The first convention was hectic, streets and alleys of backerboards and samples on trays and wine in plastic cups and insane looking blondes with microphones strapped to their faces doing demonstrations that involved chopping at dangerous speeds. I drifted the long corridors of chubby chefs, sampling things like freeze-dried duck, burnt pear, aromatic truffle. I found a skinny tattooed chef from Baltimore who indulged in a hotel-room joint and after very little convincing, a hit from my pipe. I sold him half of what Vegaboy had spotted me and it was only my first day trying. I felt it was sheer providence that bore me this kid from Baltimore, and we vibrated around the conference for a while together, him prattling on about the thousand variations on slaughtering a pig. I eventually lost him at the Stage Door, their vodka only $1.50 and the girls soaring through every half-hour.
The second conference was leisurely, calming— a stadium-sized casino ballroom occupied by slow-moving men with short sleeves and backpacks shuffling around from booth to booth. A Spaniard in a pink shirt offered me his wife’s lanyard when I stood behind him in line at the buffet. I shook his hand, kindly. A woman named Cathy drank vodka tonics with me until midnight with the lanyard as our guide. She had a daughter she spoke of unsympathetically. She didn’t want to keep anything on her, but she bought what she smoked.
We didn’t sleep, but somehow when I’d opened my eyes in her room on the sixth floor and the light was on outside; Cathy was no longer there and her room-check had been closed. I attempted to remedy my dry mouth with complimentary mouthwash. Only then it occurred to me I hadn’t eaten since I’d landed at McCarran, two days ago. Since landing, so much had transpired: I’d met Vegaboy, smoked his pipe, let him drive me around the vacant neighborhood straddling the Strip, introducing me to Bosscat, Slots-A-Fun, to Captain Rick. He’d even spotted me the several hundreds of dollars of speed that I would sell in Conventionlandia. McCarran felt like years ago; I was famished.
Cathy had discarded a company golf shirt in a damp pile behind the bathroom door, and once I’d put it on and marched to the center of the conference hall and flashed my lanyard— God-damn, I managed three plates worth of hearty, gorgeous breakfast deep among Cathy’s compadres. Lakes of syrup. Ten cups of coffee. During breakfast I made a sketch on a napkin. I was three hundred dollars away from completing Vegaboy’s deal but I needed more supplies. After breakfast, I got a room at the Tropicana for forty bucks and I slept by the pool for three hours. Then I returned to the airport in their shuttle, this time choosing two fresh suitcases from airline’s lost and found, holding my boarding card from Sunday in my hand so I’d look fresh. The bounty was sick. One valise contained men’s shirts, an electric shaver and sport coat. Everything was long, but easily cuffed or tucked in. One girlish valise held another conference invitation, a big box of condoms, and a make-up bag with several strings of pearls.
At the third conference I found a woman to wear the pearls. She’d named herself Hemmi. She was Japanese and a relentless kleptomaniac. I caught her trying to steal my attaché case, which I myself had lifted moments before from an empty table at a Starbucks, the pleather seat still faintly warm. She wore a Las Vegas Hilton nametag that said Bethany. We were not, at the time, at the Las Vegas Hilton.
Hemmi was, however, a sucker for the pipe. She was also obsessed with a drink called the French 75. From the conference bar at the Hilton she managed to lift two bottles of prosecco and a forty of gin. I was euphoric, watching her. I handed over the attaché case gladly and paid for the cab fare up Paradise to her place. I wanted to have sex with her but she wanted nothing to do with that. She was money money money.
Hemmi was squatting in an abandoned townhouse by Terribles that had been on the market for months and months, another foreclosure like the fifteen other units in her compound. She’d figured out the lock box and the place was partially furnished so she slept there. She cleaned constantly, pissed and shit in the pool house, and kept her clothing neatly folded in boxes in the garage. She’d also scammed a fake realtor’s license so during the day she could pretend she was preparing for a viewing. The loft had no power, no gas, no AC, and no water but the neighbor’s hose would stretch into her kitchen. After a few French 75s and another smoke she finally agreed to fuck me, but as soon as we started she pretended to be my wife and stood above me with her pussy out shrieking, I bore your children you motherfucker. I wept and wept onto her tender breast for everything I’d lost. She poured gin down my throat like a baby suckling, and she cooed at me and let me suck at her nipple. Around her eyes was skin so light it was like crepe. She was old, I realized. Ancient. Anyways, poor old Hemmi let me suck and suck and rub myself all over until I melted into her lap and then she turned up the music and pirouetted around in her living room tossing her thinning hair around her shoulders and drinking these incredible French 75s out of someone else’s crystal. I was never lonely in Las Vegas, for that I thank God every living day.
After a week with Hemmi, I met Captain Rick. I had been texting my progress to Vegaboy and he had grown really excited about my ability to unload the speed in Conventionlandia. He had more to move, if I was able. Captain Rick seemed to be an important part of the operation, he had military precision when it came to drugs. It seemed at first that Vegaboy lived with him at his rancho on Golden Santa Drive. But no. Captain Rick was just the only one of us with a house.
My first conversation with Captain Rick was beside his pool, when the bulk of him was spread out on a chez lounge, and as Rick tends to be, he was naked save for his dog-tags. He was explaining about how lately he would wake up at 8 am to write himself a short motivational speech about how he’s so blessed. Rick surprised me at first, actually, because he wasn’t really young enough to be nude in front of me. His balls stuck to his leg and the grey hairs on them moved as he spoke, a deeply sinister thing. He had a power over us because he was a fighter pilot, and he knew the way the desert looked from the sky. Often he would spend the dawn hours flying jets in a big triangle formation, teaching pilots how to drop off one-at-a-time. From altitude, the desert looks like skin, he always says. Captain Rick enjoys the flesh of a woman. His job involves testing the younger pilots. They feed him all kinds of performance enhancing drugs because he signed all the waivers. He’s so talented, they expect him to die any day.
From that first day, I let Rick tell me his story, mostly in an effort to forget my own. Supposedly, his mother calls him Richard. He’s from Idaho, was recruited into the Air Force out of a Lutheran college, never less than an officer. He also makes one strong margarita, tons of triple sec and real limes and salt and chili. He inherited the recipe from his father, an abusive K-9 trainer in a barracks out on the high desert. A drunk surrounded by Mormons, his father’s job for forty years was to train an army of German Shepherds to SICK EM and HEEL and how to smell for drugs and girls hidden in the bodies of trucks.
Captain Rick fled from Idaho Falls at eighteen. He could figure out equations, so he signed up for engineering, COMS and OPS, and finally, flight. The training was intense; he did karate to cool off at nights, then drank. Immediately after graduation, he started with the simulations. Hours and hours of runs up and over the Nevada desert, a dried up sea bed full of brushy creatures reaching up out of the sand. All his buddies told him it looked like Iraq. Before long, he saw Iraq.
He flew for five years straight, he said, never stopping to piss. He was promoted again and again. He was returned home after three tours and met a woman. His marriage was brief, most of the time he was delusional and angry. He fucked his ex-wife for two months after she left him, until her lawyer made her stop. Then he started a merciless campaign to conscript girls for parties at his bungalow on Golden Santa Drive. Every night off they’d come, three, four at a time. The sound of ice crunching between teeth so turned him on he put a blender in the bedroom.
Now he was a Captain, he primarily worked on the simulations. He loved Nellis, he said, the place ran like a perfect purring engine. He labored through three-week shifts flying bomb patterns onto little fake villages with fake tents and fake stores and fake mosques and fake hillside caves, like his father, teaching other animals to sniff out the things hidden there. On his way back to base, they would run up the seam of mountains that lay North of Las Vegas, they would fly in formation for forty miles and then dip to low altitude at the Virgin Canyon, deep red rock with the sickening freeway up the middle of it, and they would pretend to bomb. They would pull simulated triggers and shoot simulated missiles at the pylons holding up the I-15 to Salt Lake City, learning what that felt like to rip the shit out of a central artery freeway. Shoot in short bursts, in order, from south to north, look for incisions, where rock meets road. He would bomb them all up. Then he would return home to Golden Santa Drive.
Captain Rick began each day, despite the amphetamines, despite the hangover, with hundreds of reps of push-ups. He also had pull-up bars in many of his doorways and a pec squeezer out on the patio. He would dream not of Iraq but of the simulations, cardboard tents and exes burned into the desert for targets. He would drop the bombs but they would never explode. He could be completely clean for weeks. On his days off, he got a free pass.
I admit now, I was slightly obsessed with him. Once, I saw him having very tender sex with Hemmi after a handsome ransom in Conventionlandia. They did it on the pool deck, it was the middle of the day, and he was loving her softly, carefully. It was a sad and beautiful thing. That day started at conference number four. Hemmi pulled a briefcase and I found a drink ticket girl and we got bombed with a crew of tech guys at the Mandalay Bay. They bought hundreds of dollars of my drugs. Rick drove us from strip club to strip club. Then, for the next seventy-two hours I stayed at Golden Santa Drive, smoking the money and talking shit with Captain Rick and Hemmi. Sometimes Vegaboy would come by. None of it I remember, but one time when we decided we could write a television series about parking lot cats, the ones who are left behind in foreclosures and live wild and drink from the pool. One of the pussies drinks anti-freeze and talks in his little voice about how he’s so fucked up. Childish, I know, but it had us hysterical, making the god-damned cat voices.
I also occasionally fell into a coma. I would dream of Las Vegas past, when I was a kid, when I flew down with my grandparents and we could still go to the Sands and the Silver Slipper and the Stardust. They would spend six weeks in the desert every winter in a motel two blocks off the Strip with a pool and a large Yiddish clientele. My grandmother, a smoker not a swimmer, would sit out in the sun and trade two-fers with the other ladies from Cleveland and Cincinnati and Saskatchewan. My grandfather was interested in the sports book, the horses in particular. Once we heard on my grandfather’s pocket radio that someone had jacked the bank across the street with a shotgun. I was afraid, but to prove that we were safe my grandmother marched me over to Smiths and bought a six-pack of pepsi and she gave me a can and then drank a mickey of bourbon in the rest of it. Bank robbers never hurt little kids, she told me. Remember, this city is full of people who just want to have fun, they don’t want to hurt some little kid.
The fifth conference was different though. It was sketchy, full of people who wanted to hurt kids, or hurt themselves in ugly, creative ways. It was more of a porn scene, lots of PVC and spikes and fetish shit hanging around the dungeony looking booths. At one point, someone was hung up from a giant cross— his skin was hooked to hundreds of little chains. It was grim. Captain Rick was deeply impressed, and Hemmi could handle it like a fucking professional. I was the woozy one. There was a lingerie booth with a few big girls in corsets but they weren’t interested in me, I hadn’t shaved and my eyes were probably roving. Rick though, he found a girl named Cherry who wanted blow. I was happy to leave the ballroom, the smell of body odor and latex clouding around Cherry and her friends in their strange rubber bras. Cherry had pimples all over her shoulders. The smell of her was potent when she threw her arms over Rick’s neck.
Cherry had three friends and they wouldn’t tell us their names, but they wanted an eight-ball and were certainly into sharing. We left in a convoy towards the parking structure. The girls pulled see-through shirts over their corsets and we all jumped into Cherry’s rental car, a convertible. There were six of us in there, Rick, Hemmi, and these stinking girls. It didn’t matter; in a matter of minutes Cherry’s convertible was sweeping us all gracefully across the freeway, fast, so fast that I had to brace myself against the dash. Cherry opened her gold lamé purse and flopped a little roll of money onto my lap and I realized, this was it, I had paid my whole debt to Vegaboy and I was free. That’s what I thought, and I stupidly shouted it into the turquoise sky. Everything was painted gold by the sunset; the palm trees along the exit ramp waved their leaves as if to say hello. I love this town! Cherry screamed into the hot wind, the lights from the casino billboards spilling their sweet nectar over everything.
We even went for valet. Inside the whoosh of the doors, the smell of the place was clean money— glass in all the windows and a sports book with genuine leather chairs and a place to buy cigars. Strolling through the place, I tried to feel like my grandfather, a good horse handicapper and a winner and a man with a healthy family back at his motel. But we never got to the sports book. Instead, we were pulled into a vodka bar, then a nightclub back room with plush carpet and black light, escorted the whole way by a giant Puerto Rican bouncer. It was still afternoon and the club was vacant, eerie. The girls were still feeling the rush of the drug deal and they were giddy, giggling like teenagers despite their size and smell and girth. Vegaboy treated them like celebrities, taking their pictures and telling them they looked hot. He sold them twice what they wanted for twice the money and they tested it out right there in the dead club, under the listless gaze of the Puerto Rican. Twenty minutes later I watched as Hemmi’s loose fingers wandered into Cherry’s gold lamé purse and found a card and some leftover cash. Good old Hemmi. I scooted out to the concourse with her to find a bar, leaving Cherry to Captain Rick and Vegaboy’s whims.
Hemmi and I had a beautiful half an hour together at a crystal bar beside a pool drinking French 75s and buzzing from Cherry’s drugs. We didn’t speak much, but we enjoyed the misters in our warm faces and we clinked our drinks every few minutes. Hemmi’s hair was puffed up around her soft face, and she was breathing short little sips of air. The bartender charged us nearly a hundred bucks for just a few champagne cocktails, but Hemmi lay down Cherry’s card with such conviction, it felt like Las Vegas was offering up its thousands of transgressions for nothing, complimentary.
But in Las Vegas, everything easy turns difficult. It’s the house rules. The sun feels decent at first but it grows searing, the pools seem clean but the stink clings to your skin for days, the drinks taste appetizing but the sugar hangover can split your head. Luck changes race-horse quick. And so it wasn’t dramatic the way those corseted girls surrounded us there at the crystal bar, their eyes mad and their many chins quivering as they yelled at us. They had removed the see-through shirts and their near nudity was heartbreaking, their folds of flesh wobbling between the layers of hot rubber. It was the card, they were angry about the stolen card, and the drugs were edgy and they were feeling pure wrath for Hemmi, busted with the Cherry’s credit card on top of a bill for a hundred bucks of gin. Hemmi grinned, but they wouldn’t have it. Cherry laid a giant paw on Hemmi’s petit shoulder and opened her mouth as if to swallow her up. I tried a few lame protests and they looked to me like an accomplice or something, not the innocent bystander who feared their fetish-fueled punishments.
It was Captain Rick who liberated us. He swooped in on the girls with their moist faces and disarmed them with his cool. He knew all about swarthy opponents, and he first stroked their bulging arms and then peppered them with compliments. Don’t get ugly, he cooed, as if that was avoidable. They responded with grunting yells about how Hemmi was a thief and she had stolen from them, that the whole fucking thing was a scam. But Hemmi’s a clepto, I managed, and Rick caught on. Yah, Yah, she’s a great dancer and we like having her around, but she steals from everybody, right Hemmi? Hemmi offered up a wallet out of no where and it was full of bills, Ben Franklins, and the girls chomped down on the money like they’d earned it, like they could feed on it for weeks.
It took me a full minute to realize that it was my wallet, my money, the bills I’d been storing up to give back to Vegaboy, and I was getting sold out by Captain Rick to these repulsive bitches ripe with the fetor of strange sexual desires. They yipped and barked and took up my money in their teeth. I realized, Captain Rick was making them HEEL and soon he’d tell them to SICK EM, just like his angry old man had in the high desert to those snarling German Shepherds. It was an act of God when the waiter brought plates of bacon-wrapped hotdogs and salty fries for the girls. They sniffed around the platters and finally lowered their faces and fed like the terrifying animals they were. Captain Rick winked, marshal of another victorious operation. Relief washed over me so fast I nearly pissed right there on my stool.
But morale had plunged. Hemmi looked at me with those old wrinkled eyes and Captain Rick slapped me weakly on the back and offered to spring for the taxi back to Golden Santa Drive. The ride was air-conditioned, silent. His bungalow, when I got there, was a museum of exercise equipment and a broken chez lounge littered with Rick’s morning motivational speeches. To make me feel better, he turned on a film of the Nellis flight simulations and gave me a small tin ball to smoke. I stayed up all night, lonesome, as Rick and Hemmi tended to each other’s wounds in the master bedroom and the movie played in a strange loop, the shadow of Rick’s jet moving over fake schools and fake mosques and fake refugee camps and then eventually up and over the city of Las Vegas. My spirits waned. I owed Vegaboy many hundreds of dollars, it could take weeks of hustling in Conventionlandia. Despite my dejection, every time I smoked I caught myself cheering for Captain Rick as he pulled his simulated triggers and shot simulated missiles down into the guts of this desert city, its red mountains and strips of highway perfect for bombing from the sky. If only I could get high enough, I thought. I would try, I promised no one, I would try.