What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but it's hard to forget the dead bodies.
I was born in Las Vegas, and despite the dead bodies, mafia encounters, and dangerous lizards, I remember my childhood as remarkably ordinary, almost boring.
I was raised in Henderson, just south of Las Vegas, and although the two cities are now indistinguishable, this was not always the case. When I was young, Vegas was the Rat Pack, mafia, and neon glitz. Henderson was a blue-collar, gritty, working-class town populated largely by Mormons who worked at the petrochemical plants in the desert between the two cities. Las Vegas celebrated The Strip with gambling and showgirls. Henderson celebrated Industrial Days — an actual holiday — with a carnival and parade.
The industrial complex is hidden now, the old desert buffer filled with miles of identical houses. You’d have to know the factories were there to see them. People still work there, but the cities try to hide the blue collars. Henderson no longer celebrates Industrial Days; it celebrates Heritage Days.
I grew up in a small house on the outskirts of town and shared a bedroom with my two brothers. It was probably crowded with three boys in one small room, but I don’t remember it that way. We had bunk beds, a couple of dressers, and a well-used toy box. Despite the tight space, there always seemed room enough to build baseball-card houses and Lego cities. The walls were papered in red, white and blue stripes, and the carpet was a Cookie-Monster blue. I’m sure it was horrendous, but I remember it fondly. It was a kids’ room. It made no pretense of adulthood.
My older sister had her own room. It was green. Not just any green, but a make-the-wizard-of-Oz-green-with-envy green. It had fantastic green furniture that my parents bought from a Hilton Hotel fire sale. It was from an actual fire — the furniture was slightly smoke damaged.
Every year my parents tried to grow grass in our front and back yards, and every year they failed. In the battles between lawns and the Mojave, the Mojave usually wins. We had two large trees in the front and two in the back. At least they seemed large. I was small then, and the trees have long since been removed, so nobody can disprove me. My brothers and I spent so much time in those trees that our neighbors might have thought we were monkeys. There was one difference, though — monkeys don’t fall out of trees, and we frequently did.
My best friends lived behind me, in houses separated by an obstacle called a fence. Luckily, my friends and I climbed fences better than I climbed trees, and we spent countless hours building forts in our yards and throwing pomegranates at each other that we picked from a large bush. If you’ve never been hit in the head with a pomegranate, I don’t suggest you try it.
We rode our bikes to school and to scout meetings and into the desert to find and capture lizards. Some of the lizards, like Gila monsters and chuckwallas, were poisonous or had nasty bites. Naturally we wanted these the most. If you had a chuckwalla, you were the coolest kid on the block. We were better at capturing them than keeping them, though. We’d bring them home and put them in a glass aquarium on the back patio, and somehow they’d always escape. Years later, my mom told me that she paid an older neighbor boy to take the lizards back to the desert during the night. I guess she didn’t care about our status.
Once, while looking for lizards, the desert provided an unexpected surprise. My friend and I had ridden our bikes a mile or two into the desert on an old dirt road and were looking for ringtail lizards in a pile of concrete slabs that seemingly existed for no other reason than to house lizards. We saw a ringtail dart under a large slab and figured if we tossed the slab to the side the lizard would come out and we’d catch it. We’d done this many times. What could go wrong? With my friend hefting one side of the heavy slab and me on the other, we tossed it aside. There wasn’t a lizard. There was a dead body in a tuxedo. It wasn’t bloated or decomposing. It was fresh. I don’t think I slept for a week. There’s a Vegas lesson: sometimes life is like a pile of concrete slabs — you never know what you’re going to get.
A few years later my mother turned over her own dead bodies when a drunken man came into our family restaurant and explained to her, in great detail, how he’d spent his life killing for the mafia. He gave her an odd, small golden mouse figurine and said he’d return for it at the same time in one week. My mom immediately called a Mormon friend in the FBI and an Italian friend in a connected “family,” who both said they’d be there when the hit man returned. I begged my mom to let me go. I was sure it was going to be just like The Godfather. She said no, which was just as well because only a few disappointed FBI agents showed up. Later, my mom asked her “connected” friend if the hit man had been telling the truth, and if she should worry for her safety. He smiled and said, “It’s taken care of. Nobody will come after you.”
What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but I get to keep the memories.
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