An Afternoon at The Silverstar
a short story
“I thought we were going to the lake today!” she hollered after John told her he was driving to Tonopah for the day instead. “I made plans with Sarah and everything.”
“Well, something came up, April.” He bent down to tie his shoe. He promised to take her two weeks ago…as he’s promised her many things over the five years of their business-arrangement marriage. He wasn’t disappointed. A day at Lake Mead with two giggly girls hardly sounded fun to him.
“So what the hell am I supposed to do today?”
“You could ride along with me to Tonopah.” He smiled maliciously, tying his other shoe.
“You’re a real fucker!” She left the room, emphatically slamming the door behind her.
April had the sort of agoraphobia that made it difficult for her to be in a car in desolate places. Once out the traffic and glitz of the city, she’d have panic attacks. The three hours of Mars-like desert between Las Vegas and Tonopah was much more than she could traverse without having serious problems. It was a weakness that her husband seemed to take endless pleasure in highlighting and mocking.
“Hmmm,” he hummed to himself as he peered ahead towards the barren mountains. The sign leaving Goldfield said twenty-some-odd miles to Tonopah, 20 minutes or so ago, but there were no signs of civilization on the horizon…only sagebrush and power lines leading towards dull, rocky peaks.
John Harmon had never been to Tonopah, even though he’d been in Las Vegas for many years. He assumed it was a real town, since it was always mentioned on the evening news weather reports, and there are many signs on Vegas freeways pointing drivers towards both Tonopah and Reno. He was hoping to stop at an Olive Garden or Chili’s for lunch, but – Tonopah being a smaller town – he was prepared to settle for Denny’s or whatever…anything but fast food or casino cuisine.
As he made the final ascent towards town, just cresting the summit, a pair of state patrol cars whizzed past him from behind, lights and sirens blaring, so quickly and from out-of-nowhere he didn’t even have time to pull aside and let them by before they were gone.
The rustic, weathered sign read, Welcome to Historic Tonopah: Home of the Muckers
He checked his paperwork for the address as he coasted slowly through town; past the grocery store, a closed-down McDonald’s and a series of small-town businesses and shops – some struggling to survive, but most either abandoned or for-sale. Clearly, there would be no Olive Garden or Chili’s for lunch. The road turned slightly to the right and there it was…the Historic Silverstar Hotel, which had recently come on the market at a steal.
He pulled into the hotel’s parking lot, pavement crumbled almost to the point of being gravel, next to a silvery-white Prius, beside which stood a thin, well-dressed woman holding a manila file folder and a large ring of keys. She had a hurried look on her face.
“Mr. Harmon?” she inquired as he emerged from the air conditioning of his late-model Town Car into the searing summer heat.
“Yes,” he answered, extending for a handshake.
“I have to run,” she said excitedly, “some emergency over in Horseshit Heights.” There was sarcasm in her voice.
“Sorry,” she said, stepping into her car, “another part of town. I’ve opened the front door for you, Mr. Harmon.” She slammed the door of her car and lowered the window, silently backing out of the crumbly parking lot. “Feel free to look around until I get back. This shouldn’t take long.” She quickly rolled the window up and sped off before John had a chance to reply.
He watched as the Prius disappeared around the bend. Then he turned to the hotel’s main entrance and slowly meandered toward it in a sort of daze. Feeling lightheaded, he sat for a moment on a wrought-iron bench just beside the large, wooden double-doors. He figured it was the high elevation or perhaps the oxygen-thin air. In addition to the dizziness, he started hearing unusual sounds…voices mostly, but also horses clomping, piano music and occasional gunshots echoing off the surrounding peaks. He looked in all directions, but saw nothing or nobody. In the distance, sirens wailed.
“We’re finally alone, baby,” John whispered to himself. He didn’t know why he said it. His consciousness was drifting in and out of the present in ever-increasing intervals, but he wasn’t aware of it. He dismissed these strange sensations as manifestations of the high altitude.
Still a little hazy but stronger, he rose to his feet and walked to the door, which he pulled open by its large brass handle, and stepped inside. Immediately, he felt a sense of belonging like never before. He’d been there a thousand times, despite having never set foot in the place. Suddenly, this old, run down, neglected hotel was his best friend…his soul mate. Upon entering, he was instantly flushed with both familiarity and bewilderment.
He wandered around the casino floor for a few moments with a blank expression on his face. Clean, unworn rectangular sections of carpet revealed where rows of video poker and slot machines once were. He caught a strong whiff of what he thought was cigar smoke and quickly turned, startled, thinking someone had come in behind him. No one was there, but the odor was strong and recent, easily punching through the stale, dust-laden air. Reverberations of voices, laughter, music and ringing slot machines permeated his consciousness, despite the dead silence that was only occasionally broken by the high desert wind whistling through a cracked window behind the bar.
He found himself standing in front of a stairway that was carpeted with the same dark red, paisley-swirled stuff that covered the floor of the casino. Trampled with decades of desert dust, tobacco ash and spilled cocktails, it had the look of dried blood. He looked up the stairs as if to see someone come down to meet him. To the left of the stairway was a large counter with a sign above it that read REGISTRATION in golden, ornate lettering. On the counter was one of those little bells you ring to get service. Just for kicks, John tapped the bell quickly three times. Ding-ding-ding.
“Ah, good afternoon.” He paused. “Yes, I would like a room for the night.” He spoke as though he were a man of great importance from the turn of the 20th century, an Astor perhaps, with a slight, poorly-executed British accent. “One dollar per night! Why, that’s highway robbery. I demand to speak with the proprietor!” He rang the bell again several times, giggling like a kid watching Bugs Bunny on Saturday morning. Ding-ding-ding-ding-ding…
He turned back, headed to the stairs and began to ascend them – slowly, one step at a time. He noticed the pungent cigar-like odor once again, but paid it no mind. As he climbed, the raucous sounds from the casino began to fade and become distant. Only voices could be heard now, incoherent, soft and muffled as though emanating from beneath the carpeted floor.
Suddenly, the phone tucked away in his coat pocket rang, breaking the silence violently. Beep-beep-beep! Beep–beep-beep!
Startled by the noise, John fell backwards and nearly tumbled down the stairs. He was able to catch himself on the banister. “Jesus Fucking Christ!” he shouted, pulling himself back to his feet. The echo of his voice filled the staircase, spilling down into the casino floor, fading from distinct, repeating ricochets into a blurry reverb and eventually blending into the muddled mix of music, laughter and ringing slot machines.
He reached into his pocket and quickly pulled out the phone, hoping to answer before it had a chance to scream at him again. He didn’t quite make it. Beep-beep-beep! Beep-beep-beep!
“WHAT!?” he hollered into the phone.
“John?” April said with detectable laughter in her voice. He could hear Sarah giggling in the background. “What are you doing?” The two had been together drinking wine for the past couple hours.
“What do you need?” he asked his wife, irritated, in a sort of auto-response voice.
It was always about meeting her needs, whatever they might be. When he wed Daddy’s money five years ago, it was much more of an adoption than a marriage. Being sixteen years her elder, he quickly assumed a more father-like role in their relationship. She had a weekly allowance and a nightly curfew. Taking his father-in-law’s advice, he even spanked her once for overdrawing her checking account. That didn’t go over very well, but it’s what he thought she needed. It was all about her needs. There was nothing left for his own.
“We just saw on the news something about a big truck wreck just now by Tonopah.”
“Yeah?” he answered blankly. His mind was in a million places, but nowhere near this phone conversation. His anger was waning into a sort of confusion as he struggled to decipher between what was real and what was infiltrating his consciousness.
“You didn’t see anything?”
“Hello, are you still there?” The girls laughed in unison, addled with chardonnay and Sprite.
He became frustrated in a snap, as though suddenly awakened from a catnap. “What is this, twenty questions? I haven’t seen or heard anything about it. Okay!?” He heard the girls start laughing hysterically.
Without saying anything or even ending the call, he casually tossed the phone over his shoulder, turned his head and watched as it toppled down the stairs. The sound of their laughing voices could still be heard as it bounced from one step to the next, finally lying to rest on the casino floor below.
He continued up the staircase until he reached the second floor. The first thing he saw was an old, Victorian-style sofa. It was blanketed with a canvas that appeared as though it hadn’t been removed in decades. He flung it off in a great cloud of dust, revealing the gorgeous, red-velvet material underneath that matched the carpet perfectly.
He sat on it, bringing his right foot up to rest upon his left knee. “Ah,” he said, as though speaking to a friend or business associate, “what a lovely place to spend the night. Tea, please!” He looked to his right, then to his left. In both directions were short corridors. Each led to longer ones that, John assumed, must lead to the rooms. He got up and walked to his left, down the short corridor. Passing sirens could be heard, ever so faintly through an open window in one of the rooms, whizzing down the street outside, but he didn’t notice them. After about twenty feet or so, he found himself dead center in the middle of a longer hallway. Directly before him, on the wall, was a sign indicating that rooms 201-208 were to the left, and rooms 209-216 to the right.
He meandered slowly to the left and approached room 201. The door was wide-open…he walked in. New voices became suddenly audible.
(one thousand fifty-five, sixty-five, ain’t been with no woman since St. Louis, ma’am, that’s gonna be two dollars, cowboy, on the house tonight, Johnny)
Johnny? Another rush of familiar bewilderment overtook him. “Nah, couldn’t be.”
While his curiosity continued to grow, feelings of confusion continued to swell within him. He sat on the creaky old bed to take a moment and gather his thoughts. Dust from the mattress rose up like a suddenly-formed fogbank in the sunbeams illuminating the room through partially-opened curtains.
“It’s been a long time, Johnny,” whispered a low-pitched, raspy female voice from directly beside him.
He sprang to his feet as though the woman’s voice were the rattles of a diamondback. When he turned to look, he saw the clear image of a woman sitting on the bed wearing a disheveled negligee; red, with lace browned by smoke and age. Her hair was a similar shade of brown, partially pulled up in a kind of bun with plenty of curly locks framing the delicate features of her face.
“Well,” she asked, speaking softly yet firmly, “you just gonna stand there, or ya gonna git over here and gimme a kiss?”
John stood, silent and motionless for a moment, thinking to himself that this must be a hallucination. Somewhere, deep in his subconscious, he knew this woman. But how? Where? When? He was not the type who believed in crazy things like past lives, or reincarnation, or ghosts. He didn’t even really believe in God. Oh, he figured there was probably some higher being out there, controlling everything that had little or no relevance to his life. But he was far too logical and practical to ever believe in ghosts or past lives or any such nonsense.
As he stood there, staring at this figure of a woman, he watched in amazement as she rose to her feet and approached him. When she stood, he noticed the mattress and springs rise to their normal position with a gentle squeak.
“What’s the matter, Johnny?” she said, coming closer to him. “Y’ain’t too good for this lil’ ole’ country whore now, are ya?”
As she stepped point blank in front of him, he could smell her aromatic mixture of tobacco, whiskey, a smidgen of unpleasant body odor, and gallons of some economically-priced perfume. Yet, the aroma was strangely appealing to him, even though it was a far cry from his non-smoking, daily-bathed, Chanel-sprinkled princess back at his suburban estate in Las Vegas.
The realism of the moment increased dramatically when she reached her hand up to John’s face, stroking his cheek and mouth gently. This was no hallucination. Her touch was as real as they come. As she softly massaged John’s lips, he instinctively poked his tongue from his mouth and began rolling it on and around her fingers.
At that moment, he closed his eyes and underwent a transformation, at least in his mind. Suddenly, feelings and thoughts began to surface – things about which he couldn’t have possibly known. He pictured himself on a wagon being pulled by two horses, Thunder and Lightnin’. He could see digging equipment…shovels, picks, and things. The name “Sally” kept popping into his head.
When he opened his eyes, things were different. The old bed that was bare and covered with dust was now neatly made with two pillows at the head. There were two lit oil lamps on a table just beside the door. Sunlight was no longer shining in the room as before. On another table was a bottle of booze with no label, a small bucket of ice, and two glasses.
“Good to see ya again, Sal,” Johnny said, with a Southern accent and inflection that John Harmon couldn’t have imitated had he tried.
“Johnny Frank,” she replied, “always a pleasure. How long’s it been, Johnny?”
“Too long, Sal. Too long. Just came from up Carson way, headin' to Goldfield.” Suddenly John was carrying on conversations about things he knew nothing about. Yet, some part of him knew everything.
“Always passin’ through,” Sally said, disappointedly. “When you gonna settle down here in Tonopah…take me for your wife?”
He laughed; head back, with a throaty intensity that made his protruding Adam’s Apple rise and fall with each chuckle. “Woman, even if I done decided to get myself hitched, sure as hell, t’wouldn’t be you.”
“Ya know I love ya, Johnny.” A tear ran down her cheek. “I hate to see ya livin’ like a goddam vagabond. No home, no life, other than that damn diggin’ you always doin’. Ya know I could get ya a job, right here at the hotel.”
“You think I’m gonna spend my days cooped up in this fuckin’ place? You done lost yer mine, bitch.”
He sauntered over to the table, poured a glass of whiskey and drank it down in one gulp. Then he slammed the glass onto the table and poured another, finishing it off in the same fashion.
“I didn’t come up here to talk bullshit, woman,” he said, irritated. “Now, get your ass over on that there bed. I got needs.”
She took a deep breath and slowly walked over to the bed. Her expression was hardly one of pleasure or excitement. She sat, disrobed, and reclined as seductively as she could per Johnny’s usual wishes, trying not to let her fear show. He could see it in her eyes, though, the fear, and it made him all the more aroused. He reached into his pants pocket, pulled out two large coins and slapped them onto the table nearest the bed. He unsnapped his suspenders, dropped his drawers and climbed atop her as if mounting a mule for a day’s ride.
It was raw…unfettered…the sort of fucking that John Harmon had only ever imagined or perhaps seen glimpses of while visiting porn shops. It wasn’t the clean, clinical coital redundancy that had become the weekly ritual back home with April – who would never in a million years allow him to do to her the things he was presently doing to Sally. An animal, a sexual kraken, took over his psyche. Her pain-ridden screams fueled his drive, as gasoline fuels a flame.
Downstairs in the casino, in the present, two armed men in silver, futuristic-looking hazmat suits pushed through the door violently as though something was blocking it. They surveyed their surroundings intently, immediately noticing a faint, green mist-like haze hanging low to the floor on the opposite side of the casino which opened to the dining room, kitchen and downstairs to the basement – where there were still several openings to Tonopah’s underground tunnel system. The haze was slowly oozing outward into the casino and lobby, attaining an eerie fluorescence as it thickened.
“Looks bad!” shouted one spaceman to the other.
“Yeah, let’s make a quick sweep of the place and see if he’s still here…and alive.”
“You check the kitchen. I’ll check upstairs.”
“Fuck that! I’m not walking into that green shit.”
The two men made their way slowly through the casino and to the staircase. With the stark contrast between their shiny suits and the dirty, early 20th-century décor, they were as astronauts cautiously exploring an alien world – slowly and laboriously under the weight of those suits, as though in moon-like gravity. Each looked at the other with widened eyes as they approached the first step and noticed John Harmon’s cell phone lying on the floor next to it.
“For his own sake as much as ours, let’s hope that he’s already dead.” They nodded in agreement, held their guns in a readied stance, and slowly proceeded up the steps. Their in-suit breathing equipment projected a creepy, mechanical sound that broke the dusty silence lingering in the 100-year-old air.
It was eerily quiet inside the old Silverstar, despite the chaos that was ensuing just outside her doors. Assorted trucks with screaming sirens were filing through town, one after the other, on their way to the catastrophe that April had jokingly tried to warn her husband about only an hour or so ago. The chorus of sirens, echoing off the surrounding hills, created an ear-splitting cacophony strong enough to induce madness throughout the streets of Tonopah, but went virtually unheard inside the hotel.
The spacemen reached the top of the staircase and started to hear a slight ruckus emanating from one of the rooms. They quickened their pace toward the source of the noise. They heard a man scream, as though in tremendous pain, followed by a loud thump that was heavy enough to be felt through the floor.
“Yikes!” one man said to the other as they first gazed upon John Harmon’s lifeless body, naked from the waist down, still aroused, sprawled on the floor beside the bed.
“Well, at least he went out with a smile.”
This is Chopper Dan, Channel Eight's “Eye-in-the-Sky,” flying over the scene of a horrific tanker accident in Tonopah. From overhead, you can see where the spill has made its way to that abandoned mine shaft, threatening the entire community of Tonopah, which was built upon miles of underground mining tunnels. Prevailing winds are carrying the airborne fumes away from populated areas, thank goodness, but the radioactive, highly-toxic fumes are seeping through the underground tunnel system and into town streets, homes and businesses. Traffic is at a stand-still in all directions as mandatory evacuations are still underway in this normally serene and uneventful, historic mining town. National Guard troops are arriving from California, Arizona and Utah to assist local authorities with the evacuation in addition to rescue and recovery efforts. Back to you in the studio, Katie.
Thanks, Dan. Again, in case you’re just joining us, a military tanker truck carrying radioactive waste from the Tonopah Test Site overturned on Highway 6 about two hours ago, a half-mile east of Tonopah. Blockades have been set up at Goldfield, Warm Springs, Coaldale, and Round Mountain to divert traffic away from the area. Any exposure to the highly-toxic spill, even breathing its fumes, we’re told, can be fatal. Busses are…wait, this just in. Channel Eight’s own Steve Wendall has been granted limited access within the city limits and is joining us now, live on-the-scene. Steve, judging by your hazmat suit, authorities are taking no chances. What can you tell us at this time?
Hi Katie. I have to yell so you can hear me through this mask amidst the chaos you see behind me. As you can see, it’s bedlam here in downtown Tonopah. Armed troops in these NASA-like protective suits are trying to maintain some semblance of order, but it’s a war zone down here. I’m standing in front of the historic Silverstar Hotel, which has survived two town fires, the flood of 1922 and now…words escape me, Katie.
Steve, authorities are saying that older structures, like the Silverstar Hotel, are even more at-risk for toxic contamination. Can you explain to our viewers why this is so?
Katie, in the early 1900s much of Tonopah’s commerce was conducted just below these city streets in a vast system of underground passages. Most of the town’s saloons, brothels, gambling halls, stores and other businesses were as easily accessible from the tunnels as the streets above, as were many private homes. Since most of these buildings still have openings to the tunnel system, the deadly fumes are creeping into these historic structures first and with the highest levels of toxicity. The Silverstar Hotel, being the first to accommodate the massive influx of miners, was the town’s hub for many years. Just as all roads lead to Rome, Katie, beneath the streets of Tonopah, all underground tunnels lead to the Silverstar. Fortunately, it’s been vacant for many years. Back to you.
Steve, what can you tell us about those trucks going down Main Street?
Katie, I’m told they are vehicles that were brought in to help aid in the evacuation.
It looks like one just pulled up by the hotel, Steve. Does you see any evacuees? What is their condition?
I don’t see any evacuees, Katie, but wait…
April and Sarah watched the TV in delight, feet rested upon the coffee table, in each other’s warm embrace, as two men in shiny, puffy spacesuits carried John Harmon’s lifeless, half-naked body out the front door of the Silverstar Hotel and tossed it like a sack of trash into the back of a truck.
“I need a refill,” April giggled, reaching for the newly opened chardonnay.