in memoriam, October 1, 2017
How far that little candle throws his beams!
So shines a good deed in a naughty world.
— Merchant of Venice
I passed her on Eastern at sunset, so I didn’t look her way. I knew, between Trop and Russell, she was there. For I saw her beam. I pulled into the Ox early to watch the baseball game. Our waitress spotted me and smiled and showed concern.
“Where’ve you guys been? We’ve been worried, wondering where those guys have been. Haven’t seen ya since the——. Thought maybe you had been down there.”
Her concern caught me off guard. I explained our three-weeks-absence.
“Last week was the Ren. Fair. And the week before…” I felt guilty.
She left to fetch water. I chatted with Jamie and asked if he wouldn’t turn the sound on for the game. Joe Buck’s October voice ringed throughout the bar, and I felt peace.
As I sat in that booth and waited, fidgeting with water and watching the game, I reflected and I thought—This is not a hotel. I am not a stranger. I am not a tourist. My routine creates meaning. My presence makes me a part of the Ox, and the Ox becomes part of me, and I, in my way, haunt this place, and I, in this state, am home.
Friends sauntered into the bar, and our waitress expressed her concern once again.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “We’ll be here. ’Till the world ends, we’ll be here.”
I felt heavy after a pint of Moose Drool and the Kirby Puckett sandwich—roast beef, cream cheese, coleslaw, tomato. I took a walk in the cool and looked west at the Strip on my way back. Three miles away, I knew she was still there, her candle lit still.
I hopped back on Caliente toward Andover Place. I passed a couple at their car. A shadow ahead, half on the sidewalk, half on the road, caught my attention. On his back he raised his arms upward and held something. It looked as if he played with a snake in midair. His back feet rose and twitched. His arms kept moving with the snake. As I neared, the vision cleared, and he looked at me. His bulbous eyes glowed in the dim, and he saw me as a ghost.
“Huhug buuii ahvaacuuium.”
“I’m sorry?” I said, half turning, half stopping, half seeing.
“Buy a vacuum? Put together?” He turned as if to connect the hose back with the rest of his vacuum.
I left the man to play with the hose on the sidewalk. I heard words across the street—“no gang-bangers man!” I neared home.
And that, I thought. That is my neighborhood. And that is Las Vegas.
Man once spoke clearly until he built a tower and spoke nonsense and scattered and misunderstood himself until the present day. His descendants have reunited in the desert. They have reunited at the world’s end, at wit’s end. But instead of building a tower, they have built a Strip—a series of monuments to demonstrate their confusion. Nonsense has its charm and beauty and place, and it rests in the middle of this town, a constant reminder. Each day, in the heat of the Mojave, we revel in our tangled tongues, running madly around these monuments. Each evening we light our votive candles around these monuments. Until our Redeemer returns, we babel on.
That week was long. Strange. Confusing. Disturbing. I felt restless on a Sunday—That. That happened. Four miles—three miles—minutes after I bowed in prayer—prayer for safety—while I laid my head to rest—I needed air and a walk. On campus I rose several flights of stairs at the Cottage Grove parking garage. I looked south and west, and my sight unimpaired, I saw the Mandalay Bay glowing bright against the little lights below and the deep black beyond. She seemed larger, brighter, from that height. All was black, it seemed, but her and the surrounding candles.
I ranged the top of the parking garage and looked at the Strip. It seemed to puff out in caricature. I reflected on the unique beauty of my town and its people. A few others showed, and, at 10:05, the Strip dimmed its lights, the Luxor light vanished. For eleven minutes, the Strip bowed in reverence, and I, with it, bowed my soul and said a prayer.
The Mandalay Bay rests peacefully on the southern edge of the Strip—catawampus from the MGM and due west of McCarron International runways. Her name is appropriate, for she serves as a bay of sorts to the rest of the Strip casinos, separating them from the south and west and the sea beyond our homes and our lights and our hills. Because she sits so far south, the Mandalay Bay may seem a stepchild of the Strip. Sticking out like a sore thumb, this casino is not, like the others, blocked by anything but airport runways to the east. Likely, nothing will ever rise to her south. Over two miles separate the Stratosphere and Mandalay Bay, and a mile on the Strip is no small feat.
She is the overlooked casino—the one tourists first pass as they arrive on Las Vegas Boulevard and gawk at our sign—the one we put off walking to because we’ve wearied ourselves with the others. Yet she seems content, at peace with herself. She is not shaped like a castle, a city, a pyramid, a coliseum; she has no light atop her towers, has no river running through her, no gondolas, no rollercoaster, no water-show, no lions, no Eiffel Tower, no drunken Ferris wheel, no volcano eruptions, pirate ships, jousting tournaments, or boxing matches. Not surrounded by other casinos, she seems alone, out in the desert, deserted.
Yet she seems not to mind.
She is pure Vegas. Flecked in gold and radiating, her windows reflect our three-hundred-and-sixty day sun. Her arms outstretched, she towers over the other casinos, not in height, not in gaudiness, not in revelry, or colors, or charms, but in her wisdom and in her maturity and in her strength and in her worth. She is our judge, our captain, our guiding light, our Queen Mother, keeping all her children in line, calling them back to her. One can’t resist feeling Vegas during the day, when he casts his eyes to his Mother, glowing in gold, topped in lily-white. There she sits on her throne, on the edge of nonsense and the great unknown, with our blue mountains behind and the hourly plane gliding slowly upon her like an innocent dove.
And at night, when her glory is, unlike the others, a little less gaudy, her influence remains. Her gold contrasts the black desert with a matured magnificence. One cannot help but respect her experience. One cannot help but see our Strip as one wild fair containing all the great western civilizations and countries—Egypt, Greece, Rome, Britain, France, America. Homer rises with Achilles, Ulysses, Penelope; Virgil with Aeneas and Dido; Julius Caesar, Napoleon, King Arthur, and Cleopatra—Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Penn and Teller, Wayne Newton all rise. Here the giants of the past gaze as monuments. Here walk our own giants. Yet there the Mandalay Bay sits at night, quietly, alone, neglected. Yet there she sits, still keeping all these civilizations, all these people, from destroying each other. One wonders if the Luxor’s light—that glowing light of our earliest civilization—glows on its own strength. One wonders whether the Mandalay Bay, with her golden arms outstretched, does not conjure forth that pyramid’s fire, breathing life into the four-thousand-year old structure.
And so she rests, peacefully, as if she’s been doing it since the first pyramid was built, as if she will light it each night and guide us all to the end of an age and the end of the world. One does not pass her often, perhaps out of fearful reverence. But one also does not spend a night in Vegas without seeing her good will, without seeing our guiding light.
Las Vegas, Nevada
Painting: “Woman and Child with Candle”
By Godfriend Schalcken
Oil on panel, n.d.