The last time I was in Las Vegas Nixon was gearing up for reelection. He’d hired some plumbers to do a little work for McGovern but as yet nobody was hip to his shenanigans. I didn’t vote for Nixon, nor did I vote for McGovern, hell, I wasn’t allowed to vote for anybody. The U.S. Congress had passed the 26th Amendment to the constitution the year before, lowering the age of universal franchise from 21 to 18, but that wouldn’t affect me until Ford lost to Carter.
Over forty years later I was returning to the scene of so many crimes, traveling alone and planning to reunite with family upon my arrival. My wife had left me two years prior and my brother Joe had said, “John, come out to Vegas. Meet me there, we’ll have fun and it’ll help you forget about Eileen.” The last thing I wanted to do was forget Eileen but I did want to see Joe. Eileen leaving me hadn’t been her idea and it certainly wasn’t mine, either. No, she left because even though she’d been taught to look both ways before crossing the street somebodies had punched her ticket for her.
She knew that red lights don’t stop cars but like most Americans she had a tendency to go when the light turns green so when her personal invitation to go flipped from red to green she went; rojo to verde and vivo to muerto. The red light that told the oncoming van to stop didn’t even slow them down as they fled from the police in manic furry. When she drove into the intersection of Council and Collins she did the police a service by single-handedly stopping the fleeing banditos but she paid the ultimate price for her inadvertent act of heroism. I’d lost my wife, lost my direction but gained her life insurance money. I’d have gladly traded every dime I owned to have her back.
Joe hadn’t lost just one wife, he’d lost two. Joe and Jeanine had married when they were fresh out of college in a lovely ceremony that celebrated the love and commitment my little brother and his blushing bride shared. Joe and Jeanine had loved one another with a passion that was beautifully balanced with depth and commitment and her death from breast cancer less than ten years later had devastated him and their young daughter Marla.
Following Jeanine’s death he had exchanged impoverished Michigan for booming San Francisco, made good use of his skill with numbers, become a successful banker, found a new mother for his young daughter and a new wife for himself. The money that he’d made in banking was keeping wife number two warm and snug in the home the three had shared for 15 years. Sophia got the house, Marla had moved to Sacramento and Joe found himself alone and adrift in a sea of heartache and loneliness. Bitter, middle-aged, dyed, bleached, nipped and tucked and replete with massive piles of money but no love he seemed intent on showing Sophia that she had made the biggest mistake of her life when she left him.
Part of the plan in showing Sophia the error of his ways was for me to rendezvous in Vegas with him. We hadn’t seen much of each other in the intervening years and Joe was to meet me in Las Vegas where we would paint the town an even deeper shade of sangre. I had spent the last two years living like a monk and had no desire to leave deep, rich swathes of red paint anywhere but I was willing to fly out from my home in Iowa to Vegas in order to see my closest brother.
My only other experience with Sin City had been that family road trip back in ’72 when we had piled in the car and driven west young man, driven west. I would have loved to retrace that trip with the same crew again but most of the folks who’d gone couldn’t make it this time. I’d asked if they wanted to go but they didn’t even answer my invitation. Their lack of a response wasn’t rude, they couldn’t answer because they’d spent all their slots and cashed in their chips. I talk to dead people a lot because so many of my loved ones fit into that category, it goes with the territory when you reach a certain age. Dead men tell no tales nor do they talk back to me when I ask them questions. There’s comfort in talking to the dead but the day they start talking back is when the comfort transubstantiates into terror. My communication with the dead may be an every day activity but it is also a one way transaction.
I’d started talking to the dead in earnest when my mother died, then the practice had solidified when I lost Eileen and by the time Dad said his last goodnight I was to a place where one way communication with the dead was something I did many times a day. The worst part about being a survivor is the loneliness that being the last man standing brings. I was willing to walk to Las Vegas in order to be with Joe but I had decided that flying was my best bet.
I hadn’t flown since Eileen’s death and booking my own flight was something I hadn’t done since the early eighties. There’s this new thing called the internet which is different than calling the airlines in order to get a ticket but I muddled through and had all the arrangements made. Things didn’t go quite as planned because of winter weather but I eventually made it to the Hilton where Joe had booked us a double suite. After missing my connecting flight in Dallas I had texted him from the airport that I’d be late and when my plane finally taxied to the gate in Vegas I called him right away.
“Joe? John. I finally made it to Vegas. Where are you?”
“John! Glad you made it. Where are you?”
“I’m at the airport, are you going to pick me up?”
“I’d love to, buddy but I’m out with a friend that I just met. Why don’t you catch a cab to the hotel and there are some tickets to the 7:00 o’clock Cirque du Soleil show, ‘Ka’ at MGM waiting for you. We were going to go together but I gave up when you were so late. I’m tied up now so I can’t make the show, but you should grab the tickets and go.”
I was stunned. “What are you talking about?! I don’t even know where the hotel is and why would I want to go to a show without you?!”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Easy, pardner. I didn’t know when you’d finally touch down and I met a little honey at one of the hotel lounges while I was waiting for you. We’re out on the town and I can’t just abandon her, can I? Take a taxi to the hotel and we’ll hook up later.”
“Uhm, really?” Tired, confused and frustrated by the latest turn of events I didn’t argue with Joe but got the address for the Hilton along with the information that the hotel was close to Circus Circus and the Stratosphere, two pieces of information that were meaningless to me. “Okay, I’m sure I’ll get there. I’ll talk to you later.” Hoping to reconnect with my brother in a meaningful way I was angry with him instead; this was not the beginning to our reunion that I had imagined.
Joe must have figured that his direction to take a taxi was a simple instruction because it was something he did regularly but for me the mechanics of queuing for a taxi, stating a destination and paying the fee and tip were all new to me. The taxi ride was uneventful and as we drove along I looked out the window in the fading light and enjoyed the palm trees and lack of snow. After paying the cabbie I stood in a short line to get a key to our suite and discovered the scenery within the hotel was at least as pleasant as it was outside. Pretties everywhere made January in southern Nevada far warmer than eastern Iowa in many ways.
I had to use my room key to access the elevator that levitated me to the 38th floor in about half a minute. The room was nice and the view magnificent but alone in paradise feels a lot like alone in the frozen tundra of Iowa. I found a note, a map and the two tickets to the Cirque du Soleil show on the coffee table. Joe had included detailed instructions on using the monorail to get to the MGM in case I didn’t want to hire a cab and after studying the note and the map I figured out how to get from where I was to where I wanted to be.
“Great,” I said to myself, “tickets to a show to remind me how alone I am.” I showered, changed, grabbed the map, checked in with the concierge to make sure of the monorail’s location and hiked over to the SLS entrance to catch the monorail. The Hilton was as far north as the monorail traveled and the MGM Grand was at the southern terminus. I bought a three day pass, slipped my ticket in the electronic turn-style and after a short wait boarded the tram heading south. The rail-car was empty when I got on but people started to fill the empty seats as we headed sur. The convention center was the third stop and a couple walked on that immediately caught my eye.
I likely would have noticed the woman because she wore a black and white horizontally stripped skirt that few people could do justice to. Young, fit, blonde but fidgety she filled the skirt in a way that was close to perfection so her entry with a balding red-headed man who looked easily twenty years her senior and ten years my junior was an interesting display of contrasts. He was slovenly and his body language telegraphed anger while she was beautiful but seemed distressed.
His arms crossed and held tightly against his chest, sneering mouth, head held back from his neck and frequent wristwatch checks raised my hackles and when he grabbed her elbow and shoved her into a seat by the door a few feet from where I sat I fought the urge to confront him. “None of my business,” I whispered to myself. I watched them out of the corner of my eye and his continued aggressive physicality and sharp hissing did nothing to put me at ease. Two stops later he loudly told the blonde, “Get up, bitch!” which got my adrenaline flowing fast and hard.
Torn between fear of getting involved but repulsed by the thought of allowing someone to be bullied I desperately tried to catch the eye of the young woman on the car. When I did I raised my eyebrows as a question to her and when her head retreated slightly in surprise I again raised my eyebrows. Her eyes locked onto mine and she nodded slightly as we held eye contact. As the train slowed I stood and walked over to them.
Stomach churning I looked at the woman and asked, “Everything okay here?”
The red-head looked at me with scorn and said, “Fuck off, asshole!”
I got closer to them and replied, “I really wasn’t talking to you.” Looking at the woman I repeated my question, “Are you okay? Do you need help?”
The man looked at me and drew his arm back in a way that I took to be threatening and before he could punch me I pointed to the camera at the end of the car. “We’re on camera, you know? So unless you want to have a big problem you might want to let her answer.” Turning to the blonde I continued, “My name’s John. Do you want to get off here or would you rather come with me to the police station?”
As the car stopped the blonde looked at the red-head, then the camera, and finally at me. “Thanks for asking, John. I don’t think I do want to get off here. Mark, why don’t you go ahead and go. I think we’re done.”
Mark looked as though he would punch me in spite of the cameras and I stood with my weight distributed in a way that would facilitate quick movement. Even though I am old I am not a small man and I try to keep myself in fighting trim. I had taken martial arts for years but hadn’t been in a fight since elementary school. I was scared but I looked down at the smaller man and tried my best to look unconcerned over his obvious his anger.
Mark looked at the blonde and me, muttered, “You are so not worth any of this shit,” and walked off the train car. I collapsed in the seat next to the blonde and tried not to visibly shake as we continued northward.
“Thanks,” she said to me quietly.
“You’re welcome,” I replied. “Are you okay?”
“Well, I don’t think I’ll be seeing Mark again, but other than that I’m okay,” she said with a tired half smile. “What’s your name?’ she asked, extending her right hand and raising her left eyebrow.
“Uhm, John. John Powell. Nice to meet you, miss?”
“Jodi. My name’s Jodi. John is your real name? Do you usually tell people that you are trying to intimidate your real name? You might want to start telling the bad guys some nom de gurre.”
“Thanks for the tip. I’ve never done this before. If I take it up as a vocation I’ll be sure to remember that. Who was that guy?”
“Mark? He was my boyfriend for about a year but I split with him a few months ago. He said he wanted to get together about some things he’d left at my place so I told him we could meet. I wasn’t comfortable meeting at my house but after a few drinks he’d convinced me that it was okay so we were taking the monorail back to the garage where he’d parked his car. He’d been getting uglier by the minute and I wasn’t sure what to do when you saved me. Thanks, by the way.”
“My pleasure? I’m glad nothing happened because I’m not sure how that would have worked out. Where are you going now? Home?”
“No, I think I’ll avoid home until Mark has a chance to cool off. I’m not sure where I’m going to go.”
“Uhm, please don’t take this the wrong way, but I have two tickets to the Cirque du Soleil show for 7:00 and my brother bailed on me. Want to go?”
Jodi pursed her lips a moment and said, “Cirque du Soleil, huh? I haven’t seen one of those in a while. Which one?”
“Is there more than one?” I asked.
Jodi’s eyes got big and her smile bigger. “Yeah, there are quite a few. Where’s this one?”
“At the MGM Grand. It’s called ‘Ka,’ I think.”
“Hmm, haven’t seen that one. You know, I think I would like to go with you, if you don’t mind. I want to give Mark time to cool off before I encounter him again.”
“Well I am free, I’ve no date, and would be pleased with some company. How about if I buy you dinner, we watch the show and then you’re on your own? Sound like a plan?”
“Sounds great, John. Let’s start again. Hi, my name is Jodi Flower,” she extended her hand and shook mine. “And you said you were John Powell?”
“Yes! Very good! There was a lot going on back there and getting names right can be tricky sometimes. Where would you like to go to dinner?”
“The obvious choice would be one of the restaurants in the casino, if that works for you?”
“To tell you the truth, Jodi, this is the first time I’ve been to Las Vegas since you’ve been alive so I’m more than willing to let you lead, okay?”
“Sounds good, John. But you might be surprised to know how long I’ve been alive. When were you here last?”
The monorail came to a stop at its northern terminus and we stood, headed out the door and made our way down the escalator. “I was here in 1972, a time that I bet was well before your birth.”
“Why, thank you! You’d lose, but not by much. I was born in seventy one.”
“Wow. I gotta tell you that I am shocked. I figured you for early thirties, max. Nevada must agree with you.”
“Turn here and we’ll be there in a jiff, see the signs?” she asked, pointing to the signage that lined the crowded casino walkways, “They’ll show us the way to go. Yes, I like it here. Did you say something about a brother?”
“Yes. My little brother, Joe. We were supposed to go to this Ka thing but my flight got delayed and so he bailed. He said he was out with a woman he’d just met so I have two tickets but no date, so it looks like it’s your lucky day after all.”
Jodi led the way to the MGM and we exchanged small talk. I let her know that I was a widower from Iowa which she in turn said meant that we’d practically been neighbors as she had lived in Indiana all of her life before divorcing her husband nine years earlier. She’d gotten a nice settlement when she and her ex sold their house just before the housing bubble collapsed and she had soon pulled up roots from her home in Indiana and moved to Las Vegas. She enjoyed the weather and the cost of living and after sampling a few varieties of local bachelors had thought Mark might be a good candidate to settle down with but when she discovered that he was still playing the field late in the game she had ended their romance. He’d taken being scorned hard and Jodi quickly discovered both a violent and vindictive side that he’d done as good a job of hiding as he had his philandering.
We ate at Wolfgang Puck’s because it was right outside the theater and I had heard of it before. I was far more impressed with Jodi than with Wolfgang’s. Dinner was fine but expensive and even though the restaurant was smoke free it sat dead center in a casino that wasn’t and the wafting smoke annoyed me as we ate and talked. Eileen had been a health and fitness nut and she’d worked hard at trying to make me take proper care of myself. We had both been pleased when Iowa had banned smoking inside public buildings because smoking, first or second-hand, was something we eschewed. A few drinks, some good food and pleasant company made for the best dining experience that I’d had in a long while and the cirque show was jaw dropping.
“You know, I’ve seen a couple of these shows that travel but I’ve never seen one that had such elaborate, moving set pieces before,” I said as we filed out of the theater following the show’s end. “That was unbelievable!’
“Yes, they always do a great job. Those costumes were spectacular, weren’t they?”
“They were, though it’s a bit of a shame to cover those gorgeous bodies with all those clothes.”
Jodi turned her head, raised her eyebrows and asked, “Did you expect nude performers because you’re in Las Vegas?”
I blushed a little and replied, “No, it’s just that the other shows that I saw didn’t have the elaborate sets and the acrobats didn’t wear as much, that’s all.”
“Okay, John, don’t let my teasing bother you. That was great, what’s next?”
“There’s a next?” I asked.
She smiled deeply and said, “Well that’s up to you. It is just past nine so I figured we were just getting started. I still don’t feel like going home and I thought you might like to hang out some more. What do you say?”
“Uh, I’m game if you are. What did you have in mind?”
“Well, if you’re new to town we could walk the strip. I’d love to get a little exercise in before heading home and I could point out the sights to you.”
“That’d be great, if I’m not keeping you?”
Jodi tucked her arm in mine and said, “Keeping me? I thought we were on a date? How could you be keeping me?” as we walked out of the MGM Grand.
“A date!?” I replied, ever the suave gallant. “When did I graduate from being your wing-man to being your date?”
“Oh, sorry. I thought this was a date, not a case of charity,” she said with a smile that damped the sting of her words.
I stopped walking, looked in her eyes and said, “That sounds perfect to me,” then I squeezed her hand with my arm. “Where to?”
“Well, we’re right across the street from New York, New York, let’s hit that?”
We walked to the escalator that led to the pedestrian overpass and I stepped toward the up escalator she grabbed my arm and steered me toward the stairs, “I said walk,” she said with another arm squeeze. “Those escalators are crowded and slow and I need to stretch my legs.”
She let go my arm and quickly bounded up the stairs and I followed after her in hot pursuit. We repeated the exercise in reverse on the other side and made our way into New York, New York for a look around. “You want to try your luck?” she asked as we passed a slot machine.
“Not right now, maybe later,” I replied. She smiled, shrugged and we kept walking.
On the way out we ran into a group of people who were wearing mesh bibs that said “Outback Great Race” and they asked if they could sing to us. “Sure!” I shouted and the group of a half dozen broke out into a lame version of Sinatra’s, “New York, New York” which made me cringe. They were so bad that I felt compelled to join them and my loud, off-key baritone doubled our volume. Jodi smiled at me, put her arm on my shoulder, added her voice to the song and we started an impromptu chorus line production with alternating high kicks.
When we were done the Outback racers thanked us and left with huge smiles while Jodi doubled over laughing. I crouched next to her with my hands on my knees as I caught my breath following our silly fun. When she was done laughing she stood up, hugged me and kissed my cheek. I hugged her back and stole a quick peck that caused her to wink at me, wag her finger side to side and then kiss me in a chaste but lingering way.
“I guess we are on a date,” I whispered in her ear.
“I thought we’d already established that?” she asked looking at me quizzically. “Where to?”
Jodi guided us up and down Las Vegas Boulevard hopping from casino to casino, flitting back and forth between the monorail and walking and we raced up and down every staircase. “You know, the only reason you’re beating me down the staircases is because I’m wearing heels, right?’
That earned her another kiss and as the evening changed to morning we found more excuses to demonstrate PDA’s and her company and the bright lights chased away the fatigue from my long trek to Las Vegas. Around two my phone vibrated and I checked to see who had left me a text. Joe’s message was short, “Hope you are having fun. I am at hotel but not alone. See you tomorrow.”
“Everything alright?’ she asked.
“Yep. Just my brother. His date must have gone well. He has a guest.”
“Is that a problem?”
“No. I figured I wouldn’t see him till tomorrow anyway, what with it being so late.”
“Two is late for you, huh?” she asked with a mischievous grin.
“With the time zone change we’re almost to about the time I wake up back in Iowa. Is this typical for you?”
“Typical? No, but I like my night life. Are you ready to take me to my car?”
“Not sure. This has been fun and that’s almost completely because of you. What happens when we get to your car?”
“Let’s see, shall we?”
We took the monorail back to the stop where she and Mark had entered over nine hours previously. We got off and hand in hand took the escalator down to the street. It was a short walk to her baby blue Camry. She dangled the keys in front of me and said, “You want to drive?”
I looked at her, smirked and asked, “The car or you?”
“Just the car tonight. How long are you in town?”
“Three more nights. Can I see you again?”
“I’m counting on it. Where are you staying?”
“The Hilton over by the Stratosphere. Are we throwing in the towel?”
She came over and kissed me more fully than I had been kissed in a long time. “Just for tonight. Let’s get you home. Who’s driving?”
“You drive, that way I can look at you instead of the road.” That earned me another kiss and I opened her car door and closed it after her.
The drive to the Hilton was far too short as looking at her under the bright full moon was intoxicating. I slid my hand under her right leg and she let it rest there as we made our way north. Once at the hotel I walked over to where she was standing and discovered that while our previous kiss had been amazing that she had actually been holding back. We exchanged phone numbers and I promised that I would indeed call her the next day.
“Goodnight, John,” she whispered in my ear.
“Goodnight, Jodi. This was fantastic. I’ll call you in the morning.’
“Wait till afternoon. Some of us have to work.”
One last, short kiss and she was gone. Loneliness is a terrible thing and new romance makes everything light, beautiful and full of hope. The expression, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” is one known around the world, in this case I was certainly hoping that it would not prove to be true.