Death in Nostalgia City
Whose idea was it to replace chrome knobs and push buttons on car radios with touch screens? Lyle had no clue.
He eased off the accelerator of his 1973 Dodge Polara taxicab so his passengers wouldn’t miss anything. The sedan lumbered past an appliance store where a dozen identical images of the Fonz—leather jacket and all—were speaking unheard words from 24-inch, picture-tube TVs in the shop window. Lyle’s passengers gaped. A common reaction. Lyle had been at his new job for six months now, so the time warp didn’t faze him. He liked it. The new job brought him back to happy days.
“Oh, baby, I’m in love,” cried the DJ on the car radio. “That was a new one by Roberta Flack, ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow?’ You’re listening to Big Earl Williams on KBOP. Next up, the latest from Three Dog Night, but first—”
Lyle turned the radio down so he could talk to his fares, a wholesome-looking sixtyish couple, probably from the Midwest. “This your first time?”
“Yes,” the husband said. “First time.”
“We’ve heard all about this place,” his wife said, “but we had to see for ourselves. It’s amazing.”
Lyle glanced at the couple in the mirror. “Just your average town.”
“You got good cell phone coverage here?” the husband asked. “I’m having problems with my iPhone.”
“What’s an iPhone?” Lyle said.
“What, are you nuts? A cell phone!”
“Don’t be a cynic, Warren,” his wife said. “It’s part of the experience here.”
“Okay. I get it.” He held up two fingers in an awkward peace sign. “Far out, man. Groovy.”
Lyle smiled. He didn’t mind. He tried not to let little things bother him anymore. If people didn’t want to get in the spirit to relive the good old days, that was their choice. It just puzzled him why anyone would spend the money to visit Nostalgia City, one of the most elaborate theme parks in the world, and not enjoy the masquerade.
Nostalgia City was the brainchild of billionaire developer Archibald “Max” Maxwell. The re-creation of a town from the early 1970s was as complete as billions of dollars and Max’s ceaseless energy could make it. Aimed at baby boomers, or anyone who wanted to go back in time, Nostalgia City was the size of a small town. Rides, shops, restaurants, hotels—everything—was constructed from scratch in northern Arizona near a reclaimed stretch of Route 66. To Lyle, a baby boomer himself, it was part resort, part theme park, and very much an escape. His new job gave him the chance to meet people not because they were robbed or assaulted but because they were on vacation.
Lyle steered the cab into the curb lane to give his passengers a closer look at the storefronts. He loved his big, old ’73 taxi. His parents had driven a Chrysler Cordoba with “soft Corinthian leather.” His Dodge wasn’t as fancy—after all, it was a cab—but it was fully restored. You could almost believe the 7,000 miles on the odometer. Like everything else in Nostalgia City, the cab didn’t look like an artifact. It looked new.
Rolling through the reproduction of a decades-past downtown, Lyle and his passengers came to a stop light. At the corner, Lyle’s guests stared at a Flying A service station with its white-uniformed attendants. Each gas pump was a sculptured red tower with one long hose and side-mounted nozzle, like a fashion model with one hand on her hip. As the tourists gawked, something moving drew Lyle’s gaze up a hill to the left. He saw a white 1970 Ford Torino moving toward the cab, picking up speed. Instantly, Lyle saw something missing—a driver.
In seconds, the Torino would smash into the driver’s side of Lyle’s cab. He stomped on the gas pedal and yelled for his passengers to hang on. The taxi’s rear tires chirped. Then the rubber took hold. The Dodge lunged forward as the Torino rushed toward it. Lyle escaped the runaway car—almost. The Ford scraped along a corner of the taxi’s rear bumper, catching the edge of a metal advertising sign on the back of the cab. It ripped off the sign with quick, metallic popping sounds.
Streaking forward, the driverless car headed for the gas station. It ran up the drive and caromed off a column supporting an awning over a row of pumps. The heavy metal awning trembled, tilted, then crashed to the ground. Slowed but still unchecked, the Torino reeled on. It plowed into a stack of motor oil cans, sending them flying. Finally, the Ford rammed into a gas pump, giving up the last of its momentum in a resounding crunch.
Gasoline gushed from the damaged pump while the motionless Ford straddled the concrete island like a ship stuck on a shoal. The sharp gasoline smell pierced the air. Lyle stopped his cab away from traffic. He bailed out and barked at his passengers to get away from the station. Seeing a customer standing near the flowing gas, he motioned for him to back away from the growing, flammable lake.
Everyone waited for the explosion.
But it didn’t happen.
Lyle dashed up to an attendant who had jumped out of the way of the car and was lying on his back, stunned and trembling. “Shut-off.”
The attendant pointed to the side of the building. Lyle found the emergency shut-off and punched a fist-sized button.
“You all right?” he asked the attendant.
“Think so.” The young man stood and dusted himself off. “We gotta call for help.”
“Already being taken care of.” Lyle saw another uniformed attendant in the service station office with a phone in his hand waving toward them.
The gasoline contained itself in the station’s parking area. An asphalt berm became a dam creating a small gas lagoon a few inches deep. Avoiding the gasoline, Lyle trotted over to the Ford. Its front bumper, grill, and the right side of its body were shredded and crushed, but the driver’s side looked relatively untouched except for long scratch marks from Lyle’s cab. Lyle glanced at the Torino’s driver’s side front door for a second, then pulled it open. He knew the engine wasn’t running, but he wanted to make sure the ignition was off. He stuck his head in, careful not to touch anything he didn’t have to. His right hand rested on the smooth vinyl seat as he leaned in farther. Then he felt someone tapping him on the back.
“Don’t touch anything,” said a deep voice. “Step back, sir.”
That was a little difficult because a large man in a shirt and tie stood right behind Lyle. The man had a badge holder hanging from his pocket and a holstered semi-automatic clipped to his belt.
“Clyde Bates, chief of security,” the walking impediment said. “What happened here?”
“Looks like someone tried to top off his tank.”
Bates scowled. “Okay, comedian, were you driving?”
“Yes—but not this car. No one was driving the Ford. That was the problem.”
Lyle recognized Bates from a staff meeting a couple of months earlier. He noticed the prematurely gray hair trimmed in a crew cut and the expression that said smiling was off limits. The park security chief looked as if he was once in shape but that recently his center of gravity had been moving south.
Lyle stepped away from the Ford and pointed to his Nostalgia City ID badge. “Deming. Lyle Deming. The car’s in neutral. I was just looking to see if—”
“Where’d it come from, that hill?”
“See anyone around?”
“No. Just the car, no driver.”
“You didn’t see anyone on the sidewalk?”
“No. So I looked inside the car to—”
“Okay. We’ll take it from here.”
Since Bates was alone, Lyle wondered who the “we” referred to. Then he heard a siren and knew reinforcements were on the way. A black-and-white early ’70s Plymouth with “Nostalgia City Security” painted on the door rolled up, followed by two fire engines of the same vintage.
Bates started giving orders, and Lyle walked a few steps away to pick up his yellow cabbie hat that had fallen off. He ran his fingers through his dark, wavy hair and set the cap on the back of his head.
“Think it was an accident?” Lyle asked. “Maybe something slipped.”
“An accident?” Bates said, looking away. “Dunno. Make a report. We’ll handle it.”
Lyle didn’t like his attitude. “What makes you think it wasn’t an accident?”
“Could this be related to the ride someone vandalized? Or the bridge—”
“That’s our business. Not your concern.”
Just walk away, Lyle told himself as he touched the rubber band on his wrist. Leave the make-believe policeman alone. He’s right, not my problem.
Lyle inspected his cab. The rear bumper was twisted and scratched. The mangled advertising sign lay on the pavement and the trunk lid now sported several jagged air holes. Lyle was about to round up his passengers when someone yelled at Bates. A firefighter knelt at the edge of the toppled awning. Lyle ran over to see if he could help. Right away, he knew no one could. A middle-aged man had been standing under the awning when it collapsed.
“Dead,” the firefighter said.
Kate Sorensen sat in the twenty-seventh row of an otherwise empty Las Vegas showroom and edited news release drafts on her tablet while occasionally glancing at the rehearsal.
“Two, three, four…” A choreographer in green slacks and baggy T-shirt shouted at the handful of dancers aligned across the stage. “Kristy, you’ve gotta get your sea legs, honey. This stage sloshes around all the time.”
Behind the dancers were huge brass dials, switches, and controls designed to look like the bridge of a Navy ship. The broad, nautically themed stage floated in an enormous Plexiglas water tank spanning the front of the theater. As the dancers marched left, the deck dipped to one side. Waves splashed the stage. Kate could almost feel the rolling of a ship. Couple the undulating movement with flickering lights, ocean sounds, and a fine sea spray and the audience might need Dramamine. Would the dancers?
Obviously more work was necessary before the show would become flagship entertainment for the SS Las Vegas Hotel/Casino. Kate looked down at her work and then wrinkled her nose. Something smelled like rotting seaweed. It certainly wasn’t her perfume. That came from Saks. Did this mean the show was a stinker? When her cell phone whined inside her suit pocket, she reached for it, expecting to hear the voice of her secretary. She brushed her long blond hair away from her ear.
“Max, what a surprise. How are things in Nostalgia City?”
“First, congratulations. Saw all the publicity you got for your hotel’s anniversary. Tie-in to naval history was clever.”
“You have to find a new approach every time, stuff to catch the imagination.”
“You do that pretty well—come up with great ideas.”
“Hope so. In a few days, we’re launching a new extravaganza. Ha, no pun intended. I’m going over the stories my staff has written. So far I don’t see many new ideas.”
“You’ll make it come together. You usually do.”
“Why all the flattery, Max? You must be in a good mood.” The founder and CEO of the giant retro resort was not the kind of person to call for idle chitchat, especially at work. “Everything going well there in Arizona?”
“Doing okay. Attendance is up.”
Kate leaned to one side to get comfortable. Her long legs sometimes made her feel cramped sitting in one-size-fits-all theater seats. “I read that the Indian casino and your excursion train through the reservation are behind schedule.”
“A little. We’ll work it out. So, you still like it there in Vegas?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Would you be interested in joining us here?”
“Go to work for you? You’ve got a public relations VP.”
“As of now.”
“Move to Flagstaff?”
“Why don’t you come out here for a couple of days and we’ll talk.”
Go back to work for Max? Several thoughts fought for attention in Kate’s head. Although it paid well, Kate’s job as communication director for the SS Las Vegas Hotel,“The Cruise Ship of the Strip,” was becoming routine. Bruce, her boyfriend, roommate, and possibly future husband, might throw a tantrum if she asked him to move to Arizona. And Max could be a tyrant to work for. He interfered. On the other hand, the innovative billionaire had enthusiasm and a stomach for risks. Working for him was never dull.
“Come for a visit,” Max said. “I’ll send the corporate jet.”
“I don’t mind flying commercial. Let me think. Call you tomorrow.”
As Kate put away her phone, Mario Danova slipped into the seat next to her. His expensive suit and capped-teeth smile said “show biz.”
“Looks like it’ll be a great show, eh, Kate?”
“Yeah. It really rocks. Hope no one gets seasick.”
“Seasick?” Danova’s nametag read, Executive Vice President – Entertainment. “Oh, you’re kidding, huh. Think you can get us on the Today Show? We really need to rev up our publicity machine.”
“Sure, Mario. The campaign’s on track. We’ll make sure everyone knows about the show.”
“Okay, but we need to get moving. Jack Stegman wants plenty of interviews. He’s the star. You’ll headline him, right?”
“And he wants you to retouch his publicity photos.”
“We did that already.”
“Did you? He said the shots make him look like Wayne Newton. You’ll fix them, right?”
Maybe Max wouldn’t be too difficult to work for at that. Promoting a theme park could be an interesting change after ten years of hyping Las Vegas casinos. But Max always said he would never offer a job to someone who had quit working for him. Why had he changed his mind?
Watching a body being scraped up, dumped on a gurney, and hauled away was not a new sight for Lyle, but that didn’t make it any more appealing. He took deep breaths as he felt the adrenaline wearing off. Firefighters had found the victim’s wallet, so security officers headed out to check the park’s hotels to see if they could locate family. Lyle was glad this was one death he didn’t have to deal with. The people left behind—loved ones—made lasting impressions on him.
Driving home that afternoon in his own car he tried to think of other things. He turned his Mustang down the central street in Timeless Village, a mixture of new houses, single-story condos, and upscale apartments just outside Nostalgia City. The home styles were generic southwestern stucco. Pinon pines and sage figured prominently in the landscaping. Not all the homes were occupied yet, and the village was always quiet.
Lyle thought he was going home, but when he got to his street, he continued straight ahead toward Gilligan’s Island. A half mile later, he was pulling into a small strip shopping center. Sitting between a hair salon and a Chinese restaurant was Gilligan’s Island, a neighborhood bar. It wasn’t Lyle’s normal quitting time, so his dad wouldn’t be expecting him. He’d have a beer and unwind.
He left his hat in the car, pulled off his dark glasses, and wandered inside. Ducking under faux palm fronds, he saw a few patrons at the far end of the bar, talking to the bartender. Lyle took a seat close to the door. Reedy wallpaper covered the walls and tropical fish swam in lighted blue tanks. Somewhere, a bubbling pot of chili sent its aroma into the bar. Lyle loosened his bow tie and let the ends hang down the front of his white shirt.
The bartender looked up. “Lyle, howya doin’? Want a draft?” Lyle nodded. The bartender, also bar owner, had bushy dark hair, a long, thin face, and inquisitive eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses. He wore a yacht cap and told everyone to call him the skipper, even though he didn’t look any more like Alan Hale, Jr.—the actor who played the role in the TV show—than Raquel Welch looked like Flipper. He handed Lyle a frosty mug. “I heard there was excitement at the park today.”
Lyle put his hand around the beer. “Bad accident. How’d you find out so soon?”
“Somebody who works on Main Street was just in here. Said he saw fire trucks at the Flying A station. You see it?”
“A car smashed into the pumps.” Lyle saw no sense in spreading the sad details. Everyone would hear about it soon enough.
A couple strolled into the bar and the skipper had to walk down to wait on them. Lyle was off the hook. He took a swallow of cold beer then rested both arms on the bar. He could feel tenseness in his shoulders, so he relaxed into a slouch. Before he could take another sip, his cell phone rang.
“Dad, you okay?”
“Lyle, I need my meds.”
Lyle sat up. “Your pills were…on the kitchen counter this morning. Yes, I made sure they were sitting where you could get them.”
“Oh, I have them all right. But I’m going to need a refill soon.”
Lyle let out a breath and leaned against the bar. “Okay, we’ll get one next week.”
“You have to ask the doctor about this. I think that maybe I need a new prescription. Something stronger.”
“Sure, Dad, we’ll talk to him.” Lyle swiveled his stool away from the bar so everyone wouldn’t hear his conversation. “Dad, remember, I had to get special permission to carry a cell phone in the park? You’re only supposed to call me in an emergency.”
Hank was silent.
“You got a reject from that insurance company today. They denied your claim for your stepdaughter’s therapy. Sounds like that insurance you’re paying for is no damn good.”
Son of a bitch, Lyle thought, his mind traveling to the stack of medical bills and insurance forms on his desk at home. His stepdaughter, Samantha, had been in a serious accident three months before, but her recovery was going well, thanks to continued medical care. Although he was divorced from Samantha’s mother, Lyle remained close to his stepdaughter, helping her out financially and emotionally as she worked her way through college.
Samantha’s extensive medical bills might have made Lyle happy that he paid for full coverage. Trouble was, Federal Patrician Insurance Company was full of excuses for delaying or denying payments.
Thanks for the good news Dad, he thought. And thanks for opening my mail.
“Your friend Marko called this morning,” Hank said. “He thinks you can get reinstated if you just see one more counselor.”
“Another shrink, you mean.”
“Okay, Dad. Thanks for the message.”
When he hung up the phone, Lyle sat staring absently across the room. The bow of a wooden boat, made to look as if it had just crashed into the barroom, stuck out from a corner. Painted on the nose was the name, SS Minnow.
“So, how’s your dad?” the skipper asked.
Lyle spun around in his seat. “You don’t miss much, do you?”
The skipper put a hand on the bar. He looked hurt. “I was just—”
“He’s okay,” Lyle said with a wave of his hand. “As good as he gets.”
“You get along?”
“Before his last heart attack he spoke to me maybe once a year or so. Now he lives with me and he calls me all the time.”
“Maybe he’s lonely.”
The skipper was silent a moment then said, “You work tomorrow?”
“You bet. Saturdays are the most fun.” How long had it been since he’d used that word to describe work?
Lyle finished his beer, paid the tab, and walked outside. When he reached for the door handle of his car, he froze. Something he’d seen at the crash site hadn’t registered at the time. Now it appeared in his head like a Polaroid picture developing. Not all the damage on the driver’s side of the runaway Torino had been made by the back end of Lyle’s taxi.
“Wonder how that happened?” he said aloud.
Driving along Interstate 40 in northern Arizona, Kate Sorensen watched Nostalgia City billboards flash by as she wondered what in the world she was doing. It was just curiosity, she told herself, that prompted her to fly out to Flagstaff, rent a car, and head toward Max’s metropolis.
The next billboard said she was approaching a Blast to the Past. A few miles later a sign heralded, The Living Time Machine. Clever? Almost. If Max’s PR was as mediocre as his advertising, no wonder he needed help. When she reached the exit for the small town of Polk, she pulled off the interstate and drove south. She passed through Polk, traveled several more miles, and was soon entering Nostalgia City’s massive parking lot. The lot wasn’t full, but rows of cars stretched on for acres. A dry, mid-April breeze whispered to her as she got out of her car. The air smelled fresh, like it did in Vegas before a million cars took to the streets every day. She heard a humming and the sound of voices. Turning around, she saw a tram waiting for her. She nestled herself into a molded bench seat, angling her legs to the side. As the tram started, a recorded voice said, “You’re about to step back in time. But before you do, remember where you’re parked. You’re in section T for teenybopper.”
Kate scanned the passengers. On the row behind her were two couples, perhaps in their late fifties. She could see few children on the tram. The demographics weren’t quite Sun City, but this was no Sesame Street crowd, either. Except for a few teens, everyone was a gen-Xer, like Kate, or older.
Kate’s Nordstrom blazer and camel skirt made her more formally dressed than the other visitors. Her blonde hair tied up tight and her makeup subdued, she sparkled under the desert sun. She did look dressy for a theme park, but what the heck, this was a job interview, even if it was with Max.
As the tram reached the park’s main entrance, the recorded voice resumed. “When you leave the tram you can either go directly to a ticket booth, or stop at one of the automated information stations.”
Kate stepped from the tram and saw a dozen oddly shaped kiosks. Some looked like jukeboxes. Others were in the shape of space capsules, stacks of huge phonograph records, old-style TV sets, and other bygone cultural icons. They were scattered across a broad concrete square like giant toys on a playroom floor. Kate chose a kiosk in the shape of a pudgy carhop on roller skates. The carhop’s food tray held the flat video screen. Kate pushed a button. A twangy guitar played a song she recognized but couldn’t name then a man’s voice began. “Are you ready for a trip back? Welcome to Archibald Maxwell’s Nostalgia City. Everything you see and hear is just as it was back then.”
So Max did flaunt his name here and there, just like the news reports she’d seen. Kate had to bend over to read the screen. “Notice there are several ways to enjoy your trip to the past. If you’d like to stay in one of our hotels, touch the green button. Once inside the park you can catch a taxi or shuttle bus. If you’d like to rent a car, touch the red button.”
Rental cars in an amusement park? That was a twist. Kate touched the screen and watched a video of an old car driving toward the camera. Was it a Pontiac?
“This beautiful 1972 Chevrolet, or one of a variety of other classic wheels, is available for your stay in Nostalgia City.”
As the announcer spoke, names of car models and typical rental rates crawled across the bottom of the screen. The prices! In Vegas, anyone could rent a new Italian sports car or a limo and driver for the same price as these automotive relics. But then lots of people liked old cars. Kate touched another button.
The screen filled with an aerial view of Nostalgia City, and the reason for the rental cars and taxis became obvious. The park covered several square miles. In the middle was the “city” portion of Nostalgia City, subtitled Centerville, a re-created town from 40 years ago. Arranged around it in a semicircle were other themed areas, all connected by roads that radiated out from Centerville like spokes on a wheel.
The areas included an amusement park called the Fun Zone, a cluster of hotels and restaurants, a golf course, and a small dude ranch. The entrance where she stood was at the end of another spoke. A remarkable accomplishment, Kate thought, in light of the resort’s checkered past. Owing to Max’s unfortunate decision to build a multi-billion dollar development just before the recession hit, construction stopped for at least two years. Max had the advantage later, however, of a cheap labor market during the most intensive building phase. Derided by the media at first because of the on-again, off-again nature of its construction, Nostalgia City became a sensation when it was finally finished.
Kate remembered the glowing TV news stories. One over-enthusiastic network reporter had worn wide bell-bottoms and a tie-dyed top to cover the grand opening. Kate had a good idea of who the park’s prime market was, judging by the ages and prosperous look of the tourists flocking in. Why, she wondered, did Max want PR help—especially hers?
To enter the park Kate had to go through a security check. It looked like the checkpoints at airports, except the uniformed personnel smiled more often. This kept weapons out of the park, without dampening visitors’ spirits. She looked past the gates and saw lines of taxicabs and small buses. All the vehicles looked old fashioned, yet new.
Their gleaming chrome, shiny paint, and other details said they must be recent models, but the styles were obviously decades old. Advertising signs, promoting park attractions, decorated the sides of the buses. One sign said, “Hustle your bones over to the Graveyard Grill. Try our Ghoulash.”
Kate grimaced at the puns. She decided to check out the Fun Zone amusement area and headed for a shuttle bus.
Two and a half hours later, after exploring part of the park and going on a few rides, Kate stood before an office building on a side street at the edge of Centerville. The bronze sign set into the stonework said only, “Maxwell Building.” Inside, Kate gave her name to a guard who directed her to a bank of elevators.
Kate found Max’s office on the top floor. The brightly colored, squared-off waiting-room furniture was obviously accurate for the period. The receptionist’s suit could have been from the 1960s or contemporary, but her hairstyle was something Kate remembered seeing in old movies and in one of her mother’s photo albums. Almost before Kate could give her name, Max came out a doorway to greet her.