“I’m not a Wait-lister,” I said.
“No?” He pushed back his short-order-cook hat with the heel of his hand. “And twenty-first century? A visitor, then. From where?”
Artie smiled. “Ever been out to Asbury?”
“Remember my place on the Boardwalk?”
“I think so,” I lied.
“Then maybe you remember
those hypodermics that washed up ten summers ago on the
Artie went down the counter, serving his Wait-listers milk shakes and scoops of sauerkraut. When he returned, I asked him, “What’s so heavenly about this place?”
Artie laughed. “‘Heavenly’? It’s heaven, Jack, the genuine article. You’ve heard that one of twenty people who ever lived is
alive today — but the other nineteen?” He tapped an
index finger on the counter. “Right here. It took a maximum of six billion
souls to bring you the glories of the Inquisition or the world wars or the
Crusades — or hypodermics on the
My stomach inarticulately instructed me to take that Derelict Soup now. I added enough pepper to disguise the fact that there was a taste, and washed the memory out of my mouth with a glass of water.
As I went on toward the housing projects, the Wait-listers multiplied. Not all were poor — some wheeled carts of dog-eared magazines and broken appliances, others furs and jewelry — and their clothes were of no one time or place. I saw Waitlisters in stovepipe hats, in saffron robes, lime-green leisure suits, samurai armor, highnecked Victorian dresses, Hawaiian shirts; they looked back at me through monocles, pince-nez, Ray-Bans, lorgnettes.
The projects — there might have been twelve or twelve hundred buildings — were wreathed in an impenetrable low-lying fog, as if I had, in traveling to this sector of heaven, come so far as to enter another kind of weather. A few lights glowed dull and brown through newspapers pasted into windows in lieu of curtains, and fewer residents wandered the weed-cracked concrete paths between unkempt browning lawns. Where in these ghost ships on this dead sea could I find Ruan Lingyu?
Not in Building 55, the first place to which I was directed; nor in Building AR-2, where I found a heap of yellowing correspondence addressed to Ruan and her junk-mail alter egos R. Lingyu, Rune Lingyu, Occupant, and Ronald Ling. Someone had scrawled, on what looked like a chain letter, “Forward to York Bldg., No. 6 N.W., 4th Floor.”
Fire had hollowed out boarded-up Building 6 Northwest from empty window frames to unlit lobby, where a broken pipe sprayed a fine stream of water into the darkness, and catlike rats — or ratlike cats — scuffled through the ashen mud. At the fourth floor I knocked on the door; knocked harder, and the door came ajar. I stood on the threshold of a room in which no light was on, and I would have turned back, were it not for a very slight floral scent that told me there might be life within.
The rooms were strung together railroad-style, and as I made my way toward the final chamber in the line, the scent grew stronger. It was orange blossom water.