“Waking Up In Vegas” by Steven Mayoff
One eye is half-open to a yellow glare fringing the slats of the window blind. Your tongue has dehydrated into dumb kindling. A sleep trail of drool darkens a corner of the bedspread where an empty highball glass is balanced precariously. Somewhere you can hear running water and a toilet flushing. A webbing of unconsciousness dissolves into flyblown tatters and the second eye opens to a mostly empty 20-ouncer of Chivas Regal, keeping a tireless vigil on the bedside table. You shift your weight onto shaky forearms, knocking over the highball, and retch up something nasty that stings the back of the throat. There is movement nearby. The feathery blonde? The spiky redhead?
“Señor?” A dark-skinned woman in a light blue apron steps into your narrow line of vision. She holds out a feather duster, possibly for protection. “Estoy aquí para limpiar la habitación.”
“No housekeeping.” The words croak out a fetid aftertaste.
She shakes her head and clicks her tongue. “Por favor, señor.” She passes the feather duster half-heartedly over the slats of the blind and then gestures emphatically with it. “Housekeeping.”
“Dontcha see the sign?” This is punctuated by a wheezy whistle as a mixture of battery acid and glue pools into your chest cavity. “El sign-o.”
“Qué signo?” She nervously dusts the Chivas bottle.
“No disturb-o.” You wave a limp hand at her. She sighs, picks up the phone, punching a button and speaks in a hushed voice.
Why is this happening and where are the two you met in the downstairs bar, the feathery blonde and her spiky redhead friend? Something constricts your upper body and you sit up. The bureau’s mirror shows a naked torso, except for the pink brassiere girding your portly frame. The flimsy material bites into your flesh, pushing out twin rolls of flab. You rip off the bra and look down at your boxers and socks, then think back. The spiky redhead was rolling a joint while you and the feathery blonde were playing some kind of drinking game where clothes were coming off. Then the redhead found the empty flight bag and asked about the money. That was when you started yelling at her.
“Es después de doce, señor.” The cleaning woman points at her watch with the other end of the feather duster. “Es el momento de su salida.” She tugs the cord and the blind flies up. White-hot sunlight pierces the back of your eyeballs. A mad scramble as you grope blindly and feel something solid in your grasp — flinging it at the red dots orbiting your brain. Glass shatters. You fall backwards, smacking your head on something hard and narrow.
“Me ayudan!” She shoves her cart toward the door. “Se ha vuelto loco!
Rubbing the back of your head, you stagger to your feet and feebly go after her. “Hey!” Your knees start to buckle. “No loco.” You grab for the open door and swing off-balance, scraping your knees on the threadbare carpet. Your stomach knots up and squeezes out an acrid liquid, trickling over the tongue and down your chin.
You crawl on all fours with eyes barely focused. A stabbing pain shoots into one hand. Jagged shards of the Chivas Regal bottle are scattered by the foot of the bed where a wet patch of carpet stinks of wasted scotch. A thin piece of glass juts out between your middle and index fingers. Blood runs down your hand. You slowly pull the shard out of the webbing of flesh and let loose a string of curses. More blood oozes. You grab a corner of bedspread and wrap it numerous times around your hand, then reach for the last Winston sticking out from the pack’s crushed grimace like it was flipping you off.
You light up and see the unzipped flight bag. Its gaping mouth leaves no doubt about its emptiness, the ten thousand large long since spent. If only you could fold yourself inside the bag limb by aching limb and zip it closed from the inside. Somewhere in your memory the distant clatter of coins rattles through slot machine guts and the staccato clicking of roulette balls bounce between the grooves. At one time all of it seemed to be ricocheting through your own tightly wound circuitry.
The phone chirps and you jump. A hot ash springs from the cigarette onto your lap. You swat it off. The phone chirps again. It can’t be Roz, she doesn’t have a clue where you are. Still, by this time she must know about the stolen money. Big time screw-up, you can see that now. Nothing personal against Teller’s – it was an okay place to work – but the long plunge from vice president of sales at Fine Brothers’ Suits (downsized after twenty years of faithful service) to working the floor again in a small men’s boutique was more than anyone should ever have to deal with. Here it is 1995, for God’s sake, a new millennium approaching. You and Roz should be building that retirement dream home instead of starting from scratch.
The third and fourth chirps seem longer, shriller. You stare at the phone and consider beating its wire-coiled brains in with the bedside lamp. It stops.
What Mr. Adilman must be thinking, probably kicking himself for making you Assistant Manager before you had even worked a full year at Teller’s. He had no reason not to trust you with the week’s deposit, expecting you to put in the after-hours bank drop like you did every Wednesday. That day you brought your lunch in an old flight bag you used to take with you on business trips when you were still with Fine Brothers. You were showing the bag to Mr. Adilman, telling him about all the cities you used to fly to: Chicago, Dallas, New Orleans and your favorite city, Las Vegas. You couldn’t help going on and on about how you used to sell suits to some of the entertainers there. Vic Damone and Joey Bishop. Rich Little. Once you were out on the street it all seemed preordained somehow, encouraged by the weight of the deposit money in the flight bag, to walk past the bank drop and head straight to Port Authority.
The Winston burns down to the filter. You crush the butt in the empty highball glass and curl up on the bed, jamming a pillow between your legs. If only you could disappear chameleon-like against the sickly yellow walls or become one more fixture along with the light switch and thermostat.
Five days ago you stepped off a Greyhound coach in the Las Vegas bus station with a flight bag full of cash. Near the lockers there was a woman jabbing a finger into her open palm. It took you a couple of minutes to figure out she was counting imaginary coins. At least she could imagine having something in her hands, everything is slipping through yours. Now you wonder if you should call Roz, beg her to wire enough to get you on a Greyhound back to New Jersey. Swear that you’ll get help. Go to AA and Gambler’s Anon. Even go back on the medication, the lithium or whatever else they want to prescribe.
The phone chirps again and you jump like it’s plugged directly into your spinal column. You snatch up the receiver, put it to your ear and wait.
“Hello?” It’s a man’s voice, reedy and officious. “Mr. Weintraub?”
“Who is this?”
“This is Mr. Fenton, the manager. According to our register you are supposed to be checking out today.”
“I’m afraid, Mr. Weintraub, that it is now forty-five minutes past checkout time. We have to clean that room for the next guest.”
You look at your bare wrist. “Um, I seem to have misplaced my watch.”
“Mr. Weintraub, it is hotel policy to charge any guest who has not vacated his room by checkout for an extra day.”
“I could have sworn I had it on.“
“Mr. Weintraub, we need you out of the room.”
“But if you’re charging me anyway.”
“That room is booked for another guest. We will be happy to put you in a different room.”
“Why don’t you just put the other guest in that room?” There is a moment’s silence. You wonder if he is considering this.
“Mr. Weintraub, you have fifteen minutes to settle your bill at the front desk.”
“But I need to have a shower and pack.”
“Fifteen minutes, Mr. Weintraub.”
There is a click. The dial tone drones in your ear, its finality oddly soothing. You hang up and unwrap the bedspread from your wounded hand, now caked with semi-dried blood. Swinging your legs over the side of the bed, you find yourself sinking to your knees. Fingers automatically interlace and you bow your head, hoping to find the right words but you come up blank. Dear God… you think and come up blank again. But you are aware of a presence, the faint sound of shallow breathing. You open your eyes to the figure of a little girl, maybe six years old, with a caramel complexion and long hair tied in pigtails. She stands at the doorway, her eyes two large drops of the blackest ink.
“What are you doing?” she asks and giggles, then stops when she sees you are not laughing. She is wearing pink overalls with matching sneakers. She inches the toe of one sneaker past the threshold, touches the room’s threadbare carpet and quickly pulls her foot back again as if fulfilling a dare. You ask her name. She steps back and looks at her sneakers for a moment.
“My name is Martin.”
She will not meet your eyes.
“Do you know your prayers?”
She smiles a little, nodding her head, and swings shyly while holding onto the doorway frame.
“Maybe you can help me.”
She shakes her head. “I am looking for my mother. She cleans the rooms.”
“Just tell me a prayer.”
“You should say your prayers before you go to bed.” She looks up and down the hallway. “I have to find my mother.”
You squeeze your hands together, trying to ignore the stinging wound. “Just help me get started.”
“I only know how to pray in Spanish.”
She looks at you, taking in your wretchedness with unflinching dark eyes. “Padre nuestro que estás en los cielos –“
“Isabella!” It is a woman’s voice calling from farther down the hallway. The girl turns to look. “Venir aquí,” the voice calls again. “Ahora, Isabella!”
“Sí, mami!” She runs off without giving you a second thought.
You rise to your feet and close the door. Stripping off boxers and socks, you make a point of marching past the bathroom mirror and into the shower. The water is a deluge of tiny needles prickling papery skin. You lather the sorry tit-sag of hairy pecs, the belly that is starting to obscure your genitals. Rinsing your wounded hand reminds you of a Yiddish saying your grandfather used repeat. A kind vert geboiren mit kulyaken, un a man shtarbt mit ofeneh hent.
When a child is born his fists are shut tight, but when a man dies his hands are open. You towel off in front of that vaguely human form lost in the parallel world behind the steamed-up mirror. A swipe of your palm cuts through the condensation, revealing a puffy, blotched face. Ashy stubble echoes your father, but the vein-mapped nose and gin-blossomed cheeks are all yours. You dress. The once beautifully tailored suit is a mass of wrinkles and creases, a shapeless waste of good gabardine. Checking the inside pockets, it is no surprise that your wallet is missing, gone the way of your watch. Your money (if you had any) would be on the feathery blonde. You roll up towels and facecloths and stuff them into the flight bag along with tiny cakes of soap and mini bottles of shampoo.
You check the hallway before slipping out of the room. Past the elevators, you try two doors, both locked, before gaining access to a third marked: MAINTENANCE ONLY. The elevator dings and you hear the doors sliding open.
You bound down twelve flights of iron staircase, aware of footsteps clanging above, gaining on you. At the bottom is a large green door and your full weight pushes against the safety bar. The door trips a deafening alarm and opens onto an alley. You look one way then the other. All you have to do is choose a direction, any direction. Then you just run like hell.