You see the picture in the obituaries section on January second. You don�t know why you are reading the obituaries section at the beginning of the year, but maybe it�s because you live in Las Vegas, where multi-billion dollar resorts are built in a year. Somehow this implies that you could die soon, maybe tomorrow. You also think there�s a high chance someone died in an entirely brainless way on New Year�s, which would be both funny and sad. You like things that are funny and sad. They are efficient in their consumption of emotional energy. They will solve the crisis of global desensitization. They are the love child that unites the life force.
This obituary picture catches your eye because it is not the usual headshot of a man with puffy white hair, wearing a grey suit and tie, and smiling. It is an action shot. A string of firecrackers explode, and everyone in the picture jumps away from the sparks, except George Trevors, formerly of Elk Grove, Wisconsin, but recently of Summerlin, Nevada. He lies slumped against a slot machine. A casino waitress in the top right corner has dropped her tray. A woman in a purple kimono pushes against the crowd, trying to get through. A man in a brown suede jacket rubs his hands together in triumph as he watches the disturbance.
One twitch was the only sign given by George Trevors before he dropped heavily against the golden slot machine. His legs remained partially on the black, anchored stool, his large belly embraced the display in a sad farewell, and his face covered two of the three matching cherries that indicated his jackpot. For a while, no one noticed. Jangles of falling coins and whirrs from other machines covered the dull thump. In front of George�s row, a performance artist had captured most of the gamblers� attention by throwing a string of lit firecrackers on the floor and burning a self-portrait of himself made out of Monopoly money. The pop-pop-bangs brought security running, and the artist was muscled out the back entrance, despite his protests and pushes.
The one person who would have paid attention to George�s heart attack was Janice, his wife, but she was off buying another round of cocktails. When she returned, she shook his shoulder, slapped his face, set down the drinks, one whiskey sour and one stirred martini, called for help, and started crying. Because security was occupied, it took them a few minutes to get to George, and when they did, they started CPR, their unpracticed hands moving stiffly in uneven rhythm. The paramedics arrived minutes later, and tried a defibrillator before wheeling him out. Janice followed them. A young casino waitress tried to get Janice�s attention, but when it was obvious that she wasn�t coming back, the waitress started scooping quarters from George�s machine into a bucket.
Wallace, Performance Artist
Wallace drove to Vegas at night because it helped him forget where he was going. The headlights pierced ahead on the slick road, occasionally splashing out on either side of the pickup�s path. It was best when rain bathed the expanse of highway a few hours before the drive, leaving a dark stain of moisture to mix with the haze of sand and asphalt. The lines marking the lanes were worn away to faint suggestions. Who could tell, under such conditions, where the road would lead? He might not be going to Vegas to gamble and sleep his way out of whatever he made that week.
In contrast to the indistinct stretch of desert, the first casinos of Stateline rose like glowing dunes, and then another straightaway followed by the delirious, chatty lights of the Vegas strip. The dawn of New Year�s Eve broke as he parked away from the strip to avoid traffic, and waited for a shuttle. Since his last girlfriend broke up with him two days before Christmas, probably because of the November Vegas trips, he wanted to get out of LA.
His pursuit could not be traced to one specific event, but rather grew out of a collection of coincidences�a penchant for online poker, his cousin�s bachelor party at an Indian casino in Industry, a visit to the University of Nevada Las Vegas when he was considering graduate school, which ended in a wild student party at the Golden Nugget. No one held him responsible for anything in his weekend city, and if he lost all his money in one night, he could always sleep in his car.
This time he barely had enough money for gas and was set on reclaiming Vegas. He decided it was time for another piece�to show the casinos how they destroy people�s lives. He pasted together a self-portrait from Monopoly money, using the pink fives for his face, the orange five hundreds for his hair, and the blue fifties for his eyes. In the end, it looked something like a child�s imitation of a Warhol portrait. He planned to light it on fire in one of the rooms of the Bellagio. Art with a message and a conscience�a declaration to the world that he had conquered gambling.
When he walked in through the doors the casino was noisy and hot. People come to Vegas from all over, especially for New Year�s. Some of them looked at the portrait, pointed and smiled, but most were too stuck to their machines to care. One or two of the bystanders took pictures. He waited until the carpet walkway was empty, then reached inside his coat and removed the firecracker string�his announcement, and just did it. The portrait burned, the firecrackers thundered, and Wallace bellowed. Of course those large security guards came right away to drag him out. He was trying to tell them that it was art�and not the pretentious kind they keep at the gallery in the hotel, either�but real. They wouldn�t listen.
Then he saw the guy, slumped against a slot machine like his heart had just exploded. Wallace tried telling that to the guards, too, but they thought he was making it up to distract them. As they pushed him out into the alley, he wondered if the firecrackers had triggered the attack. Or maybe he had gone to Vegas to die. Who goes to Vegas to die?
For a second, Wallace�s aesthetic attention was diverted. If he planned his own funeral, it would have been visually appealing�out in the desert. A performance of perfectly formal, dark suits and dresses standing under the blinding sun, combining with memory to force tears into submission. The disparity of patent leather sinking in sand.
But then he was out in the alley. He ran around to the front of the casino and tried to find out the name of the collapsed man, but no one knew. He sneaked inside and was thrown out again with a once more and we will press charges. He could see himself throwing down the firecrackers, so symbolically, could see the purgatory fire from the Monopoly money, could see inside the man�s chest, could visualize the exact moment the man�s heart stopped beating.
Never live in a place longer than it takes for people to get to know your flaws. She had lived by this mantra since college�moving down the coast, from Seattle to Portland to San Francisco to Santa Barbara to LA. She had left family, friends, a boyfriend. Everything needed to keep moving, moving faster. If it stopped, the thrill would be gone. Blurry was beautiful and important. If she could reach the speed of light, everyone would want to know her name.
In LA she first tried to break into acting, but the location of everything rubbed against her skin like sandpaper, removing her personality. Long days driving from the valley to Hollywood to South Orange County abraded her nerves until she had trouble feeling and didn�t think she would be able to perceive even the largest of earthquakes. The clutching muck of traffic sucked on her ankles. Her breath felt like smog. She produced it like an assembly line, only she didn�t know what she was manufacturing. For a while she considered continuing south�San Diego to Tijuana to Ensenada to Acapulco to a host of Central and South American stops, and eventually to a life of harmony with the Patagonian penguins. The problem was where to go after that.
Instead she decided on Vegas�where theater productions were assembled routinely to keep up with all of the entertainment packages that every new casino had to offer to stay competitive. She got auditions, but no parts, so she landed at a casino. The hiring manager took one look at her, glanced at her numerous restaurant jobs, then asked her to complete a drug test and to get fitted for her revealing waitress uniform. In Vegas, assets up front was the best approach. Don�t keep any cards under the table.
On New Year�s Eve she was working the main floor of the Bellagio. It was a good night for tips and flirting to get bigger tips. A perturbed, unshaven and probably unwashed guy was carrying around a portrait made of Monopoly money. She saw the performer, obviously an attention whore, drop firecrackers on the floor�quickly attracting the interest of security and casino patrons.
She didn�t see the other guy fall into his machine, though he must have. Even supposing that she had, it wouldn�t have made a difference. She was no paramedic. The casino would undoubtedly try and keep the money if it wasn�t claimed. But, supposing that the guy was dead�it wouldn�t be right to deny winnings from a widow. She convinced the floor manager that, under the circumstances, the money should go to the family. She would take it herself�a chance to finally be a good person. A person who you could get to know, and afterwards, like.
A life of small town real estate deals up and down Wisconsin gave George and Janice a comfortable two-story home on the shores of Silver Lake. He took road trips frequently around the state, while she handled most of the local deals. In some ways, she didn�t mind being left at home�she loved watching the birds from the kitchen window as they flew over the lake. In summer, she put out a feeder for the robins, and she spotted two blue herons fishing in the shallows, their bills ducking under the silver morning water. They could always catch something, even when George couldn�t. After they ate, their wings would spread�signaling to the air that they were prepared to glide along to the next lake and plumb its secrets, and the air would lift them. Some winters the lake would freeze, and Janice would walk out several yards, trying to find the heart of the freezing�the first place to harden. She would slide on the ice�a surface like the world, slippery but firm.
It was a property conference at the Stratosphere that first gave George the notion of relocating. A fast-talking man with a grey designer suit, barely out of college, stopped the couple in the observation deck of the tower. Opportunity of a lifetime, he�d said. Guaranteed profit if they ever decided to sell it. Vegas�the fastest growing city in the US. Free tickets to the show of their choice�Janice had never seen a musical. There, with all the lights of the strip spread out and shining below them, it was like being offered a second life. Three stoplight towns faded in the glamour and buzz of non-stop entertainment. They purchased a time-share just two miles from the strip, and after two years of spending two weeks a year under the bright Nevada sun and brighter neon moons, George urged Janice to move�an early retirement.
All of their houses in Wisconsin netted them just enough to purchase a condo in Summerlin, a Las Vegas suburb that felt smaller, but was just a few minutes from everything�the bars, the buffets, the shows, the gambling, the stars. Outside was not a sleepy midwestern grotto, but a world at play. They talked with the neighbors about how wonderful it all was. On weekdays they would laugh at the classifieds, send postcards to their friends and relatives back in Elk Grove, and eat at a new restaurant. The city was building them faster than they could try them out. On weekends they prowled bars, clubs, concerts, theaters, comedy shows. Everything.
After only three months of residency, and a Christmas spent visiting family, they went to the Bellagio for New Year�s Eve�usually a good place for celebrity sightings. George always wanted to talk to them, while Janice just liked watching�savoring the awareness that she was at the same place, doing the same thing that they were. It was still early, and Janice was thirsty, even after a margarita. When she came back to give George his whiskey he was slumped against the slot machine.
At the hospital, Janice ran her fingers through her brown-grey field mouse hair again and again, sitting in the waiting room. A doctor walked toward her, almost aimlessly, before telling her that George was dead. She spent the rest of New Year�s calling relatives. The funeral was scheduled for the second�since it was cheaper to do it as soon as possible. Only George�s parents were coming, and some neighbors. They would hold a celebration of life service later in Elk Grove.
She glanced out of the window of their condo on the fifteenth floor, hoping to glimpse a pigeon or a sparrow floating on an updraft. The closest she could make out was the pink neon flamingo of a casino sign. Instead of flying, it was standing on one leg, its second leg phantom, amputated. She wondered if neon flamingos could fly at all. Perhaps they stand interminably on one leg, trying not to fall. She didn�t love anyone else.
Funeral, January 2nd
Of the seven people gathered for George Trevor�s funeral, only five could claim to have known him. The light in the funeral parlor was that of a muted desert winter morning. Before the ceremony started, Sheila brought over the cash, close to a thousand dollars, conveniently in hundreds, and a bouquet and card from the casino.
�It�s not much,� Sheila said. �But I wanted to do something.�
�Thank you,� said Janice.
Sheila stayed for the ceremony, where Janice spoke of George�s strong desire to move to Las Vegas, of how he acted like a child when it came to his fascination with the city, adding that he would have wanted to die here. His parents spoke of George as a child, and how he acted like an adult when it came to his business mind that always astounded them, adding that he could sell anything, including nearly dead grasshoppers, to the neighbors. He would tie strings to their legs to create toys better than yo-yos. They lasted for an hour or so, after which there were no refunds. Everyone mentioned his sense of humor and his compassion.
Sheila couldn�t help thinking about what she and George had in common: they were never who they were supposed to be, always waiting to come true. The mourners gathered outside on the sidewalk for a final round of hugs, while the lights of the strip kept flashing, shining, burning.
Across the street from the funeral parlor a young woman stood outside of a wedding chapel, with pink and purple neon roses decorating the sign. She was wearing her bridal dress. Long auburn hair swayed as she walked away from the chapel. She was crying too.
Wallace wasn�t at the funeral, because he couldn�t find it. He spent most of the day turning pages of a local phonebook, calling mortuary after funeral home after chapel, trying to discover where the man might be. No one could tell him anything. He didn�t want to go home without knowing if he had started the year by killing someone.
You close the paper to go and eat an English muffin with raspberry jam. Except that you are out of raspberry and have to settle for orange marmalade. If there is one thing that you will do this year, it will be to make sure that you are never out of raspberry jam. Your life is pretty nice. Except that last night you didn�t go out, even though it was New Year�s Eve and you live in Las Vegas. Maybe it�s because everyone comes to Las Vegas to party, and all you want to do is rest.
The obituary was not particularly funny and you feel somewhat disappointed. You only have so much emotional energy left. The life force remains disconnected. The desensitization crisis is real. You didn�t even read the name of the photographer who took the snapshot. You stay inside, waiting, maybe to come true. But outside the city is breathing: flash, dark, flash, dark, flash, dark.
BIO: Brent Krammes has an MFA (MPW) from the University of Southern California and is working on an MA from the University of Tennessee. He has been on staff at two literary journals, and his fiction has previously appeared in Word Riot.