The cashier chuckled. “Next thing you know she’s taken a bath in there and I got a flash flood all over the floor. Hey boys” — he held out a box of Garcia y Vega cigars — “someone on earth just had a baby.”
When the policemen had gone,
I said, more to myself than to the cashier,
“You roll in fresh off the hay truck?” said the cashier. “They aren’t ‘homeless,’ they’re Wait-listers, and it’s not exactly ‘graft’” — he weighed it out with his cigar stub — “it’s graft.” His eyes narrowed. “Where you staying, by the way?”
“I’m not,” I said.
He reached beneath the counter. “My finger’s on the alarm. You’ve got three ticks to show me you aren’t a Wait-lister.”
“I came to find Ruan Lingyu,” I said.
He tilted back his head to
scrutinize me below his green eyeshade. “You’re a visitor,”
he murmured finally. “Don’t get many of ‘em here. All I can say is I hope
you’ve got the means. You’re
“Where does Ruan Lingyu live?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Try the projects.”
I took the exit to the street. My pupils contracted. Neon cowboys drew their guns and fired neon tracer bullets, neon bottles of beer drank and refilled themselves, neon pens wrote the names of stationery shops across the backdrop of a night brighter than day. I was aware of a crush of foot-traffic and a pounding of cars in the street, but only vaguely: the thrumming of neon blanketed all other sounds; the towering signs made all other shapes look puny, soft, indistinct, unreal. Now I knew why Ruan Lingyu wore dark glasses.
As I went down the sidewalk — mica, twinkling — more signs came into view, neon moons emerging from behind their planets. An arrow perhaps ten stories high of wavering yellow neon flames undulated downward to a place called Hell. Hell, said the sign in ice-blue letters, Hell in pink, in black light, in chartreuse; Hell in capillary red said my eyelids when I blinked.
Something told me Ruan Lingyu might be in Hell. Doormen in red-sequined devil outfits replete with glow-in-the-dark pitchforks were making a great show of selectivity, unlatching a velvet cordon to admit only the strange, the smart, and the striking — or anyone who arrived in a limousine.
“You!” One of the doormen had singled me out. “Visitor?”
“Is Ruan Lingyu here?” I asked.
“Of course,” he said. “And welcome to Hell.”
I took an escalator down, and a she-devil pressed her forehead to the ticket window and looked me over. Her only satanic accessories were elbow-length red gloves and a headband with pointed ears. “American, twenty-first century? The cover is” — she ran a red fingernail down a printed chart — “two hundred and nine dollars.”
I bent down and said into the louvered metal speaking hole, “I don’t have it. Is Ruan Lingyu here tonight?”
“Of course.” The cashier
lowered her voice and leaned close to the glass.
I dug into my pocket and produced a dime and two nickels.
“That’s fine,” she said, quickly sweeping the coins into her own purse. Evidently the taxi driver wasn’t heaven’s only numismatist. “Welcome to Hell,” she added.
Another escalator led me down into a room whose modest neon sign read Purgatory. One devil stretched a man on the Rack; another, seated before his client like a manicurist, was inserting bamboo slits under the client’s fingernails. Near me a hooded devil with a salt-and-pepper growth of stubble was giving a man strapped into an electric chair a powerful current.