When we walked up to the gunmetal Eclipse convertible, I knew it was the car I wanted. I didn’t know this kind of car existed before that moment in the parking lot of the LAX Hertz, and I soon realized I also didn’t how to put the top down. My friend Megan, who had agreed to drive with me from Los Angeles to Las Vegas over Easter weekend, went in search of a Hertz employee while I readied my phone for the selfie we would take with this newfound wonder that would be ours for the weekend, as soon as we were shown how to unhook the canvas and open our vehicle to the palm tree tips and all of that crystalline sky.
Megan and I had been friends since attending grad school together in Seattle several years earlier, so when I asked if she would drive 280 miles through the desert with me, I had high hopes she’d agree. I suspected she could also feel the charged, open air of the two-lane highway and all of its unlikely stops—the World’s Tallest Thermometer, the blown-out shell of Bonnie and Clyde’s final getaway car, the Alien Jerky stand—fill her lungs whenever she thought about this trip, the way I did. But, I also wondered if, as someone who also moved thousands of miles away from her Midwestern family, she thought driving to Vegas was the best possible way to spend Easter, too.
As we pulled out of the Hertz parking lot, I thought of the monotony of Interstate 15 I had been warned about —the low-laying mounds that sculpt the Mojave Desert’s dusty surface over and over and over again. But, I believed in Las Vegas as a road trip town. I didn’t have drugs to take or belongings I wanted to throw out the window, like others who had taken this road. We just had a show to catch, twelve hours later, when the pop singer CeeLo Green would pay tribute to Liberace—a show where the past and present would collide, head-on, in a way that I couldn’t guess but knew I had to experience.
Randy’s Donuts (275 Miles to Vegas)
The massive, doughnut-shaped sign beamed over the innocuous, industrial intersection between La Cienega and West Manchester Boulevards as though it had been dipped and deep-fried in earnestness instead of cooking oil. Randy’s Donuts has an economy of space rare to Los Angeles, where boulevards open wide and restaurants stretch across vast spaces. The doughnut stand occupied the exact footprint required to take care of the business of dough-frying in back and sales in front. Although it was called Big Donut Drive-In when it opened in 1953, a later owner renamed it after his son Randy, during the 70s. This seemed fitting since nearly every time I visit a doughnut shop, I find dads with their kids, and Randy’s was no different, as two knee-high boys and a dad waited before us in line.
The sense of the traditional family business inhabited the mismatched, plastic lettered signs that listed Randy’s uncomplicated offerings—the “Standards” (cake, raised, old-fashioned) and the “Fancies” (bear claws, cinnamon rolls, cream filled). Despite the options, I knew what I wanted: the strawberry-filled, my standby from years of going to Dunkin Donuts with my father every week. Akin to the way rocky road ice cream is associated with the Great Depression—both a reference to and distraction from the realities of the time—some part of me always knew that those pastry excursions that ran counter to my father’s otherwise mercilessly healthy diet served as a distraction from the new reality we found ourselves in when my mother died suddenly from cancer and he was left taking care of my nine-year-old self and my four-year-old sister on his own.
Mornings could be particularly painful, as we woke into the false, seconds-long, sleepy haze of starting anew, as if everything were the same as it always had been, until we remembered how we were a family of three now, instead of four. That it wasn’t a dream. But, I now also question whether the Dunkin Donuts ritual was this easy, obvious distraction or if it was equally about my father distancing himself from his own problems that my sister and I didn’t notice while we were busy choosing our pastries.
Back then, entering Dunkin Donuts was total-body experience: finding a stool from the counter that snaked through the room, gazing into the rows of metal bins and bright dollops of sprinkled-pinks and caramely-yellows and fudge glazes that popped among the yeasty hues like marshmallows in a bowl of Lucky Charms. I would scan the cream-bursting powdered-puffs and the clouds of coconut as if I were making the most important decision of my life, but I rarely strayed from the strawberry-filled, despite its inelegant, uneven coating of granulated sugar and its viscous, saccharine red center’s minimal resemblance to actual strawberries. Even now, as an adult, I find myself hunting down unabashedly artificial fruit flavoring in pastries, sometimes orienting entire days obtaining a greasy, tangy sugar bomb.
My father’s standard was the unadorned, unglazed old-fashioned ring, a doughnut that seemed so unremarkable that I asked him countless times why he liked it so much. The only explanation I remember was, “It’s not too sweet,” but I was still skeptical. During the hundreds of times we went to Dunkin Donuts, I was sure I had never seen anyone else order it, making his preference highly suspect.
As someone working in advertising in downtown Chicago, my father dressed younger and more casual than most of the other suburban dads I knew, mostly wearing jeans and polo shirts from The Gap; he rarely did things that struck me as old-fashioned and dad-like in a traditional, baby boomer sense, with the exception of that plain, brown doughnut that always looked so dry and so sad compared to all of the others.
Exit 143: Main Street, Hesperia (191 Miles to Vegas)
The convertible’s inherent flaws started to show themselves as we navigated the congested highway strands that extracted us from Los Angeles. The water bottles Megan and I picked up from a bodega to stave off the anticipated desert heat proved more useful as weights for our sweaters and tote bags, which started flying up and out of the car when I picked up speed between traffic lulls. We had to stop again later, to retrieve sunscreen from our luggage when our shoulders and cheeks started redden in the thick wash of California sun.
The single thread of highway 15 broke out from the knot after a couple hours, stretching out before us when we hit Hesperia. We stopped at a Panera Bread to change drivers.
“Do you usually go home for Easter?” I asked Megan, as we ate our sandwiches on a patio beside the highway. I’d barely remembered it was a holiday weekend until I recognized the white-frosted x’s painted on the hot cross buns in Panera’s pastry case.
“I try to avoid it. My dad still sends me a giant baked ham in the mail, but I told him not to do that this year, since I’d be out of town.”
“Thanks for missing your ham for this,” I said.
She shook her head. “It’s always too much. I barely make a dent before it goes bad. He’s sadder about not sending it than I am about not eating it. I wish he’d just call me instead, but he never does. He just gets mad when I forget to call him.”
I knew what she meant. Consuming my father’s food offerings when I’m home had become my own source of reparation, but his version is the baked goods he makes en masse, even though there are never more than three of us eating them. And like Megan’s dad, mine also rarely calls me.
I had been better about calling regularly until a couple of years ago, when I met his ex-wife at a dive in Chicago’s West Loop. The waiter had just placed a plate of cream cheese-jalapeno poppers in the center of our half-moon both when she said, “Do you know why your dad and I broke up?”
I’d suspected that cheating was somehow involved but just shook my head.
“He’s gay. Well, he says he’s bisexual. But I know he’s gay. It’s just a generational thing that he won’t admit it.” She paused to look at the plate of poppers that neither of us had touched, by then cold and hardened beyond their short lifespan. “But I wasn’t supposed to tell you that.”
After a minute, I said, “I guess some part of me knew.” I tried not to imagine how she found out. I didn’t think it was because he told her. I looked into the rising bubbles of the beer I’d ordered and wondered if she’d chosen the dive bar for this lunch thinking I would need a drink. Or, if she’d expected me to be more surprised. If she was telling me this to create distance or nearness, between my dad and me. If she really meant it when she told me not to say anything, or if she was just following his instructions with the hopes that I would do the right thing, if saying something to him was the right thing to do. She shifted the conversation to benign things like jobs and vacations until I finished my beer and we left.
Now, most of the time, when I think about calling my father, I see the broken leather of the half-moon booth where we sat and those poppers we ordered—not the doughnuts and the holidays and the vacations that are harder to remember the way I once did. And, sometimes, I have put my phone away, when I’m suddenly too unsure of which version of my dad—the one I know or the one I don’t—I am about to call.
Exit 191: Old Highway 58 (154 Miles to Vegas)
The car bumpers stacked up against one another for the third time since we passed Hesperia. I finally gave up the delusion fed to me by car commercials and movies, that once we got outside of the city and hit the desert highway, the naked road would spread across the dashboard, with only the occasional intrusion by the sharp spark of the sun catching the hood of another car still miles and miles away. In reality, hundreds of people drive to Vegas every weekend. Each backup on the narrow highway ended in piles of revelers strewn on the road’s dusty shoulders, with crunched bumpers or shattered taillights, looking especially vulnerable as we rolled past, watching their vacations dissolve. But, we no longer had time for the stops we’d planned to make, either.
The cliché playlist I’d put together filled the open air around us like a soundtrack (The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”, “Roam” by the B-52’s, Simon and Garfunkel’s “America”). I watched the empty screen of the Skyline Drive-in creep along the horizon as we passed Barstow, California. The still-functioning theater, bleached by the sun and surrounded by nothing but sand, looked like a mirage, or a lie, abandoned and fake, left to decay in daylight. The empty parking lot that yawned around it collected sand piles in its corners as if it hadn’t been full of cars in decades. The bubbling letters of its hand-painted, yellow and red sign that said it was open seven days a week sounded facetious.
The Skyline’s existence at all seemed miraculous, given how few drive-ins survived the 1980s, when I was growing up. I had only seen one or two others before. Instead, my family was among the most devoted members of a drive-in nemesis: Blockbuster Video. We rarely even used the yellow, metal rental return box out front because as soon as we were finished with one movie, we were back inside the store, to check out another. I went from My Girl to Little Women to Sabrina to Now and Then to Clueless to Empire Records in one fell swoop, suspended in a never-ending fantasy of other people’s lives.
“Seen any good movies, lately?” my dad still asks, every time I call, even though I rarely see any now. But he can always fill in the silence. He loves Netflix. Their system enables him to watch movies in a long, continuous thread like we did when we were young. When I visit, he talks to the movies on television, especially if he’s seen whatever we’re watching multiple times before. He says aloud what’s about to happen as if we’re having a conversation, rather than watching someone else have the conversations. He laughs before the jokes and anticipates the explosions, as I become increasingly aggravated. I occasionally nod, or forcibly chuckle, but mostly I just stare at the screen, silent, as if I’m too engrossed in the movie to notice anything he’s saying.
Exit 1: Primm (40 Miles to Vegas)
Megan squinted against the sun that had started to descend behind the rolling rows of Joshua Trees. The rollercoaster we had been watching grow through the windshield for the last half hour became the only thing we could see as we drove into the valley. Called the Desperado, something didn’t seem right about the massive ride that appeared on the skyline as if we had imagined it into being. Its structure looked precarious. The yellow corkscrews and hills sprawled unnaturally straight in places where the track should have become steeper in order to maintain enough momentum to carry the cars through the end.
“You can’t really ride that. Can you?” Megan asked.
“I think you can,” I said. I scanned the track for any hint of motion but the coaster remained still, as if it were a movie set. “They probably only turn it on when someone pays.” I considered the skinny legs propping up the long, scrawl of track and wondered if someone had built it by hand.
The rollercoaster was in Primm, a community that rests like straight pin stuck on the diagonal line that separates California and Nevada. Traffic had finally let up, and we decided to make a single stop before we pulled into Vegas, less than an hour away. While waiting for a light to change, I noticed a guy in a silver coupe beside us nodding his head in time with Kanye West’s “Runaway,” whose stark piano strikes came from our stereo, emanating out into his window: Baby, I got a plan. Runaway fast as you can.
When I put the song on the playlist, I wasn’t thinking of the road trip as an escape, although vacations usually have that association—escape the office, escape the winter, escape the stress, escape your age, escape death. I had already escaped the Midwest, or so I reassured myself whenever I felt guilty about not staying to help my father as he aged; I was living my vacation. It was a survival of the fittest, I told myself. “Old elephants limp off to the hills to die, old Americans go out to the highway and drive themselves to death with huge cars,” Hunter S. Thompson wrote in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, while barreling down I-15. I drove to survive but I was convinced that my father was, indeed, driving himself to death.
“Can you believe a cop pulled me over for tailgating?” he asked the last time I was in town, as if there were nothing to fear from driving so close to someone’s bumper that I had to look away as I sat beside him in the passenger seat. But, even more than I feared his death, I worried that, after I moved west, I missed the moment he would finally come to terms with his real self and tell me about it. That he was driving with the desperate abandon of someone who had given up.
When I looked at the Desperado, I saw the roller coasters of the family trips we took to Florida every year and the way I wouldn’t have paused before riding one back then. I lived for the seconds of a severe downhill coaster that lift you out of your seat, when your body enters survival mode, forgetting everything else other than the visceral possibility that you might be falling to your death. Except, a remote part of your mind knows that you’ll survive and so the fear turns into ecstatic pleasure. As I waited for hours by myself in the dark tunnels and mazes of metal barriers that led to the rides’ loading zones, alternating waves of fear and pride rolled over my stomach. I reveled in my rebelliousness in being the only one in the family who wanted to take on the biggest, fastest, scariest ride in the park. When I rejoined them afterwards, my father would shake his head with a half-smile, only partially masking his lack of understanding of my mad desire for rides like this.
Exit 38: Flamingo Road (Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada)
“I love how his sweat towel matches the showgirls. And has so many rhinestones.” Megan whispered, a few minutes into the show we’d barely made it in time to see.
“But his outfit isn’t very Liberace,” I said. “It looks flimsy and cheap.”
CeeLo Green was wearing a gold hologram Lycra tracksuit that looked like it had been stretched out and draped over his body like an emergency blanket. Behind him, a psychedelic rainbow of digital projections spun and burst on a screen to distract us from the absence of any traditional production sets on the empty stage. But, the sweat towel he used to wipe his forehead every few moments perfectly matched the rhinestone bikini tops of the showgirls who stood behind him, making it the one thing on stage that looked true to Liberace.
Later in the performance, CeeLo strolled into the audience, as if he were Dean Martin or Sammy Davis, Jr., trying to have a heart-to-heart with the room. He told us how he admired Liberace, that Liberace should be appreciated for all he accomplished, for all of his style. I found it hard to believe him. The digital screen and the Lycra and the heart-to-heart moment flattened in a stark, disingenuous contrast against the pluming ostrich feathers and the orbs of Swarovski crystals and the bubble bath monologues that characterized Liberace’s personae, even though that personae had its own untruths.
But, maybe I wanted too much from him. Maybe CeeLo watched Liberace on television when he was young, with his mother in Georgia, when his name was still Thomas DeCarlo Callaway. Maybe Liberace offered some kind of escape. Maybe he embodied a truth CeeLo was still trying to find. Maybe he really did love the personality and the camp that inspired the entrances Liberace made through an enormous, pink Faberge egg, clothed in 150 pounds of mink or blue sequined hot pants or one of the other costumes that no one wanted to pick up at the cleaners after his death because they were afraid of getting the virus that no one wanted to talk about in 1987. “Liberace’s was a life of exquisite paradox; of flamboyance and repression, kitsch and concealment,” People magazine wrote in his obituary. Maybe those contradictions were still hard to understand, even now, decades later.
Behind the Candelabra, the movie HBO produced in 2013 about Liberace, tried to take on some of those complications, but it couldn’t handle everything. The story about the dry cleaning wasn’t in the movie. I happened to call my dad the night Michael Douglas won a Golden Globe for playing Liberace in the film. But, my dad didn’t get HBO, so he hadn’t seen it. I wanted to ask if he ever watched Liberace on television. If he remembered when he died. If he ever saw him come out of the Faberge egg. By then, he’d already started talking about American Hustle and Her and Gravity all of the other movies he’d seen that season. So, I just let him go on. I’m still holding those questions for the next call.
Erin Langner earned her MA in Museology at the University of Washington and her BA in Humanities from the University of Colorado. Her criticism and essays have appeared in Hyperallergic, Lunch Ticket, and The Stranger. She was a finalist for the Diana Woods Memorial Award in Creative Nonfiction in 2016. She lives in Seattle, WA, where she is at work on an essay collection inspired by her experiences visiting the Las Vegas Strip over the last decade.