My reasons for becoming a romance novelist are many. Here are just a few I can readily identify: I have a romantic soul, I love love, I adore happy endings, and I really like lighting the fuse that leads to total combustion.
Occasionally, my writing will take a darker turn. It makes sense if you think about it. We can't always walk in the light. Every day has a sunset that leads to full on darkness. Every so often this mind of mine will conceive of a dark scenario or a black-hearted villain. I don't know where they come from. Maybe walking a dark path for a time is a pressure release of some sort. Perhaps if I didn't write it out I'd turn into a Professor Moriarty myself. lol
My first villain came fully formed and sprung from my head like Athena from Zeus. To be honest, he surprised me. I instantly named him Adrian Doyle because I like hiding personality hints in character names. Adrian and Doyle both mean black. One day, when my as-yet-unnamed 5-book magnum opus is done, I'm hoping Adrian Doyle will take his place beside Diana Gabaldon's tragic and repugnant Black Jack Randall as a villain of note.
So, I write in the light with love and romance and write in the dark with black-hearted villains and dark scenarios. I also write in the gray area of fiction. Rod Serling would call this the Twilight Zone. Today, I'm posting a short story from the twixt and tween. In comments, I'd love to know what you think about my walk in the twilight zone. I hope you enjoy.
What Happens in Vegas...
The auctioneer unlocked the storage unit and looked inside -- nothing but paper bags stuffed with old clothes and an old ratty suitcase. Thinking he’d be lucky to get a single bid out of this crap, he pulled the door wide then turned to the hopeful bidders. The day’s big spenders blew their nut on the last two lockers. This small crowd remaining hoped for one last chance to win something without big money bidding against them. He said, “Here we have the last unit for today. Take a look. Single file so everyone has a chance to see.”
Four disgruntled people turned and left. He expected that. His first glance said there wasn’t anything worth sticking around for. Three bidders remained. Some people didn’t like to go home empty handed, regardless. Deciding to start the bid at $25, he said, “Alrighty, we got bags of clothes and a suitcase. Who’ll give me $25?”
No bids. He tried again, “Who’ll open the bid with a sawbuck? Gotta ten here, who’ll give me fifteen, fifteen for the lot. What a deal. Fifteen for those bags and that mysterious suitcase… fifteen?” Two bidders walked away. Before the last guy left, he said quickly, “Sold to this gentleman for $10.”
His balance made worse by his withered polio leg, Phil Hadley struggled to get his wire shopping cart through the door of the Second Chances Resale Shoppe. Mariel Ludlow hurried to help him. Catching an unpleasant whiff from his cart, the shop owner frowned. “Oh Phil, what did you bring?”
Tipping his head to his winnings, he said, “A storage place over on Main Street had an auction for their unpaid units-- some good things, I think, Mrs. Ludlow. There’s a suit coat and trousers to match, and—”
She cut him off. “Don’t you smell the mildew and mothballs? I can’t sell garbage, Phil.” With two fingers, she plucked a shirt from the top and examined it. A musty chemical stink filled the air and made her choke. Dropping it back on the pile, she told him matter-of-factly, “No. I don’t want any of it. Take it out before a customer comes in and thinks everything reeks like this.”
He nodded. “Right away, Mrs. Ludlow. I’m so sorry.” His weakly pulled the cart around and left as he came.
Mariel watched man and cart move slowly down the street. Phil Hadley had been in a bad way since the economy went to hell and the call center he worked for skipped town. She felt bad for the less able-bodied with jobs being hard to come by like they were. You’d think a rich town like Las Vegas would have work for everyone, but everywhere you looked, people were down and out. She went to wash the stink from her hands. What was he thinking? Few people would spend good money on outdated clothing; and those who would, certainly wouldn’t buy clothes that smelled like dry rot and mothballs.
Phil held tight to the iron railing for each crooked step leading to his basement apartment. The cart went bump bump bump down the concrete stairs. Inside, he locked the door behind him and set a half-full teakettle on the hotplate to start his dinner.
He held the shirt to his nose as the shopkeeper had. She was right. It smelled like a cross between a musty old basement and an attic full of mothballs. He’d had such high hopes for a return on his big investment but now he felt stupid for spending ten dollars he couldn’t afford to waste. Everything would need to be cleaned before he tried to sell them. But what if there wasn’t anything here worth spending his few quarters at the Wash-n-Dry?
The high-pitched whistle of the kettle echoed in the small sparsely-furnished room. He went to the sink and washed his hands and face for dinner, then fixed himself a bowl of ramen noodles. He hadn’t eaten anything else in a week. Thank god for twenty cent noodles, even if the broth was far too salty.
An hour later Phil had all the clothes sorted. He wasn’t a fashion expert by any means, but these things looked tailored and not store bought. Unfortunately most appeared to be dry-clean-only clothes and he didn’t have money for that. Hoping the old smell would dissipate, he opened the window and laid the clothes over every surface that would hold them. He hung the suit jacket on the back of the door. Feeling a small hard lump in the pocket, he dug in and found a Golden Nugget Casino matchbook from 1954, and a chip worth $25. He turned the token over in his hand, wondering if it still had cash value all these years later.
He opened the suitcase and found three hand-painted silk neckties and a pair of never worn wing-tip dress shoes. He chuckled, “Whoever you were, buddy, you had style.”
The muscles in his polio leg ached from the heavy double-soled shoe that made both legs the same length. Phil yawned. Feeling a little encouraged by his vintage ties and $25 token, he got undressed and took himself to bed. Tomorrow he’d go to the casino.
It was mid-afternoon when Phil woke surprised to discover just how long he had overslept. On the way to the bathroom, he detected a heavy tobacco odor on the vintage jacket. He sniffed it. No longer reeking of mothballs and mildew, it now smelled like a smoky bar. He shrugged. It must have picked up layers of odors in the last fifty years.
He didn’t have much of an appetite for ramen but ate it anyway while he counted out his coins. If he spent them on bus fare to the Strip, he wouldn’t have enough to get the clothes clean. He imagined the long route he’d have to walk. Five miles there, five miles back. It wasn’t going to be easy dragging his weaker leg along. While there was no guarantee the Golden Nugget would cash his $25 chip, he was bolstered by the possibility it would all go well. The inexpensive all-you-could-eat buffets of Vegas came to mind. He wouldn’t do a buffet. He’d go to that foot-long hotdog stand. For just a buck, he’d have one of those jumbo hotdogs. He smiled thinking about it. He might get two.
When Phil discovered the casino chip missing, he was frantic. The matchbook was there but the token was nowhere to be found. He went through the pockets of the shirts and pants and rummaged through everything in the trunk. He even got down on the floor to look under the bed and the old refrigerator. Phil wracked his brain for where the precious token might be and came up empty. Frustrated tears followed. How could one life be so unlucky?
His muscles ached in the full week it took to get the job done, but Phil stayed in his little apartment hand-washing the vintage clothing until all of it was as clean as the bar of Ivory soap in the sink could get them. Day by day, he discovered his sleeping habits had changed. He also lost his taste for ramen noodles. He knew he needed to eat, but he just wasn’t hungry. He blamed his sleep changes and lack of appetite on the stress of living hand to mouth. His rent was coming due.
Phil carefully folded his hand-painted ties with their painted palm trees and hula dancer facing outward so they’d look their best. Hopefully Mrs. Ludlow would buy them.
“Hello, Mrs. Ludlow.” Phil greeted.
Flipping the window sign over to Closed, she told him at the door, “I’m closing up, Phil.”
Sensing she didn’t want to let him in, his words came out in a rush, “Please take a minute to look at my ties. I just have three.” He tempted, “They’re hand-painted silk.”
Reluctance written on her face, she stepped aside, “Alright. Let’s see them.”
He laid the ties out on the counter. “I have two with palm trees and this one, this one has a hula dancer on it.” He smiled at her hopefully.
The shopkeeper scrutinized the neckties. “I’ll take the hula dancer, it’s still in decent condition. But see here,” she ran a finger over the other ties at their widest points, “the paintings are too worn, probably from tie clips. The same wear is on the hula dancer, but the green silk blends in with the grass skirt. See?”
Phil swallowed. He did see. Why hadn’t he noticed this at home? “Would you take that one?”
“I’d give more for a perfect vintage tie.”
“For this, $7.”
He let out the breath he’d been holding. Seven dollars were better than nothing. His throat got tight. Unable to speak without his voice cracking, he nodded again.
Mariel Ludlow took seven ones from her purse and handed them over. “Here you go.”
Clearing his throat, Phil thanked her.
Mariel locked the door and watched Phil walk away. Something was different. He looked healthier than usual, not so gaunt. She knew the polio he had as a child left him with overall weakness and that shorter leg. But seeing him today, she’d never guess he had such an affliction.
Phil sat, head bowed over the fan of eleven one dollar bills in his hand. In the last three days, he’d peddled his vintage shirts to the handful of consignment stores in the city and only sold two. His rent was due tomorrow. Mr. Kranich had been generous in letting him do odd jobs in exchange for last month’s rent, but the man was adamant it wouldn’t happen again. Phil sighed. The rent was $100. Counting his change, the sum of his wealth was $14.48.
A single word echoed in his mind –Suicide. The thought made him pause. Why not? He had no one and nothing to live for and he was tired of living this life –tired of the futility of it all.
Scanning the ductwork and pipes in the ceiling for the sturdiest place to hang from, he noticed the suit jacket hanging on the back of the door. With death on his mind, he decided to wear his vintage clothes for this final event. To his great surprise, the trousers and shirt fit him perfectly. Tying his palm tree silk tie in the peeling mirror over the sink, he caught site of the battered suitcase under the bed and remembered he’d also need the shoes.
He opened the suitcase and gasped. It was stuffed with neat bundles of hundred dollar bills – perhaps a million dollars’ worth as far as a glance could tell. Resting on top the money – a smiling photograph of him standing outside the old Golden Nugget casino with a beautiful woman in his arms!
Wide-eyed, his gaze went from the photo to the cash, to the suit coat, and back. He studied the details. He was wearing the vintage suit, the wing-tipped shoes, and the hula dancer tie. People in the background were dressed from the 1950s; the cars were from back then too. Phil’s mind raced. Desperate to have the full picture in his mind, he slipped into the shoes and stood.
Awash with realization, he whimpered. Pulling up the trouser leg he looked at his calf in astonishment. There was no withered limb! In tears, he dashed to the suit coat and put it on. Inside the pocket he found a vintage Golden Nugget hotel key and a love note saying, I love you and miss you. Hurry back, baby. Love, Irene.
He pulled a c-note from the suitcase and left it on the bed next to his $14.48 to pay Mr. Kranich. Suitcase in hand, he headed to the door knowing a whole other life waited on the other side. He didn’t know how or why, but he didn’t care. His luck had definitely changed.
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interesting topics and other writerly things.
interesting topics and other writerly things.
Rose is a multi-published award-winning author and dilettante who loves great conversation and discovering interesting things to weave into stories. She lives with her family and small menagerie amid oak groves and prairie in the rolling glacial hills of the upper Midwest.
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