Excerpt for Einstein in Flamingoland - Confessions of a Fellow Traveler by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Author’s call ‘Einstein in Flamingoland’ –


"addictive. the surreal journey of a likeable eccentric that gets more colorful with every chapter. It has everything, zero fields, aliens, mystery, witchery ---

Ashen Venema

Course of Mirrors


“very, very clever; worth the read on cleverness alone.”

K.C. Hart

A Summer Rose


“a treasure. Is this guy nuts or is something really going on here? Each character has a story worth telling. Yet it is the wacky stream-of-consciousness ramblings of the narration that puts Einstein in Flamingoland over the top.”

PD Allen

Murderer’s Sky


“riveting stuff, extraordinarily moving, beautifully written.”

D. A. Seaby

Badd


“a wonderfully gentle human journey.”

Monique Grbec

The Male Influence


“beautifully humorous. Inevitably, parallels will be drawn with this and ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, but it is much more than that.”

Nicholas Boving

The Warlock


Einstein in Flamingoland is a novel; by definition, a work of fiction. Other than those well-known individuals referred to for purposes incidental to the telling of the tale, names, characters, and events are products of my imagination. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, in this or any other universe is purely coincidental.


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Published by George Brinner / brinnerArt at Smashwords


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Copyright 2018 © George R. Brinner

This book is available in 6”x 9” print format at most retailers

Cover design and graphics by George Brinner





The Beach at Keawakapu - Oil on Canvas - 48”x 60”

A painting by George Brinner www.brinnerart.com



Contents


Chapter 1: Sergeant Tom

Chapter 2: Lightfoot

Chapter 3: The Einstein Room

Chapter 4: Dinner at La Posada

Chapter 5: A Night at the Martini Lounge

Chapter 6: The Gazebo

Chapter 7: The Traffic Stop

Chapter 8: Pig’s Feet

Chapter 9: The Railroad Crossing

Chapter 10: Sam’s Shell

Chapter 11: The Dixie Diner

Chapter 12: The Doodle

Chapter 13: Life According to Hillary

Chapter 14: Johnny Ray Goes Hunting

Chapter 15: The Napoleon House

Chapter 16: Thespians

Chapter 17: Darla’s

Chapter 18: Boys and Bayous

Chapter 19: The Reunion

Chapter 20: Chartres

Chapter 21: The Promise

Chapter 22: The St. Charles Trolley

Chapter 23: Pink Flamingos

Chapter 24: The Turquoise Room

Author’s Statement

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Einstein in Flamingoland

Confessions of a Fellow Traveler


A Novel by

George Brinner



1


Sergeant Tom


On my first day in Arizona's Winslow Prison they stuck me in a cell with an old redneck jailbird from north of Payson.

Hands clasped behind his head, he was flat on his back in the top bunk, eyes locked on the concrete ceiling. He didn’t bother to look down when the door clanged closed behind me. An hour passed before he acknowledged my presence.

“They’re shipping me down to Perryville in the morning,” he said. A smoker’s rasp underscored his country drawl.

I made no reply.

“You know, in ‘eighty-one, I was on the first busload of convicts into Perryville,” he said. “It was all shiny and new back then. Now, ten years later, here they go hauling me back down there. Don’t seem like I'm makin' a lot of progress.”

He turned on his side and looked down at me for the first time.

“What’s your name, son?” The old jailbird asked.

“Gille – Gille Barker.”

The old man’s bloodshot eyes bugged in mock dismay.

“Jill, you say; never met a man named Jill,” he said. “Bet your folks were a little twisted – either that, or your momma was a big Johnny Cash fan.” He choked on a snorted chuckle.

Not wanting to sound disagreeable, I said, “I never asked where they came up with the name and they never told. One thing though; it's spelled G-i-l-l-e, not J-i-l-l, like you might suppose; French I think.”

“Well, now I wish I didn’t have to leave this dump in the morning. Wouldn’t mind being around when you explain that French connection to the boys in the yard. You're liable to get some mixed reviews.

“Safe to say some of ‘em won't take too kindly to a spelling bee either, so you might want to take that into consideration.”

He chuckled and lobbed a tobacco chaw from his jaw into a bucket, inches from my feet.

“What kinda’ time you lookin’ at, Gille?”

“Three years.”

I was plenty scared now, and he knew it.

“You should be all right, son; just stay with the Caucasians and – –” He paused in mid-sentence and looked me over from head to toe.

“You are a white boy, aren’t you?” He finally asked.

“Uh huh.”

“Well then, like I was saying, stay close to your own kind. Blacks and beaners might be considered good company where you come from, but this is your world now; best you don’t make eye contact either, at least till you get the hang of things. And, whatever you do, don’t cut in on any kind of line.”

He fell back on his bunk and was soon asleep.

Although his ‘blacks and beaners' reference was disagreeable, it did make sense behavior familiar to me may not be viewed in a favorable light by everyone behind these prison walls. Weighing the options and considering the gravity of my situation, I decided to take his advice on all counts. A few months later I heard the old jailbird dropped dead in the Perryville yard. I never had a chance to thank him.

**

Surviving Winslow prison is no longer a concern of mine as I walk down this stark white corridor with Sergeant Tom Haynes close by my side. The Sergeant fiddles with buttons on his walky-talky, barking reports of our progress to guards in the prison tower. The monotonous clap of his leather-soled shoes bounces off the concrete floor and echoes down the corridor. Harsh fluorescent light turns our flesh ghostly gray.

We approach a massive steel door. An actor in a play of his own design, Sergeant Haynes holds the walky-talky against his lips and feigns a whisper.

“Opening corridor gate one.”

The salt and pepper hairs of the Sergeant’s walrus mustache rustle with each breath, a breath textured, moist and pungent, like the smell of rotting fish that garnered him his Tommy Tuna moniker among the inmates. His incessant popping of cinnamon Tic-Tacs has scant influence on the unpleasant aroma of Carp in decay.

Crackles and screeches from the walky-talky fall into a static calm.

**

My friend, Ron, from the planet Zargon in the galaxy of Dargo, hundreds of millions of light years, but only a short wormhole away, glides along just paces ahead. He looks back. He nods and transmits a smile before passing through the prison’s steel door with the ease of a knife slicing through opaque Jell-O.

Ron visited me seven times while I was stuck in a cage on Winslow’s high desert plateau. He stayed over on occasion, lounging on the empty bunk in my cell, jabbering through the night about this and that in his telepathic way. He was carefree as a weekend vacationer at one of the elite resorts of Wailea on the island of Maui, my home before the State of Arizona saw fit to make me a felon worthy of spending endless days in the company of petty thieves, drug dealers, psychopaths of every stripe, and my fellow victims of circumstance.

**

Sergeant Tom and I stand quietly in front of the prison exit door. A high-pitched garbled voice from his walky-talky breaks the silence.

“Copy that, Sergeant. Opening gate one.”

“Ten-four.”

The Sergeant clips the walky-talky to his breast pocket and pulls out a double ring of keys bolted to his belt on a retractable spool. He unlocks a metal box mounted to the wall and pushes a red button that begins flashing like a traffic stoplight. A deafening beeping echoes down the corridor as the exit door grinds open on its slider tracks. The spooler snaps the Sergeant’s keys back against his belt like jangling trinkets on a yo-yo’s yo.

I grip my bag in front of me, my duffle full of odds and ends I’ve collected during the last nine hundred fourteen days, and step over a bright red line painted across the threshold.

“Good luck, Gille.” Sergeant Tom shakes my hand with both of his. He smiles; his teeth show the nicotine stains of a two pack a day man double-timing his way toward the undertaker’s metal slab.

“Why thank you,” I say.

But I know Tommy Tuna’s wish of ‘good luck’ has no chance of bringing me any such thing. Luck has nothing more to do with the future than the past, or the present for that matter; it has no meaning in the reality of things.

I have known this truth since my friend, Zargon Ron, dropped many of life’s secrets on me while explaining the workings of the Zargonian evolutionary game; the sole purpose for human existence on this planet. That was soon after our first encounter more than thirty-five years ago, two nights before my eighth Christmas, in the year of nineteen hundred and fifty-four.

**

I raise my hand above my shoulder and wave a casual Hawaiian shaka of farewell toward Sergeant Tom Haynes as I walk away from the prison for the first and last time. I don’t look back. Making that sign of friendship toward my captor after these hundreds of days under his lock and key must seem as strange to him as it does to me. But I know I have little choice in the matter. My programming calls for a polite manner and a civil disposition.

The door grinds back across the slider track and slams shut against its metal casing. I have heard that sound, muffled by prison walls, hundreds of times before while sitting on a bench in the exercise yard or sipping a cup of coffee in the cafeteria or lying on my back in my cell divining the secrets of time as it fluttered by. It is the sound of a prisoner’s return to the real world; a killer turned back on his prey; a purse-snatcher on the loose once more; a new dawn for those of us not criminally inclined. Yes, I know the sound well.

My time to walk out that door has finally come. Now I rejoin those of you on the other side. I scan across the horizon. Zargon Ron has disappeared for now.

I find myself thinking of Sergeant Tom Haynes, a captive of his own fate. As I consider the mindset that must be in place for a man like the Sergeant to spend thirty years of ten-hour days in voluntary confinement behind Winslow's prison walls, a conversation we once had comes to mind.

**

On one of the more tolerable days at Winslow Prison, after the better part of a year locked away that seemed like ten, I sat on the gray hard-pan and gravel of the prison yard, my back against a concrete pillar. I was lost in thoughts of the chain-link fence fifteen feet high topped with coiled razor-wire surrounding me while watching puffs of clouds float free across the cerulean sky.

Sergeant Tom strolled down the fence line and stopped next to me.

He patted the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief and scanned the horizon, and, for that moment, we might have been kindred spirits with thoughts somehow intertwined.

“Nice day, a hot one though,” Tommy said.

“Yes sir. It sure is that.”

I stood and dusted the dirt from the back of my pants.

“How long you been doing this, Sergeant?” I asked.

“Doing what? Oh, you mean how long have I been a prison guard?”

I nodded.

“A little over twenty-seven years now,” Tommy said. “Just three more and I’m a free man.”

His crooked smile betrayed the irony of his condition.

I told the Sergeant it didn’t seem as though he was looking forward to his retirement, and he said that might be so. What was he going to do on the 'outside'? His pension would barely pay his bills. What job was he qualified for in the real world?

“Who the hell’s going to hire an old prison guard?”

Tommy had the same fears as those of a lifer unexpectedly paroled after spending most of his days locked behind prison walls. Life without his peculiar prison in it was going to be a scary thing for Sergeant Haynes. Turn a thief or drug dealer back on the streets and he can always find a liquor store to stick up or someone willing to pay for a gram or two, but what can the future hold for an old prison guard?

Greeter positions at Walmart are in short supply.

Behind the walls of Winslow Prison, Tommy was somebody. He was Sergeant Tom Haynes, a man worthy of at least a semblance of respect. Those days would be gone.

“Gene over at the Standard station said he might give me a try pumping gas. If that doesn’t work out, I could probably bag groceries part time at the Safeway; there’s not much more I can hope for,” Tommy said.

**

As dire as his situation seemed to him that day, Tommy’s fate will be far grimmer than he suspected. I knew. You see, at times I can see into the future of other people’s lives. It’s as though old newsreels and previews of coming attractions are projected inside my head.

I’ve been blessed and damned with this ability since that first meeting with Zargon Ron thirty some years ago. Ron called my visions a form of ‘selective omniscience', a ‘gift’. Because of this ‘gift’, I often, and without warning, find myself hurled through space-time to places I seldom want to go.

My travels are into the past as well as the future. Occasionally I find myself in places where I am not in the accepted reality of present space-time. You might say I am all-knowing for those moments, but these events are random, unexpected, and beyond my control. There is nothing ‘selective’ about the process unless it is from the Zargonian point of view.

What I see is often disconcerting, as it was then when I saw three years into Sergeant Tom’s future while he stood next to me in the prison yard.


Sergeant Tom, Billy Jean, and Polaris


It’s new years’ eve in nineteen ninety-three, two months after the afternoon Warden Jacobs pinned a silver-plated ‘thirty years of outstanding service’ medal above Sergeant Tom's breast pocket and sent him out the door.

An orange sun sits on the dusty horizon west of Winslow as Tom pulls his old Ford pickup into the local Kentucky Fried Chicken. He would have chosen the Safeway takeout chicken across the road; it was half the price, but Kentucky Fried had always been his wife, Billy Jean’s, favorite, and her favorite was what he wanted tonight.

Sarah Bale hands Tom his box of chicken parts through the Colonel’s pick-up window.

“Thanks, Sarah,” Tom says.

Tom has known Sarah since she was no more than six or seven. Her daddy often took Sarah on his Saturday afternoon jaunts to Bucky’s Billiards and let her stand on an old milk crate to rack balls when it came his turn.

“Tell your daddy I said hello,” Tom says

“I sure will, and have a Happy New Year, Mister Haynes.” Sarah smiles and waves at Tom as he drives away.

**

Tom plops the box of Kentucky Fried on his living room coffee table. He grabs the last can of Blue Ribbon Beer from the refrigerator. He clicks the television on. A neatly attired talking head babbling the day’s news materializes on the screen.

Tom sits on the edge of his sofa, pops the top on his beer, and opens the Colonel’s cardboard box to reveal two extra crispy chicken legs, a tub of mashed potatoes, and a biscuit.


I ordered original recipe. Couldn’t they get it right this one time?


Tom nibbles at a chicken leg. He stirs the mashed potato and gravy mixture in its Styrofoam cup with a Colonel’s plastic fork. Staring blankly at the television screen, he watches the talking head display appropriate facial expressions of concern as he yammers on between flashes of gunfire and exploding cars.

Tom sips from his can of beer. The talking head cuts to commercial. A blue-eyed woman with sparkling white teeth tells Tom he will be in good hands if he takes her advice and buys insurance from Allstate.

Tom wipes chicken grease from his fingers and lips. He walks across the living room to the entry closet and puts his old uniform jacket on in front of the hall mirror. He fastens the buttons and looks at the sergeant’s stripes on the jacket sleeve. He unpins the thirty-year service medal from his jacket and tosses it in the entry hall trash can.

Tom pulls the loaded S&W Model 10 revolver from the shoe box he kept hidden on the closet shelf and stuffs it in his pants pocket. He walks out the back door to the patio deck he built sixteen years ago for his beautiful bride, Billy Jean.

Not more than a month after Tom hammered the last nail into that patio deck he felt a lump the size of a popcorn seed below the nipple of Billy Jean’s right breast. Probably nothing.

Seven months later, Billy Jean died in his arms in the early days of Spring. They were sitting on the same wooden bench swing he is sitting on now.

Tom rests his heels against the deck floor and rocks the swing. He swivels his head back in search of the Big Dipper in the clear northern Arizona sky, the way he had on his last night with Billy Jean when she asked him to point it out for her one last time; the way she had asked him so many times before.

“I miss you, sweetheart,” he says.

Tommy counts the Big Dipper’s seven stars and on toward Polaris as those very stars speed away from one another in the ever-expanding Universe.

**

I didn't tell the Sergeant what I was seeing in his future as we stood there near the fence line of the prison yard. Warning him of his fate would have been pointless. There was no way to change the course of things. He wouldn’t have believed me anyway.

“You must be careful,” Zargon Ron’s mind told mine soon after we first met. “Sharing knowledge gleaned from your contact with alien beings with those having no memory of similar encounters is likely to be met with derision. At the least, you are likely to be thought a loon.”

With only one disastrous exception, when I was very young and new to the game, I have followed Ron’s advice. My lips have remained sealed.

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry too much Sergeant,” is what I did say that day in the yard. “Something always turns up, you know.”

Sergeant Tom stood there with his arms folded in front of him and stared at those puffs of clouds floating free above Winslow State Prison. He turned and slowly walked away.

“Take care of yourself, Gille,” he said.

“You too, Sergeant – you too.”

**

Wind whistles through the bench swing chains. Sergeant Tom shudders.

With no sign of recognition, he stares at the revolver in his hand that has been his since before he became a guard at Winslow Prison.

The nearly full moon glistens against the gun's barrel.

In my all-seeing, but impotent, state, I can only watch Sergeant Tom stick the end of that barrel under his chin and squeeze the trigger. I am witness to that moment of doubt in his eyes when he realizes he has reached the point of no return. Powder explodes as the hammer strikes down. It’s the first shot Tommy Tuna has ever fired at a living thing.

Bull’s-eye.



2


Lightfoot


For the first time in nine hundred and fifty-four days there is no wall or barbed wire separating me from you. But, this is still Winslow, Arizona, and I would be hard pressed to tell this side of the wall from the other if not for the simultaneous feelings of relief and anxiety that accompany my return to freedom.

The sky disappears as a bone-chilling late December gale blows clouds of dust across the high desert plateau surrounding Winslow prison. I lean into the wind. A sudden gust struggles to wrest my duffel from my grasp.

Holding my free arm up to shield my eyes from sheets of blowing sand I push on, up the entry road, toward the last guard station between the prison confines and the ‘real’ world. Outside the guard station, a taxi waits to take me the few miles to Winslow’s La Posada Hotel, where I will spend my precious first night as a free man.

**

“You Mister Barker?”

I nod. “Yes, I’m Gille Barker.”

“Nice to meet you sir,” the cabbie says. “I’m Jeff, your driver, Jeff Lightfoot.” He shakes my hand. “Here, let me take that.” He pulls my treasured leather duffel that has made a hundred trips from Maui to Mykonos and so many places in between from my grip. He tosses it on top of a pile of tools and car parts already covering his car trunk’s grungy floorboard. He fastens the bungee that was dangling from the back pocket of his jeans to the trunk’s broken latch, loops it around the back bumper, and pulls the lid closed. He opens the back driver-side door.

“Here we go, Mister Barker”, he says. He doesn't wait for me to take my seat before climbing behind the wheel.

I’m sliding onto the brown plastic bench-seat when Lightfoot hits the gas. The car stutter-lurches in reverse. The door slams closed as I reach to pull it shut. I’m pitched forward. My forehead bangs against the beaded trim on the front seat cover as the four-door Chevy Caprice careens toward the highway a hundred yards away.

Bone white gravel and dust fly from the tires and pepper two guards leaning against the exit gate portico. Their arms remain folded across their bellies. Their heads swivel only slightly as we speed away. I can feel their slow-burning rage through the silver plating of their aviator glasses.

Jeff spins the steering wheel hard left, and the Chevy makes a ninety-degree turn onto the highway. He slams on the brakes as he steps on the clutch and throws the stick-shift arm hanging from the steering column into first gear. He plunges the gas pedal toward the floor.

On the nose of the hood is a bare-breasted chrome lady with eagle’s wings. As the Chevy squats low on its rear tires, the chrome lady rises and points north toward a bank of dark clouds hanging on the horizon above Winslow town. Matching black plumes of burned rubber float up behind the Chevy’s rear tires and disappear into the leaden gray sky.

Jeff reaches for the nub of a Marlboro cigarette clinched between his teeth with the same studied motion he saw James Dean use in a couple of movies he managed to make before accidentally bumping himself off when his time came due. Sparks fly as the cigarette paper sticks to his lips and his fingers slip down across the fire. The cigarette, flaming ashes hanging from its tip, falls between his legs. With smoke curling up from his crotch, Lightfoot jumps off the car seat. I would guess his left ball is cooking.

“Jesus Christ!” He says.

The engine screams for Jeff to shift gears before it blows into so many pieces of metal rubble. He scrambles for the cigarette butt and quickly flicks it out the window. Jeff’s foot slips off the pedal as he grinds the clutch into third gear. I lean back in my seat and look to my sides. There is no seat belt.

“My sister’s brat kid cut all the buckles off the straps with a straight razor.”

I look up and see Jeff and his crooked smile looking back at me in the rear-view mirror.

“I just stuck what was left down that crack in the seat,” Jeff says. “You can dig them out of there and tie yourself in with what’s left if you want. I never really saw much use for the things myself.”

“Yes, well that's not surprising,” I say.

“How long are you staying at the Posada, Mister Barker?” Jeff adjusts his mirror, awaiting my reply.

I answer quickly, hoping to encourage his focus on the highway ahead rather than my mirrored image.

“I’m not sure,” I say.

**

Visions of crashing through the front window and flipping end over end through the air as Jeff smashes his taxi head-long into the John Deere tractor rapidly closing on us from the north reel through my mind. Splat! I watch my head explode against one of the creosote telephone poles rushing by my window at rapidly increasing speeds. My body slowly slides down the pole and collapses at its base in a pile of jumbled parts, like Ray Bolger’s scarecrow after a run-in with the wicked witch on his way to see the Wizard of Oz. Music crescendos; Judy Garland and the Tin Man dance by on a yellow brick road.

**

“Not more than a few days though,” I say.

My head snaps round to watch through the rear window as the John Deere whisks by in a bright green and yellow blur. The Cowardly Lion hangs from the back of the tractor driver's seat with one front paw. Wind blows his mane over his shoulders and into his eyes. He smiles at me. He gives me the boy-scout three-claw salute as the tractor fades into a distant swirl of dust and sage.

“Well, if you need a driver or a little help finding something special in this neck of the woods, I’m your man. Just give me a call.” Jeff winks at the rear-view mirror and hands me his ‘business card’, a piece of white construction paper cut to size with his name and a phone number printed neatly in black ink on one side.

“I can find about anything you want found around these parts, and I know Flagstaff better than the back of my hand.” He shows me the back of his hand. “You know what I mean?”

**

I’m certain I know what he means, and yes, I do need a driver, but not for what Lightfoot has in mind. If I ever hope to cross an Arizona state line or get back to my Maui home, I’ll need a ride to Flagstaff in eight days for an appointment with my parole officer. I also need to check in with my Scottsdale gallery director before I leave Arizona. Despite her best efforts, sales of my paintings have taken an expected hit during my stay in Winslow prison.

I could handle all of this on my own if my driver's license hadn’t expired seven months ago while I was out skidding on my knees across the prison yard baseball diamond’s center field of rock shards, dust, and stones in a fortuitously vain attempt to retrieve a pop-up off the bat of our cell block’s only known murderer. Crownose Crocket was his unlikely name. Crownose was doing life for throttling his neighbor, a preacher's wife, with her own clothesline cord. At his sentencing, Crownose told the judge he had no quarrel with the woman; it was her attitude he found disturbing.

**

“Why thank you, Jeff.” I stick the card in my jacket pocket.

I brace against the seat, as Jeff makes a sudden right turn up the steep drive into La Posada’s parking lot. He skids the car to a stop at the front entry. Dust drifts past the Chevy to powder a row of Porches and Honda rental cars with out-of-state licenses and Ford pickups sporting Arizona plates with racked shotguns across their back windows.

My bag in his hand, Jeff unlatches the passenger door.

“Here we go, Mister Barker,” he says.

**

I had been to La Posada before, but not as a free man and never at the front door. I had helped program the computers in La Posada’s cellar offices on a convict work release program arranged by the liberal leaning hotel owners who believed there was more good than bad in even the worst of human beings. The only things needed were understanding and respect for those strayed souls to put them on the right track. They had most certainly never met Crownose Crocket.

The hoteliers came from Southern California to this wide spot on a high desert road and turned a once treasured relic of a railroad way station, ready for the wrecker’s ball, into a first-class hotel. They did that in a town with little going for it other than faded memories of the glory days of Route 66 and an anthem by the Eagles and Jackson Browne that made Winslow a famous symbol of last resort for dreamers and the disenchanted.

**

I had even sampled a mesquite-grilled hamburger smothered in mozzarella cheese with Kula onions and sweet pickles and a big slice of fresh red tomato from the kitchen of La Posada’s world-class chef. His wife, Patricia, a computer illiterate, smuggled the burger to my desk as a reward. I had allowed her to drain what little knowledge I had of the workings of a computer from my brain into her own. And I do mean drain. The few computer tricks I knew are there no more.

Having not been there, you could never know how good that hamburger was to me after nearly a year with nothing other than generically bland prison chow made even more so by the necessity for mediocrity in the effort to please every special interest group on the planet. There were Blacks, Whites, Mexicans, American Indians, and everything in between. There were snake worshipers. There were Christians, Jews, Muslims, and plenty of atheists to go around.

Every ethnic, religious or social group had a champion who insisted there be no red meat or no cheese or fish only on Friday and so on and on that might risk offending their charges. The prison kitchen couldn’t put out a decent meal, not even if the powers that be had been so inclined.

But, though I had been treated to that most wonderful of ground meat treats in the bowels of La Posada, I had never seen the elegantly carved front entry doors or anything else a guest might have seen on a day trip to the hotel unless they had accidentally stumbled on the barrels full of remnants of elk medallions in cherry sauce, wild turkey pâté, churl lamb, black bean soup, and so on lined up next to the service entrance, waiting for the garbage man’s pickup.

**

The garbage man, as Jeff Lightfoot would soon inform me, was his second cousin, Luke. Luke has picked up those containers every other day since La Posada reopened its doors three years ago. Luke slops the gourmet scraps scraped from the Turquoise Dining room’s sated patron’s plates into wooden troughs twenty feet long for the dining pleasure of his farm’s hundred squealing pigs. The pigs are more than happy to line up on cue for their daily sampling of Arizona’s finest regional fare.

“Let me tell you, those are some happy pigs,” Jeff said then. “At least they’re happy till Cousin Luke turns them into pork chops and slabs of bacon and pickled pig’s feet. Best damned bacon you ever tasted, I bet. No need to take my word for it though; you can sample some when they recycle those porkers back through the kitchen with your scrambled eggs tomorrow morning.”

Jeff thought that was funny. I had to laugh.

**

As we approach, the massive double entry doors to La Posada silently swing open.

“This is for sure one beautiful place. Don’t you think so, Mister Barker?” Jeff says.

We cross the front entry corridor on large random shaped flagstone slabs surrounded by stucco walls in shades of pastel green, Indian orange, and pearl. Rising to a peak of thirty feet, the ceiling is trimmed with rustic wooden beams and elaborate chandeliers of silver, painted metal, and precious desert stones.

Large, Bosch-like paintings of wonderfully eccentric characters and unexpected places in tinted cadmiums and shimmering shades of gray adorn the walls. It is beautiful all right.

“Yes, Mister Lightfoot, it certainly is,” I say.

A young Indian woman with jet-black hair braided to hang down to her lower back watches our approach from behind the high counter at the registration desk. Deep dimples crease her cheeks. She smiles to greet us. Her name is Anna — Anna Towahongva. She is beautiful.

**

Undeterred by harsh winters and crippling summer droughts, Anna’s Hopi ancestors thrived on these mesas of northern Arizona for hundreds of years. They worked the hardscrabble land for meager crops of corn and grain. Water was always precious. They often spent days in search of deer, iguana, or even rattler to grace their table.

Despite their harsh reality, Anna's father and his father and his father before him made beautiful pots that told stories of their Maker’s love for the earth and the sky and the eagle that glides with the wind. They voiced praise for the spirits who had seen fit to provide for their survival, and they did survive, and in a way flourish, on this high desert plateau.

All of that was before the white man came to town. These days, unless you go to one of the reservation casinos, a Hopi Indian is about as hard to find in Arizona as a pure-blooded Hawaiian in Waikiki.

**

“Good morning,” Anna says. Her face is the color of light chocolate cream. Her gaze stops for only a moment on Jeff Lightfoot before moving to me. She nods and smiles as if in recognition of a long-lost friend. Anna glances at her watch. It is a quarter past noon.

“Or, good afternoon, I should say.” The coal black pupils of her eyes sparkle with rubles and sapphires in light filtered through a stained-glass dining room window, thirty feet away.

“Hello Anna,” Jeff says. “This is Mister Barker.”

Without taking his eyes off Anna, Jeff nods his head toward me.

“I think you’re expecting him,” he says.

He drops my duffel to the floor with a thud. A cloud of Chevrolet trunk dust rises from the bag ever so slightly before falling to the freshly polished flagstone floor.

I reach across the counter to shake Anna’s hand. “Good afternoon, Anna.” The chill of her touch surprises me.

“Welcome, Mister Barker. It’s so good to meet you.”

**

Anna knows who I am. She knows the state saw fit to release me from prison this morning after almost three years behind bars. She knows I am a somewhat famous artist from the island paradise of Maui, three thousand miles and an ocean away from the Arizona home where her Hopi Indian tribe was left to the dust bowl north of Winslow town.

She knows how I came to be a jailbird. She knows the cop who plowed into the rear of the Oldsmobile I was driving the night of my arrest was full of vodka. She knows it was fortunate I had the good sense to fire my incompetent attorney and take it on myself to point out to the court the officer’s alcohol content was double my own at the time of the crash that took his and his partner’s lives.

When I think how close I came to a lifetime behind bars cold sweat collects on my brow. It’s doing that right now, even though I know it was just not meant to be.

Anna knows these things about me because, in Winslow, almost everyone has known my story since shortly after the prison bus first dropped me, cuffed and shackled, at the prison’s front gate.

Any citizen of Winslow who has coffee with a friend or shops at the Wal-Mart or just runs into a neighbor out in the back yard while hanging the wash in the hope it will dry before the daily three o’clock dust storm arrives knows what is going on at Winslow prison. That’s no surprise in this small town, where three in nine pay their rent by working behind those prison walls, and the survival of most of the rest of the population depends on the treasure generated by the business of keeping human beings under lock and key.

And now, since we have met, Anna knows something about me the other citizens of Winslow do not. She knows I am one of the few humans allowed by our creators from planet Zargon to retain conscious knowledge of the Zargonian evolutionary game, the true reason for life on this planet.

It takes one to know one.



3


The Einstein Room


Anna’s fingers brush mine as she hands me a key from one of two dozen wooden cubicles on the wall behind her.

“We have you in the Einstein suite, Mister Barker,” she says.

Anna opens a leather journal on the counter and hands me a pen. “Sign there, sir,” she says, “and we’ll have you on your way.” She points to an open line near the center of the page.

“It’s Gille,” I say, as I scribble my name across the line. “Please call me Gille. 'Sir' makes me a little uncomfortable.”

Jeff smiles. “Been a while since anyone called you ‘sir’, huh Mister Barker,” he says.

“A long while,” I say.

“All right then,” Anna says, “Gille it is. And please call me Anna.” She reaches across the counter and shakes my hand again, as if we were now meeting for the first time.

“Very good then, Anna,” I say.

Jeff grabs my duffel by the strap and throws it on his shoulder. “Okay, Mister Barker. Follow me.”

Jeff leads me across the lobby and up the stairs to the second floor.

He opens the door to the Einstein suite, walks across the room, and tosses my bag onto the foot of the old-fashioned canopy bed. He pushes the bathroom door open.

“I think you’re going to like this, Mister Barker.” Jeff flips the bathroom light switch. “This Jacuzzi is killer, man. It’s a double. Don’t see many of those, huh.”

I had never seen a bathroom with a Jacuzzi of any kind. I could barely remember taking a shower without a half dozen of my fellow convicts in tow. Lounging in the warm swirling waters of my own private Jacuzzi is far removed from that picture.

“No, Jeff. As a matter of fact, I think this is the first one I’ve seen.”

“Yeah, this is a killer room all right.” Jeff sits on the edge of the bed and bounces. “Nice and firm, just the way I like it.” He gives me a sly grin. “Queen size and all; gives you plenty of room, if you ever need it; good for your back too, if you know what I mean.”

“I think I do,” I say.

My cab driver’s personal knowledge of La Posada’s accommodations has no discernable bounds.

“There’s a great Jacuzzi in the Howard Hughes room, but the bed is a little soft for my liking,” he says. “Now, if you’re looking for an extra firm bed, you need to give the Bob Hope or Charlie Lindbergh a try.”

Jeff pops up from my mattress and walks to the bedroom window. He pulls back the drapes. “It’s still blowing, but kind of a nice day out there.”

“Yes, it is,” I say, with no conviction. Ominous black clouds are working their way toward Winslow from the south; a winter storm is brewing.

“Uh-huh.” Jeff's thoughts are wandering as he walks toward the door and plops down on an antique looking lounge chair.

“But the bed in the Carole Lombard room is my favorite,” Jeff says before leaning forward and continuing in a confidential sort of way.

“I’ve been told, by a reliable source, Carole split the sheets in there with Gene Autry and Tom Mix one morning before coffee and croissants; of course, that’s just a rumor, and wouldn’t have been on the mattress that’s in there today anyway.”

“I would assume the sheets have also been changed since then,” I say.

The wit of my repartee rates no notice by Lightfoot.

“I was told the three of them rode horses the ten miles out to the reservation afterward and made it back for afternoon tea,” Jeff says. “I asked my grandfather if he remembered anyone like that showing up around that time and he said he did recall three folks who fit the general description coming out to the reservation one afternoon back in those days, but he couldn’t say it was them for sure. I ran across a picture of Gene Autry in a magazine a couple of months later and showed it to grandpa. He said the guy sure looked familiar all right, but he couldn't say it was him he saw.”

“There’s always that possibility.”

“Could be so. Anyway, like I said, Carole’s room has the best bed now, but there’s no Jacuzzi. I guess a woman like that wouldn’t need one.”

“I would think the opposite might be true.”

“Maybe so,” Jeff says, “but I suppose there were plenty of Jacuzzis between them to go around.”

“That makes sense,” I say.

I don’t ask Jeff how he knows these things or who his ‘reliable source’ might be when it came to the goings on of Carole Lombard and Gene Autry and Tom Mix. It has become apparent I should only ask Jeff a question when I have unlimited time on my hands.

“Can I help you with anything else then, Mister Barker?”

“No, Jeff.” I hand him a five-dollar bill. “Really, thank you. All I want to do is get some rest. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in four days.”

“I have just the thing.” Jeff digs into his pocket and pulls out a silver pillbox; he opens the box and hands me three red capsules. “There you go.”

“What are these?”

“Take one tonight; one should do the trick. You’ll feel like a new man in the morning, guaranteed. You can trust me on that, Mister Barker.”

I wonder what he means – were there other more or less important matters likely to bring his trust to question?

“Maybe I’ll give one a try; how much are they?”

“No charge for you, Mister Barker.”

“Well, thank you Jeff.”

What does he mean, no charge for me? Is Lightfoot in the habit of charging for pills? Is he some sort of drug dealer, a dope peddler, the Winslow candy man? I take his elbow, lead him across the room, and open the door.

“Thank you, sir,” Jeff says. “You have my number. Just give me a call.”

“All right, Jeff. I’ll keep you in mind. And thank you for the pills.” He’s still hanging onto the knob as I push the door closed.

**

Relief washes through me as I latch the deadbolt. Alone at last. I listen to the quiet, waiting for the ever-present rumbling and chatter of a room full of convicted felons that ricochets from the concrete of every prison wall; the hubbub of a madhouse–the din of a cuckoo’s nest. I instinctively brace for one of the sudden bursts of rage that erupt like clockwork; the hollow sounds of forced laughter from across a corridor, the boisterous threats of bodily harm, the string of expletives from a tortured soul, the occasional bone chilling screams of victims of threats fulfilled. For the first time in two and a half years, there is only the wonder of silence.

Relief is the right word. Hollywood, the movies made there, would have you believe only two things are on the minds of convicts when they are first released from prison; find a seedy dive bar, drag up a stool, toss down a couple of shots of whiskey, and then get laid by the first lady bar fly that happens to darken the barroom door.

But that’s not the reality of it, at least not my reality. I feel only fatigue, the fatigue I imagine a soldier must feel after months of combat he had thought might never end. Whiskey and women are the farthest things from my mind.

I pull the heavy drapes closed, the Einstein room goes dark, the silence takes on a weight all its own. I switch on the bedside lamp and sit on the edge of the bed aimlessly thumbing through pages of La Posada brochures and tourist pamphlets from the nightstand drawer. According to one brochure, I am indeed in the Einstein suite, named, of course, after Albert Einstein, the world’s most famous physicist, who reshaped our understanding of the cosmos with his concepts of the nature of space and time.

According to the brochure, Albert was a guest at La Posada during the railroad hotel’s golden years, as was F.D.R., Charles Lindbergh, Will Rogers, Harry S. Truman, and a host of other celebrity types of their day. The hoteliers named La Posada’s suites after their famous guests like so many sandwiches on the menu of a Phoenix fast food restaurant I once visited.

That was one meal I’ll never forget. Strictly out of curiosity, I ordered the ‘Roy Rogers’, a combo that turned out to be a greasy hamburger topped with three even more greasy slices of bacon and a slab of Velveeta cheese on a bun smothered in mayonnaise. I ate the whole thing, including the side order of soggy French fries. I was still throwing up past noon the next day. My companion of the night suggested a better choice might have been the Dale Evans tuna salad special.

It’s forty-five minutes past noon according to the bedside clock. I make mental notes to search the Shirley Temple suite for a stashed bottle of grenadine and the Howard Hughes for errant toe nails as I casually inspect my own. My thoughts are often disturbingly unfunny when I’m sleep deprived.

**

I switch off the light. I lower myself onto my back and stare up into the dark. My eyes close. My mind races past Roy Rogers and Dale Evans and Trigger to Charlie Lindbergh on his solo flight from New York to Paris.

Charlie is skimming across the Atlantic waves at ninety miles per hour in the open cockpit of his Spirit of Saint Louis. A cold mist coats his goggles with sprays of ice while he fights the demons of suspended consciousness. Charlie sees what he believes to be the coast of Ireland on the horizon. A hamburger the size of a cocktail table with onions and tomatoes and lettuce and a sweet pickle as big as a cucumber appears, suspended in space below the canopy of my bed. My eyes snap open just in time to save Charlie from crashing into the Irish sea.

I turn on the bedside lamp and walk to the bathroom for a glass of water before crawling back into bed. Lightfoot’s three magic capsules sit on the nightstand. I pop the capsules in my mouth and swallow. I plump my pillow, pull the bed covers over my shoulders, and curl up on my side.

**

Though I surmise it is only late afternoon when I’m awakened, the room is dark except for light filtering through a crack under the hallway door. I sit up and lean against a stack of pillows in fresh silk cases propped against my bed’s Cherrywood headboard. There is a figure at the foot of my bed sitting in a big overstuffed lounge chair. The sliver of light from the hallway silhouettes the figure's rounded shoulders and bushy hair. I blink and rub my eyes, but the figure doesn’t disappear.

“Who’s there?” I ask.

“Good evening, Gille.”

I know that voice.

I turn on the bedside lamp. My jaw drops – I gasp for a lost breath.

“Mister Einstein?” I say.

**

He’s Einstein all right. There is no mistaking the man I see. And I now know he, as am I, is one of the chosen few humans made aware of the Zargonian evolutionary games, the sole reason for life’s turbulent existence on this planet. And, of course, he knows this about me.

**

“Yes Gille, I am Einstein, as if you didn’t know,” Einstein says.

He pushes off his chair arms to a standing position, stretches his arms out from his sides, and with the gait of an old man stiff from sitting, shuffles across the carpet to the bedroom window. He parts the drapes and gazes up toward the cloudless sky at earth’s full moon and the few thousand stars visible to him from our corner of the Universe, his mind no longer occupied with the search for answers to questions not yet asked. Einstein is lost in thoughts of what might have been if he had only been less self-absorbed; less selfish in his search for proof of his theories and his quest for confirmation of those things told him by alien beings from the planet Zargon in the galaxy of Dargo, so close yet so far away.

Jesus. What was I thinking? How could I have given up my only daughter to a fate I didn’t know? What of Lieserl – and my dear wife, Mileva, what about her? “No one deserves —”

“Did you say something, sir?” I cut Einstein short in mid musing.

“No. No, I was just thinking; just looking at the moon, Gille, just looking at the moon.”

Einstein’s brown wing-tipped shoes are scuffed with wear. His baggy, gray pants, cuffed short of his shoe tops, reveal sockless ankles nearly as white as my silk bed linens. His left arm rests across his stomach. He absently strokes one bushy gray sideburn. His famous face appears ghost-like, perfectly framed in the reflection from a windowpane. His thoughts are far away as he continues to gaze past the stars and into the total darkness of space to unseen moons and stars and planets in this galaxy and this universe and then on to another and another.

I turn toward the greatest of all theorists and sit up, feet dangling over the side of the bed. I yawn and rub sleep from my eyes.

“What are you doing here, Mister Einstein?”

Einstein reels around to look at me, throws his hands, palms up, out in front of his chest, and shrugs his shoulders.

“Hey, this is the Einstein Suite, you know.” He does a double take toward the door like a comedian timing his exit punch line. “What – you want I should leave?”

“Of course not, Mister Einstein.” I don’t bring up the fact I paid for the room, and just because he spent a night here once upon a time, his name on the door does not mean the room belongs to him, and, technically, he would have to get his sorry ass out if I gave him the word. I don’t say any of those things.

Einstein shuffles back across the room. He plops down on the dark velvet chair at the end of my bed where he first appeared to me. He rests his palms on the chairs wide arms. His body relaxes and melts into the deep chair cushions.

“Albert; please call me Albert, if you don’t mind,” he says.

“Yes sir,” I say.

Einstein looks at me through the bottoms of his bushy brows.

“Well then, Albert, may I ask you a question?”

“Why yes, Gille – of course. Fire away.”

**

The exact question I asked that triggered his response escapes me now, but I remember Albert telling me he had occasional fits of remorse about taking all the credit for the E=mc squared business. He said it just seemed like the thing to do at the time.

“I had been stuck for months, so close; it was like my brain had been drained – there was no more water in the well,” he said. “If Mileva hadn’t pointed out the step that had eluded me, I might never have found the answer.”

“No telling how long she had been waiting to do that,” he mutters.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself, sir, you needed rest, you know, some time off to recharge the old battery,” I say. “The solution would have come to you in time.”

“Maybe so, Gille, but that’s not the point is it.”

Einstein looks away. Lost again in his thoughts of Mileva and his lost daughter, Lieserl, and their time together in Zurich a hundred years and more past now. He slowly twirls his unruly mustache between his thumb and fore-finger.

Einstein leans forward. With the index finger of his right hand, he motions for me to move closer so that I can better hear what he is about to say.

“I’ve never told anyone of this, Gille,” Einstein says, “not even Gödel, and I told him almost everything. The little guy could bleed a turnip, I swear.”

Albert’s eyes cloud over as he sees himself and his old friend, Gödel, in his woolen long-coat and baggy pants, walking down a Princeton sidewalk on another winter afternoon, his wide brimmed hat pulled low over the tops of his ears, the cuffs of his pants dragging against the concrete as he shuffles along. “Gödel was a mousy looking fellow wasn’t he,” Einstein says.

“I really couldn’t say.”

“The question was rhetorical, Gille; of course he was.”

Einstein’s eyes pierce mine as he considers the private thoughts he has revealed to me.

“I hope you understand the importance of our conversation remaining in this room,” he says.

“Oh, you can count on that, Albert,” I say. “Your secrets are safe with me.”



4


Dinner at La Posada


My eyes blink open. I turn on the bedside lamp and see the time is six-thirty p.m.; I should shower and get something to eat. I fall back against my pillow and cover my eyes against the light.

It’s eight when my eyes blink open again. I sit up and scan the room – no Einstein. Had our conversation been imagined, only a dream?

The chair where Einstein was sitting is still at the foot of my bed. How could that be if his visit was imagined? It’s obvious the chair was moved from next to a floor lamp by the window; the chair’s foot prints remain pressed into the carpet there.

I climb from bed and walk to the window. The window is tightly closed, the lock fastened. I try twisting the doorknob; it doesn’t budge. The deadbolt is in place. Someone moved that chair and that someone must be in this room.

“Albert?” I listen for an answer, but there is no reply.

I walk to the bathroom, push back the shower curtain, and twist the shower’s hot water knob to full force. I splash my face with cold water from the sink. When steam wisps over the top of the shower curtain, I drop my boxers and step into the shower stall. I adjust the water slightly to avoid a scald. I’m fascinated by the patterns of freshly scented soapsud tailings and water as they curl toward the drain. This is my first shower in almost three years without the feeling that someone is standing just beyond my peripheral view. I could stand here for hours, but decide to get out when I notice the flesh on my fingers has shriveled like the skin on dried prunes.

Within moments I’m dressed and on my way to La Posada’s Turquoise Room for this free man’s first dinner.

**

Though it’s barely quarter till nine on Friday night, there are only nine people in the large dining room; the hour is late for dinner by Winslow standards. There is a hush in the air broken only by the shutter of a kitchen door and the tinkling of a glass. Four couples are scattered at tables around the room. A beautiful woman with long auburn hair sits alone next to a window in the far corner. A cup of steaming something is cupped in her hands. Her gaze is fixed out the window toward the old red brick rail station across the hotel veranda. The curl to her lip, the cradle of cup to hand; something is strangely familiar about this woman.

My fragile concentration is broken by the approach of Anna Towahongva.

“Good evening, Mister Barker,” Anna says. “One for dinner?”

“Yes, please,” I say. “How about there?”

I point toward a booth against the back wall, not far from the kitchen door.

Followed by a young waitress, Anna leads me to my table. She waits patiently while I slide across the u-shaped seat to its center so that my back is against the wall. She hands me a menu and fills my stemmed glass with iced water before introducing my waitress.

“This is Gwen,” Anna says, indicating the girl who had been following her. “She will be your server tonight, sir.”

Gwen wishes me a good evening. She addresses me as Mister Barker and I tell her my name is Gille, not Mister Barker. Gwen smiles; her braces sparkling like silver diamonds in the warm light of a chandelier.

Gwen looks at her watch. “I can give you a few minutes, but your order has to be in the kitchen by nine. Does that work for you, sir?”

I tell Gwen I’ll only need a moment and she asks if I would like something from the bar.


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