Las Vegas as the final stop on our itinerary made logistical sense: we'd fly into Phoenix, spend a night in Sedona, two in Grand Canyon National Park, then a final night in Vegas before flying home to Boston. Most importantly, we'd visit the Hoover dam on the way to Las Vegas. It was a structure that appealed to the techno-geek in both of us and we just had to see it. Vegas was another story. Neither of us like gambling. Once, with a few hours to kill before flying home from Kansas, we'd visited a riverboat casino on the Missouri River. It had depressed us both. But Vegas ! Didn't we have to see it once before we died ? Experience the all American kitsch and vulgarity ? Get married in an Elvis chapel ?
Folks at work knew all about Vegas. You're staying at the Flamingo ? That's right near the Bellagio. Be sure to see the spectacular fountain -- it sprays in time to music ! Even M. -- hip, artistic, cosmopolitan, intellectual M. -- had been to Vegas. Sure, she'd spent most of her time there in a luxurious hotel bed reading through a stack of books, but we simply had to see the Cirque du Soleil, she said. So if M. could go to Vegas and survive, so could I. Or so I thought.
Maybe if we had stopped at the flamingo-pink Jesus church on the way in from the airport
or lit a propitiating Jesus, Mary or Minnie Mouse candle, it might have fortified us against what was to come. I should have heeded the signs:
PRIME RIB $6.99
Why were there so many billboards advertising cheap meat ? There were dozens, each more garish than the next. Traveling, I'd been being a pretty lax vegan, dumping cream in my coffee and going into don't ask don't tell mode with respect to what was in the veggie burgers at the National Park cafeteria. But now I was entering meat world. Beef world. Lead me not into temptation, I muttered, thinking of how I'd also been being a lax Episcopalian, missing Mass for the first time in a year and blasting through morning and evening prayer with way less than contemplative attention.
So when DK pointed at the sidewalk outside our hotel, I was incompletely prepared for Vegas' cheap meat. Ten feet away a disheveled man was passing out the slick, flimsy business cards. I held out my hand and he slipped me four of them, double sided, offering the services of Shay, Lilly, Lacey, Samantha,Demi, Delight, Celine and Fantasia with the reassuring promise if paying by credit card, nature of business will not be reflected on statement.
I turned to the psalms for guidance, but, lifting my eyes up to the hills from whence my help might cometh, I encountered only our hotel's resident Goddess -- Toni -- whose body language, come to think of it, was similar to sidewalk Electra's.
Who's Toni Braxton, I muttered, whiteknuckling DK's arm on the crowded sidewalk. I was probably the only person in America who had never heard of Toni Braxton.
Some pop singer, he replied. Not to be confused with Anthony Braxton. All the contestants on American Idol want to be like her. To be her.
We were staying at The Flamingo Hotel. DK chose it because we like flamingo kitsch. We have yard flamingos. We have flamingo Hawaiian shirts. We have a flamingo statue and a flamingo wall hanging in our vestibule. All ironic, of course. Deeply ironic.
Were we here to meet our flamingo destiny ? To actualize our inner flamingos ? Or to be punished for our flamingo crimes against taste ?
In the Hotel's WILDLIFE HABITAT a small flock of flamigos milled around in their pool.
A few other tropical exotics, thrown in for good measure -- that measure being outlandish excess -- strolled among the flamingos. A sign announced that the penguins -- penguins ??!!?? -- had been translocated to some other WILDLIFE HABITAT down the strip. Penguins in the desert ? Real flamingos in a hotel ? I was aghast. My vegan sensibilities were bleeding. This was beyond irony.
Are there endangered species on the menu here ? I muttered. DK patted my hand. I was escalating. He did not want the wife to escalate. In the spirit of that, he parked me with our bags and went to stand in the long, serpentine check-in line. I stood there in the bilious gold light, breathing in an airconditioned fume of booze and stale cigarette smoke.
What was I, a 21st century puritan hermit, doing here, in this, this thronged pleasure dome ? I noted with dismay that all ironic distance had broken down. I was like the Starship Enterprise with no deflector shields and the Klingons were attacking. Or something like that. I tried to muster some Spock-like rationality, some Kirkesque courage, but the most I could come up with was William Shatner singing "Rocketman" in a Vegas piano bar.
Finally, DK returned. We headed toward the elevator corridor. Before we could go any further, a official looking woman hailed us from an official looking desk. She looked intent, and very serious. We stopped.
Are you here to have fun ? she asked, looking straight at me.
I stared at her, flabbergasted, mute. It was the wrong question. I tried to come up with some kind of answer. I tried to remember whether Rhadamathus in the Underworld challenged the new denizens of Hell with questions.
Fun ? Well, um, er.
She looked exasperated. I had flubbed my line. An easy line. A one word line:
Look we just want to go to our room. I was exasperated, too.
Your room ? You're staying here ? What room ? she snarled.
Jeez, I thought, was this some Department of Homeland Security checkpoint like we'd encountered on the desert highway just outside of Hoover Dam ? And had I, clearly and visibly on the verge of serial mayhem, failed the psychological profile ?
DK showed her our room papers; she launched into a spiel about "cash" and a "promotion."
No thank you, I growled, and fled toward the elevators. As the doors closed, DK pressed 22.
I bet we're really going down, I hissed into DK's ear. How many circles are there in Dante's Inferno ? This one seems to have 28. The doors opened onto a seemingly endless corridor.
Wow, said DK, it's just like in "The Shining" !
We were headed into the belly of the flamingo, down its long, pink gullet,
where, improbably, there was a big bed with a gleaming, white naugahyde headboard
and a bathroom mirror with a small black square that, at the press of a button, flared into a wrestling match. I clung to my camera as if it were a life raft. I would need it. Soon we would have to get dinner. And see the sights. The after dark sights. Vegas, I speculated, was like the traveling parkinglot carnivals of our childhood. Best seen after dark.
We made our way through the casino toward the street. This was the heart of the matter, these loud, bright, money scavenging machines pitched to an electronic tonic triad, pitched collectively like a fire alarm gone merrily mad. People sat glued to them, their faces reflecting the cold, neon colors.
Look,DK said, pointing at a dour, thin gray haired woman stationed at one of the machines. She's on a tether !
A tether ? We doubled back discretely. There it was. A card -- her debit card ? her Visa ? -- stuck in the machine's slot, connected to her purse by a phone-cord like coil. You could almost hear the machine draining her accounts.
Psst, said DK as we continued across the massive gambling floor. He pointed to a group of stylishly, tightly and scantily clad young women walking in front of us, drinks in hand. They gleamed. They were young and splendid. They were, well, hot.
Are those fuck-me pumps ? he asked, pointing to their feet. I'd brought up "fuck-me pumps" once, ages ago. DK has been after me ever since to show him a living example.
I looked. Winced at the strappy stilletto contraptions. Yes, they were quintessential fuck-me-pumps. Archetypal fuck-me-pumps. Ur-fuck-me-pumps. The fucking Platonic Form of fuck-me-pumps.
Do you think they're hookers ? DK whispered.
No ! Why would you say that ? They're just having fun. Maybe gonna pick up some guys.
No, seriously -- look how they're dressed, do you see any young men that well dressed, cruising for action ?
DK pointed out a young man -- billed cap, badly shaven, dingy tee shirt stretched tight over a doublebarrelled beer belly, ratty cut-offs, and, on his feet, a pair of gleaming white Nikes, big as SUVs. The tee shirt bore a complex bit of text about raising your hand, opening your mouth and putting your fist in it. Come to think of it, most of the young men afoot looked like him.
I laughed out loud.
Everything was for sale here, supra and sub rosa. There was a list of prices in the hotel room, where everything from the soap dish to the flat screen TV seemed to be for sale. I decided not to launch into a disquisition on the various prices of various types of love. I had learned that Lilly, for example, would provide a $35 dollar special direct to my room in 20 minutes, and that Lacey, "Totally Nude & Full Service" went for $150. That would have to do for the moment.
We made our way past Bugsy's Bar and into the night. Into the meat of the night.
Our hotel flamingoes had gone from pink to hot pink
to blood red.
Goddess Toni had swelled to gargantuan size
and become ubiquitous.
There was a rival Goddess, the Goddess Bally --
whose flamingo-pink boa and globular buttocks
outshone Toni at every turn.
The buildings gleamed like enormous slot machines,
proclaiming the ascendency of meat,
and the furious, ejaculatory rendering unto Caesar
of every last nickel, every last drop of dancing-to-the music blood in your veins !
O Idols, O All-Americal Idols, O Goddess Bally, O Golden Lions Of Baal ! I stood there on the Las Vegas strip, Nikon slung around my neck, arms upraised into the neon night. I was channelling William Blake and William Shatner and Rowan Williams like three ripe cherries in the trinitarian window of the meanest baddest slot machine in town ....
Then everything went black.
When I woke it was 4 am. DK was snoring beside me. I reached above my head and felt the disconcerting texture of naugahyde. There was thunder, loud enough to pierce thick hotel glass. I tiptoed to the window and opened the curtains a bit. Lightning flashed over the distant hills. Under the cloud-filled sky an apron of lights wavered and twinkled like stars fallen onto the distant desert. The whole city and all of us in it were twinkling like beautiful, fallen stars. The tethered schoolmarm, the fuck-me-pump girls, the tee-shirted lad, the promotion-pitching woman, Goddess Toni, the disheveled man and his women-for-sale, Shay, Lilly, Lacey, Samantha,Demi, Delight, Celine & Fantasia, my sleeping husband and even surly old me, were all fallen stars twinkling across the wide desert floor.
Soon it would be daybreak. A few fat raindrops hit the windowglass.
The river of God I thought is full of water. The water that carved the Grand Canyon, the heavy wall of water pressing against the big dam 20 miles east of here, the dancing water of the Bellagio fountains, the water with which, almost 50 years ago, I was baptized.
There was no irony, no vulgarity, no compromise, no mendacity that could touch me now.
It was signed. And sealed.