Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. That’s what they say, but I’m not so sure. I’ve learned my history, and I go on repeating it. I repeat it, on average, eight times a day, five days a week. Time off for lunch.
It’s not my own history. I’m a minion of Viva Las Vegas!—the historical-museum-slash-tourist-trap now in its twelfth shabby year on Fremont Street. I made the mistake of finishing my high school coursework a full seven months before the end of the year; I was in such a hurry to eject myself from that particular hell that I forgot there was nowhere for me to go once I got out. So now I’m waiting out my time before graduation here in my own little neon Purgatory. Not Hell, but close. Hell with a waxwork Elvis Presley.
Viva Las Vegas! is also Purgatory for most of the people who throw down their ten bucks to the King and enter, a good place to do penance until the hangover clears and they’re ready for the slots. It’s dark, quiet by Vegas standards. I think that’s why this place has hung on as long as it has: it’s hopelessly outdated, so lacking in any kind of glamour or excitement or even decent lighting that it feels innocent. It’s so tacky it’s virginal.
I’ve got the first shift of the day, and I’m late. The red digital readout in the lobby has been displaying tour in 1 minute! for about ten. I throw on my dreaded red vest, a striped polyester number that flaps around my skinny body like wings. There also used to be these tiny striped straw hats we had to wear that made me look like a giant anorexic Disney penguin, but luckily the tops of those have, mysteriously and simultaneously, all been punched out.
Yrma behind the ticket desk has corralled the first group. She sighs heavily when she sees me coming through the curtains and shifts her weight to the other side of the desk, where she can punch a button that changes the readout above her. The slack-jawed Yrma (pronounced EAR-ma) has the coloring and consistency of burnt caramel pudding, and she moves at the pace a burnt caramel pudding might move, were it mobile. The digital readout changes from tour in 1 minute! to tour starting now!!!—the red words blinking urgently, doing their best to justify the two additional exclamation points.
Usual crowd. Three seniors, a mom with a stroller looking to beat the heat, five Korean tourists, and a teenage couple—locals who, thank the gods, I don’t recognize from school. They’re wearing faded T’s and torn jeans, and their arms hang limply over each other like they’ve both just been saved from drowning. The guy smirks at me. His eyes are dark and hard. The girl just pouts and nuzzles into Smirky Boy’s collarbone.
I take my position by the turnstile. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Viva Las Vegas. Right this way.” We’re supposed to draw out the “Vee” part of “Viva” so that it builds an excitement—“Veeeeva Las Vegas!”— and punctuate that with a big sweep of the arm up into the air. I can’t bring myself to do it. None of the tour guides can, except for Kenny, who’s new and operates at three exclamation points at all times. His rousing tours are known to cause fainting, mass suicides, and bleeding from the eyes. He’ll be assistant manager in no time.
“Watch your step, please.” The guests file past me into the first room, led by the three seniors, who are from Texas, I’m guessing. Their matching pastel i love texas T-shirts kind of give it away. The five Koreans turn out to be two couples together and one Asian woman by herself, who’s got the kind of hair that’s constantly flapping over the front of her face, and dark glasses. She stares down at the floor and looks away from me as she pushes through the metal bar. Could be thirty, could be sixty. Could be the right age. Could be . . . I get that old, reflexive urge to stare her down, catalog her face, but I brush it away. Childish habit, like biting your nails or wetting the bed.
“Nice vest,” Smirky Boy cracks as he saunters through. Whatever. I’m not the one wasting twenty bucks. Just wait. He who smirks last, and all. Once they’ve clicked past the turnstile it’s the point of no return. Anyone who has bought a ticket because of Elvis beckoning in the window or the sound track of him singing “Viva Las Vegas” in the lobby is going to be sadly disappointed. Elvis is not part of this tour. Elvis would rather have puked up fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches than be part of this sad, sad pilgrimage. I’m part shepherd, part guide, leading my sheep to each display and making sure no one strays from the path.
The first diorama starts us off in 1829. A mannequin with dark hair and a conquistador helmet stands, one hand resting on a plastic palm tree, the other shielding his eyes from the baby spotlight shining directly on his face. There’s a dusty rubber snake hissing at his feet. Sand all around. Here I go. “On Christmas Day 1829, Rafael Rivera set foot on an oasis in what would be known as the Las Vegas Valley. He was a part of a party led by Antonio Armijo, looking for their way to Los Angeles. ‘Las Vegas’ means ‘the Meadow’ in Spanish. . . .”
Rafael’s supposed to be scanning the horizon of this brave new world. This is the extent of his movement: his head turns thirty degrees to the left. His head turns thirty degrees to the right. His hand doesn’t even move with his forehead, it just stays frozen in a permanent salute position.
But the sheep are still into him. Lots of murmuring, lots of “oh!”s and head nods. Cameras click away at Rafael, at the sand and the tree. Everyone’s carried away by the emptiness because of the promise it holds. They can’t wait to see the magic that turns all this sand into casinos. Everyone except for the teenagers, who hang in the shadows and snicker to each other, and the Asian woman with the sunglasses, who’s not looking at Rafael, either. What’s she here for?
Next room: Mormonville. “In 1855, Mormons began settling in the area to protect the mail route from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles. The fort you see in front of you is a replica of one made by the Mormons out of clay-and-grass bricks known as adobe. . . .” Mormonville gets a few dull head nods. The Railroad Town display gets less. The sheep are getting tired of all this dirt and dust. Where’s the vice? they wonder. Mormon life is not what you’d call electrifying. Or maybe it’s my presentation. I’ll bet Kenny whips them into a frenzy. Adobe forts!!! Lead mining!!!
Still no questions, except one. As we pass out of 1905 into the next room, one of the women in the Korean foursome hurries up to me. “Excuse me,” she whispers, already smiling in apology, “ehm, would you mind, to tell me please, are you, ehm, Filipino? Japanese?”
This is not an uncommon question. Asians can’t figure me out, and it drives them nuts. I’m like Asian, but stretched tall. Long body, small features. Curly dark hair. Like one of those long-necked aliens, with a wig. I get Mongolian a lot, or Siberian; once I got albino Samoan. That was creative. Sometimes, if they’re rude, I’ll tell them I’m Swedish, just to watch their heads explode.
“Vietnamese,” I tell her, because she’s decent. “Half Vietnamese.”
“Thank you!” the woman gasps, like I’ve handed her a present. She scurries back to the group and sets off a flurry of Korean whispers. They can’t believe it. Vietnamese? Impossible! What must the other half be? Giraffe? I’m worth the price of admission, right there.
And what about her, the one with the sunglasses? Is she wondering, too? But when I glance back she’s already passing me on her way to the next room. She’s small. Her hair’s got some gray in it, I think. Hard to tell in this light. She’d be the right age. She could be Vietnamese, too. She could be. I shake my head, but the words “she could be” play over and over again like a stupid nursery rhyme you can’t get erased from your mind.
A life-size animatronic Bugsy Siegel welcomes the sheep to the MegaResort room, which gets a big reaction. Cameras start clicking again. It’s a miniature replica of the Strip right before the end of the millennium, waist high and encased in Plexiglas you can walk around. All the old monuments are there: the Eiffel Tower, the canals, the Pyramid, and the Empire State Building. The resort names roll off my tongue like gold coins: Luxor. Bellagio. Monte Carlo.
“And please check out our Wall of Fame, featuring some of Las Vegas’s best and brightest entertainers.” I’ve never heard of most of them. They all smile with their mouths open too wide, like they’re waiting for someone to pitch something in—grapes, or quarters. Liberace’s there, at the end. I know him, of course. He’s not only a part of Las Vegas history, he’s part of mine.
This is my favorite room, because it’s the Las Vegas of my parents. I can replay their doomed history here in three dimensions. It’s like a giant, unfolding pop-up book, spread out to tell my father’s story of the time my mother was lost, and found, and lost again. In miniature, I can watch her enter the back door of the Venetian with the harlequin man; I can see my father chase the blue Volvo down Buccaneer Boulevard, feathers flying out of the window; I can pick the both of them up like tiny dolls and place them together, gently, in the little plastic gondola for their final meeting. . . .
The could-be-Vietnamese woman with the sunglasses is breaking the rules. She’s bent over, looking straight down at the Venetian hotel. Her hands are pressed hard against the glass, her face so close she could kiss it. The do not touch display sign is under her right elbow. My mouth opens but the words jam up in my throat. I know it’s not my mother, I’m sure of it, but the woman is so intent on seeing what she’s seeing—what is she seeing? My ghosts? Hers? She’s so still; to disturb her would be wrong, it would be like waking a sleepwalker. She could be. She could be.
“Could we move on?” a voice bleats in my ear. I Love Texas, mint green, is looking at me with a worried expression. I feel my face blotching red: I’ve been wandering; the sheep are anxious. Time to wrap up.
By now, even the Koreans have realized how ripped off they’ve been. Luckily, the tour ends with a movie, so I don’t have to face their disgusted looks. In the tiny auditorium, they arrange themselves on rows of hard benches. I flick the switch. The movie’s basically one big infomercial, courtesy of the Las Vegas Tourism Board. “Vegas Now!” swoops in with a helicopter view of the Strip, then a series of quick cuts. All the new attractions of the last five years are included: the Fallen Twin Towers Memorial Statue and Light Show (mournful bagpipe interlude); the giant Laughing Buddha of the Shanghai Hotel (Chinese zithers plinka-plinka-plinka-ing from speakers in his elbows); and the magnificent Green Dome of the New Baghdad Palace (live Middle Eastern ululation, set to a salsa beat). Pick a world, any world.
Smirky Boy and Pouty Girl are going at it. They’ve been waiting the whole tour for just this moment. At my place by the door, I can see them sitting in the dark in the back row, body pressing hard against body. Their limp arms slowly animate themselves, slithering into each other’s shirts. I can’t look away. His tongue flickers in her mouth; he writhes against her leg and his shirt rides up, revealing new, white skin. I should throw them out, but I can’t move. Smirky’s eyes open. I see them glittering in the dark. He watches me watching him, and smiles, mouth open, and dives in again. I jerk my head away.
That’s when I realize—the woman with the sunglasses is missing. I do a head count. She’s definitely gone. I leave the auditorium and retrace my steps quickly, room flowing into room flowing into room, back in time to the beginning, but all the spaces are empty. Rafael stands alone, scouting for no one. And then I’m running, fast-forward now through the years, arriving into the darkness of the movie ending and me flicking the lights on just in time, pointing the way to the gift shop and trying to figure out exactly how I missed her leaving me—I missed her leaving me again.
From STILL LIFE LAS VEGAS. Used with permission of St. Martin’s Press. Copyright © 2015 James Sie.