1 – VIP – Part 1

ces-show-girl-showgirlsI didn’t become a maniac all at once.  There was no point in time in which I could say I had “lost it”.  There was, I suspect, a gradual recognition in the minds of those around me that something was wrong with me.  Something I said here, something I did there.  Perhaps just the look on my face at Sunday morning worship.  But it was years before anyone said anything to my wife, or to me…at least not until it was too late.   In some ways the changes that led to my undoing began out of town, and didn’t show up at home for awhile.

I was thirty-seven and my employer was sending me to Las Vegas with a coworker to attend a tech conference; the kind of conference where massive companies hope to entice companies such as mine to spend millions of dollars on their software.  I was not the man holding the purse strings, though.  I just wanted to learn more about the software I was working with.  But they didn’t know that.

I didn’t know it, but something important in me was breaking down.  Something necessary.  My pattern of preacher’s kid, 2 drinks a week, no smoking, no women, stay at home on Friday night was about to crack just a little bit.  I’ll never know if this was a symptom of mental illness, a symptom of marital dissatisfaction, or if my marital troubles were in and of itself a symptom of mental illness.  It’s all wrapped up together in my mind.  I’m done, for the moment, trying to understand it.  But something was changing in me.  I just wasn’t fully willing to admit it, or truly broken enough to own it.

I had attended the conference before, and thought I knew what to expect.  I would stay on the Strip.  I would do a little gambling, but not too much.  Slots only.  Although I knew how to play cards, I’d never felt confident enough to play at a casino for fear of embarrassing myself.  I would take in a show.  There would be nice parties for the attendees, all of which I would attend to eat the food and leave early.  I would learn what I could at the conference, but there was very little riding on it.

My companion was an enormous, hairy man of fifty-five; balding and graying, both jolly and surly.  Surly, yes, but I’d learned from experience that despite his tough exterior, he was a very sensitive man.  To put it in terms that pertain to the unwritten “man code”,  he could dish it out, but he couldn’t take it.

Once I caught him sleeping at his desk, as I had many times, and I snapped a picture of him with my phone.  He had just been promoted and the team was in a mood to give him some ribbing for it;  a sacrifice that he must be willing to make for his success. This seemed like a good enough opportunity for achieving such a goal.  I created a little poster on my computer with the picture and a funny caption modeled after the “priceless” campaign of some credit card.  “Being promoted, worth $110k.  Falling asleep at your desk on the first day, PRICELESS.” I intended to time it so that the poster would pop up in a team meeting.

Everyone on the team was lovingly brutal to each other in turn, and today was Donald’s turn.  The rest of the team knew it would be coming at some point during my presentation.  There were private anticipatory titters and winks around the table. When the slide popped up there was a roar of laughter around the table, except for Donald.  His face was reddening and he said in a gruff voice, “Not cool.  Not cool.”  He slammed his meaty fist down on the table, got up, and exited the room.

My team lead, John, shook his head.  He had laughed as well, but he wasn’t laughing anymore.  I left the conference room to find Donald.  I knew where he would be.  He’d be in the smoking patio with an American Spirit in his mouth.

He didn’t look at me, wouldn’t look at me, as I sat down on the picnic bench across from him.  When he finally did look at me, he glared. I could see the glints of betrayal in his hard eyes.  And in that moment, I resented him.  I resented him for all the times he had poked fun at us.  He called me “bugsy” because I had released a bad string of bugs in my software in the past year.  The name stuck.  Today’s rib had been nothing more than just desserts.  But I suppressed my resentment.

I said, “Donald.  Look, man, you’re right, that wasn’t cool.  We just wanted to have a little fun with you over your promotion.  I didn’t mean any harm.”

He turned away, took a long drag and said in a deep growl, “I don’t want to see you or talk you.”

And he didn’t, for two weeks, he avoided me.  And then, just like that, he stopped by my cube and said briskly and firmly, “I want that picture deleted.  That shit could get me fired.”

I said that I would do it immediately, and he walked away.  And that was that.  He never said another word about it. But I didn’t delete it exactly.  I emailed it to my  personal email account and deleted it off my work machine.  I had this vague notion that I might need it one day.  I had made up my mind that I was not going to take any more shit from him unless he was willing to grow a tougher skin. He did eventually get written up for falling asleep at work, but it turned out he had been diagnosed with narcolepsy related to his poor health.  The doctor’s note protected him from any further action. And now we were standing happily together in the casino of Harrah’s.

He had made the drive  in his Pontiac Grand Prix all of the way from Kansas because, as he said, he hated flying.  They wanted to charge him two tickets because of his size.   It seemed fair enough to me, but I couldn’t blame him for spitting when he told me about it.   But in the Harrah’s Casino, he was grinning ear to ear, and I was feeling pretty good as well.

He said, “Wasss happenin’?”, which was his usual greeting, unless is was Buddy, we gotta talk...but there was no cause for it today.

I could see that he’d already had a drink or two.  That dumb, happy grin never ceasing. Before I could answer he declared so that the whole lobby could hear him, “Point me to the poker tables!”

I pointed to the sign behind him and he said “Adios, muchacho!” with a rough kind of flare.  Ole!, I thought. He turned and waddled slowly in the direction of the poker tables.  That was the last I saw of him that evening.

In the lobby, by the front entrance where the bright hot sun of early desert autumn shown through into the darkness of a smokey lobby, there was a roped path to the front desk where tourist types stood with their luggage, some still wearing sun glasses.  Opposite the desk stood two beautiful women; a blond and a brunette.  Their attire could be best described as old Vegas burlesque or dancing girl.  They held enormous feather fans and wore ornate head dresses.  Their mid drifts were bare and tan.  One of them had a small, shiny bejeweled bellybutton ring   One of the girls, the brunette, caught my eye and motioned me to her.  They stood in front of a cardboard backdrop of the Vegas Strip at night. And in front of them stood a camera with a large flash atop a tripod.

“How are you ladies doing?”  I asked, grinning, trying to act as if  I were someone who was confident with women.  I knew it was their job to be affectionate with me.  Perhaps I was practicing.

One of them put her arm around me.  “So, what’s your name, sweetie?”

I should say that the term “sweetie” from a woman who is a total stranger registers certain preconceptions with me.    Either they’re an old lady waitress offering more coffee,  a hair stylist who probably strips at night, a stripper who probably cuts hair by day, a stripper, or prostitute.  These women were not old ladies with coffee.   But I tried not to make assumptions.  Perhaps, they truly were Vegas dancers.  Or maybe they were just trying to earn as much off of their looks as possible before they lost them.

I blushed a bit and said, “Daniel.” I understood what was coming next.  Perhaps a hustle to buy a souvenir picture.  But I liked the attention even if it wasn’t sincere.  I could pretend in that moment that women would find me interesting.

“Are you here for business or pleasure?”

“Business I said,” feigning disappointment as a thousand men like me had done in front of the same cardboard cutout.

“Well, I hope you leave a little room for a little fun,” she said, giving me a slow, perhaps even sensual wink, cheaply earned I’ll admit.

“Come take a picture with us to show your jealous friends back in…where are you from?”

“Kansas,” I said.

“Well you’re not in Kansas anymore, Daniel.”  She didn’t chuckle at her joke.  She just drew me in closer to her.

“This is all compliments of Harrah’s.  Just fill out this little form so that you can claim the picture tomorrow morning. right here in the lobby.”

I consented and we got cozy in front of the camera that was now manned by a small guy in a Harrah’s staff polo.

“Alright?  Now, Daniel,” he chimed, “act like you like these lovely ladies and smile!”

Smiling for a photo was not a simple proposition for me.  I am a sweet, Presbyterian preacher’s kid who looked like he was in an exotic albeit alien land that I could show my wife; the kind of a smile that makes a mother coo and a wife know that I’m not up to any funny business. Or something else.  Did I have a  different smile than that?   I looked at the lady to my left and she gave me her best bedroom eyes.  Well not quite.  It was a well-rehearsed version of it.  And in a split second I turned my face right to the camera and gave a smile that said, I OWN these women.

“Perfect!  Alright.”  and the flash went off.  I held the women close to me for just a second longer, just to take a final whiff of their sweet perfumes, gave my thanks, and walked back into the casino.

I went back to my room to chill out for awhile.  The smoke in the casino was becoming a nuisance.  I wanted to wash my face and take my medicine.  My wife was taking an antidepressant to help with her irritability.  It was working like a charm.  Soon after, I became aware that I was generally in an irritable state.  I saw me doctor, who also happened to be my meditation teacher…a beautiful woman in her fifties, and she gave me a questionnaire to fill out to determine if I might be suffering from depression.  The test came back positive and I told her I wanted to take the same drug that my wife, Ashley, had been taking because it was really helping.her.  Having been on it for awhile, I decided it was helping me as well.

I removed my running shoes and layed back on the queen sized bed.  It was cool and I was very quickly lulled into a nap.  When I woke, the sunlight that had been streaming through my window was only very faint.  I pulled back the drapes to see if I could get a good look at the strip. I’d been to Vegas before on my honeymoon, so I knew what to expect.  The lights carried with them the sense of parades and carnivals and show business…and sex.

My company advanced me a per deim of $92 a day for meals, but nearly all of my meals were covered by the conference, so I could do with it whatever I wished.  Heck, I could spend it on strippers and hookers and they wouldn’t care.  I could.  But I wouldn’t.  For one, the strip scene in Vegas is a hustle.  There are no true strip clubs on the Strip.  But if you wish to go to one they’ll even send you a complimentary limo to take you to one if you so desired.  Then they rob you blind, or so I believed.  As naive as I was in those days, I was still very cautious about street hustles.  I’d seen them enough to recognize one.  This made me very suspicious of anyone who approached me in the city.

So with cash in hand, I made it down to the casino.  I had a strategy that I’d either invented or read about…can’t remember exactly, whereby I would keep my $50 of betting money in my right front pocket and keep my winnings which I would never spend in my left.  When my right pocket was empty then it would be time to stop.  However, it is very hard to execute that plan.

I took a seat at a quarter poker slot and proceeded to lose all of my gambling money within an hour.  At Harrah’s, beautiful cocktail waitresses bring free drinks to people who are gambling.  They’re are decked out like the old candy stripe girls from the fifties. They wear a cart with cigarettes, matches, and candy.  Those cost extra.  The woman that approached me was Asian with dusky eye makeup and dark red lipstick.  She took my order without making eye contact or saying a word. She looked like she’d been on her feet since morning.  I ordered one Jack and Coke and called it square.

Donald was supposed to meet me at the buffet for dinner but he was no where to be seen, so I ate by myself.  It was a decent buffet. but not great.  I strictly followed my one plate, one dessert policy thinking of the Mary Poppins “Enough is as good as a feast!” platitude.  The words “spit spot” echoed in my mind as I settled with the cashier and left the buffet.

As I opened my room door, cool deodorized air met my face.  I realized then that I reeked of cigarette smoke and did not wish to get into bed with the smoke on my body.  I took a quick shower; not a morning shower mind you with full body wash, shampoo and conditioner, just enough to get the “hot spots” as my dad had once said after a mission trip to Malaysia….short cold water showers only there.

In the past I would have purchased some porn on the hotel tv, but my last trip’s expense report raised questions from financial.  The head of accounting, Katie, called me to her office.  She was an extraordinarily petite woman with black rimmed glasses, tattoos on the back of her neck and arms, and spikey hair, mid-thirties.  She was grinning when I sat down.

“So, Mr. Roberts, I see you’ve made a personal charge on your room.  A movie, it appears.”  She peered at me over her glasses with her eyebrows raised.

“Uh, yeah.  A movie…um,” I stammered. I was caught off guard. Words failed me.

She leaned in close and in a teasing manner said, “I dirty movie maybe?”

I chuckled uncomfortably and devised an excuse.  “Ha Ha.  No no.  It was a…um…a Scooby Doo movie.  Big fan.”

“Oh sure, big fan,” she said in her deepest most mock incredulous voice while vigorously nodding.  She laughed, her tiny voice like the tinkling of crystals on a chandelier.  “Oh.  ok.” she said in the same tone, “Scooby Doo.  So, uh, are you a Daphne girl or a Velma girl?  No wait lemme guess.  VELMA”

“You got me.  It’s the glasses.”

I think she got the reference.  She was definitely wearing Velma glasses.

She laughed again and handed me a form, and her tone changed.  “You can’t expense personal charges.  Have this form and a check for the full amount by the end of the week.”

As I turned to walk away she called, “Scooby dooby doo!”

I was more than a little embarrassed, but I could see that she enjoyed the whole scene.  My discomfort and perhaps, it would seem, the idea of me in a hotel room with a good bit of porn,  or perhaps it was my imagination.

I tuned in to a Friends marathon instead.  I slept soundly.

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