Hope Idiotic | Part II
Hope Idiotic is a serialized novel. Catch each new part every week on Monday and Thursday.
MOONLIGHTING AS A DRUNKARD, Chuck Keller was the assistant manager of the communications department at palm gaming, the largest hotel and casino company in Las Vegas and the world. After Chuck graduated from Nevada State, he was hired as the news editor for Valley Life, the alternative weekly rag, where I worked as the A&E editor. But he jumped ship to work at Palm when the Journal, the larger daily paper, bought the weekly. He was also the editor of the radically libertarian magazine, Liberty.
Chuck not only held influence in a variety of Las Vegas circles, but he was able to keep his writer friends employed. On the day that Lou quit the radio gig to pursue a writing career and more financially beneficial opportunities, he called his friend Chuck for a job. Thanks to a small sexual-abuse–related firing, a position in the Communications Department had just opened up, and Chuck ushered his pal through the hiring process. Chuck and Lou had met earlier and became fast friends in college while working at the student newspaper. I was also a beneficiary of Chuck’s employ. A few months after the Valley Life buyout, I traded my press pass for a corporate ID card at Palm and, like Lou eventually would, worked as a communications specialist. And though Chuck was younger than both of us (Lou only by a year, me by four), Chuck was our boss twice over — at Palm and at Liberty.
The day gig in Corporate America was no one’s dream job. But it provided us with steady salaries and allowed us to freelance for nearly every magazine and alt-rag in town. Our office was small, buried in the bowels of Palm Gaming’s oldest and grandest property, the Tigris. Because of the office’s location to the back loading docks, it was often used to shuttle big-name performers into the property and to bust hookers off the property. Our department’s supervisor was usually absent, busy grooming herself to move upstairs into the corporate offices and, therefore, spent most of her time with her nose gently placed upon the casino president’s asshole, her lips firmly puckered.
There was always plenty of work to be done since the department handled all internal communications for four Palm properties. But our daily responsibilities were so mundane that Lou and I would often spend Monday through Wednesday freelancing before completing the week’s casino work — hitting all deadlines — on Thursday and Friday.
“Okay, so here’s the headline: New Carpet on Casino Floor, but You Still Have Cancer.”
In addition to double-dipping while on the Palm Gaming clock, we were able to take extended drinking lunches, most often at Cuba Café a few blocks away from our office. We were so charming and such frequents, that the staff often comped their beer. This only encouraged more drinking before heading back to work — not that we needed sharp minds for what those afternoons in the Communications Department required.
“Lou. Neal. My office,” Chuck said one afternoon after getting back from Cuba Café.
“Christ, we smell like a fucking brewery,” Lou complained.
“Now, I don’t want a revolt on my hands,” Chuck teased.
“What worker-drone task do you have for us now, fearless leader?” I asked.
“Lou, I need you to take the camera up to the casino floor and snap photographs of the new carpet. Neal, I need you to host the employee karaoke competition in the employee dining room today.”
“Why does he get to host the karaoke?” Lou asked. “I was the disk jockey. I’m a goddamn stand-up comic. Let him take pictures of the carpet.”
“Nope. You’re better with the camera than he is,” Chuck said.
“Plus, I have a PhD in English,” I added. Yep. Dr. Neal Harding. My education was a laughable reminder that I was not at the career level that I should have been. I fancied myself a real writer — to one day be a well-respected professor of the written word. I had paid a fair chunk of my dues. I had already published one collection of poetry and recently, the unauthorized biography of the world-famous local synth-rock band, The Riots. The band had just released its second album, and my book could not have been better timed for hypersonic success. Or so I hoped. “When my book becomes a national best-seller, all of this will be behind us. I’ll take you guys with me wherever I go. But for now, Lou, you have carpet to photograph. And I’m going to listen to fat housekeepers sing Shania Twain.”
“Fuck,” Lou said. “Why am I taking pictures of the carpet?”
“Because they installed new carpet on the casino floor,” Chuck said.
“And the bosses want us to do a story for the newsletter about the carpet. So the employees know the company is investing in itself.”
“Didn’t Neal just write a story about employee health benefits being reduced?”
“Yes,” Chuck laughed.
“Okay, so here’s the headline: New Carpet on Casino Floor, but You Still Have Cancer.”
LOU FELT LIKE AN IDIOT AS HE POINTED THE CAMERA AT HIS FEET AND PRESSED THE SHUTTER BUTTON. He tried making the photos more appealing. He walked to the busiest part of the casino and got into a prone position, careful not to wrinkle his tie and blazer. He shot at angles that made it obvious that photographed feet belonged to a dealer or were clearly the shoes of a cocktail waitress. True to his compulsive style, he never half-assed anything. Those pictures of the carpet were going to be the best goddamn carpet pictures the world had ever known.
“Excuse me. What in the hell are you doing?” A grizzled man in a dark suit with a Tigris name tag was standing over Lou. He could have been security, but without the standard earpiece, Lou figured he was a floor manager or pit boss.
“I’m taking photos of the carpet,” Lou said, realizing how dumb it sounded.
“It’s against casino policy and Nevada state law to snap photographs without permission. Stand up, son.”
Lou did. “I know. Look…” He caught the name on the tag. “John, I’m Lou Bergman. I work down in communications, and I have to take pictures of the carpet.” Lou handed him a business card from his blazer breast pocket. John looked it over and handed it back to Lou, accompanied with a face that acknowledged the absurd assignment. “Tell me about it,” Lou admitted.
“Why are you taking pictures of the carpet?”
“Because they just installed it.” He gestured like a showroom model. “All throughout the casino.”
John looked at his feet and around as if he’d not noticed the change. “And?”
“And corporate wants you to know it’s investing back into the property and its employees.”
“Didn’t they just cut our benefits?”
“They did. I just have to take photos to go alongside a story in the next issue of The River. “What’s The River?”
“It’s the quarterly employee newsletter.”
“I’ve worked here for 26 years, and I’ve never heard of it.”
“We usually work pretty hard on it.”
“I’m not going to lie to you, kid. This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of. Go ahead, take your pictures.”
“Thanks, John. The sooner I finish this, the sooner we can both put this behind us. And I’ll be sure to personally hand deliver a copy of the River to you when the story breaks.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
Lou returned to his desk, took in the remaining beer buzz and sifted through the hi-res images of carpet in what could only be characterized as psychedelic diarrhea.
WE HAD STEADY WOMEN IN OUR LIVES.
Chuck and Lexi Albert were high school sweethearts. She moved to Las Vegas to be with Chuck immediately after earning her MBA from Morrill University in Indiana. She was on the fast track to a successful career as a hospital administrator and worked at one of Las Vegas’ most prestigious medical centers.
Lou and Michelle Kaminski had been great friends since college. She moved to Chicago to become a lawyer and they remained friends and kept in touch. And then, whenever Michelle was here visiting her parents, they would see one another, and without intent, they just seemed to fall in love.
It was — like love so often is — without any warning or planning. They first kissed in December, followed by daily talks through emails and phone calls, and it all just cascaded from then on. Lou had been to see her once in late February; now it was early April, and things had grown quite serious.
Michelle had arrived in town the same afternoon as the carpet photo shoot. Chuck, Lexi, Lou and Michelle met for dinner that night at Bella’s. My wife Natalie and I joined them. Unless I had to cover a story for one of the rags or watch some metal band play a tiny smoke-filled bar for the music column I held onto at Valley Life, I rarely ventured out after dark, like I said. But Michelle’s arrival in town was a special occasion, and this was the first time Natalie and I were meeting her. It was also the first time we hired a babysitter and left our infant son Stephen at home.
“What an amazing view,” Michelle said, as the six of us were seated next to a window showcasing a panoramic view of the valley. “Do you think Stephen is okay, Neal?” said Natalie.
“I left the babysitter with beer money and a loaded revolver. I’m sure he’s fine,” I said. Natalie looked at me, acknowledging my attempt at being cute. She disapproved of the effort. The talk, therefore, pivoted to a more vanilla tone.
“How old is Stephen?” asked Michelle.
“Almost a year,” said Natalie.
“And this is your first night away from him?”
“Is it that obvious?”
“Let’s not talk about babies,” I interjected. “Michelle, welcome back to the Neon Dream. How long are you in town?”
“Four days. Until Monday. My friend Amanda is getting married in June, so we’re here for her bachelorette party.”
“Are you the maid of honor?” Lexi asked.
“I’m a bridesmaid but am also planning the entire weekend for all 25 girls. Since I’m from Vegas, it made sense for me to do all of the planning. But it was not easy. Ask Lou. He had to hear all about it.”
“Whatever happens, all those girls are bitches,” Lou said. Michelle smiled at him, pleased with his well-rehearsed response. The rest of us laughed, knowing his statement was more her projection than his actual opinion.
“Thanks again for hooking us up with passes to Rouge tomorrow night, Chuck,” said Michelle. Rouge was the newest club on the Strip, and he had to manipulate a few favors to get 25 girls in on a Friday night. Once Lou assured him that all of the girls were at least moderately good-looking, Chuck was happy to oblige. “So…” she said, looking at Chuck and Lexi. “When are you two finally getting married?”
Lou took his girlfriend’s hand. “Let’s not get too personal before the first drink, Michelle.”
“Oh, come on. They’ve been together since what, high school? I think it’s a perfectly fair question.”
Lexi blushed. Chuck fidgeted in his chair. I laughed. Natalie looked out the window in an effort to be distracted. No one wanted to face Michelle’s question. Because if there’s anything more uncomfortable in the world than putting a couple on the spot by asking them the marriage question point blank, you’d be hard pressed to find it. And all of us — well, all of us but Michelle — understood that that question at that moment brought with it an extra special kind of discomfort. The subject of marriage had been a major talking point between Chuck and Lexi. She wanted to get married. He wasn’t ready.
Even if Michelle had known the sensitive nature of the query, it likely wouldn’t have stopped her from asking anyway because to a woman in her late twenties in a new, happy, healthy relationship with her best guy friend, it’s a perfectly legitimate, noninvasive question. From her point of view, getting married is the only thing that mattered.
“After knowing each other for so long, it’s about time,” Michelle said. Then she turned to Lou and looked into his eyes, smiled knowingly and said, “Don’t you think?”
He forced a smile back at her. For the first time since things took off with Michelle, he felt a twinge of panic.