It was evening. A kaleidoscope of blue, red, pink and yellow spread across the southern Nevada sky as the sun sank behind the huge purplemountains to our west. A desert breeze blew in from the south, cooling the desert valley and the City of Lights. It had been the hottest day of May.
In the semi-darkness between the Strip and Glitter Gulch, the four of us sat around a table at Barneys. Named after the cartoon character, Barneys was a grimy outdoor restaurant encased by flashing purple neon and overlooking Las Vegas from the thirty-second story of the Babylon Hotel. A monument of old Las Vegas, the Babylon was a gray crumbling concrete structure that sat on Las Vegas Boulevard in one of the shady sections of town. Show-Girl Video and Adult Book Store was right next door and across the street stood Adult Peek-O-Rama. Two streets to our west were Las Vegas famous nude bars. Busts and drug deals were common in this part of the city.
We felt right at home at Barneys of Babylon. The only other customers looked like refugees from concentration camps, drifters without destination, the chaff of the land. On the roof of the Babylon, five floors up from the restaurant, stood the oldest roller-coaster in Nevada. Pulsating red neon tubing ran parallel to and beneath the track; from a distance, the tubing resembled a line of fire. The huge blazing blue neon sign towering over the ride read "Last Ride to Hell." In years past, the four of us always had capped off a day of hustling money with a roller-coaster ride. But this night we had nothing to celebrate. We were flat broke and couldnt even afford another night in a cheap dump in Northtown.
Before I tell you the strange and stirring story about how we edged our way out of this tight spot, allow me to introduce the four of us.
My name is Seedy Pete, short for Charles Dickens (CD) Petrovich. I picked up the nick name at the state university where, encouraged by my father (a Lutheran pastor), Id gone to study English literature. Uninspired by academics, Id spent most of my time in the darkened, dirty, smutty, smoke-filled pool halls, hustling any one worth a quarter. Once, in desperation, I hustled one of the colleges administrators and took every cent. At the end of my sixth year, when I gave up on my degree, I had spent so much time in the poolroom of Lous Fire Pit that I resembled a vampire: pasty pale skin, long dark hair swept back, bloodless lips. I felt dirty all the time: my skin, my heart, my soul. It took me six months to get used to the sun while working highway construction outside Bleak, Nevada.
Id worked high way construction throughout the West ever since. I still felt dirty inside.
Sitting across from me was Pick, my best friend, a two-hundred forty pound ex-professional football player with animal tattoos on almost every inch of his body. Picks real name was James Jordan Picassio.We had given him the nickname in high school in Mountain Home, Idaho, definitely one of the hot spots in the potato state. Picture this: the four of us would be hanging out at Frostys Drive-In talking to some beautiful Boise girls, whod driven over for a high school football game, when Pick would start to work on his nose. One by one, the girls would excuse themselves to go inside the drive-in or back to their car, and the four of us were left standing, waiting for the chicks.
While his parents had trained him in ballet, Pick turned to college football--wed gone to the state university together--and later went to the NFL. His three years in the pros were cut short by Saints line-backer Buddy "Midnight" Grim, whod hated Pick since theyd played together in college and Pick had cut the toes off Buddys cleats just before the biggest game of the season. On national TV, Buddy had put a vicious, dirty tackle on Pick, snapping his leg. Pick then turned to pro wrestling, took the ring name "The Duster", and after too many pile-drivers and thunder-drops became prone to black-outs.
Presently, he sold vacuum cleaners in Weiser, Idaho. Discouraged like the rest of us with the days earnings, Pick rested his head in his lefthand, elbow on the table, while with his right hand he managed a fork to pick at his apple pie.
Sitting to my right was Bennie the Snitch, or George Bernard Scheisterwitz. Dressed in a black jacket, red shirt, black pants and wrap-around sun glasses, long and black greasy hair swept back, Snitch sat erect, staring straight forward, saying nothing, possibly dozing.
On a good day, Snitch looked like the devil, so people generally steered a path around him; on a bad day, hung over or strung out, he looked like shit. Snitch is like a statue, unfeeling, uncaring. He wouldnt offer a helping hand if his brother were drowning in quicksand two feet in front of him.
Life had been a kick in the ass for Snitch, a high school English teacher until seven years ago, when he got involved in a series of fraudulent mob-related Arizona land deals. Suckered by the feds, he spilled his guts in court. A number of his associates went to prison, among them his brother-in-law. Friends in the business had threatened to kill him. Once hed been tracked to a small café in the California desert, where some goon twice his size had beaten him half to death, thrown him in a lake, and left him for dead. Snitch had learned not to care and needed his rest.
On my left was Evelyn. Sweet, sweet Evelyn. His real name was William Handel Waugh. We had ridiculed Evelyn mercilessly in junior high and high school for taking speech and drama instead of PE, for rarely dating girls, for being a virgin, for combing his hair differently, and for going out for orchestra instead of sports. When we were juniors in high school, Snitch, Pick and I had stripped Evelyn bare and thrown him into the girls locker room. We were amused at ourselves until Snitch found him sobbing silent and alone in one of the drive-ins near the school, talking suicide.
Through high school Evelyn had been a whiz at the violin; he had won several local and state contests and was eventually given a full-ride to an Ivy League College. After his mom died of cancer, Evelyn quit college and moved to Mt. Hood, Oregon, where he managed a music store. In his spare time, he played for the Portland Philharmonic. Now at Barneys with the rest of us, Evelyn was nibbling his pie and ice cream. He seemed in a splendid mood.
"Well, fellas," I began, snapping my fingers at the balding, effeminate waiter for some more coffee, "what the fuck we gonna do? I mean, the way I see it, were fucked. Totally."
Fifteen years ago, four years after high school, I had come up with the idea of our meeting yearly in Vegas to test our luck. Wed made a game of it: every year, wed meet in Vegas in May and have to earn money off the streets to pay for our night life. Wed mimed, sang, danced, begged, stolen, even prostituted ourselvesanything for money. For the past three days, nothing had worked. Id spent three days holding a "Will work for food and prayer" sign on the Flamingo off-ramp. We were broke.
For ten minutes, no one said anything. Snitch stared at the back of his shades, Evelyn drank his coffee , and Pick scratched his nose.
We watched the sunset, and wished we were somewhere elseBombay, Tokyo, or Omaha, anywhere but here. The balding mustached waiter came prancing over, gave me an encouraging wink, and refilled our coffee.
Pick suggested that we considered stealing from retired people, arguing that the elderly welcomed anyone who offered them money. Wed claim to have some free cash, get invited over, and convince them to turn their life savings over to us. Snitch told Pick to shut the fuck up and said he didnt want to spend the next ten years in the pen.
We sat in a somber silence, which was finally broken by Evelyn. "I have an idea," he began quietly, delicately. "A rather good idea, yes, one perhaps that would allow us to recap our expense and maybe even go home with a little extra cash."
We all looked at Evelyn. Evelyn rarely came up with a suggestion, but when he did things happened.
"Lets hear it," I said.
"All right, I do have a very good idea." Pick put down his fork and looked at Evelyn; Snitch took his shades off; I rested my boots on the table, looked at Evelyn, and nodded.
"I could play my violin. On the corner. In that park next to the Mirage. Wed make money. Easy."
None of us had ever heard Evelyn play the violin, not even in high school. It had been beneath us. Pick, Snitch, and I looked at each other for a moment. Snitch shrugged his shoulders; Pick rubbed his nose; I nodded.
Evelyn continued, "I have it in our car, my violin that is, in the parking garage next to the Babylon." We had rented one car for the four of us.
"You brought your violin?" I asked, puzzled.
"In the trunk. Just left it there."
It took us a minute to respond.
"What ya got in mind, kid?" Snitch asked, taking a loud sip of coffee.
What Evelyn had in mind was playing the violin for the tourists of this fair city. It was a cool beautiful evening, one with a slight breeze, a perfect night for an outpouring of tourists onto the sidewalks and streets. No one had a better idea. Besides, most tourists in this town were loaded with money and alcohol. We decided to try it.
We returned to our rental, a battered red and blue 82 Oldsmobile. Burn marks indicated that the back seat had been set on fire at least twice, we figured. The radio and air didnt work, and the interior stank of cigarettes and stale fast food. No one would have suspected that Evelyn had left a Stradivarius in the trunk.
But thats what he took out of the trunk. Without saying a word, without even opening the case so the rest of us could look, without considering whether we should drive, Evelyn took off on a fast walk, almost running, headed we knew for a small park that stood right in the middle of the Strip.
When we arrived at the park forty minutes later Evelyn removed his black felt stove-pipe hat and placed it in front of him on the grass that just came up to the sidewalk. He opened his violin case next to the hat. The two elderly couples sitting on the two benches eyed us with suspicion.
After Evelyn adjusted his violin, he began with two Rumanian folk dances by Bartok. These were pieces my father used to play on his violin. Amused, then stirred by the dances lively rhythm, I watched Evelyns fingers dance on the strings, and during the second piece, half in jest, Pick and Snitch linked arms and danced in a circle. At one point, three old ladies stopped, stared, shook their heads, and walked on. Another time, a man with his dog on a leash walked by, the dog smelling Evelyns hat as if he were considering pissing on it. A group of drunk high school girls came by, stopped, clapped along, and then put some money in the hat. When Evelyn finished, we had accumulated a grand total of $2.43, barely enough to buy a cheese-burger at a fast food joint.
"Uh, thats great man," said Pick, placing one finger on the side of his nose, blowing suddenly, and clearing his head of snot. "Lets go."
Snitch followed with, "Hey, Maestro, got another jewel of the night?"
Then he added, "Lets get outa here."
But I wanted to give Evelyn a chance. Nothing else had gone right today; besides, I had enjoyed the Bartok, whom I remember from my youth. So, the leader of the group, I said, "No, I got a hunch. Were gonna stay. Whats next, Evelyn?"
Encouraged, Evelyn moved onto his next selection--a solo violin piece by Mendelssohn, he later told me. This time, some people actually stopped long enough to listen as Evelyn played, running his fingers dexterously on the strings, his music piercing the night, briefly drowning out the sounds of cars passing on the strip, temporarily stripping us of anxiety. And as he played, his music filled the night sky, the cool windy Spring night around us, our thoughts.
As Evelyn played, as I allowed myself to be engulfed by the music, memoriesimagesthat I had pushed into the far corners of my mind began to emerge. I remembered trout fishing in a Montana stream with my father, mother, and brother. The memory was as vivid as a photograph. I was twelve, the year before mom died of cancer. In the memory, huge torrents of glacial water pounded down the mountain side, the water exploding on rocks and boulders; I smelled the icy mountain freshness of the pristine stream, saw my mother and my little brother Davie throwing their lines upstream. It would be the first fish my brother Davie had ever caught.
When I opened my eyes, I didnt feel as dirty or angry anymore. I felt like a child in spring time. And I noticed that a crowd of around one hundred people had gathered around the sidewalk and in the grass. Some were talking to each other, but most were listening.
Evelyns performance had been nearly perfect, and after he ended this second piece we counted up something like $49.53 cents in Evelyns hat.
This was some success. I looked at Pick and Snitch, telling them with my expression that I wanted to stay. I placed my hat, an old gray bowler, next to Evelyns open violin case.
Pick didnt say a thing. I think he had been moved by the Mendelssohn. Snitch stood, arms crossed in front of him, eyes hidden behind the wrap-arounds, showing no emotion.
Evelyn looked only at Snitch. " Whaddya think now, Snitch?" Evelyn asked him. Snitch stood expressionless, looked down at the ground, paused thoughtfully.
"Play us another one, pal" was all Snitch said, his voice calm, actually reassuring. His voice softened, the words didnt sound like Snitch at all. It had been many, many years since I had heard Paganini. I still cant remember the name of the piece. Occasionally, before mom died of cancer in the winter of 63, Dad had played this particular work by Paganini while he and mom had just sat in the dimly lit living room of an evening and listened, sitting together, sometimes holding hands on the couch. Even at the time, I had found this music exhilarating.
However, I didnt realize that Evelyn had chosen a composer that most concert masters avoid, that many musicians consider impossible. Paganini is the impossible standard against which all violinists measure themselves.
Just as Evelyn began, I looked at Pick; his eyes were closed. Snitch had removed his sunglasses. His eyes were still the deep blue I remembered from high school. Well over a hundred people milled about,drawn by the classical musician in an environment dedicated to spectacular shows, spectacular people, spectacular sex.
Evelyn began softy, gradually, as if he were testing the violin strings, sending clear, crisp notes into the night air. Building in intensity, he made a couple of runs, his dexterous fingers dancing up and down the neck of the violin, making the strings do what he commanded.
The crowd had increased to nearly two hundred. Some were sitting on the grass and sidewalks and couple of children had climbed some nearby tries so they could get a better view of the genius that now played before us.
The music built, faster and faster, moving to crescendo after crescendo, rending the night sky, Evelyn throwing out more notes and harmony than I had thought possible from a violin. The complexity of the piece still amazed me. Its music seemed to hang magically suspended in the gloriously cool spring night, like the moon and stars overhead, and became one with the breeze. Evelyn played furiously, drawing more people, strings touching souls, and I suddenly saw who this musician was. He wasnt Evelyn.
It was probably the most incredible experience of my life. Like Christ feeding the five thousand. Like the parting of the Red Sea.
Deeply moved, as the notes swam around me, I saw mom asleep in her coffin, face white and expressionless, and wondered how this could be the woman who had given me birth. Dad stood next to me, a weakened, trembling man fighting tears. He held Davie by the hand; Davie was sobbing uncontrollably, and it was then that I, hating my mother and father and God for this death, had bolted from the church.
Still locked in my memory, still studying my mothers body, I let Bills music empower me and looked at my mother. Kneeling to kiss my mother on the cheek and bid her goodbye, I felt a warm wind wrap itself around me and felt transported beyond myself. Now, as my father had done, I fought back tears.
This, I understood, was the "music of the spheres." I recalled that years ago I had actually sat through a college course in Renaissance Literature in which the professor had explained the music of the spheres, that divine harmony resulting from the perfect ordering, the perfect movement of the angels, planets, and stars around the Creator.
According to the literature of the period, one could attune to this divine harmony only in a moment of perfect romantic love.
The violin music, intense, powerful, rich, reached the heights and the depths and seemed to fill the city. Paganini was the only sound in existence. Looking around me, I saw my friends, the spectators, the buildings and the neon lights temporarily transformed into, what can I say, a vision of paradise, reminiscent of something I had once imaginatively constructed of St. Augustines Heavenly City, which I had read about when I was thirteen to try to get an image of where my mother had gone. The city lights seemed almost celestial, and I felt at that moment washed clean of bitterness, hatred, triviality, on the kingdoms edge, ready to begin anew.
The music ended suddenly, the final note hanging in the air, inspiring us. I stood, my head filled with a kaleidoscope of colors that matched the earlier sunset and the music. I looked around and saw that Bens eyes glistened with moisture. The stunned crowd stood and watched and waited. I guess they half expected Bill, now drenched in his own sweat, to begin again. Realizing Bill had finished, I began clapping.
My action was greeted by applause and cheers. Then, slowly, almost one by one, the onlookers walked up to our hats, gave their money, and walked away. After the last had left, I walked over to the two hats and violin case. The hats were filled to their brims. We were to count out something like $700 from that performance alone. When we left the park and headed back to Barneys, a couple curious things happened: Mike asked if he could carry Bills violin, case and instrument, and Billconsented; Ben gathered the money together, gave it to Bill"This belong to you, pal," Ben said, his voiced cracking as he placed the earnings at Bills feetand then walked next to Bill all the way back to the Babylon.
That night, compliments of Bill, we stayed in the Mirage, a magnificent hotel whose artificial and paradisial jungle beauty had always attracted us. It was like a return to the Garden of Eden. We went out to eat at a fancy seafood restaurant, classical music in the background, but didnt pick up any hookers, male or female, this night. We didnt hit the tables. We wanted to savor Bills performance.
So we stayed in our room, overlooking the pulsating and vibrant neon jungle of Las Vegas, and talked like we hadnt talked for years. We talked about art, life, God, the after life, girls, literature, and philosophy. We praised Bills genius and asked ourselves why we had never heard him play before. When Ben asked about the composers, Bill spent the rest of the evening explaining to him the intricacies of Paganini.
As I lay in bed that night, looking out our window, I could see the blue-red-purple neon of the Babylon in the distance. Wed probably go back there next year. I realized as well that wed needed Bill all along. Bill had touched something of inestimable worth inside us all, and I vowed never to put my friend down again.
I knew that in a year things might change. One of us could be dead. Or rich and famous. Chances were excellent, however, that nothing really would change.
For now, Bill would go back to Oregon, Mike would return to Weiser, and Ben Ben would probably continue to run from his pursuers. As for me, driving a grader for a highway construction was no longer the worst job in the world. I could bring a Walkman and listen to Mozart, Bach, and Paganini and shovel dirt to the classics.
Besides, next year wed all be together again in Las Vegas. I was counting on it.
About the author: Rich Logsdon has taught English at the Community College of Southern Nevada for over twenty years. He received his Ph. D. at the University of Oregon. Currently, he is the editor-in-chief of Red Rock Review, a new small literary journal that is sold coast-to-coast. Rich has had stories recently published, or accepted for publicaton, in the following magazines, all accessible over the internet: Gothic.Net, Slumgullion, Night People, State of Unbeing, Barking Spider, Noir Mechanics, The Oracle, San Francisco Salvo, and Yellow Dog.
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© Copyright 1998 by Rich Logsdon