When I reach the intersection with Interstate 15, just south of the Toquerville turning, I always have the same choice: I can turn northeast, to Cedar City, and a quiet evening in the library working on my memoirs; or I can turn southwest, and burn rubber the seventy-odd miles to Las Vegas. Every few months I take the road less traveled. Across the Utah border, cutting off the corner of Arizona, the freeway runs down into the wide gulch of the Virgin River, then it mounts up on to the plateau of the Mohave Desert, a silvery wake rising and falling across the waves of scrub, until the lights of that modern Babylon begin to sparkle in the crystalline nighttime air.
They always put me in mind of an ocean oil rig — the Vegas lights — not that I’ve ever seen one; yet the desert itself is my sea, the hood of my ancient Ford pickup a prow, and even from ten miles off, if I wind down the window, I can hear through the rush of hot air, the steady, rhythmic pulse of the city’s casinos, burlesques and whorehouses, as they pump thick, black, glutinous sin out of the souls of men and women.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t go down to Vegas out of any desire to test myself. I’m not in the business of flirting with the Devil. I know what I am, and who I am: a man of conviction, a man with responsibilities, a man who has made the Principle the very rock on which he has built his life. But for all that, we all need a little recreation once in a while, a little time out, wouldn’t you agree?
I always park up in the same trash-strewn alley, behind the same fly-blown Mexican diner. I always have the same super-sized cheesy burrito and 7-Up. Then I walk the half-mile or so along the Strip to Gary’s Place. Now that I’m in my late sixties, younger people often ask me about the changes I’ve seen in my lifetime. I always tell them the same thing: "Every era I’ve lived through has been now." And I mean it. Living out of the way like we folk do, means we don’t pay much attention to the styling of automobiles, or the size of computers.
About the only time I see gentiles at all is when I go to Vegas. And so what if they wear their hair this way or
that, and talk about this or that shiny, new thing? It don’t mean too much to me. The generality of life, I’ve always felt, takes place in between such modern gewgaws. It’s the mortar, not the bricks that count.
Still, this particular evening, walking into Gary’s Place, I was struck by change. The DJ had just segued in a new track. It was a high-energy number I recognized from way back in the late 1980s, from the time before I was called. Or rather, it was that old synth racket done in the new way, to an inexorably slow beat, with a full orchestra and choir. Still, the clientele reacted just as the pumped-up poseurs of the last century would’ve done; pulling themselves upright, preening and parading into the center of the dance floor, where they separated into groups of eight and began to dance the quadrille. Retro-classicism — now who’d ever have imagined that was going to happen?
It was then that I saw her — and she saw me. Absurd, that with her come-hither eyes, tossing her horsehair locks, she should think she was so unique. But then I guess young women of her age are always the same, lost in the high noon of their own good looks. She was without a partner and beckoned to me, calling out "C’mon old timer, you look spry enough to turn a calf!" Almost to spite her, I walked out on to the floor and took her hand. "Hi," she breathed. "I’m Tina." And then we whirled away beneath the little galaxy of the mirrored ball.
I confess, I danced all night with Tina. Under her pompadour wig, pancake makeup and hooped skirt, she was a devilishly attractive girl. She also flattered me, saying "You’re mighty spry for a big ol’ bear, aren’tcha?" And giving my upper arm a squeeze, breathed in my ear "You must do a lotta work out on the range to keep up a build like that." I could see where she was coming from right away. Still, I preferred to dance, because when we stopped and went to the bar for refreshments, Tina began to talk the most fearful, narcissistic trash.
Despite all the many important advances we’ve made in my lifetime — from the first woman president, to the first woman to walk on the moon — there remain hordes of young women like Tina. Will they ever learn that their youthful beauty is just that? A garment to be put on for a few, brief seasons, then torn away by Nature herself? Will they ever understand that neither a whale-spermaceti plunge bath in Aspen, nor a golden-monkey-gland injection in Shanghai, will guard them forever from the ravages of time? I doubt it, and so Tina prattled on, about this lover who was big in Hollywood, and that one who owned a hair salon in London, and the other one who absolutely swore blind that he was going to put Tina on the cover of the Wall Street Journal.
The only time Tina stopped talking about herself was when, on our eighth trip to the bar, she noticed that I was drinking mineral water. "Are you on something?" she leered into my ear, and when I denied this she tittered manically and trilled, "Oooh! I geddit, you must be a goddamn Mormon or something" — a remark I studiously ignored. And so the night went on, with quadrille after waltz after foxtrot, until, with the lights of Vegas looking pallid against the sharp, lemon light of morning, the bewigged revelers tumbled out of Gary’s and onto the Strip.
Tina walked me back to my pickup, and every step of the way I knew she thought she was going to be getting into it with me. Getting into it and driving to some fleapit of a motel, where we’d thrash about for minutes or hours on a pancake-flat mattress. And then . . . and then, she’d hit on me for a few bucks, or some credit for her card, or a donation to her stem-cell bank, because for all their big talk, girls like her are all the same: nickels and dimes rubbed between big, greasy fingers; small human change lost behind the world’s sofa.
She reached for the door with her lovely, perfectly manicured hand, and I said: "No, Tina, it’s been a great evening, but I go on alone from here." When she flustered and pouted and asked me why, I looked her straight in the eye and said — not that she’d understand — "Because, my child, I live by the Principle, and I’ll die by that Principle too, if the End of Days doesn’t come sooner." Then I got in the pickup and drove away, leaving her among the cardboard boxes stained blood-red with last night’s chili sauce.
The sun was up above Canaan Mountain by the time I turned off the Interstate and wended my way up into the foothills of the Pine Valley range. I could see a few of our geno-steers cropping the
sagebrush and made a mental note to go up and have a chat with them later in the day. But all thoughts of ranching were driven from my mind when the homestead came into view. Because it doesn’t matter how many times I tell them not to, they always wait up for me — my wives, that is. They can hear the old Ford’s grumble a long ways off, and out they sashay to meet me. By the time I pull into the barn they’re all there, lined up: fourteen, fat old queens, each one of them more raddled and caked in smeary makeup than the next.
©2006 Will Self and Nerve.com.
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:|
|Will Self is the author of five novels, four collections of short stories, four novellas and three non-fiction collections. His latest novel, The Book of Dave is published this month by Bloomsbury USA. He lives in London with his wife and four children.|