Dr. Johnson recommended to me, as he had often done, to drink water only: “For (said he,) you are then sure not to get drunk; whereas if you drink wine you are never sure.” I said drinking wine was a pleasure which I was unwilling to give up. “Why, Sir, (said he,) there is no doubt that not to drink wine is a great deduction from life; but it may be necessary.” – Boswell
We’ve been warned. For eight straight months, we have been warned. Like some one-eyed prophet streaking across the sky, our coming destruction has been proclaimed. “I am still here,” it has said, even when the cool wind tears through town and the men look down. “I am still here,” it repeats when winter clouds cloud our judgment, and forty-degrees feels cold. “I am still here,” it shouts through showers of rain, when men, such foolish men, sneer and snicker at its absence. It is like a jilted lover, seeking its revenge on men who exalt in their escape. There is nothing worse than a lover like Cleopatra; there is nothing worse than a town full of Antony’s. No matter how hard they try to leave, they return. But there exists in Vegas a race of men who race from their god. Indeed, the pagans called it a god, and a jealous god it is. A tyrannical god, even. For this god forces, coerces, strangles the love out of its subjects. Though the men curse it, they recognize their need for it. This god I speak of is the sun.
In April we experienced the first rains since December. We probably had about ten days of some type of rainfall. The valley was perfect. Flowers bloomed, blossomed. Nights out on the Plank of the Jolly Mariner were pleasant; a sweatshirt was at times needed in the early morning hours. May was warmer, but anything but hot. The flowers blossomed still. The birds sang. The foolish men still shook their fists in derision of the sun. Then, it finally happened. As if someone flipped a switch, June welcomed us with triple-digit weather. The sun bore down upon us. It left its throne in the heavens to be near us; it began its yearly incarnation. That is, its reverse incarnation. If successful, it will not become a son but propagate more suns, as men melt into gassy blobs.
The Blue Ox is a fine establishment near the airport that I recommend to any visitor to Las Vegas with a few disclaimers. While for some reason there is no beer menu there is good beer (order the “Downtown Brown”), and while they do not allow pipe-smoking, they still have gender-segregated bathrooms. Aptly named, it is Minnesota-themed. Pictures of geese on a lake line the walls, or men ice-fishing. Unfortunately, there are televisions and music, but there are no crowds. This past Saturday I sat in a booth with a colleague, enjoying a brown ale with few others present. We discussed politics, religion, and English studies, and while we agree less about the God of the Jews than fine brews, we at least agree upon something. We are both, moreover, experiencing the desert heat for the first time. As we walked outside into the ninety-degree night, the air felt cool and pleasant. My colleague then turned to me and said something along the lines of
“Yeah, so I left my house late this morning and the mid-ninety degree weather actually felt cool.”
I concurred with this assessment of the day’s weather and left for my car.
Just last week I ran into this same colleague on my bike. We chatted by a palm tree near the UNLV Student Union and about halfway into the conversation, we observed the necessity to avoid the sun. He stood sheltered in the skinny strip of shade, as I was baking in the rays. As we observed this, I subconsciously nudged my bike into the safe-zone, pushing him closer to the tree but not into the dead-zone. Immediately, my body thanked my good sense. Shade is important in any climate. I remember seeking shade beneath the Cyprus trees of City Park in Manhattan last summer, as I cut the grass. But in Kansas, heat is democratic. It shoots from the sun but the air soaks it up and spreads it around. Kansas heat stifles, suppresses, strangles, suffocates its subjects because it operates more like an airy and soppy spirit hovering about. A man may swim to work on two feet in Kansas and feel all the hotter for doing so. He cannot escape the heat because it surrounds him.
The typical response I receive from people outside of Vegas when I tell them of its heat goes something like this:
“Ah, yes,” they say with a look of grave confidence, “but it is a dry heat, no doubt.”
No doubt any man walking a mile in the desert, chanting to himself “ah, yes, but it is a dry heat, no doubt,” will soon learn to unlearn this folly. Of course, anyone who has swam through a Kansas summer begs for a dray towel. But the desert dryness works as both a blessing and a curse. It is, as it were, friend and foe. Ninety-five degrees in Vegas does feel cooler. But a man thinking he can simply walk the Vegas streets in July without a five-gallon jug of water strapped to his back deceives himself. Or, he is a local. Somehow the locals bike, and run, and walk, and smoke without any water. I can’t hardly make it a block without seeing many mirages of wells. A man moving to Vegas from the Midwest must be judicious. He must stock up on lip-balm and apply it hourly. He must realize that his morning cup of Joe ought to be pre-gamed with a glass of water and followed with a taller. If he has any notion of drinking a beer that evening, he must drink nothing but water throughout the day and drink it continuously until the moment of imbibing his beer. This must also be followed by three or four glasses of water. And if this poor soul has the noble and natural notion to smoke a pipe, he must either wash down each puff with a hearty gallon, or concede to have cottonmouth for three days. He must be a brave man to have a pipe and a pint.
By modern American standards, the tap water is pretty bad in Vegas. To help with this trial, I recently bought two five-gallon jugs which I fill with clean water from one a many fill-up stations around town. If there was some way to siphon the water into my body, that would be ideal. Anyhow, this is only the most obvious effect of dry heat. You cannot walk in it unless you’re a camel. But I’ve lately hypothesized a theory regarding the sun. For the Vegas sun is very intimate with its sons. It feels as if it’s on your shoulder at times. I’ve wondered at this because I’ve never been tempted to hate the sun before, no matter how hot. It’s always been my favorite star. But it’s not just me. June witnessed its own bloom. Umbrellas of all sorts blossomed this month, as men sought to avoid the sun; I purchased a straw, cream-colored fedora which has bloomed atop the stem of my body, a sort of defiant gesture both to my hatless generation and the sun. Indeed, my theory of the Vegas sun, lacking all science, is that the thin air offers even less resistance to the tyranny of its rays. The dry air that causes less humidity removes the one barrier we have from Apollo, and men, soon to burst like small supernova’s, walk like living shades, crawling from sliver of shade to sliver of shade. But as this gloomy Gambler is written during the brief relief of a ninety-degree cold-front, I can reflect on last week’s heat and look forward to next week’s, and indeed to the next three months of unrelenting, dry Vegas heat. I can only hope that in the coming months my life does not reflect the sun but rather the Son.
The Jolly Mariner – Rochelle Avenue
Las Vegas, Nevada
June 12–16, 2016
Painting: “A Hawking Party”
By Gerrit Malleyn,
Oil on canvas, c. 1779