genre fiction and style: robert stone

From Robert Stone, Children of Light:
At seven-fifteen, half an hour before sunset, he was pulling into San Epifanio Beach, the last repair of untranslated seediness in the county. The beach had oil rigs offshore and an enormous German Expressionist power plant on the city line. There was a fishing pier borne seaward on spindly pilings in defiance of the Pacific rollers, the far end of which vanished into enshrouding fog. At right angles to the coast road, garnished with a rank of rat-infested royal palms, ran the lineup of tackle stores, taco stands and murky cocktail lounges that was the beach’s principal thoroughfare.Walker braked at the intersection to let a party of surf punks cross. The slashes of green or orange in their close-cropped hair reminded him suddenly of the patch of white that had appeared in his brother’s hair following rheumatic fever. The four youths glared at him with impersonal menace as they went by.Three blocks beyond the main drag rose the San Epifanio Beach Hotel, a nine-story riot of exoticism that dominated the downtown area. It was a shameless building from another age, silent-movie Spanish. With its peeling stucco walls, its rows of slimy windows and soiled shades, it was a structure so outsized and crummy that the sight of it could taint the nicest day. Walker was fond of it because he had been happy there. He had lived in the hotel years before in a room beside an atelier where a blind masseur cohabited with Ramon Novarro’s putative cousin. He had been married there, in the dingy ballroom, amid cannabis fumes.Walker pulled over into the guest parking lot. A tough-looking little Chicana with a ponytail, a baseball cap and bib overalls handed him a claim ticket.He went past the theater-style marquee over the main entrance and walked round to the beach side of the building. Several empty tables were arranged on a veranda overlooking a nearly deserted park. At the far end of the park four black teenagers, stripped to the waist, were playing basketball. Nearer the hotel, some Hare Krishnas from Laguna were chanting for the entertainment of two elderly couples in pastel clothes.Walker ambled across the park to the beach. The wind was sharp, it had grown chilly with the approach of sunset. The declining sun itself was obscured in dark banks of cloud. Walker watched the waves break against the dark purple sand. Once he had seen porpoises there, seven together, playing just outside the break line of the surf. He had been standing in the same place, on the edge of the park around sunset. His wife had been beside him. His children were digging in the sand and she had called to them, pointing out to sea, to the porpoises. It had been a good omen in a good year.He walked along the sand until he felt cold, then climbed back to the park up a dozen cement steps that were littered with plastic carriers and beer cans and smelled of urine.The wall of the corridor between the main entrance and the inner lobby of the San Epifanio was covered in worn striped wallpaper against which were hung ghastly seascapes at close intervals. Once past them, he strolled into the candlelit gemütlichkeit of the Miramar Lounge, all nets and floats and steering wheels. There was not much sunset to be seen through the picture windows but the lights were low and the bar and adjoining tables fairly crowded. The customers were middle-aged, noisy and dressed for golf–a hard-liquor crowd. Walker took the only vacant stool at the bar and ordered a Bloody Mary. The drink when it came was bitter, hefty with cheap vodka. Strong drinks were a selling point of the place.On the stool next to Walker sat a blond woman who was drinking rather hungrily of her gin-and-tonic and toying with a pack of Virginia Slims. She appeared to be in her early thirties and attractive, but Walker was not certain of either impression. He was not altogether sober and it was difficult to see people clearly in the lighting of the Miramar Lounge. That was the way they liked it there.At the entrance to the bar, adjoining the corridor through which he had passed, was a phone booth, one from the old days decorated with sea horses and dolphins in blue and white tile. After a moment, Walker picked up his drink and went to the phone booth. He took out his black book with its listing of the Baja location numbers and his telephone credit card.He took a long sip, held his breath and dialed. The resonance of submarine depths hummed in the wires as he waited for the ring. When it came, he closed his eyes.When the telephone rang she was outside, in a lounge chair on the sand, looking into the afterglow of sunset. Her children were playing with their father at the water’s edge; she had watched the three forms darken to silhouettes in the dying light. The soft honey glow of the children’s bodies had faded in the quick dusk; now their scamperings and her husband’; thin-limbed gestures against the radiant foam and magenta sky suggested puppetry to her. It was an ugly thought and she forced it aside. She let the phone ring until she saw that her husband had heard it; knee deep in light surf, he had turned at the sound. She stood up aid took her sunglasses off.”I’ll get it,” she called to him.She jogged up to the open door of their bungalow, wiped her sandy feet on the straw mat and rushed to the phone.”Lu Anne,” said the voice on the far end when she answered. “Lu Anne, it’s Gordon. Gordon Walker.”She had known, she thought, who it would be. Watching the sun go down she had been thinking of him and thinking that he would call that night.”Hello? Lu Anne? Can you hear me?”Walker did not try to place the call again. He picked up his drink from beside the telephone and went back to his barstool.She might have been on the line, he thought. Perhaps it was only a thrill of fear she felt at the sound of his voice. Perhaps calm resolution and refusal. Perhaps someone else had picked up the phone.But it was Mexico, Mexican phones. As likely as not he had spoken into a dead line, into an unheeding, untroubled past. There was so much to be said, he thought, for leaving things alone.Beside him, the blond woman on the neighboring stool had put a cigarette to her lips, supporting it with a bridge of fore and middle finger. It seemed somehow a quaint gesture, suggestive of film noir intrigue. Walker’s hand was on the lighter in his jacket pocket, but he checked the impulse. He did not want to pick her up. And although he was curious about her, he did not feel like forcing conversation.He studied her in the candlelight. Not bad for the San Epo, he thought. She seemed free of the principal undesirable qualities common to pickups at the lounge, in that she was neither a prostitute nor a man in drag. She seemed, in fact, a fresh-faced, confused and vaguely unhappy young woman who had no business on a San Epifanio Beach barstool. He was about to give her a light out of common politeness when, from somewhere behind him, a flame was thrust forth and she inclined her cigarette to receive it. She smiled uncertainly over Walk-er’s shoulder and murmured her gratitude. Walker, who had not turned around, found himself listening to merry masculine laughter of an odd register. A voice boomed forth, subduing all other sounds in the place.”I’ve recently had the opportunity to visit Mount Palomar,” the voice declared with a dreadful earnestness, “and was devastated by the sheer beauty I encountered there.”Such a sound, Walker considered, could only be made by forcing t hr breath down against the diaphragm, swallowing one’s voice and then forcing the breath upward, as in song. He listened in wonder as the voice blared on.”Everywhere I travel in California,” it intoned, “I’m–utterly dazzled-by the vistas.”He’s raving mad, thought Walker.”Don’t you find your own experiences to be similar?” the voice demanded of the young woman at the bar. It was a truly unsettling sound, its tone so false as to seem scarcely human.To Walker’s astonishment, the woman smiled wider and began to stammer. “I certainly … yes … why, I do. The vistas are ravishing.””How pleasant an experience,” brayed the voice, “to encounter a fellow admirer of natural wonders.”With as much discretion as possible, Walker turned toward the speaker. He saw a man of about fifty whose nose and cheekbone had been broken, wearing a hairpiece, a little theatrical base and light eyeliner. Returning to his drink, Walker cringed; he had feared to see a face to match the voice and that was what he had seen. It was a smiling face, its smile was a rictus of clenched teeth like a ventriloquist’s. The thought crossed his mind that he was hallucinating. He dismissed it.”So few,” the man enunciated, “truly see the wonders nature arrays before them.”How true, thought Walker.The man eased himself between Walker’s stool and the lady’s, taking possession of her company and presenting a massive shoulder to Walker, his defeated rival. Walker moved his stool slightly so that he would still be able to see her.”I know,” the woman said, with an uneasy laugh. “The average person can be blind to beauty. Even when it’s right in front of them.”He called a waitress and ordered Shelley a White Russian, which was what she claimed she wanted. Before the waitress could leave with the drink order Shelley called her back.”Do you see that man at the bar,” she asked the girl, “the big one with the blond lady?” The waitress followed Shelley’s nod. “We’d like to buy him a drink.””Cut it out, Shelley,” Walker said.”When you give him the drink,” Shelley said, “tell him we’re putting assholes to sleep tonight. And we got his number.””Shut up,” Walker said. “Forget it,” he told the waitress. The waitress was tall and dark, with a long melancholy face. One side of her mouth twitched in a weird affectless smile.


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