Nevada in Time

The shabby old men stumble out of the woodwork at noon. I say woodwork because I don’t know where they come from. Because I never see them at first. I find myself aware of them all of a sudden, or not all of them exactly; aware of movement beyond my own, each time the same. I’ll be standing at the front desk, letting paint peel, watching specks of dust descend on lines of light, or I’ll be working in one of the rooms, maybe remaking a bed or scrubbing a toilet, and I’ll think a fly has flown past, or a single breeze, the breath of a snake, the last gasp of a misguided tourist, has survived its flight across the desert and blown into my face. Like a child starting to cry, some quick change in the surroundings wakes me up to this recurring dream. I put down that I’m doing and walk to the nearest window that looks out on the street and discover them, eleven old men, crossing from this building to the casino.

Why eleven? I don’t know. Why all of a sudden? I don’t know that either. When I say shabby, I mean old men fallen on hard times. I’m judging from their appearance, from my side of the glass, because if I try to venture out, no matter how quick, to get a better look, I find myself standing, stranded, in the middle of the road. Then I lose it, lose sight of them, lose confidence in my senses. Lose that here and you’re lost, so I have learned not to change the circumstances.

From my fixed position, I see that all eleven are not identical. They are features, such as their white hair, bent backs, and pants legs dragging along the blacktop, but their shapes and sizes vary. Each old man carries a bright red plastic bucket, filled with something heavy I imagine, since they use two hands and their arms hang low. No one opens the door, but in single file they enter the casino, which has been closed down and shut tight for over ten years, for longer than I’ve lived here, and I’ve lived here, with Rita, forever. Inside, it’s a shambles, that ghost-ridden gambling hall, which sits at the heart of our ghost of a town.

If you veered off I-80 in search of civilization, the first thing you’d notice, coming west into this place, is a freestanding cement structure called the Nevada Theater. The theater is Rita’s business, just as the motel is mine. We’re a husband-and-wife team of owners and operators, but we each tend to our own.

Since Rita spends her days between the windowless walls of the Nevada, she never sees my shabby old men. Sometimes, when we’re together in the evening, I try to tell her about them. I’ll say, “A funny thing happened today,” or “Guess who I saw in the street,” and right away she knows. Because who or what else could I mean but my men. I could mean a guest, if one came, but Rita knows I’d never introduce such news in an offhand way. If someone actually checked in, I’d run to the Nevada, straight up to the stage, and shout the word to her. I’d dance around, or rise off the ground, I’d be so elated. A change for the better would come over my attitude and my appearance, not to mention my job performance, as I anticipated the needs of this guest. I might provide maps, for instance, or buckets of ice. I might suggest places of interest or phone ahead to make reservations in Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Oregon, or California. Suddenly become that for which I have been preparing since Rita and I chose to alter the course of our lives, I might feel for once like a true motel-keeper, not just an empty promise wearing a bolo tie and cowboy boots.

“I knew you were nuts, Deaf Henry,” Rita replies, when I bring up the shabby old men. “But I never knew you were crazy.”

That stops me. How to go on telling my tale? How else to convey my vision?

I turn back to the dish-filled sink and say, “That chicken you fixed tonight was one tough hombre.” In days past, I might have divined Rita’s responses, but now I draw a blank as I focus on the soap suds. She laughs. Her laugh drifts over my shoulder and circles three times before dropping them into the water, where it dissolves and, dissolving, emits the blue light of pure possibility.

When the light dies, I find her standing, arms akimbo, two feet from me, though a minute ago she was building a house of cards at the kitchen table. “You’re cute,” she says. Rita moves closer as I apply steel wool to the roasting pan. “I mean you have cute ways. Deaf Henry,” she says, her body flush up against me, “how long is it since we did it in the kitchen?”

I feel the cards in the pocket of her housecoat and her warm breath on my neck and think, Kitchen? How long since we did it.

When she opens her housecoat, the sight of her practically overpowers me. “You’re sure about this?” I ask, and though she doesn’t answer, and though I wonder what it would feel like to run one wet index finger down the middle of her naked back, I reach for the dishtowel. I reach for the dishtowel and dry my hands before touching her skin.

Twenty miles to the south, in a stone hut that predates all of us, Ging the Artist lives by candlelight, growing his hair and making his art. Though from afar you might mistake Ging the Artist for one of my shabby old men, up close he looks young, healthy, and handsome, his bright blue eyes fixing in place everything they bring into focus, from stray dogs to tumbleweeds. No uninvited ghosts invade his dreams.

Ging is our nearest neighbor and the next best thing to a guest. Once a month, dressed in black leather, gray fur, and buckskin, he marks a new course across the alternately rough and smooth terrain between his shelter and ours. Not much for small talk, he enters the office and chooses a room, wherein he showers, shaves, and takes a pocketknife to the thick nails on his fingers and toes. Then, in exchange for this hour or two spent indulging in the comforts of what we might loosely call the twentieth century, Ging gets me stoned on peyote. It’s a longstanding arrangement, of which Rita does not approve.

A bona fide guest might add meaning to Rita’s existence as well, of course, though she denies the desire for an audience. The perfect play needs no spectator, she claims. In that spirit, she rises and takes her place, seven days a week, amidst the costumed mannequins and the sheet-draped set pieces.

A script existed once, written in longhand on yellow vellum during the bad times, during the seemingly terminal days back east after we found out that we, and I mean both of us, were barren. I would return to the apartment from my job as night watchman and find her hunched over that same kitchen table, mouthing the words as she wrote them. What I read of those pages consisted of turning points: her first crushes, her loss of innocence, the disappearance of her father, the incarceration of her mother.

As an exorcism, it was all vividly dramatized and deeply moving, but the play changed shape and tone and texture over time, transforming under the incessant western sun, and the dusty darkness of Rita’s workplace, into a drama more stark and less accessible. Now Rita moves through the piece in some sort of trance. I know this because sometimes, when the pressure of this place, the constant state of expectation, expecting both a guest and the shabby old men, expecting even Ging, becomes too much for me to bear alone and I begin to harbor thoughts of burning everything down, I close up the office, walk over, sneak into the theater, find my hiding place behind what remains of a player piano, and watch her perform.

The lights are down. The lights are always down, except for a large white spot, which she trains on center stage and in which she remains for the duration of a performance. Sometimes these performances take hours, sometimes minutes. Sometimes I wonder if I’m seeing individual scenes or a series of different plays, but since my experience is piecemeal, and since I can’t ask the performer since I’m not supposed to be inside at all, and because I’m not sure what she’d do if she knew, I remain uncertain.

Sometimes I think the only thing in this life that doesn’t change is the way I feel rubbed raw, something like stepping into a hot shower and shivering until your body changes temperature, when I first glimpse Rita under the spotlight. A flash goes off and burns inside my brain the indelible impression, each time the same, layer upon layer, of her almond-shaped eyes, her full and elegant lips, the way her straight auburn hair curls around her ears.

She wears a short black dress styled to match the uniform they gave her, as a younger woman, when she carried cocktails and trays of stuffed mushrooms to burly men in candlelit chambers. She speaks; she gestures. She wanders around the spotlit circle. Between us, between actor and viewer, in that charged space extending from Rita’s outstretched arms to my clandestine eyes, we get lost, we lose ourselves, and we meet again. For one instant, an old spark passes through the darkness. Our marriage, our movement, our standing more or less in place all make sense, because I can see us, sets of us, like plastic brides and grooms on cakes, marching toward the horizon and reaching each of those points. And then we vanish.

Finished.

I’m dreaming Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, folded in together.

“It’s finished,” Rita says. “Nearly finished.”

Her tone tells me to sit up and listen, because that flatness means something. Because she must work to sound lifeless. I slide my hand to Rita’s side of the bed, but the impression of her body is cold. She could be anywhere in this room, except next to me on my lumpy borrowed bed. My eyes still closed, I plan to determine her locating by sound alone. “The play is?” I ask.

“Heavens, no,” she answers.

Like the heavens themselves, the words surround my upturned face so fully that my first impulse is to brush them away. “The mural.”

I open my eyes and find the mirrored ceiling, the lavender bedding, the crimson carpeting, and the gold foliated wallpaper of Room 16, the Honeymoon Suite, which mocks me by being so vivid and yet so placid. Rita wears a tan suit and a brown sombrero and sits, I discover, on the edge of the dresser. “Inside the theater,” she says. “The mural in the lobby depicting the history of Nevada.”

Sweat has soaked through the sheets.

How long has she been watching me sleep?

“I did ask your opinion, Hen. Your answer was the usual. No response.”

Though my jaw tightens, I attempt to remain expressionless.

“And since I can’t do everything at once, I hired Ging.”

On the stage, Ging the Artist kneels, lacing one of his high suede boots, and Rita twirls her sombrero. He says, “Why don’t you ditch that goon?”

“Oh, he has his points,” Rita answers.

Ging laughs. “Like any pinhead,” he says.

The lacing and the twirling go in interminably. The lacing and the twirling go on indefinitely.

Sometimes Rita returns from Nevada in time to watch my pupils dilate. Sometimes she and Ging watch from the doorway as I run screaming into the desert—she tells me later—like winged firecracker, lit up from the inside. Sometimes, taken to view magnificent vistas by my host-visions, I spend days away, then days finding a way back.

Inside our place, I find Rita alone, Ging gone. She’ll be standing in the kitchen or else stretched out in her bedroom. Before returning to the office, I poke my head in and say something stupid like “Place seems the same” or “Thanks for holding the fort down.”

Rita makes some gesture, either nods her head or raises her hands in what looks like a benediction. Despite our years together, she appears alive and thriving, and I feel capable of maintaining my position after all, and we do love one another, we’re attracted, we can’t help it. I expect her to tell me that during our absence our fortunes changed and a dark stranger, maybe some eccentric billionaire, arrived and checked into the executive suite, his entourage to follow.

Instead she says, “So tell me, Deaf Henry. What’s out there? What did you see this time?”

Sometimes I imagine, in the window above her head, a crowd of shabby old men, many sets of eleven, crossing from the casino to the motel. They seem more animated than usual. Because they’ve won big. In fact, they broke the bank and can hardly walk, their buckets and pockets overflowing. They want to celebrate this good luck, and they want me to rent them my fanciest room.