THE PLACE OF LAST RESORT
Tamper with perfection, never leave a good thing alone. This is crazy, but it's after me. I can't help it, I'm programmed to spoil everything by risking it all, by laying it on the line. Temptation lies within me, ready for a weak moment.
I wandered in from the desert, wanting something. I was lonesome and the lights attracted me. Clouds of activity rose from the city and the glitter was beckoning.
I am in a blur, having lost myself and my grip on things. I drift in thoughts, swimming here and there trying desperately to grasp something with which to pull myself from this confusion. Each attempt is futile; all I find is more thoughts, shadows and mirages.
A terrible weight presses down on me, sapping my strength. I resist the urge to fall down. I stagger in an uneasy equilibrium, a semi-truce with gravity. My eyes can only focus for a second, then images fade until I am confronted with another flashing moment.
Where am I? Where are we? Shhhhhhh. Listen. Put your ear to the macadam like an Indian, and you can hear them coming, 30,000 of them in cars, swarming in all the way from Los Angeles in a caravan, a wagon train almost. It happens every weekend. They file in or fly in, all looking for the life line, like me.
Up in the sky? It's not a bird or a plane, it's a school bus with wings, bringing in all the gray-haired and wrinkly kids for a weekend field trip at the green felt jungle with flashy signs and bubbly brew, ha ha. Aboard the bird the kids anticipate the fast action and prepare themselves, brushing up on card games. Decks are being shuffled like crazy, the sounds resounding throughout the plane like so many chain saws.
Las Vegas, Lost Vedas, Lost Angeles, Lost Something, but who knows what it is or where I can find it? Is it here in Vegas? This is the ultimate place for fun. This is the last resort.
There is a lot of gray hair in this town. Francie has gray hair, but she had hers dyed by Izzy of Vegas to the color of vanilla ice cream. Izzy did wonders teasing and coaxing her hair to make it stand like cotton candy. She had her body painted too, to look good. Her eyes - lids, lashes and brows are living testimony to the
genius of Max Factor and Maybelline.
Francie has a handful of chips, not the kind you can eat, but the kind you play with. They are symbolic chips that you can toss, stock, win, lose or even cash-in. If you do that you get more symbolism: dollars. With dollars you can trade for something else symbolic, like golf clubs, fur coats, a new car or a fifth of the best. No reason to go anywhere, we can take care of your needs right here in the hotel. We have a complete shopping center just for your convenience.
I lost track of Francie somewhere in the casino, but it didn't matter. The energy from the dice table attracted me. People were crammed all along it and all eyes were focused on one man. I assumed he knew something because everyone was meditating on his fist. He blew on the dice, wound up and let loose a throw and said the magic word - six! A blonde lovely near me shrieked, "Come on, shooter!" but before I could find out what number came up, I was distracted.
Row upon row of gray babes were waving to me from the slot machines. They wore sleeveless sack dresses and each time they waved, their arms flapped like flags. I went over to the slots only to be disappointed. I thought the ladies had something to tell me, but no one even seemed alive. Are they part of the machines? I tried to ask one lady if she knew about the life line but couldn't get her attention. I went to the other side of the slot machine and looked into her eyes. Both eyes lit up in neon saying, "Vacancy."
She had a Dixie cup full of nickels that she fed into the slot like a dutiful mother. She was lost in the rhythm of feeding and cranking, feeding and cranking, feeding and cranking. The Lost Vegas Mantra! On top of each machine red lights revolved, like cherry tops on police cars. Muzak was piped overhead and coin wrappers lay underfoot, like refuse from a New Year's party.
Suddenly the machine exploded with a screaming siren and coins spewed forth from its guts, filling the coin tray and spilling out onto the floor. My friend at the machine hardly noticed the ruckus as she picked the nickels from the tray and fed them back into the slot.
My ears were buzzing from the glitter and noise of the casino so I went outside for a breath of Vegas hot air. On the walk there was a girl tanding mesmerized by a ten-story, flashing neon sign. I was certain I'd never seen her before, but there was a deep sense of familiarity that couldn't explain.
"Just look at this," she said, breaking her trance to look me in the eye, "this sign is unbelievable. Look at it." I backed up near the curb and craned my neck to see the flashing lights. I was instantly absorbed.
When I finally snapped out of the spell, I leaned over the curb and got knocked down by a meter maid driving a Cushman cart and wearing a cowboy hat. She swerved over abruptly and parked, then strode toward me with her pad in hand. Trembling, I stumbled backward on my heels, then swooned and fell into the girl's arms.
I awoke on a couch facing a picture window with a view of the Par-aDice Motel. Kneeling at my side was the girl, reading my palm and laughing. I enjoyed her laugh and offered my other hand.
By classical standards she was ugly. Her nose was too fleshy and her eyes were narrowly spaced. She had scaly lips and big ears. But somehow, when it all came together, she was beautiful. She shone with a soft but radiant glow.
I must know her from somewhere, I thought. I studied her gestures and voice to see if I could remember who she reminded me of, but I could think of no one. I was puzzled.
"You know, you remind me a lot of myself," she said with a sparkle in her eye. "My name is Anomie, who are you and what are you doing in this place?"
"Anomie?" I said, "that's a very far out name. Fantastic. I always liked the sound of Anomie. Things have been blurry for me lately. I don't remember who I am or even where I am. At times I feel like I'm having one hell of an extended daydream."
"All you have to do to end a dream is wake up, right?"
Anomie suggested we begin looking for some clues out on the strip. We got into her car and began cruising. The strip was alive! Neon wonderama! Electric promises! Kinetic flashes! This is the famed city of Eldorado where all the mind's desires come true. The strip is a penny arcade for adults, a lifesized, live-in carnival. Name a desire, we can take care of it. Thirsty? we can take care of that. Bored? we can take care of that. Horny? we can take care of that. Not horny? we can take care of that too.
Along the strip ten-story, twentystory, hundred-story neon signs call in the faithful and gullible to come worship at the green felt altars, the sty of high excitement and full speed adrenalin rushes. You never know, this may be your lucky day! Billboards offer a chance for a velvet touch mas-
sage from girls who know how to rub you right. There are also rental companions and lessons in love. All you need is money.
But I am lonesome, even with Anomie. Anomie is lonesome, even with me. We are lonesome together. Loneliness loves company.
We parked and went into a casino, immediately sinking up to our knees in carpet. Did somebody turn up the gravity in here? After a moment we learned the knack for navigation on plush carpets, which involves a slight shuffle with a breezy motion from the pelvis. It is like skiing in deep powder, if you keep moving you don't sink.
Our performance at the door marked us as novices and I flushed with embarrassment. Anomie diverted me from my self-consciousness by leading me into the gambling room.
Anomie watched the people at the craps table while I watched the dealers. Three men dealt the game. Two paid bets while another shoved the dice around with a stick and uttered nasal intonations. Keeping the trio honest were two boxmen who sat at the table and dangled their liver-spotted hands, framed with french cuffs, over the edge of the gaming table. Keeping the boxmen and dealers honest was a pit boss who stood behind the tables, coolly
observing all with crossed arms. To keep the dealers, boxmen and pit boss honest was a floorman who wandered throughout the casino. Keeping us all honest was a mysterious presence known as the "eye in the sky" who spied through one-way mirrors in the ceiling. I felt safe.
"I wonder where the high rollers are tonight," I whispered to Anomie, "I would like to meet someone high who could give us a clue about all of this."
"Glad to meet you, young fellow," someone bellowed from behind. "I couldn't help overhearing what you just said. I'm one of the high rollers of Vegas. All the guys back in Salt Lake talk about Harry Reinhardt, big wheel and high roller."
Harry was a big man, about 55 years old with silver-yellow hair slicked straight back. He was a corpulent dude, all done up in western clothes with cowboy boots, Stetson and a string tie modeled after a steer's skull. His wide, friendly face dripped with sweat, forming little rivulets that collected in beads on his pencil mustache. Harry had just lost $15,000 at the dice table.
"Where do you get money to lose at gambling?" Anomie asked.
"Honey, money is no problem for old Harry. I roll in it. Besides, I win sometimes, and get some back. I'll never be poor. My thrill in gambling doesn't come from fear of losing my shirt," he stopped and fought back a burp with his fist. "I bought everything there is I could possibly want, my kids are all set up. Money is no big thing for me anymore. But what I want is to add another zero to my bank account. Really, what can you do with more than a million bucks? I like zeros, more zeros."
"What can you do with another zero, Harry?" I asked.
"Nothing. Zeros amount to nothing," he said. A girl dressed in Greek costume swept by with a tray of free cocktails for the gamblers. Her hair was fixed so that it spiraled up into a cone leaving enough extra to spill down the back like a tassle. Her uniform was a blue miniskirt short enough to stimulate the men at the tables each time she stooped to pick up her change. Her breasts were half on display due to amazing engineering that used concealed buttresses to push her mammary flesh upward, melon-like, almost to her chin.
Harry winked at me as he sipped his drink. "I like girls, if you know what I mean. Ha ha."
Anomie nudged me with her elbow, "Let's go."
We drove downtown and parked again. As we walked down Fremont Street we passed a health food store. A sign in the window said, "You are what you eat." A theater we passed advertised "Paradise Lust and Sin Bad Sailor." Another storefront advertised quicky marriages complete with video tape and the music of your choice.
There was commotion ahead, shouting, and we saw people running down the streets.
Jesus freaks, 300 strong, marched through the downtown casino center bearing a huge wooden cross, and freezing tourists with ray-like eye contacts. Anyone who wished to escape stared at the ground and hurried on. "Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord … " they chanted.
Anomie and I were stopped by the freak bearing the cross. "Jesus loves you but unless you confess and let Jesus into your heart you'll go to hell."
"Hell?" I mumbled. He must have heard the question in my voice.
"Hell is eternal misery and suffering. Hell is eternal fire," he said.
"Where is hell located?" I wondered aloud.
"No mortal man can answer that question," he explained.
"So then hell could be anywhere, huh?"
"Yeah, I guess so."
Just as I was about to ask more questions a deputy came to arrest our friend on charges of bad drama.
"There's no such charge," complained the Jesus freak to the cop, "I can prove it. Let me show you," and he started flipping pages in his Bible. We waved as the deputy took him away.
Anomie hurriedly grabbed my hand and led me through an alley back to the parking lot. A drunk couple leaned against a brick wall. They had cocktails in upraised hands and were toasting a neon sign. "Let's hear it for heaven!" they exclaimed.
Anomie got me into the car then drove to the strip where she floored
the gas pedal. The car accelerated as though for takeoff. We were going at least a hundred and Anomie was not stopping for any lights.
"What are you doing?" I yelled. "You can get us killed doing stuff like this."
"I'm not paying anymore attention to these lights, none of 'em, ever again. They're a trap. They draw you out and away from yourself. If we don't get away from here now, we'll never leave. Relax, close your eyes 'cause we're going to the desert."
We pulled off the road a half hour later. Anomie got out and walked into the desert and sat on a boulder facing the Vegas skyline. I joined her and sat quietly for more than an hour.
"Amnesia, mass amnesia is what we've got. All of us and for God knows how long we've had it. We don't know who we are, why we are or where we are. They don't either, those people. I used to think that everyone but me knew what was going on, but I finally realized that no one really knows. Most people don't even realize that they don't know and that's really dangerous. Just look what they built," Anomie said.
We sat on the boulder for some time, just looking at the Vegas skyline. I was trying hard to say some thing philosophical like Anomie had. Then something made me turn around to see another city skyline appear on the horizon directly opposite Vegas. The sight baffled me and I stared in disbelief, unable to alert Anomie.
"Hey, look at that!" she shouted. "Quick, take a look at this." Anomie pointed at still another city shimmering on the skyline. "Over there, another one is coming up. And, oh wow, another one over there."
Images of city upon city formed on the horizon. Soon we were surrounded by metropolitan silhouettes dancing in heat waves rising from the desert. Vegas was still there, but now there were towns extending in profile for 360 degrees. We stood in a valley formed by towns.
We looked at each other and broke up laughing. Anomie was totally engulfed in mirth. She fell to the ground giggling hysterically and holding her stomach. Her reaction was infectious. Soon I was on the ground with her, laughing uncontrollably. My entire body was laughing; each cell shook from the intensity of the joke. Wave upon wave of humor swept through me, even when I tried to stop. Three times we paused to catch our breath thinking that the comic romp had ended.
But each stop was premature because as soon as we'd look at each other we'd break up again. Finally we sat silently in the sand, staring down, trying to recover. I sniffed back the tears and massaged my sore stomach.
"Okay, Anomie, my dear sister, stand up and repeat after me." She jumped to her feet dutifully and raised her right hand, caref ully avoiding my gaze. She had a grin that looked dangerously close to backsliding into more folly. I looked to the ground to steady myself and assumed a stern look on my face.
"Ahem. Now repeat after me. I, Anomie, being in sound mind and body, and with this cactus as my witness, do hereby declare that from this moment hence, I will make a point of not believing everything I think. Nor will I believe in mirages, in this world or any other, so help me God."
She repeated the oath with mock solemnity, then lowered her hand. Together we faced the horizon and watched as the cities systematically disappeared one by one. We turned in a circle until all the cities were gone. The horizon was completely empty for 360 degrees around. No more cities, only sand, mountains and cactus. Anomie smiled and said, "Well done."