Hope Idiotic | Part III
Hope Idiotic is a serialized novel. Catch each new part every week on Monday and Thursday.
A MONTH LATER AT WORK, JUST BEFORE LUNCH, CHUCK BURST FROM HIS OFFICE into the area where Lou and I sat. He ran his hands through his short hair, clawing his scalp.
“Fucking Jesus!” he said.
Lou and I swiveled our chairs toward him and leaned back ready for the meltdown.
“Department meeting!” Chuck said. “Now! Cuba Café! Neal, you drive!”
“I can’t. I have to get gas.”
“Good. Get it on the way back.”
In the car, Chuck kept ripping at his head and cursing under his breath.
“You want to tell us what’s going on?” Lou asked.
“I need a beer first.”
Our department was going to be dissolved. “A restructuring,” is what the Palm Gaming executives called it. Although the three of us loathed the corporate humping we had to do to earn a buck, we had a pretty sweet seat up. While our department was independent and served much like a communication agency to the four Strip properties, the restructuring would require each property to manage its own internal communications. We were being split up. Worst of all, our positions would fall under the umbrella of the Human Resources Department.
Beyond the occasional legitimate sexual harassment problems or veiled threats of retaliatory violence from a disgruntled former employee, HR served little necessary purpose. It existed mostly as an employee party planner. Companywide emails from HR regularly looked like they were written in crayon. Lots of big, colorful fonts and clipart and seasonal-appropriate .gifs of Cupid, leprechauns, jack-o-lanterns and Santa Claus. I once brought in a flyer I received from Stephen’s daycare about an upcoming event. The flyer for young parents with babies looked just like an email HR sent to 70,000 adults employed at a casino regarding changes to the Employee Dining Room’s soda fountain. (There would be two Diet Coke dispensers — part of a new health initiative.)
A lot of the information we dispersed was at the behest of HR, but knowing that we weren’t technically HR employees was important to us. The days of freelancing on the Palm dime, joking around and extended drinking lunches were numbered.
“Melvin Wilson is going to be my direct supervisor,” Chuck said. Melvin Wilson was the company’s diversity golden boy: A mid-forties black man with an ex-wife and five children under the age of seven. He was a reformed juvenile delinquent, having served a stint at age 15 for selling crack to an undercover cop. After prison, he found Jesus, and from there, a job in human resources. If HR had a cheerleading team for the company, Melvin would be its captain. “And they’re making me the senior manager of communications at Tigris. So I’ll have a more hands-on boss to micromanage me while I’m managing a smaller department. The upgraded title is bullshit.”
“It comes with more pay, right?” I asked.
“Fifteen hundred a year,” said Chuck. Lou and I laughed.
“So what does this mean for us?”
“Nothing is official yet, but you’ll probably stay with me at Tigris. I’m worried about you, Lou.”
“Are they going to fire me?” Lou asked.
“No. You’ll be sent to one of the other properties. And the whispers are that Lancelot’s Kingdom is gunning for you.”
Lancelot’s was Palm’s unloved, ugly stepchild of a property. Built to look like a medieval castle and themed as such throughout, it had become a glorified motel with rooms-by-the-hour since falling into disarray when Vegas outgrew its family-friendly identity. It was where hospitality careers went to die and where visitors checked in with hopes of hitting the jackpot but checked out emotionally empty and financially broke, having realized how hard exploitive capitalist dreams can crash.
“When does all of this take effect?” Lou warily asked.
“Probably by the middle of June.”
“Well then, I wouldn’t worry too much about me.”
Lou took a big bite out of his Cuban sandwich, which had just been delivered to the table. “I’m moving to Chicago at the beginning of June.”
“What the fuck for?” I asked.
“To make something of myself. Become a real writer in a real city,” he said with his mouth full.
“Are you saying I’m not a real writer because I live in Las Vegas?”
“No! Of course not. I was trying to be funny.”
“Because you’d be right.”
“What are you talking about? You’re a real writer. You just published your second book.”
“I write corporate masturbatory dreck and hump editors’ legs for twenty-five cents a word. My book is being outsold 500-to-1 by The Twinkie Cookbook. I’m not a real writer. I’m a hack with a dusty PhD who changes his son’s shitty diapers in his spare time. The only time I see my wife’s tits is when she’s feeding my son. Chuck, you can’t let him do this. He can’t leave us here.”
Chuck was a clawing at his scalp even harder. A few more ounces of pressure and he would have separated it from his skull. But there was nothing he could have done.
Lou’s mind was made up. He was in love and he was going to leave us behind for the big city and the girl. His commitment to the grand gesture surprised even him.
My book is being outsold 500-to-1 by The Twinkie Cookbook. I’m not a real writer.
He had sworn off the idea of love after his last serious relationship four years before. It’s not that he didn’t believe love existed, but that love was a hassle. Back then, he’d just bought his house and had settled in nicely to the bachelor life. Without a girlfriend, he was free of relationship trappings like constant accountability and awareness of someone else’s moods and feelings. Without a girlfriend, he was able to come and go as he pleased, do what he wanted, when he wanted, with whom he wanted. He liked being on his own — alone but never lonely. Girls came and went without much emotional effort from either party, which Lou found idyllic. He never felt anxious or hurt as a result of another person. When he was younger, he wanted to have a wife and kids, but after experiencing the spoils of bachelorhood, he had decided that he would have been perfectly happy never being married or having a family of his own, but rather always be free and available for the excitement of first kisses and the wonderful strangeness of sleeping with strangers. He figured that his friends would have kids, and he could be their cool Uncle Louie.
But then Michelle happened. In only a few months, her affection for him, and his for her, made him feel that real, workable love could exist. They had already been friends for eight years. That meant she knew who he was. She knew his idiosyncrasies, and she didn’t seem to mind them one bit. She may have even loved him more because of them.
And now, as for the move, Michelle was the perfect catalyst. Lou’s return to Chicago had been in his plans since first arriving in Las Vegas ten years earlier. Since he had a job straight out of college, he decided that as soon as his career had outgrown Vegas, he’d make his way home again. The decade was staring him in the face, his career was in the best shape it had ever been in, and Michelle would be at his side. He had what he referred to as trajectory.
“What about your house?” Chuck asked.
“Glad you brought that up. I’d like to sell it and use the money to buy a place in Chicago. Until it sells, how about you live in it and pay me rent? You’re moving out of your place now anyway, so what the hell? You won’t find a better place for the money.”
“And when it sells?”
“I’ll give you thirty days to get out.”
“I’ll talk to Lexi about it.”
“Lexi?” I asked.
“Yeah, we’re moving in together. Moving into your place, Lou, while we look for our own doesn’t sound like a bad idea.”
“Everything discussed at this lunch sounds like a bad idea,” I said.
We ordered another round of beers before driving back to the office in silence.
AS LOU’S EXODUS APPROACHED, THERE WAS A SHARED ANXIETY BETWEEN THE THREE OF US and especially between Chuck and him. It was more than painfully apparent that their more youthful, troublemaking days were behind them and that their time together was limited. Therefore, every moment together had to be savored. So, on a typically bright spring Sunday morning in Las Vegas, Chuck and Lexi came bursting into Lou’s home while he made breakfast in nothing but white boxer shorts.
“Let’s go!” Chuck yelled.
“Good Christ! What’re you doing?” Lou demanded.
“We’re going to the Grand Canyon today. The three of us. Get dressed.”
“Nice boxers, Lou,” Lexi teased.
“You’re lucky I’m wearing anything at all.”
“I rented a Jeep. It’s goddamn gorgeous out. Come on. We’ll get breakfast in Boulder City.”
It was a day well spent. They walked out onto the new Skywalk and laughed at the magnitude of how disappointing it was. They threw big rocks down and took bets with each other on how many seconds it would be before they heard a thud. They reveled in the idea that they were making changes to the earth through destruction. Lexi took a photograph of Chuck and Lou standing at the edge of a ridge with nothing below it but the absolute bottom. They went off-road through the Joshua-tree forest, and Lou made his case against the band U2 — pompous and riding its own coattails. They stopped at a quiet desert bar for a few beers and a couple games of tabletop shuffleboard. Lexi asked Lou if he thought he’d miss Las Vegas. “I’ll certainly miss being able to have days like this,” he admitted.
A WEEK LATER, CHUCK AND LOU WERE DRIVING THROUGH THE DESERT AGAIN, this time one-hundred-twenty miles north to the small mining town of Beatty, Nevada. This was a routine getaway location for the guys. It was on the edge of Death Valley, so there would usually be a couple of geology students from some university there studying its soil and plant life and temperatures. At night they drank at the Sourdough Saloon, situated on the main road just before the only stoplight in town.
The Sourdough Saloon had a large horseshoe-shaped bar where an Amazonian bartender served cold beers at two-fifty each, whiskey and tequila for four bucks, and generic frozen pizza from the supermarket for five dollars a pie. Old rifles and taxidermied heads of big-horn sheep adorned the walls. The jukebox was loaded with Dion and The Belmonts, and Johnny Cash.
This trip, like all the others, was a raucous spectacle. Lou drove them to Beatty in record time. When they walked into the bar, the bartender was in a shouting match with an equally large, though slightly less masculine, patron. From what the boys could tell, things were about to get out of hand.
“What the fuck is going on?” Chuck asked Lou.
Lou noticed a short, older man at the other side of the bar watching them. He must have sensed their confusion, because when he and Lou made eye contact, the man nodded slightly and began to walk around to them. He didn’t look like the average local. Instead of worn work jeans and a tattered undershirt with a trucker hat, this man wore khaki chinos, a blue button-down and a faded blue baseball cap. When he reached them, the bartender had a handful of the enemy patron’s hair and was shaking his skull the way a dog shakes a dead rat in its mouth. Lou whispered to Chuck, “I think this guy is going to fill us in.”
The old man smiled with one corner of his mouth as he reached into his pocket, then brought his hand to his neck and spoke in a slow, humming robotic voice. “iT’S oK. THeY’Re BroTHeR aND SiSTeR.”
Lou at first didn’t see the stoma in the man’s neck because he was too far away. And by the time he was close enough, Lou’s focus was on the battle at the bar. The man had to speak through a mechanized voice box. Chuck laughed. Lou thanked the man and offered him the barstool next to them. “Buy you a beer?” Lou offered.
“BuDWeiSeR. ThaNK YoU,” the man buzzed.
The fight ended shortly after that. Chuck and Lou drank heavily. When the old man was drunk enough and had left the bar, nerdy geology students replaced him. Chuck told the bartender he wanted her to show him her tits. She threatened to kick his ass. Lou offered to kick her ass instead. Then he apologized, bought her a shot and she backed down. They dropped twenty-eight bucks in the jukebox and played Dion’s “Runaround Sue” on repeat for an hour. With the little cash either of them had left — a couple of ones and a five — they scribbled messages on them and stapled them to the ceiling amidst other paper currency. They read:
Help! I’m lost. If found, please call Chuck Keller at 702-353-8068; This dollar bill was once touched by a real live Jew; Figure it out. – CK and LB, May 2007.
At one point, Lou escaped to the bathroom to vomit. When he returned, Chuck was gone. “Did you see my friend?” Lou slurred at the bartender.
“The little bastard was asking to see my tits again. I threw him out. Next time I’ll kill him.” Lou laughed. “Fuck you!” she yelled. “Get the fuck out of here!”
Chuck didn’t make it far after being tossed out on his ear. He ended up passed out in a heap in the street, using the sidewalk curb as a pillow. “Let’s go, asshole,” Lou said, as he kicked him. “We have to get off the street.”
They had enough sense to secure a hotel room before going to the bar, and once they found Lou’s car, which was in the Sourdough’s rear parking lot, Lou drove them to the hotel. He tried to anyway. All the booze rendered his short-term memory and global cognitive ability completely useless. He knew what the hotel looked like — a series of white, aluminum-sided trailers. He knew it was only two blocks from the Sourdough. But instead of driving there, Lou blew through the stoplight and drove away from town, north on U.S. 95 with Chuck comatose in the passenger seat. Where the fuck am I? he wondered.
After an hour of weaving the lane and the shoulder, he saw a small red light ahead and thought, Great, a whorehouse. I’ll pull in, and we’ll just sleep there. He and Chuck had been to brothels before. Not as customers, but as curious journalism students on a road trip to Lake Tahoe. He knew these places had what were called trucker rooms, which could be rented by the hour — much like the girl — for the long-haul truckers in need of sleep who passed by on America’s loneliest road.
But no one answered the door of the small house when Lou knocked. So he went back to the car and drove toward what he hoped was back to Beatty. An hour later, he was in town but still couldn’t find the hotel. He thought, Fuck it, I’m parking it right here and going to sleep.
He woke up to Chuck slapping him in the face. The late-spring desert sun was pouring through the car windows, cooking them both.
“Hey! Wake up, you fucking asshole. Why are we sleeping in the car? And in a gravel parking lot?”
“Because I couldn’t find the damn hotel last night. Drove more than an hour on the highway. Was just going to rent a trucker room for us at a whorehouse, but no one answered.”
“What do you mean, you couldn’t find the hotel?”
“I mean I have no idea where it is.”
Chuck pointed straight ahead through the windshield and laughed. “You’re a fucking idiot.”
Lou had given up looking for their hotel in the hotel’s parking lot. The white, aluminum-sided trailers were about ten yards away from the car. It was morning, and they had to head home, but, since they spent the money, they figured they should get some use out of the room. They stormed the place like savages, ripping the bedding apart to get between the sheets catch some proper sleep for a few hours before showering and heading back to Las Vegas.
Dehydrated and hung over, the drive back felt much longer than the ride there the night before. Plus, they had reached the end of what was going to be their last adventure together for a while. Lou was leaving in a week.
“When did you know you loved her?” asked Chuck.
“Maybe when she first kissed me.”
IT WAS THE DAY BEFORE NEW YEAR’S EVE 2006 — her birthday. Like always, Michelle was back in Vegas to celebrate the holidays and her birthday with her parents. After a birthday dinner at a steakhouse inside the high-end neighborhood casino resort with her parents, she invited Lou to join them at one of the casino bars. Her parents were both smashed and giving away twenty dollar bill after twenty dollar bill to the bartop poker machines. Michelle was drunk, too, but sober enough to refuse to get into the car and go home with her mom and dad in the sloppy shape they were in. Lou offered to give her a lift. On the way home, they made a stop at her favorite taqueria.
“You know, you really missed your window with me,” she said.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Your window to be with me. All of those times we were each other’s stand-in dates to things, you never once tried to kiss me. And now it’s too late. You missed your window.”
“I didn’t know there was an open window.”
“That’s exactly your problem, Mr. Bergman. You. Don’t. Know.” She flipped her blond hair as she turned her head to look away from him out her window. This was how she flirted — by giving him a hard time.
When Lou pulled into the drive-thru, Michelle unbuckled her seatbelt and turned to face him, her back against the passenger door. “When you finish ordering, I’m going to kiss you,” she said.
Lou looked at her and laughed.
“Welcome to Los Tacos. Order when you’re ready,” the voice crackled from the intercom.
“I’ll have three regular tacos, two chicken soft tacos and…” he turned to Michelle who was still perched against the door. “What do you want again?”
“Two tacos and an order of nachos. And a Diet Coke.”
He turned back to the intercom. “Two tacos and an order of nachos.”
“And a Diet Coke!” Michelle said.
“I know. Relax. And a Diet Coke. Please.”
“That’ll be seven-fifteen. Second window.”
Before Lou could even depress the clutch, Michelle pounced. She swung her right leg around so that she was straddling him. It was a tight squeeze, and their faces were close.
“You’re kidding me,” he said.
She looked deeply into his eyes for a moment, then leaned in and kissed him. It was soft and slow and hard. It was deep and shallow. It was passionate. It was incredible. And when it was over, it left Lou dazed.
Michelle looked at him and said, “Okay. Now that that’s done, we can go back to being friends.” She swung her leg back around, plopped down in the passenger seat and buckled her seatbelt. The car in line behind them honked. Lou looked at her.
“You can do that again if you want.”
“Nope. That’s it. Just showing you what you’ve been missing out on.”
He pulled up to the window, paid and drove her home. As they divided the tacos in her parents’ driveway, Lou asked her, “You’re still going to be my date for my New Year’s party tomorrow, right?”
“Of course. We’re friends. And friends don’t stand each other up. Besides, my parents are going, too. I’m not going to stay home alone.”
“All right. Well, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow then.”
“Then I guess you will. Goodnight, Mr. Bergman. Thanks for the birthday tacos.”
“Thanks for the birthday kiss.”
She smiled at him and headed into the house.
By the morning, he was over the kiss. It was no big deal. He kissed girls all the time. But when she showed up at the party wearing a perfectly fitting little black dress, he felt butterflies in his gut. And at midnight, they kissed again. And when the party was over, they drank the last of the champagne on his bed. And she spent the night with him. And as they lay together, Michelle Kaminski took Lou Bergman’s head in her hands and said, “This face… I’ll never look at it the same again. What have we started?”
“WHAT DOES IT FEEL LIKE?” Chuck asked. “To fall in love?”
“Just like you remember. Except better.”
They drove a few silent miles. Then Chuck said, “I met a girl.”
“What do you mean?”
“Her name is Gina Acerbi. She’s that pretty Italian girl who works up in sales and catering. Tiny little thing; great tits. She was in my diversity training class. I don’t know what to do.”
“What is there to do? Nothing wrong with knowing a cute girl.”
“There is if I’m fucking her.”
“Jesus Christ, Chuck. You and Lexi are moving in together in a week.”
“I didn’t plan on it. Jesus, man. Like Michelle, she just came out of nowhere.”
“It’s not the same.”
“I want to feel what you feel. I want to know what it’s like to love someone so much — and know that they love you just the same — that you’re willing to throw away your entire life just to be a part of theirs. I want that. I want that passion of making out in a fast-food drive-thru. I want those goddamn butterflies. You know what I get now? I get to move in with a girl — who I care about, and yeah, I love her — but a girl who reads the Bible in bed. You can imagine what my sex life has been like with her.”
Chuck had a point. He’d always been a sexual animal, often a crazed beast with an enduring tumescence. And whenever he and Lexi had a mini-breakup, he made sure to do as much migratory humping as possible.
“The Bible is sexy. In parts. Violent, too. That ought to turn you on,” Lou said.
“The Bible doesn’t give me butterflies.”
“And Gina does?”
“And Gina does.”