Mona Simpson

July 3, 2019 
The following is excerpted from Mona Simpson's story in n+1 34. A woman reconnects with her absent and mysterious father. Mona Simpson has published short stories in The Iowa Review and Ploughshares, and been an editor at The Paris Review while writing her novel Anywhere But Here. Her other books include The Lost Father, A Regular Guy, and Off Keck Road.

There was still my father.

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After Daniel proposed, we stayed on the bed and made a flurry of calls, starting with our closest friends. In a few hours, everyone knew. Everyone, that is, except my father. My father was different. Most of my life we hadn’t had a working telephone number for him. My mother would dial and a recording would click on saying that the line had been disconnected and that there was no new number. Eventually we’d hear from him again, often from overseas. He and his wife Lucille traveled to Macau, to Rio, to Singapore.

“You have school,” my mother tried to placate me, when I asked why I couldn’t go along on these exotic adventures. “They have the money and we have the education.” When my mother said “they” she meant Lucille. “In some places those things would be synonymous. But not in Nevada.” Lucille was from Nevada.

During the years when we couldn’t reach him, I had fantasies about my dad. A classmate’s mother was rumored to be a spy for China. My Syrian father had studied political philosophy in Beirut and London. I thought maybe he had become a pan-Arab revolutionary and that was why we didn’t know where he was.

When I moved away to college, I started sending letters to a return address in Nevada I’d found on the envelope of a birthday card Lucille had sent me. I wrote drafts of these letters, which my father sometimes answered with a call. Once, he and Lucille came through New York on their way to Monte Carlo and stayed at a hotel in Times Square. I met them for dinner after they saw Les Mis. I tried to follow my father’s eyes as they roved around the large noisy restaurant, paying just enough attention to Lucille to answer her questions, which seemed prompted by a desire to talk about her grandchildren. Whatever I said—yes, I exercised, I jogged in the park—reminded her of one of her grandchildren and she would segue into a long story to which neither my father nor I listened. She wore a short fur car coat.

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I could still remember every time I’d seen him.

Once, in the ’80s, coming back uptown in the early hours of morning, a cabdriver talked to me from the front seat. He lived in New Jersey, but his wife and son were still in Yemen.

My father is Syrian, I said.

You speak Arabic?

I answered back the few phrases I’d learned in Elementary Standard Arabic.

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When he stopped in front of my building, he said, “You will know who I am.”

I looked reflexively at the name and picture on the dashboard from the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission.

“Forget the name.” He turned around. “Remember my face,” he said.

When the US embassy was bombed in Beirut I thought of the bearded taxi driver. Then I called my father, who was dark skinned but clean-shaven, American looking, and felt relieved when he answered. By the time Daniel and I sat cross-legged on the bed with our address books, my father had a stable phone number and we talked every six or eight weeks. The talks weren’t much, but he called me sweetie and told me bits about his life. At 60 he had the first real job that I’d heard of since he’d married Lucille decades ago. He lived in Jackpot, a town on the Idaho-Nevada border, and worked as general concessions manager of what he described as a Las Vegas–style casino. He was finally getting “rayalistic,” he said, his immigrant’s rolled R giving the word an elegance. He couldn’t get down to Reno much, where a Filipino caregiver cooked meals for Lucille and took her on walks. We didn’t talk often, but I thought it would be weird for me to all of a sudden have a husband. I had the Daniel-thought-insane idea of flying out to tell my father in person. I couldn’t have him at the wedding, but a visit might still be something.

I don’t know what you’re hoping for, Daniel said, when I bought the ticket.

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I hadn’t grown up with my father, but I was trying to salvage what we could have now.

Next to me on the plane two young women sprawled in old Levi’s and pristine white waffle T-shirts. They invited me to ski with them in Sun Valley.

“Oh, I’m not a good skier,” I said. “I live in New York City.”

“We don’t care,” one said. “We don’t ski competitively anymore. It’s just a way to see friends, like having coffee.”

That sounded to me like a clean, wonderful life.

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The pilot landed the plane with gentle bounces and passengers clapped.

Inside the small hangar, women stood shaking checkered cloths onto tables. Friday nights, one of the skiers explained, the Twin Falls airport turned into a pizza parlor. I wanted to buy a slice but a lady in a denim apron told me the woodstove took hours to fire up hot enough. So instead I rented a car and started driving south toward Nevada.

Stark landscapes spread on both sides of the road, like the bottom of the sea. It was March but there was still snow. Spared of leaved trees, the sky felt immense, even significant. Everything white, brown, or gray, stone colors.

Jackpot had a population of nine hundred, according to the sign. A small motel called the Horseshu advertised all you can eat pancakes Sunday morning. Streets named Keno, Dice, and Wilson Burderer intersected the highway. Who was Wilson Burderer? It was hard to square the idea of a pan-Arab revolutionary with here.

I drove up to the ten-story building with a lighted marquee, a neon sign blinking Cactus Chuck’s.

At the front desk I said my father’s American name, and then he was running over the vast arena, my slim handsome dad. “I told my boss, ‘My daughter’s coming for the weekend!’ And he said to me, ‘Comp everything, comp her room, her meals, the works.’” He lifted my key from behind the desk, asking, “You’re here Friday and Saturday?”

“Yes. I leave Sunday night,” I said.

A bellman hovered waiting for my luggage, but I had only a backpack, which I kept.

I could go and freshen up, my father said. He’d booked us a nine o’clock table in the Constellation Room.
It was only seven and I was hungry but freshening up sounded like a good plan. I wasn’t used to being with him. I needed a few minutes alone to turn into myself again.

The walls of the room felt flocked. I bumped into a padded bar, feeling for the switch. When I found the toggle, spotlights targeted the bar, twinkly drink lights, no overhead. You couldn’t read a book. A red quilted bed stuck out diagonally from a corner. The lit terrarium hosted nothing alive.

A room that could have been a Kienholz installation, titled: Attempting Pleasure. Didn’t Kienholz live in Idaho?

I shoved at a window but it wouldn’t move. Outside there were thousands of stars of different sizes and lumens of brightness. The air would be clean and cold, I thought. I craved air.

I set my books on the bed table.

The bathroom, I thought, I could read there. But when I brought in my book, I discovered the bulb was red.

I tried to get a little pretty. I wondered if all daughters did this or only the daughters of divorce. My father had never seen me with my hair half dirty in a scrunchie, which was the way it was most of my life
and how Daniel saw me all the time. From pictures of my parents young, I’d guessed his taste. Heels. A long slitted skirt.

I pulled it all out of the small backpack.

My father whistled when I walked into the Constellation Room. As a boy in Homs he’d studied pirated American movies. That must have been where he’d learned to wolf whistle.

A young man with acne was pushing a cart of vases, each holding a branch of baby’s breath and one rose.

My father studied a seating chart on his podium as if it were an orchestral score. Hadn’t he once been tall?

“The show you’ll see tonight has been improved,” he told me. “My boss asked me to critique it and I said fewer jokes, more girls. More dancing.”

I asked why the windows in the rooms didn’t open.

“Casino philosophy,” he said. “No clocks. No skylights. Nature is ze enemy.” Thirty years in America, he still said ze. He leaned in close, as if imparting wisdom. “Day and night should be indistinguishable.”

One of Lucille’s ancestors had opened the first resort in Las Vegas, for workers building the Hoover Dam. Her money came from casinos.

Rich but not educated. My mother had been the first person in her family to attend college.

People filed in. Idahoans, my father explained, who’d driven over the border.

He seated me in the middle of the room. At my central table, I felt privileged despite myself, even though I was alone. I’d said nothing yet about getting married. I hadn’t asked about Lucille either, who must have been old by now. She’d already seemed ancient when I was a child.

This was what had always happened to me with my father. It was hard to say what we talked about. It all went by in a whoosh.

A waiter approached with a silver bucket, opened a bottle, and stood poised for me to taste. But I knew nothing about wine. I took a sip of the gold liquid. It tasted like pine.

The room went black with a drumroll. “Ladies and gentlemen,” an announcement began, “during this program the use of the following is strictly prohibited. Cameras. Tape recorders . . .”

The crowd hushed. My father had managed to conjure theater even here.

“. . . and sexual devices.”

The audience broke into laughter; the joke was on me. A spotlight pointed to a sidewall and the same unseen announcer introduced “Bottoms Up, the oldest running musical revue in America! Thirty-three years! Please welcome Breck Wall!”

Breck, like the shampoo! Who in my life would believe this? I couldn’t wait to tell Daniel.

A late-middle-aged man in sneakers bounded onstage, his face as obliging as a clown’s, with a full head of hair swirled in front. He probably had named himself after the shampoo.

“Just lost a hundred and forty pounds of unwanted fat,” Breck said. “Shot my wife.”

I watched my slight father laugh, his arms crossed, hugging himself.

The youngest son of a wealthy Muslim merchant, my father had been sent to a Jesuit school where he’d studied twelve hours a day. The merchant and the Jesuits agreed about the Stoics. As a result, my father spoke five languages, read seven, and when he attended graduate school he knew everything already, he told me once. I asked then about his father. Dead, he replied.

A waiter dressed a Caesar salad on a cart next to me, breaking the egg right there. But was my father going to join me? There was only one plate.

Breck dragged his mic down into the audience. “What’s your name?” he asked a girl wearing a high-necked blue flannel dress with a pattern of flowers.

“Linda, OK, Linda from Boise,” he repeated. “Tell me, Linda. Do you know what virgins dream of?”

He pushed the microphone at her chin.

She squirmed. “Uh-uh, what?”

“You don’t know, Linda, oh-kay,” he said, looping the cord around his wrist, muttering, “Boise trash.”

The audience clapped along. My father too. I couldn’t tell Daniel this.

Dancers pounced out of the dark like plumed ponies, wearing sequined bikinis and over-the-knee boots, ostrich feathers sticking out of their hair.

A waiter arrived with a flute in each hand and a minute later my father materialized, silently uncorking champagne. But I hadn’t told him yet that I was getting married.

“While you’re here, I thought we could take a trip,” he said. “We can drive up to Sun Valley.”

“Oh, good. This wine is delicious,” I added, as he handed me the flute of champagne.

“I’m glad you like it, honey.”

“Dad, how’s Lucille?”

“Well, she’s not so good. Lucille’s getting old, honey.”

He was turning 61, the same age as my mom. I tried to remember what that made Lucille.

Breck jumped back into the spotlight, now dressed as a woman. “My daddy would kill me if he saw me in this outfit.” A cymbal clanged. “It’s his.”

“Are things okay with the two of you?”

“Sure, honey.”

“Like cowpats. Older I get, easier I am to pick up.”

“She understands. I have to think about my retirement.”

“Cheapest thing you can bring home,” Breck said, sotto voce, “besides Linda.”

“I don’t want to be 90 and still working, honey.”

“How old is Lucille?”

“She’s 90.” But Lucille had never worked.


Excerpted from “Jackpot.” First appeared in n+1 Issue 34. Used with permission of n+1. Copyright 2019 by Mona Simpson. 

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