[Photo Credit: Joel Jover, Camagüey]
For breakfast that morning took cajun sausage, skin removed to only gristle, fried with a couple eggs over-medium, side o’soft homefries&onions. Peppered everything heavily, then dashed tobasco on top of that. While the rest of the band ate their meal at a booth by a window, he’d his at the diner bar, listening contentedly to the clank&rattle knocking in from the kitchen. The waitress was thin, maybe late fifties, hair still somewhat brunette not completely gray, her arms corded from years of dishes and burden. Approached and asked in a highdesert-drawl if he needed a top off, refilling his mug before he could reply. Called him ‘darlin.’
His name’s Darren Connor, long-haired drummer for the outfit he founded, Asphalt Roadies, a country-rock quartet that mostly toured Laughlin and Reno casinos, sometimes venturing into the reservations in California or the lower-end Vegas halls.
“You almost done over there, D?” Vern, his bassist, was calling from the table. “Three of us about ready.”
Finished the last few bites of grease and downed a large gulp of coffee, enduring the burn on its way down, wiping beads from his blond mustache. Stood while paying the tab for everyone, gathered his blue-denim jacket hanging on the stool; he draped it over broad shoulders, flared the collar and straightened it to better frame a blood-red King Crimson logo on his black tshirt. When he joined the rest of the band—Fleetwood Grubbs, guitarist, and Josie Burke, keyboards, plus Vern—they each took out their cigarettes and were passing a book of matches on their way out the door. Darren still had never got Fleetwood’s real first name, but Josie had spread the rumor it was Vivian. He’d met the two of them at a tavern frequented by bikers and summertime offroad warriors clamoring for the authentic bison burgers, half-pound apiece. They had played classic rock, tunes by the Stones or Janis. Part of a trio but the drums were shit. That’s just what Darren told them, over a beer while the dude was taking a piss. Couple weeks later, they were jamming together in D’s rented storage space, where he had to relinquish his drums after the landlord threatened to throw him out of his cheap studio if the other tenants complained again. And then Vern simply showed up one day, worked the store-yard, claimed he’d heard them from the closet his bosses called an office. Together ever since. Was Vern suggested the name, and Darren figured it good as any.
Outside the sun blared like trumpet brass, boil-your-spit kind of hot. Steams when it hits the road. They were leaving the Wagon Wheel, a regular stopover in Needles. Headed into Laughlin to play two sets at the Avi, a small casino outside the city proper, on the Fivehundred Nations Indian Reservation. It’d be all country hits tonight, but nothing later than ‘85. Some Merle Haggard and a couple Patsy Cline. The Eagles. Bluegrass baby Bill Monroe and Loretta, some Skynard and the Allman boys to keep the energy up. Josie, Fleet, and Vern practiced out some harmonies through their tobacco smoke, before crushing the butts into a planter full of nothing but dirt and dead weeds. The rest got into a van with most of the equipment, but D had his own wheels, an ‘89 Firebird, paid for when he was with the Pipefitters Local, but fuck that, he got laid off when the union lost a bid for work outside Reno. This was it now.
Sped off for the van to follow at a distance. Cranked up the mighty Angus Young and wailed heading toward the sandstone canyons which nestle the Avi, hiding its terraced zigzag architecture, lined in orange and blue neon, which at this time of day would appear as constricted veins netted over imitation adobe.
Knew exactly when it was coming. In who he was and what he stank like, stale all over, because he spills on himself often and doesn’t shower. Had seen the type pass through on a nightly basis. She tried at first to imagine it was his shame kept such a man from ever coming back a second time, but eventually she learned it was most likely he simply didn’t remember where he was or how he’d gotten there. As if it never happened, to him it never happened; a distant image he can’t make out, a droplet of water hitting hot cement and evaporating before it’s noticed. She remembered, though; but only for a rippling moment, conceding that eventually it will be part of an image too large to comprehend, a speck in a dust devil. Her instinct forced her hand down to swipe his away, but he spanked her ass anyway, while she was walking by holding a tray of multicolored cocktails. She swung around violently, nearly tossing the drinks onto an elderly midwestern couple sitting beside the drunk.
“Fuck you,” she blurted, then to the bartender: “Get him out of here.”
“Aw, c’mon, I was jus’ havin’ a little kid on you, jus’ a joke, cutesy like y’ar.” The drunk slapped his knee, grinned toothy yellow and placed a ten on the bartop, dug a couple crumpled singles from his pocket. “ ‘nother vodka gimlet. Rest is y’rs.”
Maggie looked up at the barman, who stared back and shrugged as if he had no choice. Took the money and began fixing the drink. She let out an exasperated and angry sigh, got to delivering her drinks before the ice melted. Returned the tray to the kitchen, collected her tips—which were even weaker on the early-evening shift than the graveyard—and took a seat in a rear booth, pulling a pack of Grand Prix smokes out of her bra strap. Was joined by Cora, an older waitress with fried blond-on-gray hair dressed large, her face painted by heavy blue eyeshadow, purple eyeliner, cherry lipstick framing a gap between her front teeth; she was thick in the shoulders and bursting at the chest. She’d worked at the Avi since it opened nearly thirty years ago, right after dropping out of the Mohave junior college across the river in Bullhead; she called the shots, wrote the schedule, and had apparently taken a liking to her new hire. Maggie watched as Cora’s breasts shook while smacking a pack of menthols on her palm, like
clapping. Looked down at her own cleavage barely there, buttoned the top of her shirt out of insecurities still lingering from the locker room at Fox Creek Middle. Though in contrast with her boss, Maggie’s skin was glowing and youthful, with hair that still held a natural golden-brown honey shine, her frame graceful but trained strong. Was only a year out of River Valley High, where she had been the star of the dance squad.
“Saw what that bastard done,” said Cora. “Can’t be havin’ that shit, Margaret.”
“What was I supposed to do?”
“Shoved him off the stool an’ onto his ass, for one. Drunker’n a poet on payday, that’s for sure, woulda toppled real easy. And taught him a lesson or two.”
“I told Greg, or whatever the hell his name is, to kick him out, but all he did was serve him another.”
“It’s business, hon, all about those bills. It’s the wild west, that’s what they’re sellin’ all these people, and you gotta just dish out what needs serving. There ain’t gonna be much more justice than that comin’ your way.” She took a deep drag, exhaled smoke that surrounded Maggie’s innocent-looking face. “I’ll talk to Gary and tell him to man-up a little bit, but there ain’t no changin’ how he’s gonna see it, or any man makin’ a buck, really, and who are all the bosses here?”
“That’s right, and they don’t get shit. Just like I told you on day one.”
Lifted her eyebrows, bored of the conversation, using a straw to make designs on the tabletop with the water-ring left from Cora’s soda. There was a strict rule against consuming alcohol while on the clock, which only increased her tension. Eyed the drunk that’d smacked her ass, sitting like a curved butcher’s knife against the bar, itself a long blade run through a parade of lights and glass, the entire casino floor covered in metal and sharp edges, as if at the slightest movement she might be cut by these angles, and by the fluorescence bouncing off of them; her meandering gaze fighting to avoid seeing any reflections, returned to Cora’s out of desperation. Resumed her water drawings.
“The band’s startin’ to set up,” said Cora, pointing to the stage behind the bartop.
Maggie turned around to find a stocky flannel-backed man with a black scruff of semi-curly hair pushing an amplifier up the ramp. A slightly taller but equally husky drummer set up his kit, continuously brushing his long hair out of his face. They weren’t scheduled to start for another half hour.
“I hate when we got a band here,” said Maggie.
“Don’t make a shit of difference, really, not like they got fans screamin’ front-row center. I ain’t never seen a pair of panties tossed.”
“Well, that’s not how they behave.”
Her shift was over in just another three hours. At thirty minute intervals she could swig from the plastic flask of Potter’s gin she kept in her locker. By the time she was off, she could relax with a greyhound and sit at a different goddamn bar, get away from the shitty acts, and ease into her looming buzz. That’d be a normal shift. But Cora could smell liquor from a mile off. Maggie’d have to wait. Wiped clear the elaborations she’d been making with water droplets on the table. The noise was quickly becoming too much to maintain the appearance of such delicacy. The contrast shocked her mind. Cora was rambling off something about how she fucked the guitarist in a band that played there in the 80s, eventually hit the bigtime as a one-hit-wonder. Said she’d always figured he’d end up playing here again, wondered whether proud or shamefaced, whether she’d give him another fuck.
“What about you?”
Maggie turned around. She hadn’t really been paying attention.
“What about me what?”
Cora sighed, as if annoyed. “Fuck him again.”
“Nobody! I just mean, this guy, if he came back after— oh shit, just nevermind. What’s with you?” Cora slurped the last of her soda. Several times, just to be sure.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Her fingers had been idly resuming the straw designs, but she wiped them out again, dried her hands on her apron.
Cora rolled her eyes, gave her soda one more try, and as if the cup were her instrument for measuring time, declared that break was over, and Maggie needed to get back on the floor. There was a second dinner rush gonna come through, so she slid the pack of smokes back under her brastrap; she stood, setting her hair and picking at the hem of her skirt, and as soon as she was away from Cora, once again undid her top button.
“I don’t want ta be here, Nathan.”
Her voice was low, but shrill in its own signature way. He knew it well. A hiss that she let out under her breath. Had heard it in his ear for fifty years, to the day. To this day.
“Y’know that I can’t stand bars, I don’t know why you had to drag me here when we should be seeing Le Cirque or Rita Edgahs at one of the nice hotels. In Las Vegas.”
“I just need to rest a bit,” he explained. “And we got a hell of a deal here, by the way, what else couldya want?” He motioned to the casino floor behind them, eventually leading to glass doors where the natural light broke and terminated quickly. “There’s slots, you like them, don’tcha? And the three-dollah tables. And a pool outside. We could barely afford flying inta Las Vegas, nevahmind staying there.”
“Oh, Nathan, really. It’s our fiftieth anniversary. We’ll git a shuttle in, there must be something. I’ll talk to that Oriental woman at the front desk, she seemed pleasant.”
Muriel Roth, born and bred in Indian River, Michigan, stretched taffy and kneaded fudge for pocket money after high school, at a shopfront on Mackinac Island. Hers was a wholesome upbringing, spending summers bathing in the crystal waters of Mullett Lake, or walking down the unused railroad tracks to collect rusted spikes, building forts with her brothers out of the soft branches they’d stripped from sapling maples. Then of course, at twenty-two, a man by the name of Nathan Baumbach walked into her store while visiting his grandparents. He was a handsome, sturdy man, with a clean smile and good haircut. He stayed with his grandparents for an extra six weeks, courting her with hand-picked bouquets and picnics underneath the bridge. When he proposed, she was so woozy from the romance that she accepted, then followed him to Pikeville, Kentucky, where Nathan mined coal and drank bourbon. Within a year she was carrying their first child. Two more eventually followed.
She made to stand, but one of the waitresses nearly spilled a tray of drinks, trying to slap the hands of some pervert a seat over from Nate. Muriel let her pass, wishing to avoid the inevitable confrontation, again sitting beside her husband.
The bartender handed the drunk another drink, so the waitress walked away fuming. Nate shook his head disapprovingly. Wasn’t decent of a man to act in such ways, and it
was an embarrassment to even be in the presence of such a creature. In all their fifty years he’d never once struck Muriel, had only raised his voice a handful of times. And if ever he forced himself upon her improperly, well at least they were husband and wife by the eyes of God, and he’d always felt a might guilty about it at that, anyway. It was a shame to see so many without shame. No shame meant no pride.
“Whaddya thin’, ol’ timer, you thin’ I got a good shot at it?” The drunk’s voice was slobbery, unrefined. Each word unfinished.
Simply ignored him.
The drunk gave a loud bah!, and resumed to staring straight ahead, the way Nate preferred him. Preferred everyone, really, eyes confined to their own forward view. He sipped his beer. An import; might as well let loose. Shit, it ain’t Vegas but it’s something, they weren’t cut out for Vegas anyway, and he knew it, but she didn’t, and he knew that too. She wanted to indulge for once, but he knew better. They wouldn’t be able to take it, it’d be too much on the constitution. Heart-attack, stroke, aneurysm, sheer exhaustion or a mere slip&fall—these were real threats now, and she just wanted to trot off into mayhem, get dolled in the glitz’n’glamor and makebelieve they were anything but the old midwesterners they were, smalltown folk. Muriel had never even been to Detroit until he dragged her there during their six-week courtship, and never to Chicago until she went with him to the airport, all those years ago. Hell, she’d not even left Michigan before that, and the stateline was only a few hours from her house. Vegas. What the hell did she know about that kind of thing?
Composure, Muriel, wait for the composure: of the moment: and then the situation will present itself again. And so it did. The drunk had said something to Nathan, but he only stared ahead. She knew her husband loathed this man. But he did not respond, did not retaliate against the offense of unwanted exchange. His non-actions set upon her the calm again. Let the composure in. She knew that her husband was a man of stagnancy. He sought to let in the calm, and she could depend on that; life taught her that she had no choice but to take comfort in such disappointments in who he was and what their life had become—so when she felt confined, seeing the world grow&shrink and people exodus and arrive, this the source of her madness could also arrest her in tranquility. In all their fifty years together, that six-week courtship was the last time he left Kentucky any further than their twenty-fifth anniversary spent in Nashville. When she agreed to marry him she’d believed that first journey out of Michigan to be only the start—imagined a lifetime of exploration, to find other lakes until they discovered the ocean. For the very first time; they were the only people in the whole world.
Finding the composure, made to stand. Again. Stood, balanced herself resting her hand on Nathan’s shoulder.
“I’ll be right back,” she said to him.
He watched her go, making her way cautiously through the bar and out into the casino crowds. She’d get lost. Couldn’t handle all that mess, she was clinging to his shirtsleeve on the walk from the room, and he’d be damned if he was gonna risk a slip running on those sets of stairs they’ve got. Likely break a hip on the chase, better not let it get to that point; it was her way, try to make him give in to such things, wanted to stir him loose like chunks of ice in her lemonade, seeking to freeze together their scattered selves against the mix and tempests of freshness. Took a sip of his old-fashioned. She wanted it all so fresh, he liked it fermented, aged ripe. If she didn’t get bewildered first, she’d get a shuttle schedule at the front desk, make all kinds of arrangements in her
head—zipping off one way or the other, each place for just a few minutes, to look at it oh so pretty she’d think, look and gawk at all those glowing strips and ornamented bastardized cathedrals, ooohhs and aaahhs she’d gasp out upon seeing the fountains’ spray, spurts of ecstasy from her it shamed him to see in front of so many people, he didn’t think it proper. And he knew her too damn well, she’d have it all patched together, rough, unvarnished, and lay it out before him—here and here and there and there, but it was all useless; he knew she would deviate on the first tangent path, keep running amok, moving without a clue. They’d do nothing. Nothing but wander, and she was just too damn restless for her own good and his too—looked back again, but no, the crowd was too thick and it had been too long. How long had it been? A glance at his watch, sip from his tumbler, then checked it again because he’d forgotten the math already. Few minutes, that was all, no more than fifteen. Another swallow, a chunk of ice between his teeth to slowly crunch it, lifting his hand to order another round.
By then Muriel had indeed found the front desk, and with minimal confusion in her navigation. She’d always been inclined to finding things. Nathan lost his hat the moment it came off his head, his glasses just the same; he’d gone through numerous sets of keys, she’d had the duplicates made herself, and he could never keep too much in his wallet, for fear of misplacing everything inside—stored his driver’s license in his truck’s glove compartment. She observed from afar this habit of his, did her best to guide him toward his missing objects without showing him outright where they were—she always knew, and knew she needed to teach him. He was the kind to lose things and that was that. However, it was in her nature to find those things missing; but what if it were she that got lost?
Yet still had found the front desk and the pleasant Oriental woman with the kind smile, spoke English just fine, and was a bit closer to Muriel’s age—avoided young people, for fear of what her words would sound like upon speaking to them. It was an irrational fear, she was aware, but still she approached the short woman with black hair striped in grey.
“How may I help you?”
Told her the whole story, Nathan wasn’t there to complain about it this time, sitting with his poison as he is. About how Laughlin was just nice, it seemed like fun and all, but really she’d like to get into Las Vegas for the evening, maybe even a romantic dinner at that hotel that’s shaped like Paris. But the tightwad he is, Nathan, that’s her husband, he went and brought her here to the Avi, which is a nice place and everything, she didn’t mean that, but it wasn’t Las Vegas, and afterall, this is her fiftieth anniversary, if she didn’t mention it before. The point is, she wanted to know if they had a shuttle running into Las Vegas.
The Oriental woman replied that they did not, in a tone Muriel found unpleasant.
Turned back around to again face the crowds moving: creepers crawling on top of one another all over, some whole automation of these little moving parts—and this she was expected to step into once again, to be a part of. Oh, the troubles and the bumping, the contact, look at that over there! And where, to where, she had to plan out her every move, she knew that was the proper way, what Nathan taught her—find the composure, Muriel. But just look at it move, at all those people crisscrossing paths—and just maybe, they all hoped, just maybe they’d run into luck, hit the jackpot. For now she only wanted to get back to that horrid bar and find her husband, but for just these seconds before stepping back in watched it happen without her, and so upon making that breach all
planning went out the window; because of this she felt it too, set waves on her shoulders, felt drunk all of a sudden—maybe this is what Nathan feels like with his bourbon pulled to his chest. But it don’t matter, she thought to herself, ‘cause maybe I’ll git lucky and hit the jackpot. What would old Nate Baumbach do with that, anyway, he would just squirrel it all away where it would sit until after they were both six feet under, and until their children were the same if he had any bearings on it. But maybe he’d come around, it would be a sight to see before you, and there was a lot they could do with all that money: they could visit all the kids and all the grandkids, travel the whole world afterwards, live it any way they wanted and what a sight to see before you, he would have to come around. Her eyes traipsed across talking heads and ringing machines, unsure of her own intent, be it to spot the bar’s neon sign or make sure Nathan wasn’t watching, and while navigating the sea of directionless bodies spotted there on the red carpet a ticket—green and lavishly designed, emblazoned proudly with the name of their country, printed as a single unit, the base of all that might possibly come next:
She had a knack for finding things. It was simply her way, she knew this well about herself. And so she picked up the forgotten dollar bill and decided to take a seat at the first slot she found available.
There to listen. Nothing more. Loathed the games and the spent everything—but to this crash could listen, and hear the orchestral pattern of all the changes in the world since the dawn of time, follow the sound of entropy, last moments of the end which feel so intimately like the beginning; this flux of breakdown breaking down, crackle of the fire sizzle-popping last gasps, the smoke nearing its very blackest.
The dark night of the soul.
He’d learned of those things at the Catholic school, though certainly not in class—Father Antonio had shown him such texts, by Saint John of the Cross, or Thomas Aquinas. Because you are brighter than the other boys, Father Antonio had told him, in your mind and in your light. What light, Father? Which you must shine, which you must grab onto, Elias, as you shine it, for it will propel you toward heaven. And how do I see this light? It is between you, mijo.
Pressed his fist into his chest, at what he perceived to be his physical center, as if a nerve ran from that base of skin directly into his core. If he were to beat his hand down, the shock would pulse into this nucleus, and trigger what, he didn’t know, not yet—for now he’d left this inbetween undisturbed. It was too fearsome. The screaming was better off muffled. So he could listen to this outside instead.
And wait for the explosion, the instant before nothing.
Elias Gabriel Quinto was born of an Irish-Mexican father and a mother of the Pipa Aha Makhav. He was descended of the Tongva as well, so his father informed him, way back when their name was Quintero. Supposedly there was a richness to his bloodline, relics of wealth and myth. His mother, too, had stressed his ancestry, recalled tales of their creation. You must always remember, she would instruct him, for there are few of us
left. On each half of his being he was near the end, both of these volatile circumstances boiling together in his center, waiting to burst, and somehow—someway—he was supposed to exist inbetween. The noise was unbearable; though he understood he must, had been taught that he must… (…) …and so instead came here, to immerse himself in the destruction of forces other than his own, drown out the lessons learned, and use this as a reflection of that which he could not stand to look at directly.
Being just an Indian in the desert.
He was sitting on a cushioned stool beside a ring-and-clank machine, glowing lights&colors but he wished none of it now, except for what it contributed—what it signified—in the overall mash of deconstruction. Ordered his rob roy and tipped the cocktail waitress a crinkled dollar, took the first slug and exaggerated his refreshment, laughed to himself. She was gone by now, the waitress. Could get back to listening, and again laugh to himself about the rob roy robin hood son of a traitor, but that was all Scotch nonsense anyway. He was Native. Of the Pipa Aha Makhav. Of the Tongva.
Could hear it now:
and oh those songs his mother sung
to lull her baby sleeping
and calls out to heaven
thinking then, again, of the Father and what he had told him of the Word, to be wary of its graces, praise in caution, and he could feel even now that power looming over him all over buzzing each nerve all over him numb and captured by it. And when the cocktail waitress came back he asked if she hears the drums too but she didn’t understand and pointed to the bar nearby, so he motioned for another rob roy, humming what maybe he believes to be old Scottish hymnals, bubbled with chuckles all through and tipped her another dollar when she returned, promising two on the next round.
Leave it to me—let it come down.
Watched everything as it happened, a full view of the spectrum in motion from one end to the next and back again; slowly dissolving from its own course of speed, losing particles in the wind. Felt hopeless in falling to his own silence, a solemn and stoic poise built from generations of earth-men, of stone and soil. Outside these carpets and faux marble walls were the red clay of ancestry, an apparent permanence and subtle temporality—slow changes, built on balance of growth and decay, which were concepts eternal. That was where he came from, and in here could relish in his foreign existence with observation: imagining the myths trailing each person walking by, tracing them to find if they intersect with his own, embellishing to make the designs more intricate, the weave more elaborate.
Then pulled so tight they begin to unravel.
On the next drink, as promised, he slipped two singles to the waitress, but dropped one that glided calmly to rest just outside the steps of passers-by. Either the waitress didn’t notice or simply wouldn’t give Elias the satisfaction of bending over to pick it up, but regardless, she left without it. He thought about getting it himself, setting it back in his pocket among the others, let it count toward a brandy alexander to cap off the night—afterall, (a look at his plastic digital watch) it was getting cold and dark outside,
and he needed to start the long walk into Laughlin-proper to scope out sleeping places if he couldn’t make it back to the trailer on time. And in any case, he had no business losing dollar bills in plain sight, simply couldn’t afford such extravagance. Became lost in the thoughts of a dollar’s worth and the ticking time bomb wallet empty holes in his pocket just waiting to bring down his means of survival and if without that lonesome green paper could he sustain himself, out in the bloodclay and mesa kingdoms, the way his people had so many years ago. But they at least had each other. And he had only that fallen bill, creased and torn near the corner. These tangents wrapped around him long enough for the drunk to swell his earlobes and warm his neck, and in that numbing calm sought clarity amidst the static; it passed but in a flash, but in a flash he stumbled onto the idea, an experiment, to let it alone and watch the dollar, see what happens.
Who picks it up and what they do with it.
His people, on his mother’s side, believed that in dreams one travels back to the time of Creation, in order to witness the process of World’s birth, the stitches of their mythology. These, too, are visions in the womb. On his father’s side, if the legends of his bloodline could be believed, the story goes that in the beginning there was Chaos in vast emptiness; sorrowed by this, the God of Creation, Quaoar, decided to fill the void with song, and thus created melody in the sky, joining earth, sun, and moon together in dance. And of course, likewise, the Irish have their poets and their magic, the Mexicans their pagan Catholicism and fallibility of la verdad; his entire heritage was fictions. He thought about all this, sipping Scotch whisky // sitting watching that crinkled bill float centimeters above ground with each passer-by’s step, and how that Song of Creation must’ve went, what it must sound like compared to the catastrophe which he listened to now—— // if it was beauty purest, rhythm of constant tide, careening across the sea on choirs’ haunting lullabies… for there must be a kindness here which one cowers beneath the hand of, and in his swaggering drunkenness wondered, eyes locked with George Washington himself, if there was a line between hope and despair, if perhaps it could be possible to tightrope-step this margin and sleep upon it at night.
And what then might his dreams reveal in sound, and revel in light&color?
Until then it was as if Elias had not noticed the people—as separate persons—but only the Mass of People headed into the fires before him, as a single writhing organism. Taken no regard to the individual souls which so existed at exactly the same time. The pitch and timbre of each instrumental body&machine chimed in a shattered harmony, and he had become stranded in the tangle, but you cannot find yourself unless you have first lost yourself, and sometimes you wander aimlessly the desert or the wood or the jungle until suddenly without warning (like this moment right now!) you know exactly where you are, you have been here before—and while it may then be a long and arduous journey back home,
now at least,
you have a direction;
so these too,
in so much hopeless Abandon,
soothe each passing night
into what would be said,
as I was gone—
but leave it to us,
we will hold your Sorrows
in glass bottles
smashed against cobblestone walks
like only half-paved trails,
where the other half leads into
wilds, drowned in beer
of the Ponderosa Pine;
along the grove, to cut
open the belly of the Lord,
caught in weeds and red smoke
so that out pours all our hidden Love.
Could hear them then, inside the overarching musaic, each strand of conversation within the symphony. Whispers and shouts. Pull clicking lever down and release up to ching-ching spinning turbines and flyreels, the ringing Cadence of Coins counting on Digital read-outs beeping speedily over hill&wave Terrain; each distinct accent of Laughter, backbeat challenges and bets and Dirty Jokes, rickety Country-jam play of the band over The Bar—so that it All comes together as Infinite angles to a Formless shape, letting him slither through each Dimension for just a half-second, Isolating crevices and Secret Places and Shining threads from the Holistic Enterprise in which They have All lost themselves in order to Create this EXPLORATION PROCESS, the Unseen Totality. It is at the same time Noun and Verb. All at exactly the same time, he couldn’t fucking believe it—he’d just stumbled on it, Here&Now, because of letting that Dollar Fall and Watching it Wait and Understanding the Lift which keeps it Floating just barely, the fragile but Grand Weight of that Single Unit of Measure, at the very Soles of their Feet—these People Descending, these People Breaking Down. What He had called it at the very Beginning, that’s right: the SOUND of ENTROPY, and the pleasing burn of that Web SPLAYED from a COLLAPSING fluX.
But then it all came to silence.
And he saw the old woman, avoiding physical contact with the rest of the herd, determined to proceed but unsure of where she was.
She’d spotted the dollar—and as if she’d already been thinking of it, picked it up and sat at the stool beside his.
Slipped the dollar into the slot-machine; Elias was careful not to appear too watchful. Took a sip from the melt of his cocktail.
There was a button. She pressed it. When the first Triple-Diamond 7 hit he dropped his drink [smash!] and the old woman turned to him startled, then glanced over her shoulder, at the sound of a man’s voice:
“Muriel, there y’are! My goodness, have ya no sense at all?”
The second Triple-Diamond 7 hit.
“Oh really, Nathan, I was playin’ one little slot machine like ya told me I oughtta, and here you come hollerin’ degradations.”
The third Triple-Diamond 7 hit. Elias watched the fourth and final wheel spin in a whirl of blue and black and red and white. The old woman looked over at him, nervously, from the corner of her eye—then at the last blurred figure slowing down.
“Where on earth did you get the money?”
The old woman did not answer. Elias became deaf to her and her farmer husband, but all the rest—the Grander Scope—flooded back, just a split-second before the spinning ceased: bells&whistles, voices carried in a muddy river, the whole damn convolusion of sound teetering on the brink of static, and it came so loudly and so abruptly that it frightened him to near-panic; if he’d still been holding his drink, he’d’ve dropped it again, or perhaps simply shattered it in his clenched palm. But instead he kept perfectly still, and watched the fourth spool come to a halt:
“You’ve won! You’ve won!” he shouted, shocked by the volume and breadth of his own voice suddenly outside, not just rambling in its own reflection. In his excitement grabbed the old woman’s shoulders with her stammer-yelling ‘oh my goodness Nathan oh my goodness,’ but he didn’t know who Nathan was only that the machine blared shimmering calls WINNER! WINNER! like a red siren and the woman just as loud bubbling over and screaming out again ‘Nathan oh my goodness, can you see it Nathan,’ as she gripped onto his arms as well, though immediately aware that Elias is not Nathan, letting out a short yelp; Elias, still yelling that she’s won, goddamn it lady, you fucking won!, gripped her tighter, the headrush too fast and the liquor throwing the equilibrium too far and dizzy-intoxicated doesn’t know how or why he’s losing balance and squeezing this body beside him and falling endlessly but thinking of the crescendo’s monumental rise, the clash of the finale, echoing for eternity—can listen.
“Nathan!” she screams.
He understood then that Nathan was her farmer husband and that the old man was grabbing onto him, ordering him to let go, socking him in the chest and shoulder. He released the woman, but out of instinct shoved the old-timer with a weight flung out of a whisky bottle, realizing too late that the man was going down; tried to catch him, but failed.
Flailing his arms with nothing to grab. //
Struck his head against another machine.
// Landing awkwardly wedged in the aisle.
And as Elias watched the woman bend over to cry over her husband, the digital counter beeping rapidly in imitation of cascading coins, he could think only to himself, “Now what am I going to do?”
M. Palmer-Cervantes is, by craft, an independent fictionist and poet from Pomona, Calif. Writing as a discipline since the fourth grade, he eventually studied literary theory in the Pacific Northwest. His work has previously appeared in Slightly West and brækIt. Available on his website, mpcervantes.com, are a novel and his first collection. By trade, he manages the cocktail program at a small, farm-to-table restaurant near his hometown. He has two cats.