Kissing Wayne Newton
by Ellen Slezak
I like Vegas. A day there, maybe two, with one hundred discretionary dollars in my pocket suits me. The C-note might disappear during an hour at a roulette wheel or it might regenerate, liver-like, and cover my expenses. Either way is fine. The gambling is a rush when I win, but I also like to walk the strip at night and look at the lights and the people. And during the day, a drive to Hoover Dam, about an hour east of the strip, is enough to make me nostalgic for the time when, or so I’m told, America worked. All to say that gambling, like writing, has its payoff in the process of doing it. I place the bet. The results are none of my business.
The first time I bought a lottery ticket I won. It was twenty-some years ago. I was twenty-four years old, living in Chicago. My day job as an assistant editor paid $10,000 a year, which was not enough to live on even then. At my night job as cashier at a fancy restaurant off Michigan Avenue, I earned five dollars an hour plus tips from the cigar buyers. This job came with a brotherhood (only men were allowed to serve tables) of red-coated waiters, who ran the lottery-ticket operations. On Fridays, Peter, large and Midwestern, and John, small and Lebanese, collected from the likes of Ricardo, old and Italian, Francese, middle-aged and French, Russell, clearly much older than the thirty years he admitted to and openly gay in a Broadway-meets-Divine kind of way, and me. Peter and John collected our dollars and recorded which numbers we wanted to play and whether we wanted to box them or play them straight. Then, after the five p.m. employee meal and before the floor opened at six, they ran to the city grocery on the corner and bought tickets. The night I won, Peter came back and handed me mine—“684” played straight, not boxed. An hour later, he whooped as he looked up at the TV in the adjoining bar and saw my numbers appear. I had just earned $464. I felt rich. By tradition, anybody who hit the daily numbers bought drinks later that night, but at midnight when we all walked around the corner to a late-closing bar, my waiter buddies, stubbornly chauvinist, refused me the honor of picking up the tab.
But this story isn’t about gambling. It’s about suffering. About Easter. In Vegas.
When I was a kid I had deeply ambivalent feelings about the Catholic Holy Week. (For my purposes here, I’ll stick to the Holy Weekend: Good Friday; Holy Saturday; and the final destination, Easter Sunday.) My calculations went something like this. Good Friday, when we colored our Easter eggs: add one for the holiday. Good Friday, when we went to church for hours, saying the stations of the cross and contemplating Jesus’ agony as he was crucified: take one away. Holy Saturday, when we went to my grandmother’s Polish parish church and had a basket full of our soon-to-be-Easter-breakfast blessed: add one for the holiday. Holy Saturday, when we were still captives in the Lenten cell where no meat was allowed and I envied my Protestant friends their Big Macs, their Whoppers: take one away. Easter Sunday morning, when we searched for our Easter baskets full of candy, which were hidden behind the radio on top of the refrigerator, and ate jelly beans for breakfast: add one for the holiday. Easter Sunday morning, when we went to a Mass that was longer than usual for all the rejoicing, and suffered sugar crashes during the homily: take one away.
When I added it up, Easter was a zero-sum game.
Then I went to Vegas.
It was April 2001, and my mother, four sisters, and I gathered at the Flamingo Hotel on Las Vegas Boulevard from our respective homes in Detroit, Charlotte, Toronto, Chicago, and Los Angeles. (So many sisters: two older, two younger—there’s no need to keep track.) We gathered to celebrate my mom’s seventy-fifth birthday. Though this was not my devout mother’s first choice of a backdrop against which to mourn Christ’s death and celebrate his resurrection, she understood the scheduling difficulties in her daughters’ lives. She was gracious, even game, in her acceptance of the time and place. And, it must be noted, she really took to the slots.
My mother has suffered. If it’s true that the very worst that can happen to a parent is for her child to die, then my mom is in the company of those whose grief has been forged in that particular hell. Her second-oldest daughter, my sister Patricia, died at the age of nine. This was almost fifty years ago. Patty had mild cerebral palsy, and it was accompanied by a seizure disorder, not epilepsy exactly, but something that the doctors couldn’t do much about, until they decided to admit my sister to the hospital and give her an experimental drug, which killed her. What added to the dead weight of my mom’s grief was that parents weren’t allowed to be with their hospitalized kids all the time, or even much of the time, back in the early 1960s when this took place. My mom had no choice but to follow the hospital regulations that sent her away from her daughter each night. So my sister, my mom’s little girl, was alone when she died. If, when I think of that, my eyes water a little, and they do, you can imagine the sorrow my mom feels when she thinks of Patty, nine years old and dying all alone in a hospital bed, when it needn’t have been that way. When it was wrong for everybody that it was that way.
My mom told me this dying-alone part of the story for the first time when I was about thirty years old and we were driving together to visit an aunt who was seriously ill. I was behind the wheel. My mom cried as she spoke. She stared down at her seatbelt. She cracked with grief even though it had all happened such a long time ago. I pulled to the shoulder of Utica Road and we sat together for a while. I held her, or maybe she held me. Cars sped past.
My mom wears her suffering beautifully. I don’t mean that she preens about how noble she is. That’s not it at all. She smiles and reaches out to people. She asks them about themselves, about their lives. She’s curious. She’s the one who taught me never to leave the house without a book—you don’t know when you’ll have to stand in line or be stuck in traffic, she always said. So she’s wise, too. Patient. What I mean is that she understands sorrow; understands, too, that there’s no point in pretending it doesn’t exist.
That’s good, because she had more coming. Five years after Patty died, my mom, while still raising four daughters ages sixteen to six, gave birth to yet another baby daughter. (One of my uncles simply called us all “Girl.”) Then in 1969, when that baby had become a three-year-old toddler, she—my youngest sister—was diagnosed with leukemia. My sister was hospitalized for many months, but times and my mother had changed. My sister was not ever alone in the hospital. Not once. Official hospital regulations did not allow my mother to spend nights there, but my mother would not leave my sister alone at the hospital. If she wasn’t at my sister’s bedside, then my father was. Or my oldest sister. Or my second-oldest sister, who, at fourteen, was too young to get into the hospital, but who also, at five feet eight inches, was tall enough to fool the guard. I was eleven years old and completely average in height, so I didn’t see my youngest sister for a long time.
After my youngest sister made it through as one of the first batch of kids to survive acute lymphoblastic leukemia because of then new-and-refined chemotherapy, she was afflicted with something else. Why was she so often ill, with piercing stomach pains and unexplained persistent fever and weakness, four years after her diagnosis, when she was officially in remission from that blood-borne illness? Doctors didn’t have the tools they have now, the MRIs and PET scans. Diagnosis was difficult. Her doctors cut her open and removed her gallbladder, though none of them thought that was the problem. While they had her so exposed, they looked around, trying to find troubles they could fix, and they performed a Roux-en-Y, an unusual operation that involved a reconfiguration of her digestive system. Maybe that would help, they thought.
It didn’t. She went in and out of the hospital frequently between the ages of seven and twenty-five. She was never alone while there. My mom continued to insist on that, though she found little resistance from any of us. We took turns spending time at the hospital. I gladly slept my share of nights on a cot next to my youngest sister’s bed at Children’s Hospital, doing my algebra homework, asking nurses to attend to her, asking doctors questions about why they were doing this or that, taking notes on their answers. It was a good education in advocacy, among other things. My dad, whose GM factory was just a few blocks away from Children’s Hospital, visited after work and on his lunch hour. It was what we did together, as a family, though we were usually alone while doing it.
Not until my youngest sister was in her early twenties was she properly diagnosed as having a rare and congenital disease of the bile ducts. Her ducts are malformed. Bile doesn’t drain—it collects and stagnates and causes a systemic infection. Half of her liver became cirrhotic because of this, and she needed a left hepatic lobectomy. So about fifteen years ago she had one. In other words, a surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago cut out half her liver.
Back to Vegas, at Easter, with my mom and all of those sisters with whom I grew up together and alone. We were six women in a large public restroom at the MGM Grand. We were catching up. We hadn’t all been together, without the distraction of children or spouses or boyfriends, in a long time. We talked over the stalls and at the washbasins. I like it when others do this and I’m on the eavesdropping end, but I remember feeling self-conscious with the roles reversed that Good Friday evening. My youngest sister, the one with half a liver, was telling us something important. This sister has a graduate degree in epidemiology; she’s irreverent, pretty too; she lives with gusto. She has a tremendous appetite, yet she’s slender. I’ve watched her for years and somehow she’s the only one of us who manages not to eat all the cake or French fries on her plate. She orders more than everybody else, and then she stops eating while we’re still tucking in.
She’d been researching her own complicated medical history, she explained in the bathroom of the MGM Grand. She’d looked into the surgery she’d had in 1973—when they removed her gallbladder and performed the unusual Roux-en-Y. “You guys,” she said while washing her hands, “I hate to tell you, but the reason I don’t gain weight, even though I love to eat? The Roux-en-Y? That’s gastric bypass. I had gastric bypass surgery when I was seven years old.” Lined up at the long row of washbasins at the MGM Grand, my other three sisters and I turned on cue, as if we were in a musical, to look at her. I’m not the only one whose first reaction was to say in confusion, in envy, while laughing, “No fair. You bitch.”
So that’s Good Friday.
On Holy Saturday we spent the evening at the Stardust Hotel with Wayne Newton—in the most expensive seats: a table for six that abutted the U-shaped stage on which Wayne frolicked. I’d pushed for this outing, though my sisters and mom toppled easily. We’d seen Cirque du Soleil the night before, and after ten minutes all that spandexed contortion looked the same—I wanted old Vegas. I wanted shtick.
I got it. Oh my goodness, Wayne was old. His hair, black as pitch, gleamed as if it had just been buffed at the shoeshine stand in the lobby. His mustache gleamed, too. He wore a tux. The audience was full of people like us: that is, ladies. At the highest pitch of the show, Wayne, bowtie released and hanging round his neck, shirt unbuttoned to show a chest that appeared shaved, and cummerbund cinched like a heavyweight’s belt, sang his trademark “Danke Schoen.” He made his way around the stage as he did this, reaching down to those who sat at the tables alongside it, touching outstretched hands, kissing cheeks. Too late, we realized our mistake in sitting in these stage-side seats. Wayne, all snap and swagger, arrived at our table, expecting to be kissed. He leaned down. He gleamed with effort. His makeup was thick. He offered his cheek for our lips. He held out his hands to accept our adoration. And instead, my mom, my sisters, and I, as if we’d been choreographed, leaned away from him, recoiling. Wayne, a pro, didn’t miss a beat as he moved on to the next table of ladies, these eager to love him, while we looked into our drinks, sheepish at how instinctively rude we’d just been.
On Easter Sunday morning before six, I snuck out of the room I shared with my mom and my tallest sister, careful not to wake them, and walked around the corner to the Barbary Coast Hotel, where the previous night I’d scouted out a Seattle’s Best Coffee in one corner of the gambling floor. Like every casino in Vegas, it stank of cigarettes and beer, but it was quiet so early in the morning and the coffee was robust. My oldest sister, not a coffee fiend but an insomniac, walked into the casino twenty minutes later. I saw her before she saw me.
My oldest sister was married in July 1973. In most of the wedding pictures, my sisters and I look tired and a little sad. The wedding took place just ten days after our youngest sister was discharged from the hospital stay that included the Roux-en-Y, cholectystectomy, cholangiogram, and common bile duct exploration. It wasn’t the best timing for either a seven-year-old girl recovering from major surgery or a 23-year-old woman anticipating the exquisite happiness of marriage. My sisters and I were members of the wedding party. The day included all the standard trimmings—aisles, vows, flowers, posed pictures, toasts to future happiness—but after dinner, as the band began to play, my youngest sister sat on the floor under a banquet table, crying and holding her incision, its shape a frown. A neighbor tried to stop her tears by coaxing her out to dance. I crawled under the table and sat next to my sister. Not too long after that, somebody drove us home.
It was the tired cast of my oldest sister’s gaze, that Easter morning, that made me think of those wedding pictures taken so long ago. I waved to her and she came over . The Barbary Coast Hotel was second- or even third-rate Vegas, and that meant it was cheap to gamble. The roulette tables were one-dollar minimums instead of the more common five- and ten-dollar tables at the hotels that have dancing fountains, art galleries, and mosaic-tiled ceilings. Once, on a riverboat casino in Elgin, Illinois, I won $1,400 playing 13, 22, and 36 repeatedly on the roulette wheel, so I have great loyalty to this game of complete chance. So far that weekend, as a group, we’d mostly fed quarters into the slots, but that morning my oldest sister wanted to learn the finer points of playing roulette. A croupier stood at an empty table twenty feet from our coffee, and I followed my sister there. The croupier explained the odds and showed my oldest sister where to place her chips for particular bets, 35-to-1 for a single number, 8-to-1 if she cornered four numbers, 5-to-1 if she played six numbers in adjacent vertical rows.
After half an hour, we walked away in perfect balance—I, ten dollars lighter, my sister, up by the same. We felt fine. We’d had coffee, conversation, and played a game of chance while the sun and Christ had risen.
Two hours later, we’d splintered off. Three of my sisters caught morning flights home, while my mom, another sister (the tall one who became second-oldest when Patty died so long ago), and I went to Mass at the Catholic church on the north end of Las Vegas Boulevard. Congregants were shoulder-to-shoulder in the pews and they skewed old. Other than the Easter lilies on the altar, it was standard Catholic fare—it’s not as if a gaggle of showgirls formed a kick line during the transubstantiation. The only nod to Vegas was the twenty-five-dollar casino chip I saw in the collection basket as I placed five dollars there. I’d expected more.
I haven’t called myself a Catholic in more than thirty years, but my tall sister remains devout. I’d often challenged her about her Catholic faith, asking how she could identify as a member of a church that had doctrines against gay people, birth control, abortion, and women priests, when she herself supported gay rights, had used birth control, was pro-choice, and believed that a woman could turn water and wine into body and blood as well as any man. I’d been at her for years. It’s what I know, she’d say. There’s beauty, too, she’d say. It’s a communion, she’d add. She’d always been patient and tolerant with my impatience and intolerance.
I wondered what my faithful tall sister felt when our sister died and when our youngest sister suffered serious illness. I’d never asked—she probably couldn’t put it into words. The elemental emotions—grief, love, fear, hope, shame, anger, and joy—are private concerns. For everything that matters, we are essentially alone. Still, while there is no permanent portal into the consciousness of any other, once in a rare while a temporary opening occurs and through it we glimpse something ineffable. The openings appear to be happenstance, but when examined, you’ll find a pattern and it is this: They occur when we lean toward some other, not away. It’s not only a matter of proximity, but proximity matters.
At Mass that morning in Vegas, we sat next to each other in silence, and I thought about how my sisters and I were often alone when we were kids. As grown women, we lived hundreds and thousands of miles from each other, and yet we’d stuck together through our differences in weight and height and faith, through the gambles we’d taken with men and jobs and kids, and through the losses we’d felt at our sisters’ death and illnesses. And with that, I understood that I had it all backwards when I badgered my tall sister about the inconsistencies of her faith. It’s not a question of forgiving her a belief that seems contradictory to me; it’s a question of acknowledging that she’s placed herself next to me, been kind to me, even when my badgering must have made it difficult to do so.It’s the placing next to that’s so important. That physical act makes some deeper understanding possible. Sometimes the placing next to is easy—it’s six in the morning and you’re standing next to a sister as she learns the rules of roulette. Sometimes more dire circumstances make the choice for you—it’s 1975 and you’re doing your homework at a hospital bedside. Sometimes the stark sorrow of it makes you bow with the honor of being the one who just happens to be present—it’s 1988 and you’re holding onto your mom who’s weighted with loss so heavy she can’t look up from her seatbelted lap. But more often it’s murky. Strangers are involved—Wayne Newton looms, waiting to be kissed.
Ellen Slezak is the author of a short story collection, Last Year’s Jesus, and a novel, All These Girls. She has also published short fiction, essays, and reviews in many publications, including American Literary Review, The Sun, Crab Orchard Review, and The Los Angeles Times. (9/2009)