Blues players work the valet at the El Cortez. They’re washed-up, not playin’ no more—their brutish fingers fumble with patron keys, but they used to work, boy…they used to work!
We—a Vegas trio made of Georgia, the sister, and me—step outside our silvery car and onto the golden glowing pavement under a knock-off sky. A man dressed in a tan three-piece suit, staring at us from beneath amber glasses, takes the sister’s clank-clank-ing keys. He then slips into the car real smooth-like and we start toward the Fremont buzz.
That man was Rinehart, I joke to myself. He was Rinehart but he doesn’t know it. The man played it so good he fooled himself—Ellisonian, y-e-a-h.
Jazz singers wail to Jesus at the El Cortez. They lay the beat down, but they’re not winnin’ no more. Brutish fingers punch numbers on pay phones—they use to work, mama…they use to work.
The sister and Georgia take the lead and I follow with my camera in tow, snapping my lens toward glum alleyways and upward into the neon matrix—flash! flash! I yell to Georgia, look up into the sky and spin around. Don’t make faces, I add, it needs to look natural, in the moment—flash!
Car engines drone drowsy syncopated tunes, blues players rock back and forth—sitting, talking, howling silently—in their heads a mellow croon.
I turn back and take a blurry picture of the El Cortez drifting away from our marching trio. The hotel appears to sway through my lens; the dark valet figure looks to be waving goodbye.
I ought to go back, I think. That there was Langston reincarnate, slithering smooth around the twenty-first century. I’ll tell him I’m an artist. He’ll know me.
Aren’t you Tom Wolfe, he’ll say. No, you’re that be-bop Kerouac fellow, ain’t you? Rinehart! Still writing them travelin’ novels all over white pages, I see, pretending you done half the LSD and Benzedrine you say you’ve done.
But no, Langston, that ain’t true, I’ll cry—my dream, well, I defer.
Say, I’ll interject, what about the feasibility of the U.S.S.A. nowadays? He’s long since known a prescription.
What’s the antidote, I’ll ask.
Ask your mama, he’ll say.
I stay behind the sister and Georgia while they chat on and pace faster toward the Fremont jazz. You’d like that bar over there, I hear the sister say. She points toward a corner on our left. It’s real bohemian-like place. That’s the word, right? The walls are kind of tattered and it looks like it hasn’t changed since 1950—well, my God, maybe not since the ‘20s.
The night before we watched the sister snort coke on her bathroom vanity with a rolled dollar bill. I acted crazy and asked if I could take a picture. Nobody answered, and it all ended in a tentative sniff then finishing snort. Georgia and I got drunk on the patio outside the sister’s house later that night. We sat cross-legged facing each other, an empty bottle of peach whiskey between. You know this will all end too soon, Georgia said.
My face burned. I opened my mouth and laughed.
She spins and spins at my side. She says she’s in love—do you love me too, she asks? A train sings near, fettered below the new pavement on Fremont. I see a night full of stars with trajectories sourced in glitz and jazz be-bop blues and great big neon dreams. I spin and spin and recite a response. Rinehart! Do you believe me, I ask.
This is it, Georgia says—my favorite place in all of Vegas. I feel her hug my side and she turns me toward the gaudy chasm rising up to my right and left. We used to come here as kids, she says. My parents had a taste for the real Vegas.
I see Langston ahead, dead, and mummified in shimmering billboards above karaoke bars and gift shops boasting half-priced memorabilia: t-shirts, shot glasses, a china plate celebrating “110 Years of Fremont Street.”
She presses her lips to my shoulder. We face Langston’s epitaph above his grave in The Glitter Gulch at the end of the manic street. A neon cowgirl tips her hat and winks as if she’ll never stop—as if she knows I’m the joke.
Jordan Floyd is an undergraduate at Utah State University studying English and journalism. His work has appeared in Sink Hollow and has received awards in the Utah Original Writing Competition and the university’s creative writing competition.