Never Leaving Las Vegas

Written By Meg Elison

Meg Elison is a Philip K. Dick and Locus award winning author, as well as a Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Otherwise awards finalist. A prolific short story writer and essayist, Elison has been published in Slate, McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fangoria, Uncanny, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley.

When my grandmother died, she loved three things: scotch, soap operas, and gambling. It’s hard to write a eulogy for someone nobody really liked, and embarrassing to describe someone’s life when those were their identifying features. She had been a bad mother and a diffident grandparent. She had smoked the whole time lung cancer was taking her apart from the inside out, pack of Parliaments in one hand and oxygen tank marked NO OPEN FLAMES in the other.

Her passing wasn’t particularly sad and certainly wasn’t unexpected. I watched the adults in my life plan her funeral coldly, clearly annoyed at the expense of it all. We didn’t expect a crowd at the wake and there was almost no one to notify; she had outlived or alienated everyone she knew. The mortuary shipped us her ashes in a nondescript brown plastic box. It looked like an artifact of a 1970s office set, as outdated as a Rolodex, pebbled like the hard-shell cover for a typewriter. It suited her. The box sat around the house for months as my mom and her sister tried to decide what they should do with the cremains.

“She hated nature,” my aunt said. “Seems almost cruel to put her anywhere outside.”

“Good,” my mom said, exhaling the smoke that would kill her, too. “Fuck her. I hear the city dump is nice.”

My aunt rolled her eyes. “We should try to honor her wishes.”

“What wishes?” My mom’s voice was like a wasp in the ear; irritating until it could find a way to hurt you. “She had no money, no will, and left us no instructions. Her wish was to be a bitch, and she got that wish every day for seventy years. I’m thinking of pouring her into the litter box.”

My aunt stood up and stretched her back, I think just to avoid looking at my mother, who looked just like the bitch in the box. “What did she love? Where was she happy?”

“Not us,” my mom said, lighting her next Kool. “Not here.”

“Vegas.” I shouldn’t have spoken and I knew it. They both looked at me like they’d forgotten I existed.

“What?” My aunt turned around to face me.

“She loved Vegas. She said so all the time. She was happy there.”

“Because she could drink and gamble and pass out every day. Because that’s normal there.” My mom puffed a ring of smoke that rose to the yellowing fixture. “All right. Fine. Let’s take her to the desert.”

“And do what?” My aunt looked confused, fanning the air in front of her face as if that could ward off cancer. “We can’t just dump her on the strip.”

“We probably can,” my mom countered. “We just have to not tell anyone what we’re doing.”

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    I love Las Vegas, but not like my grandmother did. I don’t gamble, and I can’t drink like she did. I love tawdry magic of it; the hotels lit up like electric diamonds, the overblown stage shows and endless food that has no business being in Nevada. Vegas is the only place where I suspend my rules about sushi (not to be eaten anywhere more than a 2-hour drive from the sea).

    I loved it as a child, too. There was a brief and ill-starred campaign to revamp Vegas into a family destination that coincided with my grandmother’s death. I was eleven years old; I wanted nothing more than a big bathtub and to be left unsupervised at a vat of buffet gravy (NB: not much has changed) and Vegas offered those things. Living in southern California meant it was a short drive to the city of bright lights and broken dreams. We set out at midnight with Grandma in the trunk.

    My mom turned twenty dollars into quarters and dumped the quarters into the tacky brown box of ashes. She then fished them out and put them into a plastic bucket, pointing me toward the arcade at Circus Circus. For an hour, I pumped those dusty quarters into steel machines that made a lot of noise and gave me nothing back. I can’t think of a better way to honor my progenitrix; I was literally following in her empty, joyless footsteps.

    At different casinos, up and down the strip, my mother and her sister fed coins gummy with human remains into different slot machines. They lost pieces of her to a chance to win a car, to the promise of big jackpots. They dipped their money into her ashes and fed hungry slot after hungry hole, pieces of their mother clinging to the grooves in a dead president’s face. Not a single machine paid out more than a dollar or two, and about half of the ashes were gone.

    “We have to leave in the morning,” my aunt reminded us. “I’ve got work tomorrow night.”

    My mom shook the box. Little chips of bone rattled inside. “Come on,” she said.

    Night is Las Vegas’ mask. Without it, you can see her awful scars, how tired she is. The scabs around her mouth melt into the darkness if you can forget what you saw by day. We walked down the strip to a construction site where there would one day be a new casino hotel. The crew wasn’t working; the site was silent. My mother, ever the petty criminal, found a break in the fence. We took the box to a concrete mixing form and tipped them out right there, mixing in with the rest of the dust.

    The cost of a real columbarium is anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. For the low low price of a tank of gas and $120 in quarters, my grandmother was laid to rest all across the Las Vegas strip and in the foundation of what would one day become the Bellagio.

    In the morning, I talked them into one last decadent breakfast buffet. I asked the pastry chef to torch me a couple of crèmes brulee, and I climbed into the car certain I’d be unconscious before the state line.

    Somewhere out on that desert highway, my mom stuck the ugly brown box out the window and tapped it on the bottom as one does a ketchup bottle. Ashes streamed out, and some flew in the open rear passenger window, landing on my lips, waking me from sleep.