Shane Harrison

  Shane Harroson's short story collections are The Benefits of Tobacco and Blues before Dawn.  
 

 

Cloud City

Dusk had yet to gather beyond the glass fronted entrance of Cloud City’s bus terminal but there were premonitions that it soon would. There was a subtle deepening in the reflected sky in the impressive facade and an imperceptible lessening of the afternoon’s heat that stilled the dust devils on the pavement and thinned the scent of columbine in the already thinning air. As the Greyhound pulled away five of the half dozen alighting passengers scattered like papers in its wake, but one stood still by the kerb facing up the incline with calm expectation. Only as the scene settled to leave her in splendid isolation did she move, barely sigh, and finally allow a frown to cross her smooth features.

Hannah had been here before, but even then she had been struck by deja vu. She knew the jagged mountains that rose beyond the town and the diaphanous towers that reflected the sky, blue and cloudy by day and black and twinkling by night. There were places up there on Main Street, she was sure, where she had drunk coffee and smoked Marlboros as the citizens of Cloud City passed aimlessly on the sidewalks. Or maybe before that she had floated on the raised boardwalks, all bustles and stays and swinging parasol while dangerous men tipped their hats on passing. Now she waited and her patience was rewarded with the eventual approach of a low slung car.
The Chevrolet was in the classic mould with fins and grinning grills, low and wide on the road. It would one day be made over as a desirable vintage, its owner proudly pounding on the wax, but this was not the day and Brett McTaggart was not that owner. It was not exactly ironic that McTaggart was Gaelic for son of the priest; he may have regarded religion as an abomination but he held such views with religious fervour. He was darkly attired too and dark and sombre of looks, his bristling hair and bristling beard prematurely flecked with grey. Hannah smiled to herself at a sudden insight. The son of a preacherman, she muttered beneath her breath.
Brett did not apologise for being late. He was worth waiting for, he was sure. He shook hands and chanced an awkward air kiss, then leant back, hands now safely pocketed and regarded her a bit too long for Hannah to be strictly comfortable.
“Well,” he said, at last, in a practised western drawl, “don’t you look good.”
She was irritated. “I look better sitting down,”
Brett shrugged and opened the passenger door for her with an exaggerated flourish. “Is this all?” He addressed her bulky, but lonely, holdall.
“I travel light,” she said, sitting in and slamming the door herself. Brett snatched at the bag without enough care, and was conscious of a hot twinge in his back as it thumped heavily into the trunk.

Hannah wanted to pass by the Silver Dollar, even to stop in briefly, although she was tired. Brett convinced her of her tiredness and she couldn’t be bothered arguing. The Chevrolet lumbered up Main Street. Its dusty windshield filled alternatively with buildings, wires and sky as it negotiated the tilted, undulating city grid. There was a no smoking sign on the dashboard which caught her sullen attention. It wasn’t that she wanted to smoke, she rarely did when sober, but who the hell put a no smoking sign in their own car? Surely you would know the rules of your own car off by heart, especially if you were Brett McTaggart. At any rate, there was a smell of smoke in the car, although it was more the smell of a diseased engine. It made her nauseous and she opened the window.
“Hot?” Brett asked and in a show of sympathy began to fiddle with the air conditioning which now released sporadic blasts of fetid fuel-soaked air into the compartment.
Hannah sighed, “Christ!” she said.
She consoled herself in the monotony of the street names, first, second and so on all the way up to twelfth where Brett swung recklessly left onto a wide avenue heading up towards the hills and into the sunset. She remembered the avenues with the houses detached and set back amongst the pines, indiscriminate in their mixture of culture and class. Great colonial piles stood beside modest timber bungalows, gothic fantasies were sandwiched between plain ticky-tacky and this eclectic mixture extended to the churches – Our Lady of Guadaloupe shining splendidly in the shadow of disapproval of the Free Baptist Hall of Reverend Zemeski. Leaving Hutchinson Avenue they crossed the level crossing and turned onto Osgood Avenue and Hannah caught sight of the Silver Dollar, its neons just shimmering on and the sky behind burning with the electric dusk of some fantastic aquarium. She wondered if the boys were there.
Brett read her mind. “Don’t figure on the boys being there,” he said.
“Why, not do the best Manhattan in Cloud City anymore?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Brett failed to elaborate.
“Maybe later we can check it out then,” Hannah could feel her words fall without conviction. Brett fumbled in his door and drew out a cd case.
“I picked this up in Iceland,” he said.
Hannah wondered what you could pick up in Iceland, it seemed too clean. That was the whole reason why Brett had been there, she supposed, so clean, so white. Maybe you could catch alcoholism, but with a lot of determination. Brett put the cd in, it was Bjork or something similar. The rest of the journey was quiet tedium interspersed with unexpected shrieks.

Cloud City hadn’t been long growing. The first clapboard shacks had sprung up in the yellow haze of the goldrush, populated by desperados who had come to dust the sharp mountains for loot. Speculators moved in, carved up the country into rectangular plots, saloons and cantinas sprang up, the first rough hotels, casinos, a brothel or two and, of course, the theatre. Then the more legitimate businessmen – bakers and bankers, lawyers and journalists; deep down though, Cloud City remained a town of miners and whores, gunmen and gamblers, renegades attracted here by the promise of golddust and held by the dirt of money. It all seems cleaner now and the financial district soars and sparkles like a cold fairground, but still they’re just miners and whores.
Hannah found herself in Brett’s yard, exhaling smoke savagely into the fallen evening and wondering how long it would take her to hike down to Main Street. It wasn’t going well. She wished that the house on Elm Street had lived up to its billing in a more dramatically gothic way. Something a bit more turn of the century would have been fine, a mansard roofed turret and some shingle cladding perhaps, but instead it was sixties-ish anonymity with picture windows and featureless planes. She didn’t quite feel that she had walked into Bate’s Motel but something about the sober furnishings, more stealthy than comfortable, gave her the creeps.
Brett was the perfect gentleman, or at least a passable imitation of one. He rubbed his hands and bared his teeth in an attempt to convey joviality, or anticipation – she wasn’t sure – then promptly began banging around the kitchen dismembering vegetables for the promised feast. There were vegetables she had never seen before, most still coated unpromisingly in mud and sprouting unhealthy explosions of leaves. Hannah had wondered whether he was preparing food for a herd of rabbits or some idiosyncratic menagerie before realising beneath Brett’s pitying stare that, no, this was to be their meal.
She left him in the fluorescent glare of the kitchenette, sweat and resentment shining on his skin and went out to the yard to light up. She thought that Brett would have had it all mapped out but that was true only insofar as things pertained to himself. She had forgotten how singular he was, how engaged he could be with his own charisma. There he was at home, if this really was his home and not a reality show set or a safe house in some witness protection programme. There was Brett at the centre of everything, in the kitchen preparing dinner which he would then cook, serve and wait for her to admire. And then what?
“You do remember?” she had to ask. “You do know what I’m here for?”
He made a dilettantish gesture while tossing the salad, “And here I am,” he said.
She swore and turned away. “The past,” she said, “but not that past.”
She excused herself and said she needed time to freshen up, but mostly it was to stand still in the shower, thinking. The weightless spray bore her up and bore her backwards and, forming its dense mist, became for a moment the clouds that pressed down eternally on the city. In the white she thought she could discern the drooping lattice work of telegraph wires, remembering how that gloom seeped into the interiors of the buildings – the hotel lobbies, saloons and even into the redbrick sailing ship of the Opera House. She had always wondered what that was doing there, all that finesse and frills amongst the shotgun shacks of Main Street and, within, its velour drapes and chandeliers an ironic riposte to the all prevalent stink of tobacco and horse dung.
She wondered what she was doing there.
Hannah had come from the nothingness of Cloud City and now she was back again. She knew her family name was engraved on the rustic sign above the door of the Silver Dollar Saloon, a faded reminder of the days when it was known as D’Arcy’s Bar. She knew old man D’Arcy had been a miner but where exactly he had come from it was hard to say. He was probably of Irish stock, but she had yet to find a satisfactory paper trail to link him to anywhere outside Cloud City.
Where exactly he had gone to was something of a mystery too. All Hannah knew was that he had married the singer, Annie Oriole. They had lived a life of laughter and shrieks, punctuated by mutual left hooks in the tumbledown bar D’Arcy had bought with the silver he had scraped from the ground. She had left him with twin boys and a blue eyed girl, then left him for good and all, taking the golden arm of a suave Southerner who had massaged the card tables of bars and railcars all the way from the Great Plains to the Pacific. Oriole didn’t quite disappear, she carved out a tawdry career of sorts in the dives of San Francisco, ultimately saved, in sentimental legend, by her blue eyed daughter, before this brief mythology itself faded.
D’Arcy himself had vanished as if a frozen cloud had floated down from the mountains and carried him off into the West. By which time Cloud City itself was sinking, hollowed out of its silver and sodden with rain and snow, it was preparing to slowly rust back into the earth from which it had sprung. Yet it had survived, and the D’Arcy’s had survived, or one of them had.
The local priest, Father Daniel, had seen to their schooling but decided that the boys should be schooled separately. And so, ten years after, Bill D’Arcy received the benefits from the sale of the Silver Dollar and got a boarding school education with the Marist Fathers in Chicago. He was Big Bill D’Arcy in his college football days, then a pugnacious journalist who made money and trouble in equal measure and who, on a sentimental whim, came to live in Ireland, back to the auld sod, after the failure of his first marriage. That was how Hannah came to have a grandfather who was a Yank, after he somehow managed to marry into good Limerick Catholic stock, his money probably talking up an annulment and helping to suppress unwelcome talk too. That was the D’Arcys for you, blink too often and they’re gone, or peculiarly changed.
It was the missing strands in her own old country, in America, that Brett was supposed to pursue and unravel for her. That nebulous first marriage, what became of Ted D’Arcy and the blue eyed daughter, Annie. Where was her skin and blood now, was there any there in the red clay beneath Cloud City?

At last Brett remembered that he knew how to show a gal a good time. He uncorked a bottle of wine and told her they would return to some of the old haunts and he felt that might help. It was only white wine, she noted, but she was anxious to push the moment.
“Now,” she said.
“The past,” he replied.
“Yes, but now.”
And so they took the Chevrolet down to the bright lights through shifting curtains of mountain cloud. They continued on down Hutchinson to 13th Street and as they taxied up to the kerb outside the Silver Dollar it was clear that whatever bright lights had once been here had long since dimmed. Even so, through the murky air, she could make out the D’Arcy name still swinging there on the sign over the door. It was cold and the street was eerily deserted as they stepped onto the sidewalk. From the doorway beckoned the muffled sounds of the bar room, laughter, oaths and the tinkle of glasses. She was tempted but she demurred. She took out a cigarette and flicked her Mustang lighter. Brett coughed and indicated a plastic sign by the window. No smoking, it said, within fifteen feet of this doorway.
“Well, I won’t go far so.”
He smiled, for once.
“You go ahead,” she said, “I’ll take five.”
Hannah slouched at the doorway, resting her ass on the sign. She had to hug herself it was so cold. It was misty too. It seemed to Hannah that Cloud City was being disassembled before her eyes. Looking off down deserted 13th Street the financial district had gone. In its place she could just discern the gaunt girders of the mine shaft and, closer, the railway line ran unobscured towards the mountain pass.
She took one last drag, threw the butt into the muddy street. With an insistent heartbeat she recognised the footprint of Brett McTaggart frozen into the mud, then the fresher footprints of a larger man. Time pressed unexpectedly in on her and she turned and hurried through the saloon door. Inside there was a tense, pregnant hush and she could sense that all eyes had turned to her and away from some suspended drama. Through the smoke she saw the boys, Alvin, Rick, Leo and Chuck, together as always but strangely changed. They were both older and younger which somehow made sense, like the feeling you get from an old family photograph or a cherished memory. Their chins were stubbled and their young moustaches drooped but more than that there was a sepia, old world patina to their clothes. Hannah realised that the wear and tear was genuine and not the factory stressing you would find on the racks at Sears.
Their eyes, and her’s too, were drawn back to the drama and the giant figure of a man at the corner of the bar. A mighty grizzly bear of a man who turned and spat fire.

He sat with his back to the door, something he might usually have called careless, but it was complacency really, he liked that distinction. The saloon and its clientele soothed him, the lemon glow of the lanterns, the slow swirl of smoke about the rough timbered bar, the glow of liquor in bottles and glasses and, beyond the murmur of the card players, the whistle of the wind through the cracks in the door jam. Indeed Cloud City itself soothed him and that made a change. He was safe here except maybe in the frisson every so often of a quick glance from Jane behind the bar. He could take that as a hint of danger, or maybe the threat of more safety, but it didn’t concern him much.
He held a dime novel on his lap, casting his eyes down again to avoid the look. On the page Kit Carson was hunkered down in a dry gulch as five stealthy and murderous Cheyenne braves inched towards him. There was a sudden furious burst out of the brush as a warrior charged and got to within six yards before Carson felled him with both barrels. But the exchange was enough of a distraction to allow the leading warrior get to within striking distance of Carson, his tomahawk lethally poised.
An adjustment of the winter wind outside and a sudden irregular beat on the boardwalk caused him to take his eyes from the page and shift in his chair to a position side on to the door. As if on cue the door swung blindly open, admitting a swirl of snowflakes and a figure clad in bristling black fur. It was soon obvious to those who looked, bristling even more dangerously with energy beneath it. The sheriff knew who it was, casually marked the page with the Lucifer he’d been chewing and sat with apparent ease, his sheriff’s star exposed and plainly shining.
D’Arcy had seen him but did not acknowledge him in his unhurried sweep to the bar where Jane was already uncorking a bottle and pouring a large Irish. This was downed in the growing silence, a silence emphasised by the snap of the empty tumbler on the counter. All eyes, the boys at their cards, Jane, the two strangers at the pushpenny table, were now turned to the sheriff as D’Arcy still loomed hugely but determinedly turned away.
When D’Arcy spoke it was softly, but his words carried through the saloon. “There’s them that are taken into this town to stop the thievin’, and quickly turn to thieves themselves.”
The sheriff slowly pushed the table back with his toe. “Welcome home, Jim,” was all he said.
D’Arcy was pouring himself another shot, dispatched in the same manner as the first. “And there’s some things that are stolen that you can never get back. Never.”
That last ‘never’ was accompanied by the snap of the tumbler on the counter and once again the shift in the wind as the door swung open, this time admitting a woman they all knew, two of them too well.
A deeper gust of wind this time blew all the way into the centre of the saloon. The sheriff was aware of time slowing down in the fall of the snowflakes, in the cards rising magically into the air. He knew he was standing and he felt his knee bark off the edge of the table which pitched sideways and just hung there. In front of him the great bearlike shape of Jim D’Arcy turned and a barrel of metal gleamed out of the blackness of his clothes. The sheriff would have drawn too but Annie Oriole had moved into his line of sight. He shot out his right arm to push her roughly to the side when he heard the booming noise of the gun discharging, felt immediately the impossible stain of heat spread across the right side of his chest. The sheriff was catapulted back several feet into the drapes cloaking the front window. Only he could have heard the dull thud as he hit the frame which somehow didn’t give but only slid him safely down onto the sill.
The ceiling was emerging out of the nothingness and peering down from it, at first a great ways off but slowly looming larger, were four friendly faces. He smiled and blinked with slow contentment. The boys, he thought, the good old boys. He heard Chuck’s voice gabbling with excitement.
“I sure I done winged him, boss, but he’s bigger ‘n a bear and wouldn’t fall. Done throw himself through the window into the alley there and take off to the mountains like a scalded grizzly...” Here, Chuck’s narrative collapsed in a fit of laughter and coughing.
A friendly, older hand patted his shoulder, “You done good boy, real good.” Alvin turned back to the stricken sheriff with more serious intent. “We can saddle up and hightail after him. Don’t reckon D’Arcy’ll get too far on that old roan of his.”
The sheriff forced himself to sit up, pain shooting through his chest and shoulder. With difficulty he turned his head down to look at what should have been a blood shattered wound. He heard Alvin emit a low whistle. “Don’t reckon I’ve ever seen the like.” The light of the oil lamp fell on the mangled parabola of the sheriffs badge. Alvin’s voice continued with quiet awe, “Darn bullet must’ve just hit it and bounced. You’re a lucky man, sheriff.”
Then, at last, Annie Oriole’s face came into his vision, a smile on her lips. “A very lucky man, indeed, Sheriff McTaggart.”

When they helped the sheriff back to his chair, Leo put the novel back on the righted table. The pages were sodden with spilt liquor.
“Maybe you could put it by the stove for it to dry out, boss,” he said, apologetically.
The sheriff shrugged. He knew the end to that story anyhow. As the assassin paused the recognition dawned, Carson saw who it was and Black Bear realised he was discovered. Those Indian features seldom smiled, the mouth turned downwards a bit more, it was alright to be discovered, now, as he prepared to dispatch his longtime enemy. This was family business after all; Carson had married Black Bear’s sister, Pale Star, and that fact had festered between them in the opposite of love. If this was to be the end after endless duels then it was worth savouring.
It was a fatal pause. As Black Bear prepared to swing his tomahawk, a shot skewered the air and he hung motionless, his eyes clearing and then glazing, before he pitched forward on top of Kit Carson. Carson was a survivor, but he would have struggled to believe he was still alive in the circumstances. He peered out from beneath the dead Indian to see that his remaining foe had scattered and he saw Pale Star standing there, all buckskin and beads and a Winchester lifted to her shoulder, one eye half closed.