Immoral Woman

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“Enough?” the devil asked, turning the dial back to zero.

“More,” insisted the man in the chair, his chest heaving. “A lot more. C’mon now, really crisp me.”

The devil turned the dial to the maximum. A column of smoke arose from the top of the man’s head, and the devil turned off the dial. “Sick sick sick,” said the devil with matter-of-fact disdain.

I stepped back from a sudden smell of burning hair. “How is it that you don’t kill him?”

“How is it — what?” The devil stared at me. “Oh — a visitor. So welcome to heaven, welcome to Hell. He’s already dead, that’s how.”

The man in the chair grogged awake and slurred, “Byooful. More now.” He clutched the devil’s sleeve. “Execute me.”

The devil gave the dial a contemptuous twist and removed his red hood to wipe his brow. “The business of infinite suffering,” he sighed. “I’ve got to start sending my resume around.”

On the next escalator down I asked a she-devil in a red-sequined bodice if she had seen Ruan Lingyu.

“Of course,” she replied. “Try Sin City, down and right.”

In Sin City middle-aged women with yellow plastic pails fed strange coins into slot machines, remaining equally composed or discomposed through the winning and losing (though there seemed, as on earth, decidedly more of the latter); dyed-blonde girls in diamonds squealed at every spin of roulette wheels while wealthy older men stood behind them, conserving their limited supply of excitement for other occasions; serious bettors played baccarat, unemotionally replenishing the small fortunes that were swept from the tables by devil croupiers; jaded males sat along a counter and lady
angels clad only in white-feathered halos gyrated before them. Pitchfork cocktail stirrers in a large brandy snifter read Hell in Heaven on one side, Heaven in Hell on the other. Ruan Lingyu was nowhere to be found.

I took escalators upward, following signs that read Heaven , Hell .
“Welcome to Hell,” a she-devil told a man just arriving; when the man asked if she’d seen Mamie Eisenhower tonight, she answered, as they always did in Hell, “Of course.” As I left, she called after me, “Welcome to heaven.”

Wait-listers rattled their shopping carts over the mica walk that twinkled as if everything had been turned upside down and the stars lay afoot. The neon signs tapered downward in the distance, and darkness grew up around ghostly towers looming like the masts of tall ships run aground in dry beds of ancient seas: the housing projects where I’d been told I might find Ruan Lingyu.

I had divided my day among earth, heaven and Hell, and I had done it on two hot dogs. Judging by the shopping carts parked in front, I guessed I could afford the fare at an unprepossessing establishment called Artie’s Luncheonette.

“U.S. of A., century two-one?” said a man who was swabbing down the woodgrained formica counter with a cloth that had once been white. “Me too, matter of fact. Your money’s good here.”

“How much is a hamburger, Artie?” He seemed like a man you could address by his first name.

“68 bucks, plain no pickle.”

“I only have 42,” I told him.

“Sorry,” said Artie, drawing a cup of coffee for a Wait-lister two stools down. “If it’s close I work a break for a fellow Wait-lister. All’s I can offer you is Derelict Soup — hot water, you add ketchup and imagination. I’ll even snazz it up with a couple rounds of melba toast.”



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