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Return Engagements (Book One) PART 15… in which I struggle in Las Vegas

Picking up from Part 14, in which I got Michael back to Chicago (and to his doctor).

I woke up with half a hangover. I opened the window shades and lay back on the bed, content to stay there all day, if that’s what felt best. This was my recovery time, not from the hangover but from the onslaught of ideas and events that brought the hangover about. And this time I hadn’t forgotten the Do Not Disturb sign. I would be left alone.

I woke again somewhere around noon, doing something that I suppose I’d have to call praying. This wasn’t religious in any definable way; it was simply pouring our my heart toward the creator.

I’m not sure how or why it started; I didn’t remember any sort of dream that led to it. Nonetheless, it felt not only good, but right. Half-intentional, half-instinctively, I let it all out, passing sometimes into another language… or at least what seemed to be another language. But I didn’t care about the details; it all had a healthful outflowing to it.

After what seemed about 10 minutes, it subsided, then ended. I still felt tingly for a few minutes after and just lay there feeling it, maybe two-thirds awake and one-third asleep. It was after two o’clock when I finally decided to get up and shower.

I gathered up my laundry and called down to the front desk. The lady said there were two machines in the basement I could use, and so I went down to do that.

One machine loaded, I wandered onto the streets of Omaha, knowing I had 45 minutes or so to spend. This was a Sunday, however, and the streets were fairly quiet.

I found a Chop Suey Restaurant just down the street and put in an order to be picked up in an hour. That is, to be picked up and eaten while my laundry was drying. And then I rounded a corner and found a bookstore that was open. This was what I needed most: food for the real me.

I was surprised how good the selection was. I found Maxwell Maltz’s classic Psycho-Cybernetics, King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces, Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, and a fascinating book I’d never heard of, called Culture Against Man. The quality of new books had clearly fallen over my lifetime, and badly.

I bought all of them save Maltz’s (it didn’t seem useful for my current circumstances) and got back in time to switch my clothes. Then I picked up my food and slowly mixed reading with eating. Nourishment doubled, I called the endeavor, and managed not to drip on the pages, save for one minor blotch.

* * * * *

After a short evening of reading, I was asleep by nine o’clock and up at about five. Within an hour I had checked out, gone to a full-service gas station (as they all were), had the fluids, belts and hoses checked, and was back on the open road, heading west. To get to Las Vegas I’d follow the route I took in 1974: west to Salt Lake City, then south to Vegas. It felt nice to head out on an early Monday morning… like a workman headed to his job.

It was on this drive that the days began running together for me. The reason for that, at least mostly, I think, was that I set my habits for life in a virtual world. With my routine the same every day, one day didn’t stand markedly apart from another unless there was some large or surprising event. Which is probably as it should be, at least in our present condition.

My first habit every morning, and very much a necessity for me, was, upon first waking up and generally without having opened my eyes, to spend time thinking about my wife and children. First, I always saw them where they really were: in their beds, sleeping peacefully.

After that, the days varied. Some days I would see them getting up from bed and starting their days. Other times I’d imagine that I was back, surprising them that I missed them so badly. At still other times, I’d revisit events from our mutual pasts. This was fundamental to me, and I rarely missed a day.

After that, I set my habits for efficiency. I sat down with one of my legal pads at a truck stop restaurant in Evanston, Wyoming, and charted my days: how many minutes spent showering, shaving, doing laundry, maintaining the car, reading, and so on. I tried to combine or overlap activities to save time. Then I came up with a regular schedule and stuck to it.

Saving 10 minutes per day adds up to 61 hours per year. That’s a lot of time, and once it becomes a habit, it becomes the easiest thing to do.

The drive to Vegas took two and a half days. I turned onto Las Vegas Boulevard before noon on Wednesday, July 17. I pulled into the Sands and made a deal with the manager for a nice room on a weekly rate, far cheaper than the daily rate. That would give me time to find a nice house rental. If I was going to learn to develop my own film – both still and movie film – I’d need a spare room in which to do it.

But I very much did not want to get intense and rushed. I’d done that far too much of my life, and I wasn’t going to blow my energy that way anymore. The ability to be intense should be saved up for when it is needed, not spent wildly.

What surprised me was that my Las Vegas Reset, as I came to call it, took weeks rather than a few days, as I had expected. I slept well and was back to normal in that way by the second or third day.

And I entertained myself as well. One highlight was listening to a very young Barbara Streisand, who was doing her first series of shows at the Riviera. I went to see her twice. Another was a Rat Pack show at the Sands. It was wonderful to see these things in person, after having known them only as history. Next on the list was a drive to LA to see Koufax pitch.

And of course I read books, which always feeds me. I also found a surprising number of narrowly focused newsletters on everything from anti-communism to photography. I even began to form friendships with a few hotel employees.

From these things and my morning anti-homesick routine, I was feeling good. Once I began planning my work, however, I ran into a pit. Every time I started, I felt like I was walking in sand… and sometimes in deep, loose sand. I just couldn’t get to conclusions. I clearly had some kind of internal impediment.

A view of the problem passed through my mind right at the beginning of the journey, but for some reason I lost my grasp on it and was still grappling with it two weeks later in Las Vegas. But since that has happened to me before – and seems to happen to others at least as much – it has to be a common human problem, pointing to something important. And so I started keeping notes on the subject.

It finally became clear to me as I sat in an all-you-can-eat buffet just off the Las Vegas Strip. I had taken a walk in the blistering heat of Vegas in July as an act of desperation. I was feeling fine and didn’t go too far, but I needed to do something out of the ordinary to reset myself somehow.

And so I sat in the cheap buffet with a dozen other semi-happy and semi-desperate customers. On the way I had complained to myself (almost at myself) about the insane opportunity that had been thrown into my lap and the fact that I was coming up with nothing to do with it.

“The opportunity…” I muttered to myself, “no human has ever had it before.”

Something about that, however, was the problem; that much I could feel. But again I got nowhere. I finished my steak in a sort of disgust. It simply couldn’t be that I was pulled through time, or whatever, to 1963, just to sit around, finding nothing to do.

I went to the counter to pay my bill and by chance saw some kind of anti-Mormon tract that someone had left there. For no particular reason I sat down and started reading it. It told the story of a twisted middle-aged man who took over a splinter group of Mormons, convinced people that he was a great prophet, and started marrying young girls.

The end of the story was that he was finally caught raping a woman and arrested. But the story got to me more deeply than I would have supposed.

I walked back to the Sands in afternoon heat that had to be 110 degrees. Involuntarily, I kept remembering other men who got people to think of them as a prophet and abused them. I’d known of several such stories and even met such people, and the whole thing disgusted me.

And as one part of my mind was busy with this stream of stories, another faintly wondered why these stories were so all-consuming to me right now. But they were, and I walked another quarter mile past the Sands to give myself time to finish up.

As I turned at the end of the extra quarter mile, the missing piece fell into place.

“Then how the hell do I become the one person on the planet – in history – who is chosen for this job?” I said openly and even fairly loudly, and continued: “And if I could believe that I’m that special, what’s my next step? To call myself ‘Christ’? Or maybe if I’m feeling kind of humble, just call myself ‘Elijah’?”

I was apparently the only person foolhardy enough to walk the streets of Las Vegas at three o’clock on a hot day in late July, but the overwhelming nature of my feelings right then were such that I might have erupted the same even in a crowd. The people driving past must have thought I was daft.

But at least I finally knew what was bothering me. I considered the possibility that I was simply delusional, but two weeks in a 1963 had fully killed that possibility. And that left me being “the special one,” which I couldn’t accept.

And then, as I walked into the air conditioning of the hotel, it struck me: What am I assuming here? That being the only guy to do a certain job makes me a god?

But that was what I was assuming, or something close to it… and it was simply wrong.

Maybe the job simply fell to me because I was the most convenient. Or maybe I was just better suited to it than anyone else they could find. Just about everyone is unusually good at something or another. Maybe I’m just the guy who was right for this job.

I walked around the casino a time or two thinking such thoughts and getting myself comfortable with them. I wasn’t entirely over it yet, but I would be, and fairly soon at that.

* * * * *

(Available now on Kindle)

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