Garbage Bag Johnny
Now, it’s far too early to jump to end of the world scenarios, but if we’re going to get there–and we’ll have to get there eventually–we should really make sure we’ve fully explored the stuff about how all life is experienced by the same entity from the simultaneous perspective of every living thing. Of course, it doesn’t feel simultaneous when we’re trapped in those meatbags, but this thing we know as time is really just the unit of measurement to atomize experience. Otherwise, it’d all just be a blob too gigantic to move, and well, it is and it isn’t, but if that’s all it was, it’d be no fun.
Imagine, though, that death was no more than a thought that could be revisited or a snail swapping shells or a record being switched. You–and I use that term loosely and interchangeably–are the needle, not the groove, and these words here are just the music from a different record. Egocentrically speaking, when whatever arbitrary identity you consider yourself dies, you’ll experience awareness as some other arbitrary identity. You won’t remember anything about considering yourself the one when you’re considering yourself the other, but you will be both, and you will be any and every other thing that experiences being in a way can’t really be described chronologically. Death is not the end because there is only one end, and it’s not yours.
I don’t expect you to accept any of this, no questions asked, although it’d make things a lot easier if you did. It’d save everyone a ton of work. After all, you authored this when you considered yourself to be someone else, in hopes of convincing yourself that these words are yours, no matter who else you thought you were when you read it. Just know that there is no other argument we haven’t already explored, and if you keep arguing amongst yourselves, breaking even is the best you can do. You only win by relenting, and even then, only if you also relent, and it won’t feel like winning until every last you refuses to fight.
It was hard to say how long I’d been stuck in the place. Time didn’t exist there, only noise and light, and those were always going. I’d gotten used to them both, and I could hear and see through the chaos now. Hidden somewhere amid the flashing neon and the arcade bells there was truth, a raw arithmetic to it all. But even if I solved every variable, I wasn’t sure what kind of good it’d do to know the truth.
I had no memory of the last decade or so. I was flushing my drugs down a toilet in Fort Worth one moment, and the next thing I knew, there I was in some strange purgatory of a town with no idea when (or even if) I could leave. I considered, for a moment, that I was dead, but if so, there wasn’t much to distinguish it from life. That’d be a crummy way to spend eternity.
“Put it all on five.” The croupier, a short man with black hair parted down the middle, looked down at my fifty-cent chip and slid it onto the board with his rake. He called himself Reynaud according to his nametag, and he wore hairspray so thick it looked like you could crack off pieces.
In this sudden future, things more or less seemed to work about the same, but my memory of what life was like years ago was so distant that it felt like I was remembering someone else’s life, and since coming to, things were pretty fuzzy. I’d been drunk or high or both for just about the whole time, and I couldn’t say if it had been days or weeks or months.
The wheel spun in one direction and the ivory delrin pill whizzed the other way. It was all so pleasantly hypnotic that I felt I’d gotten my money’s worth right then and there. I didn’t care about winning or losing so long as I enjoyed participating in the spectacle.
“Five it is!” Reynaud counted a few chips and stacked them on top of my wager. He slid the short stack back to me, and I pocketed the bottom chip so I was only playing with house money. “Place your bets.”
“Let’s let it ride on five.”
It’d be easy to think that it was all just random, and even if it was, it’d be just as likely to land on five again as it would any other number, but it’s not. There was a certain rhythm to the spin of the wheel and the counterspin of the ball, ranges of velocity on both accounts and means within those ranges. The grain on the ball track was subject to tiny blemishes that would influence the path of the pill towards certain slots. With five, there was precedent. Perhaps I was a work of fiction. I wondered if someone had been imagining me all along, and maybe they just hadn’t thought of me for a while.
The waitress returned to the table with my double of rum. I’d taken a strange shine to it recently, and as long as I was playing one of the games, they’d just keep on bringing me drinks for free as long as I was giving them my money some other way.
I’d devised a scheme where I’d play until my booze came, and then I’d leave until I needed a refill. The one wrinkle was that they couldn’t bring them as fast as I could drink them, but if I made enough extra scratch from dumb luck, I could go buy something to last me a while. The suckers never caught on.
“Another five!” He raked an even bigger stack of chips back to me. “Congratulations, sir! Care to try for three in a row?”
“Maybe next time. I got what I came for.”
I tossed a few chips to Reynaud, a few more to the waitress, and pocketed the rest.
There wasn’t anything all too special about Liquor World, but it was my kind of place, a beacon of familiarity plunked right in the middle of all the pandemonium. I could see it from my hotel, but despite its proximity, the journey across Tropicana Avenue was nothing if not treacherous. Pedestrian traffic moved like static on a screen, and if you got caught in the wrong current, it could carry you any which way it pleased.
Night was even more dangerous. It’d be just as crowded, but the whim of the undertow was more volatile, and everyone would be zagging past each other with far more speed and far less accuracy. When it really got going, you’d have to whirlpool around your destination until the ouroboric friction of the crowd upon itself ground everything to a sludge slow enough to climb your way through it.
I pulled the door shut behind me and took in the calm of retail order. The aisles were narrow and the shelves were plain, but they were stacked high and wide with a chromatography of brown and green hues in sections neatly organized by spirit. I grabbed myself a big bottle of rum with a drawing of a pirate on it, took it to the register, and stamped it down on the counter.
“That it for you?” The cashier looked too generic to be from a place so reckless, like he came from the same place as any other cashier in any other town.
“Pack of the yellows.”
He reached up, pulled the cigarettes from the overhead rack that formed the top frame of the cashier’s window, and rang me up. As I moved to exit the store, I could see a storm of humanity on the other side of the glass door pane. It was a real mess out there. I opened the pack, clenched one between my teeth, and burst back into the maelstrom.
I woke up in another fog on another floor with a half smoked cigarette put out on the carpet to the left of me, a rum bottle laying sideways on the right. There were still a few sips left, so I took care of that, peeled myself off the floor, and gingerly ricocheted towards the bathroom using the wall for support. I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror.
I was looking pretty rough, but considering I had not yet acclimated to being thrust forward in time by over a decade, I could’ve looked a lot worse. I splashed some water on my face and got ready for another go around.
Once I’d elevatored down to the casino, I found a good spot where I could scout the roulette table from a distance, trying to map out the patterns of the waitstaff so I could best time my approach. Ideally, I would get to the table before someone showed up to take drink orders, but not so soon before that I wouldn’t seem settled. If they’d got sight of me walking up to the table, it could blow the whole scheme. Maybe I could get away with it once or twice, but I didn’t want anyone picking up on my pattern and cutting me off.
I counted four servers making rounds, and I knew their positions would have to align just right to give me a window of opportunity to make it to the table. They all moved at different speeds, and they all worked distinct sections, but the sections were close enough together that at any given time, depending on how their bodies were angled, they could see any of the other quadrants (however, rarely all three at once). Furthermore, once folks had ordered as many drinks as they could carry, they’d have to go back to the bar. This was paramount to my success–I’d have to slip into a seat at the table once the waitress in my section was off the floor, but I could only do so if the other three weren’t looking in my direction.
I could buy myself extra approach time by measuring the length in steps from each section to the bar and back, so I knew how much time I had and when I had it. I allowed each of them one full rotation through the phases of waiting, trying to keep tabs on how the rest of the staff was oriented, and then for good measure, I observed a second rotation and then a third. It was going to have to be a tight operation. There was no guarantee that I’d get an opportunity to sit at the table unnoticed during any single rotation (though in one, I saw three potential windows).
I wondered if I’d transcended realities and stumbled into a parallel universe. I could have accidentally ventured into some sort of spatial anomaly and ended up somewhere that was a little further ahead in time than my world. I’d seen it in pictures. Perhaps there was another version of me here, and if so, maybe I’d be able to help me out. I made a mental note to keep an eye out for myself. Another rotation or so went by, and my window opened.
I recognized the croupier from before. I could almost smell his hairspray. We briefly locked eyes, and I couldn’t tell if he remembered me from the night before or however many nights before it had been.
“Reynaud! You got any more luck for me tonight?”
“I’m sorry, sir?” He did not.
“Oh, uh, I was here, um…well, I’m not sure when it was, but I won a pretty hefty sum at this roulette table.”
“A lot of people come through here.” I saw the waitress nearing the table. She got there before Reynaud could take my bet, but she was too late to see if I had already placed a bet. If I’d moved for the table a moment later, she might have known I was drifting for drinks and skipped past the table. I was too good, though. I was the goddamned drink drifting king.
“Can I get you anything?” She smiled warmly.
“Double rum rocks, please.”
As the waitress left to take care of my order, I made a small outside bet to keep me at the table. Then I made another one. That was the plan: just maintain until my drink came. The drink was the game. The wheel was only the game within the game. But Reynaud kept landing fives. I put all the chips I had on the table (excluding, of course, my lucky fifty cent chip).
“Put all of that on five.”
The pill landed in the proper slot, and as Reynaud started piling up my winnings, I forgot all about the drink.
What started out as a routine trip to Liquor World went horribly awry. When I stepped outside the MGM Grand, it was the wildest part of night. Asynchronous symphonies blared briefly from passing cars. Thousands of conversations peppered with shouts and screeches and accidental sounds all battled to be heard. The mob whipped and whirled around me, and I got pulled into the slipstream. Once again, I was outside time, like I was the entire mob all moving as one, but still, too, as I was everywhere any of it was.
When it’d spit me out, I’d have no idea where I was, and then it’d suck me back in. The wheel spun one way, and I spun the other: into clearings, into back alleys passing joints with strangers, and then I’d be back in the current. I was in the wrong Liquor World, willed there by the stream, some satellite location off the Strip.
“What kind of booze you got behind the counter? Gimme your most expensive rum.”
I wasn’t in a Liquor World, not anymore. I was in a dark club, maybe, and I could taste that I had already puked. It was what I imagined a club to be like. I was still in a Liquor World. Not sure which one.
“And a pack of yellows.”
“That’ll be $335.95”
It was a different store with a different cashier, but he came from that same place where most cashiers probably come from and there were shelves and freezers and narrow aisles just like any other store. It was some great oasis, and no matter where I was, I’d see it all the same. He unfolded a paper sleeve for my rum.
I grabbed the bottle, and it was one gulp and then back out toward the maelstrom. The crowd moved like opposing syrups. Thick waves crested and crashed. Somewhere along the way, I got a hold of some pills that made everything brighter.
“Don’t worry. Don’t worry.” I was in a cab, somehow, but it was not of my own doing. “I’ll get you where you need to go.”
The streets were empty. I could see the distant lights of the strip shine in stark contrast to my dim surroundings. There was a grayness to the night, as if the sun would come up here and the world wouldn’t be in color. The only direction came from flickering pink neon that guided me into a sub-basement level gentleman’s club $18,925.87 called The Happy Trail, and they had a two drink minimum $18, 885.87, and I didn’t want to appear ungenerous $18,626.55.They had a dancer named Destiney, spelled just like it sounds, and she was really something. I was in love with her $17,105.46. I told her about the roulette wheel that always came up on five, and she feigned interest.
“How about I show it to you?”
“I can’t, sugar. $16,898.11. I still gotta work.”
“Oh yeah? $16,322.54. What time are you done?”
“Not for a while.”
Once things got quiet, she got up to work the rest of the room, and I stayed for a good while longer than I should have and lost a lot more money there than I would have at any game of chance.
I was back at the roulette table. At the very least, I was back at a roulette table. The city was an infinite pattern, and it all blended together.
“What happened to Reynaud?”
“Who’s Reynaud?” The croupier shrugged. He was an older man, bald on top with wispy gray hair around his ears that looked like it’d been sprayed, but it hadn’t.
“You don’t know Reynaud? He’s a croupier, too.”
“No,” he laughed. He was called Gary, according to his nametag. “We don’t all know each other, you know.”
I placed bets $100 at a time, but the old son of a bitch couldn’t spin me a five for the life of him. There was no consistency in his mechanics. His muscles were atrophying and his memory was fading. He was no Reynaud. Everything was starting to go.
$5,022.50. 11. $4,922.50. 31. $4,822.50. 16.
“Please watch the language, sir.” Profanity made him ache. Everything made him ache. One day, Reynaud’s arms would weaken, and he wouldn’t be able to spin the wheel the same. Another day he wouldn’t be able to spin it at all.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know why I’m getting so heated.”
Maybe it was the pills. The effect was wearing off, and I just wanted to go back to my hotel room and go to sleep, but I didn’t even have that. This wasn’t my hotel. All I had left was the game within the game, and I was sick of playing it. I started increasing my bets and hoped that it’d all be over soon.
$4,222.50. 16. $3,722.50. 23. $2,722.50. 00.
“Fuck! God damn it!”
I slammed my hands down on the table and it prompted Gary to clear his throat. I sank back into my chair.
“Shit. Sorry. And sorry for that one, too.”
“It’s okay. Maybe you should call it a night though?”
“Take it from me. Sometimes you gotta take what you have and walk away.”
He shook his head, but there wasn’t anything he could do to stop me. I wagered it all on five, every chip I had except for the half dollar chip I’d started with. Maybe I’d still need luck somewhere down the road.
I woke up and looked around, surprised that I recognized my surroundings. My clothes formed a trail from the door to the bed. The cigarette burn was still there in the carpeting. I walked over to the bathroom and took a look in the mirror. I was older than I remembered. Being thrust through time would do that to anyone.
I splashed some water on my face and got ready for another go around. I took the elevator down to the casino floor. Reynaud was back at his station, spinning that roulette wheel for a lone gambler who was sipping on a glass of something nice and brown. I decided to walk over, and Reynaud noticed me.
“Good morning, my friend! Care to get in on the next spin?”
I took out my last chip, rubbing it between my thumb and forefinger.
“What the hell. Put it all on five.”
“Five?” The gambler almost spat his drink. “That’s your number, huh?”
“What’s wrong with five?”
I looked over at him and it was like looking at my reflection. Sure, his face was different, but he, too, looked pretty rough, like he was living outside of time (or at least outside of his own time).
“It’s a weak number. You should go with something fierce like thirteen. Reynaud over here’s always spinning thirteens. Ain’t that right, Reynaud?” He flashed a grin towards the croupier and then towards me. “That’s my lucky number, anyway. Some people will tell you it’s cursed, but I say to hell with them. The best luck I ever had came from where I least expected it.”
I flipped the chip over to him, and he caught it, not knowing what to make of the gesture. Truth be told, I didn’t know what to make of it either, but I felt like it was better off in this guy’s hands than mine.
“Consider this my way of saying thanks for the advice.”
Reynaud spun the pill against the wheel, but I walked off before I could see where it landed.