolled a cross thousands of miles. Then drowned. Deep sea fishing.
“My father’s dead, too.” He pauses in a slow way that lets me know he’s going to tell these girls everything. “Last month—or maybe it was fourteen years ago—and we’re trying to turn his money into ours—as an homage, and for gas money.” Thomas has the long look in his eyes.
“We’ve had just a bit of luck,” I say. Holly and Ophelia are quiet, glazed, everything kicking.
Thomas looks at the three of us, his eyes a deep-blue mirror. I feel good and hazy and proud to have Thomas as my friend. He winks at Ophelia, and she winks back.
“I think I want her to have it,” Thomas says, and points to my pocket. “Let’s give it to her.”
I reach in, pull the finger out, and set it on the couch between us.
“What the shit fuck is that?” Holly says, calm, nonplussed.
“His dad’s index finger.” Ophelia points to Thomas.
Thomas clicks his tongue. “I can’t keep it anymore.”
Holly shakes her head, rubs the flushed skin of her upper arm. “Wow-wee,” she says. “What a gift.”
Ophelia turns it over in her blanched palm, the yellow-brown wrinkles a smooth contrast. “Very cool.”
Thomas turns around and leads into the story of Palm Springs—the realtor with the Sansabelt pants, the notebooks we still haven’t read, the lonely eastern drive into the desert, the miles of America. He makes it all sound like a quest-for-truth story, though it’s been clear to both of us from the start that what we’re doing is murkier. The girls sit enraptured, and stoned.
I stand to the side of the room and watch the story unfold across their faces. I wonder about Thomas’s father’s ashes, about Holly’s father’s body, about what might be in those journals. Evidence. I wonder what will happen to Ophelia—the tallest, prettiest Fitzgerald leprechaun in history—and why is she here with me, with us, as the warm, torn-up streets of Reno lie just beyond these smoky windows.
After listening to Thomas, Holly and Ophelia stand to hug him, then me, and both insist we go gambling, let’s keep the luck rolling. So we do, we slip back into the lights and heat of downtown Reno. It’s a fast, blurry mess of laughter, green-apple shots served up in test tubes, money won, and then a little bit more, and by three a.m. we’re eating hamburgers at the Nugget, burgers they deem “Awful Awfuls,” cooked by men with blotchy prison tattoos up their forearms and across their necks.
Back in the room we take on more vodka and pills. Then, Ophelia and I are in the bath and kissing, too tired and high to do much else. Her wet, soapy skin is an egg, a tulip petal.
“This is where I’m supposed to drown.” She lies back into the lukewarm, milky water.
“Not yet,” I say, running wrinkly fingers up her middle.
At dawn Ophelia and I stand wrapped in towels looking out the window. Thomas and Holly sleep, their arms and legs braided peacefully, the television news flickering silently beside their bed. The grid of Reno is gray and small, but the bluing mountains west and south stand grand, bolstering.
“Look at that,” Ophelia says, pointing south into a neighborhood where a thick trail of smoke rises and slips east.
“Some sort of house fire.” I grab the vodka and have one more drink before we sleep, and maybe tomorrow we’ll all four drive the fifteen hours to Seattle. “Or maybe it’s someone’s car.”
“It’s bigger. You can see the trucks,” she says. “Hook and ladder and everything.”
I reach in my suit for cigarettes, and find the finger in there, too. “Catch,” I say, throwing the crooked old piece of Thomas’s father to Ophelia.
She steps aside, but catches it. “You don’t really want to give this to me,” she says. “Thomas needs to keep it.”
“It’s yours,” I say. “He’s done with it.”
“But he won’t be.” She turns back toward the window, tugging at the frame. “I wish these things opened. We could throw this finger out there, try to hit the pool, or all the way to the fire, dispose of the evidence.”
My heart grabs, and I love her, know that I always will. I will never see you again, Ophelia. This is all we have, and that’s okay, that is right.
Ophelia overhands the finger against the window. It thuds, falls to the floor. She picks it up and chucks it again—three, four, five times—as I fill us a rocks glass and ease back to her side. She sets the finger on the sill.
“Do you suppose her dad really walked to the East Coast?” I nod to Holly and Thomas, breathing slowly in unison.
“He did,” Ophelia says, facing me. “I saw him the morning he left. I waved, and he waved back. And look at that.” She points to the television. The morning news camera crew is filming the apartment fire. “That’s our fire.”
We look out the window, and back to the television. The building is engulfed. Most of the fire crew stands watching it burn as the big truck vainly arcs water onto the flaming roof. I don’t feel tired anymore, but know I am. I hand Ophelia the glass, and she steps to our bed, lies down sipping at it. I have my cigarette as thirty-seven floors and miles below, that structure keeps billowing black smoke laced with streaks of steam.
After a minute it’s hard to watch because I don’t want it to end. I feel sad and fractured as the flames diminish, and the building begins to break apart.
I so wish it would catch the whole neighborhood up, burn the houses one by one, keep going and going. If Thomas were watching with me, he’d want that, too. The pushing forward, and so little left behind.
Ophelia squints in my direction, the August sun coming up fully now, and I shut the thick curtains against it, then go lie beside her. She presses the cool, sweaty rocks glass against my neck.
I touch her hip in the silver television light, and as the news shifts to a different story, I reach over her to grab the remote and darken the room.