n mid-August 2008, I got an email from Scott Dickensheets, editor-in-chief of the Las Vegas Weekly, which had run Matthew Cheney's review of Spaceman Blues when the book came out in 2007. Scott had heard that Liberation was due out in October, which, coincidentally, was when he was planning on running a fall books issue for the newspaper, and had an interesting idea: Would I like to write an original piece of short fiction to appear on the cover of the newspaper? I said I would. How could I refuse?
Now, when Scott said short, he meant it: The story would have to clock in at 150 words or less. In addition, he asked that the story actually have some sort of narrative to it. There would be no tolerance for postmodern copouts like transcripts of conversations between inanimate objects in the back of someone's desk drawer. Finally, he said, it would be nice if the story were related to Las Vegas in some way. I said I would do my best.
I ended up writing four such mini-stories, the first time I had ever done anything like it. I had a lot of fun writing them, and Scott was kind enough to say that he enjoyed reading them as well. All of them are posted below; you'll have to check with the Las Vegas Weekly, however, to see which one made the cover.
They did not know where they were going. In New Mexico and Arizona, there had been parties and gunshots, a night in jail. Now they were in Las Vegas, where Hangdog did not want to be, but Fan Belt insisted. He ran through the daylit night cackling, lost twenty-thousand dollars he didn't have in less than an hour, laughed when they told him what kind of trouble he was in. Why did you do that? Hangdog said. We had a plan.
Don't you understand? Fan Belt said. This is the plan.
Later, in the desert, Hangdog understood, lying side by side with a girl he'd just met, staring skyward, into the exploding greens and purples and oranges of distant nebulae, a infinity of neon. As if a signal were being sent, words written in the ether. Hello universe; this is America calling. Can you hear us?
"Dave Hickey, right? Said he'd rather have a real rhinestone than a fake diamond?"
"You know him?"
"Just from the slots."
They sat on the curb they'd just built, under the street sign. A cooler of beers between them. A rising moon. Las Vegas a field of light below them. Around them, empty lots, flags in the ground. Soon the banks would be calling their bosses, the crew they were on would break up. They hadn't even built the houses yet, would never get to now; and there in the dark it was as though the houses had been there once and disappeared, been lifted off the earth, dogs and families inside. Taking the money they thought they could count on with them.
"It was pretty, wasn't it?"
"Still is, my man."
"Now?" The dark desert beyond the field. "Now we're free."
The ghost of Frank Sinatra lives in a loading dock of The Venetian. Just stands in the same place, smoking a cigarette that never burns out. I ask him if he has a hex on him. He squints at me, doesn't follow. Then:
"Oh, I get it. You want to know why I'm not at the bar. Or the pool. Or the backstage lounge. Well. Back when this was the Sands, the best thing that ever happened to me in my entire life, happened right here, on this very spot, on January 12, 1954."
"What was it?" I say.
The cigarette burns hot. "This town's biggest secret is that it has a private life," he says, "beyond anything that anyone who comes here ever sees or would ever care about. But it means the world to us. Get it?"
I do. I scram without him having to say another word.
Las Vegas is under seventy-five feet of water. Nobody knows how it happened exactly, but God seems to be involved: His seven-fingered hand is hovering over the submerged city.
God punished Las Vegas, say some. But all its citizens were spared, others point out. Found themselves in a giant boat bumping against the roof of the Bellagio. Maybe it was a reward. God liked the sprawl: the antithesis of Babel, turning forty days and nights from an extermination into a vacation package. We always said we needed water. Maybe He just got overexuberant. A third party rejects the first two parties' extremism, but offers no convincing moderate argument. This debate is about the nature of His mind; it could go on for a while.
Meanwhile, His hand is showing signs of moving. Shifting south, maybe southwest, toward Tucson, Los Angeles, digits twitching. Almost as if they're trying to speak.