Hope Idiotic | Part I
Hope Idiotic is a serialized novel. Catch each new part every week on Monday and Thursday.
SHORTLY AFTER THE HEIGHT OF AMERICA’S FLAGRANT PATRIOTISM FOLLOWING 9/11, and just before the dawn of The Great Recession, there existed a wonderful Italian restaurant called Bella’s Ristorante. It was built into the foothills of the Black Mountain Range just outside of Las Vegas in Henderson, Nevada, a few short and dusty miles from the Strip at the edge of a wealthy suburban subdivision. My best friends Chuck Keller and Lou Bergman adored the place.
During those few years that Bella’s was open, subdivided white people made the mealtime pilgrimage to take in the incredible view. The floor-to-ceiling windows showcased the entire valley — from Henderson on over to Paradise Springs, east to Nellis Air Force Base and west to Summerlin. On a night after a good rain, when the dust had been beaten down, you could see the lights of North Las Vegas and maybe even Tonopah — that little city off U.S. 95. In the daylight, it was a picture-perfect landscape of the desert, with Mount Charleston’s snowy white summit in the top left corner. At sunset, the surrounding mountains became a large canvas for layers of colors — a natural light show opposing the manufactured neon glimmer. The sight was gorgeous.
The food was good — better than most places, worse than some — and the service was friendly. Whenever anyone came in and asked a waitress, hostess or female bartender if she was the Bella — an obvious question asked far too often — the gal would smile and sweetly say, “There is no Bella. It’s just a name.” The owner was a middle-aged, fat, bald man who compensated for his bare scalp with a permanent patchy 5-o’ clock shadow, en vogue back then. He was an older generation of douchebag — less imposing and more tolerable than today’s models — and a far cry from the definition of bella. But, he ran a damn good restaurant, so the regulars rewarded him with their patronage.
Bella’s Ristorante was not designed to be anything but a place for locals. The regulars lived proudly in cinderblock-surrounded McMansions nestled safely inside gated communities. This sort of suburban planning was a subconscious exercise in social alienation. But at the epicenter of the Housing Bubble, these chicken-wire–framed stucco homes were the calling card of the triumphant. From the air, on the approach to McCarran Airport, these homes resembled the cement fortresses found in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan. The sorts of homes owned and inhabited by America’s latest sworn enemy — the Arabs. The difference was that the American fortresses in Henderson had swimming pools.
This irony was lost on all of the regulars except Chuck and Lou. Or so they liked to think. While the others came to Bella’s to connect to the humanity beyond the walls of their single-family homes, Chuck and Lou used Bella’s as an escape from everyone and everything. It was their Fortress of Public Solitude.
And after a day’s work, the two of them would often drive to their homes, strip off the neckties, trade in slacks for jeans and meet up at Bella’s. I would have joined them, but I had a wife and a newborn baby boy expecting me at home. My days of drinking at a bar several nights a week were regrettably behind me. But Chuck and Lou were still young and unattached enough to afford them the luxury of sitting at Bella’s bar facing the large windows for hours. And they’d spend those hours filing through their stresses, troubleshooting problems and anxieties, pissing and moaning about politics, career, family, love and friends. They’d relive adventures they had shared together from their near–decade-long friendship, and sometimes they’d just get hammered. Not uncommonly, Chuck would pass out midsentence or just as Lou was ranting his way into brilliance. When this happened, the bartender, usually a petite and pretty girl, would get the big fat owner to help Lou carry Chuck to his car.
The goal wasn’t to get completely tanked. All the talking and drinking was their way of relaxing the mind while keeping it from going dead, not unlike many of their midtwenty-something contemporaries who preferred reality television or news broadcasts on E! as a way to unwind. Booze calmed the nerves. The chats navigated them closer to figuring it out — whatever it was that night. The view put it all in perspective. These rendezvous allowed them to flex their intellect and cynicism. Bella’s Ristorante allowed them to come up for air because down on Earth, they were being strangled — their chests heavy with the weight of self-imposed responsibility and guilt. And they knew they would be crushed soon enough.
They just needed to do enough good before that happened.
LOU’S CELL PHONE RANG, WAKING HIM UP AT SIX O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING. IT WAS CHUCK.
“Come get me?” Chuck said. His voice was playful and drunk. Calls like this between my two friends were familiar.
“Come get you where?” said Lou.
“Come get me?”
“Where are you?”
Chuck hung up. Lou laughed as he rolled over to fall back asleep. It was Saturday, and he wouldn’t get up for another two hours, when he would take on the ritual of cleaning his house, vacuuming and chemical-testing his pool, then get to working on his freelance magazine stories. Because Lou received calls like this from Chuck countless times before, he knew that as long as the guy could make a phone call, he’d be fine. Lou would pick him up later — if he ever found out exactly where Chuck was. Worst-case scenario? The cops had him. So he’d certainly be safe for another two hours.
The phone rang again. “Come get me?”
“Jesus Christ, Chuck. Where are you?”
“Come get me?”
“Are you with the police?”
“Okay. Good. Which one?”
Chuck hung up. Lou rolled over. The phone rang. Lou answered. “Which gas station are you at?”
“Yeah, a gas station.”
“Do you have your car with you?”
“Come get me?”
“Which gas station?” There was a long pause. Lou thought Chuck had hung up again.
“Boulder Highway and Lake Mead.”
What the hell are you doing out there?” Lou asked this question knowing there wasn’t a real answer. These two learned a long time ago not to question the other’s motives when drunk or when waking up somewhere strange after being drunk. The explanation didn’t matter. What mattered was getting back to civilization, avoiding detainment or violence and retrieving any personal effects lost along the way. So he didn’t mind when Chuck hung up again then called right back.
“Come get me?”
“Yeah, I’m on my way.” But it was only a quarter past six, and Lou still had some time to sleep. So he did.
Lou’s house wasn’t all that far from where Chuck was stranded, so the act itself of rescuing him was not a big deal. His house was located on a quiet street in Green Valley — a mostly affluent neighborhood in Henderson. Like most residents of the Las Vegas Valley, Lou was no more than three stoplights from a Walgreens, a Target, a Home Depot, an Albertson’s grocery store and a locals’ casino with movie screens, restaurants and a showroom for live concerts.
Lou bought his house in late 2003, just before the market skyrocketed. Only a year out of college, he worked on-air for the city’s largest radio company. It was a job he loved doing, though it paid horribly. However, despite his salary of only twenty-three grand a year, he paid for the house in cash after his father and grandfather, both real estate players back in Chicago, engineered a deal: Instead of Lou taking a loan from a bank — one of those loans that history would remember as predatory loans — he would borrow the money directly from his grandparents. He’d pay them back at a lower interest rate than he would pay a bank, but at a higher rate than what their bank was paying while the money sat in a savings account. It was a win-win.
If Lou had ten bucks for every time Chuck passed out in his car, he could have bought his house in cash himself.
And so, although he couldn’t really afford it, Lou found himself the owner of a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath, two-car-garage home with a pool and a yard. The mortgage to his grandparents was only six hundred dollars a month since he was only paying the interest, which fit well into his minuscule budget. It was a great setup for a single guy living on his own, and he recognized his situation as a wonderful perk coming from a family with money. And he did not take it for granted. He continually envisioned that one day his hard work would allow him to be independently wealthy like his grandfather and be able to provide for his family and friends with ease.
But on that Saturday morning in 2007, the best he could do for his friend was pick him up at a gas station on the outskirts of town.
Chuck’s preowned black BMW was the only car at the only station that hadn’t yet opened — the only place of service in southern Nevada that wasn’t open twenty-four hours. The car was parked with its gas tank facing away from the pump. When Lou last saw Chuck the night before, he was wearing jeans and a decent button-down shirt. He had had his wits about him. But now he was passed out cold in the driver’s seat, wearing basketball shorts, a torn Beatles T-shirt and his favorite white Indianapolis Colts baseball cap. A bottle of Miller Lite rested in his lap, the bottle cap in the palm of his open hand on his thigh.
If Lou had ten bucks for every time Chuck passed out in his car, he could have bought his house in cash himself. Las Vegas is a great town, but it encourages drinkers to drive themselves home, or to the next bar or to an ex-lover’s house. There is no public-transit system of any quality, and cabs cost a small fortune when, and even if, they leave the Strip. Luckily, Chuck had never been in a drunk-driving accident and had managed to maneuver his way out of countless DUIs when pulled over. Once, he was chased out of a casino for taking a piss at the Blackjack table where he was playing and nearly ran over a security guard as he sped out of the parking garage.
Getting home behind the wheel of a car when you’re drunk is no small feat. It takes concentration and cunning. And there is a relief when you arrive home without incident. Since their days together at Nevada State University, Chuck would pull into his apartment parking space or the driveway of the house he was renting and go to sleep right there in the car. Chuck figured, I’m home, I’m safe, I’m tired, I’ll deal with putting myself to bed in the morning. And it made perfect sense. Plenty of times before, when Chuck had been found asleep in the front seat, either by roommates, his girlfriend Lexi, or by me or Lou, the hardest part was waking him up. It often required a good fifteen minutes of punching him in the head, the chest and the crotch. Buckets of water, too.
Chuck had locked the car door, and Lou was sure he’d never wake him up without being able to get inside. He banged on the window. Nothing. He banged harder on the window and yelled until, amazingly, Chuck opened his eyes. He lifted his head and looked out of the window at Lou. There they were: two best friends staring at each other through a piece of glass. And recognizing the routine absurdity of the situation — and the luck that the glass was a car window and not a Clark County Detention Center partition — they both laughed. Then they laughed harder.
“I need gas,” Chuck said when they pulled themselves together. “I don’t have my wallet.”
“I really need to know how you ended up here. And your gas tank is on this side, idiot. Turn the car around.”
Chuck started the engine, took a long pull from the bottle of beer and said, “It’s warm,” then handed it to Lou through the window. Lou took a sip and tossed the bottle in a trash can. Chuck could only angle the car about 30 degrees before the engine died. The tank was empty.
“I’m not pushing your fat ass,” Lou said. They switched places, and Chuck, who had more toned muscle than fat and was certainly bigger than the slim and lanky Lou, pushed the Bimmer around to the other side of the pump. Lou paid for the gas and followed Chuck home.
Chuck’s roommate, who owned the house on the other side of Henderson, was rarely there, choosing to stay with his girlfriend rather than deal with Chuck’s all too frequent drunken antics. Chuck threw open the front door and turned the stereo on full blast — Euro-trash house music. He headed straight to the backyard and fired up the grill. Lou followed to maintain order by closing the front door and turning the stereo down so it didn’t wake the neighbors or encourage a noise-complaint citation from the police.
“Get me the pork chops from the freezer!” Chuck yelled from the grill out back.
“I normally don’t care, but this time, I’m just really confused. What happened to you last night? I thought you were going to come see my stand-up set.”
“These pork chops are going to taste like shit,” Chuck said, dusting them with seasoning salt.
“Chuck. Fill me in.”
“I went to meet a friend of mine from out of town. We had a few drinks at her hotel, and then she wanted to go to sleep. So I came home.”
“But how’d you end up wearing that, with no wallet and drinking a bottle of beer on the ass end of town?”
“I went to go do something, I guess. Who’s to say?”
“You owe me forty-six bucks for gas.”
“Yeah, yeah. Tomorrow.