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We’ve all felt lonely at some time in our lives, and for many of us, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated these feelings. Since early 2020, we have probably ended up spending even more time online — often in a state of “connected detachment” — than we normally would have. Consolation can seem in short supply under such conditions. And they can make it hard to trust others, harder still to work through our divisions.
Fortunately, there is a solution. Reading and writing are generally solitary acts, but they don’t need to be lonely acts. On the contrary, at their heart is a wager that we can make connections and improvise communities around our best thoughts and experiences, our hunger to identify and understand.
So, over the next few weeks, let’s turn to Litro Magazine’s Loneliness issue for some much-needed consolation. As we read these compelling stories and essays — heart-breaking, funny, and sage in turn — let’s reach out and make some meaningful connections. Let’s be lonely together.
(If you haven’t heard back from us regarding your submission, worry not. The theme of “loneliness” inspired many writers and artists to send us work, and our editors are working through the submissions, which will be considered for other online sections of Litro Magazine. Thank you for your patience.)
The screen was glazed with schmutz, so he pulled a baby wipe from his backpack and rubbed it down. Belly against the bar, he fed in a twenty and played a few hands, and when his cocktail came, he took a long sip and felt better. He couldn’t complain. The free room upstairs had fallen out of the sky. Usually that only happened with cheap T-shirts and caps with corporate logos, and he didn’t mind wandering around LA like a clown in a sandwich board. But with the economy tanked, they’d pay even someone like him to come to Vegas.
Besides, his ex-wife lived here. It would have been their 40th anniversary next New Year’s if they’d gotten past those first eight months. He’d last spoken with her around the time of the Jimmy Carter malaise speech, and she’d talked him down. A lot of dread in those days – 22 and 62 had something in common, he guessed.
Before he took the hotel bait, he’d Googled her, found her and her third husband’s testimonial for some steakhouse and an over-40 5K fundraiser she’d run fifteen years ago. No pics but eventually a landline. Where was the harm? Happen to be in town, buy you a drink type of thing. She seemed to care about him once, in another lifetime. So he caught the 6 a.m. ten dollar Chinatown bus that Tuesday and sat trying to remember her face. He’d almost have it, then up would pop some TV actress from the 70s, somebody else no longer there. But he remembered how she felt. Head against the bus window passing a car lot, he caught the day’s first ascent of Floppy Inflatable Tube Man.
Down a martini and up a few bucks, he heard, “You know you can’t win, right?” Three stools down sat a guy in a white shirt, tie loose, gelled hair, 40s, giving him the fish eye with a smirk.
“You can’t win. Not that. That video shit. Those machines don’t know how to lose, not for more than a few minutes. Like vending machines that fuck with you, give you candy now and then.”
“Programmed to paralyze, keep you playing, plus the casinos save on tits and bowties. Look around, what keeps this town alive – losers.”
Just what he needed. “Look, I’ve had a long day.”
“Man, you are not alone.” The guy signaled to the bartender, a finger wave at both their glasses.
“No, please, I don’t – ”
“Yeah, I know.” Then quieter, “Don’t worry about it.”
“Okay.” Shit. “Thanks.”
“Forget it,” he said. “Now play your game, lose your game.”
He did. Won. Lost. Lost. Nursed his second free martini.
“Retired?” the guy asked.
“No.” Hated that question. “I mean, more or less.”
“Hard to get used to, right? My Pops – ” he started to say. Then, “Fuck my Pops, right?”
“If you say so.” He was losing steadily now, like the guy told him, but feeling the gin.
“I could retire,” the guy said. “But why should I? Look at me working. Could I do better than this?”
“Yeah, this,” he said, then frowned. “Hey, can I ask you a personal question? Your ear – is that a prosthesis?”
“Huh? Oh – . No – ” He’d sunburned it dozing on the bus from LA then slathered it with the lotion sample in his room.
“I was gonna say, they didn’t bother to match the skin tone.”
“It’s just – ”
“I used to box so I know.”
“ – nothing serious.”
“Sure. We’re all gonna die.”
“Can’t win that one either. ‘The longer you’re here, the more you shall lose.’ That’s fucking Scripture.”
“Sure.” The guy wouldn’t shut up, but it wouldn’t matter soon. Playing by rote, now he was down to a few bucks. Though he didn’t really want to go back to his room, watch TV again. It used to relax, reassure him, TV, when it was one thing or something else, you made a choice. Now it was everything and nothing, and everybody was in on the joke, if that’s what it was. They weren’t just there to be watched like Andy Griffith or Beaver Cleaver. Now it was all a big party and they were watching him, sometimes directly, sometimes out of the corner of their eye, leering, making sure he wasn’t going anywhere. It was annoying, if sort of flattering. Soon as he checked in, he’d turned on some free soft porn – a reality show about a middle-aged schoolteacher paying to get rogered by a dry-wall guy. They showed almost everything. He wanked, napped, figured he’d call his ex later.
“They call me Beltran.”
Gabby guy had his hand out so he had to lean over to reach it, shake it, haltingly say, “Johnson” – sounded a little more likely than Smith or Jones.
“Last names, man to man,” Beltran said. “My father’s Puerto Rican, but I take after my Moms – she was Dutch or something.”
“The little Dutch girl. European occupation. Anyway. I’m Beltran.”
Game about over and drinking for free, he felt some obligation to talk to the guy. “You said,” losing another dollar, “you’re working right now?”
“Yes, I am,” said Beltran with a wink.
“For the casino?”
“Not exactly.” He tossed back his drink, signaled for two more, then got serious. “Let me ask you something, Johnson,” he said. “What do you notice about this place – like, where we are right now, sitting here.”
He frowned, shrugged.
“Look around,” Beltran said, “or no, close your eyes – shit, doesn’t matter what you do. Just ask yourself, what is it about this place, about all these mooks and mullet models wandering around, drinking, playing, goofing, farting, that’s just completely fucking astounding?”
He looked around, no idea what the guy was getting at but sure he’d tell him. “What?”
Beltran took a moment, swept an arm out over the gaming floor. “Each and every one of these human people, Johnson, is quite – fucking – comfortable. Sure, they don’t know their assholes from Mount St. Helens and may be miserable or manic or just stupid, but check it out. We are in the middle of the fucking desert, in the middle of fucking July, in the middle of the fucking night when it is still ninety-fucking-something degrees outside, and short, tall, fat, small, one and all – arereasonablybodily comfortable.”
“So. That’s me. What I do. Doing right now. Auditing the HVAC, amigo.”
Another cocktail landed in front of him. “H – huh?”
“Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning, with the emphasis on the latter. This place is not here without it. No existe, ese! A figment of some mobster’s imagination.”
“Actually, my room is kind of warm.”
“Yeah, they do that, fuck with you, try to get you downstairs. Can’t spend enough money in your room.”
“Tell you what, Johnson, you broke yet?”
He looked at the screen. “Close enough.”
“Finish up. I’m gonna show you something.”
Too woozy to protest, he gulped down the third martini, studied the glass for a moment before deciding where to put it, then sort of flowed off his stool – probably a mistake, but he needed to move anyway. This Beltran seemed harmless enough, just one of those characters.
He followed him out of the bar and down a hallway behind the restaurant then right through the kitchen – like Ray Liotta at the Copacabana, if not Bobby Kennedy at the Ambassador. Fun, kind of. Beltran grabbed a plastic bucket and filled it from an ice machine, handed it to him, took two towels off a housekeeping cart and led him out a back door into the hot night. He beeped open the trunk of a white Acura and pulled out a bottle and two plastic cups, then kept on across the parking lot. As they passed the big fountain out front Beltran dunked the towels then carried them dripping to the emptiest end of the lot, near a loading dock.
There he stopped, glanced back at him, then flung both his arms wide. “Mira, ese!” he shouted, “the Big Unit.” Behind a chain-link fence beyond the pavement rose an enormous array of droning machinery. “One of my favorite places in the world: the most accessible HVAC plant in Vegas, where the comfort comes from. Sabotage this and the hotel, the casino – boom, out of business. Go down the Strip, take ’em all out – bing bang boom, destroy a city.”
A guy in uniform stepped out on the loading dock. “Solo yo, Carlos!” Beltran called, and after a moment, the guy withdrew. “He was looking at your backpack. What have you got in there, anyway – wait, don’t tell me, the most important shit that you possess at this moment, right?”
He swayed slightly, trying to recall. Aside from his journal and marked-up If You Find Me directive, nothing seemed that crucial. “Sure,” he said, and looking back at the hotel handed Beltran the ice bucket. “Listen, I gotta pee.”
“Over there,” said Beltran, “by the fence. Where I go.”
Abruptly critical, the urge sent him stumbling over the curb. He grabbed a handful of chain-link, unzipped, and, easing his stream past his prostate, patiently watched it fall, smelling asparagus from the dinner buffet. He was very drunk.
By the time he got back, Beltran was sitting on the curb, shirt undone, spreading the wet towels on the asphalt. He poured on the ice then rolled them tight. “Here, pull your shirt up and wrap this around you, just above your waist,” he said, “then tie off the ends.” He took off his shirt and demonstrated. “Like this, bellybutton high. Cools down your core, man. Little trick,” he said, “for life in hell.”
He hesitated then did as he was told, barely getting it around his paunch. He shivered. “It’s already melting, running into my pants!”
“That’s the way, ese! Let it go, let it flow. Air’s too dry for crotch rot, bro.”
He managed to sit down next to Beltran who handed him a cup and poured a couple of inches of something clear. “Viva la vida,” he said and they drank.
All right, he thought, here he was, wrapped in ice, feeling no pain, sitting with a stranger in a parking lot off the Vegas Strip. And out beyond the hotels, the casinos, the lights, his ex-wife likewise sat somewhere. He would know soon, he would see her. But what would she say when she saw him? She’d only known him a lifetime ago. Who was that? he would ask her. Who should he have been? Did he seem any different now?
Beltran eyed him. “Johnson, you know the one about the frog in the pot of water on the stove?”
“See, that’s my dream. Vegas is the frog, and we’re the cooks. That’s one of the stoves behind us. One by one we hack into the HVAC systems of all the casinos in town, program the compressors to gradually put out less and less, and day by day, little by little, every gaming pit, every show lounge, every cum-stained VIP suite in Sin City gets hotter and hotter, maybe half a degree a day so nobody bitches much, till by the end of the summer all the assholes in Vegas will have crawled up inside themselves to die.”
“You could do that?”
“Me, I’m in sales. But I know a guy. Kid in tech. Untraceable, he told me.”
“You think it’s funny?” Beltran glared at him – then grinned, kissed his fingertips. “Fuck yeah it is. Like that movie? Call it Beltran’s Eleven: you, me, the kid – and who needs the other eight motherfuckers.”
He had to laugh. Beltran was okay. And he was happy enough to sit there with him in an empty corner of no-place, pants soaking wet, drunk. Maybe he’d made a friend. The moon was up. He felt like a man.
“So, Johnson,” Beltran said, “what the fuck you doing here?”
He shrugged. “They gave me a free room.”
“Of course they did.”
“Plus, my ex-wife lives here.”
“She lives here? What is she, a pro?” Beltran poked him in the side. “Just fucking with you.”
“I don’t know what she is,” he said, shook his head, “but I want to see her.”
“When you guys split?”
Beltran did a spit take. “The year I was fucking born?”
“If you say so.”
“You could be my Papi, Papi!”
“I haven’t even talked to her in 35 years.”
“Jesus. She find you on Facebook or some shit?”
“No, nobody found anybody. I mean, I did find her phone number, but I haven’t used it yet.”
“She’s gonna shit, man. How long you married?”
“Less than a year.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Beltran wagged his tongue. “You want some more of that?”
“Never stopped anybody.”
“It’s not like that.”
“What the fuck’s it like?”
He took a drink, watched a Winnebago float into the lot. “I just want to talk to her.”
“I don’t know. I mean, I don’t remembermuch.”
“There was one time, before we got married, I went to her house, met her family. Her stepdad had a bar in the garage, had a curtain around it he made out of pull-top tabs from beer cans – remember those?”
Beltran shrugged. “Seen pictures maybe.”
“Big jangly aluminum curtain. Tens of thousands of beer can tabs. Said he drank every one.”
“Sounds like a funny dude.”
“Was, sort of. But he didn’t like me. Hardly looked at me.”
“Perv had a chubby for his stepdaughter,” Beltran said. “So why’d you marry her?”
“She let me sleep with her.”
“Beltran, I was barely 21,” he said, “and she was making me happy. So I tried to make her happy. I worked at it, you know? Kept at it. But after a while I just – lost heart. I mean, it was wearing me out. Nobody told you that. Day after day the same, more or less. Soon enough she figured out all I really wanted was to get off. But then I had to remind myself: I loved her. So when she left I took sixty aspirin and a bottle of NyQuil.”
“Fuck that. What happened?
“Good job,” Beltran said, and topped him off. “Live free or die,” he toasted, and they drank. “Don’t get me wrong, Johnson, I love women. Yo, they’re like natural – phenomena, know what I’m saying? Like, I don’t fucking know – these mountains. Barely see them now, but they’re all around us. Some nicer to look at than others, sure, but each has a pull, has a power, am I right? And they’re good for the downtime – a morning climb, the view from the ridge, picnics in the canyon – poontang, yeah?” He smiled. “I got a wife. Not going anywhere. Knows who I am. I don’t always know what the fuck’s with her, but so what? You can’t know everything, man, much as I like to prove otherwise. Some things you never know.”
“But why, Beltran,” he said, “does everybody seem to know more than me?”
“Because they’re afraid not to. Nobody knows, man.”
He turned away, closed his eyes, and though he still couldn’t see her face, went straight back to the time they first touched, kissed, that sinking surrender to her eyes and arms and mouth, to being squeezed and tasted and eaten up by someone. There she’d been. She really had been. Was she still? God, he needed to talk to her. He’d meant to call already and it was getting late. By this time, she was probably lying in bed with the husband, watching TV, snacking. That’s what they used to do. TV was on the dresser to one side so they had to sit sideways with their pillows against the wall. After sex. “I hope she likes me, Beltran.”
“Yo, whatever,” he said. “All this talk about fucking’s got me jacked. Check it out.”
A glance and he jumped. Beltran lay back on his elbows, his wet pants scrunched down, his dick out and standing up. “Mira, can you still make your Johnson do this, Johnson?”
“I gotta go.”
“Oh, no you don’t.” Beltran grabbed at him, laughing, but he scrambled out of reach to his knees. “Yo, don’t stress, I’ll leave you a little for wifey.”
He lurched to his feet, almost fell, pulled off the towel then reeled away, moving as quickly as he could and still stay upright.
“Aw, c’mon man, what’s the difference?” he heard behind him. “Two minutes! Help a friend out here!”
“Sorry,” he said, not looking back.
“Yeah? Well go fuck yourself then, loser! Sorry old teddy bear.”
He left Beltran like that, staggered back across the parking lot. He pushed headlong into the chilled casino, his sodden clothes turning icy, sucked in a breath, and got a lungful of tobacco smoke. People gawked at him – shirt open, pants wet, hacking – but there was a tolerance for such displays here. When he got to his room, he knelt at the toilet to puke, Beltran’s necktie swinging against the bowl. He couldn’t remember how he’d ended up with it.
He woke in a sweat, terrified. It was dark. Someone was in bed next to him, passed out. He didn’t dare look, but he could sense it, smell it. Shit, how did he get in here? Well, nothing he could do about it now. He was exhausted. As long as the guy stayed on his side he figured he could make it till morning. Then he’d call her. He just needed a little rest. He tried to roll over away from him but couldn’t move. He strained, twitching, trying to make his body obey. Was he tied down? Finally, with a whimper, he went up on an elbow –
Eyes wide, he was on the bathroom floor, panting, damp. Alone. He looked out at the bed. No one. The light was on, and he was suffering. He got his head back over the toilet, let go the rest of it.
He stripped and left his clothes where they fell, climbed under the covers, and lay trembling. Felt like he was dying, but he’d lived through worse. He watched the lights of the Strip faintly play on the popcorn ceiling, calming him.
And there, at last, he saw her, her face smiling down at him, bold and open, just as she’d been forty years ago. “Stay where you are,” he said out loud. “I’m coming.”
When he woke again the room was bright. Someone knocking. He jumped, looked at his phone – after eleven. Checkout time, maid at the door. He took a 30-second shower, stuffed everything into his backpack, went downstairs. Bought a coffee and some aspirin, found a quiet corner of the lobby. Shaky, he sat, unfolded the soggy scrap of paper from his wallet and pulled out his phone.
“Hello?” a kid’s voice answered. He asked to speak with her. “Who? Oh. Um. Wait.” A shout: “Gram!” A muffled answer, and the boy saying, “I don’t know, some man.”
Then, “Hello?” Her voice, tentative, abstracted, reached him through the years. Her voice, but buried.
He identified himself. A moment passed.
“My word,” she said, “is it really?”
“It’s been a long time,” he said.
“Well, it certainly – Lindsay, don’t run!” Then: “Pardon me.”
He said, “So how are you?” and without waiting for an answer asked if she’d like to have a cup of coffee or how about breakfast, he was only in town for the day, wondered if she might like to get together and talk.
“Oh? Well, that might be nice, but my grandson is here. He has his little friends from school over for a pool party. As a matter of fact, they’re out there now and I should be with them – I mean, they know how to swim, these are 11-year-old boys, but I really should be keeping an eye. Lindsay! Lindsay, wait! I’m sorry, he’s a smart boy, my grandbaby, but he doesn’t always do what’s smart, if you know what I mean. Of course, they’re a little wild at that age, they take risks and somebody needs to be there to keep the worst from happening. Though what could I do, jump in and sink like a stone? Still, my daughter-in-law is trusting me to keep an eye, so. Let me just see how far I can stretch this cord. Lindsay! Boys, please, don’t go in the pool till I come out!” He heard a splash, giggling. “I’m sorry, I really do have to go,” she said. “Is there another time?”
“Well, I mean – I just have a few questions.”
More laughter, screams, splashing, louder now. He pictured her there, phone pulled to the window, watching the kids as best she could while trying to listen to him.
“You know what?” he said, “that’s okay. I’ll call back. Another time.”
“All right then, sorry, thanks very much for calling,” she said. “Goodbye.”
“Goodbye,” he said, once he knew she’d hung up.
He put the phone in his pocket, her number back in his wallet, then went in for the breakfast buffet. Scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, home fries, biscuits and gravy, strawberry waffle with whipped cream, coffee, stashing a few muffins in his backpack for later. He knew the more he ate the better he’d feel. The restaurant had a nice, gently used men’s, and before he finished, he went and sat there a while, another good idea.
Later, when he took the last of his money out to pay the check, the number fell out on the counter. When the cashier handed him his change, he nodded at the scrap. “Would you mind tossing that for me?” he said. “Thanks.”
Then he went back to the lobby, stood at the window looking out at another blinding day, and began wondering how he was going to find his way home.
Jack Garrett has worked in radio in Colorado and New Mexico and performed onstage in New York where he helped start a theatre company. His fiction publications include The Literary Review, The New Orleans Review, Fugue, Natural Bridge, The Portland Review, The Santa Monica Review, Quarter After Eight, The Los Angeles Review, Monkey Bicycle, Witness, and The Superstition Review. He is also an audiobook narrator.