We talked every week, Augie and Ben and I. We grew up together, closer than brothers, and though we went our separate ways, and barely saw each other anymore, we stayed forever in touch. Every Tuesday, by phone. At least that was the plan. We didn’t say much, most of the time there wasn’t much to say. How’s it going? How are the kids? Same old, same old. Sometimes we’d call just to say we were rushing somewhere and couldn’t talk. Augie didn’t want to hear the details of my suburban life, and I didn’t want to hear the details of his self-destruction, and neither of us wanted to hear Ben whine anymore about his ex-wives. But it really didn’t matter what we said, so long as we said something. We were each other’s canary in the mine shaft. As long as we were talking it meant we had still gotten away with it.
Which was why I was flying into Vegas out of Philly International. It was a Wednesday morning and the day before, Augie hadn’t chirped.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” said Ben from his home in Fort Lauderdale. “He’s probably just stoned or shacked up with a whore. The problem isn’t that he hasn’t called, the problem is that he didn’t invite us to the party.”
“I suppose you’re right,” I said. “But my call went straight to voice mail. He always has his phone.”
“Remember that time a couple years ago when Augie had us sweating for a week and half before he finally called from a Mexican jail.”
“He blamed it on the worm.”
“It’s like you always say, J.J., anything it happens to Augie, he’ll have done it to himself.”
“He does love his pornography,” I said.
“Let me know when he finally rings up, hungover like a buzzard, with some new tattoo he doesn’t remember getting,” said Ben. “So, how are the kids?”
I didn’t tell Ben I was flying out to check on Augie, but Augie hadn’t called, and so there I was swooping down toward the gaudy Vegas strip in a 757 with my seatback up and my stomach clenched, not knowing what the hell to expect. Though with Augie, it was always safe to expect the worst.
I didn’t much care for Las Vegas. I only went there to see Augie and there wasn’t much fun we could have together anymore. Augie liked to gamble, could play poker in the casinos for days at a time, and was pretty damn good at it when he was sober, but I never took to the tables. For me the pain of the losses always outweighed the charge I got from winning; heaven knew my money had been too hard earned. And Augie liked to end his nights with a lap dance at his favorite stripper joint, but as far as I was concerned, if I wanted to see a naked woman who wouldn’t screw me at the end of the night I could just lie in bed and watch my wife undress. We used to play golf together, Augie and I, but after that crank dealer in Reno shot off his ring finger Augie didn’t much play anymore, even though one-handed he could still bludgeon me on the course. And frankly, online pornography is not something one forty-year-old man wants to share with another. When I visited Augie we mostly drank, watched sports on TV, and ate at the Applebee’s by his house.
We landed with a jolt. I put on my sunglasses and my game face as the plane slid into the gate. The Vegas airport was a party I wanted no part of. The slot machines whirred, the bartenders poured, hawkers hawked their wares as the great screens high above the baggage carousels advertised the production of the year, the comedian of the decade, the sexiest showgirls on the strip. If Vegas didn’t exist, you wouldn’t be able to dream it up, and if by chance you did, before you could tell anyone a white rabbit would have chewed off your face.
All I had was a briefcase, so my journey through the airport was mercifully brief. I took the shuttle to the rental car center, checked in at a kiosk to avoid any face time with a clerk, picked the most generic-looking midsize I could find in the garage, and followed the arrows to the highway. No GPS, thank you. It’s not that I knew my way around, it’s that I didn’t want to leave a record anywhere of where I’d been.
“Mr. Moretti, yes, how good to see you again.”
“Thank you,” I said to a bank clerk I had never seen before. I suppose uxorious customer service is better than no customer service, even in a strip mall bank branch not far from Augie’s Applebee’s.
“Just show me your key and your identification and sign here,” said the clerk, “and we can get your box for you right away.”
It took me a moment to remember which signature I had used when I first rented the box. An oldie but goodie. Two looping Js before a scrawled, half-legible Moretti. I showed her the key and a license that had me living at Augie’s house in Nevada, the same license I used for the flight and to rent the car.
“Very good,” she said after she compared my signature with the one in the file.
She put me and the box in a room smaller than an airplane toilet and left us alone. I sat there for a moment and felt nothing, felt dead. My son had a ball game that afternoon that I was missing, my daughter had a choral concert at the high school that night, and I was booked on the red-eye back, which meant my next day would be a sleep-deprived mess, all to fly out to a city I hated to make sure an old friend, with whom I no longer had anything in common, was okay because he hadn’t phoned, even though he was a drug-addicted drunk, which might have had something to do with the lapse. And all of this was in service to something that happened almost a quarter of a century ago. I closed my eyes for a moment, fingered the scar on my neck, and thought what it would be like to be done with it all, to be finished, to let the fear bleed out of me one last time. What would it be like to be normal?
I let the weakness overtake me for a moment, let it pass through me and out of me. And then I opened up the box.
No surprises, nothing popping out like a stuffed clown atop a Slinky, just the same stuff I grabbed from the box each time I came to Vegas to check on Augie. There were the keys to his house. There was the wad of hundred dollar bills bound in a purple and white wrapper, a little pillow of security if things went wrong. There was the automatic wrapped in newspaper and stuffed in a plastic bag so that it wouldn’t rattle in the box, something that scared the hell out of me but that Augie insisted on. And oh yeah, there were a couple boxes of condoms.
I jammed the keys in my pocket, along with the money. I removed the gun from the bag, unwrapped it, checked that the clip was loaded and the chamber empty like Augie had taught me, and put that in the briefcase. I was about to close the safe-deposit box when I thought better of it and grabbed one of the condom boxes. Augie always told me, with a jaunty voice over the phone, that when I stopped by I shouldn’t forget the jimmy hats. The condom boxes were old already and still unopened, but I took one anyway in case he needed a few; when dealing with Augie it was always better to be prepared.
Look at me there, leaving the bank with my sunglasses on, a wad of cash in my pocket, my briefcase holding condoms and a gun. Look at the swagger, at the hint of a smile, like I have the world beat, look at the utter fatuousness of the middle-aged suburbanite playing at being a torpedo. If any man was ever in need of a punch to the face, it was he, me, and it was coming, yes, it was. Sometimes the aardvark imagines he’s a lion, but the hyena always sets him straight.
Before returning to the car I slipped inside a drugstore next to the bank and bought a box of chocolates, the biggest they had, bound with frills and goofily shaped like a brontosaurus heart, a deranged greeting-card magnate’s idea of a romantic gesture. Then it was back to the sun-drenched morning as I steered the rental across West Sahara to South Rainbow Boulevard.
The residential parts of Vegas are lousy with walls. Every development is surrounded, every backyard. If Robert Frost had ever seen Vegas he would have had a breakdown. I was stopped at a light on West Twain with walls all around me, when a motorcyclist pulled up beside me and revved his engine. At the sound, my blood fizzled like I was mainlining Alka-Seltzer and I felt a throb at my throat.
I tried not to look but I couldn’t help myself. The rider was older, with a gray beard and a denim vest. He seemed to be ignoring me, and I turned my face to the windshield so it seemed I was ignoring him too. But I wasn’t, with all my concentration. I was always jumpy when I saw a biker, felt the twin urges to run away and to run the bastard over. When the light turned, my foot stayed on the brake as the motorcycle zipped away.
After a few bleats from behind, I started up again down South Rainbow. A hundred yards on, I turned into a gap in the wall to my right. Spring Valley, read the dusty old sign. Why, if I didn’t know any better it might have sounded like the sweetest little place on earth. Spring Valley. Where the sun always shined down softly and pussy willows waved in the breeze. But I wasn’t entering Spring Valley for the scenery.
An old friend hadn’t called and I was paying him a visit to see if I still had a life.