Sunday, August 31, 2014

Killing Kokopelli on the Road to Vegas

The girl sat alone at a restaurant inside a casino in Las Vegas, feeling like a girl in a story.

Actually, she wasn’t a girl. She was turning 36 soon. But somehow “woman” had never felt like an accurate descriptor for herself. “Woman” sounded older, fleshier. Or like a mom.

“Girl” struck the right note, with its insinuations of vulnerability and naïveté, long hair and flat shoes and a shoulder-slung bag like a college student would wear. Not a classy lady in high heels, not a soccer mom with a sensible haircut – a chick. Just some chick.

She was here because the place had meaning for her. It occupied a slot in her self-mythology. Or to put it a less flaky way: She was here because a guy she’d loved had hurt her feelings here.

He hadn’t meant to. But he had.

Who cared. Nobody cared. Nobody cared but her. Not even her most of the time, six years after it happened.

Tonight she had walked all the way here from her hotel at the other end of Las Vegas Boulevard – in what she’d dubbed “the Clown District,” a private joke with herself (she was traveling alone) because she was near the Circus-Circus – and now she sat at a table for one with her bachelorette food (tomato soup with grilled-cheese wedges to dip into it; four jumbo shrimp poked into a bowl of crushed ice; she would have the crème brûlée for dessert, bless her bourgeois little heart) and a pear martini with owl-face slivers of pear slotted onto the rim.

Do the details even matter?

She felt her sense of story breaking down.

It had started to break down the day before, after she’d stopped at that Navajo jewelry shack – one of dozens on the way to the Grand Canyon and on westward to Vegas – where she drummed up some bad mojo by taking a photo of the shack. Total tourist move; she was disappointed in herself. The young guy who’d been explaining the symbolism behind the jewelry to a customer (“…this is a bear that’s been shot with an arrow; it represents strength…”) came over to her and said, “I’m sorry, Miss, but there’s no taking pictures of the jewelry.”

“Oh! I was just taking shots of the view.” And she gestured at the expansive mountain-and-canyon backdrop behind him. It was true; she hadn’t given a crap about the jewelry.

But because of the (mutually polite) confrontation and low number of customers, she felt it’d be rude to just pull away without buying something. A sign by the door proclaimed: “We take all major American credit cards,” which was good because she habitually spent all her cash on generous cab tips. She had avoided buying any of the Native American jewelry, on this trip and on the one she’d taken six years before; somehow buying the roadside jewelry had seemed… vulgar. Blatant tourism, taking a whole entire venerable culture and making it all “cutesy.” She kept thinking of that part in the modern-day “Addams Family” movie when Wednesday, playing a Native American in the camp play, says:

“Years from now my people will be forced to live in mobile homes on reservations; your people will wear cardigans and drink highballs. We will sell our bracelets by the roadsides; you will play golf and enjoy hot hors d'oeuvres.”

(In fact she had a cardigan in her duffel bag in the rental car at that moment, and would eat hors d’oeuvres and drink a cocktail in Vegas the following night.)

The almost-36-year-old girl took her time at the jewelry shack, having nowhere to be, no deadline, no curfew. She listened to the guy talk to another customer about symbols. She read the little placards that explained the mythology. She took it seriously. Hey, this road trip was all about mythology – hers, mostly.

She was a girl; she was not a mom. But she wanted badly to be a mom. She and her husband had been trying for almost a year. He was at home back East; he didn’t like road trips, plus this trip only had special meaning for her. It was cool, though; she called him about twice a day to check in, to see how his day was going, to tell him good night.

An index-card-sized placard, in magic marker: “Kokopelli – Childbirth & Agriculture (new beginnings). A prankster.”

Well, duh – childbirth. New beginnings. Of course she should buy something with a Kokopelli on it. She found a necklace – a silver chain with a silver Kokopelli charm. He looked like a character in some comic strip that 11-year-old boys would have liked in the ‘80s when they had less pop culture to choose from, a proto Bart Simpson – his body was bent forward in an insouciant curve, his hair was spiky, he was playing some sort of flute. No, wait – he looked like a hippie icon, like something you’d see on the bumper of a Jeep or New Beetle, next to Grateful Dead and Peace Frog stickers, or one of those ones that said “Coexist” with all the religious icons for the letters.  

In other words, not really her style.

But hey, childbirth.

So she took the necklace, and also this rainbow bracelet that she just plain thought was pretty, up to the cash register. She held them delicately, as if they were sacred things.

A tourist woman was trying to haggle with the Native American store woman over the price of a giant dream-catcher.
The Native American store woman said: “It’s 95 dollars… These take a lot of work…”
To which the tourist woman said, insultingly: “How about 60?”
They went back and forth for a while – with the store woman saying, “The woman who made it’s not here; I can’t negotiate on the price,” and the tourist woman (used to getting her way, surely praised throughout her life for “driving a hard bargain” or some junk like that) said, “Can you call her?” (meaning, call the woman who made the giant dream-catcher) – before the store woman made a final low offer of 75, and the tourist jerk said, “I think 70 is good." Bitch.
A man in the tourist woman’s group finally had enough and said, “75 – we’ll pay 75.” He just wanted to get out of there.

This whole time the girl (who was really more of a woman, age-wise, if we’re being accurate about demographics here) had been biting her tongue to avoid saying, “Excuse me, but you’re being disrespectful – she just said these take a lot of work to make.” The girl thought of saying something like: “If you don’t stop being such a creep, you might screw up the mojo of this thing and it might let your nightmares through,” but the girl never would’ve had the nerve to say something like that, even on her worst day.  

So there the girl stood, feeling all superior and culturally sensitive and appropriately reverent.

Then the young guy who’d been talking about arrow-riddled bears was summoned to ring the girl up (because the tourist woman was still haggling), and the girl said (just to double-check), “You guys can take Visa, right?” and the guy said, “Sorry; only for certain items. For these we can only take cash.”

Which she didn’t have, because of the cabs, because she always felt she had to tip extra when the drivers were chatty and they had some heart-to-heart in the cab, which seemed to happen a lot. So, embarrassed, the girl just left the Navajo jewelry shack like a jerk without even putting her items back.

She pulled out of the lot and drove down the road and started to cry. So she pulled over, and cried harder.

It was because of the stupid Kokopelli that she was crying. She would never have bought a hippie-looking piece of jewelry like that, except that something in her, something that was still sentimental, had thought that maybe – what? It would help her get pregnant?

Why – because some Native American dude or chick a long time ago made up this guy, this Kokopelli character, and dubbed him the deity of having babies? It made about as much sense as constellations, and astrology, all of which she regarded as made-up bunk, too.
“I could dub this blade of grass the almighty God of Pickles! I could tell you a squirrel that’s been shot with a bb gun is a symbol of rage and vengeance!”
Why is a thing considered sacred just because it’s old? Just because it’s been told for centuries by people in an oppressed and mystical community?

And wasn’t it deeply effed up, this white chick thinking mean things about Native American culture? What was wrong with her? Somebody hand her a cardigan and a highball!

(Or maybe Native Americans would like that she thought these things -- maybe they would think: "Finally a honky who doesn't go all faux-reverent over our goddamn dream-catchers and Kokopelli kitsch.")

Bitterly she drove on: “…And he’s a prankster, too – he probably would have given me a miscarriage just for kicks.”

It was just some dumb story.

Now she sat at this table in Vegas, trying to have this moment she felt she should have, some moment a girl in a story would have -- epiphanic, empowering, life-changing. She sipped her pear martini slowly, thoughtfully. She reminded herself why she was here at the Monte Carlo, where she’d stayed with that guy who’d hurt her feelings six years ago: 

They had been romantically, sexually – and secretly – involved for almost a year. The surface reason it was secret was because they had once been co-workers; he still worked for her old company and it might look unseemly for him to be dating someone who once had also worked there. But she knew the real reason he didn’t come out and say, publicly, on Facebook or to any of their mutual (her former) co-workers, to any of his friends or his mom: “This is my girlfriend.” It was because they both knew she wasn’t in his league.

He was a “hot” guy, a popular guy, an alpha male, a golden boy at his job, successful and self-made rich (the highest American virtue), a funny and mostly decent guy. And she was just some chick.

Yet.

There was no denying they had common ground, like one of those Venn diagrams. They came together in some place where rapturous music and dramatic Western landscapes were sacred, some place where the point of life was to remind yourself, as often as you can, that you have a soul. Not a soul in the religious sense, one that can be sent to heaven or hell. But something inside you that was more than your body or even your mind. Something higher.

This common place they shared had never made up for the fact that she wasn’t photogenic or at ease in most social situations. In some weird modern twist on a Jane Austen tale, the girl wasn’t seen as a fitting match for him – on some bone-deep, DNA-deep level. Not by him, not by her, not by anyone.

So when they stayed here at the Monte Carlo that one time (she was passing through town on a road trip, a long story that would feel out of proportion to tell parenthetically here; he was in town for his friend’s wedding), and someone with the wedding party came up to them in the casino and asked if she (the chick) and the guy (the out-of-her-league one) were married – she had laughed it off, and he had looked mortified.

The whole time they were in town he introduced her like this: “This is my friend… This is my friend…”

As if she were his buddy ol’ pal. As if they grabbed brewskis and watched the Big Game together, belching openly in front of each other, high-fiving a lot.

It had hurt her feelings.

Now she looked around at the sea of slot machines, the blinking lights and plink-plonking coins and the beeping of winning and losing, and said what she needed to say: “I deserved better.”

It was true. She had.

But in six years a lot of anger can dissipate. They were both happily married to other people now – now they truly were friends. There was no need for the squirrel god of vengeance. So she paid her bill and went out into the night to take the poky little city bus to Fremont Street, in the old downtown, to see the neon cowgirl, to have a new adventure, like a girl in a story.

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