Las Vegas — the Skull Beneath the Skin

Las Vegas. Sin City. World’s largest theme park for adults. You can take the woman out of the woods, but apparently you can’t take the woods out of the woman. Doesn’t matter if you stick her in front of a Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas, Nevada for a souvenir picture to prove she really was there, she doesn’t want to go in. She’s more interested in the street scenes, in the skull beneath the skin.

Buck and I almost didn’t make the side trip  to Las Vegas between our time at the Grand Canyon and our reservations at the Zion Lodge in Utah.  But we finally decided that it was a phenomenon to see, a man-made landscape rich with images, bits of conversation, and enough bizarre to fill up a writer’s specialty-box toolkit. Our ambivalence showed even in our choice of places to stay: not a casino hotel on the strip, but an older Residence Inn nearby set in an oasis-like low-walled garden lush with pale pink tea roses. We drove in late Friday afternoon from Hoover Dam, and made reservations at an Italian restaurant recommended by a front desk clerk. We wanted something close, reasonably quiet, maybe a little pasta and a glass of red. I looked up the place on the laptop. It was new. I called them. Nice young woman told me their food was great, to come on over. Said if I parked in the back and was nervous about going back to my car, someone would walk with me. My ears began to rotate and prickle at this. I could hear a lot of noise in the background. She explained that was the bar, where ESPN was doing an actuality — something about football. I gave Buck one of my “I don’t think so. . . . ” opinions, but he said, “What the hell, we’re in Las Vegas. We just want some dinner. How bad can it be?” I changed into white jeans and we drove the few blocks to this restaurant. An animated young guy wearing a football jersey rapped on our car window when we entered the crowded parking lot. “Should still be some spaces in the back!” he said. Buck looked at me. I rolled my eyes and shrugged my shoulders. We went in. ESPN had wrapped up, the young, very sweet,  spike-heeled hostess shouted to us, but “Don’t worry, the live band will be cranking up soon. They’re really good!” Yep. Well, that did it. We drove around some more, knowing that a nice quiet Italian dinner existed somewhere in this restaurant-poor town, but it was late, we were tired and hungry, and nothing sounded more wonderful than going back to the Residence Inn, pouring ourselves a drink, and ordering in Chinese food.

And it was great. Buck went down to the lobby after our feast and bought a couple of pints of chocolate ice cream from the inn’s store.

The next day, we donned shorts, t-shirts and jogging shoes and set out to hike The Strip. We walked at least 8 miles on this warm sun-filled day, stopped for lunch at a restaurant in one of Steve Wynn’s casinos, and toward the end of the day wandered through the labyrinthine MGM Grand until we found the Monorail station, which we rode back to the Las Vegas Convention Center right across from our hotel. I had brought along a slinky black dress and high heels just in case we (a) stopped in Las Vegas and (b) went to a slinky-black-dress place for dinner. But I was the one who wound up suggesting to Buck that we put up our feet and order another delivery supper from the same restaurant we ordered from the night before.  We had seen the show, or skimmed the surface anyway, and were ready to get on to the splendid natural environment of Zion National Park in neighboring Utah.

I have a swirl of conflicting thoughts trying to write even a few descriptive paragraphs about our short visit. Some character sketches I’m saving for my “Judge Kate” mystery series (slow, but in process!).  Vegas is a target-rich environment for wanna-be writers, that’s for sure. Glitzy to garish, it’s all there.

The grass is absolute perfection at Wynn and Encore. Should be — it’s SYNgrass, good for a desert eco-system and helps promote the image that perfection is not only attainable, but sustainable.
Opulence reigns at Wynn.
Even over the tasteful music and soothing sounds of rushing water, I could hear the electronic beep of the slots. People walked by with Tiffany shopping bags. I felt as though I had fallen through a worm hole in the time-space continuum and landed in someone else’s Holodeck fantasy.It was beautiful, but strange.

Out on the street I saw giggling gaggles of tipsy girls. They were over 21, so maybe I should call them women, but let’s face it, these kids were still girls, college-age adorable colts wearing faux designer mini dresses, teetering along in stiletto heels. Looked like bunches of brides and their maids. Innocence itself, but from the high sober distance of age and experience, I saw sharks circling and hoped their larks ended safely back home in Peoria or Charleston.

That first evening, circling around blocks in our fruitless search for a quiet booth and even quieter Sinatra, we took a lushly landscaped wrong turn by one of the huge casino complexes bordering The Strip and found ourselves facing a security booth manned by a two-legged, highly trained Doberman, just waiting for the dog whistle for his professional smile to turn dangerous. He looked like armed muscle, and not altogether ready to believe that two lost-looking tourists in a black Lincoln Town Car with Florida plates had strayed onto his turf accidentally. He asked where we were trying to go, gave us rapid-fire instructions (twice) on how to use the tunnel under the hotel that would drop us off right in front of the Convention Center, then raised the electronic gate so we could u-turn and get the heck out of there. The tunnel under the hotel idea sounded pretty sketchy, but we barreled into it nonetheless, zigged when we should have zagged and wound up in the “Taxi Cabs and Limos Only” line, where we emerged at the front of the hotel and were subjected to some derision and verbal insult by the professionals. By this time, we really were ready to get back to our nice, comfy Residence Inn room! Which we did, followed by scotch and water for me and a fine Manhattan cocktail for Buck, then the aforementioned Chinese food and chocolate ice cream.

Buck’s NRA (National Rifle Association) cap and sinewy old guy swagger largely inoculated us from the outstretched hands of the smut leafleteers who litter the sidewalks. Unlicensed street performers had big-eyed, sad-looking confederates talking them up, trying to draw a few paying customers. The street performers had to be sweltering in their get-ups. I saw several Darth Vaders, one Chewbacca, a dwarf Elvis and several break-dancing guys in military costumes covered with theatrical paint designed to make them look like bronze statues come to life. I wondered if the stuff gradually suffocated or poisoned them.

There are casino-hotel-entertainment complexes designed to evoke city skylines, like New York New York.
Or “Paris.”

On almost every street corner I saw nondescript folks wearing some sort of uniform that made me think of a prohibition-era temperance society. They were soliciting money, they said, to help provide shelter for the homeless. Since coming back home, I have learned that some of the Las Vegas homeless have turned the city’s underground flood channels into dwelling places. Check out Matt O’Brien’s 2007 book, Beneath the Neon, and his 2010 collection of stories, My Week at the Blue Angel. I bought a Kindle edition of Beneath the Neon today.

Most of what I saw in this day-time stroll were gawkers and hawkers, but I did see plenty of hard-eyed watchers, staggering drunks and some folks passed out on the curb. The open container laws are permissive, so plenty of people walk along turning up a bottle of beer or drinking from a massive souvenir slushy drink. Those big drinks range from 32 to 100 ounces of fruit juice, sugar, crushed ice and Everclear grain alcohol. They cost anywhere from $12 to $30. That’s a lot of brain-dead, right there.

There was this guy we saw. He walked in that wide-legged stance assumed by a drunk man trying to use his legs as a two parts of a tripod. He clutched a huge, vase-shaped opaque blue plastic glass in one hand, paused by an open city-provided trash container, reached over into it, came out with another huge, vase-shaped opaque blue plastic glass, dropped the one he had finished into the trash, turned the scavenged drink remains up for a long pull, and emitted a roar that sounded like a water buffalo: part primal pleasure and part warning. “Mine! I found it. It’s mine!”

I’m still shocked, stunned by this and will never forget that sound, or the look of this man-beast as he lumbered and stagger-stepped past us, mad blue eyes wide and staring in the blinding desert sun.

We sat cross-legged on the bed in our Residence Inn room Saturday night, bags repacked, goggle-eyed from the fun-house mirror we had walked through all day. We talked about all that we had seen and done so far on our road trip odyssey and wondered what Utah would bring to the table. We were eager to get on the road to Zion.

My Mother’s Daughter

I am not by nature a liar; or maybe I am, and it is only the years of loving Buck and wanting to be worthy of his love that have curbed my natural tendency to self-protect, lie, color and shade to add a pretty, if thin, patina.

“Daddy’s little girl.” That was me. I don’t even remember much about my mother except for early vignettes and later psychosis. The early stuff was a real mixed bag.

She couldn’t stand a messy refrigerator.  I remember watching her meticulously remove the cap from a bottle of ketchup stored in the refrigerator door, wipe accumulated dried bits from the mouth, dry the bottle, and replace it on the refrigerator door shelf.

She was thrifty, but had an earnest desire to climb the middle-class ladder.  Like so many women of her era, Heloise’s Hints were required reading. I’m pretty sure that’s where she learned to take the last bits of bar soap, melt them together, and roll them into balls. Somehow she managed to melt the blue Zest separately and then combine it with the white soap so that each ball came out marbled with blue and white. These hand-crafted soap balls turned into decoration for the bathroom.

Before I was born, she took my half-sisters, both pale as night-blooming Cereus, one with white-blond hair, the other with finest red, and transported them far from the Mississippi farmlands, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins they had known into the exotic heat of Miami, Florida with her new husband, a man with black hair, high cheekbones, sun-darkened deep olive skin, flashing eyes and teeth: my father.

Three babies came, and the older girls had to take care of my brothers and me; their mother’s “new” family. The sisters were given to understand that mother had traded up, and this new family would get it right. Their job was to change our diapers, bathe us, play with us, read to us, and generally shut up and fade into the wallpaper like good half-sisters. When my dad died at age 51, he had become a successful home builder, sweet as sugar and gentle as a lamb. But at the time those young girls were first required to call him “Daddy,” he was still a primitive with potential, and rough as a cob.

No wonder my oldest sister left to go to nursing school as soon as she could and then married when I was six. The other girl had to drop out of college after a terrible horse-riding accident and come back home. That must have been awful for her. I loved having her back. She was the spark of life that made my day. She was naughty and a rebel and an in-your-face rule breaker. And she stood up for us kids.

Mother had a strange way of punishing us. If my brothers and I got into some kind of tussle, everybody got punished. We had to go cut our own switch from one of her strong, springy shrubs. After the punishment, when we were still mad and upset, we had to hug each other. “Now hug your brother. You know you love him, don’t you?” That technique insured that we could never, ever hug each other comfortably, even as adults.

Poison pills and individual exploding devices were placed into the mix when we were children by this mother who loved us all the best she could, but who had a growing network of spider webs in her brain caused by mental illness created by organic disease, combined with her own childhood which spawned shame chiseled like stone tablets on her heart. She had no choice but to pass them on to her children, a heavy legacy.

Buck is the casting mold for a straight arrow. My bent shaft flies nearly true after 30 years of living intimately with and learning from this exceptional man.

And yet, when we planned an on-again, off-again, ultimately on-again road trip to the far West’s Grand Canyon country and the parks of Utah, one that would take us within several hundred miles of where my sister lives, I edited the possibility of a meet-up with her and her husband out of our plans, and my arrow rippled, went tilt, and ricocheted back to me.

The last time we saw each other in person seemed to go fairly well, but there were negative repercussions in the weeks that followed that took us years to repair. Those poison pills and IEDs I mentioned earlier. Gradually, we’ve built a relationship based on mutual respect and genuine love. E-mails with occasional phone calls have proved to be the best way for our fine analytical brains to keep Mother out of the room when we communicate.

My sister is an artist. She creates beauty from brokenness. She is at a time of life when extra drama from any quarter is debilitating and can shatter her ability to focus on the person she loves most in the world, her husband of the past half-century, and her work, including her art and her garden, which is a creative extension and further expression of her art.

And so, if you read this, dear sister, I don’t think you will be surprised to hear me acknowledge that I am deeply flawed in the ability to love department, with one exception, and you know how fundamentally Buck has had the key to unlock the massive armored door to my heart.

He would tell anyone that I am the lovingest woman in the whole wide world. And as to him, that’s not an unreasonable declaration, even for a man with stars in his eyes after all these years. But except for him, I am selfish with my time and the attention toward others I love is doled out in teaspoons.

It has been painful for me to look in the mirror these past weeks, see flashes of another woman there, and realize that I am, after all, at least as much my mother’s daughter as my daddy’s girl, hoarding love into my own little pile as though it were nuggets from a personal mining claim.

I had decided not to tell the story of our incredible trip out West; to hoard it, too, out of shame for not making the extra effort to see my sister.

But then, I read Richard Gilbert’s interview with author Alethea Black, and remembered a story of hers I read several years ago called The Only Way Out Is Through, originally published in Narrative Magazine.  Alethea had very kindly written to me back in 2009 after my story, Tenderness, appeared in Brevity. We talked about how interesting it was that both of our stories involved a deer being hit by a vehicle.

I downloaded Alethea’s collection of fine stories, I Knew You’d Be Lovely, and immediately re-read The Only Way Out Is Through.  It was even better than I remembered, maybe because I read it sitting in a rocking chair on the porch of a remote lodge in Zion Canyon National Park, Utah.

While I mulled over what to do with the huge package of experiences from our trip, Alethea’s title kept playing over and over in my mind, a rhythmic back beat, like the sound of a train running over tracks late in the night on a high prairie next to a wind farm: the only way out is through, the only way out is through, the only way out is through.

Thank you, Alethea. Your words and stories, (so often described as “unflinching,” because they are), helped me turn the magnifying glass inward, remove the arrow, bleed awhile, and go on.

The silver lining of this cloud of unresolved childhood issues is this: apparently I have finally become incapable of dissimulation for my own convenience without suffering swift, self-administered retribution.

I’ve been hiding amongst the hoodoos at Bryce Canyon, playing peekaboo in the Queens Garden, rim walking in the Grand Canyon, slipping on slick rocks overhanging gorgeous grottoes at Zion, and listening to stunning, other-worldly music performed in Salt Lake City. This trip became a true spiritual odyssey, a journey to me that began with a denial, and then continued with a panoply of emotions that will be carving and shaping me for years like wind, like water freezing and thawing and freezing again: exhilaration, shame, joy, fear of physical challenges and personal inadequacy, passion, perseverance, discovery, triumph, wonder, and self-awareness.

It will take some time to show, to tell.