Checking into Morongo was a breeze. I’d put the room under my daughter’s name, as she’s the only one of the family, even in her death, who had any money left.
My estranged wife, Cleo, had burnt all bridges and set on a flaming pyre any chance of joining me in our afterlife. The beyond of our daughter’s murder. For me, a two-year purgatory of tear- and drink-drenched research.
Retribution, reprisal, comeuppance.
That’s some businessalese I don’t go in for. These are slight terms of vagrant wrath unfitting what had to be accomplished: One tall, curly-haired man’s death. And he was here at Morongo mixed in with the gamblers and croupiers and cocktail waitresses.
Cleo’d pursued a different path. Though we lived in the same neighborhood she’d switched grocery stores so we’d stop running into each other. Wise choice on her part.
In this search for our daughter’s killer either you were with me or you were a dumb idiot who couldn’t realize the gravity of love and its consequence.
It’s an odd coincidence that I was never a gambler, as Cleo loved scratch-offs. Her fingernails always filthy with metal-gray latex ink from Lucky 7s and Win-A-Mill cards. Cleo’d had beauty and grace. Probably still has them. We haven’t spoken in some time.
Dumb idiots aside, I’d made it to Morongo, and now had vengeance on my mind. That and finding my next drink. I stood at the precipice of a lugubrious ravine. Years upon years I spent teaching my daughter to eat, to run, to bicycle our once-peaceful streets.
Of course there was the blaring casino floor, chock full of whatever one might want to guess at. All the blinking lights and ugly gamblers you’d encounter in any casino anywhere.
Evening had come and I was nearly ready. I just needed to unpack my things and call my overpaid contact.
A perfumed coterie of bearded ladies shuffled off toward the elevator after receiving their room keys. They argued in song and gesticulation, lightly thwacking each other with luggage of feline design. A leather cat wearing cat-eye glasses pawed from the jazzy valise to which it was stitched.
These Peggy Lees appeared in my drunken imagination like a guideless troupe ready to safari in some exoticized, cartoon jungle. Their high heels were going to get stuck in quicksand, but surely some greaser Tarzan would come to save them from the tigers and leopards and ocelots whose skins they’d bought at the local tannery to make their very, very stripy and quite spotted clothing.
Tropists Seth Blake and Sam Freilich appeared out of a miasma of thick, carcinogenic smoke to complete our bachelor’s cabal. Neither had bags. Not even little overnight guys.
“Where are your bags,” I said accusatorily, eyeing Seth and his smug bastard’s smirk.
“We’re not sleeping,” replied Sam. Though I didn’t see what this had to do with essentials like a fresh set of clothes and brushing one’s teeth and flossing out last night’s losses and plaque.
As the responsible adult, I took on the task of directing the group to our room. Six dudes, two beds, no problem.
What happens at Morongo stays eternally lodged on Trop’s site. Thusly, I’ve no problem detailing the massive debt attributed to my daughter’s accounts during our brief stay. The first of which, she, in her passing, doesn’t have to worry about: Chris taking his pink-handled scissors to the fake gardenias set dead center on the single table of our fourteenth-story room.
No one tried to stop him.
Some of us, like myself, because we knew not to get in the way of Chris and vegetation—false or otherwise. The rest because they were discussing card counting strategies: i.e. Seth and Sam.
We called (and still call them) the S.S. because neither of them likes it.
This was simply a function of an old grade-school rule that we’d revisited on this Native American reservation, far from anything that seemed like home.
You know the one:
“Don’t call me that,” one might protest, prompting the chorus of children to enter, chanting: “Dumbface! Dumbface! Dumbface!”
The S.S.—“one and one-half wandering Jews” —descended from the room by way of elevator to play “games.”
I had my own game to play. While Peter, Chris, and Tom were chatting, I removed my bag of essentials from the room to the lavatory and began assembling my weaponry.
This goes in here. That fits there. I’ll put my binoculars in this plastic bag and then in the toilet’s tank. What do you feed spiders? Half of them are already de—
A knock at the door had me realizing I’d been in the shithouse for quite some time.
Such masculine terms are in standard use during bachelor parties.
I began to think of them as a distinct language; a Morongolalia.
Restroom=shithouse; vagina=pussy; beer=brewski; friend=this asshole; a woman you intend to sleep with who is someone other than your girlfriend or fiancé=strange.
Peter passed by me, entering the shithouse to categorize his toiletries on his sixth of the alabaster counter.
Tom ordered four bottles of champagne and a ham sandwich while Peter raided the mini-bar. They balked when I suggested they instead try the scroggin I’d painstakingly assembled and wash it down with the Chilatas I’d brought.
Chris took his pink scissors from his camouflage duffel.
Peter looked to Tom, whose cerebral wheels were turning. Both tapped a forefinger on villainous, smiling, pursed lips.
“Batman and Scroggin?” suggested Tom.
“Too long. How about Scroggin Thicke?” Peter, the vigilant verbal editor.
“Guys,” I implored, “just try it. It’s good. It’s got peanuts and raisins and—”
“I’ve got it,” Peter a-ha’d. “Scrogginson Crusoe.”
Tom the miser flipped a dime to the bellhop, took a popped bottle of Cristal to his lips, and rejoined Peter in their shared belly laugh.
Boy-o, this Scrogginson Crusoe missed his daughter.
She’d been a young great fourth-grader. She was good at it. All the long division. She’d wanted to one day be in bands. Play the tuba and Hammond. Celene had liked Becker and Frasier and Reba and Roseanne. She liked Bookworm. She liked This American Life. She liked… Well, Celene liked a lot of things.
There bent over the table was Chris. He was with us but alone, removing bits of white plastic from the false bouquet at the plastic table lousy with false woodgrain.
Before Chris met his wife he was a marine.
Not until this trip into the Morongoian liver of darkness did I know one could retrieve and hold P.T.S.D. from basic training alone.
More on Chris and his fear of water later. More on everyone’s fears later.
I set up my bed on the floor between the two queen beds. I folded the car cover in half and gently rested a throw pillow I’d borrowed from my father where I expected my head would land if I could make it back to the room after I killed my daughter’s killer. Can one sleep off murder like one does a hangover?
No longer did I own a sleeping bag.
The pillow’s embroidered with the advice, “YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT. AVOID WIEN.” The inverse of my grandmother’s ribald humor was her spatial understanding.
Next to the pillow went the simply framed photograph of my daughter at eight. This, like the car cover, was folded in half. My wife’s arm wrapped around my daughter’s shoulder. The black felt backing that matches the black frame makes the left half of the image a rectangular section of dark matter.
The sight of it was sucking me into resentment, making my blood boil. I told the guys I was going outside for a cigarette. They reminded me I didn’t need to go outside, just down to the casino floor. Tom said he’d join me.
Peter stayed behind to alphabetize his rations. I saw him pulling into his nostrils the bouquet from a bottle of truffle oil as the heavy door closed harshly of its own accord.
By the time the elevator reached the casino I’d forgotten my anger. Tom has an inimitable ability to distract one from whatever they’re doing, or in this case, thinking.
“And that’s when I realized the Peace Corps is really, when you think about it, a shell corporation. Hey you should write a story about that.”
“I will, I will,” I told him.
The horse-wrangler we’d seen at Morongo’s entrance had with him two white mares with teal manes, which he led into the elevator as we exited.
“They’ll let anyone in here,” said Tom.
Patrick Benjamin is a writer living near Los Angeles. He lives with his sister and grandmother.