A few months back some of us at Trop thought it might be fun or something to have a weekly poker night. Low stakes. Fifty-dollar buy-in.
I’ve won some. I’ve lost more. I still don’t really understand the rules.
Each time we play I’m reminded of a special time. A particular experience. A truly terrible night.
In large part this is due to my hatred of poker culture, this hybridization of “tiki culture,” “surf culture,” and “Old Vegas.” You know, the short-sleeved black shirts with the flames up the stomach, back, and biceps (think Guy Fieri, but don’t think about him for too long), Easter Island heads on everything, fuzzy dice hanging from a rearview mirror.
Surfboards on shirts, shirts hot with flaming dice, rococo drinks with an otherworldly mist rising up to meet fat, bleach-blond-goateed guzzlers of diluted but once great things.
That Nevadan dirt-city that could never have been (but was and is) blended with the Polynesian mythos of violent bodies of dark water swallowing wiry-haired surfers.
Soy sauce-smelling fatsos lie in their waterbeds with visions of noble wave-chasers dancing in their heads. Long-ashed cigarettes burn holes in zebra-print sheets.
To them surfing is all moonlit, heroic doom-rides and eternal sunsets. Wipeouts and shredded wet suits.
This sad archetype’s bedroom is the intersection at which stands a Sinatra CD box set, an autographed B52’s glossy, a framed Stratocaster (never played), a stack of Spencer Gifts receipts, and an Arby’s punch card.
From above this sad sort’s bed a be-sunglassed Vince Vaughn grins while shoving a martini in your face.
“Vegas,” they might say. “Every March, baby.”
The Rat Pack and Dick Dale. Con Air and The Growlers. Bugsy, Bellagio, and Annette Funicello. They miss you, Annette.
Frankie Avalon; they’re to miss you soon, but not as much.
It appears that we, through me, have strayed.
It was a little over a year ago that a groom’s last night of freedom became day and that day became my nightmare. Yes, the night that men became symbols and symbols became obsolete. That historic ante-meridian as well as post-meridian experience we said we’d never speak of nor repeat.
All the guys involved, married or otherwise (most of them are married now), have granted me access to their recollections, as well as their trust. I’ve eschewed the former and am violating the latter.
Cabs are an expensive way to travel. Southern California sometimes demands that one spill sixty bucks to cross a short distance, as I was on my way from Brentwood to meet the Trop squad at the Edendale home of our most responsible, though troubled, confederate.
Chevron, Shell, ARCO, Mobil—petrolic panthers passed as I made razor-thin conversation with my Egyptian valet.
“What you do tonight?” he asked.
Dehydrated from the previous night’s drunken planning, I responded gruffly.
“I’m going to kill someone. And my friend’s getting married.”
The Egyptian laughed. “Different things.”
Different things indeed.
My Trop colleague and dear friend Chris Black and his fiancée had decided to wed. At the time I’d been chasing the man who killed my daughter for two years, and our excursion to the Morongo Spa, Resort, and Casino was to be my first break in as much time. But anyone who’s chased someone in the hopes of enacting vengeance knows there’s no vacation from justice.
Santa Monica blurred away like a shaken Etch A Sketch as I peered through the back window. Ahead of us lay a diamond-studded trail of tears to a gargantuan obelisk: a maker and breaker of dreams.
Morongo is shorthand for The Morongo Casino, Resort, and Spa. It began as a bingo hall in 1983. By the end of our stay there only one of us had played bingo.
Morongo is also shorthand for innocent dancing, unrequested (and unrequited) lap dances, subterranean desert hog baking, four a.m. fist fights, no regrets, absolute and permanent regret, and a room service bill the size of a small country’s GDP.
Normal bachelor party stuff.
The Egyptian pulled away, leaving me on the curb outside of the Chris Black abode with my two bags. One: black nylon and packed with essentials. Two: an old leather suitcase filled with unwashed clothes, various toiletries, Trivial Pursuit cards, Risk sans board, and some nifty binoculars.
I slung the bags over my shoulder and knocked on Chris’s very red front door.
A shirtless Tom Dibblee swung open the door and greeted me with an oven-mitted hand. He escorted me to the backyard where Chris was trimming his topiaries with ordinary preschool scissors.
I said hello but knew I’d get no response.
Chris is serious about his topiaries. Obsessive is another adjective batted about. With the precision of a surgeon he’d sculpted foot-tall renditions of Jessica Rabbit, Jar Jar Binks, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, busts of Jim Henson and Abbie Hoffman, and Trop’s own Peter Nichols in repose.
Without asking I went and shoved my bags in the trunk of Chris’s car, then went inside and made myself a drink. I drank it and made myself another. I drank that one and made myself another.
Tom exited the restroom in a tuxedo, spinning a plastic ball and chain, grinning like only Tom does.
I passed him a bourbon and water, which he nimbly downed while removing oatmeal cookies from the oven that was making the morning so terribly hot.
A skunk was in our midst.
We made small talk and waited for Chris to finish what we’d later be introduced to: twelve inches of a verdant Ella Fitzgerald, with microphone no less, cut off at the waist by the lawn.
In the meantime, Tom lectured me on Spanish idioms, but was interrupted by the pounding, bouncing bass-lines of Bootsy Collins. As the funk grew closer Tom and I synchronously mouthed, Peter Nichols.
We headed toward the front door, which was kicked open with Peter charging over the threshold, Nerf darts smacking Tom and me in our torsos and faces. Two of the orange suckers stuck to the window overlooking the backyard, and Chris was suddenly inside, screaming, “Don’t fucking fuck with my shit you fucking Bolsheviks.”
When Chris gets angry he adopts the delivery of Sam Kinison mixed with the epithetic choice of Joseph McCarthy. It’s a problem.
The groom-to-be saw that it was Peter who was fucking with his shit. His rage turned to sentimental respect and the two went through their “secret” handshake.
When they had their shoes back on we got everything into Chris’s car and began our trek east.
Patrick Benjamin is a writer living near Los Angeles. He lives with his sister and grandmother.