This Is the Place (Peter Rock)

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  No one is satisfied where they are. Even the angels descend slowly through the clouds to put their feet on the ground. Swimming delights them; their wings shed water and, splashing clumsily, they terrify fish. For angels, clumsiness is a welcome relief--sometimes they lose their balance, but they must practice their stumbling, trick their grace. Yes, they drag their wings through the desert, across the salt flats, they gather along the border to watch what will happen.

I am saying something like this, going off, and Anita sits next to me at the bar, slowly shaking her head. The others are only half-listening; they look up when I pause to catch my breath. Behind them, the rows of slot machines blink and call. Nickels, quarters, dollar slots. A few desperate fools are playing, but the casino is mostly empty. The Stateline is always open, as it is easiest never to turn anything off, only to let it slow down. Out in the midst of the machines, a Cadillac sits inside velvet ropes, and we'll probably only pretend to give it away. All shiny and pathetic, on a platform, the car does not look out of place.

If only we all stumbled with such joy, I say.

Shut up, Anita says.

The sameness of these nights is the best promise of change. I am patient, I have never known despair. If it's true I've been drinking, it's only because of the coffee--in the morning I must have a few shots if I'm ever to find sleep again. I'd like to sit, but I've been standing so long that my knees are not anxious to bend.

Anita has a list of Mormon relatives as long as her left arm; she stretches out her arm and almost knocks over my drink. She says Mormon angels aren't like that, that they don't even have wings, that they look just like we do.

Watch out, says Mike the bartender. He's new, and they never last long; they always call me old, yet I see them come and go. I was tossing cards down the bar, into his tip cup, and he just took them out and stacked them there, trying not to give me the satisfaction of a response.

That's not it at all, I say. The point is that they return, that they miss it down here, that heaven doesn't satisfy them.

I've lost to better dealers, a man says, pointing at me. Smoother dealers.

No doubt, I say, sending him a drink. But tonight you got beat by the cards. He's staring at me, wearing a bolo tie made from a trilobite fossil; it's pulled tight, so his head won't slip down inside his shirt like a turtle's. Wrinkles run down his neck and his ears look strange, artificial. Behind him, most of the tables are dark, under their Naugahyde covers; only one light is on, and Sandra, who comes in to replace me, is playing solitaire, cursing and smiling to herself.

Your horse still loose? I ask Anita.

I don't even want to hear about it, she says.

You're not so hot, the turtle tells me, then turns and heads toward Sandra's table, saying something about a fresh deck. I throw a card after him, hit him in the back, but he doesn't notice. I pick up my last drink and taste it. All dealers seek a truce between what they put in their bodies--we do anything to maintain the steadiness of hands.

Maybe it's the colors that gets them, I say.

Who? says Anita, her elbows on the bar, her chin in her hands.

The angels. The view from above, through the clouds, is like windows of colors, and some are so addicted they're deaf to the music of harps.

Anita says heaven is not black and white, that there's even more colors up there, a wider spectrum, just like all the things dogs can hear.

They miss the colors down here, I say, and someone at the end of the bar cuts in to let me know that angels come down for others, not for themselves.

Maybe so, I say, but even they are a little selfish. I slide my empty glass away.

You coming over? Anita asks me. She says her boyfriend won't bother us, if I mean who she thinks, that no one will be in our way. That's all I need to know to keep me headed home.

Come on, she says.

You act like he has something to give, says Mike.

I ask him if he wants to find out and that cracks them all up. Past the machines, past the Cadillac, I work my way toward the door. Smoke has been collecting inside since the beginning of time. The voices keep on behind me, conversations that could go on forever, as if talking would keep people afloat somehow, prevent them from ever being alone.

The door closes behind me, shutting out all the noise of the machines. The air is cool, it's five in the morning, and lights reflect in the hoods of parked cars, colors surprised out of the darkness. The lights come from Wendover Will, the neon giant, sixty-four feet tall and made of metal. His gun is as big as a person, his cigarette a yard long. He is my brother. Waving and pointing to the casino, his smile is insincere, both ingratiating and contentious. You can hear him creak as he moves; with your eyes closed, you'd swear he was a windmill.

A police car passes one way, then the other. Coyotes howl somewhere, out in the desert. They are quiet when they come in close to town, so there's no reason to worry if you can hear them. Some call coyotes God's dogs, and that would explain how they became so quiet, so sneaky.

Under Wendover Will, the sign reads THIS IS THE PLACE, and he is facing east, making this claim across the salt flats, across the desert, over a hundred miles to where Brigham Young is standing atop his monument, saying the same thing. THIS IS THE PLACE. I know their argument well: in Utah you will learn morality and restraint and you will yearn for everything you deny yourself; here in Nevada, nothing is illegal, everything is permitted and encouraged and will make you feel hollow. Believe me, the states need each other to recognize themselves, to savor the knowledge that there is an unhappiness more desperate than their own. Evil likes an audience, but good can't exist without one.

Brigham is a statue. He stands in the confidence of stone, the patience of the truth. I've felt the pull of the temple in Salt Lake City, but my pride is stronger, and in the parking lot of the Stateline, most of the license plates are from Utah. Neon demands your attention. Some people see all garishness as insecurity and that's exactly why it's such an effective pose. Will shines on, waving and pointing. Stay close to me, brother. Come right in, we say, you're all more secure than we are, you're substance and not just bright surfaces. What could you have to fear?

The dispute between Will and Brigham is not for me to settle, nor would I want it settled. The words hang over the salt flats, the most forsaken stretch of earth, a terrifying expanse of sheer space, white, like another planet, hard and smooth where nothing can live. This all sounds so grim! I've known joy and I'll know it again. It's just that it takes work to get up the words to talk about love.

I keep walking, turning away from Will, toward the lights of the other casinos. It feels good to shiver and the nights are getting longer again, making it easier for me to fall asleep before sunrise. The slope down to the trailer park is full of ruts left by idiots with their four-wheel drives. All the alcohol in my body fights the caffeine. Down below, the boys' fire is almost out; a few are awake, the tips of their cigarettes glowing in the dawn, and the rest are asleep, sharing blankets.

Pyro, the boys call after me. Hey, Pyro.

There's hardly a house in Wendover--it's almost all trailers, as if putting down a foundation would be admitting something. My trailer is on the far side of the park and as I walk through the others I see the faint shadows of wings, the wooden butterflies, a foot across or more, that people attach to the sides of their trailers. Some trailers have so many that it seems they'll be lifted right off the ground.

Behind his window, my neighbor just raises his hand from the armrest of his chair as I go by. He doesn't even show me his palm. My dog's chain lies twisted and empty in the dirt by my trailer, still attached to the stake. I reach inside the front door and take out the flashlight. There's no one in my car, no one asleep in the back seat. I rake the beam of light under the trailer, bending down to see the broken bottles, the old snakeskins, then I step inside. The trailer shifts a little beneath my weight. I check the bathroom, the shower, even the small cupboards, every corner, to make certain I am alone.

Once the water runs hot, I soak my hands, bending my fingers, rubbing at the liver spots. If arthritis catches me now it's all over; most dealers have to retire because of their hands, if their eyes or their memories don't give out first. We'll see how much I can remember, how I can put it back together. After the water, I turn to my lotions. Yes, I'm not ashamed to admit I have more lotions than any woman, that I wear gloves to bed to spare my sheets. I squint in the light over the mirror; I am an old man, a ragged culmination, and that's an interesting thing to be. I turn out the light.

As I lie in bed I think of all the people I must tell about, how I'll parade them before you, all tricked out, and I wonder if in heaven everyone's motivations are true, if everything turns out well, just as expected. Sometimes, to find sleep, it is enough to admit that you have done and thought beautiful, terrible things.
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    Excerpted from This Is the Place by Peter Rock. Copyright © 1997 by Peter Rock. Excerpted by permission of Anchor Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.