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Greg Rappleye

From The Vegas Cantos

"Hey, I like to swing as much as anybody, but
this ain’t a plan, it’s a pipe load of the crazy
Dean Martin, from the original shooting
script for Ocean’s Eleven.

January 1960. Klieg lights, Sinatra
at the Sands, filming underway
for the Rat Pack movie, the Strip
blazing neon. The plot, such as it is:
Eleven ex-soldiers, led by Frank,
rob five casinos on New Year’s Eve,
after Sammy knocks out the power lines.
Every day, the production shoots into dusk.
Cesar Romero as Duke Santos,
trying to intimidate the boys,
Sammy driving the truck full of money
through the Sheriff’s blockade,
Angie Dickinson telling Ilka Chase
just how it is between Angie and Frank,
how it’s always going to be, five different bands
playing Auld Lang Syne, over and over,
dancing into The New Frontier.
It’s hard work and at night they unwind
with vodka martinis, a bottle
of Jack Daniel’s, a splash of soda,
unfiltered Chesterfields. Smoking is all
in the wrist, Lawford says.

At 1 a.m.,
Frank backs away from the piano
in the Copa Room, says, The action here
is getting old, to Sammy, Sammy nods at Dean,
the Pack rises, pushes toward the exit.
In the parking lot, three El Dorado
convertibles: One pearlescent blue,
one lemon chiffon, one green mist,
all courtesy of Jack Warner.
They load the cars, tops down.
It’s January in the desert, but a warm front
has burgeoned up from the Sea of Cortez,
and Dean says, It’s ragtop weather, baby,
nudging the strapless breasts
of a showgirl’s sequined gown.
Frank and Dean in front, Angie, Ilka,
then Sammy driving the chiffon El Dorado,
Lawford sipping a traveller, more girls,
Joey Bishop, the only sober one,
driving the third card and worried, Romero,
drunk and laughing, Shirley MacLaine
and another chick in back. Does Frank know
where he’s going? Joey wants to know.
It’s your job to be the mother! Romero says.
And too often, Joey thinks, Right, I’m the one
left paying for broken windows
and slipping fifty to the maitre d’
while the others scoot through the kitchen,
playing pat-ass on the way. Behind
the third Cadillac, the parking attendant,
Paco, drives his ’53 Chevy pickup—
Richard Conte, already swan-songed
in the movie (Your guy buys the big casino,
Frank had explained), flat-drunk
in the bed of the truck, Henry Silva,
Norman Fell, and a couple of broads
holding stakes that rise from the sides,
everyone singing Come Fly With Me,
Frank’s number-one hit.

On they go,
ten, twenty miles into the desert,
until Romero begins to wonder if this is
such a good idea, until the singing stops
and the girls have started to shiver.
Dean lights another cigarette, looks
sideways at Frank, who has said almost nothing.
Just as Dean is about to ask, What’s up, amigo?,
Frank goes, This is the place, jerks the car
onto a two-track, bottoms through the alkali flats
and drives on. Sammy, his good eye almost hypnotized
by the dashing lines of U.S. 95,
comes to, chases the pearlescent blue
El Dorado off the road,
the green Cadillac and flat-gray pickup
follow suit. Frank finally stops, hops
out, his car in park, headlights
still on. Circle up! he yells, looping a finger
in the air. Frank backs the drivers off,
making sure they leave enough space
in the middle. Everyone piles out.
Paco! Frank snaps. You and Normie
grab some branches off that pile of mesquite!
Dean, Sammy, get the booze and blankets
outta the trunk. You girls, there’s a cooler
and snacks in the yellow El Dorado.
And while you’re up, Dean,
tune all the radios to that Mexican station
we’ve been listening to!
Sammy squirts the mesquite
with lighter fluid, tosses a match,
the oily flames rise into the sky,
the radios begin three hours of Basie,
Ellington, and Dorsey, between songs
the announcer hawking headache powders,
Geritola and laxantes.

A chill in the air. Stars swirl overhead,
miles from the neon clutter of the Strip.
Some pair off under blankets.
Sammy has a few drinks, smokes,
takes a chick he’s been eyeing
into the lemon El Dorado. Her head
disappears, Sammy lies back
against the creamy leather.
You are the craziest, he says, over and over.
Dean chases Shirley around the fire.
She lets him catch up, paw her, stick his tongue
down her throat, bending her
in the crook of his left arm, martini balanced
in one hand, cigarette in the other.
Baby, he says, let’s rehearse our scene.
She laughs, pushes him away, the pursuit begins

Night goes by. Constellations rise.
Paco tends the fire, Romero falls asleep,
Norman Fell nods off, Silva wanders away,
Sammy snores in the El Dorado,
the sweet head of a showgirl in his lap.
How Are Things in Glocca Morra?
Take the "A" Train,
Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive,
50,000 watts of Ensenada clear-channel
play on. Only Frank, Angie,
and Joey stay awake, Frank listening
to music, pacing, singing a scrap lyric,
cupping a cigarette to his face,
pushing a black Panama snap-brim
back on his head, occasionally lighting
a Chesterfield for Angie. A sweet smell is
in the air, a redolence Frank knows
from the early forties—
the bad boys in the saxophone section.
Frank looks toward the pickup.
He sees the glow: Paco, Dean, and Lawford
passing a pipe of Mary Jane,
wacky tabacky, the crazy stuff.
Frank frowns. They’re in the desert, okay,
no one around and if you stay clear
of the Mormons, anything goes,
but he doesn’t need any hopheads
hanging around, capisce?
He looks at Angie, nods toward
the pickup, she shakes her head
in disapproval. Take care of it, Frank snaps
at Joey, then turns and walks
to the other side of the fire.

Stars turn. The fire burns down.
Frank looks at his watch. Almost 6 a.m.
He tells Joey, Radios off. And roust Dean
outta the truck, he’s got to see this.
Frank steps fifty yards into the desert.
A few minutes later, Joey and Angie follow.
Dean, his head pounding, stumbles toward them.
Suddenly, the horizon ignites—soundless,
a half-moon of orange, yellow, and white fire
swells in the distance. Frank’s face flashes
in the ignited air, he squints, heads jerk
back in alarm, a reaction to light,
Oh my God, Angie mouths, and Joey and Dean
just stand there. The blankets stir.
Sammy’s head wobbles,
his good eye opens, a sleepy head
rises from his lap. Paco moans to consciousness,
begins to cross himself,
and before he gets to Espiritu Santo,
a windstorm sweeps through—
dust glows red below
the expanding mushroom cloud,
a concussion washes their bodies,
the earth begins to roll.
Everyone is awake now—even Conte’s head rises
behind the pickup cab.
To the east, the air is on fire, electric
with the bomb’s ignition.
That’s what I brought you to see,
Frank says, the Big Kahplowie!
Raising a glass of bourbon
toward the towering firestorm,
Salud to Armageddon! he yells into the dust, turns
and tells everyone, Pack it in
before the fallout hits! He throws the keys
of the blue El Dorado at Dean.
You’re sober. Drive. Joey,
take the yellow one. Lawford, the green.
Paco drives his own. Angie, you ride with me.
The caravan sets out. Conte stirs again,
Silva wipes atomic dust from his eyes.

In the back of the blue El Dorado,
Sinatra curls into the fetal position, his head
nested in Angie’s lap. She smooths his cheek,
his face softens in the courtesy lights.
The radio is off, Dean in front, smoking
and driving, the horizon beginning to glow
with the orange and streaky pink
of a bombed-out desert sunrise. Ahead,
the other-glow of the Strip. Dean
finishes a cigarette, looks at it for a second
then flicks it over the side. In the mirror,
he watches it bounce and spray sparks
across the road, until it disappears
in the headlight-wash of the lemon El Dorado.
He begins to sing his new song
from the movie, scatting it, arriving
at the chorus, tapping his fingers on the wheel.
Ain’t that a kick in the head?
he sings, Ain’t that a kick in the head?


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