by William Cordeiro

I’m home for the holidays, which means (escaping the family) a night out in Vegas. I meet up an old friend who lives down a dark knife of a street. A shopping cart’s spilled on his sidewalk in this burnt-out crevice of exurb. He stalks from a box, a prefab condo. Crabwise, he lumbers, each step like a timbered big tree. He jumps in the car, silk vest and fatigues. He’s bedizened in surplus drabs with a jaguar brooch. A poet, his body, his sprawling body of work, is not so much given as it’s soon given out: for free, then kaput. His florid poems, a maze-work, they lope along in lush topiary passages. They’re trimmed back just a little, still feral with scribble, delinquent, ragtag, bedraggled as his scraggly beard.

In Caesar’s we scutter through acres of tinkling elf-music past the waterworks’ demented bidets. We arch under diminutive igloos beside fig-leafed replicas; calla lilies cropped into polar bears, penguins. In the Bellagio, our faces warp in mirror-flanged baubles dangling over gaudy Kitschmas trappings and giftwrap that looks like it’s on a bad trip. Ever midnight, each rhinestone rhymes with starlight. We skirt under glass art blown into rimpling organs, down to a ballroom’s mesmerized automats. Next, shumbling onward to the Cosmo, we reach chandeliers cascading from towering foyers. Each gem vomits flame as whole waterfalls vanish in a prism’s refraction. Spiraling a staircase up to the sky-bar, we await our waitress, the Ice Queen.

I forgot my I.D. No drinks for us here, bud, though a bootlegger hawks cheap six packs from backpacks outside by the geysering fountains spouting like clockwork. A busker stands on a bucket, statue-still, pretending he’s a trunk of a tree, laurel creeping up his outstretched arms. Nearby, an immigrant’s chattering patter—hustling underhand discounts for twofer escorts, a blonde and a bland. A spatter of paper spit on the street—walked-over, each call girl’s glossy calling card’s squelched into blemish, gum spots and crinkled butts.

Nights blasted and blear. We tramp angular byways between brand-new haunts, glossed-over skins of high-rising glass. They hover overhead, oblique hanging gardens like hallucinations, most of them empty. My friend says he’s now beyond a thousand and one—rejections, that is. A bed-notch, a belt-notch, broad bawdy and bard, it’s all been for naught, left him balling and bored. His eyeballs, blood pudding. With each tweak, killing babies and time. Tiny incisions into each budding idea, then the brooding twaddle of more indecision. All this fudging or smudging is revision’s crude hack-job. Back to the grindstone, shop work’s weak scraps left on a cutting room floor. Go ahead, whack your pizzle. Gut out your grandstanding; spill your stunned guts. Nose along. Fine chisel or bludgeon, let the ax strike the ice-sheaf. Pressed in by each pose, nothing can please. Restless, he gives it his all; giving in, needs his repose.

We flutter, singed moths, back to the car. We motor out of the Strip, crippled by our far-flickering bookish motives in this crooked district of glam—everything’s spit-soused, dizzy, and garish. Liquored and lacquered, a glitter of gutters all glutted with light, a drizzling shitpot. We guzzle the last Jameson left in our flask. The whole evening—which we’ve puttered about—piddling away, is now shot. The honkytonk tourists, aging high-rollers in alligator boots, the fake babydoll babes caked with makeup, lounge lizards sipping gimlets in white suits, the tacky couples from Texas, the newlyweds wobbly with yard-long margarita slurps, upstanding middle-class pervs, a contortionist from Cirque, the bouncers and bar-backs, they’re busy making us feel we’re the outcasts. Schlemiels, putzes. The plush sizzle’s so much juke that repeats half-baked halos around us. A koan or corny gallows’ joke—nothing’s good for jack.

Let’s visit the Pinball Hall of Fame, my friend says. Back in the car, we arc through the kindle-blipped city. It’s by the shuttered Liberace Museum; pull a u-ey and take this off-ramp to that nondescript strip mall, he says. In a small flicker of lamp-glow, I see its signboard’s in shadow between a gun store and the plastic palm trees of a 24-HR Hawaiian massage.

Giants, we tilt like zephyring windmills, ricocheting up aisles, island-hopping vast archipelagoes of retrofit cranks and gear-shafts, skill cranes and gizmos. Our poet breaks a few bucks. Change jangles out. His hands runneth over. He offers me pieces of plenty, like phrases he’s coined. This place, he says, sometimes I’ll walk to it from my house when I’m drunk or blazing on weed, though most times I find it hard enough to summon the power just to rise from my bed. Such days, such decades, he’d rather curl up—a fetus, coiled in the shape of an ear.

In the Pinball Hall of Fame each machine glistens and clatters. Their arteries of light pulse and vanish, ravished as anything going. We thread through a smoke-filled lexicon of joysticks and zappers, pixels, swingers and spinners, change breakers and spring-loaded flappers. Vision obscures each lit-up contraption. A clunky shuttling of scat and chatter fills the room. Past Ms. Pacman, Buck Hunter, and Q-bert; past chickens that cluck and lay handlebar mustaches, frolics from a prototype pong, marionettes-in-a-box, holes for losing ball bearings. Steering wheels, whirligigs. Past a wiggly patron nudging an old Mexican Catwoman, one-off versions of skee-ball, air hockey, Duck Shoot, Donkey Kong, we bank around riddles and clank to discover a miniature theatre for a single, frayed doll.

A stick of wood’s nailed in its hand, which could pass for a relic of rood. For one dime and a shake, it rattles. It startles into self-luminescence. A ping-pong ball hovers up, up or down, as you give the nob a good whirl. A nozzle of airflow, a vacuum attachment, must be hidden below. The sphere levitates. By timing and craft, you can make the little mannequin whack it, trying to score your homerun. We each take our turn, returning for more, and we fail, fail again. The boy whiffs a little too late, a maudlin slowpoke. He’s a bummed out Mudvillian, no longer struggling, yet O to know the joy, the lift we get from his great globe’s hover and thrum! Then the machine gives a little Bronx cheer.

Here we’re free to be cowboys, thumbing heroics instead of saddled with term papers, grad students gradually settling to fumble more horseshit. Then blithering pinballs jitter and blitz, twin levels, high scores, they witch us and revel winning shades with electro-quick numbers rumbling every which way. Bumpers and ramps, magnetized cabinets, moon-shivering shuttles, shoots and tubes curvaceous as rumps or swerving like boobs, switches and knobs, slingshot with voltage, propelled with swift freefalls and last-ditch smooth jitters, glitches of jolts. Some wizard bangbacks to “death save” a ball almost lost down a drain, angles it up, juggling, rifles it good and it ricochets through a spinner into a bonus-round hole.

Yes, there are days smelling of mushrooms, heavy picture books encased in leathery umber, dust clouds of childhood’s spore. The daze I remembered—as I gazed at the poet pushing his buttons—was from my fifth grade science camp when I dissected a cow’s eye one summer, a hulking round lump-mush almost as big as a newborn baby head. I begged to take home the rubbery lens I popped out of its center, clear coin, which today would be a classifiable biohazard. I ogled through it while strolling the mall. Commerce kaleidoscoped. I went bucolic with moo-song. I blundered for hours while mother tried on clothes.

Haruspicating with that translucent organ, I became a seer at Sears. Idle with idylls. Where others saw tawdry polka dots or plaids reflected in fitting-room mirrors, I became bullish, speculating what patterns could glow beneath that cow skull’s crystal. The floral print on a plus-sized dress transformed into great pastoral fields.

At the museum amid these antiquated gizmos, in this pasture of gewgaws, this salvaged old toybox, I’m agoggle again. The language of their scoreboards spins like the slots must for others. Before we go out to the chilled desert air, by the door there’s a safe box, an odd game, the objective of which is to listen and cock your ear to hear its faint clicks. You then finger the spinner to see if you can crack the code as you turn for each trick, but it’s never—not once, not yet, not ever—been spun and unlocked.

Outside the ramshackle palace, we lean into the dark. Listen to the roadside hum, examine graffiti on makeshift stucco, sun-blistered billboards. The poet’s entranced as we pass Nicole Kidman from bygone days, outsized on a poster. “Hey, whatsit she’s done lately, huh?” Cold flash in a corner: an old candy-wrapper cartwheels—a wind-trap’s limbo circles with trash.

“Mostly aging,” I say. “Like us.”

I drop the poet off, wave, weave around his cul-de-sac, and then drive away. The valley behind me spills a milky galaxy, a permanent holiday, like the loose change of the moon over pavement. Lunar rays drift behind a tattered obstruction of cloudbanks. The last of the city’s lucent blizzard glints in the tail of my eye. I shark through these submersed reaches as gilded as the wet dreams of mermaids, the Luxor’s light beam shot to far spacecraft, out of that noonday of neon, that girdle of fiery exchange, my small car a bright pinball coasting the highway as I mouth along to the radio, singing and singed, all the way home.

William Cordeiro

Will Cordeiro has recent work appearing or forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Fifth Wednesday Journal, The Moth, Poetry Northwest, The Threepenny Review,, Zone 3, and elsewhere. He co-edits the chapbook press Eggtooth Editions. He lives in Flagstaff, where he is a faculty member in the Honors College at Northern Arizona University.

SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 5  · April 2019
Header image by Rian Castillo