Before my father deserted us, he used to take my older sister and me roller-skating on Saturday afternoons. Pop and my sister skated gracefully. They danced the Hokey Pokey as if they were a ballet troupe on wheels. In the center of the rink, they proficiently rolled backward, hopped forward and easily performed other acrobatic feats. Once done showing off, they effortlessly joined the current of humanity noisily chugging laps around the oval with the thunder of a rogue wave. I was a clumsy eight-year-old girl. I had just started learning the theory of the whole affair. On one occasion, I landed on my hands then chaffed my knees. I felt alone, abandoned, helpless and hurt by the cold crowd swerving past, some swearing at me, others laughing at my insecurity and tears. I wallowed in self-pity, unable to get up and stand steady on my skates. Dad looked back, laughed and breezed full circle around the rink and in an instant caught up to me. He nimbly stopped, picked me up and held my hand. We went on. He slowed his pace for my sake. He never let go of my hand the rest of the afternoon. As I fly from Detroit to Las Vegas, his new home now, I think of that afternoon he rescued me fifteen years ago.
We meet in baggage claim. He smells bad. His clothes are ripe with the aroma of tobacco and outdoors. He wears scuffed steel-toed boots, stained torn blue jeans, faded sleeveless shirt. He looks as if he has wallowed in the lowest dregs of self-esteem since birth. His breath exhales the odor of sour mash whisky and bad teeth. He is raw, beaten, but not defeated. He is gaunt, yet his face strangely reflects robust ruddiness; both sides of his lineage have endowed him with hardy health and longevity to spite his apparent bent on self-induced annihilation. A heavy drinker’s sadness drools from his milky bloodshot eyes. His nose is crooked, broken more than once. He sports a three-day-old gray lawn of stubble on his cheeks. Scars beneath his beard read like a novel; each wound is an etched chapter of a promising life undone.
He hugs me longer than I want him to. He whispers, “I love you sweetheart,” to my ear. It is the first time he has applied that phrase to me since childhood. I am not convinced; I think his greeting is more an obligatory gesture than what I believe should always be words sincerely meant when said. Yes, I expect him to be different, but this haggard man on a quest toward self-destruction is not the father of my youth. His demeanor is disturbing; the miles have aged him quicker than the years.
“Let’s get your bags,” he slurs. I glimpse the outline of a flask in his hip pocket.
He totes my luggage--“Damn, lugging this stuff is a chore”--across McCarran Airport to the parking structure a quarter mile away. He hunches over, grimacing--“Chingar du madre; what’s in these, rocks?” His voice is a groan. There is no telling what pain he is in, by the looks of him everything hurts.
He heaves my bags in the bed of a sun baked faded dark blue pickup truck aching with one-hundred thousand miles of misuse. “This beast is faster than it looks,” Pop proudly proclaims. He opens the passenger door for me. The sprung hinges and worn bushings shriek from wear and lack of lubrication like finger nails scratching slate. I sit on a dust clogged cloth bench seat; my high heal clad feet sink up to my ankles in a quick sand of Styrofoam coffee cups and fast food carryout bags. The cab smells of desert dust, an overfilled ashtray, summer sweat, uneaten food. There I sit, well scrubbed, perfumed and dressed in my best Spandex skirt and low cut top like the queen of the hop. Pop slams the door hard for the latch to take. The condition of the truck reflects what my father has become.
We speed on the I-15, maneuver the infamous local spaghetti bowl and merge on the I-95 north. Traffic his heavy.
Pop treats the freeway as if it is an asphalt demolition derby with him in the lead. He erratically changes lanes without thought, courtesy, caution, or turn signal. He generously hurls offensive hand gestures and spits out confrontational language at those whose driving skills offend him.
A high rider pick-up truck with over-sized noisy tires changes lanes cuts us off. Dad breaks hard to avoid colliding with the protruding rear bumper hitch on the bully truck. “Turn signal must be broke, huh Jack?” Dad speeds up with just a tap on the pedal, drives around his antagonist shoots him the finger as we pass. The offender flicks it back. Pop hits his flask.
“Is this freeway always so treacherous Pop?” My voice trembles.
“Yup, sure is . . . no such thing as defensive driving in Vegas.”
“How about gambling?” I clutch the passenger door armrest in fright as Pop pulls up within a few feet of a slow driving old woman in a Coupe de Ville, “C’mon Jack, the speed limit’s 65, keep it moving.” Dad says. Every driver that irritates him is ‘Jack’, even women. Pop veers over to the left lane curses the fear focused white knuckled old woman as he passes.
“Where is the best place to play Black Jack and Roulette?” I say. Pop swiftly swerves over dangerously close to the old woman’s front bumper as we negotiate the Rainbow curve. “One casino is no different than any other,” Pop says. “Personally, my gambling days are over. . .” The grandma in the Cadillac panics, brakes, and the bully truck we passed earlier skids just short of her. “. . . Just luckless I guess, but here, take this.” He reaches in his breast pocket, distracted by the effort he drifts half way on to the asphalt shoulder ignoring the annoying rumble strips warning him to return between the lane lines, hands me ten unwrinkled neatly folded one-hundred dollar bills and cuts hard back into traffic.
“Thanks for the money, but why?
“Gambling money,” he says. “No one visit’s the Vegas cathedral of glitz and greed without obligatory tithe in hand.”
The wind blowing through the open door window at break neck speed is a blow dryer set on high heat aimed directly at my face.
“Pop, you’re nothing but a rough neck cowboy,” I joke. “All you’re missing is the pointed tipped high heeled boots chaps spurs six gun and a trail toughened horse.”
“Nah, I still have all my teeth,” He says. “Nope, your dad is just a desert rat scootin’ from rock to rock.”
Pop furnishes his home with garage sale bargains; stuffing protrudes from the armrests and cushions of the couch. Pop clutters the coffee table in front of the couch with trade magazines. A wine stained paperback copy of Anna Karenina, used paper plates neatly stacked, a half full fifth of off brand sour mash whiskey. Empty crumpled generic cigarette packs add to the confusion. Uneaten stiff slices linger in a three-day-old pizza delivery box and a long neck beer bottle stands a third full of stale beer and cigarette butts. The walls in his apartment are barren, eggshell white, no pictures or bookshelves decorate his life. The place appears more temporary than Spartan, as if Pop is prepared to leave any moment when convinced no one will notice. There is no table in the breakfast nook. The kitchen sink is full of crusty sauce pans filled with dried lumps of Macaroni noodles hard as caliche rock and other unrecognizable leftover meals. A thumb sized roach scoots from the pile as I approach.
“Hey Pop: Maid‘s day off?”
“I live alone, I eat over the sink, don’t own a vacuum. I don’t mind the mess when there’s no one around to impress,” Pop says.
The stale smell of cigarette smoke, dirty ashtrays and week old garbage smells infectious. Pop says, “Relax while I clean up. Here‘s the clicker to the TV. You have three-hundred cable channels to enthrall you.” He reaches for the whiskey bottle and refills his flask. He slightly wobbles to the shower.
While he bathes, I peek in his refrigerator. It is empty except for a half-full bottle of Chardonnay, a six-pack of Bud in cans and part of an uneaten soggy Subway BMT sandwich on flat bread. The edge of the meat poking past the bread looks a bit green. I add most of the coffee table contents in the ripe kitchen garbage bag and haul it to the dumpster I spotted when we arrived, empty his sink, start the dishwasher, “Hey, what the hell happened to the hot water?” Pop squeals as if castrated by the cold stream. I organize what useful accoutrements remain on the coffee table; wash the stained glass top with Windex and a paper towel. He emerges from his bedroom clean-shaven, dressed in a Detroit Lions tee shirt, Levi jeans and Reebok tennis shoes.
He gives me a hug and kiss on the cheek accompanied by another hollow “I love you.” Except for his whisky breath, he smells better. He sits on his couch pulls the flask from his hip pocket and takes a long swig. He reaches into a silvery Pier 1 tin-plated made in India box on a nearby lamp table, retrieves a pre-rolled number. He takes for granted I smoke and hands it to me along with a Bic lighter and hemostat. The clip ends are tea colored from heavy use. The pot out west is far more potent than the grass clippings we get back east. “Let’s get dinner tonight at a nice place I know, come home, gaze at some TV, talk, try to straighten the past out.”
“There’s no reason for you to explain your behavior in the past to me Pop; I’m beyond all that. I’m here to reestablish our relationship, not chew on stale bread.” He straightens up in recliner and smiles with relief.
“By the way, I rented an air conditioned car for the week,” Pop says as a meek apology for subjecting me to the insulting desert heat on the drive home.
After dinner, we head home and stay up late. Pop narrates his years in Vegas. He has history here; he tended bar his first few years, served drinks in skid row bars to thieves’ drug fiends and whores. He has a felony conviction for possession of cocaine. He did two years in Carson City Prison. He was a thug for hire collecting a percentage of bad debts after the prison system spit him back into the Vegas maze of humanity. Pop is a classic anachronism: he was breast fed urban back east moxie yet he exudes Southwest eloquence. He is honorable yet rough and ready to pay the Devil for his sins. He works the dead end world of construction, yet he reads Tolstoy. He has partially adopted the abnormal Vegas social standards accepts them at face value and gleans the sum of their best parts to better suit him. He accepts the consequences of every wrong choice he ever made and will gladly wake each morning to shoulder the sins of his storied past until his last breath.
He is surprisingly at ease with my adulthood too. He is probably more comfortable with me now than he may have been had he stayed to endure the remainder of my childhood, my rock pocked puberty, assertive independence, unbending confrontational nature and other myriad traits I am convinced his side of the gene pool blessed me with. As my father, he was supposed to be the first example of a male by which I measure other men. Had he stayed what standard would he have set as my notion of a man? What moral example would he have been for me to emulate? What manner of man would he have become as opposed to what he is now? I have asked these what if questions since he left us. This visit answers most of them. He has failed at many of life’s essential tasks and obligations; fatherhood, marriage, lone provider to our family’s commonwealth, yet with or without him in my life I have imitated many of his mistakes, although most of my foibles were not on so grand a scale. I am past requiring an apology or an explanation for the vacuum his absence created. Yet, I remain reserved, slightly suspicious; I still question his sincerity each time he says “I love you.” He pulls out his flask and guzzles it empty at one o’clock in the morning. We go to bed.
~ ~ ~
At a reasonable hour the next evening, we share a bottle of Beaujolais nouveau and Chateaubriand at a usurious overpriced tavern in the MGM Grand. As we finish off the bottle Pop says, “Las Vegas is the only place in the world losers built. The town is always grateful for your donation.” He pulls the flask from his hip pocket tilts it bottom up, quaffs a shot. “Visiting Vegas is like touring the Smithsonian, or the Louvre;” he goes on, “you need a week to see it in its entirety, but the first twenty-four hours is usually enough for the candy to start hurting your teeth.”
I gamble; slots, Black Jack, roll dice; lose five-hundred dollars in two hours. Dad sits to the side, refuses to play, he sips free Long Island Iced Teas meant for me. “Well Dad, enough of this.” I hand him the remaining five large bills.
“Keep the change sweetheart. Consider it back allowance,” he says.
“I should visit more often,” I say.
“Mi casa es su casa,” Pop says.
As the night progresses I notice every casino we visit on the strip is a chintzy down sized reproduction of somewhere else, New York, New York, Paris, Treasure Island, our last stop the Monte Carlo at dawn. We meander through endless noisy, smoke filled casinos on the Strip. Everywhere we go slot machines sing Pavlovian melodies hypnotizing gamblers with musical stimuli prompting them to continue playing video poker and salivate more with each dollar lost. My ears ring of coins slapping steel hoppers, scantily clad women repeating “Cocktails… Cocktails here; Get your cocktails,” like convincing sideshow barkers. Combined, the Strip is a neon menagerie of overpriced souvenir shops, hollow eyed gamblers, streetwalkers; aimless crowds wandering the sidewalks like cattle herded to the chute¾my father and me. Each high-rise casino on Las Vegas Boulevard brightly glistens with transparent chintz veiling pyrite opulence. Pop is right; one night on the strip is all I need to see. Dad is drunk and wobbly. We smoke another joint in the parking garage behind Harrah‘s. “You okay to drive pop?”
“Yup, I just click on GPS and I get home automatic.” Morning light peaks over Sunrise Mountain to the east.
We are home asleep by eight A.M. I have the guest bedroom the room is clean, well dusted. The sheets smell like spring rain. I sleep deeply until early afternoon. I turn over half-awake and hear my father snoring loudly in his room; I drift off another three hours and dream more. I wake up to the clanging noise of fry pans and the smell of crackling bacon and eggs, biscuits and gravy, a mountain of whole wheat flap jacks at 3:30 in the afternoon. “Eat hardy little girl. Tomorrow is your last day here. Got a big field trip planned.” Let‘s take it easy today, smoke, watch TV, talk.”
We stay up late again. “You‘re right Pop. Vegas isn‘t what I expected; it reminds me of the Coliseum in Rome with lions feasting on the Christians: nothing here but bread and circuses.”
“Las Vegas is the land of 7-ll convenience stores, pawn, porn, payday loans, panhandlers, good ole boys,” Pop says. “The Strip is whatever outsiders like you want it to be,” Pop lectures. “In truth it is as shallow as a rain puddle once one sees through its fake veneer. It reminds me of an adult circus chock-full of tricks and cons. It lacks substance, exudes misfortune. Live here long enough and you ignore the Strip, grow inured to the bizarre. You begin to expect the abnormal, but still, at times, some real life does occur here¾it is that reality I cling to daily.”
At noon the next day, after another round of Dad’s monumental late breakfasts, we are off.
“Where are we going to now?” I say.
“Ah, yes, we’re going to a boom/bust ghost town a hundred twenty miles north of here just east of Death Valley. It once thrived with a population of twenty-five thousand, twenty bars, four whore houses and numerous gold mines in the early 1900‘s. When mining petered out, the place became a ghost town inside of three years.” Pop leaves his flask behind.
We ride in air-conditioned comfort past a radar blip called Indian Springs, a moratorium cursed yet still fully functional below ground nuclear test sight that employed thousands once, two legal whorehouses. We finally halt ten feet from a white albino tarantula nobly crossing the asphalt approach to a ghost town called Rhyolite. I stay in the safe plush comfort of the rented air conditioned Cadillac Escalade. The in dash thermometer reads 115 degrees. Dad scoots the horrifying fist size creature to the safety of the desert beyond the road edge. He shows more compassion toward this beastly bug than I suspect he probably gives most people.
“Don’t they bite?” I say.
“Oh yes, they bite, and they’re venomous, but they have killed no man I know, and none have ever bothered me.” Pop loves the desert; I imagine him taming a rattlesnake, capturing a scorpion barehanded, bravely facing a pack of famished coyotes with his fists.
Not much to see in Rhyolite besides a bizarre house with exterior walls made from Anheuser Busch beer bottles. An abandoned once ornate train depot lingers on the north side of the town. A sturdy still intact jail dominates the east end of the canyon. Life size plaster sculptures of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, a ghost holding a bicycle and car parts assembled to resemble a female crucified on a twenty-foot tall cross highlight the southwest boundary. An artist who died before I was born created the outdoor art. We head back to Vegas as the sun sets.
Pop intimates, “Our pilgrimage isn’t over yet; not until we pay homage to this last desert shrine.” The world surrounding our SUV is closed closet dark. “We‘re coming up on the best part of your visit,” Pop says. He pulls off the I-95 midway between Rhyolite and the nuclear test sight. He drives a quarter mile up a gravel road, stops, shuts off the engine cuts off the lights and comes around to my side to open the door. I do not question his motive or intentions. I step out. The summer desert night is much cooler outside of the sun parched Mojave Desert heat that cooks the binding oils in the asphalt streets of Vegas; it is a refreshing coolness, almost bearable. We hear coyotes bark and howl close by. A mountain lion’s roar echo’s from the Spring Mountains a few miles further west. Phantom headlights pass behind us on the I-95. “Look up,” he says. I lean my head skyward to the apex of the night’s black canopy. Incandescent stars float like wandering jetsam in the slow moving Milky Way. “Ah, yes,” Pop says. “Look up: See Aries?” He traces from star to star the pattern of the Ram. “He points out Venus to the east, softly lit?” Mars is gem quality ruby red; I would chain and wrap it round my neck if the galaxy allowed me. “Up to the north: See Jupiter?” He says. “It is the brightest largest galactic coin struck in the desert night mint, one of a kind, collectable.” He draws Virgo, my birth sign, with his index finger, “See it?” He says. I am city born; streetlights at night are the brightest stars I know. Pop clasps my hand with his calloused construction scared palm. “I love you sweetheart,” he says. His is a reassuring grasp of reconciliation rather than the rescue of a whimpering eight-year-old child from the past. A meteor shower dissolves in the ionosphere to the north.