I need a place. Just one room. I prefer furnished. Doesn’t matter. What does matter is Chinatown, Las Vegas.

Looking on Craigslist I find an ad for a furnished room. I want to live within walking distance of Asian food, neon foot massage signs, and the angry faces of smoking Chinamen.

The ad says to call May.

I dial. No answer. I leave a short, polite message inquiring about the furnished room. I say I’m an interested party and not much else.

A few hours later I get a call back from a Chinese woman. She sounds confident, mysterious. I imagine my phone quickly filling with incense. “Hi, this is May. You interested in room?”

“Yes, a furnished room.”

“You want two bedrooms? I have two bedrooms.”

“Just one. In Chinatown.”

“Ohh. Chinatown. Why you want room?”

This is the second time in two days someone has asked me why I want a room. The day before, a woman named Mindy was on the other end of the phone and said the same exact words. Her voice was distrustful, disinterested.

“Because I need a place,” I said to Mindy.

“Speak up. I can’t hear you. Will you speak up?”

Mindy hung up. I leaned back in my office chair and wondered if anyone overheard my call come to an abrupt end.

Now May hangs on the other end of the phone waiting in anticipation for me to answer. I feel that whatever I say will be part of a mysterious puzzle of locks hiding treasure beneath the Forbidden City. “I just moved here,” I say.

“Ohh. You just moved here.”

“I want to live in Chinatown,” I say again.

“Ohh.” Every time she says this I hear her voice trail off, hiding five other sentences. “I have a place not far from there. You catch bus. Close to Chinatown. Ok? Where you work?”

I tell her I work for a radio station.

“Where you come from?”

“California. I’m in Las Vegas now. I live with a DJ.”

She explains the rent, says that doubling it is what it would take to move in. “You like that? Ok?” she asks. I imagine May in a slinky Asian dress talking into an old rotary phone. The smoke-filled room casts shadows on her aged face. “When you want to move in?”

“As soon as possible.”

“Ohh.”

“Can I see it tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow. Tomorrow… Listen, I will give you number. You ask for May Wong. May. She no good English. You speak very slowly. She meet you there.”

“But your name is May.”

“She another May. You call her. You show up. She show it to you. But speak slowly. She no good English. I call her right now.”

I get off the phone, wait a few minutes and call the second May.

“Yes?” There is an uncomfortable moment.

“May Wong?”

“Yes.” There is another silence. “See house?”

“Yes.”

“Nine… a.m.?”

“Yes.”

“Ok.”

“Bye?”

The home is just around the corner from a mansion with an amazing horse statue guarding a giant metal gate. The streets are wide, quiet, with big single-story homes and half-circle desert landscape driveways that probably look like emoticons when one’s peering at them from the sky.

John is with me. He’s the DJ. He carries a blue bag filled with work papers and notebooks. “You don’t mind if I tag along for the walk through?” he asks.

I’m all for sharing the adventure. We soon wait outside for May Wong to show up in a Mercedes. I ring the doorbell. It’s loud, a “ding dong” fit for a castle. I step back. No one answers though two cars are parked on the side of the house. The front doors have two different colored locks: one silver, one brass. Both wooden doors look like they’ve been dragged through gravel pits and rail yards.

Ten minutes later May Wong calls. “See house?” she says.

“I’m here.”

“Wait.”

“Yes.”

“Three minutes.” She hangs up.

“She’s going to be rolling up in that Mercedes any minute,” John says.

Down the street I see a tiny red hatchback that looks like a Smart Car. It pulls in. May can barely see over the steering wheel. She scoots it into the shade beneath a seventy-foot-tall pine tree.

“I should have taken that shade,” John complains as we watch the car roll to a stop and tiny May Wong step out. She carries a green handbag and a little pink coin purse with cartoon characters on it. She pulls out a set of keys.

“Hi May,” I say. 

She ignores me and walks to the double doors. She fumbles with the keys and the silver lock for a good thirty seconds before finally pushing open the left door.

John and I follow her into a dark foyer. Off to our left is an extravagant living room filled with statues and paintings. One of the statues is missing a head. I scan quickly for old wooden chests and gaudy birdcages filled with gremlins. She bypasses the room and takes us past a living room that has a giant TV, couches and a coffee table covered in newspapers and magazines. We step into a hallway. Its walls are covered with photos and paintings. It’s alongside a kitchen where a huge rice cooker and three blenders sit on the counter. I wonder if any of them work.

May continues down the hallway. She stops, turns and gives a half smile and motions to a door. She fumbles with the lock and can’t get it to work. Walking away from the door she heads further down the hallway and looks around a corner and starts talking to someone. “Kevin,” she says then immediately starts talking in Chinese. She disappears around the corner but I can hear them talking.

Kevin’s voice is sleepy. He’s in a room and has been woken up. He says something in Chinese to May.

I look back at John who is far down the hallway behind me. He’s taking photos of pictures on the wall.

May appears from around the corner and motions to another door. She opens it and I step inside a tiny furnished room. There’s a big window with a view of the back yard. I gaze toward a yellowing weed-covered lot and an empty cement swimming pool. A faded blue diving board looks brittle in the heat.

“You like?” May says.

“Sure,” I say.

May then shows me a laundry room, a garage and then a bathroom obviously occupied with Kevin’s things. It’s a mess of bottles. Towels lay piled on the floor.

I wonder if there are rooms at the other end of the hallway. “You have other rooms?” I ask.

May gives me a curious look but shuffles down the hallway to the other end where there is a clean bathroom. There are also two doors. One has a lock on a brass handle. She opens it. It looks just like the other room she showed me. I’m happy it’s far from Kevin for some reason.

“You like?” she asks.

I look at the other door. There are combination lock dials on it. “Who lives there?”

“Mimi Lin,” May says.

“Ohh,” I say.

She leads me back down the hall, past black and white photos of a Chinese woman. The photos look old, from the Fifties. The woman in them wears cat eye glasses. Her hair is shoulder length. There is a mysterious gaze in her eyes.

“You like?” May looks at me curiously. Her stare is long, almost pleading.

“You mean do I want to move in?”

“Yes.”

“I have to think about it.”

“You call Mimi Lin.”

“Who is Mimi Lin?”

She points back down the hallway to the room with the combination locks.

“Is she the owner?”

“Yes. You call.”

“What’s her number?”

She can’t say the numbers but shows me her phone. I see Chinese characters. I see my phone number. I’m one of the only two people May Wong has spoken to in the past two days according to her phone list.

I write down the number she says belongs to Mimi Lin. There is something fishy about it. Something familiar.

That night I get a call. It’s from the number. I don’t answer. I realize I’ve gotten calls from this number before. I listen to a phone message. “Hi, this is May.” It’s the first May. The old mysterious May. She doesn’t call herself Mimi Lin, though it’s the number May Wong gave me for her. “Do you like the house May Wong showed you yesterday? Please give me a call. Thank you.”

I hang up in wonder. Is Mimi Lin, the woman behind the mysterious combination locks, really May?

That night I take a walk down Spring Valley Parkway, and then onto South Rainbow. As I head past Ravenwood Park I decide to call Kike. She’s my mysterious Chinese friend whose old piano teacher died from a heart attack after a lesson one day. She was blamed for putting a curse on the teacher. She claims her grandfather’s ghost regularly visits at night to tickle her feet. She lives with a gypsy.

She often assists me in making crucial life decisions.

We make small talk as I walk down the burning streets of west Las Vegas before I finally bring up the possibility of living in Mimi Lin’s house.

“We all have choices,” Kike says.

“There was a decapitated statue in her house,” I add.

“Ohh. Then you have to beware of what you’re getting yourself into. Sometimes a normal home can be one of sacrifice and spirits.”

“Sacrifice?”

Kike lets out a breath. I turn up the volume on my phone. “Let me tell you a story. I don’t like to remember this. When I was seventeen years old I was very sick. My family drove me to a home in Long Beach. I didn’t know why I was there. While I sat waiting, a witchdoctor suddenly brought forth a white chicken and a big empty tin, like a popcorn tin you might get for Christmas. The witchdoctor had a knife. Anyway, in a twisting motion he cut the head off the chicken.

“He drained its blood into the tin and added some ashes. Then he took toothpicks and jammed them under my fingernails. He pulled them out and squeezed my blood into the tin to mix with that of the chicken. He spit into it too. Then he poured in some alcohol and set it on fire to release the evil spirits as well as commit the sacrifice in exchange for those evil spirits sickening me.

“Then it was time for me to be renewed. Cleansed. He then grabbed a water bottle. There was no fancy container. Water is water until you bless it. Then it becomes holy. He poured out some into a cup. He blessed it and spit in it. I was terrified. But he held out the cup. Everyone looked at me. And so I had to drink it. I gagged. I wanted to throw up. But I knew they would have just made me drink more. So, I held the cup and drank.”

I soon get off the phone with Kike and continue my walk. I think about a friend at the Cannibal Islands who told me about meeting an old woman hanging laundry. The old woman revealed a story about a criminal getting eaten by those who discovered his crime. I’m thousands of miles away, but I wonder about that sacrifice cleansing an entire island. I think about Kike’s bleeding fingers, the chicken’s stained feathers and Mimi Lin’s statues. I think about her locked door and the photos on her walls.

I look toward the edge of the city into a pink dusk and a rainbow of desert mountains along Red Rock Canyon that jut above rooftops.

Later, walking through the darkness I wonder why I am even in Las Vegas as I continue to ignore calls from Mimi Lin.

Image from Flickr.

Goddamn Vegas, man.

Nothing – nothing – is real in that place. The Venetian Hotel has an interior roof painted to look like the twilight sky, and gondolas weave down canals filled with water of the kind of deep and rich blue that you see in children’s storybooks (See Spot Run Into Trouble At The Beach, Courtesy Of BP). The air is gusted with perfume to disguise the stench of cigarette smoke and when my body started craving salad (little did the poor chump know that a roadside Arby’s was soon to prove its nemesis), the closest I could get was a sole lettuce leaf alongside a turkey wrap that was not a colour I will ever believe could be found in nature. Unless it was the colour of Mother Nature puking after a night on absinthe and green chartreuse. That, I could believe.

But it’s not as if we went to Vegas for the authenticity.

No.

We came for the prostitutes.

What day is it? Is it Blurnsday today? It feels like a Blurnsday out there.

Time has ceased to have any real and true meaning – the days have become a blur of highway, movie scenes come to life, and the varied ranks of TNB. I’m keeping track of the weeks by marking off the vague offers of visa-superceding marriage I’m accruing from people I haven’t met and the one from someone I have (please note, ma’am, not only am I totally serious, but I’ll tell all of my friends that I think you’re really cool).

That being said, here’s what happened at the start of the week.

“Shapeshifters,” says the missionary. He’s dressed in a grey suit and grey-checkered tie. He’s black. Looks like he’s in his mid sixties. He sits back in his chair a bit and laughs confidently. The old black dress shoes on his feet he plants firmly on the floor. There’s a Bible in front of him opened to some book of the New Testament.

A large black Rastafarian cuts him off. “What kind of god could make a serpent talk to someone?” he asks. He sits across from the missionary. His large round beret reminds me of the top of the Downtown Transit Center, minus the casino lights.

They look like they just met.

The missionary’s feet don’t budge. I mean, how could he be afraid talking to this giant of a stranger? The entire station is crawling with Jehovah’s Witness missionaries. This is their front line: just off the edge of Fremont Street. A ledge hewn in the chasm. Near rock bottom. A holler or two past the digital bells of cartoon slots and Wheel of Fortune games.

Outside the station, papers and bibles lay scattered on tables in front of transients.

Here on the inside, the missionary smiles at the Rastafarian and his idea of a talking serpent. “The same kind of god that can make a block of wood talk to someone. It’s called a ventriloquist,” he says.

I’ve seen a lot of well-dressed missionaries around the station. This guy wears a yellow shirt. It’s clean. Pressed. White paper napkins stuffed in his coat pocket poke out like a silk hanky. He wears glasses. I see his Bible opened to Luke. There’s a small stack of papers on the table in front of him. I see the word “watchtower.”

“I guarantee if you eat a pomegranate you’re not going to go, ‘Ahh!’” the Rastafarian says. His dreads poke from beneath his beret. He has a pointy beard and yellow eyes.

“It wasn’t a pomegranate from that tree. That was a special tree,” the missionary laughs.

The Rastafarian starts to get up then sits back down. “All pomegranates should have been descendents from that tree,” he says. “They should all be magical. But they’re not. What about the chariot that came down and picked up Elijah?”

“That was a dream. A vision,” the missionary says.

“Can a dead man come back to life? What bones can bring a person to life?” the Rastafarian’s voice booms. Not a single transient nearby stirs.

“It was an unusual occurrence,” the missionary says.

“An unusual occurrence? You don’t have an answer, do you? You don’t want to accept?”

“Accept what? What do you want me to accept? Son, what do you want me to do about that?”

A nearby drunk jumps into the conversation. His words slur. He looks like he’s spent at least forty days downtown on Las Vegas streets. “You have to go back to the beginning. They’ve been arguing this since the beginning of time. Nobody ever noticed that one lady, whatchamacallit. That Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ girlfriend. She the one come down from the cave…”

“No, that’s not right.” The Rastafarian looks at the bum and laughs. “You know what that proves? You just proved that nobody was there.” He laughs again and turns to the missionary. “What kind of man walks on water?”

“A God who walks on water.”

The Rastafarian stands up and sits back down. He changes the subject. “How come these other people John baptized didn’t get godly powers?”

The missionary is soft spoken. “John didn’t even want to baptize Jesus. He said ‘I’m not worthy.’”

The Rastafarian gets up, turns his back. He has an I-can’t-take-this-shit look on his face, then sits back down while the missionary reads some verses from the gospel of Luke.

When the missionary finishes reading, the Rastafarian laughs. “You would tell Jesus how his own life was. You would do that wouldn’t you if you met him?” He wants to leave but then thinks up another question. “What about the darkness? According to the Bible there was darkness. Where did all that come from?”

“It didn’t come from anyplace.”

“Ain’t that something? So it was always just there. So he was just sitting in the darkness by himself?”

“He was part of the darkness. He could change it. He created it. He said, ‘I’m sitting here alone in the darkness, by myself. I’m lonely.’ So then he created Jesus Christ, I mean, Michael.”

A little black lady walks up to the table as if out of nowhere. She tells the missionary to ask the Rastafarian about wisdom.

“Are you finding any wisdom, any laws in what we’re discussing?” the missionary says. “Or is this just a conversation?”

The Rastafarian ignores the question. “Can you tell me how much the planet weighs?”

“I used to know.”

“Can you tell me how much badlands and good lands there is?”

“You can look it up.”

“What color is topsoil?”

“Dark brown.”

“No. It’s black. There are some things you know and some things you don’t know. I’m just checking. Tell me, what type of guy would have red eyes?”

The missionary thinks for a moment. “Albinos?”

“No, animals.”

“I thought you were talking about humans?” Even the missionary is growing tired. I can hear it in his whispers.

“No, I do mean what type of person. You see them at night. They glow.”

The missionary thinks again. “Someone genetically predisposed. Which way is up?”

The Rastafarian laughs. “Whichever way my head is.”

“The way your head is pointed?”

“No, whichever way my head is. I have two heads. One up here and one down low.”

“I can’t believe you went there,” the missionary laughs. He laughs deeply then gets up. “That puts an end to this conversation.”

The Rastafarian laughs too. He also stands up. “Alright Gerald. I’ll see you on Monday,” he says and walks out the door.










Dear Greyhound, 

Hello. How are you? I’m fine if you were wondering. But last week I wasn’t so fine. In fact, I was pissed off. See, last week I took one of your buses from Victorville to Las Vegas and it was a horrible experience. And I wasn’t in the greatest of moods to begin with. My truck was down (the reason for me taking the bus) and I was going to Vegas not for martinis and kitschy entertainment, but to see my ex-wife and our attorney who was going to deliver bad news to us legally. Ex-wives and attorneys? Not a good time to say the least. That being said, the ride to Vegas wasn’t all that bad. Well, there were some screaming children and it smelled like hot coleslaw and ass, but for the most part is was all right. Sitting next to a friendly good-looking woman did make the ride more negotiable. But I’m not one of those high-maintenance types. In fact, I pride myself in not being a pain in the ass in private or in public. I’m not that whiny cousin or that needy jerk-off who gives the waiter a hard time.  

But the ride home was the worst. Apparently, you guys sold some tickets to some folk who possessed extremely foul mouths and were void of common decency. But let me back up. For starters, the bus was almost two hours late. Two hours is a long time when all you want is to get back home, have a nice homemade meal, and hit the sack. And two hours is a real long time when you’re from out of town, lost all your cash, reek of cheap booze, and need to get back home not for a hot meal and some rest, but to save your sorry ass from further lame destruction. Trust me, Greyhound, I know. I lived in Las Vegas for many years and have seen these bastards come into town all hopped up from Who Gives A Rat’s Ass, USA, and leave the desert crestfallen and looking and smelling like A-1 dog shit. 

As soon as we hit the freeway around six dudes started cussing. Now, this wasn’t a bullshit or a goddamn here and there. It was motherfucker this and motherfucker that. It was fuck you, fuck your whore of a girlfriend, fuck your ugly stinkin’ mama and your limp-dick daddy, kind of stuff. This wasn’t a burst of inspiration that lasted ten minutes either. No. This went on for two hours. People were cringing. It was unbelievable. And to add the proverbial icing on the cake, the same dude that was standing behind me in the terminal watching porn on his laptop was sitting next to me. I was three pages into Paul Auster’s Timbuktu when the reels started spinning again. Girl on girl action with the volume turned up. So, along with the motherfucker and fuck you maxims these geniuses were dishing out there was the scripted moans of two idiots lapping each other’s parts. It was nothing short of disgusting. 

At one point it was so ridiculous, so absurd, I started busting up. Mr. Dueling Vaginas looked at me like if I was crazy. I was crazy. Not even my therapist with her framed degrees in faulty-wired brains hinted at crazy. Fucked up, sure, but never crazy. 

Now, hear me out, Greyhound. I’m no prude. I have a foul mouth, too (you probably have figured this out by now). Sometimes referring to some unreasonable person as “difficult” just doesn’t cut the mustard. Such a person would be better labeled an asshole. So, I get it. I understand the need to execute such language. Context is all, right? Sure. You bet. But what was the context here? What warranted such observations? A father with a butter-soft pecker? Someone’s gruesome-looking mother? A girlfriend who happens to be a whore?  

Jesus Christ.  

Really?  

And as for the porn? Again, I’ve been around the block. Good blocks. Bad blocks. For-the-time-being blocks. I’ve seen it all. Still, you don’t get your rocks off on a public bus or in a restaurant or waiting in line at Piggly Wiggly. You just don’t. Go home and beat up your dick. If you want to cuss like a jackass then wait until you get to your buddy’s pad. Or your own pad for Christ’s sakes.  

And what was your driver doing while all this went down? Nothing. He just kept looking back at those people in his rearview mirror like if his stupid bus driver eyes would pipe them down by his stare alone. That’s it. No warnings, no counseling, no reprimands, nothing. He didn’t calm them down so they carried on like if it was nobody’s business. At one point you couldn’t blame them. They were like: well, if this dude doesn’t want to police us then, hell, it’s on.  

Fuck you, bitch! And your fat ass sister!  

Suck my big swingin’ motherfuckin’ dick, homie!  

See what I’m saying? This happened. For hours. 

Well, Greyhound, I’ve had enough with this damn letter. Allow me to counsel you with some plain old common sense advice: train your drivers to take control of the village. Sit these people down and pass out thick packets of the dos and don’ts of driver duties. Draw up a fancy PowerPoint with tons of flashing colors and graphs and go through the steps one by one on how to manage people and then test their asses until they get it right. Passing grade: 100 %. Anything less is exactly that. Seek excellence. Don’t settle. Remember that people are forking over cash for your services. So get your act together. Be professional. Be considerate. Do the right thing for the love of god! Okay. That’s it. Thank you very much for your time and have a blessed day.

 

Sincerely,

Reno J. Romero 

“The hotel isn’t in operation,” says the Binions Casino pit man.

I’m led past tired chain smokers watching video slot machines spin into green aliens and cartoon sharks. We pass the café. I see cooks scrambling eggs as if I’ve never seen such magic before.

We stop in an alcove just past the empty check-in. He points to where I would have to pay for Internet service.

“I’m looking for free wifi,” I want to say. Instead I just shrug. He walks away.

A poker tournament is underway in the nearly empty back of the casino. I sit in a chair against a gift shop wall and look out at empty blackjack tables creeping in on the casino like a tide of driftwood. I imagine all the empty rooms above. The lost jobs. The ghosts of casino bellhops and Filipina housekeepers.

I pull out my laptop hoping for free wifi. But there’s nothing. The economy in downtown Las Vegas is a money grab from many hotels seeking fees everywhere from $5.99 an hour to $12.99 a night.

My family is far away. Hundreds of miles. Though I’m the one who moved away, even my Facebook feels like it’s been shipped to a Martian desert along with my kids.

A few nights later I’m on a padded bench in the smoky Main Street Station where wifi is free for customers. I get up and go to where the men’s room urinal is a slice of the graffiti-covered Berlin wall. Toilets poke from the colorful tagging. The vibe is piss on Communism. Piss on the East. Piss on Europe. Piss on taggers. Piss on the neo-Euros.

I want to take a Twitpic while I piss but hold myself back.

I return to the bench and reboot my laptop. Close by, a woman with smoke-stained hair, wearing glasses and a green and blue Hawaiian shirt, talks as if every breath is a struggle. I catch that she was born and raised in New York. She says so. But she didn’t have to. She’s clearly an East Coast smokestack. Perfectly transported to the Las Vegas industrial wasteland where she can croak words as if she’s in Times Square pissing off some cabbie while sucking the butt end of a filtered Marlboro.

She works the counter of a rental car company. Her loudspeaker voice wheezes. “My husband was the first drive-thru customer of the Dunkin’ Donuts on Gibson.”

I have no idea where Gibson is.

She’s talking to a young couple. Both hotel guests clearly work for Dunkin’ Donuts.

“He got a year’s supply of coffee,” she says. “Oh, and a coffee mug.” She goes on as if questioning her own husband’s taste in beverages. “But he does not drink coffee?” Her voice is like sandpaper worked through a taffy machine. “Does David still work with you?”

I can’t believe she and the donut people know someone in common.

“Yeah. Crazy David,” the man says. He’s looks half Filipino, half Latino. Their conversation ends there.

David’s insanity is a mystery.

Somehow they get on the subject that at one time pizza could be ordered in Dunkin’ Donuts. The rental car lady doesn’t hold back. “Putting pizza in a donut shop is sacrilegious,” she says.

“It’s not like that anymore. You can come back,” the man’s female partner says. She’s fair skinned. Auburn hair.

“Oh I get the coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s the best coffee anywhere. I just don’t think pizza and donuts go together. I can’t do that,” the rental car lady says.

“We don’t do that anymore.”

“Dunkin’ does make a great cup of coffee. There’s no doubt about it.” The rental car lady pauses for a moment as if experiencing a great epiphany. “I do tell people to go to Dunkin’ and not Krispy Kreme.”

That night I’m at Krispy Kreme on Fremont Street. It’s loud. An 80s glam rock cover band belts out the horrid hits of yesteryear. I turn on my laptop and connect to the free wifi the donut shop offers. Down the street is Dunkin’ Donuts. There’s no free wifi there.

A few minutes later there’s a crash as a drifter at the next table spills his beer. He doesn’t say a word. But I can smell his anger streaming through the tiles. He dips his head and tries to sleep.

He peeks up when I eventually slip back through the gate.

Photo by Nick Belardes

I met Jen in rehab in 1995. She was trying to kick a methadone habit and I was in an ugly battle with the bottle. She’d been in treatment a few weeks before I arrived. And when I did arrive I was running on a two-week binge that had me buckled over and racked with blurred vision. I could hardly move except for my hands that wouldn’t stop rattling. I showed up at their door with a duffle bag full of clothes and a couple of books. One of them being Camus’ Exile and the Kingdom.

They immediately put me in detox. In the bed next to me was this young dude who was hooked on speed. On the other side of me was a middle-aged man whose drug of choice (DOC) was morphine.

“I got addicted after a car accident,” he told me, his eyes pale and gone. He lost two fingers in the accident. “That was the first time I tried morphine. In a hospital of all places.”

When I was in the clear they put me through an assessment and found that I was highly depressed, was loaded with anxiety, suffered from sleeping disorders, and had a problem with alcohol.

I was a walking time bomb.

I was lethal.

I already knew this.

One of the first things they tell you when you enter rehab is that it’s not a place to find romance. Don’t look for a boyfriend or a girlfriend in rehab. That’s not what you’re there for. You’re there to rewire your brain. You’re there to get clean. You’re there to fix yourself. You’re not there to get fucked. You’re already fucked. That’s why you’re in rehab.

But when I met Jen there was an instant attraction between us. She was pretty, had beautiful green eyes, fair skin, and short brown hair. Over the next week I’d see her around the facility. We’d stop and chat, talk about our treatment and whatnot. Small talk. But there was something else going on. One night after a group session I was walking out to my car and she stopped me.

“So, what are you doing tonight, Reno?”

“Try not to walk into a bar and get shellacked,” I said, laughing.

“Sounds like a good plan. How about some coffee? Want to join me?”

That night over coffee and her burning cigarettes we told each other’s story. She came from a wealthy family, was born and raised in Miami. Two brothers, one sister. Mom was a materialistic pill-popping bitch and dad was a functioning drunk who owned a Budweiser distribution center that allowed him to fill up his houses with kitschy shit and wrap his neck and fingers in diamonds and gold. Her brothers were alcoholics and her sister, who owned a successful talent agency, was addicted to everything. Coke, booze, opiates. She was a professional addict who never missed a day of work, never lost control, never went to rehab.

“She has her addictions under control,” Jen said. “If there’s even such a thing.”

Jen worked as a graphic designer and was heavy in the Miami art scene. That’s where she was introduced to methadone. Like many addicts, she experimented with all kinds of drugs including alcohol. But it was methadone that did her in. Her story was the typical drug tale: at first her using was recreational, a weekend thing. And then quietly and suddenly she was in the throes of full-blown addiction: methadone was running her life, waking her up, putting her to bed, and calling all the shots in between.

She avoided friends and family. Her work started to suffer and then disappeared all together. She lost self-respect, her dignity. And then she didn’t care. Didn’t care what happened to her. She packed up and drove across the states to Vegas not remembering much of the drive. I knew the story all too well. I lost my fiancé over alcohol. I disconnected from friends, family, and eventually myself. I told her that when my addiction was at its worse I knew damn well I was killing myself but didn’t care. The pleading voices over the phone didn’t mean a fucking thing. The concerned faces of those who loved me were featureless, blank, nothing.

The bottle won and was eating me alive.

We started to see each other a lot. We’d go to the movies, have dinner. We’d jog the Vegas Strip, hike Mount Charleston. We flew to California and sipped lemonade on the Santa Monica Pier. We watched the sunset and held each other. We couldn’t change the past. What the future held in store for us was a mystery. There were no guarantees—our promises just fragile utterances that could be snapped by the deceitful, cunning, and destructive voice of the addictive mind. But we were sober today. That was our mantra.

Today.

Today.

Today.

On the night that it happened we were walking in Sunset Park and I reached for her hand. We walked for quite a while without saying a word. But there really wasn’t much to say. Our hands weaved together said all there was to say.

“Want to go to my place?” she asked.

We sat at her kitchen table listening to Derek and the Dominos and talked long into the night. We wondered and worried if we were ever going to kick our habits. We knew we were in trouble, that our addictions had a stranglehold on us. We knew that if we continued to use then the end result would be the grave. There was no doubt about it. Two months before I lost a dear friend to heroin. A year before that another friend lost his fight with alcohol. One dead at forty-one, the other at twenty-seven. Good men. Funny, intelligent, gentle. But sick and damaged beyond repair. I was right behind them. So was Jen.

We knew we were in control of this.

We knew we were out of control.

“Reno, I know you don’t love me,” Jen said, looking through me. “But will you make love to me?”

My ex-girlfriend’s face flashed in front of me. Her telling me to wait, to not sleep with anyone, love anyone, that it will only complicate matters, not yet, get clean, please, I’ll wait. I shut off my picture-making machine, pushed away her words, and followed Jen to her bedroom as the opening lead to “Layla” slurred behind us.

Let’s make the best of the situation/Before I finally go insane/Please don’t say we’ll never find a way/And tell me all my love’s in vain

I woke up to Jen sitting on the bed Indian-style reading a book of poems I bought her. She looked beautiful, peaceful, her green eyes bright and clear.

“Hey,” she said, in a soft voice.

“Good morning.”

We stared at each other, examining each other’s face looking for something. I finally sat up, held her face in my hands, and kissed her. Tears rushed down her face. And then I started crying. We crossed over. We broke the rules of rehab. We cared for each other now. We wanted each other to get well, to be happy. We wanted the best for one another. We wanted each other to be clean and sober. We held each other thinking the same thing: please don’t use, don’t drink.

* * *

After three months we completed the program. Jen finished before me, but continued her treatment at another facility. We continued to see each other, but as time passed we saw less and less of each other. We were in love, but knew that because of our addictions a serious long-term relationship would be a precarious situation. We were dangerous for each other and didn’t want to bring the other down if our addictions surfaced again. The statistics said there was a high probability they would. This terrified us and eventually broke us up. We cared for each other too much to take the chance.

I remember our last phone call which would be the last time I’d hear her voice. We thanked each other, wished each other good luck, said that we’ll always love one another, but that it just couldn’t be. It was devastating. I hung up the phone empty, crying, lost, but sober. To this day I can still hear her voice coming over the wire.

“We’ll be all right, Reno. We’ll be O.K.”

There was one seat left at the diner bar next to a white-haired gambler. I sat down as he ordered a soda and bowl of chili. I ordered the $4.95 Binion’s Burger, potato salad and a two-dollar Coke.

The white-haired man didn’t say a word as he waited for his food. When it arrived he took a couple of bites, washed it down with a sip of his drink, then paid for it with two five-dollar casino chips.

“Keep the change,” he said.

A female worker with sunken cheeks and poorly dyed hair stood behind the counter and shrugged after he wandered away. “I sure hope he was finished,” she said.

As she tossed his leftovers in the trash, a soft-spoken black man with a beard walked up on my right. He put a bag on the chair between us. “What kind of beans you got?” he said.

“Pinto,” said a Binion’s diner worker named Mel. I swear he worked the same counter ten years before. He was so matter of fact that I considered ordering some beans too.

“Give me some of that. And some corn bread. And a water,” the black man said. His food arrived almost as fast as he ordered it.

My burger was juicy. There were three tomatoes along with other fixings on the side. I carefully placed the tomatoes on top of the patty, replaced the bun and took a bite.

I looked over at the black man. He’d dismantled his cornbread and mixed it into his beans.

In the morning I saw a woman asleep in the warm Las Vegas light. She sat on a chair and leaned against a pole. Her dirty head was flopped forward and to the right. She leaned slightly against black and blue bags. Both had been silkscreened with the words, “Las Vegas.”

She’d been there all night.

My first night in town I walked from the sardine-packed crowds of Fremont Street to find the Downtown Transit Center. I was going to start taking a city bus to my new job.

The streets were nearly empty along Main Street Station. I rounded a parking garage to find a limping black man talking to his friend about getting in a club. One of them said something like, “We can get in there.” They disappeared into an alley lit by historic neon signs that led back to the tens of thousands partying under the Fremont Street Experience.

Up ahead, glittering blue and pink lights lit the top of the transit center like a slot machine just hit a jackpot. I walked through its doors to find a man sleeping on a chair. The long hallway was empty, silent. If it weren’t for the flashing lights on top of the building I would have thought the bus station slipped into hibernation.

A young hustler slunk past closed cashier windows. A Latino janitor pushed his cart through the station. He didn’t look like he wanted to work. I checked the price of bus fare. Seven dollars a day. Steep. Those are deadly prices. Tourist prices. You have to have a hell of a good job just to afford the stale bus air and a spot on seats that rarely catch a whiff of hand sanitizer.

I walked back out through the same set of doors that I entered.

“What do you mean it’s not open twenty-four hours? What the fuck am I supposed to do after hours?” said a man into a cell phone. The world around him was a big dark mess lit in the distance by neon and schools of light bulbs that swam through the Vegas night. He had a black bag slung over his shoulder and looked to be in his late fifties. Maybe he had grandchildren. He could have been a drifter. Maybe he was like me and just found a job in a big city far from where unemployment still dipped near twenty percent.

I slipped past into the glittering night.

Walking south I could see the closed Lady Luck had spent her nine lives. I remember when it was open. When I worked in Las Vegas ten years before as an artist for the big canopy of lights above Fremont Street. I remember a midget Charlie Chaplan twirling his cane outside the casino like he was some kind of shrunken Alice in Wonderland street performer. I had waved at him.

“Look at all the casinos,” said one of two men in front of me. I couldn’t hear anything else they said. My ears practically deaf from too many factory jobs.

I lost sight of them walking toward the Gold Spike.

I made a right turn and snapped a foggy, lonely photo of the El Cortez after a herd of cowboys slunk past toward the raving party on the promenade.

Across the street, a gutted room basked in white light. Empty bench stools hung under the weight of ghosts.

I made a left, toward the shadows of shady motels. I passed the old glittering historic Aladdin Hotel lamp and a flickering vertical sign that was nearly burnt out. Only two letters worked at all. They flashed and buzzed “FR-FR-FR…”

Tired, I turned around and headed straight toward Fremont Street.

A man in a wheelchair sat at a corner. His thinned grey hair on his big round head looked like a mess of moonlit grass. Two men leaned against newspaper racks about ten feet away from him. They waited.

“I’m going to hustle her,” one of the men said about a woman across the street. She stood by herself on the corner as if crack was going to flow from a nearby storm drain.

I shuffled across the intersection, past a club, a nearly empty Cuban restaurant, and an Albanian pizza parlor. A 7-11 that once flashed its gaudy convenience store sign had closed since the last time I lived on Fremont Street.

Since the last time I lived in a casino.

Further ahead, tourists stared into the big metallic sky. They waited for more lights to explode. I soon entered the hotel where I was living. I peeked at a tank where two sharks slowly circled with schools of fish. They look like they’d been gambled out. This was it, their last show. Out near the pool someone hit it big. Or maybe they just didn’t bust. Or maybe they were enamored by the lumbering sharks.

I went up the elevator to the 22nd floor. Outside, there were shouts from an alley. The walls shivered with conversation. I shut the blinds, the curtains and the lights and eventually fell asleep.

In 1988, when I was 12 and viewed the world through rose-colored, grass-is-always-greener glasses, I finally got permission to move from our going nowhere slowly southern New Mexico town to Las Vegas, where my dad lived. My older sister Kim and I had been making the trek from Artesia to Vegas for three months each summer since I was in kindergarten and she was in first grade, and I couldn’t wait for one, long, luxurious vacation. I couldn’t wait to get out of my life, where my stepdad regularly beat the crap out of my mom, and where I got spankings so bad that I spent most of elementary school covered in bruises from the backs of my knees to my tailbone. I couldn’t wait to be away from my sister, who was mean and strange and always in my space.

The plan was for Kim and I to go to Vegas, where Kim would spend the summer, like usual. At the end of the summer, Kim would return to New Mexico and I would stay in Vegas, my perpetual Disneyland, forever and ever, la la la.

In 1947, author and certified intellectual Simone de Beauvoir left Paris to travel America for four months.She chronicled the experience in her long-unpublished book L’Amerique au jour de jour (America Day by Day, University of California Press) making both critical and gushing observations on American culture that are remarkable in the way they still apply, as though she either had uncanny foresight or else the country has, in fact, shifted very little since the first years after the Second World War.

She points out:“Tourism has a privileged character in America:it doesn’t cut you off from the country it’s revealing to you; on the contrary, it’s a way of entering it.”This she says leaving Las Vegas , the city that has become a truer portal into the American psyche every year since de Beauvoir first visited.Sadly, she never laid eyes on Paris Las Vegas, where she could have experienced the acute ironic thrill of sitting down at a caféin the shadow of the Eiffel Tower beside eight lanes of traffic and a row of swaying palm trees.

When your opponent is going to strike, and you are also going to strike, your body is on the offensive, and your mind is also on the offensive; your hands come spontaneously from space, striking with added speed and force. This is called Striking without Thought or Form, and it is the most important stroke. Learn it well.

-Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings

 

I don’t go to Las Vegas looking for a fight but I end up with three of them anyhow. I win the first two, but the final one, the most important one, is giving me trouble.

My opponent is older than me by at least fifteen years and built like a bear, thick in the torso with stout, strong limbs, but surprisingly fast. Twice now I’ve underestimated his quickness and paid the price for it. He’s good, cautious, refusing to commit to an attack that won’t succeed and maintaining a solid defense. Trying to go toe-to-toe with him is foolish, so I keep my feet moving, waiting for an opening to present itself. The score stands 2-1, his favor.

This is final match of the Black Belt Men’s Heavyweight division. Championship bout. My first competition in twelve years.

As a teenager I did well enough on the tournament circuit to be ranked 5th nationally in my weight class, but I “retired” after my first year of college, unable to maintain the rigorous training schedule necessary for regular competition. I came out to Vegas because the promoters are friends who offered to comp my hotel room if I served as a judge. Competition anywhere other than the gaming tables was not in my plans. But that was before I turned five bucks into two hundred playing blackjack, and on a whim I signed up in the morning, galvanized by a sense of good fortune. I expected to lose in the first round, and I’m surprised–and more than a little proud–to have made it this far, and I know that I’ve already scored a victory regardless of how the match turns out.

But that doesn’t mean I’m just going to let this guy roll over me. Oh, hell no.

If he wants that trophy, he’s damn well going to have to fight for it.

He is, however, giving as good as he’s getting, and maybe a little more on top of that. Though I’m the more flexible of the two of us, faster with my feet, I have to keep surrendering ground to maintain kicking distance, and every time I do he presses the attack. I block a flurry of punches but I’m trapped up against the edge of the ring, and he scores with a lunging thrust kick to my belt. 3-1.

Despite what may be shown in movies and in the UFC, sparring in a karate tournament is less about brute force and more about skill, finesse, and technique, and even open tournaments like this one have lately been cracking down on excessive contact violations. Lower division competitors win by being the first to reach three points, but for black belts it’s either the first to five or a three-point spread: 3-0, 4-1, 5-2. It’s one point for a shot to the body, torso or groin, two points for a more difficult headshot. There are five judges in the ring, and at least three of them must confirm a point for it to be valid.

My opponent retreats a bit, trying to lure me in the appearance of an easy point, but I hold back, controlling my breathing and waiting for a real opening. Most of his previous attacks have come over the top, taking advantage of his greater size and longer reach, but this time when he lunges in I switch-step into a right stance and pivot on my right leg, launching a spinning back kick with my left. It’s a risky move, one that leaves me largely defenseless, and if I’ve fudged the timing I’m going to get clobbered. But my foot slips right on up under his elbow to land solidly in against his rib cage, and the judges give me the point. 3-2.

One way or another, we’re going for five.

I’ve never felt more physically sure that I’m out of my twenties than I do now. The previous matches have taken their toll on me and I’m bone weary. My limbs ache in a way they never did when I was a regular competitor, and I’m sharply aware of the heaviness of my arms and the dull ache in my left thigh that will most certainly turn into a cramp tomorrow, of the nasty silicone taste of the mouthpiece enrobing my teeth and the way the sweat gathering on the bottom of my feet is costing me traction on the ring floor.

We both attack when the center judge gives the command to start, clashing together in a flurry of mish-mashed punches and chops, close enough to taste each other’s sweat, to hear each other gasping for breath and grunting with effort. It’s a clumsy, awkward hit, and neither of us scores any points.

When the judges start us again, I get too aggressive, too cocky, very nearly giving him a free headshot and ending the match. I get my block up just in time, but he still manages to land couple of shots to my solar plexus as I do. 4-2.

My opponent thinks he’s found a weakness. He throws a roundhouse kick to my groin, but it’s just an easily-blocked feint, a cover as he tries to come in with a backfist-punch combination to my head. Instead of raising my block again I sidestep forward and under his attack, landing a couple of quick jabs to his ribs while he strikes the air where my head used to be. 4-3.

I’m starting to feel like I might actually have a chance of winning this thing, but I clamp that feeling down. Fights are lost by indulging it.

We circle each other warily, throwing a couple of feints, trying to feel each other out, but not committing to an attack. My opponent doesn’t need to score anymore to win; he just needs that two-minute clock to run down and the match is his. I know there are only a handful of seconds left, and my energy reserves are reaching a critical low.

Heck with it, I think. You had your fun. Give ‘em a good show on the way out.

My opponent’s strategy has been solidly based on linear backwards/forwards progression, so I for my last attack I play the angles, feinting sideways into hard right stance, intending to transition to the left oblique across his line of attack and deliver a roundhouse kick to his undefended head as he takes the feint and tries to counter attack.

But as I make the switch my sweat-soaked right foot slips forward as though it’s just come down on a stray skateboard, hard enough to make the muscles attached to my hip groan and throwing my weight forward instead of at the angle. I stumble, completely open and undefended, and my opponent moves to take advantage.

I’m screwed. My balance is shot and there’s no way to regain it in time to get my defenses up. And with out any traction available on the ring floor there’s no way to resist as my own center of gravity carries me forwards.

So I go with it. With all my weight balanced precariously on my right, I kick up and out with my left, aiming for the one target zone available.

It’s beautiful. Practically a moment of Zen.

My foot curves up and around like an inverted smile, whipping back into a perfect hook kick to my opponent’s unguarded head. It’s the kind of shot that gets the slow motion treatment in a movie, the physical equivalent of tossing my last five dollars down on a blackjack table and walking away with two hundred. It stops him in his tracks.

The judges’ decision is unanimous: two points to me for the win. 4-5

My left shoulder hurts, my ribs ache, I’ve pulled a calf muscle and wrenched both my right foot and right knee when I scored that final kick.

Damn it feels good.

My truck was acting up, so I had to take the Greyhound bus to Vegas. I wasn’t too happy about this. For one, I would have to dish out some cash to heal whatever ailment (s) my truck was suffering from. And two, the haul to Vegas wasn’t for fun. No hanging out with old friends. No extra-spicy chicken fingers at Danny’s. No wine or whiskey. I was going to town to see my attorney where at the end of our meeting she would tell me that I was officially and financially screwed. Yay for me! How neat! Such a wonderful way to start off the New Year!

But this was on me. This is what happens when you make poor personal and professional decisions. So, I had to eat it. And I had to take the damn bus to get this delightful news. I haven’t taken the bus since my high school days, but I remember it being an ugly combination of dingy people, screaming babies, and the pungent stench of decaying homemade food. This bus ride would be no different. Right when I stepped on the bus, I was hit with smudged faces, pissed off babies, and rotting food.

I found a seat next to this girl whose name turned out to be Jessica. We chatted for a bit. She’d been living in Vegas only for a few months. A transplant from L.A. Vegas was a new start for her. L.A was a bust. She liked Vegas—was taken in by the buzzing neon, the dusty red stone of Red Rock Canyon.

I turned on my iPod that I got from Santa (thanks, Tori) and settled in as we cut through the pale tones of the desert. I moved to the desert in 1981 and was immediately smitten by its perfect silence, its hard dirt, the spiny joshua trees—spooky and beautiful—sprouting out of the ground in ancient desert shapes. I was born in L.A, but it was the desert that wired and built me. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Snow” filled my ears, the lyrics a timely narrative.

Come to decide that the things I tried

Were in my life just to get high on

When I sit alone come get a little known

But I need more than myself this time

The bus weaved over I-15 and my mind tumbled through the past year: leaving my house with two bags full of books and clothes knowing I wasn’t going to return to the woman that was living inside. Befriending a chihuahua named Duke that would sing on cue. Seeing a giant rainbow in Thousand Palms rising from behind the San Gorgonio Mountains. Being holed-up and depressed in a smoke-infested hotel room on Boulder Highway with a fridge full of beer and a large pepperoni pizza. A handful of poems I wrote for a dear friend whom I love from head to toe. Driving through the desert in the middle of the night with an eccentric 70 year-old man who goes to law school and rides his Triumph motorcycle through the desert between Lucerne Valley and Barstow. Not being able to sleep for weeks on end and having late night conversations with Zara Potts. “Get some sleep,” she’d type and send over the wire. Writing a telling song in Woodland, California, that would eerily predict my future. A reading I gave in Hollywood, meeting some great folk for the first time, and in the company of a beautiful woman. The time I was having dinner with a buddy in Vegas and some woman walked up to the table and said, “Excuse me. But are you Reno Romero? I’ve been reading your stuff for years. I’m a big fan of The Nervous Breakdown.” Sleeping in my truck for two days in Stockton while rain and bad thoughts pelted the windshield. A gay pride festival I went to with my friend Trish where the boys were far prettier than the girls. Dancing to Al Green with my aunt and cousin buzzing on cheap beer and howling into the night like a pack of wild dogs. The countless nights I thought about my grandmother and wished she was still around. Jogging on the cracked streets of Hesperia—my hometown—not believing I was back after all these years, but feeling a sense of peace in the jagged shadows of some joshua trees that graced a vacant lot.

I was talking to Megan DiLullo one morning and we talked about the past year. I told her that 2009 was a bad year—that I could never have imagined the unforeseen circumstances that rolled my way in heavy waves.

“I don’t know if it was so much a bad year,” she said, in her charming punk rock style. “But it was a hard year.”

A hard year.

She was right.

It was a hard year.

* * *

After my attorney gave me the predicted news, I headed back to my grandmother’s house. It was over. I signed the needed papers and was free. Free to roam. Free to stay put. Free to do whatever I wanted. I was both sad and relieved. I slipped the key in the lock, opened the door, and smelled my grandmother. Her scent hasn’t left the house. I walked into her room and looked at her bed. She died in her room among crucifixes, paintings of Jesus, family pictures, and some books I bought her. I stepped into her closet and brushed my hands over her clothes that we refuse to put in boxes. I tuned her guitar and played it long into the night.

The next morning I went for a jog, taking my old route. Hacienda to Nellis, Nellis to Russell, Russell to Mountain Vista and back down to Hacienda. Just like old times. After a five-star lunch that consisted of Jack In The Box’s dog food tacos and Vegas tap water, my aunt dropped me off at the bus station that was littered with action: two Hispanic dudes smoking a joint in the parking lot. A batch of disheveled Chinese tourists with swollen I-didn’t-get-any-sleep-last-night eyes guarding their luggage. A pissed off American with greasy dirt-blond hair making a scene because he missed his bus to Albuquerque. A pretty brunette staring at a wall of casinos in the distance. Some black dude dancing in front of the terminal dressed in a stained wife-beater and wearing shorts that sat just below his nuts. A young woman peppered with zits nervously smoking a cigarette and checking her cell phone.

And then to make things even more entertaining, the bus was running late. Not one hour, but two hours. Curses and moans filled the room. Faces were twisted and long. Some people walked up to the counter and bitched. The dude behind me—who reeked of booze and cigarettes—sat on the floor Indian-style and watched porn on his laptop. I looked down and saw two chicks eating each other out. Now, I realize there are a lot of men (and women for that matter) that enjoy watching girl-on-girl action, but I’m not one of them. I’d rather eat a trough of liver and onions and then mow fifty acres of crabgrass. I text a friend who’s a big fan of seeing girls fuck each other.

“In Vegas. The bus is late. Too bad you’re not here with me, vato. I’m watching two chicks munching each other.”

“Shut up! In person?” he immediately fired back.

“No. Sorry. On some asshole’s laptop.”

“Bummer.”

The bus finally arrived and as fate would have it, Mr. Porn sat next to me and cranked up the sticky show once again. I couldn’t do anything, but laugh to myself. What a crazy life, I thought. Truly crazy. Attorneys with bad, yet good news. Memories of men and women. Rainbows and rain. Poems and cheap beer. An unscripted future up ahead. Paul Simon’s “Graceland” came through the earphones as the bus passed Bell Mountain and dipped into the Mojave Narrows where years ago I used to catch snakes and scorpions and kissed Julie Newland on a warm desert night.

There’s a girl in New York City, calls herself the human trampoline

And sometimes when I’m falling, flying, tumbling in turmoil

Well, I say so this is what she means

She means we’re bouncing into Graceland

I got off the bus in Victorville and met a man that just got out of the prison that’s down the road on the outskirts of town. He was kind, was going back home to Seattle where he said he was going to stay out of trouble, do the right thing.

“Good luck out there, man,” I told him with sincerity and shook his hand.

“Hey, you too,” he said, and boarded his bus.

I moved back to California around two months ago. What brought me back home after fifteen years? Well, a few things. Personal things. Some things not so personal. In the end, I was feeling a bit tapped out in Vegas. The bones weren’t tumbling like they used to and I was almost at the point where I didn’t give a shit either way.

I weighed my options. Perhaps, a stint in Phoenix? Washington? One thing I knew for sure: I was staying on the West Coast. That’s what I knew. I didn’t care if it was a dinky little town in the green of Oregon or the pale hard concrete of L.A.

I lived on the East Coast. In Charlotte. Right in the middle of the Bible Belt, blatant racism, and heavy unapologetic ignorance. The experience crippled me. Life became less romantic overnight. When I moved back to Vegas a year and a half ago I returned a different person.

“Come to California,” a friend told me over the phone.

Maybe it was the way she said it. Maybe it was because thoughts of quaint rustic coffee shops and rolling foothills filled my head. Maybe it was because of who was saying it. I packed up in the middle of the night and headed for the California state line.

On my way to Sacramento I pulled over at a gas station just outside of Bakersfield. I took out my notebook to jot down some notes and came across some jumbled song lyrics that had a line that said: “So, what’s wrong with California?”

I found the line fitting.

So, what was wrong with California?

The long gold beaches?

The weather?

The culture?

Its politics?

Paris Hilton?

I got into Sacramento in the afternoon, rubbernecking the city from off of I-5. It was a beautiful day, a light blue sky stretched from side to side. Deep-green pine trees lined the freeway. Cars with white license plates that said CALIFORNIA (One reading CBlondie. No shit.) in fancy handwriting passed by me. Sure, it wasn’t home as in Southern California, but it was home nonetheless.

To celebrate, I found a bar and pulled over. It was a dark little thing loaded with neon signs and good beer. A couple was in the corner in conversation. There was a guy sitting at the end of the bar reading Sam Harris’ The End Of Faith.

Nice, I thought. A secular man. A fellow homeboy. I was on the West Coast indeed.

I looked bad. My face was drawn from the 10-hour drive. My clothes were wrinkled. My hair was sticky and dreading up. My baseball cap was on backward. The bartender carded me.

“That’s you?” she asked, raising her plucked eyebrows, looking at my ID and then at me. “Wow, you look real young for your age. Vegas, huh? I love that place. Just got back a few weeks ago. I want to move there.”

“Give her a try,” I said, my mind flashing over the Strip, the little condo in Henderson. ”You can take my place. She’s a good city.”

It’s funny when people want what the other has. What’s an old story to you is new one to someone else. She wanted out of California. I wanted in. She wanted my old city. I decided to let that city go.

I wondered what it was that made her want to move to Vegas. Did she fall for its hot neon lights like so many have before her? – like I did back in ‘95 with some electric guitars and a head full of craziness. Was she captured by the slow silence in the parched desert that surrounds her glow?

Or was it something else? Not so much with Vegas, but with California. Did she hate her boss? Her apartment? Did those quaint rustic coffee shops brew nothing but bitter memory?

So, what’s wrong with California?

The traffic?

Happy Hour?

Hollywood?

A friend took me to “the City” a few weeks back. “The City” is San Francisco to the locals. I haven’t seen San Francisco in years. What a sight. Blue-gray water. Blue sea skies. The skyline, bold and jagged and bursting at the seams.

That night we saw Patton Oswalt in concert at the Masonic Theater on Nob Hill. The crowd was in full force. The comedy crowd. Beanies and Buddy Holly glasses. Tight button shirts and mischievous faces. I’ve been a fan of Oswalt’s for years. Sarcastic. Sharp. Always in a state of shock by what he sees and hears. We busted up. He killed. 

“Thank you very much,” he said, before he left the stage. “Your city kicks fucking ass.”

After the show we walked in a biting wind to find something to eat. After a long haul that took us by some big-cash retailers and dozens of closed Chinese restaurants we found a worn down diner with slow service. While we waited for our food we talked about San Francisco, its kaleidoscope delivery, and watched the blurry show from inside the restaurant.

Artists and business folk walking side by side. Homeless people moving about in smudged footsteps. Taxis squeezing in between cars and bodies. And the wind: Sweeping around stop lights, faces, and gutters.

I thought to myself: I could live here. Forever.

So, what’s wrong with California?

The trees?

The Bees?

The blondes?

Arnold Schwarzenegger?

I found the move to California inspiring. Having somewhat of an idea of who I am, I figured this move would provide me with some new material. And sure enough I knocked out a few poems, took a couple of swipes at some fiction.

But the guitar took over and I started banging out songs. One song. Two songs. One night I woke up in the middle of the night after dreaming of some guy singing to me: “Been ninety days since I’ve seen her Spain.” I stumbled out of bed, grabbed my notebook and scribbled some lyrics, some chords, and passed out right there on the floor.

In the morning I had a skeleton of a song. By the time the day was done the song was done. It’s now a tune called “Bleed.” Five chords. In the key of A.

Hit the road under a sheet of stars/Headlights on in a rolling car/What was up ahead/Could drown her bed

Then more songs came:

Could Be Better.

All I Want.

These Horses.

Walk.

The black in me/How she comes then wants to leave/The girl’s alive/Dressed herself and walked on by/Now she’s sweet as apple pie/If I ate you once, I ate you twice

It’s been a good run and as I write this I know it’s not over. The last couple of days I’ve been walking around humming this tune. I don’t have my guitar with me so I’ll just have to continue walking around humming this melody until I get my guitar in my hands.

It’s in E minor. I know that.

The other day a friend asked me how long I was going to be in California as if it was an experiment of sorts.

(Hell, maybe it is.)

“I don’t know,” I said.

That was the truth. I don’t know. Could be six months. Could be six years. Maybe longer. Maybe not. But what I do know is that I’m here. I’m not in Vegas. Or Washington. Or L.A. Or some dinky little town in the green of Oregon.

But here.

In Northern California.

Or Nor Cal.

Riding down its streets.

Feeling its heat.

Writing songs, sipping coffee.

Eating it’s politics, it’s culture.

Living.

So, what’s wrong with California?

I don’t know.


While an Asian pro with a rhinestone ass wiggles next to a pot-bellied shooter sporting a runaway moustache at the Bellagio craps table, I wonder what the percentage of self-deluded people there are in the world.

Probably pretty fucking high, I think as I scan the room. At the video poker bar, a bachelorette pops a caplet of X into her mouth as her friends cheer her on. “Scooby Dooby Doo,” she howls at a passing geriatric, then preps a line of coke on her wrist to rev her high.

She catches me watching and smiles. “You wanna line, sugar?”

Mississippi. Maybe Alabama. “No thanks.”

“Delusion is the cornerstone of happiness,” she offers with a snort. “You sure you don’t need a little help? You look too grounded.”

“Thanks. Clean living,” I lie before turning my attention back to the Asian ass wiggler. She turns around and I can see her ridiculous tits falling out of her see-thru lace tank top. Her areolas are the size of eggplants, and I can’t stop staring.

If her tits were planets they’d have their own solar system. A universe of silicone leaching into her bloodstream and killing her that very moment.

“Long as you look good dying,” I imagine her saying between sucks off the pot-bellied shooter’s dick.

The shooter rolls the dice, and I turn away to chase a waitress for a drink. I order a bottle of Fiji water and then mosey over to the craps table to get a better look at those tits. If I can get a peek into that cleavage, maybe I can discern my fate. Like reading tea leaves or chicken bones.

Or crystal balls.

“Yo, yo, yo,” the shooter calls to the dice, but it’s a big zilch for him.

“That all right, Daddy. I fuck you good no how,” Tits says as she smacks him on the ass.

I inch closer to her as a Hadda Brooks song plays: “Need a Little Sugar in my Bowl.” One of my favorites. I squeeze up to the table and make a pass line bet, hoping for a seven or eleven. I had a lot riding on today. More than just a few chips. But it was six o’clock already and the call still hadn’t come.

“Now would be a good time for an eleven,” The Shooter begs as he hops from one foot to another, shaking the dice in his fist. He rolls a twelve. Craps. 

“Come on, baby. Let’s go fuck,” she says, as if she’s asking to go to the store or get an oil change. Well, maybe an oil change is indeed what she’s after.

The Shooter brushes her away. “I’m down 5 g’s, and I ain’t goin nowhere til I get it back.”

The Tits heave a sigh. She knows in the hierarchy of addictions, The Game trumps The Hump. She steps back. She knows her place.

“Mentos?” I ask taking my opportunity.

“Thank you, baby,” she replies as she pops it into her Restylane-riddled mouth.

“Maybe I bad luck,” she worries as she watches The Shooter lose another round.

“I don’t believe in luck,” I offer as I lay a few chips down for another pass line bet.

“Why you in Vegas if you no believe in luck?”

“Because I believe in strategy,” I reply.

“You a player?” she wonders, examining my shoes.

“Nah. I’m here to drive a car back to Texas.”

“You drive cars?” she asks, scratching a mole on her left tit.

She catches me watching again but doesn’t seem to mind.

“Not really.”

“What kind of cars you drive?”

I try to explain, but she cuts me off.

“Ooh,” she coos. “You take me for drive, I fuck you good.”

“Yo, yo, yo,” The Shooter calls as he rolls a two. I double my money.

“Ah, thanks, but I’m straight,” I say.

“Then why you look at my tits? They nice, yes?”

“Yeah. They are,” I reply as I place another bet. “Didn’t mean any disrespect. I just like looking at tits. And well, yours are kinda hard to miss.”

She tosses her head back and laughs, squealing like the first three or four seconds of a tornado siren.

“Long as he losing, no fuck for me. Come on. You buy me ice cream, I show you tits.”

I take my chips off the table. “Ok.”

Thirty minutes later we’re in the bathroom out by the pools and she’s got her shirt raised. A maid changes the garbage, paying us no mind. A drunk tourist washes her face.

“I pay top dollar, yet still small scars. See?” She heaves up her tits to expose two minute scars.Maybe fake tits are part of mankind’s evolutionary process. Maybe these scars become fins and we need the silicone for buoyancy, I wonder as I notice a long hair curling out of her nipple.

“Do you float any better?” I ask as she drops her tits.

They’re denser, I notice when they fail to bounce.

“I no swim,” she says. “Extensions,” she offers, curling a lock around her finger.

I examine her tits for a few minutes longer, but I can’t help feeling disappointed. Nothing had changed. I was the same person. With the same problems. And the same questions. And the phone call still hadn’t come.

“Thanks,” I say as I hand over her ice cream cone. She lowers her shirt and takes the cone. The Vegas wind blows hard, and it reminds me of my dog’s breath after a midday run.

“You wanna go for a ride?” I ask, not really knowing why. Maybe I thought if I preoccupied myself, I wouldn’t notice that the call hadn’t come.

“Ok. Daddy be in there all day.”

She grabs a paper towel and tucks it in her purse.

“We be back by 5?” she asks. “I dress for Noodles tonight.”

Noodles was my favorite restaurant in the hotel. I had planned to eat there tonight as well, but decided to nix that idea. I didn’t want her to think I was some kind of weirdo. Not that it mattered. So why did it?

“No problem,” I reply as we head towards the garage.

I hand the valet my card, and within a few minutes, he returns with my boss’s car, a yellow convertible Maserati Bora.

“Nice car,” she says, and it’s only then that I realize I don’t know her name. But I don’t ask. Somehow, I feel everything will be spoiled if I know her name.

“Where are you from?” I ask instead.

“Phnom Penh. You know?” She gets in the car. 

“Thailand?” I guess.

“Cambodia. But I grew up in Sa Kaew refugee camp.”

I don’t feel like getting heavy, so I just say, “Heavy.”

We make a left out of the garage onto Las Vegas Boulevard into a sea of tourists. I’d like to hit a few with my car, particularly the ones with the blinking margarita glasses, but I decide against it. Not in the mood. Not today. Plus my boss would kill me if I put a scratch on his car.

Tits fondles the radio and finds Usher. Dancing in her seat, she sings, “She said baby let’s go…”

…so I turbo charge the Maserati, almost hitting a Honda on my right.

“Yeah!” she sings over the purr of the engine.

We make our way out of the city and into the quiet of the desert. “Where we go, baby?” she asks, wiggling her ass in the seat, probably scratching the leather with those rhinestones.

“Ever been to Red Rock Canyon?” I ask.

“You sure you no wanna fuck instead?” she asks.

“Yeah. I’m sure.”

My phone rings.

It’s the call.

I smile and let it go to voicemail. Then I grab a celebratory CD from the visor and pop it in the stereo.

Ramones.

Singing, I blast the radio.

“She went away for a holiday

Said she’s going to L.A.

But she never got there

She never got there

She never got there

They say…”

Surprisingly, my Cambodian hooker joins in.

“The KKK took my baby away,

They took my baby away.”

 I turn into Red Rock, and while Joey Ramone laments about his girlfriend, an eagle shoots across the sky.

 “They good luck,” she says, pointing to the sky.

 “Yes. They are.”

As I look across the mojave, it twinkles like my future.