Discover more from Works Progress
This month's story is about a hellish week in Las Vegas, featuring cocaine, mediocre swimming pools, a disappointing orgy, an immigrant who links up with the wrong kind of Mormons, and two guys who are recently divorced and regretting it. One, maybe, more than the other.
This edition marks our – incredibly – one-year anniversary. Thanks for reading and supporting new fiction from all over the country, from established masters, debut novelists, and up-and-comers alike. Check out our full archive here.
Mick’s house was full of junk. The kind of junk that made you unbearably sad, that made you wonder where your life went wrong. Antiques and collectables and old baseball cards. There were ornate chairs and fraying Persian rugs stacked up in the corners of the rooms. There were pewter figurines, wizards and dragons and hooded monks. There were iron cast bookends, marble angel sculptures, old tools that looked like torture devices, a galvanized tub full of stacks of magazines (The Economist, The New Scientist, Men’s Health), military canteens and flasks, old coins and medals, and jewelry with dull stones that could have been valuable or completely worthless. There was a collection of “Welcome to Las Vegas” refrigerator magnets, a heap of Starbucks “collector” mugs in the sink, and an ungodly pile of cheap erotica novels (Backdoor Pass, Darkly Toward Me, Heaven Inside).
God, I wanted to say. Kill me.
A few weeks earlier, Mick had called and invited me to come stay with him for a week in Vegas.
I haven’t seen you in—God, what—three years?
Yeah, I said. Maybe five.
Come down to the desert. Let’s get faded faded faded. Let’s pretend like we’re young. Like we’re in college again. That’s why people come to Las Vegas, isn’t it?
Mick and I were both recently divorced and regretful about it. He had cheated on his wife. Mine had cheated on me. He had a kid. I didn’t.
Both of us had wanted to be television writers when we were younger but weren’t good enough or lucky enough and had quit a long time ago. I was working as a sales rep for a construction company and Mick was a professor of writing studies—whatever the hell that is—at a community college.
We’re getting to that age, Mick said, where you think more about what you did or didn’t do, rather than what you might do down the road.
It’s true, we were at an awkward age. Older than we wanted to be, but not old enough to feel complacent about being old. If such an age exists. Which, I guess, it doesn’t.
I agreed to visit.
I took a week off work and drove all the way across Nebraska, Colorado, and Utah where it looked like the world was going to end. Where the world had ended a hundred times and no one seemed to care.
Mick looked like a therapist if you know what I mean. He wore those glasses. The ones with the thick rims that made you think of the word “cartoon.” And he had that haircut—a popular one with younger men—that makes a man look like he has no hair on purpose.
He flicked his tongue around the inside of his mouth like he had a toothache he couldn’t leave alone. He whistled between his teeth when he made an “s,” so that it sounded like “sh.”
Shit down, he said. Have a sheat.
His house was a one-story, two-bedroom stucco desert-style hut in the Art District near Fremont Street. It had a wire fence and small pool with a patio and a flood light that made me feel like I was being surveilled.
God is wherever you think he is, he said.
All morning and afternoon, we sat around talking about people we used to know—Jenny was divorced, Brittany was divorced, Jay overdosed or maybe jumped off a bridge, Zach was a Mormon now, Ranz was an ex-Mormon, Dennis was a Buddhist, Brian was so drugged up he couldn’t string together three coherent sentences, Mike had gone off the grid, John was still living in a van in his girlfriend’s parents’ backyard. Then we stopped talking and sat quietly for a while and Mick seemed uncomfortable so we watched a movie about zombies and ecological disaster and World War III with Russia and China. Then we smoked and sat by the pool.
Let’s go swimming.
Mick shook his head and sucked on his cigarette. I don’t swim.
Why do you have a swimming pool if you don’t swim?
Now the sun was setting and the whole city looked like it was on fire. The light fell in thick strobes as if in a biblical vision of an abandoned civilization. A great ghost town of the future and the past. No people. No birds. Only the sound of passing cars.
I wanted to ask Mick about his life. His real life. I wanted to talk about his wife and his children and his failures as an academic and a writer, but he was drunk—drunk and happy, too happy to be bothered—and I didn’t want to bring him down.
That night, he looked like a man trying to get out of his own skin. His face was the face of someone trying to squeeze out the last drop of a sponge. Let’s get out of here, he said. Let’s rage.
We dressed ourselves up and took to Fremont Street, where sweet cigarette smoke lingered and drifted in large waves and made me feel light as a baby. The carpets were patterned with florescent zigzags and circular, psychedelic shapes. The lights were flickering. A Frank Sinatra imitator played too loudly on a nearby stage. We walked a wide and crooked path, here and there—there, here. Through the maze of old Vegas and its hallways of mirrors, chandeliers, slot machines, craps tables, night clubs, smoky lounges with overstuffed furniture. We paused at the kiosks selling faux-silk scarves, cellulite cellphone accessories, Mardi Gras beads, disco ball necklaces, and bobbleheads of famous politicians; at the street bars and the bar carts and the ABC stores selling mostly alcohol; at the sales reps, who lured streetwalkers into their nightclubs and strip clubs with discount cards; at more half-naked people, dancing drunk in the street—kissing and fondling each other’s private parts; at Heart Attack Grill where patrons over three hundred and fifty pounds were promised a free meal; at the “adult shopping” malls; at the giant metal sculpture of a praying mantis that blew fire from its antennae, past the “interactive pop-up experience” and its papier-mâché polar bear sculptures made for taking Instagram photos with.
There is a world inside this world.
And it is this world.
And it is beautiful.
Eventually, we arrived at a nightclub called “The Feast” where people wore bizarre adult costumes. There was a whole cast of adult characters—the sexy Tarzan, the BDSM Big Bird, the impish Elmo, the Old-Vegas showgirls, totally nude except for the huge feather headdresses and gold stars covering their nipples and crotch. There was a fat man in a baby mask. There were two men dressed in Mario brothers costumes with a Vegas twist: holding beer bottles and heroine needles. There was a “midget orchestra” and a nude guitarist and some dudes dressed up like Jedi Knights with plastic lightsabers. There were two men in devil costumes—with red sequin dresses, horns, arrow-headed tails—who, they said, would whip my bare ass for a few dollars.
How much? I said.
In the morning, Mick paced the backyard in his fuzzy pink slippers and took out his cock and pissed into a yucca plant and, when he finished, he looked directly into the sun and said something about how every movie is about some other movie, something about feedback and the infinite loop, something about a heap of boredom and dull back pain and a little pinch in the penis and how it hurts to pee.
I was trying to enjoy myself and feel the sun and the vodka. I was trying to get to his level and not think too much about my life.
Mick was talking all philosophical now. Bothering me. Asking me grave questions. Like, are you more afraid that you don’t know yourself or that no one else truly knows you? Are you more afraid of losing your body or losing your mind? What do you believe to be the key to your salvation? What’s the loudest sound you ever heard?
Loudest? You mean, like a helicopter or something?
Like, have you ever heard a sound so loud you couldn’t unhear it?
It sounds to me like you want to say something yourself, I said.
I heard a man crack his skull open, he said. I was in a hotel in Long Beach, and I heard this thwack in the room next door. You wouldn’t believe it. It was loud as thunder. Loud as a gunshot. Matter of fact, I thought it was a gunshot. I crouched down and crawled. And then I heard someone screaming—help, God, Jesus on the cross, please!—and I went outside and ran to the next room and tried to open the door, but it wouldn’t open. The voice kept screaming, a woman’s voice. And I ran downstairs and got the attendant and told her the situation and we ran up together and unlocked the door and it looked like a murder scene inside. There was a woman, completely naked, tied up to the bed, arms and legs splayed out widely on both sides, spread eagle as they say. And on the floor, there was a man, or what had been a man. A body. All twisted up like a pretzel. Contorted into an impossible position. It turned out, the two of them were having some kinky sex, and the man—after tying up the woman—had been running around the room, kicking the furniture and flapping his arms around and beating his chest and grunting and swinging his dick around. Well, turns out, he had been jumping up and down on the bed and he hit his head on the ceiling and fell back and hit his head again on the corner of the coffee table. A marble coffee table. What kind of hotel has a marble coffee table? The corner of it struck his temple directly. And, the skull, my god. The skull had cracked open, split right down the middle, like a melon. And blood had gathered around the skull like a halo, but all flesh and mucus.
But what I remember the most was his cape.
His cape. He was completely naked except for his cape. Yellow it was. Bright bright blue and red and gold. Like a neon golf ball. A Superman cape. He wanted to be Superman.
What do you have strong opinions about?
Me? I don’t know.
If you don’t have opinions, said Mick, you’re nothing. That’s what this country is about. The freedom to believe, not freedom from belief. Freedom to believe everything and anything that can be believed. It’s your duty.
I don’t agree with that at all, I said.
By disagreeing with me, you only prove my point.
I looked at him—was he serious?—but he didn’t look back. He was looking up at the sun and letting the light into his eyes.
I have opinions, he said, about human nature and art and sex and money and history.
I believe the world did not exist before Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I believe Finland is a fictional landmass, invented by the Japanese and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. I believe that Atlanta, Georgia is the future site of concentration camps where the pedophillic corporate elite will impose martial law and kill millions of Americans. I believe most people are robots controlled by a central computer-God in San Francisco, which puts these robots in our path to test us, to control human experiences, to distract us from the truth. I believe there is a Chinese company that’s developing small machines that look like insects that crawl into our brains and fuck them while we sleep. I believe we are surrounded by demons. Twitter is a demon. Politics is a demon. Streaming television is a demon.
I laughed, but he didn’t. I kept laughing. I kept waiting for him to laugh.
A good, hot afternoon. The air conditioner turned on and hummed and clicked and whirred up and died down again and turned off.
Mick was watching porn on his laptop by the pool.
What’s going on over there? I said.
He turned the screen to show me. Look at this, he said. This is a fucked-up world.
I watched. A clown fucked another clown. Santa Claus fucked a Beyonce lookalike. The President of the United States was fucking a goat. A goat is a symbol of the Devil. Now the President of the United States had a goat’s head. Now the goat was a beautiful woman. Now an old woman. Now the President of the United States was fucking an old woman who was not his wife.
This is the stuff of nightmares, said Mick. But I can’t look away. It all makes so much sense to me now. It explains everything.
Next night, Mick told me we were going to a sex party and I didn’t have a choice.
I wanted to spit. I wanted to tell him that we were too old for a sex party. A sex party?
More like an orgy.
An orgy, no way. I don’t even like being naked.
I have a hairy chest. It’s disgusting. I have a small penis, too.
C’mon, he said. You don’t want to wake up one morning and think: I forgot to be that person. Do you? You don’t want to forget to be that person. The person who went to sex parties. The person who wore his body out while he still had one. The person who spent his money and drank in the morning and got stoned and saw visions and talked to angels and didn’t wash his hair for weeks. That person. You don’t want to forget to be that person.
No, I wanted to say. The person I forgot to be is an actor, or a rock climber, or a pilot, or a painter, or a poet, or a politician, or a goddamned priest.
The cocaine had all but worn off by the time we arrived, and two shapely men greeted us. One of them complimented my shoes and the other complimented my haircut. The haircut compliment was ironic, I assumed, a subtle putdown. They offered me cocaine, and I rejected it on the grounds of already having had too much of it.
More will help with that, said one.
The other reached in his pocket and took out a key and thrust it into a small bag of white powder. He scooped a mound from the bag and thrust it into my face, though it missed my nostril slightly, smearing the dollop of powder against the tip of my nose.
One lifted four brackets and dangled them in my face. Red, green, blue, yellow. So, he said. What’s your color?
Your bracelet, he said. Which one do you want?
This is how it works, said the other. You wear the bracelet that corresponds to your desire. Each color connotes a sexual preference, what you’re willing to do, how far you’re willing to go, what you’re cool to do and have done to you.
The one held up each bracelet one by one. This one is butt stuff. This one is he-she-they. This one is oral. This one is foot, ear, armpit. This one is everything. Red.
Red is everything?
Before I took my clothes off, I went into the bathroom and locked the door and got on the floor and did as many pushups as I could, then I counted twenty Mississippi and did more pushups. I went out a little puffed up but somehow feeling more ashamed than before.
The people at the party were like us. Older but not yet old. People who wore sadness like a T-shirt.
They huddled together like monks or deformed mushrooms in the living room. They introduced themselves. Jerry with the silicone cheekbones. Paul with the penis pump. Jillian with the missing tooth. Katherine with the dragon eye makeup.
Before I was ready, the event started. It went like this. Slow at first. Just fine. One touched whoever else was there, nearest by. Faster now. Fleshy orbs rolling around on the floor and onto the couch, making all the motions and sounds. I performed my duties badly. I was too aware of myself. My age. My chest hair. And soon—too soon—the group shifted. We moved and traded places and started over.
The smell was rotten.
The woman across from me—I forgot her name, Beth or Grace, who had refused to take off her wedding ring—had the same haircut as me. I made the face as best I could. I sucked in my gut.
Suddenly someone started to moan and grunt with the intensity of a powerlifter. Then the grunt turned into a screech or a wail. And then—in a fit of solidarity, or mimesis, or jealousy, or thoughtless celebration—others cried out, too. They moaned and howled like soldiers or animals in heat. Mick screamed. I heard him scream. And so did I. I thought I did.
The whole thing was godless. A lamentation or a weird prayer.
Whatever I was doing, I was doing wrong. I could tell. Beth wasn’t into it. My fingers hurt, and my jaw, too. I dismissed myself and went into the bathroom and sat on the toilet and waited.
I woke up late and didn’t say a word about the party to Mick. The sky was empty and the pool water reflected emptiness. The power lines hummed and in the distance there was the faint sound of construction. A chainsaw, a hammer.
Beautiful day, said Mick.
Maybe he was right, but I couldn’t tell the difference. Everything had that lovely washed-out look.
He picked at his teeth and spoke with an eerie mysticism—if mysticism is the right word. He said, We are all imaginary, especially to ourselves. He said, I am most like myself when I am pulling on a hangnail. When it hurts. When I can feel something painful. He pointed. He said, look. The desert is a battlefield but without any soldiers fighting on it. It’s the subject of conflict, without the substance of it. He said, Have you noticed how time seems to get older as we get older?
My wife left me for a dentist, I said.
Mick looked up and took his sunglasses off and pointed up and said, Doesn’t it feel good? Doesn’t it feel like some invisible hand is squeezing your lungs?
A fucking dentist. Can you believe that?
The universe tends toward decay, said Mick. Toward randomness and chaos. Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. The energy put into preventing disorder in one place simultaneously increases it somewhere else. Save the world here, destroy the world there.
A dentist, I said. A dentist with a fake tan and fake hair and a boat down in Florida. He’s a Buddhist or a Taoist or something. He has a dog. A golden retriever, I think.
What you don’t understand, he said, is that none of this is real. Joan and her dentist are going to die soon enough. They’re going to die and they’re going to suffer. Just like you’re suffering now. Just like you’re dying. Soon enough, she’ll hate him, just like you hate her. And the cycle will go on. Our trash will outlive us. Our candy wrappers and rubbers and empties and blanks and plastic bags will be on this earth longer than we will.
Mick was getting itchy and said let’s get outta here and have some fun. He wore a tank top and short shorts and shoes without socks.
We walked in the sun, and the sun made us sober. We went to a bar in a casino. We went to a bar by a pool with a giant fish tank with exotic blue and orange and yellow fish, where Mick made conversation with some bikers and some college students reading Hegel or Schlegel or Schelling or Schopenhauer. He spoke with ease about this and that. Small talk. Trivia. The weather. The vanishing water in Lake Mead. The dead bodies they found there. Baseball.
I sat quietly next to him. I kept wondering when he was going to run out of steam, but he never did. He was a tourist in his own life. He looked like the Italian that his grandfather was, acting out his words with his hands and eyebrows and elbows. He had always been the kind of guy who could make you laugh even when nothing was funny.
Later, we went to a cafe and got espresso and lemon cake. I asked Mick about his wife and his daughter, and he said fine fine fine and yeah yeah yeah. Nothing real. So, we headed over to the Neon Lights Exhibit and snorted coke in the bathroom and left.
Walking home, we saw a murmuration of birds, moving together in a whirling, shape-shifting cloud. We stopped and watched as hundreds of dark birds moved with a single mind into these impossible patterns.
For a long time, we stood.
It’s beautiful, I said.
It’s only beautiful, said Mick, because it’s so far away. Up close those birds look like rats and dragonflies and gigantic beetles.
Fourth night in a row, Mick wanted to go out. You want to see some fucked up shit? You want to live a little? Hitch a ride out to Pahrump with me.
I need a break, man. I had a bad experience last night. It’s all too much. Too much living.
There’s no such thing as a bad experience, he said. There is only experience. It can be intense, authentic, severe, powerful, subtle, or contemplative. The fact that life is meaningless, Mick went on, means experience is all we get. Experience for its own sake. The goal and the reward.
I suggested we have a quiet night. Maybe go to a local bar. Maybe have a light dinner and watch a movie for Chrissake.
Okay, he said. You do that. I’m going to Pahrump.
We agreed to meet up later and I asked him for recommendations, local spots.
He thought about it. Go to The Do-Over, he said.
The Do-Over. I Googled it.
It’s a quiet, little joint. Right around the corner. You’ll like it. A former student of mine works there. I’ll text her. She’ll give you drinks.
Free drinks was reason enough to go to any bar, but I didn’t much feel like drinking. I was sick. Sick of putting things inside of my body to better feel or not feel my body. Sick of being a man.
The Do-Over was empty save three drunks at the bar. One couple—woman and man who sat at the front, nearer the entrance, and a man hunched over his drink toward the back. No music played—none, only the chatter of idle conversation, and my uneven footsteps.
I sat in the middle.
The bartender was there. A young woman, all bones, covered in nondescript tattoos that looked more like bruises than anything else.
She nodded at me and gave me the eyebrows. Her hair was tangled in knots around her shoulders.
You know Mick?
She grinned and nodded and said she was expecting me.
I didn’t want to be presumptuous, so I ordered whiskey with a bar back and took out my wallet to pay for it, but she waved it away and said a friend of Mick is alright here, honey.
She introduced herself as Ava, and for a while, we talked about Mick and what he was like as a professor. All professors are frauds, Ava said Mick had said. All professors, especially the ones in sociology, are liars and ideological con artists and self-loathing hacks. I laughed and she laughed, and we moved on to other subjects like the gentrification of Las Vegas, the rising housing prices, the suicide rate.
Now the bar was completely empty, and our conversation was dying, and she told me that her shift was ending, and asked me if I wanted one more drink before she went home.
One more, sure.
The silence was a little awkward, so I asked her the first question that came to my mind. What do you have strong opinions about?
She didn’t seem bothered by the question. Strong? No, she said. Not really.
You don’t believe in anything? You don’t believe in aliens or conspiracies or God or whatever.
God? Yeah, God. Sure. I believe in God. But that’s not an opinion. God is real. The devil is real.
I don’t know about that.
She looked at me and looked around the bar and took out her phone and seemed to be texting someone and put the phone back into her pocket. Then she delivered a monologue. You want my story? she said. This is my story, man. My family is from Mexico. My mother died when I was born. I was raised by my father who was poor, a poor grocer. When I was still a child, my father gets the idea to move to the United States. He wants to go somewhere he didn’t know anyone, somewhere no one knew him. He watches all the old Westerns, so he has grand visions of the American frontier. Visions of the wild west and the cowboys and the vast empty spaces. That’s how he learns English. That’s how I learn English, too. Then, after years of dreaming, a path to the US opens up to him. After some missionaries came to his house, she said, my father decided to convert to Mormonism. The most American of all religions. Inherently American. The religion is full of character and imagery and history that the father has seen in old American films. Outcasts. Outsiders. Vagabonds. Pioneers. Sex crazed ruffians. Saints of the wild west. So, he goes to the US to be around other Mormons. To practice the American religion. To become an American. He thinks that membership in the most American religion will grant him that identity, all its contradictions and complications.
I interrupted her to ask for more whiskey.
She poured one.
But when he comes to America, she went on, when he crosses the border in search of his people, he links up with the wrong Mormons. Not the Latter-day Saints. The other ones. The fundamentalists. The apostates. The ones who broke away from the main branch and continue the archaic practices of the church. The ones who live in the middle of the middle of nowhere. In communes and closed communities. Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, Missouri, even in Mexico. The ones who keep multiple wives. He starts a correspondence with some people in Nevada. Tells them he wants to move out and join their community, and he moves there, to the desert, on the border of Utah. He goes and joins, and he takes his daughter with him. They give him everything. By the time he figures out what he’s got himself into, he has already made friends, established himself in the community. He’s even been called an Elder in the church. An American.
These Mormons, the wrong ones, are determined to recreate as closely as possible the religious order they find in the Bible. Everything that happens in the Bible—every act, every action, every mode of organization—should exist in the present. And so, in that part of the world, in that religion, a man’s duty as Bishop is not only to sermonize or administer assistance or organize events and meetings, but also to slaughter animals. And once a month, on the first Sunday, the father dresses his daughter in white and takes an animal and sets it on the stone altar and, with a long, hooked blade, slits the throat. Pigs mostly, but also occasional goats and chickens and stray cats. Birds, too. Doves. There are smaller animals, sometimes. Rodents of the field, as they say. When larger ones can’t be fetched.
What was I supposed to say to that?
The worst part of the sacrifice, she said, is that I, the Bishop’s only child, must stand beside the animal and catch the blood when it jumps out of the throat. When it splatters. I catch it with my body, just standing there. Blood across my linen shirt. The white makes the blood easier to see. Blood of the first born. I hold the blood of animals, the blood of Christ.
I asked for another drink, but this time Ava ignored me and kept talking.
But then something worse happened, she said. When I turned sixteen, they told me that I was to marry a man. An older man. A man my father’s age. A man who already had a wife. Of course, I refused. I threw a fit. I threatened to leave. But my father is angry. He beats me, shows me how much he loves me when he throws me onto the ground, how he worships me. Slaps me. If you leave, he says, you will never come back. I will never see you again. You don’t want to go out there, he says. It’s cruel and lonely and everything is trite and trivial and meaningless. Here you have community, he says. You have friends and family and love. Here you will never be alone. You are safe. Your life means something. Out there, you are just another body. Just an object.
But then you left.
I plan to leave, yes. I started to steal money from my father. I take cash from his wallet, nothing big. Just dollar bills. Ones and fives. It adds up. I teach myself to drive my father’s truck. Each night, when he falls asleep, I climb out the window and walk down the long driveway to where the trucks are parked, turn the key, and drive up and down the dirt roads that lead to the highway.
And one night you left?
Not yet. And all the while, biding my time, every day I am observing my father. Watching him closely. Noting his habits and rituals and quirks. I watch him because I love him. Because I believe that he is right when he says that I will never see him again. Because I want to remember everything about him. How he overcooks his eggs. How he touches his eyebrow when he’s thinking. How he traces the edges of things with his finger—the corner of the table, the rim of a coke bottle—when he gets nervous. How his “v” sounds like a “b” when he says I love you. But one night, while I am sleeping, my father comes into my room and shakes me awake. Hurry, he says. We must go. Now. He had prepared everything. Our possessions are in the car and we need to leave now.
We leave everything. Again. We drive to Searchlight where we make a new life. We sleep in the car, in random parking lots where there is nothing else. No stores or restraints. Sometimes we sleep in cheap motels in the middle of the desert. Sometimes we sleep in the desert. Miles outside of any city. My father is working odd jobs. We buy new clothes at a thrift store—clothes that look like the clothing we see people wearing in gas stations and pit stops. Jeans and t-shirts. We are learning to live again. A second life. Now I understand. That’s the only way to live. You have to live two lives. You have to live twice.
When I got back to Mick’s, the car was still in the driveway and the pool light was on. Music played softly from the speakers. Something sugary. Don’t leave me, baby. Don’t leave me, honey.
I stumbled through the back gate and called out to Mick. Where are you, I said, you sumbitch.
Don’t let this be our final night.
There was something glowing in the pool.
Bright as a heap of gold coins.
At first, I couldn’t believe it. But there it was. A Superman cape. A yellow jacket floating in the water. Just as Mick had described.
I walked over.
And that’s when I saw him. Mick. The cape was on him. There was a hole in his brain and a gun at the bottom of the pool. His corpse bobbed and quivered. His limbs hung freely by his side, as if floating in outer space.
The water lapped gently against the edge of the pool. It was horrible, that gentleness.
Dylan Bassett's fiction has appeared in the Chicago Review, Iowa Review, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. His novel, Gad's Book, is forthcoming in 2024.