Read the first part of Retirement in Hell (a selection from Hell Down Under) here
Retirement in Hell
The severed scorpion’s tail hung from a knotted cord against the stucco wall opposite where Rip sat on the porch. It hung there like someone’s trophy, drowning out the clinking bubbly sounds of the party surrounding him. Rip thought it looked more like a curled finger, daring him to come.
Then it rattled, shifting on the wall, scratching against the knobby prickles. A long and slow and heavy sound. Like the way BBs used to slide around loose in Rip’s pocket, back when he was a kid.
The memory shot a bad feeling deep down in Rip’s bones.
Betty, the hostess, sat next to him and burst out with a squeal of laughter. “I see you admiring my little old scorpion.” She waved the flab of her arms around, sloshing the contents of her flamingo-decorated glass as if fortified with more than just iced tea.
“Your scorpion?” Rip cocked his head at her. He thought she would’a preferred a string of dried chilies instead.
“You bet. Don’t you know what they say? She who kills the scorpion gains the power from its tail.” She laughed again, and he didn’t know if she was teasing him or just flat out drunk.
“You killed it?” He was pretty sure she was lying, but then, he didn’t know anything about his new neighbors.
He’d never wanted to come down here in the first place. Not to the desert. The desert was as close to hell fire on earth that a poorboy from southern Indiana could ever come. It had poisoned spiders and snakes and cactus needles, thornier than any briar patch from up home.
“You’re going to love it here, old man,” said the coot named Lester who was Betty’s husband and Rip’s new next-door neighbor and the one that Rip figured was the real owner of the scorpion trophy. Lester leaned forward from his lounger, crinkling the vinyl of his lime green and yellow flowered cushion. White threads of hair stretched across his crown, pink as a baby’s behind and beaded with sweat, even inside the icebox of Lester’s air-conditioned and fully enclosed porch. They called them “sunrooms” down here.
As if they needed more sun. Hell.
The sky was on fire.
It was cooler here on the high desert than the low one, folks said, but any desert was still wasteland in Rip’s book of hell. Summer heat waited for him just outside that glass door, waiting to scorch his brains out through his pores. Such heat made him wonder if maybe-just maybe-the bleeding heart liberals were right after all about global warming.
“We were the first to buy in here,” Lester said, “so they put me on the board of directors to help them iron out any glitches.”
Rip hadn’t wanted to come to Sun Vista City, neither. Sure, he was old, but not like Lester, not yet goddammit, and even if he was, this newly developed retirement community at the edge of cliff dwellers territory wasn’t his idea of old coot bliss. Where were the hot chick asses to watch jiggling down the lanes at the bowling alley? Hell, there wasn’t even no bowling alley here. Bowling was too strenuous an activity for geezers in golf carts.
Lester went on babbling. “That makes me a sort of go-between. So you just let me know if you have any problems, and we’ll get them straightened out for you. You won’t have any, but just in case.” His gleaming head bobbed up and down as if trying to make Rip understand.
And Rip especially hadn’t wanted to come here, to the new neighbors’ house next door for this so-called welcome party. The truth of the matter was that the neighbors on Desert Spring Circle weren’t welcoming him and Ruthie Anne not so much as they were looking the new Hoosiers over. Sizing them up. Checking them out. Were Mr. and Mrs. Middle America good enough for their high desert club?
But this was where Ruthie Anne insisted on coming. And since Ruthie Anne had stolen his mean old heart exactly forty-four years ago, way back before he started working in the limestone stripper pits of southern Indiana, this was where they were at.
It all started when Ruthie Anne’s wack-o sister talked to some crystal, and then their asshole brother-in-law found a deal too good to pass up here in Sun Vista City. That was last year, and now this year a home opened up, meaning its occupants passed on to their greater reward, and Ruthie Anne’s sister told her, “It’s high time Rip thought about retiring, too.”
And since Ruthie Anne wanted to live close to her sister, here they were.
Rip had given Ruthie Anne whatever her little heart desired. Everything, that is, except for babies.
That wasn’t his fault.
But Ruthie Anne thought it was, even though she didn’t say so.
They’d used their life savings to buy what-you-call a patio home, which is really the same thing as an Indiana ranch, except all squared up. No limestone, though. His and Ruthie Anne’s, number 696, looked like everyone else’s from the outside with stucco walls the color of horseradished-up mustard and tile roofs like bites of hot dog. All it needed was a good old Pabst Blue Ribbon, but down here in hell fire Rip could only find pale piss water or else ale the Mex’cans cut with a spoon.
He snickered at his private joke, snorting into his iced tea with the paper umbrella.
Betty laughed too, as if he’d infected her. Probably had. She stroked the rooster flesh of her throat, showing off the gold and diamond chunks on her age-spotted fingers.
If the guys could see him now, a tough guy sitting inside an enclosed porch that was honest-to-god air conditioned, all decked out with scorpion trophies and clay doo-dads and injun-woven placemats and potted silk cactuses, why hell, they’d laugh themselves silly, right under the wrought iron table. If it wasn’t for Ruthie Anne’s hare-brained idea to move here, he’d’a gone up north with the guys on their annual fishing trip. Take along a case of trusty old PBR and the idea that they was gonna catch themselves some bass.
He reckoned no bass lived down here in hell fire.
“You must come play bridge with us,” said Betty, tapping Rip’s tattoo on his hairy arm to get his attention. She got it, all right. Her boobs played peek-a-boo with her sundress, but they hung like deflated pillows. “Every Wednesday at one sharp. We have cookies, too.”
Well, hot damn. He wondered how cookies would go with his beer, and he snickered again.
“Bridge keeps your mind young, don’t you know?”
Betty giggled, or maybe she was having a stroke. “Isn’t he just the nicest thing?” she asked the four other couples from Desert Spring Circle who’d come over today to participate in this inspection. Vinyl squeaked as they nodded uncommittedly, unsticking their butts from the cushions.
Rip was as far from nice as anyone could get and still stay out of jail.
But none of them needed to know about that, so he played along. “Aw, shucks.”
“Tell you what,” she said, waving one arm around the porch at the doo-dads. They looked like the faces of angry birds and hungry wolves and mean old rattlers. “You stop by a little early before bridge, and I’ll show you my Nahua collection.”
Flab jiggled from her arm, hypnotizing him. He thought he heard the scorpion buzz. And what do I got to show you in exchange? Rip stifled his thought, and then burped.
“They’re not genuine, honey,” Lester said, grinning. He leaned back with a vinyl squish and slurped his iced tea.
“They are, too. You just don’t know.”
Lester laughed. “She believes anything they tell her. And the more stories they make up for her, the more she buys.”
“Well, how would you like to recapture your past, Mr. Know-It-All?” Betty squinted her eyes to slits and grinned like the cat got the mouse.
“How’s anyone gonna do that?” Rip scratched his head. He felt like he’d missed a few dots to connect the big picture.
Lester sighed. “Here we go again.”
Betty stroked Rip’s arm. “It’s the fountain of youth. You’ve heard of that, haven’t you?”
“Sure, but…” Rip yanked his arm out from under her nails. “That’s just a story. Made up.”
“They never found it.”
“How do you know?”
“‘Cause the history books told us so.”
“And they wouldn’t lie.” She giggled. “Actually, it’s not a fountain. That’s part of the myth.”
Rip eyed the scorpion. He didn’t like myths anymore than he liked poisonous bugs.
Rip managed to miss bridge day.
One week later, the telephone rang. At first, Rip thought it was just another crank call. He could hear someone breathing on the other end, and then came a sound, something like a frog’s croak. “Rr-r-r…” The voice coughed and tried again. “Rip?”
“Yeah? Who’s this?”
“Lester. Carlson. Next door.” Rip could hear the poor bastard sucking in air. “You…you got to help me.”
“What’s wrong? You want me to call 911?” Hell, for all Rip knew, Lester was having a stroke, or else a rattler had got in and had him cornered, or else he’d fallen and broken a hip, or who knew what? That sort of stuff happened around here. Something like that had happened to the old coot who lived right here in 696 before Rip and Ruthie Anne.
Which was why the house opened up. For sale.
Waiting, for an accident to happen to Rip and Ruthie Anne, too.
Lester breathed hard across the phone line. “It’s Betty… She’s gone…”
Shit. “Whaddya mean ‘gone’?”
“I mean gone. Gone inside that mask hanging on the wall.”
“I heard her. She was crying. And singing, too. I know it was her. We have to do a ceremony. Get them to release her. So she can come home.”
“Get who to release her? Where’s she at?”
“The spirits. She’s with the spirits. But we can bring her back. If only you help.”
Lester had gone flat-out crazy. Maybe it was hell fire that turned folks’ minds.
“You got to come over right away,” Lester said.
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