THE HERMIT XII: VEGAS
Andy originally planned to take the slower scenic route to Las Vegas through the Navaho Reservation, but now he wanted to get to civilization as soon as possible. He asked the resort driver to take him to a car rental place and, as he left the camp, he texted Caldera that he will be in Vegas tonight.
“How was psychonautics?” Caldera texted back.
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“Never again,” Andy replied. “No more ‘downers.’”
No. No more downers. No more vibrating muons. No more self-inquiry. From now on, good times only. Sooner or later every man comes to an understanding that uppers are ultimately a better drug. It’s a drug of comfort and optimism. Perhaps, Hunter S. Thompson was mistaken about the valence between psychedelics and Vegas, Andy thought. There’s a vast disconnect of function. Psychedelics demand an inward gaze, while Vegas is exhibitionist and voyeuristic and forgiving.
He was happy to see Taos in the rearview mirror. He drove down to Albuquerque and got on Interstate 40 West for a daylong trip to Las Vegas.
After an hour of driving in silence he scanned the FM radio. Gospel, Latin hits, insipid teen pop. And then a reprieve, a peppy, vibrating riff of ACDC’s ‘Thunderstruck’ –– a perfect song to dissolve the melancholy of a long drive, to forget the last few days. The lead singer’s neurotic squeak tore through the humming monotony like a hissing stream of air escaping a compressed space. His tight and potent vocals had the unfocused raw energy of a pubescent boy, and Andy, grimacing and bobbing to the rhythm, began to sing along.
There’s something about a good rock song. The lyrics have to be dumb and robust. The riff—memorable, simple and bouncy like a trampoline. The delivery has to be visceral and unrehearsed. Yes, those boys scored some chicks and had a good time and that’s all there is to this song. It probably wouldn’t fly today. Everything is too airbrushed and anesthetized now. But can anyone doubt the singer’s sincerity? That’s it. It’s the sincerity. A lack of pretense. That’s what makes a rock song. The sincerity negates the problematic sentiment. Earnestness, even when mistaken, is true art. It aims at the gut, not at the mind. That’s why, decades later, the song still resonates.
Two hours later, near Gallup, New Mexico he got off the highway and circled around town searching for a place to eat. He longed for hearty, unpretentious diner fare. He wanted a place full of the Fifties era mythology — with nickel fixtures, a jukebox, Elvis on the radio, and an aging showgirl waitress with a bright red lipstick and a low, hoarse voice. At the edge of the desert, he saw a gas station and across the dusty parking lot from it there was a diner — a rectangular box of drywall and chipped sidings. It was perfect.
Inside there were no nickel fixtures and no rockabilly mementos, but the waitress was spot on: hardship-marked late forties, once a beauty, tall and blond, who made a wrong turn at some crucial point in her life and never recovered. She smelled of cigarettes. Her name tag said ‘Krystal.’ She brought him a giant menu cast in plastic and said, lethargically, that today’s special was meatloaf.
“Well, when in Rome,” Andy muttered.
“What?” The waitress asked.
“I’ll have the meatloaf.” Andy smiled at her.
A group of bikers walked in and proceeded to sit at the counter. The waitress seemed to know them. She hurried to pour them coffee into the thick-rimmed mugs. Andy stared at their wide backs. The bikers’ leather jackets were engraved with short-fused, ill-tempered sentiments — ‘Don’t tread on me,’ ‘I plead the second,’ ‘Come and take it,’— as if expecting a confrontation, but their demeanor was reserved, and their talk quiet.
He thought of what his life would be like if he wasn’t a bond trader. He imagined being in construction or trucking. He’d have a wife with a regular name that she’d spelled creatively — Alisyn or Kyrstyn. He’d treat her to shopping sprees at Kay Jewelers and romantic dinners at Ruth’s Chris Steak House. He’d own a boat that he’d haul behind his truck. He’d probably have an opioid addiction, or, at the very least, an alcoholic one. But he would have no shortage of opportunities for an adventure. He could just wake up one morning, kiss his wife goodbye, tell her ‘be back in a week,’ summon his comrades, and roll across the country.
He looked outside the diner’s window, at the arid, serene vastness. Sporadic Joshua trees covered the ochre hills under the enchanting pale blue sky. Out in the distance, a long freight train — Andy counted at least a hundred cars — was chugging along the tracks. He wanted to believe that some vagabonds were aboard. No, he would rather depict this kind of life than live it. He could’ve been a movie director. He would capture the nomadic life and the romanticism of the road. He would find the essence, the nuances, the redeeming qualities under the drifters’ menacing front. He would use auteur techniques, like long shots and eerie music, a steel guitar wail that would let a spectator linger on the image, savor it.
He took a picture of the landscape and sent it to Joanna. ‘On my way to Vegas,’ he captioned it. ‘See you there?’
He tried to eavesdrop on the bikers’ conversation. He discerned words like ‘gold bullion,’ and ‘storage.’ Please be planning a bank robbery! — he pleaded silently with them. Then he heard a lament about the ‘cost of carry,’ and a counterargument ‘you’ll thank me when the shit hits the fan.’
He asked the waitress for the check and, after leaving a twenty dollar tip on the table, went to the cashier to pay.
“Excuse me, gentlemen,” he said to the bikers after paying his bill. “I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation. Gold storage is a logistical nightmare. If this is your axe, you should look into shorting Treasuries through index,” he said. “There’s zero carry. And zero headache.”
“Not if the markets cease to exist,” the gold bar enthusiast said, turning to Andy.
“There will always be markets.”
“Huh. An optimist,” the biker said, and his buddies laughed. They returned to their meals.
Andy got back behind the wheel and drove for the rest of the day, stopping only for gas and bathroom breaks.
At sunset, Las Vegas showed up on the horizon, its reflective surface popping up from hot, dusty nothingness. In a world that insisted on sliding into entropy, Las Vegas served as a barometer of civilization. The city’s redundancies and excesses had a purpose: they provided a buttery layer of protection, a high-caloric buffer that softened the adversarial forces in a capital structure of life. Vegas vaccinated society from chaos by injecting a pre-approved amount of it into each of the visitors. It was a safety valve, a happy receptacle of society’s detritus and vice, that halted the disintegration of humankind in the same way it held back the elements — the desert, the heat.
Scratch off all the tinsel and all the buffoonery, and underneath you’ll find a soothing promise of stability. A smart portfolio manager would classify Las Vegas as a barbell trade, encompassing the most luxurious with the most plebeian, and thus rendering the whole structure indestructible. Vegas tells an anxious tourist that he is safe, that everything will be all right. Before the entropy comes for penny slots and Cracker Barrel, it’d first have to come for East Coast bond traders, and conference crowds, and Cipriani. And that could never happen. For as long as a place like Vegas exists, the world can’t possibly be collapsing.
Andy parked his rental car at the Wynn Hotel and Casino valet and walked, rolling his suitcase, to the check-in desk. It was nice to hear people talk business again, he thought while standing in the VIP line that swarmed with fellow conference attendees. A group of suits in front of him were discussing credit spreads on CMBS and corporate bonds, and, hearing their chatter, he was overcome by a sense of warm comfort. He was back in his element.
The check-in clerk, a pretty and upbeat blonde, asked him whether he preferred the Strip view or the golf course view, and he said it doesn’t matter so long as the room is close to the elevator. She tinkered with her computer, leaned over to him, and whispered with a conspiratorial smile: “I think I can give you a free upgrade. Would a suite on a low floor be okay?”
“That would be perfect,” Andy said and thought that this place almost exuded a gratitude for his presence. It felt like everybody was happy to see him. He could, of course, get white glove treatment in New York too, but that top-notch care, it seemed to him, always came with a reprobate look, with a gauging of his status, with an expectation of a generous tip. On the East Coast they made him feel guilty. In Vegas, one could indulge self without the gnawing feeling of remorse.
He received his room key and, as he walked towards the hotel elevators, he stumbled upon Doug Caldera, who was sitting at the blackjack table. Caldera, too, had a suitcase beside him. He had checked in earlier but on the way to his room he “stopped by a few tables,” he said. Andy made Caldera take his winnings to the window and cash out. They took the elevator up to their suites.
“You want to party?” Caldera said and dangled a dime bag with white substance in it.
“You just got here. How the fuck did you even have time to score that?”
“I flew private,” Caldera said, shrugging.
Andy wanted to party. He wanted to erase the glimpses of the inexplicable.
“Let’s meet in your room and take it from there,” Andy said.
Andy took a quick shower, changed into comfortable jeans, a polo shirt, and a club jacket, and went up to Caldera’s room. He snorted the cocaine that Caldera had prepared for him from the smooth surface of a glass table in the middle of the room. The icy jolt of the drug up his nostrils cleared his mind and electrified his body. The medicinal bitterness tickled his throat. He rubbed the rest of the powder on his gums and flexed his shoulders.
“Let’s go,” he said, grinding his teeth.
Downstairs they met Scotty. The three of them took a taxi to the nightclub at Caesar’s Palace.
In the taxi Scotty went into a tirade about his recent date and the pitfalls of dating in Manhattan.
“So, I ask her, what does she like? And she’s, like, what do you mean? And I’m, like, what do you like to do? And for some reason she got mad,” Scotty ranted. “Did I ask something wrong? It’s an innocent question.”
“This is not a good question,” Caldera replied. “This approach is actually quite stupid. She doesn’t know what she likes. How old was she?”
“Right. So, she felt that this question was an attempt at mockery or a threat. What can she say? She’s twenty-one. She doesn’t have the money yet or the taste to like certain things. She hasn’t lived long enough or seen a lot of things. She can’t quite articulate it. People like her wait for you to make an offer. All you had to do is get tickets to whatever and tell her ‘Here, darling, we are going.’ Make it a statement of fact. And she’ll be happy. Because if it’s good, it’s good; and if it’s bad, she’ll have someone to blame. You. Which is also good. You can have make-up sex afterwards.”
“Huh,” Scotty said.
“Believe me, I know what I’m talking about. I hooked Andy up with his current girlfriend. Tell him, Andy.”
The Strip was clogged with traffic and hordes of drunk, howling bachelors carrying two-foot-long beverages, and Caldera cursed the driver for not taking the faster route via the back road. They ditched the taxi and walked the rest of the way to Caesar’s Palace, entering the casino through the Forum shops.
The club buzzed with conference types in casual dress who crowded out the regulars — the LA weekenders, the gym rats with gold neck chains, the tanned cabana boys with bleached hair, and occupied all the best booths around the dance floor. Some of the businessmen, having reached the optimal ratio of courage and carelessness, came down to the floor and bent themselves in angular moves before the flocks of young women in tight, short dresses who spiraled in smooth, sinuous waves.
The front row booths came with a minimum of twenty-five-hundred-dollar bottle service, the hostess with a Cleopatra makeup informed them in a soothing, non-assuming tone. Caldera smiled gregariously at her.
“We wouldn’t have it any other way.”
They followed the hostess to their table. Andy and Caldera sat down, but Scotty caught the beat and pranced, flapping his elbows like a chicken, towards the dancefloor. He disappeared into the boiling lattice of bodies.
Two girls in their twenties passed by their table and Caldera signaled to them to join him and Andy. The girls looked at him critically and he stood up from the table and, overcoming the noise, screamed something emphatically into their ears. They briefly consulted each other, assessing Caldera and Andy, and then slid down into the booth.
Any conversation was impossible. The most that Andy could muster amid the deafening bass beats was to get the girls names — Cindy and Angela — and have them order whatever they liked on the menu. Under the quickly changing colors of the disco lights, the girls appeared to be older, their eyes and faces more mature than their attire and conduct suggested, and, for some reason, Andy found himself feeling sorry for them. If sitting here with two schmucks like him and Caldera was something that these women wanted, or worse, had to do, he’d rather not know what it was. Andy’s high wore off and, now overcome by exhaustion, he looked forward to the moment when he could curl up in his bed, alone. By 1:00 a.m. he was nodding off. Caldera stirred him up by dropping an ice cube down his collar, to the delight of the girls.
It was around 1:30 a.m. when they exited the club, and Caldera suggested they all go to get some sushi. Andy excused himself by saying that he had to host a business panel tomorrow morning and wanted to get some sleep. The last thing he wanted to do now was entertain strangers.
“Boo,” Caldera said. “You’re so boring.”
“It was a pleasure meeting you, ladies,” Andy said, trying to assuage his departure by turning on his most charming mode. While Angela coquettishly allowed him to kiss her hand, Cindy’s carefully curated face betrayed a sudden and unsettling awareness.
“Mister Caldera here will take good care of you,” Andy said and patted Caldera’s back, extending his last energy on cheerful pleasantry.
In the taxi heading back to the Wynn he kept thinking about Cindy, hoping that it wasn’t today, it wasn’t just minutes ago that she understood that her hustling days were coming to an end. He’d hate to be that guy.
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