Thursday, January 22, 2009

CHAPTER 12

I woke up around three. I thought about James Agee for some reason. Leroy was curled up in the fetal position on his bed, fully clothed, snoring. I’d had enough of being asleep for the time being. I put on some pants, buttoned up my shirt, wrapped a tie around my neck, and went down to the bar to grab a few beers and think about my next move. I decided to let Leroy sleep.

The bar was much the same, but a lot more crowded than before. I was really thirsty, hot and dehydrated. My tongue was a snake with sandpaper skin and there was a line of people waiting on drinks from the same surly bar tender I’d dealt with the night before. The shakes hit me as I was standing in line. I’d never wanted a beer so bad in my life. I kept cursing the slow moving people in front of me and repeating my order in my drug-addled head, ‘Two Tecates,’ and I kept reaching in my pocket and rubbing the three dollar bills in there together, kept counting them over and over, yep, there’s three, two for the beers and one for the tip. Everything was annoying me. Every little nudge from some idiot standing next to me, every idiot standing next to me, every bovine hirsute disaster of a person in-between me and a beer, it was all too much and I started screaming inside of my head at everything, cursing the whole damn place, all the fake scintillation, the beer mirrors behind the bar, the upside-down Tequila bottles set up like Slurpee machines, the B.O. that just lingered everywhere.

All I wanted was a beer. Two beers really. But that didn’t matter. I needed this line to fucking move. I started cracking all of my fingers, then moved on to my toes. The bar tender winked tenderly at somebody and ripped open a new box of Tecates. Ice was dripping off of them and this enraged me. I wanted to jump over the bar and grab all of the beers and punch out the bartender, running off screaming like a jack-in-the-box run amok, shot-gunning beer as I went and throwing the empties at the ceiling fans. My eyes were burning. The guy in front of me, his thick growth of red curly back hair just inches away, with his “I’ve Got Real Class and a Big Ass” tank top soaked in grime and sweat, kept shifting back and forth and squealing a little bit, which was really destroying my will to keep myself together for the time being. But I didn’t move. I just stood there and waited and opened and closed my eyes a lot, my hands curled into fists so tight my nails were starting to cut into the skin on my palms. I tried to focus on the baseball game that was on the television on the wall. Every pitch was another pitch closer to getting some damn beer in me. I spent a lot of time wiping sweat from my forehead and cracking my stiff neck. I’m not sure who was playing. I just stared at the screen to keep me focused.

After what seemed like 14 months I made it to the front of the line and leaned on the bar in relief. I tried to smile at the old rat-toothed maid behind the bar, but it didn’t work and she went over to wash out some glasses or something. For the first time in a while I tried to speak, “Hey. Hi. Um, could I get two Tecates….please?” I tried to look nice and presentable, kind of straightening up a little and pulling my tie up tighter around my neck.

“Okay hun,” she said very low as she kept piling dirty glasses into some kind of dishwasher below the bar.

I tried to wait her out and pretended to be really interested in something I was pretending was happening to my left. She eventually came over and said, “Now what was that that you wanted hun?”

“Um. Two…Tecates? Please?” I was completely falling apart.

She ripped open a box and said kind of softly, “Two? Sure. That’ll be two dollars hun.” She popped open the beers and put two slices of lime on the tops. I set down what I thought were three dollars, but which turned out to be a two tens and a one. It was a confusing way to pay. I tried to take the tens back but then realized that it wouldn’t work that way, so I guffawed at my contretemps and tried to leave a ten and a one there. She saw I was confused and took the ten to the cash register. When she turned away I threw the lime slices in the garbage, picked up one of the beers as quick as I could and drained it to the lees. It was very cold and tasted so good I couldn’t stop. I just kept pouring it down until it was gone. She smiled at me when she brought my change back saying, “You sure musta been thirsty, huh?” and giggled like a fucking schoolgirl getting tickled. I left the dollar on the bar for a tip, burped, and said, “Yep. Thanks,” and walked away with my change and my other beer, feeling pretty good. Everything was better and I started in on the other beer.

After walking around for a little while I stopped at a nickel slot machine. I figured, how much could I lose in just nickels? Then I accidentally put a ten in the machine instead of the one I thought I was putting in. So now I was going to lose ten bucks instead of one. Shit. That could’ve bought me more than half a dozen more Tecates. Well, there was no going back. I decided to just sit there and play the damn machine until my money ran out.

The sun was setting. The glass swinging doors of the entrance were about ten feet to my right and I could see outside from where I was sitting at the slot machine. I set my Tecate down beside me and started to hit the buttons to make the thing spin. I kept hitting the “Bet Max” button and I kept losing. Soon I started playing a bit slower, trying to enjoy the moment of sitting there at the machine, sipping my cold beer, watching all the colors of fading orange and yellow sun come through the windows. Dust motes lit up in streaks, whirling little hurricanes of dead skin and cigarette ash, shooting in at all angles from the odd refractions of vespertine light. There was something very melancholy about the whole thing and I started to get a little sadly nostalgic and maybe a little maudlin too, sitting there watching the slots spin, like it was my last chance for stillness and a little peace. Not too many people were around, and I wasn’t at all sleepy. My beer tasted good. The light was that romantic tinge of sepia that comes around every so often when the gilt-like glare of the sun’s last stand against oncoming night makes its way through the window, and you look up, not even realizing why you’re looking up, and all at once everything is transformed into a ideal image of itself, a facsimile of God, and everything is God and God is in everything, and for at least this short time all is beautiful and effulgent and real and right there basking in the glow, like terra-cotta reflecting sunlight on the fa├žade of an old building, all the angles are perfect and all the world is caught up in the supervenient display—a dusky moment in time. The slot machines were all glinting specks of joie de vivre, everything was in efflorescence, and for the first time in months my head was steady and my thoughts were few. All was right with the world. I sat there and spun the reels and drank my beer and watched the sun fade from the room. The sound of a hundred slot machines purring all together in a cacophony of mechanical buzzing, Huey Lewis and The News singing about the heart of Rock’n’Roll, all that whirling of wheels rolling and all the beeps and the chime of constant motion, it was all a riotous gallimaufry of clanging and chirping and the sudden stops and starts of tinny digital songs like a prototypical robot making an attempt at speech through binary music.

My ten bucks eventually turned into 3 nickels, and I bet them all at once and lost. I pounded my fist against the soft rubber bar on the protruding ledge of the machine. The Gold Spike had ten more of my dollars and I didn’t feel like giving them any more, so I took what was left of my beer and got up and left. It was starting to get a little crepuscular out, all kinds of long shadows taking shape, the sky a deep mailbox blue, and it was still over 100 degrees out. I must’ve been sitting there at that damn nickel slot machine longer than I was aware of. I decided to head down to the Walgreens on Freemont Street. My stomach was grumbling and I wanted to nip any kind of impending shitstorm in the bud. I bought some chewable Imodium and a large packet of Pepto-Bismol. After walking back outside in the heat I stood there fumbling with the packaging while tourists brushed by me coming from all directions like swarms of vespine beasts. I ripped open the pepto, threw away the box, and started chewing it all up, then I popped a few Imodiums in there for good luck.

You can’t wear a jacket in this kind of weather. That leaves you with few options of pockets. I shoved everything into my pants pocket where it bulged out like a tumor. The street was flowing like a river of blubber with all kinds of mindless automatons set on stun, and I walked in fast Zs trying to avoid them like a skier on a slalom run going through flags back and forth on a crowded mountain. A couple in matching neon green visors might cut me off at a turn, and I’d pivot and streak back across the street just missing crashing headlong into a burly, thick legged bicycle cop in tight black spandex. Then I’d sharply spin and cut back, somehow narrowly avoiding the large, butt-pack sporting family who for some reason decided to halt all at once right in front of me to watch a really horrible cover band playing on a stage in the middle of the street. The band was covering, ‘There ain’t no Mountain High Enough’ in a hard rock style. I hate that fucking song. I moved on, darting back and forth and scampering around in this fashion, like an electrocuted epileptic with his hair on fire desperately trying to find a vat of water to dowse the flames. I’d brush up against people and mumble my apologies. I’d start jogging at times, and then would realize that I was jogging and I would stop. Booths were set up all over with people doing caricatures and people selling tchotchkes and all kinds of Las Vegas souvenirs. Crowds would gather to watch a break-dancer, or some guy doing, ‘Graffiti Art,’ or a woman air brushing glamour shots of really ugly people. I almost ran headfirst into a woman holding a cardboard sign reading, ‘Jesus wouldn’t gamble away his salvation!’ She started screaming for all of the sinners to atone. She looked at me with steely and determined eyes for a moment. I smiled and she looked away fiercely screaming, ‘This is the devil’s work. Let Jesus show you the way!’ She was very angry and I decided to leave her alone. Jesus was alright, but I don’t think that he had that lady in mind when he was thinking about saving the world. I started humming that song, ‘Jesus is just alright with me.’ It made me feel better. Finally I decided I needed to get inside a damn casino and out of the boiling crucible that was the Freemont Street Experience. I saw the green leprechaun of Fitzgerald’s Casino and headed in.

I’ve always liked the bar inside Fitzgerald’s. A lot of old people hang out there. It feels safe. So I pulled up a bar stool and ordered a Guinness. The bar tender gave me a small glass and a pint can. I love drinking beer out of small glasses. I don’t know why. It makes me feel like I’m in some old Italian movie or something. So I started pouring the beer in the small glass and drinking it down and I felt good again. I decided to put 5 bucks in the video poker game on the bar top. I won a few hands and finally felt like I was getting somewhere. Then some idiot came up next to me—why is it that no matter where I am the biggest fucking moron in the whole place will find me and start trying to talk to me?—ordered 5 shots of tequila, took a seat on the stool to my left, and pointed to my beer slurring, “Is that a good beer?”

I tried to ignore him but he was really insistent. He kept pointing at my beer. I told him that it was good and I pretended to be really into the video poker game I was currently losing my money on. He didn’t shut up easily. He kept moving closer to me, and he was a big boy and stunk like a rat’s ass, and kept trying to get my attention about something. The bar tender, whom I liked very much because he was nice and efficient without being smarmy, brought over a tray of tequila shots and asked the guy if he wanted limes. The guy looked kind of dumbfounded and started messing around with his cell phone for a minute, then said, “Yeah. Sure. Why not? Shit. I can’t get no reception in this piece.”

I can’t stand this kind of talk.

By this point I was starting to lose more hands then I was winning on the poker game. I just wanted this annoying, petulant fat fucker to leave, but he just kept sitting there pushing the buttons on his cell phone. I finished off my beer and asked for another. The bar tender gave it to me for free, or “comped it” in the parlance of Vegas, because I was playing the poker, and gave me a receipt saying something to that effect. It’s incredible how many receipts you get in Vegas. They give you a receipt for everything. I guess they have to have proof of everything they do. They’ve got to be real careful that they’re not getting ripped-off while they’re taking your money. I lost another hand and softly cursed the machine. The fat man next to me found this funny and moved over so he could see what was going on with my poker game. He started giving me really bad advice about what cards to hold and his breath had the essence of a shit-filled outhouse roasting in the sun. I tried to shoo him away, but it was no use. All the tequila shots were sitting on the bar still. Who the fuck orders five Tequila shots and then just lets them sit there? At least down one of them. I started to get angry and took a long drink of beer. The Guinness was cold and tasted delicious. I cheered up immediately and got three kings on my next hand. The fat guy patted me on the back and told me I was a champ, and then, not soon enough, went back to his seat and started messing around with his phone again. By some grace of God the guy finally gathered up all the Tequila shots and left. I breathed a monsoon of relief. The old people at the bar all looked like zombies slowly sipping their highballs and cheap Martinis. Softly pressing the hold buttons I started to slow play the video poker game.

After losing my money again I decided to head to the Bay City Diner across the street from the Plaza to get a steak. I needed some food in my gut. I ended up getting a chicken fried steak with hash and eggs, and eating all alone at the end of the long counter. I started thinking about all the diners in old America, and all the countertops, the Formica, the mashed potatoes and gravy and glasses of milk pushed across a century of Diner countertops, and all the stools stuck into the floor and all the asses that had sat on them throughout all the years, and how many diners were now gone forever, given way to chain stores and McDonalds. There was an America that I felt nostalgic for, an America that I’d never known, only read about in old books, or maybe seen glimpses of in old movies. My grandfather’s America of Diners and Hank Williams on the jukebox, advertisements painted on the sides of brick buildings, soda fountains and hitchhiking across the country—an America that would never exist again, that was long gone by the time I was born. I always feel nostalgic for things I’ve never known. Freemont Street somehow made me feel a part of that old weird America for some reason. Maybe it was all the aged light bulb and crayola-bright signs, or all the geriatric gamblers, relics of another era, or maybe I was just seeing what I wanted to see. It was all a dream and I was making everything up as I went along. Rotary phones and vinyl records give way to cell phones and iPods, but one day the cell phone too would seem like an antique. I decided to just enjoy the time I was living in by pretending that I was visiting it from the distant future. Everything was just so damn quaint.
The food was good but my stomach was having none of it. I finished off what I could and paid off the waitress. Going back to the hotel I did not take my time. My bowels were churning and ready to spit out fire. I looked up into the multipurpose-room bigness of the sky, saw many resplendent things giving their last shimmer of the day, and sprinted back to the Gold Spike.