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I was driving to Adelanto listening to some comedy radio show. There’s nothing in Adelanto. At least nothing anybody wants. Just a collection of old cracked streets and faded one-story businesses. The people on the radio show were asking the audience:  What would people find in your drawers if you died unexpectedly? Your closet? They weren’t interested in the collection of Christmas sweaters or the stacks of family albums—they were interested in the dirty things, the things you don’t want anybody to see or know about. The naked pictures. The sex toys. The raunchy.

There is something equally freeing and unsettling about the wide-open desert—the horizon stretching out forever is both unattainable and inspiring. In Battleborn, a collection of stories by Claire Vaye Watkins, we get to explore all aspects of Nevada, from the sad allure of a brothel to nights out in Vegas that can only lead to trouble, told in an honest and yet lyrical voice. We bear witness to those moments in time beyond which there is no return. And what comes after this tipping point—that is our salvation.

 

“Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality. Weird heroes and mold-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of ‘the rat race’ is not yet final.”—Hunter S. Thompson

Maybe the real subject of every interview is how you really can’t learn much of anything about anyone from an interview.

Back at his gym in Los Angeles, the only instruction Freddie Roach gave after offering Mike Tyson’s phone number was a warning: “Don’t blindside him. It doesn’t matter if sent you. If you see Mike and you blindside him, he’s capable of attacking you.”

“I’m not looking to blindside anyone here,” I lied.

“Be careful, son.”

I met Mia in high school. She was a cheerleader with the short black skirt and I was a jock. I liked her right away. She was intelligent and mature, had a regal feel about her. I was a wreck and a prankster. But we had a lot in common. We both liked books and music and would have these long conversations about bands like U2, and why they were heady, and why bands like Poison were shit. And how when we read Robinson Crusoe we were Robinson Crusoe. We were on that island. We liked art and football and thought breakdancing and baseball sucked. Our favorite color was green. We liked Hostess lemon pies.

Rare Breed

By Alan Brouilette

Food

After my attorney and I ran the Las Vegas Half Marathon, we needed a suitable celebratory dinner.   This meant a steakhouse.  No elaborate French twelve-course, no flown-in-from-the-Sea-of-Japan sushi, no carb replenishment.   Nothing at all would do for the meal observing a thirteen-mile jog other than a couple of big slabs of meat, some serious sides, and a fat red wine.

I’m pro-excess, especially in the arena of vice.   I think you should, at least occasionally, eat too much, smoke too much, drink too much, cheat, carouse, fuck, gamble, sleep, travel, spend, and overexert too much.   Which is why I’m in Las Vegas this week, having done my first half-marathon (speaking of excess) here on Sunday night.  I love Las Vegas.   I love everything about it.  I’ve probably been here fifteen times in the last ten years.  I revel in the mayhem and bask in the excesses.

Dollar stores are fairly new to me. I’ve seen them, have heard their praise, but it wasn’t until this last year that I finally stepped into one. Just like I expected. A giant room full of crazies. Aisles and aisles of stupid shit: Chips. Balloons. Shampoo. Towels. Tools. The signs didn’t lie. Everything was a dollar. Three frozen tacos: One buck. A pack of green candles: One dollar.

What a wonderful world.

I was in the candy aisle loading up on chocolate when I noticed some dude looking at me. I thought nothing of it. Just people watching. I got a handful of Toblerone bars and went to the toy section to shop for my nephew. Not that he didn’t have enough cars and trucks and motorcycles and other bullshit scattered all over the house. But, whatever. I’m his uncle. It’s my job to buy him things he doesn’t need. Look, Cole! It’s a giant rubber gorilla! Who does it resemble, boy? Your father! You’re good! Hey, Cole, check out this witch mask I bought you! Awesome! Doesn’t it look like your mom? You bet it does! Hey, Cole! Look at all these markers your bitchin’ ass-kickin’ uncle got you! Tag the walls, son! Who’s the coolest uncle ever!

I was dicking off in ShenaniganLand when I heard:

“Reno?”

I looked over and it was the dude who was looking at me slobbering in the candy aisle. I looked at his face, his perfectly clipped goatee, his neatly pressed clothes. He was gay. I knew the dude. But what was his name?

“It’s me, Matt. Remember me? We used to wait tables together at O’Aces.”

Matt. Son of a bitch. I hadn’t seen him in over ten years. We were old drinking buddies. He was a local Las Vegan, born and raised, and was a full-blown lush when I met him. His boyfriend at the time sold speed so Matt lugged around two monkeys and would come to work speeding like a motherfucker all the time.

“I’m a spun little cookie,” he would say with big tweaked-out eyes and prance out on the floor.

We were good friends, like a couple of kids always terrorizing each other. We’d call each other horrible names. We’d leave foul notes in each other’s aprons, on the dry erase board. He knew I hated the sound of burps and would burp around me all the time. I’d threaten to fart in his station.

“You better not you nasty bastard!”

We’d do this bit where he’d tell me that girls were dirty and that their parts were gross and reeked of dead lettuce. I’d tell him that most men were arrogant pricks and the last thing on earth I’d want to do was fondle and suck their boners. Or listen to them talk. Vote. Or hear them snore. Or watch them walk around in those stupid fucking shoes they love so fucking much. He’d bust up.

“You’re a man. What’s that saying about you then?”

“I’m just speaking the truth, man. I’m giving you pearls. So pay attention and quit staring at my crotch!”

“Kiss my ass, Reno!”

“Just stop. Please. I’m getting sick over here.”

“You’re such an asshole!”

We worked with each other for a couple of years before he got fired. The story was that he showed up to work drunk off his ass and cussed out one of the managers. We kept in touch for a couple of years and then we lost contact. He looked great. His blue eyes, pretty as ever. He had a boyfriend, were going on eight years. He put away the dope, the crazy, and worked for the city pushing a pencil. It was great to see him.

“So what are you buying?” he asked, looking in my cart.

“Oh, just shopping. Looking for some stuff I don’t really need,” I said, remembering the time we got all coked out and danced all night at Drais. I looked up and saw a bloody rubber severed hand hanging behind him. I grabbed one.

“Want a severed hand, Matt? I’ll buy you one. You know, just in case you get lonely. Eight years is a long time.”

“Oh, my god! You jerk! You haven’t changed one bit!”

“Never.”

 

“It is erroneous of the public to believe that the crusades’ only goal was to drive Muslims out of Jerusalem and the Holy Land,” Scott McElroy, a 57 year-old computer consultant of Las Cruces, New Mexico, exclaims. “The crusades were launched against all enemies without and within. Take the Albigensian Crusade, for example. The church had to fight Cathar heretics to preserve itself. These deviants lived in France, in the heart of Western Civilization and Christendom, but they had it all wrong and had to be uprooted.”

McElroy is soft-spoken, and only an occasional widening of his eyes betrays the fervor with which he pursues his dream of calling Christians in America to arms and fight all those, “who condone evils in His Church.”

McElroy was a hardworking family man in his early forties, when a spiritual crisis shattered his peace. “I was looking around me, and I couldn’t fathom why I wanted to lead this life I was living at the time. Sure, my kids gave me great pleasure, but beyond my doorstep the world I had once loved had ceased to exist. Teenagers listened to aggressive and loutish songs, my next-door neighbors were homosexuals living openly in sin, and strip malls were covering every inch of open space. Abortions were legal, people had premarital sex and spread AIDS, and I thought, I can’t go on doing nothing about all this.” His priest was understanding, but even in the ranks of the clergy McElroy sensed “the presence of homosexuals and deviants.”

In 1985, on his way home from a convention in Albuquerque, his car gave out. “There I was, stranded on the side of the road, and I’d had enough. I screamed, I kicked the car, I actually took a screwdriver from the toolbox and punctured the tires.” McElroy laughs, shaking his gray head. “I went nuts. But then, suddenly, out of nowhere, a voice said to me, “It’s not your car. It’s your life.”

McElroy turned and his anger subsided. He stared at the figure in front of him and fell to his knees. “He looked exactly how I had imagined Him,” he says. “Long hair, beard, white gown – all the portraits I’d seen of God’s son in church, they were true. They got it right.”

Jesus told McElroy to walk away from the car, into the desert. After about a mile, He bade him to kneel down. “And this cactus in front of me, whoosh, it goes up in flames.”

Jesus then instructed McElroy to take the cross against homosexuality, abortion, and bad education. “AIDS is a plague and shall continue as long as you condone homosexuality. There will be suffering and it shall go on until the sinners have been stopped. AIDS is a penance from my father, the Lord, and the sinners will either see the evil of their ways or perish.”

Then Jesus continued to bemoan the fall of education, abortion, and euthanasia. At last he ordered McElroy to gather true believers and fight these evils. When the cactus had burnt down, Jesus disappeared, but not before demanding, “Pray! Pray, but act, too. Prayers without action are like placing a feast on a dead man’s grave.”

McElroy has built a shrine at the location of his first meeting with Jesus, and he returns often to the site, to speak with Jesus and ask Him for guidance.

He had heard of the crusades, but it took him several months to research the holy wars and to figure out a way to start his own. “You know, these lords and knights had large estates, sold land to afford the pilgrimage. So why had Jesus chosen me? I was a computer guy.”

He started out by printing flyers and mailing them to churches around the country. The first few years were quiet, but slowly, he says, “a storm was gathering.” Every month he was receiving messages from Jesus and the Virgin Mary at the shrine in the desert, and he mailed them diligently to his subscribers.

McElroy’s project experienced a quantum leap with the advent of the Internet. It allowed him to post holy messages as soon as he received them, and to reach people who were not organized in churches. “I finally knew why Jesus had chosen me,” he confesses. “I knew what to do with the new technology.”

“What doomed the crusades of old,” he explains, “is that it was never a grassroots movement. The popes and bishops, they didn’t want everyday people to join, because they couldn’t fight, couldn’t afford horses, and held up the warriors on their way to the Levant. So it was only an elite fighting to free Jerusalem. And Jerusalem was lost again soon enough.”

McElroy adds, “Today, everyone can afford arms, can afford to travel, and we will seize that opportunity. I’m not a preacher, but the web allowed me to reach out to my brethren. The Brotherhood of the New Knights for Christ is ready to strike.”

In many states, an armed militia, with secret meeting places and hidden weapons is taken for granted. McElroy spoke to many militia leaders in Michigan and Oregon and was impressed with their organizations’ degree of sophistication. He and Siegfried Newman, the brotherhood’s treasurer and owner of a regional chain of supermarkets, keep in close contact with militia leaders to learn about modern warfare and guerilla tactics.

“Once we’ll call our knights to arms,” Newman, one of McElroy’s first followers, declares, “they will turn out in great numbers.” The brotherhood is said to have armed members in all fifty states. They intend, in Newman’s words, “to rise and root out evil, drive it out of our great nation and back to Hell.”

The crusades of the Middle Ages were sanctioned by the papacy and carried out by kings and emperors. Who will legitimize the brotherhood’s crusade?

“You’d be surprised,” Newman says during a recent meeting in the living room of his comfortable home on the outskirts of Las Cruces. The air conditioning is fighting off the 110-degree afternoon, and three glasses and a giant pitcher of iced tea have been set out by his Mexican-born maid. Newman is in his fifties, dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit and red tie, despite the weather. He carries a pronounced paunch and has a red face, and his every gesture seems forceful and determined. “Politicians at the very top want us to succeed,” he says, without divulging names. “We have brothers in state legislatures, in the courts, and even on Capitol Hill.”

Once the Brotherhood of the New Knights for Christ becomes active, McElroy and Newman imagine, their first target will be the city of Las Vegas. “It will be our first big test. We’ll shut down the brothels and casinos. We will be merciless against everyone who stands in our way and raises their hand to interfere with our cause,” McElroy says between sips of iced tea.

The new crusaders will drive armored pickups, Humvees and trucks, and will carry handguns and rifles, machine guns and light artillery. They don’t expect casino owners to lie down without a fight, but “once we take Las Vegas, our numbers will increase dramatically. People will realize how strong we are and what we are capable of doing. We’re all about character, and the good Lord is with us. We’ve had four million red cloth crosses shipped to our brothers in arms, and we will wear them as proudly as our forebears. Who can stop us?”

Skirmishes with police, the National Guard or the Army, McElroy hopes to avoid. “Will people get killed? Sure,” he admits. “Will innocent, righteous people be harmed? Absolutely not. Once the government recognizes that we are after the heathens, the deviants, and evildoers, they’d better back us. We are strong enough to even march against Washington if that is the Lord’s will.”

Newman even counts on support from the armed forces. “Soldiers are Christians too and hate to see our nation defiled by smut and people who close their eyes to lewdness. In the end, we will fight side by side. This is a big movement, not a flash in the pan. Forget Waco, forget McVeigh. That’s not us. We are businessmen, family men, we’re the people. We will be the tidal wave that sweeps the dirt off our nation.”

After Las Vegas, Newman expects to take Los Angeles. “Maybe it’s an obvious choice, but think of the Big Whore of Babel. Would you spare Babylon just because everyone knows how bad things are? Of course not. Los Angeles will once again become a desert, without celebrations of black masses, and voodoo priests dancing through rings of fire in producers’ mansions.”

“There are places that shouldn’t even be there,” McElroy chimes in. “L.A. was built in the desert as a toy for the rich and perverted. Does anybody need the city? I don’t think so.”

Once Sodom and Gomorrah have been razed, how long will the New Knights fight their holy war?

“Is there an end to the War on Terror? To the war on vice? I think the answer is No,” Newman says. “And we will not stop until homosexuals will repent, until the Bible will be taught in our schools again. And then we might be able to put down our arms and once more let our president lead the country, a president who believes in God and His kingdom and is willing to sacrifice the few for the welfare of our country.”

“But that is the future,” McElroy concludes. “Today we must fight. It is time to get down on our knees, pray, and take the cross once again.”

Marijuana. Mary Jane. Reefer. No matter what you choose to call it, I have never been able to smoke pot. What for some people seems to be a relaxed good time has always been for me a paranoid journey to the center of my mind, where I sit shivering in a cerebral corner, wondering if I’ll ever be able to think normally again.

In college, I reluctantly got stoned with the happy party people around me. Most of these attempts ended with me feeling lost, floating in the universe, indefinitely wondering whether or not I had to pee. Time crawled by thick as resin as I tried to decide if I looked as crazy on the outside as I felt on the inside. If I was lucky, I found a bed to pass out in, mercifully ending my hyper-analytical mental anguish.

It seems like a wonderful ride for most, so for years I tried to stay on the bucking bronco of marijuana before permanently passing the reins to the other space cowboys. Abstaining from pot, combined with my love of exercising and rising early, eventually conspired to make me the least rock and roll chick to ever play guitar in a band. I am decidedly not cool; I’ve made my peace with this fact.

Throughout high school, however, I was still trying to smoke the stuff. My older sister and I would sometimes hide behind one of the many outbuildings on our farm to do it. We’d sit in the grass, leaning against the hay barn; two teenage girls smiling into the summery blue Missouri sky, giggling about nothing and everything. When my parents took the family to Disneyland, she and I got stoned in the It’s a Small World ride. It was there I learned that hundreds of creepy animatronic children singing a repetitive song about the world closing in on me do nothing to ease my pot smoking paranoia. Noted.

On family vacation in Las Vegas that summer, my sister and I quickly tired of the little kid games inside of Circus Circus where we were staying. There were only so many stuffed animals a teenager wanted to win. Bored and seeking fresh entertainment, we left the pink ponies and casino to walk the streets of Sin City. Ducking into an alley, we decided to make our stroll more interesting by smoking a joint she had brought along. Standing next to a ten-foot-high concrete block fence for privacy, by the dirt road that ran between buildings on either side of us, we proceeded to smoke marijuana.

We’d taken a few tokes and I was just starting to feel blurry when a car turned quickly into the alley, about fifty feet away. I brought the joint down from my mouth and held it at my side. I was hoping that the person turning into the alley would think I was only smoking a cigarette, stupidly forgetting that as a non-smoker I looked awkward smoking anything I tried. As the dark blue car drove by and I clumsily passed the joint, we realized in our dulled awareness that it was an unmarked police vehicle. So of course we did the worst thing possible. We panicked.

“That was a cop!” she squeaked as he drove past.

Get rid of it. Get rid of it. Get rid of it,” I whisper-screamed at her.

She frantically tried to toss the joint over the wall next to us. It backed up to a neighborhood, so there was no convenient way around to retrieve the contraband. If we could just get it over the wall, it would be out of sight and virtually unreachable.

My sister has always been petite, and she was unable to throw it over the high fence. The joint bounced off of the wall, rolling futilely back toward us on the dusty ground. We jumped away in fear, as if it was a spider. I grabbed it out of the sand where it sat mocking me like a turd in a litter box and tried to clear the concrete wall again. I’m taller at 5’9″ with greater reach, and it went over this time.

This all happened in the span of a few seconds, so before we could feel relief to have ditched the incriminating evidence, we saw brake lights. No doubt tipped off by our frantic chicken-like scrabbling and obviously guilty behavior, the officer turned around and drove back in our direction while we watched in mute terror. There was nowhere to run, as we were trapped in an alley and didn’t know the area. We both turned our nothing-to-see-here knobs up to eleven, and then he was getting out of the car. Meanwhile, the pot we’d smoked was the kind that creeps up on you, and I was feeling exponentially freaked out by the second. I quickly realized an intimidating police officer was even more paranoia-inducing than soulless puppet children singing at me en masse. My world of hope was quickly becoming a world of fear.

“Did I just see you two girls smoking a joint?” the officer demanded.

It was do or die time. Time to sell it like I’d never sold it before. If we got busted by this cop for pot, there would be no end to the trouble we’d get in. We’d be grounded until I started college for this one, and rightly so. We’d fucked up, big time. I summoned every bit of acting ability I had in my dumb fifteen-year-old body, and tried to push the part of me growing fuzzy from the drugs to the back, working hard for a moment of ass-saving clarity. I put on my best shocked and appalled face at the mention of pot, because pot was awful, and oh my gosh, how could anyone think I’d been smoking pot?

“No officer! I would never smoke pot. But I was trying to smoke a cigarette,” I replied, shame dripping from my voice, eyes cast downward in good girl humiliation. “It was the first time I’ve ever tried it and I didn’t even like it. It was so gross!”

“It looked like a joint to me, whatever you threw over that wall, young lady. If I drive both of you around to the other side, are we gonna find marijuana? Do you think your parents are gonna enjoy having to come pick you up from jail today?”

Shit. If I didn’t pull this off, we were going to end up in a cell, the weak teenage bitches of hardened Las Vegas prostitutes. I silently hoped my prison mistress would at least have a heart of gold. In full self-preservation mode, I quickly realized that my best psychological tactic would be to act so distraught about being caught smoking a cigarette that the pot thing would be downplayed. If I seemed truly disgusted about the cigarette, he might believe me innocent of the worse crime.

“Oh no, please, don’t tell my parents I was smoking a cigarette! They’ll be so mad at me because they hate smoking! This was the first time I’ve ever tried it and I thought it was so nasty. I’m never gonna smoke a cigarette again, I swear it,” I pleaded.

He asked again that if he went to the dreaded other side of the wall, would there be marijuana waiting? I repeated the Please Don’t Tell My Parents I Tried a Cigarette monologue, as if he hadn’t mentioned pot at all. I was working it. Totally owning it. I had the big, tear-filled eyes and the quivering lip; I epitomized the scared young girl gone astray. I was a living, breathing After School Special, begging for a second chance. Before I knew it, even I believed my lies. I was the innocent babe trying those yucky gosh darned cigarettes for the first time. And please don’t tell my parents I was smoking a cigarette, yes cigarette, can I say cigarette one more time? Because it was a cigarette and totally not marijuana, you know. Cough-cigarette-cough.

It finally worked. I couldn’t believe it, but it worked. The officer admonished us one last time with some sort of you kids stay out of trouble speech, got in his car, and drove away. Chastened and shaking like rabbits unexpectedly released from a snare trap, we headed back to the hotel, officially ending our stint as teenage streetwalkers. We walked dazed and confused into the pink nightmare of Circus Circus. Sad clowns and desperate elderly gamblers were definitely preferable to horrified flop sweat and handcuffs.

I never really gave myself much credit for my actions that day, always assuming the cop took pity on me, or had bigger fish to fry. But recently my mom mentioned to me that my sister had told her about the incident. I’m old enough now that my mom has heard most of my naughty stories, and I can only be grounded by myself, so this didn’t bother me. What shocked me was that my sister said my performance for the officer was amazing. She was blown away by my acting ability, and gave me full props for getting us out of what might have been the only arrest of our lives.

She also told my mother, “After I saw Tawni lie so convincingly that day, I knew I could never trust her again!”

Oops.


I am freaking right out.

The news is coming at me from so many directions, I can hardly absorb any of it. It’s like drinking water from a fire hose. As soon as one story runs, three more update, clarify, and supplement it.

And no, the subject is very likely not who you think it is.

It’s Christina Aguilera.

You see, she had too much to drink.

An hour passed. I sat in the quiet of my office and ordered a bus ticket.

Within two hours I was dragging my suitcase down a street that paralleled Interstate 15. I walked past Palace Station where OJ was caught and thrown in the slammer. I turned east on Sahara Avenue and made my way through the hundred-degree heat over the freeway. The Sahara Hotel loomed in front of me. I’d stayed there for several days when I moved back to Las Vegas. Then I was at John’s house, living in his spare room. Now here I was walking back to the Sahara, pulling my suitcase along a dirty street and looking down at piles of broken glass on industrial rooftops.

That night I sat on the edge of my bed and stared toward the window as darkness flickered with casino lights and hummed with the monorail’s monotone singing.

In the morning I packed my suitcase for the last time. I walked out of my room. No hint of remorse for having quit my job. I simply began my journey as some journeys begin—an invisible string tugged my ass along.

The elevator had a musty odor. The doors opened and I passed the Sports Book and the lobby. The casino was nearly empty. In a few corners sat sleepy drunks. They streamed money into machines. Just a little slower than usual. Rusted automatons.

Outside, an endless sidewalk stretched along a horizon of heat. I started walking and stopped at the corner of Sahara and Las Vegas boulevards. The air was hot. I wore a black backpack that I’d stuffed with my laptop and clothes and dragged a black suitcase that looked like an old pregnant Labrador about to spew a giant litter of cloth puppies. It sagged, but I had a good hold of its flimsy plastic handle.

About that time the transient came.

God said his angels are all around us. They look like people. For all I know street performers are a breed of angels meant to watch us when pretending they’re desperate to be seen. They stuff their big feathery wings into jeans pockets. They tuck ripples of pink-skinned wing muscle, all feathery and silky into raincoats and cloaks, and, though they may be a little below us, carry invisible swords and magical timepieces that compress our paths into mere moments.

Those are the holy jugglers and poet rappers of the Word. The men of sleight of hand flashing jokers, and ministering minstrels with guitar cases open like bloody mouths eating dollars. They are the homeless locust eaters watching us come and go and breathing on us their angels’ breath and God light.

Before the light could change there came the transient talking up a storm. Talking fast. “You’re going somewhere special,” he said. “You’re going somewhere special with bags like those! Hot enough for you? I’m going to see destiny. She’s this way,” he said.

He stepped into the street before the light could change. He looked sun-worn and carried a bag of plastic bottles. His eyes were wild with uncertainty and the cosmic insanity that fills the universe at such moments in the desert. His clothes were urban, old; they fit him like a sloppy dishrag sliced to fit with a dirty butcher’s knife.

My destination was the bus station downtown on Main Street next to the Plaza Hotel. It was the dirtiest place I’d seen in Vegas, with its broken down restroom and shit-coated urinals corralled by strands of yellow tape.

My shoulder was already sore just dragging my life to the corner. Already forgetting about the transient, I stepped into the crosswalk just as the light changed. I crossed Sahara and gazed through car windows at empty morning faces. I looked up at a boarded casino dressed in black awnings. Just past that I saw the Stratosphere Tower. There flew a helicopter, while down on the street a motorcycle with a big moustache riding it roared past. I saw security guards wandering to work. I saw druggies hard up for the question of life to smack them in a fix of morning clarity.

Across the Sahara I made my way down the long snake of Las Vegas Boulevard. I yanked my bag along, which flipped over more than once as I dragged it. I barely missed the toes of bus riders waiting on shaded benches. Hard faces stared into the heat, past me and my bags. Some looked up at the Stratosphere Tower, at its moving amusement park machinery more than a thousand feet above them.

Further along I stopped to rest at an abandoned swimming pool. I snapped a photo and went on my way. My hand and shoulder ached as I walked up and down parking lot driveways and street curbs. Near one casino, the same transient sat on a small cement ledge. If he had angel wings I couldn’t even see a ridge of feathers beneath his shirt. He grinned at me and watched me pass into the heat. I finally took a longer rest by a wedding chapel, only to be passed again by the giggling transient. He rattled his bag of bottles and laughed as if spooking some ghost he saw inside of me.

Abandoned pool on Las Vegas Boulevard taken on day I quit job.

I didn’t have any water and didn’t want to sit in the bright light. So I continued on the sun-baked sidewalk. I reached Charleston Boulevard and crossed it, heading into the old Huntridge District. I cut along streets, and passed through a transient park where bodies littered benches in multi-colored rags, and carts made their slow way, pushed by dirty hands. One group of transients sat against a wall by a fountain. Even in the heat they wore heaps of clothes. Their innermost layers, I imagined, were fused to cracked and caked lesion-covered wings, and to scabs where needles had burnt pools of coagulated blood onto drug-hot arms.

I dragged my bags slowly through, looking to see if the transient from outside the Sahara had made his way here. I looked to see if he was dancing a jig, or had miraculously transformed old plastic bottles into a puppet show of tales of the Vegas underworld: dancing demon can-can 7-Up mermaids, Coca-Cola devils of casino executives, big boss radio Fanta clowns with explosive-painted faces and forked tongues riding a carousel of Papa Johns pizza boxes and McDonalds fast-food toys—all lit on fire from the burning desert slot machine handles pulling reels of endless flames.

Several streets further, outside a Bank of America, my mouth was parched. I had nothing to drink so I just licked my lips and headed up some steps to where I pulled some of my last cash from an ATM. Heading back toward the street, I saw one of the most lonely of women and so smiled at her, the Queen of the Sin City Transients. I’d seen her many times before as she sat on a bench like it was her throne. Surrounding her were bags of food from trashcans, generous well wishers and back alley refuse piles. She was plump, rosy-cheeked and had the brittle hair of a sunburnt aged maiden of fire. She held a carton of soup and drank deeply as pigeons wandered past her feet. Piles of blankets and a cart sat nearby. I was a sweaty mess as I passed. I looked over but she ignored me, except through the farthest corners of her eyes, as little girls do.

I looked back, half expecting my transient friend to be there bowing at her feet and rattling his bag of bottles. I imagined a cloud of fire springing up at her feet, orange reflecting in her once shadowy black eyes, and her waving a wand, casting demons into the desert and demands to be carried out at midnight by fallen angels.

The bus station was close. I scooted on a sidestreet to Fitzgerald’s Casino, where years before I watched green-haired old ladies laugh and spin penny slots. Now the penny machines were even more gimmick-plagued. Their seats were filled with anxiety-ridden souls. It was a New World casino order, where penny slots tricked old ladies out of hundreds of dollars rather than the mere ten bucks they were used to losing. Those days of free martinis and enough cash left over to get a new green wig had gone.

Now I walked among a new generation of forlorn faces. With them I finally sat dehydrated and thankful. I ate at a McDonalds with a blank stare before eventually making my way to find brief refuge in the Plaza Hotel. There, I sat on a bench and changed my shoes and socks and prepared myself for the bus ride to California.

*This piece was written entirely on an iPhone

Neighbors

By Reno J. Romero

Memoir

I just moved. Again. This is my fourth move in two years. It seems like all I do is pack and unpack my shit. My truck hates me. My clothes hate me. My guitars hate me. Same for my computer and my books. Same for my incense and my shoes. I promised them that they could settle down, take a load off, that we’d be around for a while this time.

I don’t think they believe me.

This move was a pain in the ass just like all the others. But what I’ve learned over the years is to get down to the bare essentials. If I don’t use it I give it away or throw it away. I moved across the country twice. It was these two dreadful moves that taught me that rat-packing I’ll-probably-use-it-someday crap is ridiculous and a lie. After my divorce I gave everything to my ex. I took my books, clothes, one of the cars, my guitars, and most of my dignity. That’s it. It was liberating. It was very Zen. Today the things in my possession I use. I’m clutter-free for the first time in my life.

When I moved in I noticed my neighbors sitting outside drinking beer. Two dudes in their twenties and an older feller somewhere in his sixties. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve seen him stumbling around his house drunk. He drinks Budweiser. He never wears a shirt; nipples and dusty gray hair dancing in the desert wind.

“Hey, you play guitar?” he asked me as I was unloading my equipment.

“Yes, sir.”

“Rock and roll?”

“At times, yeah.”

“Hey, you should grow out your hair, man. You’d look cool. Long hair. Guitar. You know?”

“Think so, huh? You’re probably right.”

He didn’t know I’ve had long hair most of my life and recently hacked it all off.

“My name is Gilbert,” he said walking to the fence. I put my guitar down and shook his hand.

Reno.”

Reno? Like in Reno, Nevada? All right. Isn’t that Mustang Ranch close to Reno?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“I’d like to go there, man. They have a website. You should check it out. Some fine women work there. Oh, yeah, some fine women.”

We talked for a bit. He came from Fontana. Ex-military. Liked Santana. He told me to come over one night, down some beer, and play for him. I told him I would.

“The man next door likes, Santana,” I told my roommate.

“Making friends already, huh?” she said.

“Always.”

Scissors

Pam lived above me. Nice girl. Beautician. Huge tits and a flat ass. We’d party together, smoke pot, and drink whatever was at hand. She was sweet on me despite the fact that I had a girlfriend. She had me by five years and was the classic been-there-done-that chick. She didn’t care that I had a girlfriend. She thought Gina was a total bitch which was true. She told me that I should dump her pronto, that I was young (I was twenty-five) and living in Vegas, that this wasn’t the time to be bogged down in a relationship. This all changed when Pam found a suitor. His name was Greg and either he had the world’s biggest dick or Pam was hoping that a porn producer lived in the complex and would draw her up a slutty contract after hearing her nasty contrived wailing.

She was loud.

Painfully loud.

My bedroom also served as my recording studio and on more than one occasion my mics picked up her moaning. I’d be laying down tracks and then: “Oh! Oh, my god! Oh! Oh! Oh…my…god!” I wanted to charge upstairs, kick down her door, and punch her in the throat. I wanted to tell Greg to quit fucking her. And if he couldn’t do that then he needed to handle her at his place. And the curious thing was that they always banged around nine o’clock at night. After she jacked up one too many takes, I started recording around the humping hour. I had some friends over one night and they got front row seats to Hammerfest.

“Watch, man,” I informed them. “Around nine o’clock you’ll hear Pammy Whammy and Ron Jeremy playing hide the salami.”

Sure as shit around five minutes after nine: “Oh! Oh, yes! Don’t stop! Oh, my god! Yes! Yes! Oh!” My friends were sickened. I was sickened. It was bad. Pam must have had a super cooter because Greg put a ring on her damn finger and she moved in with him a month later.

Them Frogs

My house in Charlotte had a lake behind it. Coming from Las Vegas I wasn’t used to wildlife, real weather, trees or flowers. I had deer roaming around my property. Raccoons clicking. Giant birds casting shadows on the ground. My neighbor was a local, hailed from South Carolina, and had a thing for vodka. I’d always find Tim sitting in his driveway, drink in hand, sucking in the booze and the sticky humidity. He called me Vegas.

The neighborhood was beautiful and made for a great run. As soon as I moved in I mapped out a two-mile run that took me by the lake. Right by the lake was a small pond. That’s where I heard the sound. It was an odd bellowing sound. I’d never heard anything like it before. I told my wife at the time what I’d heard, that it was a haunting hollow sound.

“I don’t know what it is,” I told her. “Sounds like an animal. A sick cow. A moose. Or a camel. I don’t know. It seems to be coming from behind the woods. There might be a farm back there.”

“There’s no moose out here, sweetie. Or camels.”

“How do you know? Might be a farm back there.”

At work I asked the locals. They didn’t know. And if they did they weren’t giving me any answers. I was just some long-haired west coast dude invading their land of fried-pickles and Jesus. I came home one day to find Tim washing his boat. He was drunk. A bottle of vodka sat on his tailgate. I told him about the sound I’d heard right by the pond. I told him I thought there might be a farm behind the woods, that what I’d heard was probably a cow or something. He shook his head and started laughing hard. It took him a while to gather himself.

“What, fucker? Tell me,” I pleaded.

“Vegas, Vegas, Vegas. You’re talking about that little pond that feeds into the lake, right? Yeah, OK. What you’re hearing is a goddamn bullfrog!”

From that day on my name changed from Vegas to Bullfrog.

“Hey, Bullfrog.”

“What are you doing this weekend, Bullfrog?”

“Your Steelers are going down, Bullfrog.” “

Wanna drink, Bullfrog?”

Alison

Chris looked like Elvis Costello. He was a real estate agent, hailing from somewhere in the Midwest. Vegas was full of real estate agents and full of these types. Quasi-slick transplants. Hated their dry little towns. Packed up their junk and came to the neon to cash in. At first glance you would have thought Chris was gay. He possessed all the cliché characteristics: wore nice expensive clothes; walked around the world in a pretty haircut streaked with highlights; had clean manicured nails; got his tans at a tanning salon; drove a nice car that was always in immaculate condition; had a chunky lady friend that was always hanging around him. When I met him my gaydar didn’t register anything. Zip. He was just another pretty boy in a city full of pretty boys. But a few of my friend’s gaydars were pinned.

“Reno, who’s Mr. Skintip?”

“Chris. And he doesn’t smoke skin tips. He smokes a good-looking blond that you’d bang if you had the chance.”

“Bullshit. He’s smoking the skinnies. Remember Mr. Andrews the basketball coach? He was married, had two gruesome kids, but he smoked poles on the side.”

“Well…”

Chris’ girlfriend was beautiful. California blond. Deep sea-blue eyes. Button nose. Pretty hands. Nice body. She was also a nice person and liked literature. Big Faulkner fan. We used to swap books and talk shop. Her name was Sara.

At the time I had a sixteen-pound tabby named Toback. He was a gorgeous creature that viewed himself as a prisoner, always pawing the screen door to get out and see the world. I couldn’t blame him. I was an over protective parent. I cut off his berries, fed him expensive food, and kept the apartment warm and cozy. But he didn’t give a fuck about my efforts. He was fat and he knew it. He wanted to run with the wind and shed some weight. He didn’t have any balls and he knew that. He wanted to look at girl kitties for old time’s sake in hopes that his ghost nuts would twitch reminding him that, yes, he was still a man cat, that, yes, he was still alive. One night I slipped and left the sliding door open. Despite his weight Toback still had some wheels and I caught him flash out the door and over the wall and into the Great Wide Open.

I let him goof around for a bit. He ran from bush to bush, climbed to the top of the small tree in front of my balcony and leaped off into the darkness. He tumbled in the grass and meowed with glee. After a while I tried to get him, but he was having nothing of it. I’d get close to him and at the last second he’d dash. This went on for around ten minutes. It was a game to him. He was winning. I was pissed. Then Toback ran into a bush right by Chris’ balcony. Right when I approached the balcony I saw Sara butt-naked and walking around the apartment with a glass of wine. I dropped to the ground like a sack of potatoes. I turned and slowly made my way to my apartment hoping that she didn’t see me, telling Chris that I’m some sick peeping Tom. I wanted to kill Toback. To hell with him, I thought. Stay out there and get your ass kicked by some feral tomcat! See if I care, Toback! Five minutes later he strolled in coated in dirt and grass. Son of a bitch. That night my band came over and I told them what happened. Two of them understood how creepy I felt. The other two thought Toback hooked me up.

“Dude,” Aaron said. “Toback did you good. All my cat does is eat and shit in the living room.”

“Well, yeah. You can look at that way,” I said, as I saw Sara’s naked body move across my eyes once again. “She was a true blond that’s for sure.”



Jumpers

By Nicholas Belardes

Memoir

I saw the horrific billboard on Las Vegas Boulevard and instantly pushed it out of my mind.

Riding with John, we drove past, in slow motion. I couldn’t bring myself to mention it. Who could? It was far easier to bring up the porn billboard with the girl on it holding a cupcake saying, “Wanna taste my muffin?”

“Absolutely incredible billboard,” John had said staring up at the cartoon version of a bald cupcake.

Now I was walking toward the Sahara Hotel. Couldn’t get a ride from work. I could handle the walk I told myself. Just had to get over the freeway. Only now I was lost, headed north on Western, having cut under the freeway, past a Metro Police vehicle that pulled into the dirt behind me, just to check me out.

Hoping for a street to slice past the girly joints to Industrial, I had no such luck. I was stuck on an hours-long walk, just to traverse a freeway, and ended up on Wyoming Street and having to double back down Industrial, southward, and into a neighborhood of streets as ugly and lonely as any American island of lost streets could ever get.

Trying for a shortcut somewhere along the way, I took a walk down a sidestreet only to end up circling through past a gym as boxers in full gloves jogged past. They glared like they wished I was twenty years younger. Fresh sparring meat. I ducked tail and pushed back out to the main thoroughfare to search for a way through to the Sahara Hotel, which I hadn’t been able to see since first looking at it from right across the freeway. Now my only landmark was the Stratosphere Tower. And even that I found was now far to the southeast. From where I was originally it stood north and a bit eastward.

I took a long look down West New York Avenue and thought to hell with that. Looked like an endless string of drug deals going down in the dusty dank of the sweaty summer street. I plodded onward to West St. Louis Avenue and found a lonely long walk past a transient in pigtails leaning on a fence. She gave me the eye like she wanted more than a Shirley Temple and a fix of street crack.

I left her to her stares and eventually came up to lines of decrepit apartments, the kind you would find in any small desert town, with clothes strewn over rod-iron balconies, and mamba and cumbias blasting through open windows. Outside, there were kids toys, smoking red-eyed Mexicans in trucker’s caps, and the smell of greasy refried beans made from fresh pintos. Ahh, I told myself, I’d found the dens of the housekeepers, dishwashers and drug dealers of the finest hotels on the Strip.

When I got to Fairfield Avenue I made a right and looked up at the awful towering machinery of the Stratosphere Hotel. Its gargantuan height pushes over the broken industrial cityscape like a rocket ready to blast off into some Eighties-themed casino space station. There, I imagine heavy metal Earth hits rule, and guys Like Reno Romero shred to Alpha Centauri interstellar activists whose pointy ears bleed from amp feedback as they protest the cancellation of intra-celestial Dio tributes.

I walked down Fairfield along the back edge of the tower and kicked up dust as I crossed a gravel lot. In the near distance I saw another row of apartments. Their balconies faced the tower, and pot-bellied men, down to their last greedy nickel, eyed me and the tower through drunken eyes, as if we both held some kind of secrets they considered pulling a gun to find the answers to.

As I passed there was a scream. A long howling scream. One that was both terrifying and death defying at the same time. I’d heard a few in the distance, but this was closer, and I found it odd as I eyed the men on the balcony watch me suddenly look up at the jumper falling in full sprawl from the dizzying heights of the tower.

I rounded a corner, still within eyeshot of the derelict apartment behind the tower, and walked on a cracked sidewalk that looked like it hadn’t been repaired for sixty years. Just across the street was a bright green strip of grass. That surrounded a brand new condo that jutted upward into a shiny steel tower. A woman walked nervously on the grass as her little white Maltese sniffed around prudishly. I sensed the woman knew it was dusk, about the time those pot-bellied men creep from their rusted balconies, looking for wallets to lift and little dogs to kidnap and sell for easy Sports Book cash.

Soon I found my tired way to Sahara Avenue. A security guard on a bicycle pedaled past, heading toward the freeway overpass that I tried to find a shortcut around. Maybe he worked at the Palace Station, or some girly joint along the way.

I crossed Las Vegas Boulevard and was nearing a McDonalds when I heard a faint scream and saw a young couple looking up. The girl held a pink camera that surely couldn’t capture the person leaping off the edge of the tower.

“Would you?” I asked the man as I passed.

He looked at me with red eyes that could barely focus from a face of sunburnt skin. His hair was a greasy mess. “Already have,” he said.

I continued past, thinking of the terrible billboards advertising JUMPERS, and knowing full well, that some idiots on 9/11 would be up there, pretending they were in some virtual reality where nothing but smoke and flames would determine their final path through life, a long leap into the acrid air.

*NOTE: This piece was written entirely on an iPhone.

Image by Nick Belardes

The bellhop had one eye. He didn’t wear a patch. So I just gazed at the scar.

As if he had a little of Oedipus in him, he looked at me sadly. “Right this way, sir,” he said. “You’ve been waiting.”

“Not very long though,” I said, gazing past him into the Sahara Hotel Sports Book. There were several rows of tables and chairs, and a wall full of TVs. A few days before, a group of Algerian nationals had gathered. They hooted at the television in unison, taunting as if Landon Donovan would never score a goal. Now the Sports Book was nearly empty. Except for one Asian man. His head nodded toward his chest as if he just went ahead and died there.

“Right this way,” said the bellhop. His uniform was golden. It shined against his deep black skin. His hair was slightly receded. He looked like he’d been working the casino for so long that he might have known Elvis, who himself stood in ghostly iconic history in a nearby black-and-white photo that hung poster sized behind the front hotel desk.

The bellhop followed me into the elevator.

“Sorry to trouble you,” I said.

He fumbled with some keys as I punched the nineteenth floor.

“Ain’t no trouble,” he said. “We’re just short staffed is all. I can’t do everything. So some people just gonna have to wait.”

“I hear you,” I said.

The elevator felt old. The building sighed, sagged. The smoky casino had carried itself into these steel walls. When the elevator stopped, my twenty-eight-dollar room was only a few steps away.

Down the hall was a set of rooms where a minor league baseball team was visiting Sin City. Their organization must have struck a deal for cheap rooms. It was just a straight shot down Las Vegas Boulevard to the Las Vegas 51s homefield. There, a parking lot held a ghost town of washed up casino signs. Golden Nugget, Moulin Rouge and Stardust all lay in rust and decay with piles of others. Unlit bulbs in the thousands rimmed the dozens of signs, evidence that history’s lights wink and go out in the bleak asphalt desert.

The bellhop and I walked to my door—right around the first bend from the elevator. I pulled out my plastic room key. I’d taken it down to the lobby once already and got it replaced. But the latest key didn’t work either. “Here,” I said, swiping the key, only to hear a beep and a buzz and see a red light flash. “Just temperamental, maybe.”

“That ain’t no good,” said the bellhop.

I tried not to look at the scar where his eye had been. But who can help staring into mystery? My eyes shifted. I saw a man who had suffered. Behind him I imagined the real Oedipus. He stood down the yellow hall with black holes for eyes. He looked for his mother but could only fumble past two prostitutes scarred with tattoos, suffering all Jesus-like themselves as they disappeared into a room.

“I got a master key,” said the bellhop. He pulled out a metal card shaped like my plastic room key. He swiped it and the red light flashed. “Isn’t that something,” he said swiping his master key again.

I saw beads of sweat on his dark brow. He leaned forward, shook the boxy keylock device attached to the door.

“You’ll get it,” I said.

They oughtta replace some of these,” he grunted.

I’d taken a walk. McDonalds across Sahara Avenue stood next to a black-painted abandoned casino. Another casino wrapped in glitter and Big Mac big screens was really a second McDonalds around the corner on the Strip. Giant cranes stood near that. They hung over tall buildings with shiny grey-blue windows that reflected a decayed urban sky, where even dusty smog seemed to break apart and drift to the earth. It fell from above those of us who walked beneath all the scaffolding on porn-covered sidewalks with nothing more ahead of us than promises of helicopter rides, girls in pits dealing cards at the Riviera and Peppermill pancakes.

My feet hurt from all the walking. The dollar-menu burger had long drifted its way through my gut to more hunger pangs. I just wanted to sleep. I wanted to get inside my room and gaze out the window down at the streets, where the sleek monorail station was a soft whoosh, and the tower where Latoya Jackson lived in a high room upon infinite desert comfort stood over it all.

“I gotta get maintenance,” the bellhop said.

Pancakes weren’t sounding so bad. And the Caravan Cafe was just an elevator ride and a quick walk past rows of empty slot machines anyway. “I’ll get something to eat,” I said.

“It’ll be fixed by the time you return.”

“Ain’t no thing,” I said.

“You just don’t know about these machines.”

“Not your fault,” I added as I imagined both of his eyes gone just then. Behind him I saw Oedipus laughing. I saw the casino; his mother; the city mother. His lover. She was a big glittering sagging bitch with her finger wagging for a few more rings.

As I headed back to the elevator I imagined him in his golden uniform ascend through the floors and sail over the casino, across her glittering eyes and neon breasts.

*NOTE: This piece was written entirely on an iPhone.

Monk Quixote

By Reno J. Romero

Memoir

We were at some hotel somewhere in the Inland Empire. We were in bed, post-coital, and passing a bottle of Pinot back and forth and watching the Top 100 Hard Rock tunes on VH1. The wine had me a little loopy and throughout the show I kept saying things like: “Oh, I saw those dudes in concert. They had dry-ice, stacks of amps, and all that rock bullshit. But they sucked big ones.” Or: “I saw those fuckers at some dive in San Bernardino. Oh yeah, man. You betcha. I was all jacked up on whiskey and dating some chick who had pretty brown eyes and bunions.”

Shauna looked at me like she always did: like I was crazy. Then Twisted Sister’s “I Wanna Rock” blasted across the screen.

“Don’t tell me,” she said, pursing up her beautiful lips. “You saw those guys at some back yard party and you whipped out your junk in front of Dee Snider.”

“I did see them in concert. But not in some back yard party. And Dee Snider didn’t see my junk. Long Beach Arena. They opened up for Iron Maiden on Maiden’s World Slavery Tour. And guess what? They rocked! Check this out. I was smoking pot with my cousin and his buddies before the show and one of his friends had an epileptic seizure. None of us knew what the hell was happening. So, while he twisted on the ground we started walking away. Not a cool thing to do. But he scared the living shit out of us. A few minutes later he was fine. It was weird.”

“Jesus Christ,” she said, shaking her head. “You guys walked away?”

“Hey, we were like fifteen! And stoned! How were we supposed to know what an epileptic seizure was? We thought he was dying. And we had weed on us. It was a bust if the coppers showed. We were holding, babe.”

“You guys suck.”

“We were fifteen!”

I proceeded to tell Shauna how Maiden were gods that night. How they consumed me. How I knew every song and sang every word. How the stage changed numerous times. How Eddie came charging out during “Running Free” as a beautiful tattered mummy. How they were filming and recording the shows for their upcoming live album that would be called Live After Death. How I was there to hear Bruce Dickinson give the famous line: “Scream for me Long Beach!” How when I walked into the arena a giant Union Jack was hanging and illuminated in glorious heavy metal light.

“They’re here,” I remember telling my cousin. “Maiden is here.”

That night Shauna and me polished off a couple of bottles of wine and I told her more rock tales. Of me seeing Korn with around fifty other people way before they made it big. Of me working for Metallica. Of me seeing Steve Vai in Hollywood and it was probably the best performance I ever saw. Of me seeing Ice Cube in the early 90s and rocking the fuck out. Of me seeing Sublime playing a back yard party in the California desert.

“Those were the days, Shauna Poo,” I said in a cheesy I’m-above-it-all-now tone. “But not anymore. There was a time it was greasy open-face burgers, naughty sluts, and whiskey. Now, it’s wine, refined company, and stinky cheese.”

“Oh, please,” she said, rolling over and leaving me with the TV, my heavy metal memories, and a bottle of wine with one good pull left.

The next day I met up with some friends from Vegas in Huntington Beach. We were old friends from our wilder single days. Fast forward a few years, a few job changes and divorces, and there we were single again. Men in their forties looking for some trouble in Orange County.

There was a celebratory yet anxious feeling in the air for we were all making drastic changes in our lives. James’ divorce was about wrapped up. Tucker was going into rehab for digging on heroin and benzos too much. Joey just filed for a divorce. Corey was going back home to Vegas, quit his job, dump his girlfriend of nine years, and then move to Oregon to take care of his father who was dying of cancer.

And then me. The last year I was on the road for work or pleasure and I found myself in the company of strange men and women, strange towns, and strange highways. What was at first romantic was in the end completely exhausting and made me a little crazy. I was tired of waking up in dank hotel rooms, in my truck, or sleeping on the floor in dilapidated homes that I was fixing.

I was dizzy.

I was cold.

I was sore.

I was all messed up.

So, I was going on a spiritual retreat of sorts to get my bearings. I was disappearing in some posh part of L.A, chop off all of my hair, eat better, run longer, listen to my heart and not my addictive mind, store away my truck and my “material” junk and go monk. Everyone saw it coming so when I made the announcement to the few that I wanted in the know it came as no surprise.

That night me and the gang had a nice dinner and got blind drunk. We ate piles of fish tacos, lobster enchiladas, rice and beans, ceviche, and craziness. Throughout that night we had weird silences, odd moments of realizing what was happening to us. At one point we were all living in Vegas, had wives, our better careers, homes, and now we were all going opposite directions for different reasons.

We were leaving our past for something else. What that was I don’t think any of us had a clue. Life was throwing punches, kicking us around. But we were game even though there was a hint of uncertainty in our voices. Over the table we joked that we weren’t dead, that we had our college degrees, a snatch of cheap talent, a kick-ass CD collection, a chick on the side of the stage named Jennifer, Christy, Angie, and dicks that still worked.

And we had each other.

We’d all been friends for over twenty years.

It wasn’t all that bad.

The next morning I woke up with my head thumping. Bodies stirred on the floor and it smelled like a drunk tank. I started my retreat that day. My check-in time was 2pm. Shauna was driving in from Riverside to take me in.

“You ready, baby?” she asked over the phone.

“I’m ready.”

Corey was already up and reading the copy of Don Quixote I bought him. One by one we hopped in the shower to wash off the cigarettes, vodka, rum and sand, which was painted over us. We looked and smelled horribly. James, who drank twice as much as all of us, was still passed out, his ass curiously raised in the air.

“We ought to field fuck him,” Tucker said. “What do you say, Reno?”

“Absolutely. I’m horny,” I said, making my way to James.

“He does have a nice ass,” Joey observed.

“I’m first!” Corey yelled. “Hold him down!”

James turned over quickly, his eyes red and shot out.

“You sick bastards! Get away from me!”

“We’ll be gentle, honey!”

“Please, James! I’m lonely!”

“Get the hell away from me!”

Field fucking is a Marine Corps activity whereby a Marine (one who’s been an asshole as of late) is held in the doggie position and his brotherhood takes turns dry fucking him. A very communal ceremony.

James wanted nothing to do with this ceremony.

Sissy.

“Wow, James. That hurts. We thought you loved us?”

“Fuck you.”

We went for breakfast at some quaint little diner—the ones with colorful pies spinning in a glass fixture. The waitress was cute. California blond with nice straight teeth, a button nose, and a good sense of humor. We were feeling a bit giddy from the night’s shenanigans and told her how crazy our lives were.

“Did you know this dude is going crazy? You bet! Loony! Right in front of your pretty eyes!”

“And this guy loves heroin. Well, he’s addicted to everything. Donuts. Cigarettes. Spam. Isn’t that just peachy?”

“Well, this guy is divorcing his wife and she’s taking all his shit! His screwdrivers. His chones. His dignity!”

“So wait a minute,” she said chuckling. “One of you is going crazy. One is addicted to heroin and like three of you are dumping your women? You guys look normal, but you’re all screwed up.”

“Why yes. Yes we are.”

Shauna showed up and we said our goodbyes. No tears. Just hugs and firm handshakes. Tucker would be gone for at least three months. James would have to pick up the pieces, find his dignity somewhere in the pale Vegas desert. So would Joey. And Corey would be in Oregon for as long as it would take. Me, I’d be gone at least two months, come out of the wilderness and say hello, and then would probably disappear again.

That’s what my heart was telling me.

“Time to go monk, eh?” Shauna said as we drove into a beautiful L.A day.

“Time to go monk.”