Born Again

Leah Bailly



… A torrent of flames falling on the heads of thousands of onlookers … a stallion up on its hind legs rearing and snorting … a monstrous flood tearing at the desert crust and taking the earth with it in any number of unnatural rivers and streams…

Tonight will be biblical, but I can't know it from here. Tonight, I find myself in pink stucco compound made up of kitchenettes. I find myself smoking on a balcony with a hooker with drooping eyes, a hooker who somehow carries a stink of sour hot dogs. She occupies the kitchenette on the corner, but spends her free time smoking on the balcony and staring at the pool. The pool is laced with graying leaves, and whenever we get quiet we can hear that wet slap of water against a filter that won't open and won't close. Neither of us, should touch the banister because it got too hot from the day in the sun, but we keep making the same mistake again and again.

The streetlight has just come on, another surprise. I've only been in this particular compound for seven days and in that time I've seen a car lit on fire in the parking lot and three chubby white rug rats swimming in the pool—but no streetlights. The car was a hatchback. The pool is scummy and one of the rug rats miraculously lost his trunks after the swim, a dirty reminder of their bloated bodies splashing around. Now the suit is clumped in the deep end, clogging the only drain, the strings are getting pushed around by invisible currents. The hooker is staring at them. She keeps leaning her forearms against the banister and then cursing and pulling back. I almost get sick, staring at the clump of nylon drowned at the bottom of the pool and watching that hooker leaning over and burning her big arms and cursing and then forgetting, again and again. Inside the rented kitchenette, I can hear my girlfriend listening to some insipid Mormon TV. Out of the corner of my eye I keep thinking the streetlight is that burning hatchback, its upholstery dripping little fireballs onto the parking lot.

I need Vegaboy, I decide. It isn't easy for me though, in this moment, to go against my girlfriend, who chose this compound of kitchenettes for the two of us to get clean. My girlfriend has been repellant for the past three hours, braiding and unbraiding a tassel on her suitcase and glowering at me with that perfect silence of hers. She used to be a BYU freshman. When she was nineteen she realized she had the devil in her and that made her sleep with all the Samoans she could find in downtown Salt Lake. There weren't many, so she made them all. Twice they had to drive her to Vegas to get abortions and the third time she stayed. She says being attracted to Islanders saved her from a life of seven-bedroom houses and food hoarding and weird underwear, but she still has a nagging habit of trying to get clean and watching sugary Mormon TV. Her hair is a dirty blonde now, but her name is still Shelly.

Her approach in getting me clean, and I have to compliment her for trying, is to buy me these huge rotisserie chicken dinners and fuck me when I'm dozy and full. For two days it has been working, but something— the holocaust of greasy bones in the trash, the lingering hot dog smell maybe— something is making this particular sobriety dull and difficult. The hooker isn't much help. She's never got any drugs of her own but she's always sniveling around to see who's got some. She is from Texas and she has a lovely drawl, the nicest thing about her. Her name is Deborah. When I'm high, I can't help but pronounce it Deb-Oh-Rah like some kind of cheer. When you close your eyes and hear her talk, she's a sunny Southern belle asking you to close the windah and that sort of thing. Deborah is not, however, something pretty to look at. Her face is puffy and her skin is blotched and her hair is blown way out in a giant brassy cocoon around her big old head. She's a true junkie; it's obvious. There is something in her hunch and gait, the musculature, particularly around the jaw. If you look closely at the skin of a junkie, it is often artificially tinted—tanned or lipsticked or greyed out from their used up blood. And there's something in the twitching eyes. They notice everything: unwatched cans of coins, half-empty drinks, smoke packs, unlocked bikes—junkie wealth. But in indentifying a real junkie, it really does come down to the jaw. They just seem to ride the teeth harder than most people. Deborah's grinning now. She's trying not to shift her jaw while she does it, but that isn't really under her control.

When are we gonna get Vegaboy? she shrieks, even though she is trying to smile and trying to be as straight as she can be. That's another sign of a junkie, I realize, the voice. It gets wrecked. I also realize Shelly heard her, and the perfect silence is going to crack. In the end it will be an inferior trade; I'll be left with Deborah instead of the sex and soggy fries and soda.

I turn, and behind me Shelly is in a pose she must have learned from Mormon TV, hand on jutted hip, head cocked, shaking a finger at me. You being naughty, she wants to say, but instead, she starts to scream, You think you can just up and out of here you son of a bitch you got another thing… Her thin body makes a twitchy silhouette in front of the red sky. Please, I say and she gives up too easily and she humphs down on the banister and then curses and pulls back. The sky is blooming bigger and bigger colors every minute, orange now, then purple, and if we were high I could point at it and maybe the girls would get all romantic and giggly, and the purple would feel deep and warm like a bath. Just take a look at that sky, I try to say, but it sounds like some sort of excuse. They each take one look and then go back to staring at the rug rat's trunks curling around the drain. I should know better, but I don't. People don't like getting pastoral about Las Vegas. They don't like the red mountains or the manic sunsets or the lights just coming on at dusk over the oldest strip malls in America. Just the other night, still coming down off of the drugs, I watched that Chevette burning in the parking lot, one arm around Shelly. We were watching the reflection of the flames in the swimming pool and it actually looked like something special, and I made the mistake of trying to point it out, the colors and the smoke and the drops of melting foam. Well, Shelly was on me after that. Told me I had to clean up.

Tonight, my senses are cranked, my guts ache. There is no comfort anywhere, not inside with the Mormon TV, not out here with the burning banister. Everything, the sky already fading unnoticed, the flap flap of that useless filter, the burned husk of the Chevette still there in the parking lot, its plastic hardened into pools under where the seats should be—everything points to getting high. I decide, in a reckless minute, to go and never come back. I'm going to find Vegaboy, I think, and then I say it. Saying it feels good. For one second, I let relief wash me.

But immediately, there is hell to pay. Shelly immediately starts crying at me, and clawing at my ankles. Her shoulders are shaking and her little arms are wrapped so tightly around my calves, I can't take another step. She heaves like that for a minute and then she flips her face up at me and it is a pitiful thing. Her eyes are raving and her make-up is smeared all over her sunken cheeks and she's screaming, Don't start sleeping with that whore you son of a bitch if you are going to do more drugs you are taking me with you, and Deborah is repeating little Texas phrases like, You ain't his proper wife, and the like. I'm humiliated, disgusted. Every time it's like this. Every time I get sober, I get sad and needy, drawn to Vegaboy with a childish hunger for hot dogs and speed. Then I need to find them. And I should leave everybody behind, but instead, I drag them all down with me.



We march to the Strip, all three of us. This is a mistake. I know it, but we fall into step just the same.

Above us, there is no moon. Instead, the clouds have started piling up, impossibly. It is too hot for rain, and it would be insane for it to actually rain, but Shelly is going on and on about monsoon season and how it's coming. Now I regret it, leaving the compound, walking along Tropicana, bringing Shelly along. She's filling me with ideas of flood. I've never seen a flash flood and I don't plan to today. I'm also afraid that Vegaboy will take Shelly for his own and I get so spiteful and jealous I throw an arm around her to protect her. She likes this very much. It quiets her down considerably.

Deborah is really limping along bravely. It is insane to me that she is wearing black stilettos, and by the third block, she's done something so that one heel is shorter than the other. Nonetheless, her legs look outrageous. Those legs combined with her southern drawl, she probably is an excellent hooker. Shelly calls her a butterface. Everything But-Her-Face. Kind of sad really, but saying that sort of thing makes Shelly feel good about herself. Beside me Shelly snaps her gum, as if proving the point. Deborah is a trooper, traipsing along Tropicana Boulevard to go find Vegaboy, sweating along her hairline but dabbing at it like a lady with a bunch of toilet paper. He's either at the airport or the Excalibur, she keeps saying, her junkie mouth all twisted up. Any minute, I expect Vegaboy to jump from one of the thousand dark vehicles screaming by on Tropicana.

The clouds keep piling and the traffic keeps passing and Shelly groans perceptibly beside me. We are only two miles from the MGM Grand, which is green, very green and it seems to be getting closer; that is all that matters. We are at the third billboard, now the fourth. As if on cue, the wind blasts and the empty lot beside us cracks; a handful of dirt comes right at us. We close our mouths and snap our heads away. I am trying to ignore the groaning. A bus howls past and I lament inwardly about how we couldn't find a bus stop, how I convinced them to walk. The sky is a dead grey now, pulsing green in front of us and stabbed up the center by the Luxor light. I think it, but don't say it. Instead, I measure our distance in billboards. This one is Thunder From Down Under. This one is Spearmint Rhino. The wind picks up again and I have to squint to get through the next blast. There is no magic in this. There is nothing pastoral.



When I first met Shelly, it was in a high roller room way at the top of the Palms. Everything swayed with the altitude. The place was young, tightly tied up in black leather and steel and all the drinks slopped around in tippy glasses. I had just sold a huge bag with Captain Rick to some bombshell with a suite on the ninth floor, Bosscat was dressed up in his tux and we were all tweaking. All the pieces added up; we cruised right past security.

I can recall it perfectly. In the back room there was a girl, dark-haired and very well waxed, sprawled across a blackjack table in a thong. Her shoes and sunglasses had fallen to the carpet below. Under her seething body there were chips, hundreds of them, each probably worth more than a house. Someone raised the champagne flute to her mouth and she sipped, then pursed her lips and waited. It seemed like a lifetime, the chandelier tinkling above everyone, the gentlemen at the table, breathing her in. Finally, the dealer started laying cards across her torso, her teddy raised. One face down, one face up. I could see one gentleman's mouth open slightly as he brushed the cards across her breasts. Hit me, she whispered. Hit me again.

The carpet shifted under me, the room lost all its air. I stumbled back a little, and to save me, Vegaboy took me to a balcony that looked down onto a little square of pool, a turquoise door down a long black tunnel. There was a cocktail bar out there, a filling station for those tippy drinks. Behind the bar was Shelly. She sported a stiff maroon uniform and her hair was a nice, clean blonde. Her hand was steady; she lit my cigarette. She trusted me because I bought a dozen tippy drinks from her and with each I handed her a twenty for her purse. That's all it took to get her down to bombshell's suite. I can painfully recall the elevator, its cooled air and mirrored floor and those diamonds for buttons, her lightly painted nail pressing the number nine. Shelly with clean hair. Shelly with a steady hand.

When I first met Deborah, Vegaboy and Bosscat and me and Captain Rick were trying to break into the Casa Shenandoah, Wayne Newton's estate over on Paradise. Vegaboy was on the hunt for a handsome ransom and we had just left Captain Rick's rancho and we had been up for days. Vegaboy had done a trade with a Mexican gardener and we were traipsing around the back wall looking for the gate for which we had a key. There was no gate, but we went around the place three times looking. It was a cool night. Newton's high fence was lined with manzanita bushes and the little red apples looked cute enough to eat. Let us in, dammit Wayne, shouted Bosscat. We didn't even get a flicker from the security lights.

After our fourth failed attempt in which Bosscat charged the front entryway and was deterred by a guard in navy blue, we headed to the Stakeout for a few rounds of Mind Erasers. Captain Rick footed the bill. Deborah was there with three guys up from Nellis; she kept stroking their shaved necks and pudgy cheeks. It had been my first venture away from Shelly in a week and I could breathe lightly; I played pool against the air force using straight geometry and Captain Rick fronted me a small smoke to share with Deborah in the alley beside the vat of grease. Come to think of it, that's when the hotdog smell started. After our smoke, my fourth in as many days, the minutes at the Stakeout bubbled and popped quickly, leaving only the taste of Kahlua and salty sex in a crowded closet bathroom. I can just barely recall a square of yellow sunrise out a window the size of a fist.

Only one week has passed since then—a week in the kitchenette, a week without Vegaboy—but it feels like a year, a long grey year full of sunrises and sunsets I'm not even allowed to point out.



Deborah's limp is worse. Shelly's squawking is worse. The sky, piling up with clouds, is whipping the dust right at us now, and it's loaded in my teeth, the corners of my eyes. I see Vegaboy behind every fence, at every steering wheel. We are less than a mile from the Strip and there are moments when it appears as if things are making sense, buildings are occupying empty lots, cars are parked in spaces. Then it is undermined—another bus whooshes by with a wave of dirt and hot air and once it passes we are alone against another chain link fence penning in another lot filled with nothing. Every block, another inch breaks off of Deborah's shoe. I am sweating through my shirt, which I realize I haven't changed for three days. My tongue, swollen and sore, can't make words anymore, but to calm the girls, I try to hum a dry tune. It isn't helping.

The Strip, we can tell even from a mile away, is troubled. Outside of the MGM there are fire trucks flashing their red beams into that macabre green glow. Traffic is stalled. Crowds have assembled dutifully outside. Shelly courageously keeps the pace going and Deborah plods unevenly beside her, drawn to the trouble like little moths. I think for a moment that I have drifted into the kind of terror sleep soldiers fall into while marching. It doesn't matter. We get there all the same.

At the corner of Tropicana and Las Vegas Boulevard, we are swallowed by a cheery, comforting crowd of good mothers from Wisconsin and fathers from Minnesota, out as late as they ever have been. It is a sea of gaping purses. Flip-phones are holstered to belts, tucked under big bellies. Half-drunk gallon-sized tubes of ruby-red beverage crowd the trashcans and I have no qualms about picking one for myself and gulping it down. The liquid is warm and syrupy, but under it all there is the low burn of rum, a small relief. Deborah has powdered her nose and is eyeballing the frat boys on the periphery. Only Shelly is looking lost, still sweating around her underarms, her eyes bugging and the space under her chin, dipping up and down, swallowing nothing.

We can't quite decipher the cause of the commotion until a riotous gust of wind climbs up from behind the crowd and there, before us, the roof of the Monte Carlo hotel is billowing smoke. There it is! The fire! someone shouts, and we are jostled back and back some more, our hot bodies pressed against the good fathers of Illinois and their fat pockets and waggling chins. Shelly's hair is whipping in front of her eyes and she lets go of me to hold it back out of her face. Deborah furtively sidles away. We see a few licks of flame. The crowd emits all kinds of ooohs and aaaahs.  It is apparent to me, and perhaps only me, that soon, great fireballs of flaming foam will plummet from great heights onto the Strip and I have a sinking sense of doom, as if I've divined this emergency on account of seeing the flaming Chevette. Another burst of wind blasts us and it is a hellish mix of dust storm and mounting flame. Cameras flash. The crowd jostles. I think I see a giant orb dropping onto the throng and I thrust back too harshly and people push back. I drop the plastic tube of syrupy drink and it lands on a pair of white canvas shoes. Hey genius, someone hollers at me, I'm shoved violently from behind. Hey, I manage, before I am swung around again and heaved another few feet back, my face swinging wildly into a matronly stomach. There is a yelp and a set of large, indisputable hands are on my shoulders, clenching all the way to my bones and pushing me further back, and further. I lose my footing twice, and stumble around until I am moored by the curb, a square of grass, a trashcan. I cling on, and let the crowd pulse around me. The sour hot dog smell is back, a strange comfort.

Shelly is gone. Deborah is gone. Nothing is magical tonight, but the hellish images come all the same. Right there, on the sidewalk, a horse. A stallion. I didn't hear his clopping as a warning, and now he is here, towering over me. I want to cry out. I cannot. His nose is only inches from my cowering head and I can feel its hot muzzle and his malevolent eyes and shivering flanks just inches away. Behind him, and this is indisputable now, balls of flaming foam are falling from the roof of the Monte Carlo. People are pushed further back, back into me, the crowd swells and even pinned against a trash bin I am loosing my ability to stand. I try to cry again. My hands glance around for something to hold me up. The stallion bears down, the chest and roaring head and hooves all enough to stamp me out.

It takes a miracle, divined by Vegaboy of the Desert, to be yanked away.

I am saved; Vegaboy has me by the wrist. Beside him is Deborah, grinning with her misshapen mouth, and Shelly, tucked under his arm like a prize. He pulls me half a block and I can breathe again, I can walk again, it all looks small again: the stallion and the constable in its saddle, the crowd, their flashing phones, the fire trucks shooting wildly up onto the roof of the Monte Carlo. Looking back, I can see a few stray drops falling onto those good mothers and fathers from the states I used to know. I sob for them, ruefully, onto Vegaboy's shoulder. I know, in this auspicious minute, that Shelly is no longer mine, that now Vegaboy's got her she'll be born again as Slots-a-Fun and she'll stick with him until she's dead, and that Deborah transforms into Glitter Gal or the Texan Tart, serving the Nellis boys of this world with their pay stubs and chubby cheeks, and I know that of all of them, Bosscat and Captain Rick and even Vegaboy himself, I'm the only one who is stuck in this life, squatting in a string of kitchenettes, trying to rinse myself clean of all my old loves and aches and sour memories, incapable of being born again as someone new.

Vegaboy pats my head like a boy and my sobbing gradually weakens. I am grateful to let him lead as he stanchly guides us past the Tropicana's pink and the MGM's green. Maybe it is Vegaboy's sideways luck. This time, the wind is at our backs.



Tonight, I find myself tucked under a hole in a chain link fence, down a narrow dust trail, under a sewage grate smelling of car grease and rotten sleeping bags, beside an opening that leads into the darkest tunnels under the City of Sin. I am with Deborah and Shelly and Vegaboy and we are smoking speed. This is everything and nothing all at once.



I am at the Casa Shenandoah. Wayne Newton and I gallop across his hacienda on perfect palominos, the afternoon breeze wafting through the oleanders. A waterfall gushes at the other side of the long lawn. We slow to a trot, savoring the jasmine in bloom. At the far end of the property, a perfect Puerto Rican in stirrups prances up with a tray of Mind Erasers. We each knock one back, and out of nowhere, Shelly and Deborah appear in matching halter-tops and take turns powdering my nose. I say something hilarious, and Wayne tosses his head back, the reins loose between his fingers. The palomino shivers under me. The oleanders call my name, my real name, and their poisonous little mouths are open, full of fateful sugar.



I think it, and then I say it, That was my Chevette burning in the lot. Deborah looks solemn, and she says to me, Uh huh. Her name should be like a cheer, Deb-oh-Rah, but my touch is burning and my tongue is so thick that I do not cheer. I burned it myself, didn't I? My voice is squeaky, it's getting wrecked. Honey, it's gone, Deborah drawls. It is the truest thing I've ever heard.

Above us, there is a flash and a crack, and we hear voices from down inside the drain. First one hand, then a filthy foot emerging from a toeless shoe. Then it is a girl, followed by a man of fifty in a loose blue shirt and slacks, and a stringy teenager, his limbs spidery, curling around the entrance to the grate. There are more of them, one humming, one with a tattoo on the back of his neck, a man in a floral shirt, open to the fourth button. More skinny teenagers. Another girl. Another girl who knows Deborah, that juggles the many plastic bags hanging from her wrists and nods at us as she passes.

The wind gusts again. The sky lights up, brighter than the MGM and the Luxor together. And there are the first drops. I feel the relief wash over. We all know what we are in for now.