Everyone Here Comes from Somewhere Else
Aaron Kirkwood stood with his back against the windows, wishing he could push them open and jump. The crowd surged, threatening to crush him, and then withdrew like the tide. He recognized no one. Most of them will probably never buy the book, he thought, and those who do won’t finish it. I don’t blame them. I got everything wrong. Everything.
Aaron’s agent, Kirby—forty-something, with a shock of red hair and a complexion like an Irish vampire’s—slouched nearby, mopping his brow with a soiled handkerchief. Look at these assholes, Kirby said. It’s like Hakkasan in here. Sorority girls and trust-fund douchebags, and half of them not on the list. How the hell did they even get in?
Aaron shrugged. If they hadn’t come, we’d be alone.
Oh my God, is that Iggy Azalea? This will not stand.
Kirby shouldered through the crowd. At least two hundred strong, they ate kimchee on lettuce leaves and cucumber sandwiches and boiled shrimp and crab legs. Siege lines surrounded the bar. Everybody drank—draft beer, cocktails, bottled water, and what seemed like barrels of wine. Smartly dressed Planet Hollywood personnel scurried about and refilled empty glasses. Everyone talked literature, mostly novels, which suggested at least a dim knowledge of the occasion—the publication of the thirty-fifth novel that Aaron had written and the first that someone had published. The book had launched earlier that day at a Barnes and Noble in Summerlin, where he had signed title pages until his hand throbbed. Tomorrow, he would fly to Boston, leg number two of his national tour.
He turned around and looked onto Las Vegas Boulevard. Across the way and far below, the Bellagio fountains danced in graceful circles and spirals. They thrust skyward as high as the building itself and formed staggered, lighted columns like candelabra. To his left stood Aria, the Cosmopolitan, New York New York, the Luxor, and Mandalay Bay. To his right, the street wound northeast, past the geometry model that was Caesars Palace and, further down, the Mirage, where Cirque du Soleil’s Beatles show played nightly. High-definition signs touted singers and comedians and magicians, a shifting amalgam of light and motion sufficient to trigger epileptic spells. Cars as small as children’s toys lit the road. Tourists swarmed over the sidewalks like ants and crossed the street in clusters when the stoplights turned green. How many of them reeled from heavy losses at the poker tables? How many had just married? How many just divorced?
Somewhere down there, Aaron thought, a drunken meathead is threatening to fight somebody or hitting on a woman who wishes he would go away. A hundred street musicians are playing a hundred different songs, and some poor bastard in a Spongebob costume is sweating his balls off for tips.
Having nailed the impersonality and the motion, Aaron’s party lacked only the eyeball-scorching glare and pure capitalist inertia in evidence below. His guests conglomerated in amorphous blobs that multiplied and evolved, the air crackling with a resigned species of excitement. Constant chatter eroded him, reshaped his mood. Before he arrived, he had been happy and satisfied—finally a published author! Now he felt drained and afraid, as if someone might point and laugh at him.
Jesus, he thought. I wonder if Zadie Smith ever felt this way. If this had happened when I was her age, I probably would have died before I turned thirty. Barely breaking stride, a server darted over and refilled Aaron’s glass. The red vintage tasted of plum and oak. Las Vegas. No land of milk and honey, but you can drink wine and order bar food twenty-four hours a day.
The fountains went dark. The people gathered at the stone balustrades drifted away. Aaron took their cue and maneuvered through the crowd. The revelers spoke of the latest Michael Bay film and the betting lines on the MGM Grand’s upcoming fight card and good spots for shawarma. One woman wanted to ditch this stodgy affair and score tickets to Britney’s show. Of the more literary-minded guests, the younger voices spoke of Rowling and Meyer and Suzanne Collins, with an occasional reference to the Holy Chucks, Palahniuk and Klosterman. Older, gruffer voices subtly flavored with exhaustion mentioned Marquez, Cisneros, DeLillo, Tan, Roth. Aaron heard his own name only twice, and one of those voices asked who this Kirkwood guy might be.
He snagged a saucer from a passing server and fought his way to a padded bench set against the wall. He sat down and looked at his plate. Kimchi, he thought. Rotting vegetables—it’s like something a cat sicked up. What the hell am I doing here? He ate some of it anyway and sipped more wine. After a time, his head spun. The buzz of conversation seemed to reach him from a great distance, muffled and distorted, as in a fever dream.
Or Poe’s Masque, he muttered, setting the saucer on the floor between his feet. Which means that someone here is Death.
You speaking to me? a voice said.
He looked up. The brunette woman stood at least six feet tall, though some of that had to be the heels, five inches and pencil-thin. She wore a bustier and a mid-thigh-length skirt.
I was waxing elitist, he said.
Never mind. Shall we talk of Michelangelo?
You’re weird, aren’t you?
Aaron drank. I suppose I am.
She sat down and crossed her legs, one foot bouncing, the heel jabbing at passersby like a pirate’s cutlass. She’s going to nick somebody’s femoral artery with that thing. Maybe that will clear this goddam room. She signaled a server and exchanged her empty glass for a full one. She drank and tapped her long fingernails on the seat cushion.
So what’s your story? she asked.
Yeah. Are you, like, the party planner? Or maybe somebody’s father?
Aaron looked away. No, he thought. No one’s father, no one’s husband. As rootless as a plastic tree in a hotel lobby.
Aaron had worked as a dealer in Strip hotels for forty years—flipping cards during the day, journaling before his shifts, writing novels after them. Thirty-five books, each one revised dozens of times and submitted to contests and agents and independent publishers. Occasionally, he had received an encouraging note or a request for sample chapters. Twice someone wanted a full manuscript. But everyone passed, and by the time the self-publishing revolution began, he felt too old to learn the technology and too tired to market his works alone. Still, he heard plots in every conversation and jotted down spatial descriptions of rooms he visited and scribbled notes on napkins and the backs of ticket stubs. In quiet moments, half-formed characters spoke to him of nascent plot arcs. So he kept writing.
What else was I supposed to do? he thought.
He turned back to the brunette. This party is in my honor, he said.
No. My book launch. A novel.
Cool, she said, her expression blank.
Why are you here?
She shrugged. My friend Macy heard about it on Twitter. We thought we might see somebody famous.
He laughed. There’s a rumor of Iggy Azalea.
Huh. So what’s the book about?
A retired blackjack dealer who leaves Las Vegas to search for the woman he loved when he was twenty.
Oh, a romance. Does he find her?
It’s not a romance. The woman never appears in the book. It’s about the small towns you couldn’t find with a GPS and the people he meets there. The grotesques. The fringe America.
She looked at him for a moment. Then she drained her glass. Sounds boring, she said.
Aaron sighed. God save me from critics, he thought. Not that she was necessarily wrong. Boiled down to an ill-conceived logline, the book did sound boring, and pretentious, too. I wouldn’t read the goddam thing myself, he thought. The fringe America—what does that even mean?
So far, most advanced reviews had been kind, but Aaron kept fixating on those that evinced polite exasperation. The book keeps some of its promises, reveling in the oddities of the American road, though the central quest to rekindle aborted romance is ultimately revealed as an empty signifier, one read, which seemed to mean that people expected a Shakespearian star-crossed romance but instead received a half-baked mélange of Kerouac and Flannery O’Connor. So many people failed to understand that the romance angle had always been secondary to the protagonist’s journey, just a catalyst to send him down the road where he could sample life’s flavors in places like Toad Suck, Arkansas, or Boogertown, North Carolina, or Hell, Michigan. Now Aaron wondered if that strategy made any sense. Maybe he had unleashed upon an unsuspecting world a conglomeration of underdeveloped characters and fuzzy scenery. Perhaps all his lofty ideas about deconstructing traditional plot had just been a convenient excuse to vomit words onto the page.
How can a writer tell when he’s crossed the border from literary fiction into art-for-art’s-sake hooey? he wondered. And who the hell am I to write about the road? I’ve never been anywhere.
Sorry if I hurt your feelings, the woman said.
I can take it, he said, wondering if he could.
She drank more wine. Her green eyes watered.
She brushed a lock of hair from her eyes, an action that some character had performed in half the stories Aaron had ever read. Perhaps becoming a writer meant that you began to see fictive patterns in real life. Or maybe fiction makes real life redundant. When you run through fifteen different descriptions for every action or object you can imagine, the whole world seems like something you’ve already written.
Aaron lived twenty minutes from the Strip. Maybe, after a few more glasses, I’ll ask if she’d like to see my place. Stranger things have happened in this town. He closed his eyes and imagined waking up with her, their hair plastered into corkscrews and sleep-swirls, her mascara blobbed down her cheeks. Their breath would likely knock a buzzard off a garbage truck. He pictured the look on her sober face when she saw his wrinkles and the gray hair sprouting from his chest, his ears, his groin. Holy shit, I fucked Methuselah, she might say. And Aaron would laugh or make a bad joke about incontinence or tell her that yes, he had personally known Jesus and still owed the Messiah three dollars.
Who am I kidding, though? he thought. Sixty-one is too old to start the life you always meant to live. It’s too close to when you retire, move to Florida or buy an RV, use your AARP discount and hit all the early bird specials, gumming your steak into paste and dying a breath at a time.
He looked at his wine glass. It was full. Jesus Christ, he said. I think they’re trying to kill me.
Right? she said. I’m already pretty drunk. You want to go down to that Spice Market Buffet and get some sushi?
Aaron looked around the room. There went Kirby in his shirtsleeves, his tie loosened and lolling. He invaded a group of ten or so, all in their twenties and drunk and gesticulating with glasses and bottles, alcohol spattering the carpet. Aaron could hear Kirby’s intonation but not his words as he poked his finger into chests and pointed toward the door. When he stormed away, the group goggled at him for perhaps three seconds before they burst into laughter. The men shook their heads as the women hung on them with shitfaced inertia, pulling them thirty degrees out of true. None of them had come to the reading.
Nice try, Kirb, Aaron thought. But who’s going to defend the sanctity of my signings in Boston, or New York, or St. Louis? Who’s going to talk to me when nobody shows up?
What’s wrong? the brunette asked. You look like somebody stole your puppy.
No, he said. Just my courage.
She squeezed his knee. Excitement pulsed through him like electricity. She’s just drunk and making conversation, said the petulant voice in his head. If Charles Manson were sitting here, she’d be nice to him, too. He could see himself reflected in her eyes. He looked haggard and old enough to be her grandfather.
Had we but world enough and time, he muttered.
She cocked her head. What?
He took her free hand. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. Old time is still a-flying. And this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying.
She smiled. Perfectly straight and wine-stained teeth, a hint of pink tongue. That’s beautiful, she said. Is that in your book?
No, he said. It’s even older than I am.
Oh, she said. Well, what about that sushi? I’m starving.
Alas, he said, releasing her. If I leave this early, my agent may hunt us down and drag me back, kicking and screaming.
So it’s not really your party. You’re here for them. She gestured at the crowd.
Yes, he said. Once the herd thins out, I can get away. I know a good off-Strip sushi joint that’s open late.
She drained her glass and stood up, her balancing act on those heels more impressive than anything Aaron had seen in the Olympics. Let me find Macy and see if she’s okay with it. She’s my ride.
I’ll be here, he said.
She appraised him for a moment, one hand on her hip. Then she turned, and the crowd swallowed her.
And that’s the end of that, Aaron thought. No one ever really stays. We pass each other unremarkably, just minor characters in each other’s novels.
Aaron gripped his glass hard enough to turn his knuckles white. He felt slick with sweat. He wanted to get up and run.
And why shouldn’t I? My character runs from Las Vegas because that’s what people do when they’re sad and alone. They run toward something else. But maybe nobody will understand. Maybe readers will only notice the missing love triangle, the absent car chases, the sex scenes that never happen.
A young man with mousy brown hair, a full beard, and black-rimmed glasses sat next to Aaron. How you doing? he said as he bent over to tie his tan brogans. His trousers hugged his calves like socks.
Old, Aaron said. And drunk.
Uh huh. I hear you. Get busy living, or get busy dying, right?
A Shawshank Redemption fan?
The young man looked puzzled. No, Fall Out Boy.
Exactly, the young man said as he got up and walked away.
I don’t even speak this crowd’s language. What the hell am I supposed to say in Boston when I can’t even keep anyone’s attention at my own party?
Someone called his name. Kirby threaded his way through the crowd, carrying a cocktail glass full of something amber. He sat down beside Aaron, breathing heavily, his face sheened with sweat. He pulled out a handkerchief and mopped his brow.
Aaron forced himself to unclench. If you’re going to run, at least wait until Kirby heads back into the breach. Have that much shame. Say something, goddam you.
I thought handkerchiefs had gone out of style, he said. Like fedoras or hand cranks on cars. Even I don’t carry one.
Half the people here wear fedoras or porkpies, Kirby said, scowling. Everything is cool to them as long as it’s older than us. Next year they’ll bring back bustles and detachable shirt collars.
They drank and watched the crowd ebb and flow. Aaron’s guts twisted into knots every time a group burst into laughter. He turned to Kirby. Will it always be like this?
Will what always be like this?
Oh. Kirby laughed, tucking his handkerchief back in his pocket. No. You’ll spend most of your time in airplanes, bookstores, and hotel rooms. When you’re signing, your hand will cramp, and you’ll get sick of smiling at people you don’t know, and you’ll be lonely and bored. You’ll make bullshit small talk and pretend that every reader is your best friend, and you’ll feel phony and stupid.
You make it all sound so appealing.
Sometimes the worst thing that can happen is getting exactly what you always wanted.
I’ve never had to worry about that before, Aaron said, thinking, Dear Author, Thank you for sending us your work. We regret that it does not match our needs at this time, blah blah blah, fuck off. Forty years of that, and now I’m supposed to act like I know what I’m doing.
They drank for a while. Hoo. I’m buzzed, said Kirby.
You ever find out who made the guest list? Aaron asked.
I made it, Kirby said. What I’d like to know, and what nobody will tell me, is how these kids got in anyway. I invited local authors and critics from the Review-Journal, Seven, the Weekly. I’m not even sure any of these people are local.
This is Las Vegas, Aaron said. Everyone here comes from somewhere else.
That doesn’t mean they belong.
No. It doesn’t.
Shit, Kirby said. Buzzed isn’t good enough. Can I get you something from the bar?
I’ll stick with this—what is it? Pinot?
No idea, Kirby said. I don’t think they ever poured me the same kind twice.
Will the tour really be that bad?
Kirby grinned and squeezed Aaron’s shoulder. Yes. And it will also be the best thing you’ve ever done.
What if I’m an imposter? Aaron said, his voice rising an octave and turning the question into a desperate plea. I don’t think I’m supposed to feel like this.
There is no supposed to. There’s just what is. Enjoy it. Some people would kill to be in your place.
He rose and fought his way to the bar.
Some people are fools, Aaron thought.
Time turned elastic, stretching out and out. Every drink lasted a week. He staggered through the crowd, unsure of when he had stood up and or where he was going. Everyone seemed engulfed in opaque light. A couple of people patted him on the back and mumbled congratulations, but to the rest, he was just another body, someone to sidestep on the way to the pisser.
Standing at the windows again, he pressed his forehead against the warm glass, the lights of the Strip washing over him. Darkened mountains surrounded the valley and its creeping urban sprawl, its residential streets with air units on the roofs, its car dealerships and chain restaurants. Multi-story casinos dotted the landscape like ball lightning. But here, on the only street that the words Las Vegas invoked in the wide world’s imagination, light and the steel-and-concrete landscape fused, coexistent and coeval. Here, everything evolved, rising and falling and shifting like spring flowers filmed in time lapse. It all changed so constantly, in fact, that it seemed like nothing ever did. There were always signs, lights, construction sites, crowds, cops, hustlers, beggars, dancers, singers, cabs and cars and motorcycles, billboards hanging from building façades and billboards towed behind trucks, food both cheap and upscale, liquor, hucksters dragging rolling suitcases from which they sold iced-down bottles of water for a dollar and beer on the cheap.
I think my character had to leave Las Vegas because I was afraid I could never do this town justice, Aaron thought. Now that they had been published, even his opening lines troubled him:
You can never get lost in the valley. Las Vegas Boulevard is our true north. Each internal compass points to the Stratosphere, and you can always feel the Strip tugging at you, reorienting your life around itself. Its gravity attracts tourists by the planeload, enticing them with promises of unfettered choice. But in my old age, something reversed my polarity. The streets of youth and middle age repelled me. One morning, I packed my bags and drove away, headed for no place in particular.
The writing was fine, the imagery sound. The content, however, seemed hypocritical now. He wanted to take the Strip in his arms, put it in his pocket, carry it home and store it under glass.
On tour, I’ll miss the weirdness of home, he thought. I love Las Vegas. I need it. But you would never know from reading the book.
Hell, he said.
What’s the matter?
Aaron turned. The brunette, the one with the impossible heels. She had come back after all.
Not much, he said. Except that I’m a big, fat phony. My book says all the wrong things.
Hmph, she said, chewing on a fingernail that looked freshly manicured and gelled. He felt that surge of irritation that the older generation always feels when confronted with the contradictions and wastefulness of the younger.
Stop being such an old fart, he thought. Hmph what?
Well, in college, a couple of my friends majored in Creative Writing. You remind me of them. They moaned about their stories all the time, how they could never get it right.
The writer’s malady, he said. What’s on the page never matches what’s in your head.
Well, she said, taking a tube of lip gloss out of her purse and applying some, if everybody feels like that, what makes you so special?
He frowned. Nobody said I was special. It’s the opposite.
Oh, boo hoo, she said, putting the gloss away. Look, for all I know, your book may suck shit through a straw. It might be the worst thing anybody ever wrote. But I doubt it. Things are never as good as you hope they’ll be or as bad as you think.
He turned back to the window. It’s certainly pretty to think so, he said.
The fountains danced again. He had always found them soothing, grand. Others did, too. Some tourists stood there through four or five shows. Filmmakers loved the jets’ languorous gyrations, their violent upthrusts. Kids liked the ducks that sometimes flew in for a dip. A landmark as familiar to Aaron as the mountains, yet so new and fresh to others. People came despite the expense, the hassles at airports, the heat. They came despite their worries, because that, too, was the nature of running; you moved toward whatever something else lay over the horizon.
Aaron wondered what song was playing over the PA down there. Probably that Celine Dion number.
Anyway, she said, you can only do your best and hope people understand, right?
I like your perspective, Aaron said. What’s your name?
China, she said.
Of course it is.
You want to show me that sushi spot you mentioned?
Aaron raised an eyebrow. It’s only a cab ride away. What about Macy?
Pssh. She went to some guy’s room for a nightcap, China said, making air quotes. Get two drinks in her and she’ll suck the chrome off a trailer hitch.
Aaron burst into laughter and dribbled wine onto the carpet. People turned to look before dismissing him and resuming their conversations.
Chrome off a trailer hitch, he said, shaking his head.
I’m from Texas. My father said shit like that all the time.
What town? I’m interested in the names of towns.
Paris, she said.
He cleared his throat. So you’re China…from Paris?
I’ve heard all the jokes before. Let’s get out of here. Maybe see those fountains on the way.
As if she had read his mind. China and Paris, Texas—like something out of his novel. A sign, perhaps.
You talked me into it, he said, standing.
He put out his arm; she took it. Together they headed toward the doors. He probably looked like an old man trying to feel young, a cliché, but he did not care. Perhaps tomorrow all his doubts and his fears would flood right back in. But for tonight, at least, China was right. You do the work and let it go, he thought. Then it belongs to the world, whether they love it or tear it to shreds. Then you sit down and do the work again. And if the best thing the book ever brings me is this moment, there are worse fates.
Across the room, Kirby was chatting up a blonde. As they talked, he reached out and stroked her arm. She laughed and leaned into him. Maybe everyone would get lucky tonight, a truly unusual occurrence in Las Vegas. Kirby saw him and winked. Aaron waved. Then he and China headed for the elevators.
Below and around them, Las Vegas waited, an experiential buffet where you paid in advance and selected whatever nourished you. Soon enough, the elevator doors opened. China stepped inside, and Aaron followed, punching the casino-level button. The car whirred into life, and he felt his stomach drop a bit, as if they were riding fast down a steep hill, headed someplace he had never been, a place where everyone was a writer and you could revise your life’s story as many times as you wished.