UnBooks:The Old Man and LV
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My Dad resembles author Ernest Hemingway, and he plays it for all it's worth. He's shaped his beard and cut his hair to look more like the writer, who hardly anyone under thirty recalls or reads. He's been married four times, just like the worldly Hemingway, but that has to be coincidence. He even once ran with the bulls to prove to himself he was a man, unlike Hemingway, who had to prove he was a man each morning before pouring his first drink. And Dad hasn't had his share of electro-shock treatments and shot his head off. Yet.
So I'm not surprised when he has a rush of energy and, like Hemingway, makes a snap decision in the direction of adventure.
I remember the phone call like it was yesterday (it was last Friday, around noon). Dad called me at my gallery, Manilow's, and said "Manny, we're going to Vegas. Yes, right now. While the sun is still shining. I want to see the sun on lots of windows. To see it light them up, like little suns."
For years I've been trying to get Dad to Las Vegas for a father-son playdate. I'd been several times, and I knew what fun it was and how much Dad would enjoy it. But he always had an excuse at the ready. He had a business meeting, or he and his buddies were going to the game, or he was dating yet another woman who was angling to be the "one for the thumb". His best excuse was that he had to sit back and watch the grass grow. I thought this was pretty lame, until I went by the old house and found that he had set up a grow room.
Dad had already gotten us plane tickets and booked us rooms, so I rushed home to pack a bag and ask the neighbor boy to pick up the Kansas City Star from my lawn (even though I live in Madison, Wisconsin, Dad insists I keep a subscription to the Star - "News from afar travels like smoke," he'd say, "printer's ink populated by thousand-yard stares."), then drove to Chicago to meet dad just about the time we were going to board. I hadn't seen him in several months, and he looked good, "like an owl lean on fast rodents" - one of Dad's favorite expressions. He looked me over too, like he does when we've been separated for awhile, nodded his approval, and gave me a bear hug. Then we were off.
Welcome to Las Vegas
The approach to Vegas is spectacular. Coming in low, the Sierra Madre mountains and their foothills splash orange, red, and purple onto the eyes' palette in just the right combination to remember forever. The city then emerges unexpectedly from this geological plumage, as if only Vegas has the power to alter such a landscape. Dad looked out the window during most of the flight, as was his habit - "We're ground dwellers by nature," he'd say. "When I get into the air I like to know it." - but closed his eyes as we neared Vegas and kept them closed until we landed. "I want to take this one in in large gulps," was all he said. Knowing that he didn't like to watch movie previews, and liked to sit in the second row of a theater - "Near the action. Where the herd drops away." - I understood what he was doing.
We took a cab, and an hour later were dropped off at the Luxor Hotel, a five minute ride from the airport. I chalked it up to experience and paid the piper. The Luxor is in the shape of the Great Pyramid at Giza, and is probably two or three times the size of that pyramid. Dad had napped in the cab, so when we walked into the Luxor's lobby he got his first real look at Vegas.
He paused for only a moment, then hurried past the large Egyptian statues to the casino's entrance, a stone's throw from the door. Dad stood just outside the casino and took in a few deep breaths - as he'd learned to do when he first fished the gulf - then spent several minutes standing still, observing the Vegas wildlife in their den. "Sodom and Gomorrah lit by modern lighting," he finally said. "Can you sense the edge? Madness here, a panic unleashed to run its course. Lead me on, son."
We picked up our bags and turned to check-in.
The hours run together
The next twelve hours are a blur. After unpacking, Dad and I met at the casino and he went to town. Wads of money that he must have been saving up for years flew out of his pockets and landed on the craps table, the roulette wheel, and the pristine felt of the blackjack table. Scantily clad women, but no scantily clad men, took our drink orders and brought us free booze, excpecting nothing more than a courtesy tip to keep them jumping. We got drunk as otters, and matched each other drink for drink, a game we'd played since I was a kid.
Both Dad and I won some money, turned around and gave it back, won again, and we were pretty much even when Dad finally decided to leave the tables and work the slots. "Slot machines are solitary silos," Dad said. "All lights and noise, little else in way of sustenance." This time I didn't know what the hell he was talking about. I was drunk enough to howl at the moon, and faintly remember stumbling outside and doing so. I don't like the slots, there's no challenge in them, but they got Dad's attention and he started to pump them with good money. First he played the penny slots, just to touch the hem. He soon moved up to the nickels, then skipped the quarter machines altogether and went right to the dollars. He lost. Not a flashing light or a cartoon sound came from any of his machines. Not one cherry mixed with cowboys with lassos amid layers of ducks ridden by witches twirling candy canes lined up on the screen. Nothing.
A half hour went by like slow freight. An hour. I brought Dad some food, and talked to him about Sammy Sosa and his home runs. Dad looked at me then, with a quizzical expression on his face, a far-away look of one who has seen perfection but it has yet to register. Crowds gathered tight around him, because going on such a magnificent losing streak attracts the same type of onlooker who stands and cheers a win streak or a fat guy threatening to jump off a roof. It's all in being there when "something different" occurs.
A few minutes later, still without a win, not even a bite, Dad actually upped his loses by moving to the five dollar slots. By this time the gals were bringing us so many drinks that I spilled a few without knowing it. My pants were soaked and dripping olives, and I was so drunk I didn't care. Dad played, and played again. At the eighty minute mark, nothing. A few more minutes, the same. I spilled another drink, and may have tried to drink it from the floor. Then at what I later heard was the 84 minute mark, Dad quickly moved to the monster, the $100 slot. He played there for a minute, lost another three hundred, and tried again. This time, as the lights and whistles and floating ghosts flipped around on the machine, suddenly all hell broke loose. For two whole minutes the slot gave off rainbows and sounds like "an ocean racing hard against the shore," Dad later recalled. The slot machine seemed to shake in his hand - "To touch me well," he told me, "to draw blood" - but he held on until it subsided.
We have a winner!
He'd won. Dad had won big. A pit boss elbowed his way through the crowd, looked at the machine, and told Dad he'd just won $15 million dollars, one of the largest slot wins in Vegas history. The Luxor president was called to the floor, security guards quickly surrounded us, and technicians arrived to examine the gaming device to confirm that the payoff was legit. Only then, after what seemed like an hour but must have been closer to 15 minutes, did the hotel administrator and Carrot Top shake Dad's hand, pat him on the back, and hand him his check. But Dad then did something so unexpected that he even surprised me, and I've seen him wrestle women with his hands behind his back. He wanted the money in cash. $15 million, in $20 and $50 bills. With a dozen tens and fives in there for easy spending.
The hotel's managers and casino bosses had a brief sit-down, and then called Dad over to ascertain if he was serious. They told him that they'd have to report his winnings to the IRS and the Nevada Gaming Commission, but, from what I could tell from 20 feet away, aside from that, there was no reason he couldn't have his money as he wanted it. And so it came. Stacks and stacks of twenties and fifties, piled high on a craps table, the cash finally filling four large dufflebags. Dad lashed the dufflebags together so he could carry them. They were really huge and deep-sea green - I think they were old army dufflebags that someone at the hotel must have been keeping in their office - and they moved a little with each step as the stacks of money shifted inside. I, of course, offered to help, but Dad just looked at me and said "Few know the weight of their life. I now feel my worth here, in my spine, and on my shoulder. A man blessed with this knowledge carries it alone."
OK Dad, jeez, now he was taking the drama too far. What was I supposed to do, play the dutiful son and follow him to his room like he was a mangod on his way to Calvary, back weighed down with his victory and his new lot in life? But then, instead of heading for the elevators, Dad started to walk out the door!
Dad walks down the strip
By the time we turned left onto the Vegas strip the crowd that had been watching Dad's loss streak, and then his extraordinary win, had stirred from their glassy-eyed observation and were following us. One after the other, and then together, they told Dad why they wanted some of his money. "My girlfriend, she wants jewelry and a nice car - I can't afford that!" "I'm going to lose my house mister, twenty years I've worked like a dog." "My Mom's gotta eat something other than my table scraps, c'mon buddy." "I invented a perpetual motion machine, see, I've got it right here, but the funding dried-up." The problems and desires and moronic babblings poured out of these people, and then as more strangers on the strip heard what was going on they joined the crowd. A few of the larger ones pushed against Dad, grabbing at the canvas of the duffle bags to test their give.
As we crossed a bridge we passed a homeless man with a sign saying he wanted money for beer, and Dad gave him a thumbs up and invited him to join us. Three drunken college boys tried to heckle Dad, and called him a jellyfish wrangler. I had no idea what they meant, but I knew what to do next. "Dad, let's go inside," I said as we neared the MGM Grand, "I'm guessing we need a drink." His eyes lit up, as did those of the homeless mans, and we all went in.
The lions lounging in the massive cage in the Grand's sprawling lobby spotted Dad and his heavy duffel bags, arose quickly, and hurried to hide inside their enclosure. Dad saw this, and I think it bothered him. When we and his crowd of followers had finished our refreshments, and then had another, I tried to talk Dad into stopping, "Let's grab a cab back to the Luxor, or to a bank or something." But he just smiled. "No. I walk to review my life. To redeem it. In the open, among the people. Alone with my uncertainties within a wave of humanity." And with his third glass of Sazerac nestled comfortably in his hand, he made his way to the door and towards the heart of the strip.
We walked like this for over a mile, and somewhere along the way the wave of humanity began to be a dick and really started pushing. Even Dad began to fend them off. He swung his free hand and shoved some of them away, and actually may have wounded a few as they fell into passing traffic. Then one of the bags tore, and as the rip got bigger the people started grabbing stacks of twenties and fifties, grabbing them and running off. Dad swung harder and hit a few on their snouts, but when I tried to help him protect the money that was now leaking away faster and faster from the torn dufflebag, he waved me off. "Step away, this is my fight, my timeless stand."
Fight? Timeless stand?? Reviewing his life??? I started to worry about Dad's emotional state as I saw that the money in the first dufflebag was just about gone and the bag itself hung there among the three others like empty skin. We continued walking, and walked this way for a long time, and while it became easier with practice to beat back a single scavenger or hanger-on, when the greedy crowd started to surge again I got behind Dad and pushed him, pushed him hard, into the next door we passed. It happened to be the Paris Hotel.
I called over a few of the hotel's security guards and filled them in on the situation. They formed a ring around Dad, comped us two suites and a lunch buffet, and handled the crowd. We sat down in the casino - all entrances to Paris lead to the casino - to rest our bones and size up the climate. Dad played craps for an hour or so and won a few grand, then lost it at roulette. "Roulette reminds one of freezing rain," Dad said, "A bad turn of the wheel and the wires fail, and you have to keep the freezer closed lest cold air seeps out." I told him to shut the fuck up, but he didn't hear me, and kept on talking to himself and to the parisian girl who was taking our drink orders.
"Come here daughter"
Then, inevitably, came the women. There were hookers and barmaids and women who drove over from Utah. The Asians, and English, and black goddesses from Jamaica. All the scent from the hotel gathered around Dad, who was now holding court in Paris, as of old. "Paris, a lifetime of memories before the sun rises, our local star preparing to heat what has stirred in the eve" Dad whispered into the ear of a sultry redhead who looked at him like he was batty, then shrugged and smiled. One thirty-something spotted me there, and asked me who I was. "His son," I answered. She glanced at Dad then, leaned over, and with a wink in her voice and in a tone as smooth as velvet draped over satin backed with silk covered in cream she asked him "Can I call you Papa?" "Of course, daughter." And the evening took a turn.
Papa, as they now all called him, showered his women with champagne, bought them jewels from one of Vegas's many traveling precious stones salesmen, and when other women sauntered by in designer dresses and two thousand dollar shoes he bought these treasures right off their bodies and gave them to the girls. Did Alice want a Lexus? Here are the keys. Keira, a well-known actress who knew how to talk to men, snuggled up to Papa and called him "Reindeer". A few other women joined the scrum before Dad's inner nature fully emerged and he took them all to his suite.
I didn't see him for the next five hours. I wandered the Hotel and took a trip to the top of its Eiffel Tower, where the guards had their hands full trying to subdue a goth girl who kept pointing to the sky and shrieking about Santa. Sometimes I'd play the tables, but the lighting in Paris' casino is dark, the tables spaced oddly, and the atmosphere not quite right. So mostly I watched, waited, and drank. I saw Barry Manilow, the sugary singer I was named after who was headlining the entertainment at the hotel, come out of an elevator. I later heard that he tried for at least an hour to get into Dad's room, but to no avail. Then, as I felt my head clearing of the alcohol and hurried to refresh my glass, Dad appeared, alone. "To blend touch with sinew," he said through his smile, "I dreamt of Cuba when I dozed, which was momentarily at best." Handing him a drink, I noticed that another duffle bag was limp, a third held only half of its former bulk, and only one was still bulging with the green meat of the catch.
The running wild
We ate breakfast, to renew our strength. Dad enjoyed a stack of hotcakes with his rum, and I, eggs, sunny side up, with a shot and a beer to lubricate their departure. As Dad shifted his duffles he dribbled just the tiniest spot of syrup onto his shirt, there to rest amongst the other debris of the quest.
We finished eating, downed our second round, and Dad, without a word, hoisted his duffels and again walked out the door. I understood later that Dad was on what can only be called a journey of the wise king, or stupid chimneysweep, depending on your point of view, understanding of mythology, and gullibility level. I picked up the check and followed, and we made our way over to Caesar's and then into the depths of the Forum.
Whatever the time of day, the Forum, like Paris' casino or Pan's boudoir, presents perpetual dusk. Its ceiling is painted robin-shell blue to resemble the sky, clouds portrayed by lighter paint. "What the mind beholds, the temperament puts on as clothing," Dad told a passing group of Scotsmen who, to a man, pretended they didn't hear him.
We meandered deeper into the seemingly never-ending array of high-end shops, stopping once in awhile for Dad to unload some cash. A Mont Blanc pen here, ten Judith Ripka bracelets there, twenty-five pairs of Italian shoes, some to be delivered to our suites at the Luxor, others to our suites at the Paris. The third dufflebag was nearly empty as we skirted the fountain holding giant statues of Olympian Gods, possessed symbols of power who move and talk and perform amidst an accompanying laser show. There, lights flashing and Gods grumbling around us, Dad stopped in his tracks and stared in the other direction like a madman confronted with his illness. He was actually speechless, for maybe the first time in his life. I unconsciously trembled at what had befallen my father. "Dad, are you okay?" I asked, concerned. A second passed, then another, before he lifted his hand and pointed his finger towards the shops. And there, big as life, scratching his head and looking bored, sat Pete Rose.
My dad loves Pete Rose as much as a man can love a man, outside of the community of course. They were about the same age, and just about the time Dad was wounded while driving an ambulance in Nam - only to be kicked deeper in his stomach and broken-heart when the nurse's aide he fell in love with in-country sent him a Dear John letter, postage due - Pete Rose was starting to show his greatness with the Cincinnati Reds baseball club. Dad followed Rose in the sports pages every day during the last ten seasons of his career, and as Rose climbed to the top of the all-time hit list Dad took pleasure in every record-setting single, each record breaking run scored. Then, when Rose was later charged with betting on baseball during his tenure as Reds manager, Dad would scoff and say "He did nothing but know the guts of his team." Dad never took any position but at Rose's back, a same-generation hero to the boy and to the man. Now here was Pete Rose, right in front of us.
Dad regained his composure and his voice, patted me on the back, and said "The day, son, the wondrous day indeed." He then walked up to Rose, who I later found out works the weekends signing jerseys and posing for pictures at the Sporting Goods store in the Forum. "Mr. Baseball, the smell of the diamond perfumes this air," Dad said, bear hugging the surprised ex-ballplayer. "Yeah, alright, good to meet you too friend. What's with the duffles?" "An attempt to boundry money, the fuel, the scourge, what we seek and what we throw at pleasure and trouble the same." At the mention of money Rose's eyes lit up, and only then did I catch sight of the small television on his table tuned to a horseracing station I never knew existed. "Sit down, Mister, sit down. Call me Pete." "Honored. You can call me Santiago, or better yet, Papa," and Dad sat.
Well, you can guess the rest. Within an hour or two, and maybe a few bottles later, the fourth duffle was empty except for the leavings, and Pete Rose was drunkenly cursing his luck and his handicapper. "Son of a bitch, what a fucking streak of bad luck. A five-to-one sure thing he says, 'Bet the boat on this filly's nose, Pete, right on the tippy-tip tip of her nose. She can't lose,' the dickhead tells me, and goddammit. Goddammit is all I have to say. Just wasn't in the cards, buddy." Dad took it in stride even as I looked crestfallen. "Dad?" "Son, a slice of life. Pete Rose and I almost bested the odds, we shaved those horses close, didn't we now? Pete, you've made my day."
Rose stood up, gave Dad a signed jersey, and abruptly left to get a steak at the Flamingo. Dad's four dufflebags were still strapped on his back, but they were now deflated, picked clean inside, hanging there not by gravity to their self-appointed sun-king but by ropes and knots alone. Dad had a smile on his face as big as all indoors. "Can you believe it, Manny! Pete Rose. Let's go back to Paris and talk of our blind beggar's luck at meeting the most magnificent man in sports."
I slapped my palm to my head so quickly that I actually hurt myself.
All things culminate in bells
Dad later told me that when he met LuLu on the strip on our way back to Paris he fell instantly in love. "Thunderstruck," he said, "The love, as a wise man said, that is instantaneous and irreversible. Follow my joy, which leads to you, my heart - mere muscle transformed to magnificent magnet, a vessel no longer seeking shadowed winding turns, only straight illumined lines."
What probably happened is alcohol poisoning. We'd been hitting the bottle nonstop for about 30 hours, and at the same moment that LuLu staggered up and asked Dad for a light his brain finally short-circuited from the "fire within", and he mistook it for affection. Timing is everything, that same wise man said, and LuLu's timing was apparently the result of last night's fix.
"Ask not for whom the wedding bell tolls," Dad said while playing the spoons, "They toll for me. And LuLu here."
With the last of his folding money dug from the bottom of the four duffel bags, Dad hired some goons just because he could, bought LuLu and himself a real Vegas wedding complete with an Elvis impersonator and what may have been the real Wayne Newton, and bought me a long-legged long-necked hooker named Wildflower. Dad and his bride crossed the street from Paris, walked along the ponds left-bank for a minute, and then climbed in. They had the famed Bellagio fountain all to themselves, and skinny-dipped, yodeled, and made love in the dancing waters. No one paid them the least bit of attention, except the guy portraying Captain Jack Sparrow, one of the locals who tourists pay to pose with them for pictures. "Let Sparrow stay," Dad told his goons, "Deep mysteries abide in him. Come, we will pose with you, Sparrow. Let you be witness to more of life."
"Shiver me timbers" Sparrow giggled as LuLu felt him up. I saw it, but Dad didn't, and I'd never tell. The Captain soon got a far-away look in his eye, and then relaxed, and I saw LuLu pick some loose paper out of the Cap's donation jar. Then we all headed back into Paris to sit at coffee, gin, and absinthe in an open air cafe, to lightly reminisce under the painted evening sky, to talk about our long day.
I wrote the above account of our godforsaken adventure a few days after getting back to my studio, and then tried to forget about it. Dad, LuLu, and I had flown into O'Hare, and I drove back to Madison while dad drove himself and LuLu to his house in Oak Park, the old family home where gramps ate his gun. LuLu told me a week later that when they got home Papa put his empty duffel bags on the porch, and the slack-jawed neighbors stood around on the sidewalk and gawked. One village idiot commented to her peers that the pile of deflated bags made it look like a Vegas casino dweller lived there. LuLu told me that Dad layed down on his old army cot and slept for two days, awakening only once to whisper something about dreaming of the ones who got away, the lions who hid from him at the MGM Grand.
I picked up the phone about a month later and spoke to Dad, talking to him about my hope that he wasn't feeling too bad about what might have been. "What do you mean, Manny?" "Come on, dad," sorry now that I'd broached the subject, "the money. You could have used that money." I would have heard his laugh across the street, and the phone wasn't on speaker. "What do you take me for, a putz? Yeah, I blew about three mil, and had the time of my life. Still got about twelve million left that those Luxor boys wired to a Cayman Islands account they set up for me. Gave them close to half-a-mil for their trouble, so they wouldn't be too honest with the gentlemen at the IRS."
The last thing I heard on that call was LuLu, laughing like a hyena in the background, mixing the ice for some kind of exotic tropical drink. The clinking of the ice, for some reason, reminded me of my youth in Africa and of Jack Sparrow, both posing forever in absurd proximity under our local star, the sun.