Read Crackpot Palace Online

Authors: Jeffrey Ford

Crackpot Palace

Crackpot Palace

Stories

Jeffrey Ford

Dedication

For Bill Watkins, who told me, “Irony is the engine of the world.”

Introduction: Crackpot Palace

M
idway upon the journey of my life, I had been passing alone along a singularly dreary stretch of shoreline, and at length found myself, as the shades of evening drew on, within view of Crackpot Palace. To my right was the angry surf, all iron gray and foam. Above, brown clouds filled the sky like shoveled dirt, as if the setting sun were being buried alive. To my left, rising above the tops of the tallest dunes that surrounded it was a most bizarre structure, a cockeyed monolith of a dwelling made of planks, crafted in the shape of a human head. Its physiognomy was evident in the large, eyelike windows, in the gable ears, in the white seabirds that sat upon its sloping roof like the close-cropped hair of an old man. The poorly joined wooden flesh of its architecture sagged, and the entire building listed forward as if deep in thought or nodding off to sleep.

It came to me that I'd completely forgotten what it was I was doing there, how I'd gotten there. And in that same instant a frigid wind blew in off the sea, pushing ahead of it a squall of large, luminous flakes. The snow seemed to have its own light but did nothing to melt my loneliness or quell my shivering. I climbed up and over the closest dune and made my way toward the strange head. As I approached its entrance I, of course, found that the doorway looked much like a gaping mouth, and a tattered awning above that portal served as a nose. Climbing the steps to its porch, I heard the splintered behemoth above me creaking in the wind.

I looked up to try to determine if the structure was safe, and in that instant noticed candles suddenly spark to life in the large, oval windows upstairs; a sleeper waking. Before me, the door slowly swung open, and from within the palace there issued the sounds of laughter, weeping, mumbled conversation, desperate sighs. I stepped through the entrance and called out, “Hello?” The moment I spoke, all the noises ceased and I heard nothing but the howling of the wind and the distant crashing of the surf. I shut the door behind me and left the foyer in search of the caretaker or owner.

I met no one on my expedition through the place—“expedition” being the correct term, as there were so many twists and turns to the journey that a mental picture of the floor plan was impossible. Irregular rooms with slanted walls led on to yet more distorted rooms, to rickety spiral stairways, to curving hallways and cramped passages with angled ceilings. Books spilled from shelves in static cataracts, and odd curios were displayed under glass—in the kitchen, an owl egg (as attested to by a small handwritten card beside it); in a bathroom, a desiccated, severed foot; in a small parlor, a vial of green liquid.

Throughout it all, I never saw a soul, but the voices returned, whispering, snickering, occasionally shouting my name, at which I'd turn my head suddenly, only to sense the noise was really the banging of some loose shingle or shutter. Always, from a distant room I could never find, there issued the sound of a Victrola playing. At times I was certain the record was Jane Russell, singing “Two Sleepy People”; at other instances I knew it was merely the wind in the eaves.

Eventually I sat down at a desk, exhausted, and watched as a mist coalesced and drifted around the room. As it floated by it transformed quickly, like faces in the clouds—a man on horseback, wielding a sword; then a long-legged spider wearing a hat; then something else again. I shut my eyes for a moment and when I opened them there was an old computer before me, turned on, screen glowing. I put my fingers on the keys and started typing.

Somewhere in the long night, my wife's voice called out, “Come to bed,” and startled me from my infernal work. “How could she be here?” I wondered. Then the palace began to tremble at its foundation, and the shifting mists lifted from before my eyes. I felt the snow and wind in my face, and looked up to see that I'd left my study window open. A thin ridge of snow lined the sill. As I stood, the images of dreams and scraps of story that had buried me to the neck sloughed away like so much sand dispersed by the wind blowing through the window. I closed it and turned out the light. Shuffling through the dark toward the bedroom, I finally remembered where I was and what I was doing.

Polka Dots and Moonbeams

H
e came for her at seven in the Belvedere convertible, top down, emerald green, with those fins in the back, jutting up like goalposts. From her third-floor apartment window, she saw him pull to the curb out front.

“Hey, Dex,” she called, “where'd you get the submarine?”

He tilted back his homburg and looked up. “All hands on deck, baby,” he said, patting the white leather seat.

“Give me a minute,” she said, laughed, and then blew him a kiss. She walked across the braided rug of the parlor and into the small bathroom with its water-stained ceiling and cracked plaster. Standing before the mirror, she leaned in close to check her makeup—enough rouge and powder to repair the walls. Her eye shadow was peacock blue, her mascara indigo. She gave her girdle a quick adjustment through her dress, then smoothed the material and stepped back to take it all in. Wrapped in strapless black, with a design of small white polka dots like stars in a perfect universe, she turned profile and inhaled. “Good Christ,” she said and exhaled. Passing through the kitchenette, she lifted a silver flask from the scarred tabletop and shoved it into her handbag.

Her heels made a racket on the wooden steps, and she wobbled for balance just after the first landing. Pushing through the front door, she stepped out into the evening light and the first cool breeze in what seemed an eternity. Dex was waiting for her at the curb, holding the passenger door open. As she approached, he tipped his hat and bent slightly at the waist.

“Looking fine there, madam,” he said.

She stopped to kiss his cheek.

The streets were empty, not a soul on the sidewalk, and save for the fact that here and there in a few of the windows of the tall, crumbling buildings they passed a dim yellow light could be seen, the entire city seemed empty as well. Dex turned left on Kraft and headed out of town.

“It's been too long, Adeline,” he said.

“Hush now, sugar,” she told him. “Let's not think about that. I want you to tell me where you're taking me tonight.”

“I'll take you where I can get you,” he said.

She slapped his shoulder.

“I want a few cocktails,” she said.

“Of course, baby, of course. I thought we'd head over to the Ice Garden, cut a rug, have a few, and then head out into the desert after midnight to watch the stars fall.”

“You're an ace,” she said and leaned forward to turn on the radio. A smoldering sax rendition of “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” like a ball of waxed string unwinding, looped once around their necks and then blew away on the rushing wind.

She lit them each a cigarette as the car sailed on through the rising night. An armadillo scuttled through the beams of the headlights fifty yards ahead, and the aroma of sage vied with Adeline's orchid scent. Clamping his cigarette between his lips, Dex put his free hand on her knee. She took it into her own, twining fingers with him. Then it was dark, the asphalt turning to dirt, and the moon rose slow as a bubble in honey above the distant silhouette of hills, a cosmic cream pie of a face, eyeing Adeline's décolletage.

She leaned back into the seat, smiling, and closed her eyes. Only a moment passed before she opened them, but they were already there, passing down the long avenue lined with monkey-puzzle trees toward the circular drive of the glimmering Ice Garden. Dex pulled up and parked at the entrance. As he was getting out, a kid with red hair and freckles, dressed in a valet uniform, stepped forward.

“Mr. Dex,” he said, “we haven't seen you for a while.”

“Take a picture, Jim-Jim,” said Dex and flipped a silver dollar in the air. The kid caught it and dropped it into his vest pocket before opening the door for Adeline.

“How's tricks, Jim?” she asked as he delivered her to the curb.

“They just got better,” he said and patted his vest.

Dex came around the back of the car, took his date by the arm, and together they headed past the huge potted palms and down a brief tunnel toward a large rectangular patio open to the desert sky and bounded by a lush garden of the most magnificent crystal flora, emitting a blizzard of reflection. At the edge of the high, arching portico, Dex and Adeline stood for a moment, scanning the hubbub of revelers and, at the other end of the expanse of tables and chairs and dance floor, the onstage antics of that night's musical act, Nabob and His Ne'er-do-wells. Above the sea of heads, chrome trombone in one hand, mic in the other, Nabob belted out a jazzed-up version of “Weak Knees and Wet Privates.”

A fellow in a white tux and red fez approached the couple. He was a plump little man with a pencil-thin mustache, a fifty-year-old baby playing dress-up. Dex removed his homburg and reached a hand out. “Mondrian,” he said.

The maître d' bowed slightly and, raising his voice above the din of merriment, said, “Always a pleasure to have you both back.”

Adeline also shook hands.

“You're looking particularly lovely tonight,” he said.

“Table for two,” said Dex and flashed a crisp twenty under the nose of Mondrian. “Something close to the dance floor.”

The plump man bowed again and in his ascent snatched the bill from Dex's hand. “Follow me, my friends,” he said, and then turned and made his way slowly in amid the maze of tables and the milling crowd. As they moved through the packed house Adeline waved hello to those who called her name, and when someone shouted to Dex, he winked, sighted them with his thumb, and pulled an invisible trigger. Mondrian found them a spot at the very front, just to the left of the stage. He pulled out and held Adeline's chair, and once she was seated, he bowed.

“Two gin wrinkles,” said Dex, and in an instant the maître d' vanished back into the crowd.

Adeline retrieved two cigarettes from her purse and lit them on the small candle at the center of the table. Dex leaned over and she put one between his lips. She drew on the other.

“How does it feel to be back in action?” he asked her.

She smiled broadly, blew a stream of smoke, and nodded. “It always feels right, the first couple of hours on the loose. I'm not thinking about anything else at this moment,” she said.

“Good,” he said and removed his hat, setting it on the empty chair next to him.

The music stopped then and was replaced by the chatter and laughter of the crowd, the clink of glasses and silverware. Nabob jumped down from the band platform, hit the ground, and rolled forward to spring upright next to Dex.

“Dexter,” he said.

“Still sweating out the hits,” said Dex and laughed as he shook hands with the bandleader.

“Bobby, aren't you gonna give me a kiss?” said Adeline.

“I'm just savoring the prospect,” he said and swept down to plant one on her lips. The kiss lasted for a while before Dex reached his leg around the table and kicked the performer in the ass. They all laughed as Nabob moved around the table and took a seat.

Folding his willowy arms in front of him, the bandleader leaned forward and shook his thin head. “You two out for the stars tonight?” he asked.

“And then some,” said Adeline.

“So fill me in,” said Dex.

“Well, same old, same old as usual, you know. And Killheffer's been waiting for you to return.”

A waitress appeared with two gin wrinkles—liquid pink ice and the Garden's own bathtub blend of gin. The glasses caught the light and revealed tiny bubbles rising from a fat red cherry. Dex slipped the young woman a five. She smiled at him before leaving the table.

“Fuck Killheffer,” said Dex, lifting his drink to touch glasses with Adeline.

“He's been in here almost every night, sitting back in the corner, slapping beads on that abacus of his and jotting numbers in a book,” said Nabob.

“Killheffer's solid fruitcake,” said Adeline.

“A strange fellow,” said Nabob, nodding. “One slow night a while back, and most nights are slow when you fine folks aren't here, he bought me a drink and explained to me how the world is made of numbers. He said that when the stars fall it means everything is being divided by itself. Then he blew a smoke ring off one of his cigars. ‘Like that,' he said and pointed at the center.”

“Did you get it?” asked Adeline.

Nabob laughed and shook his head. “Jim-Jim makes more sense.”

“If he shows that shit-eatin' grin in here tonight, I'll fluff his cheeks,” said Dex.

Adeline took a drag of her cigarette and smiled. “Sounds like boy fun. I thought you were here to dance and drink.”

“I am,” said Dex and finished the rest of his wrinkle, grabbing the cherry stem between his teeth. When he took the glass away, the fruit hung down in front of his mouth. Adeline leaned over, put one arm around his shoulder and her lips around the cherry. She ate it slowly, chewing with only her tongue before it all became a long kiss.

When they finished, Nabob said, “You're an artist, Miss Adeline.”

Dex ordered another round of wrinkles. They talked for a few minutes about the old days; distant memories of bright sun and blue skies.

“Break's over,” said Nabob, quickly killing the rest of his drink. “You two be good.”

“Do ‘Name and Number,' ” called Adeline as the bandleader bounded toward the stage. With a running start, he leaped into the air, did a somersault and landed, kneeling next to his mic stand. He stood slowly, like a vine twining up a trellis.

Dex and Adeline applauded, as did the rest of the house when they saw the performer back onstage. The willowy singer danced with himself for a moment before grabbing the mic. The Ne'er-do-wells took their places and lifted their instruments.

“Mondrian, my good man. Turn that gas wheel and lower the lights,” said Nabob, his voice echoing through the Garden and out into the desert.

A moment later the flames of the candles in the center of each table went dimmer by half. “Ooooh,” said Nabob and the crowd applauded.

“Lower,” he called to the maître d'.

Mondrian complied. Whistles and catcalls rose out of the dull amber glow of the Garden. The baritone sax hit a note so low it was like a tumbleweed blowing in off the desert. Then the strings came up, there was a flourish of piccolo and three sliding notes from Nabob's chrome T-bone. He brought the mouthpiece away, snapped his fingers to the music and sang:

My dear, you tear my heart asunder

When I look up your name and number

Right there in that open book

My flesh begins to cook

It's all sweetness mixed with dread

And then you close your legs around my head

As I look up your name and number . . .

As Nabob dipped into the second verse, Dex rose and held his hand out to Adeline. He guided her through the darkness to the sea of swaying couples. They clutched each other desperately, legs between legs, lips locked, slowly turning through the dark. Within the deep pool of dancers there were currents of movement that could not be denied. They let themselves be drawn by the inevitable flow as the music played on.

When the song ended, Adeline said, “I have to hit the powder room.”

They left the dance floor as the lights came up and walked toward the huge structure that held the casino, the gaming rooms, the pleasure parlors of the Ice Garden. Three stories tall, in the style of a Venetian palace, it was a monster of shadows with moonlight in its eyes. At the portico that led inside, Dex handed her a twenty and said, “I'll see you back at the table.”

“I know,” she barely managed and kissed him on the cheek.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Same old, same old,” she said and sighed.

He was supposed to laugh but only managed a smile. They turned away from each other. As he skirted the dance floor on the return journey, Dex looked up at Nabob and saw the performer, midsong, flash a glance at him and then nod toward the table. There was Killheffer, sporting a tux and his so-called smile of a hundred teeth, smoking a Wrath Majestic and staring into the sky.

Arriving at the table, Dex took his seat across from Killheffer, who, still peering upward, said, “Gin wrinkles, I presumed.”

Dex noticed the fresh round of drinks and reached for his.

“The stars are excited tonight,” said Killheffer, lowering his gaze.

“Too bad I'm not,” said Dex. “What's it gonna be this time, Professor? Russian roulette? One card drawn from the bottom of a deck cut three ways? The blindfolded knife thrower?”

“You love to recall my miscalculations,” said Killheffer. “Time breaks down, though, only through repetition.”

“I'm fed up with your cockeyed bullshit.”

“Well, don't be, because I tell you I've got it. I've done the math. How badly do you want out?”

“Want out?” said Dex. “I don't even know how I got in. Tell me again you're not the devil.”

“I'm a simple professor of circumstance and fate. An academic with too strong an imagination.”

“Then why that crazy smile? All your antics? That cigar of yours smells like what I vaguely remember of the ocean.”

“I've always been a gregarious fellow and prized a good cigar. The hundred-tooth thing is a parlor trick of multiplication.”

“I'm so fucking tired,” Dex said.

Killheffer reached into his jacket pocket and brought forth a hypodermic needle. He laid it on the table. “That's the solution,” he said.

The large hypo's glass syringe contained a jade-green liquid.

Dex stared at it and shook his head. Tears appeared in the corners of his eyes. “Are you kidding? That's it? That's the saddest fucking thing I've ever seen.”

“You have to trust me,” said Killheffer, still smiling.

“If you haven't noticed, we're here again. What is it? Poison? Cough syrup? Junk?”

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