From the author: Katabasis, Vegas style.
She almost didn't see him - a shadow sprawled under the iconic sign of the Pioneer Club. A man, shuffling and reshuffling a deck of oversized cards... one leg extended, one folded, a mirror of Vegas Vic above him. He was talking to himself - no, singing, with the buzz and hiss of neon drowning him out almost completely.
"...woke up on a journey, the road ahead in my mind's eye... "
She found herself walking toward him. Slowly. Fremont Street was near-deserted, this time of night, and she felt a twinge of trepidation. He had the ragged look she recognized as Vegas having run somebody down - shaggy dark hair hid his face, but his hands were callused, one thin scar creeping up the back of his hand toward his wrist. His jeans were worn down to a crumpled-paper softness, and his Frye boots had been resoled a few times and were coming up on needing work again. All the signs of someone who maybe lived out here, on the kindness of tourists.
She'd never seen him before, though. Back and forth on Fremont every night, and she'd never seen this man who looked so comfortable in the shadow of the iconic neon cowboy, as if he'd just grown there.
The curiosity pulled her in. That, and the music. He seemed not to notice her, rocking so slightly back and forth as he shuffled the cards, tapped them on the concrete beside him, shuffled again, all going to his internal rhythm.
Abruptly, he seemed to snap into focus. He looked up and grinned as though he'd seen her there all along. “Dead night, huh?”
He gestured with a card, its edges feathery with use. “It’s a slow night. Quiet. Fremont at four in the morning, all grey and potential. The city that never sleeps is maybe taking a nap. What are you doing out?”
“I - I’m-”
He held out a hand to stop her. “Oh, no, no, let me.” He plucked a card from the deck, sat cross-legged, pressed it to his forehead. “You’re looking for someone.”
“Yes. How did you-”
He laughed, the corners of his eyes crinkling. “Oh, honey, it’s Vegas. Everybody’s looking for a girl.”
She slumped a bit, releasing the tension she hadn’t realized she’d been carrying.
He edged forward. “Hey. I’m sorry. Look, let me tell your fortune.”
“I don’t have any money.”
“Me either.” He grinned again and held out a hand to her.”C’mon, sit down.”
She looked around. Same quiet street. Nothing to lose, really. “Fine.”
She touched his hand - and something happened within him, some shift, and by the time she was seated, something about him had changed. He seemed brighter than his surroundings. His smile, as he shuffled the cards, was gentler - more genuine pleasure, less the lure of the raconteur. When he spoke, his voice resonated. “You will choose seven cards. With each card, you will leave something behind. A token.”
“I have no-”
“You will know. You already know.” The thing inhabiting the man tapped the deck on the sidewalk and gestured to her. “Choose your first card.”
The Broken Heart
A silver heart, split down the middle, jagged.
We knew within a week that it wasn’t working.
Which was a damn shame. I hadn’t left my husband for him, per se, but he’d been a big part of when and why, and he was why I’d flown across the country to Las Vegas. He moved me into a too-white apartment with no furniture but a mattress and a few crates, and I tried to keep myself entertained while he was at work, sometimes just cranking up the stereo and dancing madly. But the solitude was getting to me. He never took me anywhere. Our conversations petered out. And you can’t really have a relationship on sex alone.
I left my husband for this?
I would have left anyway. The affair. The miscarriages. My heart was broken long before I got here, long before I left.
I couldn’t sleep. I would slip out of bed and walk through blue three-am light, through the empty living room, and put my palms to the door, imagining all that was going on on the other side.
Never walking through.
“What was surrendered at that gate?” The voice was gentle, but thrummed in her bones. Silently she fished a ring out of her purse. Plain white gold. She set it on the card, and the reader nodded. “Choose your next card.”
A bright-spangled showgirl, holding a cornucopia; chips spill out of it, scattering around her feet.
I fought with my boyfriend; I left, with no real place to go. I slept on the massage table in a new-age shop. I met a man at the mall and went home with him; I froze when it was time for sex, and he didn’t push. I hauled around my duffel bag and slept in hallways, in elevators. I spent my day in a coffeehouse, free refill after free refill, reading and writing and worrying. The little bit of money I’d brought to Vegas was pretty much gone, and you needed stacks of permits to get a job, and you couldn’t get those permits with no fixed address.
I had no home to go to, and no one to let me in.
But I met people. One coffeehouse regular that I bumped into in the comic shop brought me home, and the condition was sex, because the condition was always sex. Lie back and think of Vegas.
Never think of hope. This is a place without hope. Failed marriage, failed journey, failed life.
“What was surrendered?”
She paused, this one being less clear; she closed her eyes and rummaged in her purse. She withdrew a slip of paper and huffed a quick laugh when she saw it. She held up a pawnshop ticket. “Her jewelry. Lapis necklace, rings, bracelets.” She set it down below the card. “I get that back, right?”
He tapped the deck again, his eyes wide and dark. “Next card.”
Another showgirl, this one in black and white. She wears her accoutrements, her instruments of powers, on a chain slung around her hip. The needle. The spoon. The lighter. The pen.
He asked me if I had anything to pick up from anywhere, and I said no, nothing. Nothing anymore. Nothing to lose.
We lived in the dark - filthy cluttered apartment with punk-band posters covering the windows because the legal tenants were paranoid. One poster had a kitten on it, and the text read “Who will stop this terrible pain?”
I flung myself farther, deeper. Swan dive into the deep. We emerged at night for street carnivals and runs along the neon of the Strip, its hum setting my teeth on edge. Their laughs were high and brittle, and their eyes were too bright. They were below me, a place I couldn’t reach. He would unroll the kit he kept in a pocket of his torn cargo pants - the needle, the cigarette, the dented spoon, the lighter.
Little bindles he’d fold out of the ads in the back of porn magazines. Colorful origami that, when unfolded, revealed little mounds of glittering fairy dust. Inhale and be transported. Be like them.
“It takes your emotions away,” he said. “When you’re on it, you don’t feel anything.”
“What was surrendered at that gate?”
She hugged herself, desert-night chilly.”I don’t know.”
“You must pay to continue.”
“I don’t want-”
“What?” For a moment, the aspect receded from him, and he was just a guy. “Don’t be scared. Just set it down and walk through.” His smile was wistful now. “We’re not talking about another girl here. A sister or a cousin. I know. What did you give up?”
“Then, or before?”
She looked down, traced the edges of the card. “I think I had it til then, maybe.”
“Put something down.”
She fished around in her bag and set down an origami crane. The edges still glittered with a sheen of white dust over the colorful phone-chat ad. She swept a finger along one edge; it was halfway to her mouth before she realized what she was doing and jerked her hand down, wiped her fingers on her jeans.
“Now take your card.”
A single diagonal slash across the card, a long thick mound of glittering white.
This is why the city never sleeps. Lines and trails of crystal meth all through the city, the casinos, fast-food bathrooms, dirty off-strip apartments, back tables in coffeehouses. A practiced hand chop chop chopping up lines, a certain grace to it. A love story of razor on glass, of credit card on magazine. Chop chop slice slice, three or four lines from a bindle, depending how thick or long you cut them, and it’s a way to fidget, even. Make a long thin line short and fat, and back again, until you stop fucking around and just do it - flip hair to the side, duck your head, fingers pressed to one nostril, hollowed-out Bic in the other, and a quick motion, inhaling all the way - there you go, quick and hard, get it all the way up, back into the sinuses, and the aftertaste gags you as it runs down your throat, awful acrid chemical tang - chug your Gatorade, get it out, and wait for the rush to sweep you away. Clear crystalline palaces of thought, and no emotion. Magical fairy dust that makes you never have to hurt or grieve, that makes you forget what a bad person you are…
…Until you come down, and you have to do it again, do more and more, because crashing brings it all back. Every bad thing, amplified. Got to get rid of it. Lay out another line. Never stop, never sleep, never eat, just keep running. Never stop.
It was the closest thing to death that I could find, and I fell in love with it.
“What did you give up there?”
“Are you sure?” His eyes were gentle, half-obscured by the shock of dark hair falling over them, but his voice was taking on resonance again. “You had nothing left to lose?”
She looked down again, trying to keep from stroking the line in the center of the card. “My will to live?”
“Had you truly surrendered that then, this would be a four-card reading. No. Try again.”
She touched the bottom edge of the card; when she spoke, she was barely audible. “I gave up my armor.”
She dug into her pocket and withdrew a worn, hollow Bic pen, pushing it toward the card.
He nodded. “Draw again.”
One solid vertical stroke of gold in the center of the card, the horizontal is an arc, not a straight line. If you look closely, you see the thin line of an arm anchoring the arc to the line, and it resolves into a dancer in deep backbend, nude and glowing under the lights.
I used to look in the mirrors the whole time. That’s why they’re there, that line of mirrors over the customers’ heads - so we can watch ourselves or each other and never have to look at the men.
But you don’t get tips that way. And if you don’t get tips, you don’t get drugs, and that’s why at least half of us are here. Mostly tweakers. Some coke fiends. Most of the girls smoke pot before coming up, but I was never one for downers.
Def Leppard, “Pour Some Sugar on Me”.
Stride out on the drumbeat, but dance on the bassline. Use your hair. Dance is still art, even if you’re wearing a glorified rubber band or a light-up bra. Make your mind go far away, and make eye contact. It’s not the tits and ass, not really. It’s the eyes. And the hips.
You make eye contact, you rake in the tips. Make them think you want them. Make them think you want to be there.
Bon Jovi, “Bad Medicine”.
Some of the girls dance to throbbing house music or slinky soul stuff, but I stick with hits of the ‘80s. Nostalgia.
I work the pole, hands and legs slipping and chafing on it, metallic reek on my palms, arms, legs. Never lap-danced, though.
Well. Never used to.
Things change. You think you could never do this, this awful humiliating thing. And you find that you can, if the alternative is having to actually feel something. Your world restructures itself to allow that yes, you can do this thing.
And this thing, and the next thing, until you’re in the back room and he’s offering you just a little more…
“And you walked through a gate,” he said softly.
She hugged herself tightly, tattered denim jacket not really keeping out the desert-night chill. “What is this? How do you know all of these things?”
“Wouldn’t be a very good fortune teller if I didn’t, neh?” He tipped his head to the side and gave the charming grin again, the one for tourists. “You want some half-assed ‘you will meet a tall dark handsome stranger’ crap, you go elsewhere. You only see me if you want the truth. You only see me if you’re already on your way through the night side, the underworld. I know you walked through a gate, because if you didn’t, you wouldn’t be here. Up to the two of us together to figure out what those gates were.” He shuffled his cards. “Among other things.” He spread them out, but kept a hand over them, looking up at her. “Two cards left. Two gates. But first you tell me what you surrendered at this one. The Sacrifice.”
Her laugh was rough, harsh. “The last of my self-respect. The last of who I thought I was.” Without being prompted, she fished a pair of pasties out of the bag and flung them at the concrete. “What now?”
He lifted his hand. “Another card.”
The Darkest Night
Solid blackness with a silver border.
You would be surprised. You would think that a few nights prior would’ve been the darkest night, the longest night, but you’d have been wrong. It was a flash, a jumble, a blur - him grabbing you and what he did and then the talking, the talking being the longest part of it - talking someone out of killing you is no small feat. And then waiting at home, and the hospital, and the police.
But that is all a funhouse-mirror sort of thing, time dilation, time stretching or shrinking, expanding and contracting. The vulnerability of not having your glasses and the vulnerability of wrists bound with tube socks. The narrowing of time to one crystalline point - a gun and the rising of a terror you thought had already peaked, and -
You thought you wanted to die.
But if you’d really wanted to die, would you have stopped him?
In some clear still nanosecond, you realized that you did not want to die after all. Despite your best efforts.
Or maybe you just wanted to do it on your own terms.
Which leads to now. The longest night, the darkest night. Because it is all happening in realtime, without external violence.
This is the night you spend in the bathtub, with the favorite gun of the man who calls you his little sister.
The guys were in an uproar before, making wild plans about what to do to the rapist, your rapist, and that seems so peculiar. You have a rapist? Can you put him back? Exchange him for something else? No, he is your rapist forever. It was easy to slip away. Easy to rifle through the piles of clothes in the corner of the closet and find the gun, get the ammo from his jacket, dart into the bathroom.
Why the bathroom? Easy cleanup. It wasn’t their fault, her friends. So she should make this as tidy as possible.
And the difference between then and now if that it is you taking your clothes off and folding them. It is you holding the gun.
They pounded on the door, they yelled, once they figured out what you were doing. That seemed to last forever. You huddled in the tub, chilly, wanting them to please hush and let you go, please just let you go. I’m already dead. He killed me. You just don’t know it yet.
And then you heard your best friend’s guitar.
Right outside the door. Some improv, something spontaneous, swoops and angles of sound. No words. No voices, just a simple message: I’m here.
And you sit there, cold, hands full of gun, alone and not-alone. You close your eyes, and you try not to cry.
And he keeps playing.
He plays for hours. He plays all night. He pauses, maybe, when you set the gun down on the toilet tank, but he keeps playing, and you tangle your fingers together to keep your hands from shaking, and you keep breathing. You close your eyes, so you don’t see yourself all laid out like an almost-corpse in the tub for easy cleanup. You close your eyes.
And you follow the music.
You breathe with it, you let it arc and dive in your mind, and at first you think you’re full-body shivering, but when you open your eyes you see different.
It’s not that your feet are twitchy. It’s that they’re trying to dance.
If you had really wanted to die, you would not have spoken to the rapist. Would not have stopped him. Death spiral of drugs and psychological mutilation outside, some part of you said no, I want to live.
Some part of you says no, I want to dance.
Your best friend’s fingers crack and bleed on his strings, but he keeps playing, keeps you not-alone, keeps lighting the path for you with every note.
He looks up at her, and she untangles her fingers and digs through her bag. “I didn’t give up my life,” she said, her voice barely audible. “That was taken from me.”
“What did you give up to pass through this gate? To arrive here?”
She presses it into his outstretched hand - a hospital bracelet, cut off. “My death.”
“Are you ready?”
“For my last card?”
“For the last gate.”
She hugs herself again, bites her lower lip, stares resolutely at the ground, and he prompts her. “This isn’t a thing you get without asking. Without consenting. You tell me. Do you want the last card? The last gate?”
The card is black, but with a golden border; at the center, there is a smoldering ember, about to be flame. Potential.
He looks up at her, and his voice has that resonance again, the sound of something else from somewhere else. “It is time to choose.”
She spreads her hands - “Choose what? What token to leave? I don’t know what this is, I don’t see the story-”
His laugh is low and musical. “It hasn’t happened yet.”
“So how do I know?”
“You do not pay a toll at this gate. You have gone down to the underworld. You have surrendered all that you were, even unto your life and death. This gate leads back above. This is where you choose what to take back with you.”
Her hand hovers over the pile of cards and sacrifices. “What does that mean?”
“It means that when you have hit rock bottom - when you have lost everything - it is up to you to decide what you take back. What you take on. This is where you decide what parts of your previous life are worth keeping.
“This is where you decide who you intend to be.
“So you choose well.”
He sits back, head bowed. He does not watch her as she lingers over the things she has set down. But he smiles when she hesitantly picks up The Spark, and he nods.
She sets her bag down. She presses the card to her chest, to her heart, and is not entirely surprised when it seems to dissolve under her fingers, and when a new warmth suffuses her. “Thank you,” she whispers, voice heavy with all of the words she wants to say, but doesn’t need to.
He nods again, sly smile becoming outright grin. He sweeps the cards up with a practiced hands and shuffles, tap-taps them on the concrete. “I wish you good fortune,” he says, pitched just loud enough for her to hear him as she walks through the gate, silhouetted and limned by the dawn.
This story originally appeared in Ravens in the Library.