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“They take up arms against their ruler; but in this they deceive themselves, for experience will prove that they will have actually worsened their lot.”
—Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince
“What is this dump?” Mae asked as her cab pulled up to the entrance of a hotel.
“This is Kaul’s Drive-thru Lodge, Miss. This is where I’ve been instructed to take you,” answered the cabbie in thick accent.
“Splendid,” Mae replied, rolling her eyes as she let herself out onto the curb and stood next to a faux-stone pillar under a frayed red awning, clutching her Luis Vuitton Monogram Canvas Pegase 55 carry-on while the driver fetched her matching suitcase from the trunk. She tipped him for his effort, turned, and dragged the bag through the smudged glass doors as the driver scurried back into his cab and pulled away. Inside, she found a lobby decorated with laminated honey oak floors, sprayed stucco walls and brass-colored hardware accents. Mae checked her hair and lipstick in an oval mirror before rolling her bag up to the desk. Behind it sat a frumpy Caucasian with a mullet, seven-day stubble, and black horn-rimmed glassed that sat askew on his asymmetrical face. He was immersed in his cell phone and did not immediately acknowledge her presence as she stepped to the desk. Mae pinged the bell on the counter, not forty inches from his ear. The attendant finally looked up.
“Can I help you?” he asked, squinting at her through his cloudy lenses, but after seeing her, he straightened his posture in a fruitless attempt to make himself seem more appealing.
“I need my room,” Mae snapped.
The attendant sighed and began swishing a mouse around, clicking through screens on his monitor. “Single or double?”
“How about your presidential suite? Does it have a jet tub?”
The attendant was unfazed by her sarcasm. “Name?”
“I was told it would be reserved for Maiden Lane. M-A-I-D-E…”
“I found it. One sec…” The attendant typed and typed and swished his mouse and typed and typed and scanned the screen and swished his mouse and typed and typed.Then he retrieved a passkey from a drawer. He swiped it and rolled his pear-shaped body, wedged into his office chair, over to the printer and pulled off some paperwork. Then he rolled back and laid it on the counter. “Sign here, please. You are responsible for any incidentals.”
“No. I was told incidentals would be covered.”
The clerk straightened his glasses and read through the agreement. “Oh, you are correct. Sorry.”
He set the page and a Bic pen with a flower taped to the end down on the counter and pointed to where she was to sign, leaving a greasy fingerprint smudge. Mae dug through her purse to retrieve her own pen and signed the document. “Here’s your key, ma’am,” he said, following it with a wide, crooked-toothed grin accompanied by two eyes that didn’t quite align staring through his smudged lenses.. “Room 221. Go left there, take the elevator up to two, then it’s down on the right. It overlooks the pool.” Mae rolled her eyes again and took the pass key.
“Is there a bar in this dump?”
“Yes ma’am. Go through those doors, then right. You can’t miss it.”
“Can I leave this here for now?” she asked, glancing at her suitcase.
“For sure. I’ll put it back here.” The attendant pushed himself up from his rolling chair and stepped out from behind the counter to take it.
“It’s Luis Vuitton,” Mae explained, hoping that would inspire some higher degree of care from the attendant. Unimpressed, he grabbed her suitcase and yanked it across the floor, scuffing it along the edge of the counter before shoving it into the closet behind his desk. He turned and winked.
“Got ya covered, ma’am.”
Mae passed through the doors and turned to her right, entering Gusher’s Lounge. Inside was a cove built for maybe fifty patrons with blue, short-nap carpet patterned with gold fleur des lis. The space was filled with low castor chairs surrounding round, honey oak cocktail tables. The walls were floor to ceiling smoked mirror tile. The bar was finished in honey oak with more faux-brass trim. Behind it stood a balding middle-ager in a black apron. Mae immediately dismissed the dozen or so patrons as fucktards. She strutted up to the bar, wiped the stool off with a napkin, and took a seat.
“What’ll you have?” asked the bartender, who Mae noticed was missing an eyetooth.
“A martini. Gin. Your best gin. What do you have? Oh, Bombay will have to do, I guess. Dry. On the rocks, not up. Garnished with a lime peel.”
“Absolutely.” The bartender turned to fix her drink.
Mae looked ahead, into an unobscured patch of smoked mirror on the wall behind the bar, between a bottle of Seagrams and a neon Rolling Rock sign. She was surprised by what she saw–a victim staring back. The image of herself beaten, disoriented, weak, evoked an image in her mind of some pathetic orphan. Disgusted by her diminishing aura, she got up, went into the restroom and locked the door. There, she stood before the mirror, staring at the loser staring back. She ran the faucet and dabbed her face with water. She pulled her hair back into a ponytail. Then she reached into her bag and took out her lip gloss. Wrong color. She tossed it back in and rummaged for the other, the plum. It was stronger. She heard a knock on the door. She ignored it and touched up her mascara, hardening and intensifying her eyes. She pulled at her collar, stiffening it. Finally, she took a deep breath, exhaled, and straightened her posture, throwing back her shoulders. The person staring back in the mirror wasmuch improved.
She heard the knock again and she unlocked the door to see a woman from a different world. She was shorter and broader, had blotchy skin and coarse, dull, badly-dyed, reddish hair, cheap makeup and ill-fitting clothes. They looked each other in the eye, the alien sizing Mae up, looking as if she expected Mae to wilt and step aside. Mae barred the way, defiantly, as a cold smirk formed in the edge of her plum lips. They looked each other up and down, then stared at each other for several more seconds. Mae wondered if this pitiable wench might have been her in some other life, if things had somehow gone awry. No. Of course not. No matter how sideways things might have gone, she could never evolve into the troglodyte that stood before her. Mae could never fail at life to that extent. She could overcome anything. She always triumphed. She had found herself on that path once before and remedied it, leaving her husband to save herself from the ignominy of being a hick undersheriff’s trophy wife, spending weekends downing pitchers of light beer and listening to classic rock cover bands.
Mae’s confidence recharged at the sight of the loser before her, filling her up with strength. Her eyes fired back at the wench, silently saying, “make way, bitch, or I will cut your throat.” The wench, a survivor herself, found her resolve weakening. She glanced left and right. After determining that no one was watching, she acquiesced and stepped aside. There was nothing for her to gain and too much to risk. She would make her stand another time.
Mae returned to her seat at the bar to find a filled martini glass waiting at her place. The bartender returned, buffing a mug.
“I said on the rocks, not up, ” Mae pushed the drink towards the edge for the bartender to take it back. He took the glass and scowled as he waddled off to fix her another. Mae again checked the smoked mirror between the Seagrams and the Rolling Rock sign. The person staring back was the Mae she recognized. Her world was righted.
“You come off of Air Force one?”
Mae turned toward the voice. A burly fellow with stringy gray hair, a weathered face and the dark, elusive eyes of a long-time alcoholic sat two stools down.
“Were you talking to me?” Mae asked.
“Yes,” he answered in a phlegmy tenor that trailed off into a burst of coughing.
“As a matter of fact, I did,” she answered. “How would you know that?” She watched as he stirred the ice cubes in his clear drink, a vodka something. His visage reminded her of a troll. Hideous. Neckless. Hunched. The grey blotchy flesh of his face had the consistency of pizza dough. It looked as if it might slough off his cheekbones at any moment.
“You look the part,” he answered.
“Oh, do I?” Mae asked, feigning interest in continuing the conversation.
“I’ve lived here twenty-seven years. It ain’t hard telling who the muckety mucks are.”
The bartender returned with her martini, bowing as he presented it before her as though she were a royalty. She gestured him away with a flick of her hand.
“What is your name?”
“So tell me, Dieter, how do I get a flight back to civilization?”
“Like to where?”
“How about like New York or Boston?”
Dieter sipped his drink. “I’d say your best bet is fly out of Bismarck. You’ll have to connect in Minneapolis, though.”
“How would one get to Bismarck from this place?”
“You could take the bus,” Dieter answered, mockingly. “Or…” He shrugged.
“Well, it just so happens that I am headed that way tomorrow morning.”
“Through there. Headed to Rapid City.”
“What’s in Rapid City? Visiting Mount Rushmore?”
Dieter wheezed out a laugh, then cleared his throat. Then his eyes flashed. “Business,” he answered in a tone with a purposefulness that thumped like a bass drum.
Mae raised her glass to her lips but pulled it away to ponder. She certainly wasn’t going back to DC, not any time soon. What would she do, there? Stare longingly out her brownstone windows at the passing black limousines while she pumped her quads on her elliptical? New York and Boston would be pricey, and close…too close. Too many limos with muckety mucks there, as well. She needed time away from Babylon to clear her head and plot her next move. There was only one place to go that made any sense.
“How far is Rapid City from Denver?” She asked, expecting Dieter to aspirate his drink. But he didn’t. He didn’t seem fazed at all.
“Four hundred miles, give or take,” he answered. “Why don’t you just fly?”
“Fly into Denver? That’s a crapshoot half the time.”
“Yeah.” Dieter grinned. “Or maybe that’s a manifest you don’t want your name on.”
Mae raised her glass to him, took a drink, then set it down in front of her and swished the garnish. “Never mind, then,” she said as she turned away from him and faced the bar mirror. She kept watch on his reflection between the bottles.
“What would it be worth to you?” Dieter asked.
Mae made eye contact with him in the mirror. “I’m sure we could come to some sort of arrangement.”