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Mary Gannon

Waking Las Vegas

I

I am flying to Las Vegas on a commercial jet to meet my brother and father. As the plane flies over New Mexico and Arizona I am struck by the strange absence of foliage. The Western terrain with its sculpture garden of nomadic mountains is foreign to me. Whole parcels of land pass without habitation except for rocks and heat and desolation. This terrain emerges as the perfect home for carrion such as vultures, a creature that lives off remains.

The plane approaches Las Vegas’ McCarran airport, the city as an afterthought in the desert. The casino skyline erupts from emptiness. I am struck by the number of pools and the geographic isolation. The captain announces the temperature, 105 degrees.

Beyond the arrival gates, shiny, slot machines stand as sentries to guard the airport corridors with whirring reels instead of weapons. Several rows of slots greet the disembarking passengers. A few travelers pause to pull down one of the black arms or press a colored button.

Above the cavernous baggage claim at McCarran airport, streaming videos present the hotels’ musical extravaganzas. Tommy Tune promises 180 sets, 300 dancers, 2000 special effects while the Lord of the Dances Celtic women in provocative leather outfits step dance across the screen in the shimmer of lights.

I’m reminded of my mother, a talented stepdancer, who passed away a few weeks ago. I am Irish, born in Dublin. My mother leaves me adrift in this strange country, America.

I did not think that cancer would be a sneak thief. It entered our lives loudly in 1992 and disrupted everything with great noise and hysteria. Cancer stole my mother. After being an 8-year survivor of breast cancer, her blood tested positive for the return of the disease, MRIs revealed no visible evidence of a tumor. She had survived a mastectomy, radiation and chemotherapy. The silent invasion in her blood stream ultimately stole her away.

My beautiful Irish mother departed to the spiritual part of this journey on May 10, 2000. She was an actress, flamboyant and arty, with jet black hair, ivory skin and huge green saucer eyes. As a child, I imagined her to be the most beautiful woman who ever lived. She combined a brilliant intellect, strong opinions and a boundless thirst for knowledge. She loved language and emotions and ornamental decoration like green glass swans holding pink silk flowers. She left a trail of flowers and stuffed animals in artful motifs so you knew wherever she had been in a house.

On May 10, 2000, I sat in my office at a trade association in Washington, DC where I worked as a financial writer. I dragged through an uneventful work morning filled with Dilbertisms, coffee, e-mails and voice-mails. The day was distinguished only by our department’s voiced regrets that our group ticket had not won us the 100 million dollar powerball and instant retirement. At about 10:30 a.m., the caller I.D. on my phone displayed my parents’ Chicago phone number. My fathers voice, a thick and heavy brogue, came over the phone, "Mary, your mother is dead."

Odd words. Strange, cataclysmic, a slow subject verb association and the room is on fire. I immediately choke out the words. "Are you sure?"

He had not called 9-1-1, a doctor or a priest; first, he contacted me. "Shes dead, Mary. She died in her sleep."

His grave tone of voice assured me that my life has been dramatically altered. I hang up the phone after telling him I will call later. I begin not to cry or weep but to howl in anguish. I recall the generations of keening women who wailed throughout the Irish countryside during wakes. It is a piercing sound that disturbs the studied equanimity of these ultra modern offices. I revert to my Celtic identity frightening the buttoned-down WASPs all around me. A Celt knows how to mourn -- invasion, famine, the shedding of blood, the loss of a tribe member -- raw, uncluttered decibels of grief

In the days following, we conduct 2 masses, a memorial service and a reception. No population of a tiny Irish village will pause and say goodbye to my mother. In Chicago, a city of three million people her passing will barely be noted. We will not have a traditional Irish wake where the corpse remains in the house for days. In the house of the dead, the clocks are stopped, the mirrors turned to the wall or covered. In the village, the grief stricken remain all night drinking tea or consuming large quantities of alcohol.

As we waited quietly for the end of one service, I asked my father if he would like to go away for a few days. As he looked around at the reminders of my mothers life, he said. "Id like to go to Las Vegas."

Today, several weeks later, we meet in Las Vegas at Harrahs hotel and Casino. Each Las Vegas hotel boasts a theme. Harrahs hotel portrays Carnaval. Carnavals, in diverse ages and geographical locations, occur just before Lent time, the 40-day period of Catholic asceticism that precedes Easter. In the center of Harrahs facade a golden harlequin sports the jesters costumes. The lobby is filled with people including my father and brother.

In Harrahs casino the interlocking network of rooms sparkles: an amalgam of kinetic lights compete with the sound of coins hitting against metal. A pre-taped group shrieks, "Wheel of Fortune!" a Greek chorus behind the click of coins and the swipe of the dealers.

I pass the sports betting section, a huge high-tech room with multiple television monitors. Serious gamblers study the video screens. The space reminds you of DarthVaders den, the frivolity of sports and the intensity of the gamblers mating to produce something dark and slightly sinister.

The hotel room represent vintage 60s decor, purples, gold, orange psychedelic color swirls on faded wallpaper, a decade frozen in time and color; the 60s, the frenzied decade my family arrived in America. As a child, I feared that we would be separated in this strange country; as an adult I worried about the broad American space between Washington, D.C. and the Midwest. All time occurs on one line of demarcation – before and after my mothers passing.

My brother, father and I visit the renowned Harrahs buffet with islands of food everywhere. Although the restaurant appears flooded with light; the food occupies a darker section. We wander around and gaze at the dishes that defy classification: oriental vegetables with brown gravy, macaroni with a pasty version of cheese, and vegetable swirling in an unexplained cranberry sauce. A desert tray displays cakes, brownies and cookies. The all you can eat challenge blazes from the wall and menus. In search of the perfect meal, we sample a number of delicacies. However, the final product is a collection of mediocre dishes adorned in parsley and monosodium glutamate.

That is the magic of Las Vegas, a town that compels you to believe in abundance as it strips everything away. Behind every theme hotel a factory of technology conjures the illusion that you alone will strike it rich, that Lady Luck will smile inevitably in your direction. The intensity of this belief forms the strange dialectic of Las Vegas. Roving crowds and streams of humanity perform the same mechanical task, inserting coins, pulling levers, pushing buttons, betting on cards, wheels and reels. Each person zealously believes that he or she will beat the house.

As we leave to explore the strip, night falls and a million bulbs spill incandescent light over the roaming crowds. Two central images dominate the center of the strip: the poster of Siegfried and Roy, the legendary animal tamers rendered ageless with leathery tanned faces and excessive smiles; and the enormous skull marking the Treasure Island casino, a reminder that ultimately luck will never be a lady.

As first-time visitors, my brother and I initiate ourselves by visiting the various casinos. In Vegas, we drink heavily because we wear the grief of our mothers death like a thin film of sweat prescribed by the 100+ degrees temperature.

As we walk across the bridge to the elaborate facade of the Venetian hotel, a husband and wife stand at one side screeching at each other. He focuses his rage. "You will never, ever say anything like that to me again."

My brother and I retreat to Harrahs outdoor lounge, a small oasis in the midst of intense heat. In this crowded space, we watch the outdoor lounge acts as we fend off the high temperature with a cold one. An entertainer wearing a blue polyester wig and a yellow jumpsuit sings Beach Boys’ oldies. My brother and I expected to find a city of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop, tuxedos, cigarettes and post World War II angst.

My father retreated to the hotel room several hours ago and weariness compels me to join him. My brother wanders off into the night swallowed up by a crowd. I come into the room as my father snores in the other bed.

I always read myself to sleep. On this first Las Vegas night I am accompanied by Sherman Alexies short stories on his Native American world, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven. Native Americans cling to their culture tenaciously, mysticism and ancestor worship and the reverence for the inexplicable. In one story Alexie’s hero learns from his college bound son that 98% of the universe is not seen. So the father determines that he will say hello to things he does not see.

I am Irish and our Celtic heritage originates in an excess of mysticism and pagan worship. My mother told us of how she saw the banshee the night before her own father died of cancer. The banshee is a female figure, who appears in a white hooded gown; her wailing foretells the end of a life. Unlike native Americans, we Irish assimilated into mainstream America by changing our names from Liam to William, from Sean to John and learning to eschew tragedy. We sell insurance and cereal and write advertising copy. We dont believe in banshees anymore who foretell the death of a loved one. We exile our supernatural beliefs to history. I yearn for the mysticism of other cultures, the belief that the world harbors ancestors and lore and magic.

II

The morning remains an unconquerable challenge during these first few weeks. A brief amnesia occurs between the time I wake up and the onset of consciousness. The ceiling comes into focus, a slow awareness of the room. I am poised to assume my life, a kind of complicated muscle memory with dawning awareness. With my second or third conscious breath, my body shrinks sensing an impending threat in the room.

A voice from deep within me cries out in agony, Momma. My inner child experiences the orange gold and purple wallpapers. I am aware that I am waking Las Vegas. That a generation has passed and I am alone in America.

I leave the room to seek the spiritual amnesia that is the specialty of this town. The geography of Vegas comforts despair. A kaleidoscope of images exiles grief: neon frenzies, grifters selling condos and timeshares, gamblers moving from frivolity to a desperate purpose. Grief searches for symbols, it looks to an objective correlative in the real world. No grand sentiment survives the Vegas illusion that everyone can be a winner.

I go down to the pool and inspect the bodies already baking in the sun. It is 11 a.m. and my brother sips on a Margarita. He gets me a beer and the sun blazes as we watch strangers struggling for nothing more consequential than an even tan.

Later in the day, I gamble at the video poker machines where I spot a man reeling around the casino, sporting a look of vague disorientation. He wears a fashionable polo shirt, khakis pants and a thick gold chain dangles from his neck. He holds his heart with one hand. In the other hand he clutches a twenty dollar bill. I walk up to him with some concern, "Are you alright?"

He stares at me and mumbles, "No, I'm dizzy."

He communicates the demeanor of someone fearing a heart attack. I guide him over to a seat at the video poker game. "Do you have panic disorder?" I ask.

His face changes to a more bitter affect, "How did you know?" he asks as if I possess clairvoyance, as if he were suddenly naked.

Before I leave, I am hoping to locate an anchor for him. "Can I get someone you're traveling with, or a family member to come get you."

"My daughter is playing cards," he says and points vaguely in the direction of a row of blackjack tables.

"What is she wearing?" I ask hoping to recognize distinctive dress amidst a swarm of young women gambling. "I told her not to wear that outfit," he raises his voice.

Masking his hostility he tries to appear unnaturally jocular. So I bid him goodbye and leave him to study the video poker machine

Outside of Harrahs, I am surprised by daylight. Adjacent to the hotel, the Harrahs convenience store contains liquors, snacks, coffee and all the last minute items that any traveler could need. In front of the display window flanked by a host of sale items, a single man occupying a wheelchair is oddly positioned in the blazing sun. The man displays the kind of sunburn born in stone and urban settings, pink and at the same time grimy. The man’s arms and legs have been amputated. Someone placed a hastily fashioned cardboard sign requesting donations and a small shoebox against his thighs. I will not read the black lettering on the brown cardboard as he stares stoically ahead neither looking to the right or to the left as a thin veil of sweat accumulates on his face.

I rush towards Caesars Palace. Roman emperors and statues of the Golden Age decorate the manicured landscape. A two-way moving sidewalk leads in and out of the casino. Go in on one side, exit on the other, in a loser, out a winner - a Vegas assembly line of illusion.

I appropriate a slot machine near the classic cars where patrons hurl in quarters to win one of the shiny white convertibles on display. I ask the waitress for a beer. She leaves and does not return for some time. Then she asks me, "Did you order a beer?"

I answer yes and she hands it to me with a look of chagrin. "I've passed you a few times. It's just that you don't look like someone who drinks beer."

As I drop the quarters into the machine, I am reminded of the figure in front of Harrahs. It occurs to me that I will have no luck because I have dismissed the poor and the sick. I leave Caesar's Palace and the early evening crowd carries me across the street, a thick knot of humanity seduced by the blazing lights.

I stuff some bills in the donation shoebox of the disabled man marooned in this city of hopeful winners. I walk into the Harrahs casino. The panic disorder man with his Izod LaCosta discomfort has disappeared.

The mornings, afternoons, and evenings of Las Vegas run together as if the marker that measures time has been momentarily shut off. The clocks at this blazing wake have been momentarily stopped. In the uneven artificial light of the casino time stands still. Days do not pass accumulating in years. No seasons exist in a casino; fall, winter, spring and summer-- the colors remain metallic and gold, reels ever in motion.

The hunger for money, greed, is such a simple emotion, whereas grief is inordinately complicated. It summons our sense of loss and our fear of what is inevitable within this act of living. I grieve for my mother and fear for myself. In the Irish act of keening, wailing for the dead, the intensity of the mourning has been described by the Irish writer, John Synge: "In the presence of death all outward show of indifference or patience is forgotten, and they shriek with pitiable despair before the horror of the fate to which they are doomed."

A bartender at OShea’s casino informs me that a couple hit the grand jackpot at the Rio hotel. He eagerly tells anyone who sits down at the bar. In a short time span, the patrons sitting on the stools recount the tale of their winning. An unsuspecting couple entered this arid land, spent several days enacting the Vegas ritual and then emerged victorious.

Are there winners really? That night I slip away to Caesars Palace and I start to play an Elvis slot machine. I make the magic colors appear on the reel and that gives me a chance to spin Elvis wheel of hits. I long for Jailhouse Rock, but instead I land on Love Me Tender Love Me Do. Elvis performs the song in a tiny video monitor and I win $250.00. Several men pass me as the quarters slide into the plastic bucket emblazoned with the casinos name. They pause to comment on my good fortune. I respond awkwardly as if explaining cause and effect, "Well, Ive always really liked Elvis."

I stop short of telling them I dont expect to win or even believe that the possibility exists. It would be too complicated for such a short exchange. An intermittent amnesia absorbs you upon the death of a loved one. After I make Elvis sing, I immediately think about calling my mother.

I wander away from Elvis. It is midnight and a man walks around the casino with a baby crying in a stroller. I am reminded of the Elvis’ song in the ghetto where a "poor little baby cries." Urban ghettos, gambling ghettos, winning ghettos and grief ghettos all run together in one strange and all consuming phantasm. A paid escort with an elaborate helmet of blonde hair and cleavage looks to the father and the child with disapproval.

Later that night I see my brother who has won $1,500 at the New York, New York casino. He saw the Ellis Island hall and knew that this would be good luck with its intimation of immigrants arriving and expecting to find the streets of gold. My college friend’s Italian grandfather always told his grandchildren of his immigrant dreams, "When we came to America, we thought the streets would be paved with gold. Not only weren’t they paved with gold, they weren’t paved and we found out we were going to be the ones paving them." Is Las Vegas paved with gold or will we have to pave it?

I wander on the strip because the never-ending noise becomes an antidote for rumination. The Casino Royale shrieks its "Free Margarita" message to the crowd. I walk into Harrahs Casino and its depiction of Carnaval, the celebration preceding Lent. In a Roman Catholic Church during Lent all the statues are covered in purple shrouds. Vegas is shrouded to me, all of the slot machines covered in purple.

The next morning I take my father to his favorite breakfast spot, the Barbary Coast. He spends his entire day planning the next breakfast at the Barbary Coast. The waitress brings him the huge plate of eggs, bacon and hash browns. Two men converse loudly in the booth behind me. "Yah, she didn’t show up till 4 a.m. And then she says the $75.00 is a show up fee. If I want a blowjob, it’s gonna cost me $400. Is that bullshit or what?"

My father blissfully continues his breakfast as he is slightly deaf. As the conversation continues, I realize that companionship comes at a price like all things in Vegas. Vegas tantalizes your senses with impressions: the memory of flooding lights, the impact of white and blue reels, a portrait of a royal family and the sound of coins smashing against metal.

All sexuality in Vegas displays that shined up, gleaming quality that communicates that "it will cost you." Insouciance, pouty lips, peroxide blonde and long legs conspiring to remind you that it’s important to have enough to afford it. But people in the casinos are alive with another kind of passion. The passion to beat the house consumes them.

That afternoon, the searing heat pushes toward 110 degrees. On the solid blocks of cement, you understand what life really has to offer. It is a long walk up a hot concrete city. I am taking my father to the Stratosphere for an afternoon lounge show. Waiting for a bus in the 100 degree heat you pass from the man-made artifice and illusion of the casinos to life as it is lived. He complains bitterly about the heat and the waiting. I yell at him and tell him to be patient. He is a man who has just lost his wife and I am his daughter. The 100-degree heat causes us to turn on each other. Biology has its own imperative that exists underneath all the metaphor and the triumph. Hot and frustrated we turn on each other.

He screams at me in the torrid heat. "Your mother wouldn’t put up with this."

I tell him that we will not go to the Stratosphere instead Siegfried and Roy’s animals wait for us across the street at the Mirage. We walk quickly into the maze of restaurants and stores within the hotel. We emerge outside near the guest pool. Unfortunately, Siegfried and Roy’s zoo animals have been given a midweek holiday. I notice that the dolphin exhibit is open. My father acquiesces to an afternoon of aquatic entertainment.

The tour guide directs us to a large pool where silver gray heads of dolphins bob in an out of the water. Our small crowd explores the elusive beauty of the dolphins. The tour guide takes us below ground where huge picture windows allow an unobstructed view of the sea creatures in their natural world. The sleek motion propels the silver gray bodies from one side of the tank to the other in an effortless concert of movement. An odd moment in this town of man made beauty encountering the profound grace of these creatures.

I watch the animals as they move effortlessly around each other. The tour guide tells us trivial zoological details of their habits and origins. My face is pressed against the window not unlike the children who stand around me. I am aware that innocence exists in the world, inchoate and inviolable.

The creatures do not acknowledge our presence as if we are irrelevant. The tour guide explains about a recent birth within the tank. From one end of the huge tank, a small dolphin slides in a feat of silken grace to the other end. The dolphin urgently seeks out its mother. Its small fish body comes to her and finds her teat. The baby dolphin nurses on her as they move together slowly in the tank, a spectacle of mother and child. The connection is maintained through a series of aquatic maneuvers. I pull back from the window astonished that in Vegas a reminder exists of generativity. That one infant creature seeks out its mother.

My father and I stand apart from the crowd and watch the spectacle. The tour guide is saying something and leading the crowd back up the ramps that leads to the above ground. In this reenactment of the new life and its mother, our grief re-ignites. I have seen my father cry only twice in our lives – at his mother’s passing and at my own mother’s passing.

We retreat from nature with its story of life and generativity. We rush back to the casinos and their blinding lights and the possibility of winning. Vegas manufactures an illusion in three days that time does not exist, reducing our existence to winning and losing. We take back this needed illusion to the offices, factories and farms that a kind of triumph exists for us. We need that illusion that we can beat the numbers because our days are numbered. We need to believe that success, money and our own will renders us omnipotent.

We are waking Las Vegas every day of our lives. We are disproving the odds. We are trying to walk away from the inevitability of actuarial tables. We wake up and we win.

 

Mary Gannon has written and produced several continuing medical education videos. Her play Other Voyages On A City Street was produced at the Playwrights’ Center Theater of Chicago, IL. Her poetry has appeared in Catalyst Magazine, and a short story "Spinning Death" is forthcoming in a Virginia Writers collection. She is currently at work on a novel.

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