The Way We Live
Ellen Fagg, editor
The Way I Live
[for Katharine Coles]
[p.125]My mother doesn’t understand the way I live. Every time she comes to visit she says, “Miriam, I don’t understand the way you choose to live your life.” She doesn’t emphasize the word “choose” but I hear the emphasis anyway. Well, I tell you.
“Mim,” I say (my mother’s name is Miriam, too, Mim for short), “I live like I want to live and just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”
I was born in the thirties, which was a bad time for everybody but it was especially bad for women. My mother was seventeen and if it wasn’t for the fact that she had to leave Virginia because she was pregnant with me she might never have gone to Las Vegas and become a show girl. She was that gorgeous. But anyway she [p.126]named me Miriam Jr. , just like a boy, which of course has been a source of embarrassment to me my entire life. Cute, she thought it was. She was only seventeen. As soon as I came of age I changed my name to Suzanne but Mim still calls me Miriam, which is bad enough, but when she wants to make me really mad she calls me Junior.
Growing up in Las Vegas is not what you may think. I didn’t know there was anything unusual about my childhood. I slept while my mother was working. She kept me in a bassinet backstage when I was little and then when I was a toddler I slept on a couch in her dressing room. What I’m saying is, I slept through anything that might have given me wild ideas. I have vivid memories of being carried to the car in the dead of night, half-asleep, when Mim’s last show was over, and seeing all the colored, flashing lights reflected in the geyser fountains, and thinking I was in the Land of Oz. I loved it.
I never lost my love of glitter and bright lights. Years later, when I worked at the casinos, I liked to walk through the clubs and hear the constant clink of coins as the slots paid off. I liked the black mirrors on the walls and the red carpets and the wonderfully garish crystal chandeliers, all giving this illusion of posh elegance. It remained my personal Oz, and I never gambled. Most casino employees don’t. But daughter of a show girl that I am, I still love dresses with sequins and rhinestones and feathers—the more the better—and [p.127]green snakeskin cowboy boots, and earrings that light up. I once had a sweat shirt with a slot machine on the front with gold-colored metal and colored glass stones and little tiny lights that went on and off like the slot was paying off—there were little batteries on the back I had to take off every time I had it cleaned. Imagine, a sweat shirt that had to be dry cleaned. Only in Las Vegas. I loved that sweat shirt. Tacky, but I can’t help it. Of course, the way I live now, I don’t have much occasion to wear that kind of thing.
Mim shared apartments with other show girls and one of them would usually be between shows and would pay her share of the rent by taking care of me while my mother slept in the daytime. I thought these women were my aunties. I was seven or eight years old before I realized that your average female is not a six-foot-tall goddess.
My mother was six-foot-one and a natural platinum blonde and I was dark and short and stocky, so obviously I must have taken after my father, whoever he may have been, which is what I say when I want to make Mim really mad. She is still stunning when she dresses up, even though she’s seventy-three now and age has shrunk her a couple of inches. She makes up for it by wearing high heels. She’s also pretty skinny and has lost most of her hair and has to wear a wig, but she cleans up nice, as my husband Ralph used to say. Ex-husband, I mean. If only she wouldn’t smoke so much and put on airs. She acts [p.128]like a female impersonator’s idea of an elegant woman. Campy, you know. Sometimes I actually think she is a gay man trapped in a woman’s body.
The real trouble is that her mother sent her to finishing school and she got the idea that she comes from impoverished gentility, which is sort of true since her grandparents were the Bottlesons of Philadelphia, but by the time my mother came along they were nothing but poor farmers, the family fortune having been wiped out in a depression in the 1870s or ‘80s, I forget just when. I hate to think what my grandmother had to sacrifice to send Mim to that damn silly school. Some people live in a world of their own, don’t they? Anyway it must have been while Mim was in that school that she got knocked up. So a lot of good it did to send her there.
There have been times I’ve said to her, “Mim, you’re a Las Vegas show girl and that’s what you’ve been all your adult life. Parading around with the entire Eiffel Tower on your head and your tits hanging out. So why don’t you stop walking around with your nose in the air.” I only say that when I have to, because it hurts her feelings. But I happen to know that on her family farm all they had was an outhouse, and here she comes having a fit when she discovers I have no sewage to my trailer and have to carry my waste to Sam’s outhouse twice a week in a portable toilet. “My toilet is sealed, Mim,” I say, “and now we have modern chemicals so there’s no odor. Now tell me your outhouse didn’t stink to high heaven.”
[p.129]“We didn’t have any choice,” she says. “You have a choice.”
“I choose between the lesser of many evils,” I say.
“What evils?” she says, as if she didn’t know.
I think it was a terrible disappointment to my mother that because of my height I had no prospects as a show girl because she thinks that’s one sure way to marry a rich guy even if he may be an idiot. She should know, she married three of them. But she doesn’t like to be reminded they were all idiots. She says, “Don’t sniff. They put you through the best schools, you’ve had all the advantages. And I have a comfortable retirement, not a thing to worry about.” What she means by comfortable is she owns a swanky condo on the edge of the desert and can afford to have her face lifted every two years. Well, I tell you.
And of course what she means about the best schools and all the advantages is that I should be doing something swell with my life and not be living in a nineteen-foot travel trailer in a seedy disaster of a campground in Dead Cat, Utah, population two, including me. What she means by something swell is being a writer or an architect or some other damn feminist thing and I say to her, “Mim, doesn’t it occur to you that maybe I have different standards than you? Living in the Vista de Nada Condo Clone Village is not my idea of swell. I like it here. I like air I can breathe without choking. Back-to-back shopping [p.130]malls and bumper-to-bumper traffic all day long is not my idea of comfortable living.”
“The coyotes eat your cats,” she says.
“That’s one of the things you learn to live with,” I say.
“Have you explained that to your cats?” she says.
“The smog in Vegas made me sick,” I say.
“That’s one of the things people learn to live with,” she says, and she’s serious.
But anyway, I got a degree in English—Mim didn’t get a divorce from No. 2 until after he put me through college—and I was going to teach, but I came out into the job world in the fifties just as the communist scare was at its height and all the schools were requiring loyalty oaths. I wouldn’t sign one, so I couldn’t get a job. So much for something swell. Mim said at the time, “Sign it, it doesn’t mean a thing.” I said, “It’s the principle of the thing. Didn’t they teach you anything about principles in that fancy school you went to?” because by that time I was already talking to her like that, even though I was only twenty-one. I was on to her already.
So I got work as a bookkeeper trainee at the Sahara Club and that’s where I met Ralph. He was a croupier at first, then later a pit boss. By the time we got married he had become a bartender. After we’d been married a while I asked him why he changed career paths and he said he could knock down more money as a [p.131]bartender—it’s hard to cheat if you’re working the tables or supervising. Management is on to all the tricks and those boys are tough. What I didn’t know till later was that at the bar Ralph was doing more than knocking down some of the drink money. He was pimping and dealing drugs and god knows what else. And then when his shift ended he’d gamble. He always gave me his paycheck, he was conscientious about that, but he said his tips and anything he made on the side were his. It was years before I realized how much that was, and even more years before I realized he lost more at the gaming tables than he made on the side and we were up to here with the money lenders. Well, I tell you. That was that.
But the real reason the marriage failed is he was lousy in bed. When I still thought I could save the marriage I read some psychology books about gamblers and they said gamblers are usually impotent. It has to do with how they feel about themselves and why they gamble, and I’m here to tell you it’s the truth. I don’t know why I put up with him so many years except that he was charming and sweet, the gambler’s stock in trade. How do you think they keep borrowing all that money.
Mim never did like Ralph, she saw right away he was a lost cause and never let me forget it once we got divorced. “Never marry a man named Ralph,” she says. “Name me one Ralph that ever amounted to anything.”
“He amounted to something?”
“Don’t be nasty. Ralph Waldo Emerson. You can’t tell anything by a name, Mim, look at us. We’re both Miriams and we’re not anything alike.”
“That’s what you think,” she says, which makes me really mad.
So anyway by the time I divorced Ralph I was head bookkeeper at another club which I won’t name, and I was making pretty good money, but by then I knew a lot about keeping books and I knew some things didn’t jibe. Management brought in outside accountants to do the taxes and they never found any problems but they were probably paid to make things look right.
The club declared all their gaming income, all right, it wasn’t that. It was that they declared much more money than they took in. There are formulas and statistics that predict what you should be taking for X number of games on such-and-such a night and all that. I knew more money was ending up in receipts than people could possibly be losing at those tables, you know what I mean? It was clear I was smack in the middle of a huge money-washing operation. So I thought I’d better get out of there before the feds got wise and came snooping around. I was innocent of any wrong-doing but after all I was the head bookkeeper. [p.133]Are they going to believe I don’t know what’s going on?
I knew I wouldn’t go to work for another club where I might get in the same position again and I didn’t know what else I was going to do to earn money. I had some savings I hadn’t told Ralph about and we had sold the house and split the proceeds during the divorce so I knew I could live for a while but I thought I’d better get my living expenses down as low as possible because who knows. So I bought the travel trailer, which was the beginning of the trouble between Mim and me about the way I live. She said, “It isn’t even really nineteen feet long. They measure that thing you hook to the truck to tow it … .”
“ … and that’s four feet right there …”
“ … all right, three, but you still don’t have but sixteen feet of living space, hardly bigger than my bedroom. There’s not even room for my legs under your table.”
“Why don’t you get ordinary two-and-a-half-foot legs like everybody else, then you’d fit.”
“Don’t change the subject. That’s no way to live.”
“It is if you’re unemployed, Mim.”
“I’m unemployed and look at me.”
Ralph said once, “Face it, your mother was a [p.134]hooker.” This was when I told him I read that the big gaming clubs never opened up in Vegas until the late forties. Before that it was a gambling town all right, but before organized crime decided to build their own Oz it was small time stuff. I didn’t think there was anything like the shows they have now. I doubted it. So where did my mother work?
“Three guesses,” said Ralph, “and the first two don’t count.”
“I remember being backstage, though.”
“Your mother was seventeen when she hit town. They met her getting off the bus. Trust me, I know about these things. It was probably a burlesque house you remember. You were sleeping in one dressing room, she was tricking in another.”
“That’s a hell of a way to talk about my mother.”
“You’re the one with the doubts.”
So anyway it wasn’t long after I moved into the trailer when there was a knock on the door one afternoon and without thinking, I opened the door wide to see who it was. Well, I tell you, it’s one thing to be sitting in a movie theater and see a Thing with a monster face rise from the swamp all covered with gore, it’s quite another to open your own front door and see a real live Thing dripping blood all over your door step, with purple and red pulp where its face ought to be, standing there two feet in front of you. It didn’t take me one full second to slam that door shut, but it had no sooner banged into place than I [p.135]realized, My god, it’s Ralph. So I opened the door again just as fast, and Ralph had his fist raised ready to pound on the door again and I yelled, “Ralph, don’t!” thinking he was going to hit me.
The goons from the money lenders had left him in a ditch no more than half a mile from the trailer park, right on Tropicana Avenue across the street from the airport, with thousands of people in cars streaming by, and no one had noticed. And he walked all the way to my trailer with his face like that and nobody stopped to ask if he needed help. They probably thought he was just made up for some stunt in a show, walking along calm as you please in broad daylight. Well, I tell you. He wanted me to fix him up and I said, “Ralph, I can’t make a cow out of hamburger, you need a surgeon,” but he wouldn’t go to Emergency because he was sure they would call the police. “That would really fix things,” he said. We were both so upset we didn’t even think of the obvious lie, that he got mugged, so I cleaned him up best I could and gave him a sleeping pill.
When he woke up he said “Miriam, I need to borrow your house money.” I said, “No way.” He said, “You’re signing my death warrant.” I said, “You signed that yourself when you got mixed up with those psychos.” But he turned on the charm and sang his gambler’s siren song and he almost had me convinced when I asked him how much he owed. Turns out my house money would pay only about half of it. I said, “They’ll beat you up for [p.136]the other half so what good is it gonna do to take all my money?” He said, “It’ll hold things up until I have a chance to get out of the hole.” Then I realized that Ralph wasn’t going to use my money to pay off his debt. He was going to use it as a stake to try to win enough to pay the whole thing. He wasn’t ever going to get out of the hole, not ever, and my money wasn’t going to save him and then two people would be ruined instead of just one, and besides I wasn’t married to him anymore. So I not only said “No,” I pushed him out the door with on old cotton shirt torn up and tied around his face for a bandage.
A day or two later it occurred to me: Maybe they don’t know we’re divorced. Maybe they’ll come after me for the money.
“Who do you think you’re kidding,” Mim said. “They know everything about him, including the divorce. They won’t touch you. They’ll figure they’d do him a favor to mess you up.”
But I left town anyway. I went down to where Ralph lives and left him my little blue Volvo, stuck the keys and a note in his mailbox, and took his ’64 Plymouth station wagon, which I still had a set of keys for. I needed something to pull the trailer and although the Plymouth was about on its last legs, it had more power than the Volvo, and it still had a hitch on it from some previous owner.
I barely made it up that long grade on I-15 to Utah, up the Virgin River Gorge and through St. George and on [p.137]up and up and up to Cedar City, but that plucky old Plymouth kept going somehow until I took it in my head—I don’t know what possessed me—to turn off the main highway into what is still some of the most remote country in the west.
Then the Plymouth threw a rod.
It happened right outside a campground called the Dead Cat, sitting all by itself, with no campers in it that I could see, miles from anywhere. The dirtiest man I ever saw came walking out to see what was what. He looked about a hundred years old and walked like he had a cargo hook for a spine and he had about a week’s stubble on his chin and a hat that looked like he cleaned his truck’s dip stick with it. He had some kind of pink lenses in his glasses that were so greasy it was a wonder he didn’t need a white cane. Well, I tell you. But he was nice enough, and offered to ride me into Escalante, the nearest town, and when I said “How far is that?” he said, “Seventy-five miles.” I said, “Can I buy a car there?” and he said, “No, for that you got to go to Cedar City or St. George,” and I knew Cedar City was the closest and it was a hundred and twenty-five miles behind me.
I must have looked like I didn’t know what to do because he said “Why don’t you park your rig right here at Dead Cat? I got the cleanest air in five states and you won’t have no noise except ravens fussing once in a while. Fifty dollars a month includes well water. If you fix yourself up a solar panel you’ll have free electrics and [p.138]then all you’ll have to buy is propane for your cooking and your heat. I’ll help you rig up your solar panel.”
I thought: Well, I don’t know where I’m going anyway and I might as well sit right here while I figure out what to do. So Sam, that’s his name, got his truck and hauled my trailer in. Sam let me use his radio phone to call Mim but I wouldn’t tell her where I was. She said, “You’re being paranoid.” I said, “Mim, you don’t take this seriously because you didn’t see Ralph. “We left the Plymouth right where it was and took the plates off and it sat there three weeks before the Highway Patrol came and towed it away.
Sam took me to Escalante for groceries and I never did make up my mind what to do. I just sort of settled in and here I am. I like having clean air to breath. I like Sam. He is seventy-four years old and except for the cargo hook he’s as lithe as a monkey and minds his own business. Never asked me where I was going or where I came from. I love the well water. I never knew how bad chlorine tasted until I drank this water without it. Mim says, “It isn’t sterilized? You don’t know what you may be drinking!” I say, “Chlorine is a deadly poison, Mim. Did you know that?”
So anyway I called Mim every week to tell her I was all right and she ranted and raved to know where I was but I wouldn’t tell her. ‘‘I’m too close to retirement,” I said. “I’ve paid social security all these years and I intend to draw on it before I die.”
[p.139]“You don’t trust your own mother?” she said.
“Not with a knife at your throat, I don’t.”
“You’re being paranoid, Junior,” she said again. “You ought to see a counselor. I told you they have no interest in you.”
“Your opinion does not make a fact,” I said.
I’d been at Dead Cat only three months when Mim told me Ralph had remarried. “I can’t believe this,” I said. “My body isn’t even cold yet.”
“She’s got money.”
“Then I guess I don’t have to worry anymore.”
“You never did. Now will you come home?”
“Vegas isn’t home. You can come here.”
“I like Vegas.”
“I mean to visit, Mim.”
“You lived your whole life in Vegas and it isn’t home?”
“That’s exactly right, Mim,” I said, but in fact, until Mim fed it back to me the enormity of what I had said hadn’t hit me. Now a lot of stuff came bubbling up through the crack. I always considered myself an ordinary, decent person just trying to get along in the world, but I also enjoyed, compliments of the gaming industry, not paying any state personal income tax or sales tax. I’d been bought. And now 1 had a flash of all those other ordinary decent people—sales clerks and waitresses and hotel maids and construction workers—in the super-mar-[p.140]ket, bags of groceries on the floor at their feet, deadfaced, pouring their grocery change into the slot machines on their way out the exit. I’d been blind to them all these years-but not really, since the vision now came back to me with such brilliance. Las Vegas is Oz, all right, but because it was convenient I’d ignored, even when I quit my job at the casino, who was behind the curtain, who was pulling the levers and running the flashing colored lights and the Disney façades and the beautiful girls on parade and the lush hotels. I thought I was married to one weak and unfortunate man, but I was married to a corrupt system that didn’t think twice about destroying people. I even took their money and told myself it was honest wages. And I couldn’t even bear to think what Mim might have been through all those years. Since she was seventeen. My god.
“I’m sorry, Mim, I got distracted. Listen, I want you to come visit me. Get a pencil and I’ll give you the directions.”
“I’d rather just fly.”
“There are no airports in the wilderness, Mim.”
“Wilderness? Oh my god.”
So Mim started driving up to see me about once a month. Sam fixed up an old camper shell that’s been sitting on the back of the lot for god knows how many years, and I slept in it when Mim was here and gave her [p.141]my bed in the trailer. She had to sleep with her legs bent. “There’re not even any sidewalks,” she complained, but after her first trip she bought a pair of flat-heeled shoes, about the only concession she’s made to the way I live.
In January, when we had those below-zero temperatures, my pipes burst in three places. Sam fixed two of them but then we found that the third break was behind the heater, under the refrigerator, and beside the bathtub, and to get to it we’d have to take out a wall in the bathroom, and to do that we’d have to remove the bathtub (“That’s a bathtub?” Mim said, “I thought it was a sink”) and to remove the bathtub we’d have to take out another two walls. Since there’s no way to run heat tape on those pipes because there’re places underneath where you can’t get to the pipes without taking out the whole bottom of the trailer, and since without heat tape the pipes will probably just freeze again anyway, we said to hell with it and Sam just ran a hose in through the kitchen window over the sink and put a nozzle on it, the kind you can turn off. I heat my water on the stove.
Mim said, “Lord, Miriam, you mean you don’t even bathe anymore?”
“Of course I bathe, Mim. Just not the way you do.”
Sam was there at the time, and he said, “A whore’s bath, is what we used to call ’em. You splash some water under your arms and in your crotch and you’re ready to go.” Then he laughed that cackle laugh of his and Mim gave him a look that should have withered him, if he [p.142]wasn’t already about as withered as you can get and still be alive. Mim is a full foot taller than he.
Another jag Mim gets on is, What do I do with my time? I say, “I read books I’ve meant to read all my life. Sam and I are trying to grow those beans the Anasazi grew here a few hundred years ago. I take long walks in the canyons. I play cards with Sam. Maybe I’ll write my memoirs.”
“Memoirs!” Mim says. “What have you got to write about?”
The next time she came she was driving a monster Winnebago. “Mim, what on earth?” I said. “So I can stay civilized and cook in a microwave,” she said. The same trip she brought me a TV. She thought all you have to do is plug it in and call the cable company. “There’s no cable up here, Mim, for god’s sake.” So next trip she brought a VCR and half a dozen movies on tape. 1 have to admit Sam and I do enjoy watching movies of an evening. Now we belong to a classic-movie-of-the-month club and we’re building a good collection. We’ve watched Gone with the Wind eight times.
But Mim never lets up. If it’s not “What if you got seriously ill? What would you do?” it’s “What about the snakes and cougars and tarantulas?” The answer to the first one is, “Die, I suppose.” The answer to the second is, “You live in a city where the black widow spider population is so dense they have seats on the city council.”
[p.143]And of course she doesn’t like Sam. At first she wouldn’t go with me down to his cabin for our nightly Canasta game. “That filthy man,” she said. “That place of his stinks. What does he do with all those stacks of old newspapers? Why doesn’t he throw them out?”
“I don’t know. I suppose he doesn’t want to be responsible for ten thousand homeless mice.”
“It’s all those mouse droppings that stink. And Canasta is a boring game. It went out of fashion thirty years ago, it’s so boring.”
“We liven things up by playing for a nickel a point,” I said. That perked her interest and so she finally went with me. The month between her visits has shrunk to three weeks and whenever she comes she’s the one who asks, as soon as the sun goes down, if it isn’t time to go down to Sam’s yet.
He’s into her for $523.85 so far.