City By Night

From the Story Arc: The Death of CCCP

Previous Story in the Arc: Ch-ch-ch-changes by Belladonna Aura (Monday, April 11, 2005)

Next Story in the Arc: I'm With a Crowd But So Alone by Red Saviour (Monday, May 16, 2005)

(posted Monday, May 16, 2005)

"These statues, they are like the pictures mi padre would show me of Leningrad." Mosca tapped the preview screen of Natalya's cheap digital camera.

The pair of winged bronze statues had photographed well in the bright desert sun. Their upstretched arms and wings seemed to anticipate the American vision of superheroes as legendary creatures. He clicked over to photos of the bas-reliefs graven into the massive elevator towers. A photographer without Natalya's gift of flight would have had to hire a helicopter for these images.

"Oh, I like those wery much. Makes me want to fill out paperwork!" She winked at him.

"The look on the guard's face when you took those shots was priceless," Bella said from the front seat. "And I'm glad you liked the new statue of the high-scaler too. It's a great memorial to some amazing men."

Natalya's paen of praise to the Workers hadn't gone amiss either. And if the people who couldn't help overhearing were a trifle taken aback by the socialist leanings, they certainly approved of the sentiment--and given that Natalya was obviously a superhero, inclined to overlook anything they didn't quite agree with.

"If you had said we were to visit a dam, I would have asked to go elsewhere, comrade Bella," Red Saviour said. It was easier to hear her now than on the way out earlier this morning; the windows were closed tightly against heat that even the formidable heroine of the Russian people admitted wilted her. "I have seen many dams. Too many dams. Every time is tour of Soviet city, I am being taken to see dam. But this--this was different."

"I love it," Bella said simply. "All the WPA projects incorporated art. It always makes me think of the song 'Bread and Roses.'"

"Shto?" Natalya replied, with interest. "I do not know this song--"

Bella laughed; she played it so often that she knew the track on the MP3 disk without looking. "I won't scare you by singing it myself," she replied, and cued it up, displacing "Take On Me."

John Denver's voice drifted out of the speakers in the old labor-union song from 1912 that Bella knew Red Saviour would love.

As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: "Bread and roses! Bread and roses!"

As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women's children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for -- but we fight for roses, too!

As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler -- ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life's glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!

Glancing out of the corner of her eye, Bella suppressed a grin as Natalya responded, almost instinctively, to the words "the people hear us singing." She was like a dog that suddenly hears a beloved master's voice in an unexpected place. Bella couldn't resist either, actually, despite her disclaimer, she was singing along by the second verse.

There was a moment of silence as the MP3 player went back to "shuffle," and Bella dropped the volume, figuring there was going to be an outburst. She wasn't wrong.

"WHERE did this song come from? It is bolshoi socialist!" Natalya exclaimed, not quite able to believe what she had just heard.

"The Lowell Textile Worker's strike in Lawrence Massachusetts, 1910," Bella replied promptly. "It was actually written about 1912, though. Anyway, the whole thing about incorporating art into the WPA projects in the Depression was kind of about that---'hearts starve as well as bodies,' thing. And it's pretty amazing how the workers here really felt that they were part of something historic, something that would make life better for generations of ordinary people after them. The artists that were brought in tried to reflect everything about that, from the dreams of the people working here to the dreams of the Native Americans that lived her for centuries. They made everything look as beautiful as it could and still function efficiently."

She had decided not to mention the appalling working conditions that had prompted even the project's supervisor, a man so violently anti-union that he would not permit even the mention of such a thing, feel moved to protest. Maybe--probably, if the subject came up--she would say something about it later. She didn't want to spoil the day she had planned for her new friends with anything negative. Besides, she had realized something; it wasn't that she wanted to show off Las Vegas, it was that she wanted to show off the people, who were good, ordinary folks, not at their decadent worst, but at their friendly, hard-working best. Las Vegas was one of the most tolerant places in the US. For all of its excesses, she wanted these two to see what was good about the country, and you could find it here when you looked under the surface.

And she wanted it to be a day full of things that both of them, heroes who seldom got a moment of their own, would enjoy. The dam for Red Saviour--the 30's deco style was very reflective of the public buildings and artwork of Russia, and she thought it might make Natalya feel a little more at home. Then Elvii for Mosca.

She had thought about taking them to the Nevada Atomic Test Site--it was, after all, her reason for being here--but thought better of it. Bad Cold War memories, and bad memories for her; for obvious reasons, there was no Rikti Invasion memorial at Groom Lake, so they had put it out there at the Test Site Museum instead. She didn't want to think about it, despite having told Natalya and Mosca a bit about her own past. She wasn't going to invoke demons-of-the-heart. Not on what was supposed to be a good day.

So, after a quick lunch at one of her favorite truck stops--another chance for both of them to see working-class people at their best, local truckers, lots of whom knew Bella and were proud of their "home town hero"--it was off to make Mosca happy.

The Elvis-a-Rama Museum. It was a frighteningly huge collection of Elvis Stuff. And despite the tacky name and equally tacky exterior, well displayed. Whoever the curator was, he took his job seriously. Mosca was like a kid in a candy store. When he thought no one was looking, he practiced his Elvis poses in front of the displays of archival photos. Bella and Natalya pretended to be fascinated in the wordy exhibits.

But of all of the places to find good Elvii, you wouldn't expect them here at this bizarre museum. Except, this was where they were. Two different shows, one doing the younger, fitter black-leather-jacket-era Elvis and the 'Comeback Special' routine, the other doing the white-spandex-jumpsuit Las Vegas show. Both guys were amazingly good impersonators, and Bella, who knew more than a few of the Vegas Elvii personally thanks to Bobby Delacourt, was impressed with these two. When they left the second show, Mosca was practically glowing. The sad, battle-weary, creature from the hotel lobby was gone. And though Red Saviour hadn't enjoyed the shows nearly as much, one look at her watching Mosca, his pleasure reflected in her eyes, made prying those front-row tickets out of the museum worth while.

Even if it did feel a little like a blow to her own heart to see how much the two of them were in love with each other.

But she shook off her melancholy quickly. "I am wondering--dinner?" Red Saviour said, hesitantly. "I have heard the casinos--"

Bella had to laugh. "Oh, we're horrible, aren't we?" she replied. "We heroes--we burn off more calories in an hour than most people do in a week. No wonder we all look thin!"

"And we are always hungry," Mosca admitted. "But--casino--"

"We are NOT going to a wretched casino buffet," Bella replied, deftly turning the car onto Flamingo and into a strip-mall. "Trust me. This is better."

The line at the door of Nora's Cuisine made both Mosca and Natalya look quizzical. Even more quizzical when Bella took them around to the back entrance and knocked. "They don't take reservations," she explained as the door was opened by the owner herself.

"No, we don't. We are very democratic, everyone stands in line. Except for old family friends who have been eating my pizza since they were so high, and her friends all the way from Russia. For you, we have reservations." The Italian woman beamed at all of them, whisked them through the open kitchen, and plunked them down at a small table in the corner. "Now! Antipasto!"

#

By the time they left, the sun was down, and before Bella walked them all over Fremont Street she wanted time for everything to settle. So she drove the car up into the hills overlooking the basin, put some Grofe into the MP3 player and parked it on one of the scenic lookouts. Then she went for a short flight, leaving the two of them alone in the car.

She ended up perched above the vehicle on a sandstone outcropping, where she could keep an eye on them and on the lights below at the same time. It was funny; she found herself feeling very mixed emotions about the two of them. She was in awe, especially of Red Saviour, but at the same time, having seen them at what must have been the most vulnerable moments of their lives, she felt curiously protective of them.

Maybe this was what having an older sister and brother felt like. You knew they had their bad points--it was abundantly clear that Natalya had a fiendish temper and could be frighteningly hard and ruthless--but you loved them and wanted to take care of them, too. And you knew you could depend on them to take care of you...so strange that after knowing them no more than forty-eight hours, she felt this strongly about both of them...

Eventually, the car doors opened, and the two of them emerged. They stood holding hands, looking down on the lights for a moment, then (as Bella could have predicted) it was Natalya who turned and scanned the sky and the mountain, looking for her. In response, she "glowed" herself a little, stood up, waved, and flew down.

"And now for part two of our extravaganza," she said, with a wink to Red Saviour. "If you can bear more Elvii--"

Natalya sighed. Mosca looked like he'd just gotten Christmas early.

But Red Saviour admitted that the Fremont Street Experience was impressive, Mosca was blown away by the sound-and-light "Viva Las Vegas" show, and there was plenty going on with the street performers to break up the "All Elvis All The Time" theme. The Experience was just that--an attraction you had to experience to understand, an amazing overhead display canopy about 3 stories up made entirely of LED lights and stretching six blocks at least. There were speakers everywhere, and from dusk to dawn, there was a sound-and-light show going every half hour. Until you saw it, it was hard to imagine it. Las Vegas was more a "city of lights" than Paris, to tell the truth, and the Experience was the penultimate light display.

Bella caught her tapping her toe to the music more than once. And she enjoyed the show at Fitzgerald's--it had been pretty clear to Bella that Natalya preferred the black-leather-jacket era, and truth to tell, so did she.

But at the point they left the theater, even Natalya's wish to indulge Mosca was wearing visibly thin. And Bella was hungry. If she was hungry, they were hungry; it was no joke that superheroes went through calories...and Natalya had been more than a little insistent about an evening of drinking. The night was young by Las Vegas standards; if Bella was going to discover just how hard Russians drank, she wanted something in her stomach first. And she wanted to give Mosca another little surprise, something she was pretty sure was going to be entirely unexpected.

"Not more Elvises--" Red Saviour said, a little plaintively, as Bella turned up Paradise.

"Food," she replied firmly, and turned into the parking lot of Firefly. And got a grin when she saw Mosca's jaw drop as he read the sign. "Firefly on Paradise, Tapas Kitchen and Bar."

"Ah, tapas!" Mosca said. "Here in America's capitalist heartland?"

"Welcome to my world!" she said, with satisfaction. "If you know where to look, you can find anything in Vegas!"

#

"Now," said Natalya firmly. "No more Elvises."

"Now," Bella replied, "You make good on your promise to take me drinking. Which is why we leave the car here for Dad to pick up and we take a cab. Though I don't think we'll be going very far once you see where I'm taking you." At that moment the cab arrived in response to the call from inside Firefly, and she shooed the two of them into it. "Mandalay Bay," she told the driver.

Because in Mandalay Bay was what was supposed to be the most comprehensive vodka bar in Las Vegas, the Leningrad-themed Red Square...which had a solid sheet of ice for a bar, and reproductions of cold-war era art against the brown walls, like a czar's palace taken over by the Revolution. It wasn't cheap--normally--but it also didn't normally play host to Russian superstar superheroines who'd had bikini spreads in Maxim magazine. Arrangements had been made....

And Bella was just glad that her radiation-based metabolism was going to allow her to discretely burn some of that off before she lapsed into unconsciousness. Because the night was still young by Las Vegas standards, and she had seen how Natalya could knock it back under normal circumstances.

#


A last minute call saved the evening. Bella remembered, on the way to the bar, that the statue of Lenin had been beheaded by the management after complaints from customers with a less kitschy perspective on Communism. The eerie headless Lenin loomed over the front entrance to Red Square. Bella's friend gave her directions to get to the alley emergency exit, and advised her not to let Red Saviour leave by the front door or investigate the vodka cooler.

"Why are we in alley?" Natalya asked, arm in arm with Mosca.

"Celebrity entrance," Bella assured her. "Less hubbub. You don't want to be swamped with gawkers, do you?"

"I am used to it."

"Well, we're already here. Ah!" Gary stood at the door, a red carpet unfurled at his feet. Bella could have kissed him, if it weren't for the fear of causing mouth cancer. "They're expecting us."

"Privyet, Krasnij Spasitel," Gary said in near-perfect Russian. "Kak delo?"

"Horosho, comrade. Your Russian is good." She nodded to him as he stepped aside to make way. "You are student?"

"It comes with the job, ma'am," Gary said with a grin at Bella. Red Saviour crossed the threshold.

She put her hands to her mouth. "Govno," she breathed, making Gary's eyebrows raise. "It's...it's..."

"Red Square," Bella said triumphantly. "All the comforts of home."

The restaurant was as Bella remembered, a tapestry of several eras of Soviet culture. Stalinist posters stood side by side with Leninist, Bolshevik, even Trotskyite propaganda. In Moscow it would have caused a stir, but in Las Vegas the mishmash seemed oddly appropriate. Natalya gazed at the decorations on the stark walls with the same delight Mosca had shown at Elvis' sequined jumpsuit.

"Oh, I am liking this!" She pointed at a poster of a worker holding a stylized red flag. "Klutsis! Rodchenko, Rodchenko, Rodchenko...Lissitzky, and both of those are Malevich. They spared nyet expense on this place."

"This is a bar, no? I am ready for a drink." Mosca took Natalya's elbow and guided her to the bar. Cold radiated from the flattened ice. They both giggled as they stroked the surface.

"This is nyet Soviet...but I have been in bars so cold that this would go unnoticed."

The manager appeared with two waiters bearing mink coats and hats. Rumor had it that he hailed from Nebraska, faked the accent and had hair extensions done on his eyebrows.

"Comrades! Zadrastvuitye!" he bellowed. "What an honor to have the famous Krasnij Spasitel here in Red Square!" Heads turned at his leonine delivery. The tourists chattered amongst themselves like startled birds as recognition of the celebrated Russian heroine flowed through the room. Several flashbulbs went off.

"Not to mention her friends." Romanov, absurd in a mink coat and hat two sizes too small for his lanky frame, stepped out from behind the manager. He waved a bottle of Youri Dolgoruki vodka at them. "Casinos insisted on sending over thank-you presents. I told them just give us open tab at Red Square, and we will drink presents."

"Correct thinking!" The four gathered at the bar as Romanov poured a round. The waiters helped them into mink jackets. Bella put the hats on their heads.

"Let animal rights people whine. They have nyet lived through Russian winter." She adjusted Mosca's hat. "You are Dr. Zhivago tonight, darlink."

Romanov hoisted his vodka glass and cleared his throat meaningfully. Onlookers hushed to hear the tall, gaunt man speak over the in-house speakers playing Prokofiev. "Comrades, we have come through a difficult time together. Lives were nearly lost, hearts nearly broken. Yet, in Russia, we say: 'do not praise yourself going into battle...praise yourself coming out of battle.' I start by praising my old friend Natalya, with a will of iron, and my new friends Santiago and Bella, with hearts of steel."

He met each of their eyes before tipping his glass, taking down the expensive vodka with one gulp. They followed suit. Bella thought she'd swallowed a campfire. She wondered if she should have fortified herself with some coyly manipulated radiation before entering the bar.

"Horosho," Red Saviour said. "Spasibo, Cestimir. My turn." She cleared her throat as well; Bella began to think it was a Russian habit. "Cestimir has given us serious toast, so I make one more serious:

"There cannot be not enough snacks,
There can only be not enough vodka.
There can be no silly jokes,
There can only be not enough vodka.
There can be no ugly women,
There can only be not enough vodka.
There cannot be too much vodka,
There can only be... not enough vodka!"

"Za vashe zdorovye!" Romonov and Natalya finished together. This time everyone in proximity lifted their drinks with the heroes. Bella decided the vodka had dulled the pain receptors in her throat.

"Mi compadres, allow me." Mosca refilled their glasses. By the casualness of his movements, as the stood at the bar, Bella realized that this was merely the precursor to what they planned for the evening. "In Spain we say, 'Dime con qui?n andas y te dir? qui?n ere.' Tell me with whom you walk, and I tell you who you are." He put his arm around Natalya. "I am grateful to my new comrades, who were there in my time of greatest need. But I am most grateful to this mujer at my side. I walk by her and I am king of the world. In a classless society way, of course, Natya."

"I give you permission to be king, darlink."

Mosca clearly could not resist such a straight line. "Uhthankyouverymuch," he said, rather convincely, head tilted just so. Natalya barked a laugh at him, and drank.

"Salud!" echoed around the room.

Everyone smiled, savoring the buttery burn of the vodka. A silence descended; Bella realized they were waiting for her to give a toast. Nothing came to mind. The Russians seemed to have heads full of drinking toasts. Even Mosca had summoned up a speech in a heartbeat. Absurdly, the incident with Josh flashed through her mind, as if it carried meaning that she would dare to share with a roomful of strangers.

"Um," she said. They waited, expectantly, for the blue-skinned girl to continue. Someone took a picture. "Oh, I'm not really good at toasting or anything, like knowing sayings and stuff. I don't even think Americans toast each other. They just say 'you want a beer?' But...well, I haven't known Natalya or Mosca, or Lt. Romanov for very long, but they seem really...um...neat." She finished lamely, then blurted out: "And I hope I get to know them better!"

"Za vashe zdorovye!" agreed Red Saviour. Everyone tried out the Russian phrase this time. Mosca tussled her hair.

"Gracias, mi bella Bella. Words from the heart need no rehearsal." The handsome Spaniard smiled at her, showing perfect teeth. She wished he had a younger brother. A mutant younger brother. A nice blue radioactive mutant blue younger brother. Or a green one. A purple one, even.

"De nada," she said. "Maybe we should find our table. They've set aside the VIP section for us. We'll have some privacy."

He nodded at Red Saviour, already surrounded by autograph seekers who had sensed an opening and sprang to action. "In time. With Natya, one always has privacy, because she outshines us all. When she grows weary of adulation, we can take our seats."

They watched Natalya smile at each person, shake hands, ask their name, make an appropriate comment. "She works the crowd like a politician." Bella grinned. "Not that there's anything wrong with that."

"She is a politician. Her position, it is not official, but the power her voice wields in Russia is substantial. Once, a delegate in the Federal Assembly proposed a bill to limit the power of militsya, the police, to do searches of suspects' homes. He wanted greater culpability, more checks and balances, like America. Natya made a public speech against the man, then confronted him in his own living room. Two days later, he appeared on the Assembly floor with a neck brace and retracted the bill."

"A neck brace?" Bella's eyes widened.

"He claimed he tripped down the stairs while carrying his cat." Mosca sipped at his vodka. "Natya, she can be persuasive."

"But that's awful! I can't imagine her doing that. It's the kind of story you hear to frighten you about totalitarianism." She didn't want to believe this about the woman she had befriended.

"Ah, you misunderstand mi corazon. She is a very strong woman, and she believes in peace through strength, order through strength. To her, American-style democracy is weak and easily perverted by the rich, which is what you have in this country right now. It is a thin veneer for kleptocracy. She believes - and I usually agree with her - that a strong Communist state will lead to an egalitarian, classless society." Mosca watched Natalya, looking classically Russian in her furnished mink coat, pose for a picture with tourists that could have been investment bankers. "There is no workers' paradise without the fires of revolution. She will shake, or break, any hand in order to help humanity to that final goal."

"So we can't have a perfect, or at least decent, society right now?"

"It is impossible. Yet without the struggle to improve the position of the workers, these capitalists, they will keep a nation in the dark ages in order to line their pockets with gold." Mosca clinked her glass. "That is our job, as heroes. We fight for the downtrodden, regardless of the political climate. Capitalist or Marxist, our job is the same."

Bella was no stranger to leftist political thought, but it had never left the abstract realm of coffeehouse or living room discussions. Would her grandparents have embraced Natalya if they'd known her ruthlessness extended beyond criminals? She remembered the cold anger in Natalya's face as she broke Hypnosister's legs. What else would she justify to enforce the edicts of the State? How could this lead to an enlightened society?

But I got people to hack into private computers, she suddenly thought. And I can't think of the number of times I've just laid into Hellions or Outcastes just because they were standing there. OK, so they pulled guns on me, but for all I knew they could have been waiting to pick up their kids from school. She shook her head. I"m either too drunk for this, or not drunk enough.

"Let us leave Natya to her spotlight. Come, we will find our seats." Mosca put a friendly arm around her and guided her to the VIP area. It was a conversation pit, a few steps down into the floor, lined with red leather couches. A glass table balanced on concrete blocks displayed a spread of caviar, fruits, vegetables and hard bread.

Romanov joined them as they settled into the soft seats. "Even in this country, she draws a crowd. Our famous friend." He scooped up some caviar on a cracker. "I don't eat like this very often, even in Las Vegas."

Mosca took the hint and sampled the caviar himself. "How long have you been stationed here, comrade?"

"Sixteen months. It is nyet so different from Moscow, once you squint enough to block out neon. Crime is same everywhere." Romanov chased the fish eggs down with vodka. "Small minded men, looking for big score so that they are 'set for life.' Funny thing here is that tourists have same idea, only do it legally."

"Lost Wages," Bella murmured.

"Da. Sin City. Only reason to call it so is because sins are advertised in pamphlets like Mosca carries." He pointed at Mosca's jacket pocket with his drink.

"Ay! These are Elvis pamphlets. Elvis, he was a saint." They all laughed.

"Aside from comrade Elvis, then, city is sponge for Amerikantski money. Still, provides good work for police."