When Atlantic City ate twenty dollars of Johnny Montana’s money in less time than it took to do a rail of coke in the dimly lit bathroom of the Grand, he left his stool in front of the blackjack table and stepped outside. Even at nearly midnight, the city teemed with life, a reef on the Jersey coast, people and cars flashing by like gaudy shoals, moving this way and that, schools of men and women and men and ladies of the night–because it wasn’t right to call them whores, his mother always said–traveling in packs.
Sometimes they closed ranks, making it hard to get around them, slowing traffic, birthing frustration. Sometimes they split, like some deeper instinct had grabbed them by the hindbrain and throttled it, as predators lurked and stalked their midst. Slick men with black coats and dead eyes. Expensive suits bulging in suspicious places. Teeth shining like the gold on their necks and fingers and wrists. The type of people his mother called knee-breakers, men who would just as soon look at you as eat your liver and never blink once. Even Johnny had sense to stay away, only two hours into the city.
Instead, he cast about, looking for something new, something grand to see. Casinos lined the shore, marching beside the surf like Roman soldiers, a bulwark against natural beauty. The wood of the boardwalk was an anachronism beside bright neon and digital signs that hurt his eyes when they flashed and dimmed the moon to an annoyance. Even the smell of the ocean had been pushed back, bottled to the alleys facing the sea, beaten and boxed by the scents of fried dough, hot oil, and hot dogs marinated three days under water coated with an iridescent sheen.
Someone jostled his arm, and he turned to apologize–his mother said politeness was the way of the angels, and only the devil was an asshole–but they were gone. He straightened, and light, new light, fresh light, like a sign from on high, caught his eye. Across the street, a bar, two stories, white and brown, a sign clinging to its roof like a gull waiting for a dropped fry. THE CONTINENTAL, it read, but to Johnny, who’d stepped off the bus only two hours ago, his sainted mother six feet under and twelve hundred miles away, and the last fifty dollars to his name in his pocket, it felt like home.
He stepped off the curb, and into the bar. Dim light. Red velvet booths. Paneled walls. Hardwood floors stained chestnut. Duke Ellington from the battered jukebox in the corner. It reminded him of the room his father had left behind so long ago, cigar smoke and bourbon clinging to the fabric. His father, who had left on a promise and a whim. He was gonna be rich, he said. He was gonna bring them everything they ever wanted. He’d met a man who could make it happen. And then he was gone. Smoke in the wind. Johnny settled on a bench and smiled at the bartender. A couple dollars got him a whiskey-Coke. Another then, and another. The city was exciting, but this—this was orgasmic.
When he woke up three days later, Johnny did three things. He settled up his tab, which the bar had been kind enough to leave open, despite the puddle of vomit beside the jukebox. Second, he stepped outside for a breath of fresh air. He’d found joy in alcohol, in the fiery tang of whiskey and whisky, the meaty weight of beer, and the light tang of vodka, but sometimes a man just needed to peek outside to convince himself all that booze was worth it. The third thing that happened was the slow realization that he was broke in a strange city, and if he wanted to do more than bathe in the gutters, he’d need a job.
He looked across the city, painted pink and purple in the dawn light, and considered. Food vendor seemed like more work than it was worth. He doubted he could get a job as a taxi driver, having only seen the boardwalk and the bus station. He tapped his foot, and watched morning traffic come to life. A small cart, shaped like a rudimentary car, passed, pushed by a young man, the couple inside quiet. More joined the flow of traffic, from hotel to casino and back, never leaving the strip. He watched them go and considered. That, he could do. That he could do well.
And that was how Johnny came to live in Atlantic City for three years.
He’d seen a lot since stepping off that bus from Biloxi. Cokeheads and strippers, women dressed like schoolmarms cozied beside men in leather harnesses, men nodding in his cab, needle hanging from the inside of their elbow as he pushed them to their hundred-thousand-dollar a night hotel, bodies curled up in the alleys, clouds of flies coating the corpses like a cloak.
This though, this was something new. As his sainted mother might have said–you can’t judge every book by its cover, unless it’s smut, then you should throw it in the trash. The man approaching his pushcart was tall and willowy, ears tapered to somewhat of a point. His eyes were slightly elongated, tilted up at the corners, as though permanently enjoying an amusing joke. His clothing, an all-white suit, was immaculate and flattering. His skin was the black of mahogany, the fingers that clutched a slim cigarette long, like a pianist. He smiled at Johnny.
“Fiver for a ride to the end of the row?” the accent that marked the words held a lilt.
Irish, then, Johnny supposed. He’d known a few in his day, and even more here, though they went by the names of Jameson and Guinness and Bailey. They didn’t talk much, but then they didn’t have to. He did most of the talking for them after an hour or two together. Luckily for this man, he’d just had a drink with one not long ago, and he was feeling magnanimous. He’d take the fare despite the lowball. He nodded, and the man climbed in.
Johnny put his shoulder to the cart, and was shocked when it shot forward, as though the man weighed nothing. He paused and uttered an apology.
“Sorry ’bout that. Must be stronger than I look.”
The man chuckled from the cab and peered around the side. “You’re a funny lad. Tell you what. You take me to the end of the block, and I’ll multiply the pay one hundred percent.”
Five hundred dollars for a trip to the end of the block? He didn’t believe it, and said as much.
“You’re screwing with me. But tell you what, I’ll take you, because even a slow night is better than no night. Then you pay me the five, and we’ll go each our own.”
The man pulled out a money clip, and snapped off five crisp hundreds. He fanned them.
“End of the block.”
Johnny swallowed, wished his friend Jameson was there. He stared at the cash, and thought about all the friends it would buy him. He set his jaw and nodded.
“Sit back sir. I’ll get you there.” He would, too.
And the sooner the better. He’d had passengers like this before. Liked to play games. Predators smelling blood in the water. Better done, better gone, his mother would say. The stranger dropped back into the cab, and Johnny leaned his shoulder into the cart, legs digging in. It rolled forward, easy, but not as before. He set a steady pace. Sooner done, sooner gone.
Sweat beaded his forehead though the ocean breeze, cool and sweet, wicked it away almost as quickly, and he was grateful for it. Even off the Atlantic, the summer heat could burn a man up like a short match. Time passed with what felt to Johnny like the second coming of a glacial age. The world fell into silence, even the ever-present cries of greedy gulls fading. The quiet rushed into his ears, halting his progress. He looked up, then behind. The Continental was a small white blotch behind him, the details fuzzed like an oil painting. Ahead, a lake mirrored the sky, and at its far side, a wide forest. Here, Johnny stood on the high slope of a mountainside, though the boardwalk still crept and curled across the landscape, a road for his passenger.
His heart hammered in fear, and he stepped back, letting the cart sit.
“Everything okay?” his passenger called.
“No. Not in the least,” Johnny said.
He sat, feeling the cool hard boards beneath the backs of his thighs. Maybe that last drink had done for him. Three years pickling his liver. Did he think it wouldn’t reach his brain? Like it lived in a gated community, safe from the depredations of a broken world? He snorted in anger and shame, and threw a rock, watching it arc down the mountainside.
Is that something that would happen in a hallucination?
“Tempus fugit,” the man said from the cart. “Did you know we invented that saying? Five years, five hundred–what’s time when you’re immortal?”
Johnny frowned at the cart. If the world was this, what was that?
“Regardless,” the man said. “Five hundred. End of the block.” A dark hand pointed toward the forest below. “Just a bit further. And if you can’t, well. There are others perhaps more capable. Though the journey back is longer than the way forward, and your lives are so short. Fireflies in a winter storm.”
He reached his hand from the side of the cab, and Johnny saw a glow to it, a sheen that highlighted the fine bones, the elegant nails. The passenger made a flicking motion, like discarding trash. Johnny looked back, at the smudge of the Continental, then forward, to the lake and the forest. He sighed, once, deep and heavy.
“Screw it,” he said.
His mother had once said there are some journeys that can only be finished by going forward, no matter the pain inherent in them. Even if it felt like knives in your legs, you moved forward, because going backwards would be throwing away all you’d suffered.
He pushed to his feet, and once again put his shoulder against the cart. They moved. Again, time slipped by, and he thought that maybe he’d be here forever, Sisyphus shoving a passenger car. But no, he was making headway. Soon, the water was beside him, lapping at the boards. The sound made him thirsty. It made him think of amber liquid, and the burn that followed. It made him think of the way, when he had just the right amount, butterflies lit in his brain, and unicorns shat rainbows in his heart.
Then the smell of something long dead and bloated came to him, floating and rolling on the gentle tide. Pale flesh, swollen and wrapped in algae. The skin of the skull had swollen around a crown, tarnished and iron. The face, mottled and swollen and flybitten, was familiar to him. The scent was like nothing he’d experienced before, but not unlike a deer he’d once found in the woods, crawling with maggots in the June sun.
“You know him,” the man said, unprompted. “He once came to us from a far-off place, hoping to gain. To use. But time is not gentle, and neither are we.”
Johnny’s stomach clenched, and he turned his head, shoving as hard as possible. He stuffed the memory away, folded and hidden in a corner of his mind so he could take it out later. Tears threatened to come, but his anger forced them back first, and then rationale. The world was broken, just as promises were. This would not change the path he had taken. Perhaps though, given time and inspection, it would change the path he walked? He shook his head to clear the thoughts and moved on.
The lake sped by. They slipped into the shadow of the forest, the scents of conifer and mulch replacing that of corruption. He breathed easy again, slowed his pace. Ahead, the boardwalk ended. Here, sunlight speared between leaf and bough in shafts that dazzled his eyes. Small animals scampered and played in the undergrowth, and larger skulked in the shadows. The cart rolled to a halt, and Johnny heard the sound of bootheels on wood. He waited, but no one came to the other side to pay him. Anger at being stiffed overtook fear, and Johnny stepped around the side, to check the seat and look for his passenger. Ahead, the city stretched out before him, and the crowds once again swept across the concrete.
Johnny snapped a look backwards, but again found only city. He cast one forlorn look at the seat, finding only faded threadbare cloth, worn by passenger and sun. He climbed in and leaned back, closing his eyes. It’d been a long day. A hard day. He needed a drink, but the sight of his father roiling in the surf punched into his skull, and he thought maybe water would do for now. After a moment, he chuckled to himself, his dear departed mother’s voice echoing in his head.
A man who trusts carefully can never be made a fool, she’d say, but it’s a fool who trusts promises anyway.