Babylon, Nevada
Garrett Rowlan

I met Jorge Luis Borges in Barstow. The Vegas-bound bus, which had left Los Angeles at eight in the evening, had made a rest stop at a depot located in an old train station. A small convenience store was still open, and I bought a microwave-ready taco made palatable by a generous application of Tabasco sauce. Having eaten this concoction I went outside, and, about to re-board, I’d saw a man trying to enter the bus without success. He looked like a windup toy bumping against a wall. I took his elbow. He wore a panama hat and a linen coat. I knew who he was. I’d been thinking about him, and as I helped him into the bus I saw how the driver frowned as I guided my invisible companion with one lifted hand. The seat next to mine had been unoccupied. We both sat. I took the window seat.  

“What am I doing here?” Borges asked.

“Creative hallucination,” I told him. “I was just re-reading your story, ‘The Lottery at Babylon.’” I showed him my old paperback copy of Labyrinths. “I’ve been working on this paper. My theme is chance, a city devoted to chance, and I thought I might use your story as a backdrop, so to speak.” I gestured ahead. “So I thought how good it would be to have the author along for the ride, so to speak. Don’t worry. I’m only stopping there for a couple of days.”

“Babylon?”

“No, the closest thing we have to it, Las Vegas, a desert city devoted to chance. I’m heading to upstate Nevada to see an old friend who retired and left Los Angeles. I thought I would do some research on the way, you know, get the feel of Las Vegas and incorporate my impressions. I have a draft here.” I rummaged in my backpack. “Now that you’re here, perhaps you’d like a look.”

“I can’t read it.” Borges spoke in the raspy voice of his 1967 Harvard lectures, which had been delivered by a nearly blind man speaking from memory. “I’m blind.”

“Right,” I said. “I thought that being dead, you know, you might be restored to fully physical capacity.”

“It doesn’t work that way,” he said. He was obviously not inclined to tell me how it did work. His frown spoke dimensions, the labyrinth of bodiless existence he’d been summoned from and this veil of night and shadows he seemed loathe to occupy.

“I’ll tell you about my essay. It’s more like I story but I consider it an essay.”

With the sly smile of an escape artist, he began to evaporate, a slow molecular vanishing.

“I’m staying downtown,” I said, just before he dissolved.

When he disappeared someone else, a guy in a silk shirt carrying a book on how to win at video poker, took his seat. I had been talking to an empty seat, but all sorts of crazy people rode the bus.   

We went northeast, through the California night and entered Nevada at the blazing lights at Stateline, beaming on the emptiness of Alkali flats that surrounded them. Later, Las Vegas and its casino lights resembled in the distance the spread wings of some massive electrified bird. Borges would have relished this sight, or at least his younger version. Some of his early poems about Buenos Aires concerned suburbs built on the edge of nothing. Las Vegas made this contrast spectacular. I thought of atoms and the void: blazing casino lights against the night’s hard black.

The guy reading the video–poker book underlined a passage. People blinked, stirred, stretched out of their slumber. The Greyhound driver used his loudspeaker to roust riders. “Las Vegas, Nevada!” he boomed. In a softer voice he added, “Better late than never.” We had arrived behind schedule.

My hotel room turned out to be on the thirty-fourth and top floor. The view embraced a vast grid of twinkling lights. I thought of those aerial photos I’d seen, early pictures of Las Vegas from the early Fifties, casinos built along the highway with a backdrop of sage. Though civilization had grown in the years since, the desert always waits. I waited for someone too. At last, Borges materialized where the illumination was dim. His chair faced the window, and he leaned slightly toward the city lights as if he were being warmed by them.

“Hello again,” I said. “Can I get you anything?”

He shook his head. “You were saying?”    

“I’m writing this paper. It’s about your short story and chance and the city of Las Vegas. I mean, just the sight of Las Vegas from the bus put me in mind of the protagonist of your story, a nameless traveler who, looking back, tells us about the lottery in Babylon. At one time he must have approached the desert city with a sense of expectation.” I thought of my fellow bus passenger picking through his beat-the-odds book. “So I’m going to use some of your story.”

“You’re going to quote me?”

“Among other writers,” I said. “A couple of quotes are from John O’Brien’s Leaving Las Vegas.

I told him about O’Brien’s 1990 novel, and I mentioned in particular the fifth paragraph where the prostitute Sera waits for a trick near a convenience store and looking beyond the city limits, she sees in the distance a tall hill that she thinks of “overrated nonsense.” Nature as nonsense: It’s one of the strangest and saddest descriptions I have ever read, and somehow appropriate for Las Vegas. “I want to incorporate that quote. I can read to you what I have so far.”

“Some other time,” Borges said.

He vanished, a trick worthy of some casino floorshow. Soon I drifted off. I woke at nine the next day. After breakfast, I took my camera, a couple of books, and I did what I’ve done in previous Las Vegas excursions. The past is an endangered species here, and I’ve been keeping an unofficial chronicle of its disappearance. I’ve got pictures of old motels, Mom-and-Pop casinos, dry swimming pools: remnants of vanished pleasures. Nothing appealed to me, and so in the afternoon I returned to the hotel, napped, and rode a bus to the Strip. Ahead, as night fell, the casino lights glistened, and I remembered a line from Alan Watt’s 2000 novel Diamond Dogs. “From far off, Las Vegas looked like fun, a magical city beckoning everyone with the promise of hidden treasures, but before you knew it you were inside of it and it was devouring you.”    I got off at the Stratosphere. I was sick of buses, and traffic crawled down the Strip. I walked all the way down to the Tropicana, which is the casino where Sera gambles all night and then leaves. She walks, and the hotels appear as distant mirages. They take forever to reach and fall quickly behind her. “Soon,” John O’Brien writes, “where she has been looks like where she is going…” I felt the same way, as if I’m walking through mirrors, and the feeling only worsened once I was inside the Trop. I moved past shiny surfaces and the white noise of slots, a labyrinth of machines and of changing faces that stayed the same in essence. There were no windows or clocks.  

I sat at a bar and had a beer. My reflection shimmered up from obsidian, as if projected from the dark side of the moon. Mirrors, Borges wrote in a poem of the same name, are “infinite, elemental fulfillers of a very ancient pact, to multiply the world.”  After a couple of beers, I started to feel a little multiplied myself and definitely subtracted, particularly in the case of my wallet, from which I periodically extracted money in order to lose at video poker. Two beers and sixty dollars later, I decided to leave, living in one dimension was enough.

I crossed to the Excalibur, and inside it was much the same, slots and white noise, and as I paused to rail-bird a game of poker, I looked over my shoulder, and Borges smiled. He wore a suit and rose-colored sunglasses. Reflected in them, I was a gesticulating presence, a shock of hair, graying at the temples, and a thin mustache frosting slack lips.

I drew him aside. Something had occurred to me. I quoted to him the opening line to "The Lottery at Babylon." “Like all men in Babylon, I have been proconsul; like all, a slave.”

“And?”

“I’ve been thinking about that. If everyone’s life is like that, based on a whim, well, that can’t be good. I mean, having to change your life because your number in the lottery comes up wrong? Would a proconsul take to being a slave? I doubt it. Now multiply that situation a thousand times, a thousand people kicked out of jobs, and many others promoted or installed in positions for which they were not qualified, all on the basis of a lottery. It’s bad public policy. The results would be destructive and exponential. Though the story doesn’t say it, I have the feeling that the lottery in Babylon preceded some general collapse. The man at the beginning of your story, the traveler, he’s not leaving, he’s escaping.”

I saw a security guard walk past, eyeing me, and I knew that invisible cameras were watching me now. Perhaps they had alerted the uniformed guard to the middle-aged man who was talking to himself. I looked for exits in the featureless, enclosed distance. Borges smiled at my dilemma, or maybe at this modern version of the labyrinth, a commercialized maze of noise, smoke, and the hysterical din of “gaming.” At last, the elusive exit found, Borges took my sleeve as we stood on the street. His grip was as tight as a bird’s on a wire. Borges told me to close my eyes.

“When you get where you’re going,” Borges said. “This small desert town, walk out into the brush. Feel the silence there. Feel the absence of possibility. Feel nothing but pure presence. The presence of nothing. In that moment, remember what my story said toward the end. ‘The number of drawings of the lottery is infinite.’ Open your eyes.”

When I did, the poet was gone. I knew he wouldn’t return.

Walking on the Strip, I headed north. On the sidewalk, the faces poured toward me, and I saw in them an echo of that ancient anxiety, Babylon in the grasp of its lottery-fever, no one knowing who they were going to be after tomorrow’s drawing, the uncertainty showing on pulled-in features. As Alan Watt wrote in Diamonds Dogs, a look that was “tight-faced, closed-off, clinging to their dirty secrets. Las Vegas was a city of poker faces.” Weary of walking, I caught a bus.

As we inched forward, I recalled what Borges had said, how the number of drawings in Babylon was infinite. I understood him now. Chance is always in play, every second, and the things I saw, from the shards of glass distributed by a busted beer bottle to the slurred shouts of a couple’s sidewalk hassle to the precise damage of a fender bender, seen just past Treasure Island, suggested a vast binary process, a lottery continually conducted on a microscopic scale. Whatever metaphor Borges’s Babylon stood for—the randomness of God, fate, or history—I saw in living color, construction and collapse, that half-built casino and that half-dead man, lying on the sidewalk. It was all in front of me. I thought by contrast of my friend, the one I was heading to visit. He’d retired from teaching and sold his home. Now he and his wife live in a rural setting. Out his back door was nothing for fifty miles. It was that absence that appealed to me now. It’s something like Thoreau’s wish to live deliberately, given a twenty-first century twist.

We veered away from the Strip and ended downtown. I reached my hotel, lost twenty dollars more in the slots, drank, and rode the elevator. In my room, my head half in the bag, I looked through the same north-facing window and was glad I’d be gone tomorrow. I wanted to be away the lights, from the odds, and from Vegas’s thousand reflective surfaces. I wanted to be in that void, and to see if I could feel what Borges had suggested.

The next day in the bus depot I read the last, short chapter of Leaving Los Vegas. The prostitute Sera, summoned by her lover Ben after a two-week separation, finds him dying in a motel built on a stretch of ground that “could easily be imagined as vacant lots.” As we leave Las Vegas, I see half-built and/or abandoned houses on tracts where the weeds are beginning to take root, and over my shoulder I see the giant, glassine buildings receding, as if I were leaving behind a city of infinite mirrors. Soon, as the bus heads northeast, I pass the last billboard. Looking out from my window-side seat, I enter the desert that reflects back nothing, and where space looks as infinite as chance.                                   

Garrett Rowlan

retired in December, 2012, as a sub teacher from Los Angeles. Recently published in the Horror Zine and Shadow Masters, the Horror Zine anthology, he has forthcoming publications in Clare and the 10-year anthology of the Café Irreal.

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