Saturday, November 8, 2014

Trip to Vegas (1970)

July 11, 1980

Merrill find the small black kitten in the parking lot of Two Guys in Garfield brought the memory back about the two black cats Louise and I inherited in Las Vegas that last time we were there.
We didn’t even have a home.
We had hitched up from Phoenix with all our possessions on our backs, and the single thought of finding Gil – who we’d learned had picked up and moved there from our last seeing him in Phoenix.
Gil, a plump man that looked more like a grocery store clerk than a drug dealer, had taken us in when we passed through Phoenix a year earlier on our way back to Denver and – we had hoped to Alaska, and again on the way back when Alaska turned to be out of reach.
But the year had taken its toll – on us as well as we were to learn on Gil.
We had no wheels this time, and had hitched to Phoenix from L.A., and when we found Gil gone (the person pointed us to Las Vegas), we hitched from Phoenix to Las Vegas, with the last stretch on the wings of a high flying gasoline truck on a roller coaster of a road that looped this way and that, up and down, and around in what was supposed to be a north/south highway, after the madman behind the wheel picked us up half frozen from an overnight in the desert. We had unpacked a large white blanket with the hopes of attracting a ride in the dark after having spent hours staring up at the sky full of stars.
I remember seeing my first shooting star that night as it streaked across the sky overhead, and then others, a regular light show we kept mistaking for omens that someone would eventually stop and pick us up, some truck or van would pull over and let us in.
We never expected the gasoline truck to pull over or for the grinning face of its driver to look out and say, “well, what are you waiting for? Get in.”
And so we did.
“Thanks,” I said, once we had settled onto the front seat with him. “It was getting pretty cold out there.”
The driver grinned. He was a round man and big, fattened around his middle on greasy food from highway diners. But he was as warm as sand and a cheerful as a rising sun at dawn.
“Yep,” he said.  “It gets mighty chilly in these parts after dusk, and the sand cools so quick as to have you think its snow by moon light.”
He laughed. His bellow filled the whole cab.
“Where are you headed?” he asked.
We told him Las Vegas and he chuckled again.
“Going there like those other folks to make your fortune?” he asked.
We laughed and told him, no.
“We’re trying to find a friend,” Louise said.
The truck had started moving again and her dog, Midnight (a black terrier she had gotten in LA) bounced on her lap as the truck hit a bump. She sat on the hump of the transmission.
“Most folks I meet on the road travel this way to get rich,” the driver said. “They clutch green in their fists, misers keeping their money safe.”
He laughed again, a bellow that again filled the cab.
“Then they come back along the same road, thumbs stuck out, heads down, eyes staring at the ground as if searching for pennies, looking plum tuckered out, and without any green,” he said.
He fell silent as the desert glowed outside with the first touch of dawn. Clumps of grass appeared like fingers pointed towards the sun, and hills rolled northing heading towards the place the map said a dam existed.
I lit a cigarette and closed my eyes, listening to the dog scratch and the heavy breath of the driver exhaling in a near sigh.
I didn’t dare tell him how our fortune had been made and lost already, how our riches had come from New Jersey and not Las Vegas, and had dribbled away in LA like the receding waves of Santa Monica.
I said nothing, and yet, I got a feeling he already knew or guessed.
This may be why he started to talk. The words came out slowly, hesitantly, as if he had to dig each one up like a deeply buried sand crab which he let wiggle before letting it go.
“I know you,” he said. “Oh not you in particular, but a thousand faces just like yours, all wearing the same strangled look, like a medal or a bleeding heart. I’ve done this here run for eight years, and the LA to Denver run for ten years before that. I’ve seen your kind walking the sides of highways like lost sheep, with your eyes sunken and your thumbs hanging out. I guess maybe I looked like that myself once – lost.”
He lapsed into an uneasy silence as if he’d wanted to say more, but wasn’t sure we would listen. Louise nodded out on my shoulder with the dog’s big eyes turning to look at me and then at the driver, head down on its two front paws.
I petted him, and then I glanced out the side window at the short streets and the red sandy rock now sprouting up like some new kind of plant, a plant unlabeled by science, never classified in any books.
I guess that’s what I felt most inside of me, the lack of classification, a lack of importance. School never taught me who I was, just what other things were. The teachers made a point of stressing hard, core facts like what Washington or Jefferson did. They told us that two plus two added up to four. But they never told us how Washington hated water, or that Jefferson hated Hamilton, or that two plus two doesn’t put a meal on a table or a buck in my pocket.
But you had to have money before you could count it, and count it, I did.
I counted every bill I had taken from that safe back east, glancing over my shoulder the whole time, terrified that my uncles would discover me.
“You know, kid,” the driver suddenly spoke again. “I spent a long time running to every bar and every bitch from here to Needles and it didn’t do me any good. You goat find a place and stick to it – even if it’s a hole. Maybe we all have to settle down soon or later. Some folks settle in a home with a nice lawn and a station wagon, other settle for nothing, taking cheap jobs and women until they die.”
Again, he paused and I found myself staring at him, drawn to what he was saying like a fly to fly paper.
“Where do you come from, Marty?” I asked, suddenly curious about the man and what he had settled for.
The road twisted in front of us and he swung the wheel in silence with only the hum of tires growling beneath the truck like some partly tamed beast waiting for a chance to spring away.
Marty chuckled, raising Midnight’s ears. The man glanced at me his warm blue eyes, thanking me for a chance to speak and help slay his own ghosts.
He said he was born, raised and died in a little dust bowl of a town called Simon’s Ridge, ten miles north of Needles, and a million years away from anything else. It was a ghost town with living ghosts, desert rats and sorry old men who spent their lives in the town’s main attraction, the Golden Bear Tavern, telling tales that had died fifty years earlier but with a sense of undeserved importance. Even the town’s name had come from a doubtful legend, involving someone who had killed thirteen Indians and six cows in an epic adventure.
Marty had seen all of them come to the small town from other places like LA, where nobody wanted them to settle in the small town until they passed away. Some were even losers from Las Vegas looking to hide out until they found another dollar to go back or a razor to cut their wrists.
“They would steal the dollar if they could,” Marty said. “Or beg for one, promising to pay you back ten fold when they came into their own.”
The town also attracted every dusty stranger and horny cowboy from a hundred miles around, drunken but with just enough cash to pay for an hour upstairs above the bar with Marty’s mother.
“For a long time, I didn’t get it,” Marty mumbled. “When I finally did, I lit out for LA. I was 15, and found work loading trucks.
The problems came later: drinking, women, and fights that led him to confrontations with the police.
Marty shifted gears as the road wound around in the direction of Boulder Dam. The landscape changed into ridges and valleys, all carved out in red stone and short shrubs popping out of sandy soil.
I ached for the sight of a single tree – and evergreen that might break up the bleak landscape pale gravel.
Marty went on with his tale, but I only half listened. I kept trying to make sense of what we had done, seeking some logic to why we had left LA in search of Gil, mapping out the first trip in my mind when we’d first met him on our way to Denver.
We had stumbled into Phoenix with about five grand left from the original bundle of numbers money I had looted from my uncle’s safe in New Jersey, and left Phoenix with only four, not realizing the loss until we’d reached Albuquerque where I’d had a chance to count it all out on top of a dresser in a cheap motel.
We’d been ripped off of some of the money I had ripped off, and I recalled leaving the bag open slightly in Gil’s place while we – me, Louise and Dan went out on the town looking for LSD to take.
And here, I had thought they were just so kind to us, taking us in as they had, and feeding us, and seeing us off again with broad smiles – when the whole time they had plans of their own to escape Phoenix, and used their stolen cash to make the move after we had gone.
I shuddered. The sleeping Louise stirred on my shoulder but did not wake. Midnight shifted, snorted and gave me a dirty look.
Now, we were flying back into Gil’s arms, this time with only twenty dollars to our name. We were hoping to make a withdrawal from the money deposited in Gil’s wallet. After all, it was the least they could do.
I kept thinking of Gil’s wife, a quiet, but clear-eyed woman, always smartly dressed for her job as a civilian secretary working for the Phoenix police – a perfect cover for her husband who sold small amounts of drugs to pay the rent.
The truck roared down the final winding hill towards the dam. Marty’s hands shifted gears with the agility of a circus performer, rarely slowing down the truck even as the worst of curves, sending me into a quiet panic as I pondered what would happen if we overturned with all of the gas in the back.
But my thoughts kept drifting back to Phoenix, and how we had wanted to press on, after having spent one night in Phoenix, sleeping in the back of the van, and how Gil and his wife had convinced us to stay over for a few days.
“You can always leave in the morning,” Gil’s wife had said sweetly, but the tone felt wrong, like a Sweet Tart, pleasant at first, only to turn sour later. But I never suspected anything, even when the police surrounded our van in the parking lot of the Taco Bell the night before we were scheduled to leave.
“You’ll be going to jail for a long, long time,” the undercover cop said, a shit-eating grin on his face, coffee-stained teeth glinting with the flashing police car lights.
Someone had tipped them that we were carrying drugs. But the police cruiser lights slowly fell away when after their search they found nothing except our growling dog, Midnight, and one pot seed at the bottom of a butt filled ashtray.
I never suspected Girl or his wife until later.
As the winding column of the river and the dam appeared, I realized that we had a lot to collect here, to make up for a year of being over our heads in poverty, barefooted and jobless on Hollywood Boulevard.
And then, I caught up with Marty’s stream of talk and realized that what he had come up to also fit me.
“You just can’t ever get even,” he was saying. “You try and try but you just can’t do it.”
And we both sat still in this ever moving tank of gas as the giant concrete arms of the dam welcomed two more losers to the edge of Nevada, welcoming two more into the flock.
Louise sniffled and stirred, and eventually wok, her eyes red as they clung to the edges of sleep.
Midnight greeted her with an excited bark, as if he could read our immediate future, and could see what we could not, perhaps even foreseeing the two black cats we would pick up – the only fortune we would actually get out of coming here.
I thought all this ten full years later as I stared down into the cardboard box Merrill had acquired to house her new found parking lot kitten, it stretching up, claws scratching as if to climb out, desperate and empty, hungry, just the way I felt, but hungry for something more than just food or fame, hungry for some satisfaction I had yet to achieve, and perhaps never would.

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