They call this area The Side Bar. No video poker here, just a smooth brown horseshoe to lean on when your luck has run out. We get the non-gamblers too, people intent on one thing: taking the edge off their day. And others who come in out of the cold desert night just to sit, shoulder to shoulder, among their own kind. It's not love they're after, it's proximity.
The stories I hear!
Lulled by the darkness, encouraged by the drink, it's not uncommon for people to unburden themselves to a bartender. Everyone has a secret they want to get rid of and I'm entrusted with an awful lot of information about the people in this town. Folks depend on me, especially the ones who don't know it.
Louise, one of the hostesses, told me her trouble the first week I was here. Louise is a middle-aged woman who has spent too many hours in the sun. She used to be a looker, you can tell, but now, even through that hazelnut tan, you can see the blue veins and age spots, and all those wrinkles around her eyes make her look constantly tired, which she may very well be: Louise has her hands full with a husband and a lover, neither of which she has any intention of giving up.
And Ronny Newcomb, he services the slot machines. Last summer while on vacation in the Napa valley, he hit a bicyclist and killed him. It was a foggy morning, on a winding road with no shoulder, and no one blamed him, not even the family. He told me this in a rush, his eyes fixed on the ginger ale he was holding, and when he finished his story and looked up at me, I saw that the words hadn't helped: he will never get off that road. Ronny is a kind man, and smart; I wish I had known him before.
And then there's Carla—she's one of our waitresses. Carla is in love with a guy named Mark who owns the video store in town. They dated for a while, in their early twenties, until he spied greener pastures and moved on. Carla, who didn't move on, believes that he suffered a lapse of judgment and is still, "in his heart of hearts," in love with her. There is no evidence to support this, yet she remains convinced that he will leave the wife and children he's erroneously acquired and come back to her. She says she has "seen" it, that he'll show up on her porch one night, the moon behind him.
Carla wears a locket, a gold heart. Inside this heart is a tiny picture of Mark taken in a photo booth when they were dating. He is innocent, grinning at the camera; he doesn't know that he is trapped, that years have passed and he is still twenty-four, and being held against his will in the hollow of Carla's throat. I want to lift the curse, I want to open that awful little heart and set Mark free.
When I told my mother I was moving to Nevada, she was speechless—for a moment. Now, nearly two years later, she's still protesting. If I want to live in a desert, she says, why not a living desert. By that she means Palms Springs, where she and my father live. Well, there's no way I'm moving to southern California, and especially not that fool's paradise, Palm Springs. What's that town made of besides swimming pools, golf courses and bougainvillea? It's as if they put up decorations, then ran out of ideas.
White Horse may be drab but at least it has integrity. Every building on Main Street began with a dream and involved untold struggles. Nothing useless lasts very long; stores sell what people need—milk and meat, cigarettes and liquor, light bulbs and Band-Aids, paperbacks and videos. If you want anything else, like art work or X-rays, you can drive the hundred miles to Reno.
But it's not just the town I like, it's the people, the steady way they go about their lives, intent on the tasks at hand. They yearn all right, but what they want is specific—a new truck, a cold beer, an old boyfriend. They don't know there's more to wish for, greater depths to their misery. They trust in luck. They keep their chins up.
The thing is, I'm comfortable here, and I'm not just referring to the obvious comforts, like cheap rent and no traffic. What I like most about White Horse is its lack of options. There's one hardware store, one decent market, one nice restaurant. You'd be surprised how restful life can be when you're not crowded with decisions every minute.
Louise is walking toward the bar. She is wearing a tight-fitting gold dress I haven't seen before, and I have to say, she has a great figure for a woman her age—fifty-two? fifty-four? And she doesn't have to toil at a fitness club either (not that you can find one in this town). Louise gets her lean looks the old-fashioned way: good genes, no breakfast or lunch and a steady supply of Virginia Slims.
"Hi," she says. "Can I have a club soda?"
"Sure." I pick up the hose and reach for a glass. Her eyes sweep the shelves behind me and I know she wouldn't mind if I splashed some scotch in there too, which I would if I thought I could get away with it. In a casino you never know who's watching.
"That dress is so pretty—is it new?"
"Not really," she shrugs. Most people look pleased, a little embarrassed, when they get a compliment. Not Louise. She couldn't care less. As usual she gets right to the point.
"Meet me for lunch?" Lunch, in our case, happens at six p.m.
She wants to talk. About Ray, her lover, and Walter, her husband. We do this from time to time, discuss the difficulties involved. I have a salad and she has three or four cigarettes, and while I nod and chew she talks about the drawbacks of loving two men at once, the constant vigilance, the colliding emotions. I could make a flowchart of this affair, so familiar I've become with its perilous progress. Guilt, Louise assures me, is the worst part. "It doesn't go away—you have to learn to live with it." Which makes me think of guilt as a carpet stain, something you can cover with a chair or sofa. But I don't condemn Louise; in fact I'm quietly cheering her on. Her life hasn't been easy—her mother drank herself to death, her brother was killed in a car wreck, and her younger sister is an agoraphobe who hasn't stepped outside her trailer in four years. Louise is no fool, she knows what this affair is costing her and she knows that it won't end well. She's not asking for pardon or promises, only a little time in which to feel alive.
The break room, as usual, is full of smokers; many of them, cramming pleasures, have a cigarette going while they eat.
Things are getting harder, she tells me. Things with Walter.
"You think he suspects something?" I ask, forking up some lettuce.
She shakes her head. "Oh, no. Nothing like that."
"Then what do you mean?"
She pauses, frowns. "Kissing."
I stop chewing and look at her. She never really thought about it before, she explains. Kissing. It was just something she and Walter did now and then, hello and goodbye, like any other couple. But lately, he wants to kiss her all the time.
"He'll stop me in the kitchen, when I'm doing laundry, and not just a peck on the cheek either. He wants the real thing." She frowns again. "He was never that way."
"And you don't want to kiss him?"
"No," she says, "I don't, and I feel awful about it." And just then she looks awful, more wretched I've ever seen her. "I mean, I love him, you know? Why can't I kiss him?"
"How are things with Ray?" I ask.
"Fine," she says, "same as ever."
Ray is our chief electrician and the most easy-going guy I've ever met. He takes whatever moments Louise can give him. Years they've been carrying on and the ardor, she assures me, has not waned. She hasn't told me where they have their trysts, but I have seen her reappear after a lunch break, her cheeks flushed, her coarse blonde hair hastily pinned, and I know that she and Ray just gratified each other in one of the supply rooms. It's more common than you think, hotel staff having sex on the premises; chambermaids, with access to every bed in the place, have the clear advantage.
"You know what he did?"
"Walter. He bought my mother a new headstone. I mentioned—I don't know, a few weeks ago—that I didn't like the one she had, that when she died it was all I could afford. So I went to the cemetery last week and here's this new headstone. It's beautiful, it must have cost a fortune." She looks up. "He never said a word."
There's nothing to say to this so I just nod and let her feel bad. Who knows how many more times she'll reach this miserable dead end before Ray becomes more burden than pleasure? For sure it'll be Ray she gives up, because Walter is the one who gives her shelter, and after tending bar for two years I can tell you this: People don't stay with the ones who make their knees buckle; they stay with the ones who keep them sane.
Most nights around six p.m a guy who looks like a young Robert Redford comes in and politely orders a Coors Lite. He never drinks more than two and he always leaves more money than he should. I like to watch the women at the bar do a double take when they catch sight of him; some of them stare open-mouthed, their husbands right there too. He has one of those clean, square jaws you just don't see in real life, and his blonde hair curls over the collar of his shirt, cowboy-style. I wonder if he's ever considered modeling or acting, driving out of this town and heading to someplace where you can cash in beauty. Here it counts for nothing; here it's worth less than a roll of quarters.
A few feet away are the slot machines, row after colorful row of them. Nickels, quarters, dollars—they all get fed. Every few minutes someone hits a jackpot and lights flash, bells ring. Jackpots excite everyone. I hear those bells in my brain long after I leave the casino.
Business is never bad. Twenty-four hours a day there are people parked in front of those slots, seniors most of them, a drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other. I actually admire them. They've found something to focus on, and while they may not be the healthiest specimens, they are in fact alive, undaunted, doing what they want to do, and how much health do you need anyway to sit around and gamble? These folks had their days of glory, of beauty and vigor and lust, and now they are here, and I see no pity in that. Where there is betting, there is hope. Better to end your days in front of a slot machine than a TV set.
Randy, the night bartender, takes over when I leave. Ordinarily you'd call that the graveyard shift; here it's just another block of hours, and more staff than you can imagine vie for this shift, and not just because the tips are better. That's what happens in these gambling towns. A counter species develops, a group that prefers to move about when the world is cool and dark.
It takes a while to get used to living in a place where there are people spending money every hour of every day. You think about those people when you're lying in bed; you understand all at once that three am is no different than three p.m, it's just darker. You realize how many ways there are to live a life and what cheer these rousing casinos must bring to the lonely and the sleepless.
A couple months ago I tried to explain to my mother why I like tending bar, how pouring drinks has made me a better person, and she gave a barking laugh into the phone and asked me how plying people with alcohol makes me "a better person." I said it wasn't about the alcohol; it was about listening, about understanding how hungry people are for the smallest kindness. I told her about the woman with her face half ruined by some terrible accident, and what unfathomable resolve it must take for her to walk in here. To walk anywhere.
Today I meet a well-groomed woman, somewhere in her seventies, who orders a Tom Collins, "with no fruit, please."
"Are the rooms nice here?" she asks.
I assure her that they are.
"Oh, yes. You won't hear any casino noise."
She nods and thanks me, and then in a soft voice that grows more and more persistent she tells me that she's never certain where to stay or what to buy, that she used to make all those decisions with her husband until he died nine years ago, and don't believe it when they tell you that time heals everything, because it does not; she misses her husband more now than she did the winter he passed away.
"Do you know who C.S. Lewis is?" she says, lifting her head and looking straight into my eyes; hers are shimmering with tears.
"He was an author."
"That's right. His wife died, young. He said he never knew that grief felt so much like fear." Her expression hardens as she pulls her wallet out of her purse. "He's right. You don't think you can survive it."
It's not just the people here who have stories, it's the land. In Elko County, there's a town that was built on a blizzard-whipped mountaintop where someone found gold in the 1860s. The elevation was 10,000 feet and nearly everything the townsfolk needed had to be hauled up the icy slopes—whiskey was cheaper than water.
Every month or so I drive to a ghost town I haven't been to before. I've walked into listing, cobwebbed shacks, found tin cups and plates still on the tables. Today I'm in Rosamund, about two hours east of White Horse. There isn't much left: stone foundations, a roofless drugstore, parts of the sagging saloon. Dealers and collectors have picked the place clean, but roughing up the dirt I find two unbroken bottles: "Hamlin's Wizard Oil Liniment" and "SOS Vermin Killer."
While April is usually a cool month in the high desert, the temperature today is over eighty, so I hike up a stony slope and eat lunch in the scant shade of a juniper. The sky is blue, the mountains brown, just two colors taking care of everything. There is no sound, no chirping birds, no babbling brooks, no car engines, just a huge silence to slip into. I could be the last person on earth.
I take a bite of my ham sandwich and ponder the crumbling square of a house where people once ate, slept, fought, made love, had children, got sick and died. Looking at the drugstore, I have no trouble envisioning the miners, dirty, coughing, walking in and out of the door. I conjure up an old yellow dog lying in the shade, a couple of prostitutes leaning up against the posts, laughter and piano music coming from the saloon. It doesn't take much imagination to evoke those days. Nevada has more ghosts than living people and the land is strewn with what's left of their dreams.
It's dark by the time I get to the outskirts of White Horse and there's a gorgeous pink line in the west, just above the black horizon. I stop the car and roll down the window, let the night air wash over my face. It smells of sage and silver, of mica and cold clean bone. Out there, all around me, are creatures I can't see, small desperate animals darting over the rocks. What I can see are the neon lights of town and, even from this distance, the White Horse Casino sign: a tall smiling cowboy holding the ace of hearts.
The coyotes are howling. They do this almost every night, launch their plaintive chorus into the starry heavens. Are they joining forces, organizing a hunt? Or do they just need to know they're not alone?
Last month a chef in Reno pricked his thumb on a contaminated chicken bone and died ten days later. A friend of mine was struck and killed by a falling eucalyptus tree while she was jogging. Take all the precautions you want, staying alive is a stroke of luck.
I think that's why I like the desert so much—all this terrifying space, this nothingness, and me just a dot in the middle of it.
Okay. Here I am. Come get me.
One of the managers is covering the bar when I show up for my shift. His name is Todd and despite the air conditioning, he is sweating; he is always sweating, he weighs three hundred pounds, easy. I worry about him keeling over one day. I've already seen two heart attacks in this casino.
"Watch the guy in the yellow shirt," he whispers, his big shiny face about two inches from mine. His breath smells like onions and I can see oil stains on his shirt, probably from "The Godfather," one of our meatiest sandwiches. "He's had four Stingers."
At least once a week I have to cut somebody off. Most of the time they're okay about it, drunk enough to be compliant. But once in a while they get ugly and that's when I pick up the hotel phone behind the bar. Ten seconds later an eager bouncer appears and I just give a nod toward the problem and he, or she, is removed. These little scenes are actually good for business, providing no-cost entertainment and the chance to feel righteous.
Todd lumbers off and I check my stock, making sure I have all the garnishes I need. This is the night the Bingo Girls come in. That's what they call themselves; they have it embroidered on sky blue vests with white piping. There are six of them, all in their seventies and eighties. Every Wednesday they're here for cocktails and the fried chicken special, then they play bingo for a couple hours. Since I'm the dining room bartender until six p.m, I'm the one who gets their drink order: two Manhattans, two gimlets, a whiskey sour and a triple olive martini. When there's not too much casino noise I can hear them in the dining room, shrieking and laughing, having what seems to me the time of their lives.
Ronny Newcomb, who's been working on the dollar slots, sits down at the bar. He looks bad; he's lost weight and there's dandruff on the shoulders of his green polo shirt. I put a glass on the bar and fill it with ice and ginger ale. Ronny never orders alcohol, even when he doesn't have to drive anywhere afterward. Carla says he used to drink gin and tonics, but after the accident he switched to ginger ale. "It's weird," she said. "He wasn't a heavy drinker and he wasn't drunk when he hit that boy. It was in the morning, it was foggy."
I know why he doesn't drink. He's afraid of it. He doesn't believe he deserves the feeling.
"Hey good looking, how about making me a drink?"
I turn my head and look into the grinning face of a seven-foot man in a Stetson. He is wearing a tan suit and his shoulders are enormous, but it's his mouth that's so startling—I don't think I've ever seen so many teeth in one mouth, big gleaming squares, all canted forward, heading right for me.
"Your best whiskey, sweetheart. Skip the ice."
I pull down a glass, load it with Chivas and slide it across the bar. His hand, a large flat paw, comes forward.
"Thanks, darlin'. Keep it open."
Carla sprints up to the bar, tells me the Bingo Girls have arrived. Making drinks for them, the other diners and a surprising number of Side Bar customers, I keep busy for most of my shift. The guy with the teeth is a big drinker and a loud talker, and between him and a raucous foursome, I have a hard time hearing the orders. There's one man who won't look up when I ask him what he wants, and when I lean in closer he lifts his head for a split second and I see the reason: a ragged purple birthmark covering nearly half his face; otherwise he might be handsome. I make him a drink; that's all I can do.
Last night a young woman came in—I can't stop thinking about her. Her hands were shaking so bad that she kept sloshing her drink on the bar.
The blanched cheeks, the dark skin under her eyes—illness was my first guess, hers or someone she loves. Unwanted pregnancy maybe. Or perhaps on the run, in deeper trouble than even a bartender can handle. I'm afraid of that moment, I know it's coming: sooner or later one of these customers is going to tell me something only a jury should hear.
I'll never know what was troubling this girl. Halfway through her vodka tonic she bolted, leaving a twisted napkin and a few dollar bills. Maybe she found enough courage to go home and tell her husband she has cancer, something rare and dreadful, tumors in her brain. Maybe he beats her and she made up her mind, right there in the bar, to leave him. Take her sleeping baby and vanish into the dark. Maybe she'll fight back. Take a knife from the kitchen drawer, stalk him in his sleep. Maybe she'll use a gun, finish him off with his own hunting rifle.
The Side Bar is a disaster. The floor is sticky with spilled grenadine and there are dirty glasses piled in the sink. What really makes me mad is the bar caddy. Everything in it has to go: the rusty lime wedges, the soggy orange rounds, the flaccid cherries, the slimy smelly onions. Sarah, the new bartender, did this. What kind of person serves rotten food? You have to have a mean streak to care that little.
I'm swabbing up the last of the grenadine when the Bingo Girls file past the bar—five of the six. Todd sidles up and whispers that one of them had a stroke and is in the hospital, can't walk or talk. Though they are gamely dressed in their sky blue jackets, no one is laughing, or even talking. I make eye contact with Berle, the tall one with the jewelry, and she gives me a polite nod. She is holding onto the arm of another woman and as I watch their brave blue backs leaving the room, I know they must be thinking, at least one of them must be thinking: Who is next?
Everyone is talking about Ronny Newcomb. He didn't show up for work last week and this morning they found his car on a dirt road a few miles south of Winnemucca. There was no damage to the vehicle and the gas tank was still half full.
I doubt anyone will bother retrieving Ronny's car, not with all the miles he put on it. Already it is keeping silent company with the countless other remnants out there, the spurs and picks and wagon wheels; the smelters and sheds and fallen down fences; the cups and plates still waiting. No sign of the struggle, just the surrender.
"He just disappeared," Todd says. "Gone."
"What could've happened to him?" Louise says, frowning.
"Maybe he was abducted," Carla offers. "Remember Roswell and that flying saucer they found?"
Todd dismisses this with a wave of his chunky arm. "It's got nothing to do with spaceships. I bet he stole some money. I bet he had a buddy pick him up out there."
"He could have been murdered," Carla says. "Maybe he was in trouble, maybe he owed someone money." Her eyes widen. "Maybe it had something to do with that boy on the bike. Revenge or something."
Of all these theories, alien abduction is probably the most likely. I knew Ronny pretty well and I know that money didn't matter a whit to him. And the family of that boy he killed? They wouldn't bother with revenge. They know that Ronny is already in hell.
No one is going to find him. There's no easier place to disappear than into these brown hills, and Ronny was ready.
I can tell you the rest of Ronny Newcomb's story. On a morning no different from any other, he drank some coffee, smoked a few cigarettes, drove into the desert and gave himself up.
Title graphic: "Side Shot" Copyright © The Summerset Review, Inc. 2009.