SHOWGIRL OF THE NIGHT

     Betty worked swing shift. She was a waitress at the Garden Room Restaurant at Harrah’s Hotel and Casino on Virginia Street in downtown Reno. She wore a tan polyester dress with flower-print scarf and apron and gold name badge with Betty engraved neatly in black lettering across it.

     Betty liked the fact that her name was permanently engraved on her badge. Each evening while dressing in the employee’s dressing room, she took extra pride in making sure that her badge was as straight as possible. She also took great care to see that her scarf and apron were tied properly on her uniform. She also never started work unless her lipstick and makeup looked just right.

     Betty didn’t like swing shift very much. But that was all that was offered to her. Each afternoon she started at 4 p.m. and finished at midnight. Sometimes she even worked the graveyard shift. Betty absolutely hated graveyard. Not because the shift was in the middle of the night--that fact she actually liked--it was just because she had a huge problem staying awake. She didn’t drink coffee or caffeinated beverages and would never consider taking any medication to help her adjust to the odd sleeping pattern changes.

     "So what did you get her?" Ruth asked.

     "I haven’t decided yet," Betty said.

     They were sitting in a light brown booth at the employee’s lounge restaurant eating dinner on their half-hour break. Ruth was Betty’s best friend and worked in housekeeping. She wore a cream-colored uniform and white apron. Betty was eating a hamburger and Ruth a French dip.

     "Why don’t you buy her a cute dress?" Ruth asked dipping half of her sandwich in the small bowl of au jus.

     "She doesn’t want a dress," Betty said taking a big bite of her hamburger. “She wants a new doll."

     "Then get her a doll."

     Betty looked over at the table of dealers next to her. They were all dressed in black. Black slacks. Shiny black shoes. Black vests with black buttons. The only clothing item not black was their white shirts and blouses. The dealers’ lunch trays were now empty and they were drinking coffee. The young blonde dealer looked over at Betty while she was biting at her hamburger. He suddenly said something quietly under his breath to the other dealers. They all started giggling.  

     Betty looked back over to Ruth.

     "Well what kind of doll should I get her?"

     "I don’t know. Why not get her one of those talking dolls?"

     "Do they need batteries?"

     "Well I guess so…  Or what about a Barbie doll?"

     "They’re too small. I want something big."

     "Well go have a look at Sears. They’ve got tons of toys there."   

     "I’ll have to take a taxi."

    "Well Penney’s then. Or what about a stuffed animal from the gift shop downstairs?"

     "Ruth, she’s not a visiting tourist girl. She’s my little niece for Pete’s sake."

     Betty looked back over to the table but the dealers had all gone. A group of sous-chefs had now taken their place in the same booth. They were wearing heavily starched white chef shirts with big round white cloth buttons. They had tall white hats and salt and pepper pants, and their names were stitched in blue cursive letters on their shirt breasts. They were talking to each other in thick German. Each had a pastry in front of him with frothy white cream on top. Betty knew that the chefs were from Austria, Switzerland and Germany. One chef, Hans, was the sous-chef at her own Garden Room Restaurant.

     "Well get her a big cute little-girl doll then, honey."

     "You really think so?"

     "Yeah. The biggest one possible."

     "Well maybe."

     "And just let me know if you need any help."

 

                      *  *  *

 

     Betty liked walking home after work at midnight. There was something special about the atmosphere at this time of night that made her feel at home. She was never scared, not even when the soiled bums and drunks on the street asked her for spare change. Or when the high school kids cruising Virginia Street shouted insults at her.

     Perhaps it was the lights and neon and all the people walking around the casinos that lifted Betty’s spirit. It was just all so bright. So busy. Like a real and authentic day in fact. All radiant and shining except there was no sun. But here, it was just as if you had a sun anyway. A false sun.   

     The best thing was that there were no doors on the casinos, and the carpet and slot machines and gamblers all flowed together right out onto the edge of the sidewalk carpet. Betty liked to watch the tourists pulling the handles on the chrome slot machines. She loved the cranking sound they made. The deep clunks the coins sounded as they hit the metal tray underneath.

     Old ladies walked around with buckets of quarters under their arms. Their fingers were smudged black from the coins. Cocktail waitresses in short skirts and black nylons weaved athletically through the crowds of gamers with trays of vibrantly-colored cocktails raised high above them. Californians and Canadians, cowboys and Native Americans, locals and tourists alike--all would lift up their arms and yell passionately in one joyous roar at their luck at winning jackpots, or card hands, or 7s and 11s rolled from red dice on the soft felt gaming tables.

     It was all such a huge and sonic boom. A wave that seemed to blast itself out across the universe. To Betty it was alive. Electrifying. No one ever slept or went to bed. They just stayed up all night until the morning sun came. There were dancers and magicians and comedians and musicians and singers all performing past midnight in cozy and plush showrooms deep inside the casinos. The lights were all magnificently bright, and the neon flowed and blinked like rippling volcanic lava in reds and greens and yellows and blues.

     Betty felt as if she was on top of the world. As if a thousand Roman candles had just shot up and exploded into the sky. And this, each and every night.  Just for her it seemed. Betty, professional and efficient casino restaurant waitress! The lights celebrating her hard night’s work and success at serving famished tourists and gamblers warm and homely dinners. Feeding them all so they could return hurriedly to their wild luck and winnings on the casino floors below. It was all so amazing. All the brightness. All the banter. It seemed to be thanking her personally for all she had done and all and who she was. This, as she tiredly walked home each night.  

 

                      *  *  *

    

     "Hey Betty! You comin’ or goin’?"  It was Ernest, the maintenance guy from the second floor. He was wearing his dark brown uniform with “Ernest” stitched on a white circle above his shirt breast pocket. He had a big set of keys hanging from his belt loop and Betty always liked the sound they made when Ernest walked. He was short and skinny and beady-eyed and had a thin moustache. His shiny black hair was immaculately combed over his head.

     "Goin’. How about you?"

     "Comin’. But runnin’ late. Have a good one!"

     "You, too!"

     Though Betty was tired, she was hungry, and the next Casino going north on Virginia Street was Harold’s Club where they served the best chili-cheese dogs in town. Betty always felt a little guilty for stopping and indulging there. But why not? She never ate breakfast in the morning and her lunch was always so light, and most of her big meals were on her break at work. Besides, it was just so beautiful walking home at night, and she liked to linger and well… treat herself.

     Betty was fully aware she was a large woman. Or what perhaps other people might say: extremely overweight. But that didn’t bother her at all. Why should it? There were all kinds of different-sized people in the world and she was just another one of them. She knew very well that most men liked their women thin and her chances of ever catching a guy, even little Ernest, were highly unlikely.

     But she didn’t care. She had her two cats and her sister and little niece and a good solid job that made her happy so who needed more? She didn’t feel lonely or unfulfilled, and she had absolutely no self-pity. She was just who she was, and even the best diet or exercise regime in the world--or as Ruth always said beauty reduction--could never change that.  

     At the snack bar counter Betty finished her chili-cheese dog with extra onions, drank the rest of her root beer and got up to go. She gave the young waiter with a red vest and bow tie an exceptionally large tip.  “Thanks so much, Betty, and you have yourself a great one!" he said.  

     When she reached the sidewalk outside, a thin bearded man with greasy jeans and Reno or Bust T-shirt was sitting on the curb. He wore an old mesh baseball cap that had black stains on it, and his toes were sticking out of his shoes.  He was cross-legged shooting colored marbles across the red casino sidewalk carpet. Betty knew security would be here soon to move him on.

     "Spare me some change, Ma’am?" he asked.

     "Not really," Betty said. Then she reached into her pocket for her tip money. She gave the man a dollar. "Don’t spend it all in one place," she said.

     "Thank you sweetheart! Thank you! And no I won’t."

     It was always the same. He was usually there once a week. Sometimes with a couple of his other street friends. Other times gone for months only to show up again. He didn’t know Betty from Adam but everyone needed a break she thought to herself, right?  

     "You got a cat’s eye?" Betty asked.

     "You betcha sweetheart. Here’s a keepsie." He raised a swirling blue and green marble up to Betty and placed it in her thick palm.  Betty raised it up to the light of the casino banner and looked deep inside the round colored glass. There were tiny air bubbles caught deep within the marble that refracted the light in a swirl of wonderful colors.  Also soft waves of milky blue and green.

      "There’s plasma in there, darlin’. You know most of the universe is made up of that stuff right? Even them lights above ya."

       Betty looked down at the man strangely. "Thank you," she said pulling the marble back down and tucking it into her pocket. “What are you, some kind of scientist or something?"

     "You betcha sweetheart! You betcha I am!"

     Betty continued walking north on Virginia Street. Her legs were aching now from her long shift at work. But the chili-cheese dog had given her renewed energy. And though she felt physically tired, she was wide awake, and Betty only had about a quarter of an hour’s walk to get home. She lived in an old ’30s style brick building with a softly lit Art Deco entrance. Her apartment was just off of 4th Street on a small block. It was a quiet street with tall cottonwood trees.

     The apartment was just a short distance from the Truckee River where Betty liked to go visit on her days off. The only downside was that her building was really close to the train tracks, and each night you could hear the loud freight trains passing through town long into the morning. The lights of the city were also always on outside her window. But that didn’t bother Betty. It gave her comfort in fact. She never felt alone.

     The cats would be hungry now, she thought. But they would have to wait because she was passing by her favorite part of Reno. It was the Primadonna Casino. A towering construction of rippling neon with five 20-feet-tall plastic showgirls rising up from the facade like giant Greek goddesses out into the night. They were flesh-colored and lifelike and wore skimpy, sparkling outfits with big feathered boas and hats.

     The plastic ladies were lithe and beautiful. They were twirling slowly on pedestals in individual gestures of laughter and joy. The center showgirl was taller than the other girls and had both arms raised up into the air. She had big blonde hair and wore long white gloves to her elbows. Her scanty one-piece costume was made of pink sequins that glittered in the light. In one hand she held a champagne glass high above her. Behind her a huge white puff of feather plumes sprouted out from the backside of her outfit. How long had she been there? Did she have a name?

     The plastic showgirls looked so happy. So real and animate. They were a cross between exotic harem dancers and the thin group of showroom girls who stopped by Betty’s restaurant for dinner late at night after their shows. The slim ladies who came into the Garden Room Restaurant would eat club sandwiches and Key Lime Pie and drink iced tea with saccharin and lemon and chat lively among themselves. They were almost always in a good mood. So youthful. So cheerful. So beautiful and bright just as they looked on stage when they performed in their colorful costumes.

     Betty stopped to take it all in. How could anything ever be more wonderful than this? Where else in the world could you feel more alive? It was like some huge and magical Mexican shrine to the night, Betty thought. Though she’d never actually been to Mexico. But she’d certainly been to Disneyland, twice in fact, and not even the Enchanted Tiki Room or It’s a Small World could compare to this.

 

                      *  *  *

 

     "Well when are you going to get it?"

     It was Betty’s sister Susan on the phone. Betty was on the couch watching a soap opera, half-listening to the phone receiver and Dr. Blackstone from Darkling Heights on the TV.

     "I don’t know. Maybe today I hope."

     "Well the party’s tomorrow, Betty!"

     "Don’t have a cow, Susan. I’ll get her something."

     "She wants a new doll. I told you that. A doll. No one else is getting her a doll because you are." 

     "For heaven’s sake, Susan, she’s my niece and I can get her what I want."

     "Oh Betty, this is getting nowhere. Just be there and bring the doll."

 

                      *  *  *

 

     Dolls, dolls, dolls, Betty thought as she got up from the park bench that looked out across the Truckee River. It was a pleasant sunny day--as most summer Nevada days were--and the shallow water of the river made wild shooshing sounds as it sliced and skipped and jumped over the smooth and rounded stone riverbed.

     Betty crossed Sierra Street. She still had plenty of time before her shift started. Penney’s was just around the corner. As she entered the large plate glass doors of the department store, she noticed the mannequins in the shop windows were all naked. How funny, Betty thought. They looked all so much alike. Pale and sexless. Unreal somehow. They were changing shifts, too, she thought. And hopefully soon all the fake bodies would be newly clothed in warm fall sweaters and colored checked skirts, snappy handbags and dark stockings.  

     "Can I help you?" the third floor shop assistant asked.

     "Yes," Betty said. "I’m looking for a doll."

     "Sure. No problem. And what type of doll are you looking for?"

     "I really don’t know. But something special."

     A half hour later Betty still couldn’t find the right doll. The problem was they all looked so ridiculous. Outright scary in fact. Either they were tiny and skinny or short and pudgy. Some were ultra thin with long blond hair and rode in racing cars that came with clean-shaven boyfriends you could all fit into your dress pocket. Others had big evil eyes that batted inimically from rolling fat vinyl skin. There were scarlet-cheeked dolls. Black baby dolls. Rag dolls and wooden dolls. Dolls that squeaked and talked. Mechanical dolls that crawled, walked, danced, sang and even rode bikes. But the main problem was this: Betty just didn’t want to buy her niece a stupid doll!

     Betty thought of going to the girls clothing department, but if she did that then she’d be late for work. And Betty was never late. She rarely even missed a day a year. Not even a cold or light flu would stop her from going to work.

 

                      *  *  *

 

     "Oh, my God!" Ruth said. "It’s amazing! I mean amazing!"

     Betty was blushing. She had applied way too much red lipstick and it made her face look that much more scarlet.

     "I can’t believe it! Where in the heck did you get it?"

     "Well I didn’t get it at Penney’s I can tell you that."

     In fact Betty had found it somewhere else entirely. Just after leaving Penney’s she walked up 2nd Street thinking she’d have to take a taxi early the next morning to go to Sears and suddenly there it was, smack dab in the middle of a pawn shop window smiling straight at her. Almost as if the doll had been waiting there for Betty all day. All year in fact. The doll seemed to jump right out of its still sparkling new packaging eager to clutch and hug Betty. She couldn’t believe her eyes. It was unbelievable and just… perfect!

     "It’s so huge!" Ruth said. "I mean, really. It’s gigantic!"

     "It’s exactly what I wanted," Betty said.

     "I can’t believe it!" Ruth said, putting both hands up to her face. "It’s perfect!"

     "It’s a showgirl doll," Betty said proudly.

     Now almost all of the employees in the employee lounge had stopped talking and were all looking over at Betty and Ruth and the truly huge package Betty held in her arms. A table of parking lot runners in brown turtlenecks were outright pointing and laughing.

     "Don’t mind them, Betty," Ruth said. "They have absolutely no clue."

     It wasn’t particularly because the doll and packaging were simply so big that caused the stir. It was that fact that the doll looked so remarkably like Betty! Huge red lips and big chestnut hair just like Betty had. In fact, the skin looked the same color as Betty’s. And although chubby, the doll was clothed in a beautiful sequined costume almost the same color as Betty’s uniform and came with a real-sized sparkling silver baton.

     The packaging was so big you would have thought there was a water heater or washing machine inside. But the box was actually made of light cardboard, and the doll was made with the thinnest vinyl and softest organdie costume material you had ever seen. Although cumbersome, the doll in the package was actually light to carry.

     "I’ve never seen a doll anywhere like that," Ruth said pushing the face of the doll with her finger through the sheer plastic cellophane. The face shrivelled slightly but bounced back out full again.  "I mean never."

     "I think it might come from Canada. Even Eastern Europe."     

     "Do you think they twirl batons in Europe, Betty?"       

     "I don’t know, but I’ll ask Hans."

     The doll was so big Betty had to check it in at the hotel bell desk until her shift ended. There was just no space in her locker at the employee’s dressing room.

     "Woooo, now watcha got there young lady?" Big Daddy, the bell captain asked. "Man, sweetheart, that’s sure some big girl you got there!"

     "Thanks Big Daddy," she said giving him a dollar. "She’s for my niece!"

    

                      *  *  *

 

     After work, Betty picked up the doll at the bell desk and headed for the escalators. She had no idea how she was going to get it home. Or for that matter, get this thing to the party the next day. That would mean two taxis. She had spent quite a lot of money already on the doll. But not even the taxis and the hard Friday night shift she had just completed would spoil her mood. She was almost giddy in fact. Nothing could change the faultlessness of the doll.

     Betty adjusted the big package in her arms, tilted her head around the box to make sure she could see where she was walking and got onto the escalator.  Her cheek was pressed along the side of the box and Betty waddled with the big doll as she walked.

     "Holy smokes, Betty!" Ernest said as he passed her. "She’s a beaut! Who’s the lucky girl?"

     "My niece, Ernest. My little niece."

     "Lucky her!" He said. "Have a good one Betty."

     "You, too Ernest. And thanks!"

     Betty had forgotten about the Friday night ruckus outside on Virginia Street. As usual, the local high school kids were cruising up and down the street with their cars, and the sidewalks were packed with fresh tourists who had just arrived for the weekend.  Betty had to walk carefully to make sure she didn’t bump into anyone with her doll. She’d never get a taxi here, she thought. So she decided to try and catch a taxi at the corner of Commercial Row.

     "Spare any change, Ma’am?" she heard a voice say below her but she couldn’t see from whom it came because the doll was blocking her view.

     It wasn’t her usual homeless man. It was some other guy wearing a torn Western button-down shirt with the buttons missing. Her usual man with the marbles was lying flat on his back drunk as a skunk. He was mumbling something repeatedly to the new guy. There was a homeless woman there, too, who was just as drunk as the marble man and also barefoot.

     "A desert I tell yaz. A desert!" The marble guy was now rambling louder to the barefoot woman. He noticed Betty and got up, staggering. "Hey! I know you, darlin’! I know you!" he said almost falling back down again. "Wooh! What’s that thing!" he shouted staggering backwards. "Jesus H. Christ!" He said putting his palm out as if trying to stop or miraculously heal the doll.  He then looked back at Betty changing the tone of his voice. "Hey, ya got a dollar, honey?"

     "And me, too!" said the barefoot woman struggling to get up and stumbling towards Betty. In addition to being barefoot she was wearing a cracked fluorescent blue poker visor. "I could sure use a dollar, too!"

     Just then a black Jeep filled with high school kids pulled up to a halt on the opposite side of the street revving its engine loudly.  "Hey!" the young driver shouted out the window over to Betty and the group. "Hey you! Fat lady!" he yelled tauntingly. “Circus Circus is the other direction! Ha ha ha!"  The kids in the Jeep all started laughing.

     Betty looked over at the drunk marble man who was now pulling colored marbles out of his pants pocket. They were all dropping out of his hands and fingers and rolling across the sidewalk carpet in all directions.

     "Hey! I said!" the driver continued much louder now so the whole street could hear him. "Did you win that thing at the pie eating contest at the Cal-Neva? Ha ha ha!" More laughter from the Jeep as well as some of the tourists on the sidewalk who had all stopped to see what was going on. "Or did that stupid doll of yours win the pie contest all on its own! Ha ha ha!"  Now several other groups of people on the sidewalk were also looking and laughing.

     "A desert I tell yaz!" The drunken marble man continued raving even louder not hearing what was going on. “A desert!" He started throwing some of the marbles up at the casino signs. He then suddenly grabbed Betty by the arm and put his face up as close as possible to hers and looked deep into her eyes. His breath was foul and his eyes were red and crazed. "That’s why they put up all these goddamn lights here, honey. Don’t yaz see? Don’t you understand?" he continued. "Because it’s a big and empty fuckin’ desert out there!"

     Betty was now blocked between the three homeless people and the Jeep hecklers and crowds of tourists staring and laughing at her. There was not a security person or policeman in sight. Her arms were aching from holding up the doll.  Her legs hurt, too. And the marble guy kept starring wildly at her eyes without letting go.

     "Didn’t you hear me, fat lady?" The young kid driving the Jeep continued heckling. "Yes you! You fat stupid cow!"

     The marble guy now turned having heard the kid in the Jeep and looked over in their direction. He almost tripped over his own feet turning. More marbles were spilling out of his pants and hands. "Hey!" he shouted out slurring his words really loud. “Just who ya callin’ fatso?" He then started to swagger from the sidewalk to the curb walking towards the Jeep and right out onto the street. Betty put down her doll and tried to pull him back by his shirt to stop him. But she couldn’t reach in time. "Who you callin’ fatso? You son of a bitch!"

     The Jeep roared its engine again and the kids were laughing louder. "Yeah, you!" the driver said. "You and your fat-assed sorry old lady. Loser!"  

 

                       *  *  *

 

     Afterwards, no one could quite understand just why there had been no traffic on the opposite side of Virginia Street going north. Just stopped traffic going south.  And when another set of 17-year-old kids in a souped-up Camaro came racing up north on Virginia Street blaring their engine and music, the marble man stepped right out into the middle of the street at exactly the same time. The yellow Camaro with racing stripes hit the marble man head-on with the chrome front end of its bumper tossing him ten feet up into the air. He landed back down like a gunny sack of old silver dollars onto the hard pavement of the street.

     The Camaro screeched to a halt. The young driver got out to take a look. You could see the aching fear and youth in his face. Then he got back into the car and sped off.

     Betty ran out as fast as she could to the marble man on the street. She suddenly stopped as she saw the large puddle of blood growing around the man’s body. He didn’t move and his eyes were shut.  Betty suddenly started to feel dizzy. The lights seemed to be getting fuzzy, too, and she felt as if she was going to be sick.

     She wanted to move closer to the marble man and help him, but she just couldn’t move further now. Then someone grabbed her by the arm from behind. It was a big burly tourist man in a California Republic flag T-shirt. There were other people now coming out of the casinos to see what was going on. Betty could hear a police car siren. More people moved out onto the street and towards the marble man. People were getting out of their cars.

     Betty looked back over to the sidewalk. The two other homeless people were now gone and so was her doll. She looked up and down both sides of the street. The doll was nowhere in sight. She looked back over to the marble man, but all she could see was more red blood gathering around him like some crimson halo silhouette.

     Suddenly Betty could feel something move underneath her feet. Was it an earthquake? Was the ground moving? Her legs felt like water. She wanted to say something but couldn’t as her lips would not move. The pavement was black and as empty as the night, but seemed to be the only thing she could focus on that was not moving around her. There were red and orange lights moving in giant swirls above her. Green waves and yellow swells. Glowing crests of neon and twinkling bulbs that all seemed to meld with each other like some huge galactic kaleidoscope.

     Betty had the feeling she couldn’t separate the colors from the light or from the casinos or the actual people themselves around her. So she tried to just focus on the blankness of the pavement. Everything else was spinning. She felt light somehow. Lighter than air in fact, or even light itself. And when she fell, it wasn’t with a big crash or loud thud or huge boom.  It wasn’t with a bang or a rumble.  No, Betty fell gently. Gracefully. As if she’d received some sort of revelation. And the large bearish man in the California Republic flag T-shirt with help from two other tourists dragged her back slowly to the sidewalk and laid her down gingerly on the soft red carpet.

     The carpet felt warm and supple against Betty’s cheek. All she had to do now was try and focus on the fixed black street and she would be alright. Everything else was just light and movement and ripples of excrutiating bright color.

     Betty, too, now shut her eyes. She could no longer hear anything either. But she could feel someone touching her brow gently. Who? It was Ernest but she couldn’t know or see this. And despite all the noise and banter. Despite all the sirens and cars and people and tourists around her. Despite all the endless surge of neon and bright lights and flash that made up the glistening city around her. Betty was out cold.

...................................................

 

                 JUST TO WATCH THEM

     The train was a zipper. It was steel and flash-metal, and it chewed up the two halves of the city into bent clasps of asphalt and neon.

     It always stopped. In the evening, at the height of traffic, in the flux and buzz of downtown movement---just when you thought it had passed, or before you could swear it was coming. You were nearly always halted before it.

      You were stuck.

     The passengers unloaded silently. They brought their overnight bags, their stranger faces, their single-room reservations. And you had to wait.  

      Those who didn’t wait got caught beneath the iron wheels. They were split in two. Not by accident. Not by chance. But because they had chosen to be. They had come out of the Turf Club holding tickets for horses that had not won. They stepped gingerly between the linked carriages. They had jugs filled with purple wine and they tried to hop on.

     Some fell asleep on the tracks. Others pulled burgundy-stained friends onto oily railroad ties. They sang songs and danced, and many placed their heads softly to the shiny slick of metal for want of hearing what was coming in the distance. Their teeth vibrated and their cheeks warmed rosy and numb, and when they dreamed there were no whistles or cities, and after they dreamed they did not wake up.

     There were others. Hobos frozen to the cold floors of boxcars. Warrior bums slit red in railway fights. Pullman cars, tumbling like sausages in accidents from dark passes at night. And the normal heart, quitted and pulled from duty at a railway crossing, its chest and body dragged from the train, beaten and electrocuted, massaged and sent onward in a car to somewhere white. A precious ceasing.

     Or those who looked as though they were dead or sleeping, but they were only resting.

     "I’m leavin' this town, Eddie. I’m leavin'."

     "You aint leavin' shit. You ain’t got no brains. And you ain’t got no cash."

     "Oh, yeah?"

     "Yeah."

     "Well, I’m getting’ the hell out of here.

       I’m goin’ to Sacramento. It’s too goddamn cold here."

     "You won’t make it to the next whorehouse."

     "You won’t make it after I box your ears in."

     "Oh, yeah?"

     "Yeah."

     "Well, get the hell outta here."

     "I am."

     Not far from the railroad crossing, there was a major hotel and casino where a dog sprang 60 feet to its death from the top of the parking garage. His owner was getting out of a Blazer when the dog took off in a full gallop, leaping fearlessly over the white concrete barrier separating the visible blue from the unseen below. The dog thought he’d arrive safely at the same level on the other side, as if jumping over a garden border back home, or a backyard hedge. He sprinted and was gone; not knowing what was on the other side.

     It happened so fast the owner couldn’t shout out the dog’s name, or call him back. He even laughed, not realizing what had happened, as if the dog would suddenly leap back over, returning with a ratty softball lodged in his mouth or a tooth-marked stick. The true distance from ground to seventh floor came quickly to the man, who almost hurtled over himself in a late attempt to retrieve the pet that was already gone. 

     The papers had a time with it, and there was a full week of ‘’raining cats and dogs’’ jokes. Letters to the city council and Humane Society. There was a threat of court action against the hotel-casino. But it was soon forgotten, and a higher barrier put up on the seventh floor with signs of warning.

     "I told you not to bet on that horse."

     "No you didn’t."

     "Yeah, I did. He’s a loser."

     "You’re a loser."

     "Your five bucks poorer and we ain’t got no wine."

     "I got a bumper of Schlitz malt."

     "And a Mickey’s Bigmouth. I seen it."

     "You drank it asshole."

     "Why did you bet on that horse, anyway?"

     "Because he looks like your mother."

     "Don’t you talk about my mother."

     "Why, cuz she’s a saint?"

     "No, because she’ll kick your ass."

     "Just let her try. Cuz my ass is long gone."

     So many tramps and bums were run over by trains in the city that few people bothered to take notice any more. It was an accepted cost of transience. What seemed odd or unnatural for weekend guests departing or joining the city was routine for those awaiting their coming or going.

     It was like other common things in the town. The colored neon rippling down building faces. The all-night wedding ceremonies performed in cream-steepled chapels. The rattle of cocktails and slot machines. The motor homes and motel ice machines. Day shift. Swing shift. Graveyard.

     The oddities of the town were forgotten. They were passed by those who lived there, and not even the deaths could shock anymore. Not even the terrible ones. And someone stopped before the train might just have well been halted before a ripped canyon wall, or a jagged cloud of purple, a dark blue separating the horizon from the sun.

     The locals passed the revolving plaster show girls outside, the carpeted sidewalks. They crossed the river filled with sunken gold wedding bands and diamond rings, precious weights removed from fingers and cast from bridges by those who came to the city for divorce. They walked over the red-carpeted sidewalks. They stopped before the trains.

     And in the city guests were joined to or separated from each other in a day. They took blood tests and signed papers. They drank gin and played craps. They pulled shiny handles of slot machines. They never went to bed. And in the morning they got back on a train and went home. Another bum passed out on the tracks. Another train arrived just to leave again. Ex-husbands and wives said goodbye to each other for the very last time. They removed the solid metal grafted to their fingers and threw them remorselessly into the shallow river.

      And someone else got run over by a train.

     "How could you be stupid enough to get hit by a train?"

     "They’re drunk. They’re blind as a bat."

     "Then why the hell don’t they stay away from the tracks?"

     "They pass out. They don’t know no better."

     "They’re better off sleeping on the road."  

     "They do that, too."

     "Jesus Christ."

     "Well, they’re tanked at about twenty gallons."

     "Someone should do something about it."

     "Someone who?"

     "Someone should get ‘em outta here. They should leave."

     "That’s what they’re trying to do."

     Just west of downtown an 18-year-old girl jumped off the top of the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino. She didn’t leave a note. She fell. Not even leaping, just sort of pushing off. Falling. The hotel had over 1,000 rooms. It had eight fine restaurants and live lions with which you could take a picture. They had a cinema and bowling alley. There was a musical review with a full Guys and Dolls cast from New York. Jugglers and magicians, and a white Boeing 747 airliner onstage in the showroom. Leggy girls in sparkling bathing caps sprang into shimmering Ziegfeld pools.

     They found the body on top of a van in the parking lot. The police were confused by the blue Xs tattooed between the girl’s thumbs and forefingers. She was dressed in black and had been snorting crank, and the police thought it was some sort of cult death. There were groups of youth digging up soil at graveyards near the university. They stole icons and headstones. Their music was dark and fast and they hug out inside a warehouse club on the outskirts of town.

     The girl visited there. She had a fake I.D. and talked strangers into buying her Tanqueray and tonics. She lived with her mom in a trailer outside of town and was supposed to be going to school. She stuck safety pins through her lip and slit her jeans. Her purse was found later with four dollars, a brass crucifix and ivory kaleidoscope inside. The others at the club weren’t talking, but someone said the kaleidoscope didn’t belong to her.

     "Did you hear the one about the dog yet?"

     "No."

     "How do you get rid of a warm puppy in Reno?"

     "I don’t know"        

     "Say ‘FETCH!’"

     "Ahhhhhh, that’s sick."

     "So’s your sister."

     "Don’t you talk about my sister."

     "Why? She got a guilty conscience?"

     "I’ll kick your ass if you don’t shut up."

     "Oh, yeah?"

     "Yeah."

     "You couldn’t kick your own bucket."

     Some people who were stopped at the crossing were going to work. Others were coming home. Some didn’t live in the city and some were just passing through.  Others had been there all their lives. They all stopped their engines and waited, and some got out of their cars to have a smoke or stretch their legs, or have a better look. Just to watch the blue of the sky. The bulk of black desert clouds passing.

     Near an old airport north of the city, a man who wasn’t stopped by the train managed to shoot his wife six times in the stomach with a handgun. He picked her up as she was hosing down the driveway at home and told her they were going out for milk and cigarettes. They’d get a pizza, some beer and a video.

     He put his truck into four-wheel drive and drove off the highway onto a dirt road at the end of the valley. He stopped near a salt flat, and he stuck the cold of what was gripped in his hand to the warmth of her belly.

     He held her mouth and whispered into her ear. And when he let the lead come out and go in, he whispered again to her.

     And the bullets went all the way through her and the front seat out into the upholstery behind. He watched as the smoke rose and as the blood gathered, and then the redness flowed out into his hands. And he looked into her eyes to see what she saw. He watched as she went away.

     He shut the blue of her eyes and then he opened them again. He looked into them as he rolled her out into the dust and brush and then he drove away.

     The police picked him up later that night on the highway near the valley turnoff. He had taken off his shoes and shirt and was running on the dark road. The police told him to stop, but he wouldn’t, and when he turned and pointed his gun at them, they shot him with one bullet through the front of the head.

     The hose was running in the flowerbed back at home. The water flooded the neighbour’s front lawn. It moved through the neighbourhood, and then waned and stopped at a corrugated ditch near the side of the highway.

     Someone next door shut it off.

     "Do you ever think about him?"

     "Yeah. Sometimes."

     "Well, he’s a bum and a rat, and I’m glad his bad ass is outta here."

     "So am I."

     "A real asshole."

     "Yeah."

     "A drunken cheat."

     "Yeah."

     "If he ever comes back here I’ll kill him."

     "He’s already dead, honey."

     "What?"

     "He’s already dead. He died in Fresno."

     "Well nobody told me."

     "Well nobody asked."

     "And he’s gone?"

     "Yeah."

     "He ain’t comin’ back?"

     "No."

     You could still play nickel slots at one of the older clubs downtown. If you were an out-of-towner, you’d get a free can of beer when you came in. They served ham and eggs all night for 99 cents, and if you were lucky, you could drink yourself sloppy with free cocktails at the 21 table. You could bet Lucky Bucks at a 2-dollar minimum and sip lime-floated Greyhounds.

     There was live music. There was video for the kids. There were paper coin wrappers slithering like viper skin on the greasy carpets below the roaring machines. People screamed and cursed. They drank and spent their money. And if they were allowed to, they would do almost anything. Anything at all. 

     A drinking club at the university would come in and guzzle Snakebites at the corner end of the casino bar. They wore black felt hats soaked in water and cut at the brim with scissors. The hats were stitched with a small yellow setting sun on the front.

     They drank Jim Beam and Yukon Jack. They poured black whisky and raw eggs down the throats of their new initiates. After midnight they all went up into the hills. They built bonfires from old tires and sagebrush. Their bodies were black and sticky from smoke and red wine, and they rolled in the ash and dirt. They crawled on their hands and knees around the red and yellow spit of the booming flames. They coughed and wretched, spilling cold red wine mixed with vomit from the big green jugs they held. Swirling novas of burning retread tires branded their arms and elbows.

     To get someone into the club, you had to fight another member. If you lost, the person you wanted didn’t get in. The initiates waited back in town to be chosen. Noses ran warm and wet like shadows, and it was so dark, so black, you couldn’t tell if it was clotted phlegm or sticky blood that was wiped away like the signs of prophets across chests and thighs, ripped cotton and denim.

     When the new ones were chosen, they went back into town to pick them up. The old spit red wine directly in the faces of the new. They blew foul and sour breath out from the deep insides of their bodies. They went on a three-day drunk and were given live chickens to tie up to their legs.

     Those who passed out were thrown into the back of a pickup. Bodies were stacked into clumpy heaps. Old couch cushions were thrown on the human mound to keep it warm. They didn’t wake up until the next afternoon.

     One person who did make it in passed out for good. He died on his back drowning in his own vomit. The chicken they had tied on a string to his leg (you want to buy my chicken a drink?) was still pecking at his jeans. Later, they stopped using chickens. They didn’t pour liquor down the initiate’s throats anymore. But they still went up into the hills. You could see their dark forms gathered in the back of the truck as they rode into the night.

     "What do they do up there?"

     "They drink themselves dead."

     "Why?"

     "Because it feels good."

     "And afterwards?"

     "It feels like shit."

     "So why do they do it?"

     "Because they tell them, too."

     "Who?"

     "Angels stupid."

     "Angels from where?"

     "From where they said that if you go in, if you go on through, it’s gonna hurt. It’s gonna hurt something aweful."

     "I don’t get it."

     "It hurts real bad."

     There was a thirteen-year-old boy in a dirty blue jacket who couldn’t jump.

     He had skipped school and rode his bike downtown to the bank parking garage. It was near one of the oldest casinos in town, and people had jumped there before. You could get your parking ticket comped if you gambled downstairs at the casino. You could get a free drink token and Lucky Buck coupon. The boy rode his bike past the barrier and left it on the curb near the elevator and went up to the sixth floor.

     His dad was a mechanic and his mom a checker at a supermarket near the university. He had two sisters much older and they all belonged to a local church. In the evening, when the curtains were closed, his dad liked to fuck his mom on the living room floor in front of the family.

     They would be finished with supper and watching TV, and his father would put down the newspaper and take off his pants. He would move behind the boy’s mother and start stroking her hair. All their eyes would be on the television and no one would say a word. He would often make his daughters have sex with him too when they were alone afters school. Sometimes he would force his body to do things to him, things the boy did not want to do. At first the boy thought it was normal. He shouldn’t tell anyone----it was normal and what god wanted him to do. Later he knew...

     "’I see it comin'.’"

     ‘"’Comin’ round the bend.’"

     "’And I ain’t seen no sunshine---‘"

     "Since your head got outta your ass?"

     "Shut up!"

     "Why don’t you get a life."

     "I got one. I was born into it."

     "You ain’t got shit."

     "You ain’t worth shit."

     "’I shot a man in Reno.’"

     "’Just to watch him die?’"

     "Yeah. Just to watch him die."

     Just to watch them. Sometimes you could see them all diving one after the other from the tops of buildings. They were tan and brown and beautiful and dove with their arms spread out elegant and wide, in somersaults and looping half-gainers (but really they wore tattered trousers and greasy old sweaters and fell quite awkwardly). They looped and twisted and their legs were pressed tightly together, their chests bare, all darting like swift Acapulco swallows.

     They hung in the air, and their eyes were watching neither the lusty bottom below nor the tender ceiling above. They were moving. And after it was over----they will always be there, stuck, gorgeous and tragic, still; before they come back down----when it was over, they never knew. They didn’t see. They never realized that it was all gone.

     They had to put up an eight-foot steel gate on each floor of the bank building to stop them all.

     They came in buses. They came in planes and cars. They came from Oregon and California, Utah and Minnesota. They were sunken clippers of women and broken skiffs of men, and they just kept coming. No one could stop them. No one could tell them no. No one could take them aside and talk to them. Carry them away and hold them, whisper to them, breath to them, say to them that it was alright…. Please stop. It’s alright… come on down now…

     It’s all right.

     No one could stop the losses at the 21 tables. No one could keep anyone from playing. You could complain. You could scream. You could curse to the flickering lights, the dark summer emptiness tumbling above. But you could not stop them.

     "Now you get your ass outta here!"

     "I will."

     "Don’t you come back now."

     ‘"I won’t."

     "Never!"

     "O.K."

     "You promise me?"

     "I promise."

     "Now git!"

     "I am."

     "Don’t you ever---."

     "I won't!"

     "Never!"

     "I’m gone."

     "Goodbye."

     "Goodbye."

     Late at night---or before the early hours beyond the duplicated day---when the cold snaps a frosty blink across the rolling desert basin; when knuckles crack fidgety and white picking up aluminium cans from curb gutters, sorting hamburger ends and cigarette butts out of trash bins; it is then there is a moment like drunkenness or nappy summer dreams, a moment when a person gets by unnoticed. Someone goes by unseen.

     And this someone doesn’t have the talent or luck to get hit by a train. Doesn’t have the gun to shoot or the money or goods to get stabbed, the good looks to get raped or beaten. This person doesn’t even have the smarts to jump off the fresh airy top of a major downtown hotel and casino.

     This someone gets frozen dead in shopping cart.

     And if you had the chance to reach for them, catch them all. If you could only stop them all. Hold them. Ask them why.

     They would not know.

     And the lightness of the sky. The firmness of the ground. And if you put your ear to the metal track it is cold. It is hard. Like icy fever packs tight against your head. You can feel it groaning. Vibrating. It is there far off in the distance. You can hear it intimately if you lie down.

     If you close your eyes you can see it coming.

---Bobby Vacant