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marked Pointers and Setters, and a little imitation pine
plaque over the jars of beef jerky and pickled sausages:
We've got a deal with the bank. They don't serve beer
and we don't cash checks.
She was plump in Waylon's, and there were dark
hollows under her eyes. There were coffee stains on her
polyester pantsuit. Her companion wore jeans, a T-
shirt, and a red baseball cap with a red-and-white Peter-
bilt patch. Coretti risked losing them when he spent a
frantic minute in "Pointers," blinking in confusion at a
hand-lettered cardboard sign that said, We aim to
please You aim too, please.
Third Avenue lost itself near the waterfront in a
petrified snarl of brickwork. In the last block, bright
vomit marked the pavement at intervals, and old men
dozed in front of black-and-white TVs, sealed forever
behind the fogged plate glass of faded hotels.
The bar they found there had no name. An ace of
diamonds was gradually flaking away on the unwashed
window, and the bartender had a face like a closed fist.
An FM transistor in ivory plastic keened easy-listening
rock to the uneven ranks of deserted tables. They drank
beer and shots. They were old now, two ciphers who
drank and smoked in the light of bare bulbs, coughing
over a pack of crumpled Camels she produced from the
pocket of a dirty tan raincoat.
At 2:25 they were in the rooftop lounge of the new
hotel complex that rose above the waterfront. She wore
an evening dress and he wore a dark suit. They drank
cognac and pretended to admire the city lights. They
each had three cognacs while Coretti watched them over
two ounces of Wild Turkey in a Waterford crystal
They drank until last call. Coretti followed them
into the elevator. They smiled politely but otherwise ig-
nored him. There were two cabs in front of the hotel;
they took one, Coretti the other.
"Follow that cab," said Coretti huskily, thrusting
his last twenty at the aging hippie driver.
"Sure, man, sure. . . ." The driver dogged the
other cab for six blocks, to another, more modest hotel.
They got out and went in. Coretti slowly climbed out of
his cab, breathing hard.
He ached with jealousy: for the personification of
conformity, this woman who was not a woman, this
human wallpaper. Coretti gazed at the hotel and lost
his nerve. He turned away.
He walked home. Sixteen blocks. At some point he
realized that he wasn't drunk. Not drunk at all.
In the morning he phoned in to cancel his early class.
But his hangover never quite came. His mouth wasn't
desiccated, and staring at himself in the bathroom mir-
ror he saw that his eyes weren't bloodshot.
In the afternoon he slept, and dreamed of sheep-
faced people reflected in mirrors behind rows of bottles.
That night he went out to dinner, alone and ate
nothing. The food looked back at him, somehow. He
stirred it about to make it look as if he'd eaten a little,
paid, and went to a bar. And another. And another bar,
looking for her. He was using his credit card now,
though he was already badly in the hole under Visa. If
he saw her, he didn't recognize her.
Sometimes he watched the hotel he'd seen her go
into. He looked carefully at each of the couples who
came and went. Not that he'd be able to spot her from
her looks alone but there should be a feeling, some
kind of intuitive recognition. He watched the couples
and he was never sure.
In the following weeks he systematically visited
every boozy watering hole in the city. Armed at first
with a city map and five torn Yellow Pages, he gradually
progressed to the more obscure establishments, places
with unlisted numbers. Some had no phone at all. He
joined dubious private clubs, discovered unlicensed
after-hours retreats where you brought your own, and
sat nervously in dark rooms devoted to areas of fringe
sexuality he had not known existed.
But he continued on what became his nightly cir-
cuit. He always began at the Backdoor. She was never
there, or in the next place, or the next. The bartenders
knew him and they liked to see him come in, because he
brought drinks continuously, and never seemed to get
drunk. So he stared at the other customers a bit so
Coretti lost his job.
He'd missed classes too many times. He'd taken to
watching the hotel when he could, even in the daytime.
He'd been seen in too many bars. He never seemed to
change his clothes. He refused night classes. He would
let a lecture trail off in the middle as he turned to gaze
vacantly out the window.
He was secretly pleased at being fired. They had
looked at him oddly at faculty lunches when he couldn't
eat his food. And now he had more time for the search.
Coretti found her at 2:15 on a Wednesday morn-
ing, in a gay bar called the Barn. Paneled in rough wood
and hung with halters and rusting farm equipment, the
place was shrill with perfume and laughter and beer. She
was everyone's giggling sister, in a blue-sequined dress,
a green feather in her coiffed brown hair. Through a
sweeping sense of almost cellular relief, Coretti was
aware of a kind of admiration, a strange pride he now
felt in her and her kind. Here, too, she belonged. She
was a representative type, a fag-hag who posed no
threat to the queens or their butchboys. Her companion
had become an ageless man with carefully silvered
temples, an angora sweater, and a trench coat.
They drank and drank, and went laughing
laughing just the right sort of laughter out into the
rain. A cab was waiting, its wipers duplicating the beat
of Coretti's heart.
Jockeying clumsily across the wet sidewalk, Coretti
scurried into the cab, dreading their reaction.
Coretti was in the back seat, beside her.
The man with silver temples spoke to the driver.
The driver muttered into his hand mike, changed gears,
and they flowed away into the rain and the darkened
streets. The cityscape made no impression on Coretti,
who, looking inwardly, was seeing the cab stop, the gray
man and the laughing woman pushing him out and
pointing, smiling, to the gate of a mental hospital. Or:
the cab stopping, the couple turning, sadly shaking their
heads. And a dozen times he seemed to see the cab stop-
ping in an empty side street where they methodically
throttled him. Coretti left dead in the rain. Because he
was an outsider.
But they arrived at Coretti's hotel.
In the dim glow of the cab's dome light he watched
closely as the man reached into his coat for the fare.
Coretti could see the coat's lining clearly and it was one
piece with the angora sweater. No wallet bulged there,
and no pocket. But a kind of slit widened. It opened as
the man's fingers poised over it, and it disgorged
money. Three bills, folded, were extruded smoothly
from the slit. The money was slightly damp. It dried, as
the man unfolded it, like the wings of a moth just
emerging from the chrysalis.
"Keep the change," said the belonging man, climb-
ing out of the cab. Antoinette slid out and Coretti
followed, his mind seeing only the slit. The slit wet,
edged with red, like a gill.
The lobby was deserted and the desk clerk bent
over a crossword. The couple drifted silently across the
lobby and into the elevator, Coretti close behind. Once
he tried to catch her eye, but she ignored him. And
once, as the elevator rose seven floors above Coretti's
own, she bent over and sniffed at the chrome wall
ashtray, like a dog snuffling at the ground.
Hotels, late at night, are never still. The corridors
are never entirely silent. There are countless barely audi-
ble sighs, the rustling of sheets, and muffled voices
speaking fragments out of sleep. But in the ninth-floor
corridor, Coretti seemed to move through a perfect
vacuum, soundless, his shoes making no sound at all on
the colorless carpet and even the beating of his out-
sider's heart sucked away into the vague pattern that
decorated the wallpaper.
He tried to count the small plastic ovals screwed on
the doors, each with its own three figures, but the cor-
ridor seemed to go on forever. At last the man halted
before a door, a door veneered like all the rest with im-
itation rosewood, and put his hand over the lock, his
palm flat against the metal. Something scraped softly
and then the mechanism clicked and the door swung
open. As the man withdrew his hand, Coretti saw a
grayish-pink, key-shaped sliver of bone retract wetly
into the pale flesh.
No light burned in that room, but the city's dim
neon aura filtered in through venetian blinds and al-
lowed him to see the faces of the dozen or more people
who sat perched on the bed and the couch and the arm-
chairs and the stools in the kitchenette. At first he
thought that their eyes were open, but then he realized
that the dull pupils were sealed beneath nictitating mem-
branes, third eyelids that reflected the faint shades of
neon from the window. They wore whatever the last bar
had called for; shapeless Salvation Army overcoats sat
beside bright suburban leisurewear, evening gowns
beside dusty factory clothes, biker's leather by brushed
Harris tweed. With sleep, all spurious humanity had
They were roosting.
His couple seated themselves on the edge of the
Formica countertop in the kitchenette, and Coretti
hesitated in the middle of the empty carpet. Light-years
of that carpet seemed to separate him from the others,
but something called to him across the distance, promis-
ing rest and peace and belonging. And still he hesitated,
shaking with an indecision that seemed to rise from the
genetic core of his body's every cell.
Until they opened their eyes, all of them simul-
taneously, the membranes sliding sideways to reveal the
alien calm of dwellers in the ocean's darkest trench.
Coretti screamed, and ran away, and fled along
corridors and down echoing concrete stairwells to cool
rain and the nearly empty streets.
Coretti never returned to his room on the third
floor of that hotel. A bored house detective collected the