Vegaboy by Leah Bailly
This opening excerpt of Leah Bailly’s Vegaboy is the first-place winner of the 2022 CRAFT First Chapters Contest, guest judged by Maisy Card.
In the opening chapters of Vegaboy, an adjunct professor abandons her husband and child, surrenders to her drug addiction, and moves to Vegas in search of the next high. Though the story is addressed to the child she once abandoned, we don’t meet the narrator at a point of contrition. With dark humor, the opening chapter describes her first encounter with a young airport security guard, a fellow addict whom she latches onto, driven by an instant, almost maternal affection and hope for a steady supply of drugs. The chapter that follows flashes back in time to her own birth by an alcoholic mother and her attempt to do a public reading while obliterated. Written in mesmerizing, lyrical prose, Vegaboy promises an inventive portrait of intergenerational addiction, reluctant motherhood, and desperation. —Maisy Card
“Don’t live with your hand on the stove.”
When you were barely one year old, I fled to Las Vegas. It’s not like I walked away from my first hit and straight to McCarran. I experimented for a while with distance, until I left.
I won’t lie, those first few days were invigorating. I was drunk with new power. Once I gave myself permission, I could book a hotel, hop on a shuttle, arrive at an airport with no luggage and it was no issue. I didn’t eat well but it didn’t matter to anyone; I didn’t have anyone else to feed. A fuck-it sensation washed over me every time I effortlessly sailed through a public area, a restaurant, a bathroom without a diaper bag. I just walked nonchalantly straight onto a plane, something I hadn’t done in one hundred years. It was relief that elevated me up and over the mothers in those hardworking towns, the millions of nurses and waitresses and teachers and housekeepers and their banal drudgery. I thought of all of them as the uncanny gray of my unforgiving locale turned to the orange and brown of another. On that plane, I was still high, and because if it, I could look down on the world with a kind of stupid, stunned wonder. Who cares, I thought again and again. Who cares?
Of course, I landed, as everyone eventually does.
I carried a purse, big enough to steal things. I carried a passport I’d planned to sell. Outside the sliding doors of McCarran International, it was bellowing summer. I had never known such angry weather, that wall of Nevada heat. The air whispered at me, haunted, hot words blowing straight into my face. One hundred degrees, it said, a hundred and ten. I blew American Spirits I’d purchased from a vending machine into the hot air for five minutes but it blew back so I flicked my butt into the line of buses, hoping to watch it get run over. Instead, the little smoke suffocated itself and petered out. I felt sapped, grimy from the flight, my body coated with nervous sweat and germs from all those other grimy bodies. For the first time in hours, people started to look at me with squinty eyes, and I immediately needed a fix, to elevate again, to transcend their scrutiny and misogyny and ire.
I was coming down. McCarran was just being itself, but to me, in that moment and in that state, it felt monstrous. I tried for a minute to watch the giant TVs above the many luggage carousels going around and around. This was before the pandemic, before the great quiet, when millions of people traveled to this blighted city through this very portal and I was just one of them, standing and watching, another mouth breather rapt by a giant screen. Someone played a piano that lit on fire. I pretended I had luggage coming, I waited and waited, falling into the invisibility of a middle-aged white woman. Long after the other mouth breathers from my flight shuffled away, some military bro hoisted the last duffel abandoned on our carousel, and I was adrift.
The lady I chose to complain to of a fake lost suitcase wore a bureaucratic pair of gray pants and a quality weave. She told me kindly, not in a fake way, to have a look at the piles of unclaimed suitcases and take my pick. She knew—as I knew—that I could steal a suitcase from the lost and found at the Las Vegas airport because I looked a certain way—white, female, fed, slightly rich, maybe because I wore only black. Nothing about me was threatening. I had nice hands, elegant fingers I inherited from my mother, with a delicate wedding band I would never take off.
I chose something pink, something plastic, and the blessed luggage lady gave me a gesture that meant, Atta girl or See you never. I fled arrivals with my bounty. On the screen in the airport, the man’s piano was an endlessly burning thing. I surged with the desire to puke, something like morning sickness, like jail.
Around me was a mob of bodies pulsing out the doors, thighs rubbing moistly as they ran-walked to the line of casino shuttles outside, suitcases rolling behind them like obedient dogs. The accents, a wash of midwestern overstatements, spun around my head like the luggage carousels. I returned to departures because I think part of me actually believed I would get right back on a plane home to you, your dad, our house, our life, but no. I was trapped in a wanting body, sweating, once again returning to my weaker self, a pinch of fat over the beltline, an itch under my underwired breasts.
In departures, I spent fifteen minutes in the ladies’ room, paper towels in my pits. The pink suitcase contained a dozen much-too-large blouses and some quality cosmetics, which I applied thickly, the best I could. After that, it seemed a good coping strategy to sit very still on a bench in departures with the pink suitcase between my knees watching people line up to leave Las Vegas.
Like always, the line at security was long, but it was shimmying forward. I focused on a puncture in the air-conditioning unit above the third turnstile, with its slow drip of chilled water falling into a stack of plastic trays. The drip was getting everyone in line-up three, and seemed to bother everyone but the boy manning the plastic trays.
That boy was Vegaboy. A thing in me jolted. He was at first attractive to me, deeply tanned, a natural surfer blond, hair flopping over one eye adorably. But under his hair, I saw pockmarks, scars, a telltale crust around his grinding mouth. He looked local, stringy, with the glassy eyes I was hoping for.
Score, I whispered. I actually said the word out loud.
In my opinion, this tweaker was reckless, getting shredded for work doing security detail at the airport, himself responsible for busting other drug people before they boarded. Nonetheless, it didn’t seem like a difficult job to do high. At the moment, he was handing out plastic trays to passengers waiting to have their personal belongings x-rayed and their bodies sent through metal detection. He was getting wet from the drip, a dark stain was spreading on the shoulder of his uniform, but it didn’t deter him. In fact, I saw him position himself so he’d get it down his neck. Later, once I got to know him, I would understand that he would see that kind of thing as sideways luck—a miracle rain, delivered only to him, Vegaboy of the Desert.
As I watched this tweaker—twenty, maybe, at least ten years younger than me—I was flooded by flashback. I could see Vegaboy’s whole history stretched out like the railroad tracks he played chicken on as a boy. Later, he would tell me the names of the towns: Needles and Tonopah and Kingman, Arizona—a place slashed through the middle by Route 66, where he built forts out on the arroyo, perfect for firecrackers and stacks of seventies’ porn.
Eventually he told it all: his mother was gone by age six; his father, plus whoever crashed with them on their scratchy couch, occupied a trailer set up on cinder blocks. The trailer was tucked between a rusted shell of a tractor and a discarded station wagon where he would sleep when the trailer was too full of late-night rowdies. He would always scavenge the beer cans though, trading them for pancakes at a diner with a big Needs Improvement notice posted on the door by the Department of Health and Sanitation. Vegaboy had clear green eyes that the Bengali corner-store lady told him looked like jade. He told me she was the first to make him unwrap her sari and caress between her hefty thighs in exchange for tins of food. There were others too: a school bus driver who brought him muffins, a supermarket janitor with keys to the meat locker, a fifth-grade teacher who gave him As—Useless inedible grades, he said—before he dropped out. His dad taught him how to hitch to Vegas when he was ten, a short trip across the dam in someone’s flatbed. On his own, he figured out how to scour the halls of hotels for room service scraps, to swipe tokens from slot machines. He bussed tables at the buffets, flicked flyers for escorts, and eventually ran drugs for the limo drivers. He lived underground for a time.
For now, he was straight, or as straight as he could be, with a security job and a manageable drug habit. To my mind, he was another sweet child just trying for a flush with the shit straight he was dealt.
I loved him, right away. I knew that we’d be smoking together that very night. I knew I’d care for him, follow him around. I also knew he wouldn’t care about my child or husband or womanhood or whateverthefuck. He would tell me where to get more. After that, Vegaboy would just take my money. That was all.
Later, Vegaboy would tell me that working at the airport was a kind of purgatory—the good kind. He liked thinking about all of those planes, those passengers, those ways out. Only once did Vegaboy actually fly out of Vegas, for a class trip to Chicago. He told me he couldn’t believe the squares of green he looked down on from the oval plastic window, how organized and wet. It was sixty-nine degrees when he landed at O’Hare, horrible, gray. He almost didn’t disembark with so much happening onboard, the click of the seatbelts, the little chutes of air, all those legs wrapped in pantyhose marching up and down the aisles. He could even summon the taste of scrambled eggs in the tinfoil dish served by the polyester blue army. They don’t serve breakfast on domestic flights anymore, I’d explained. The lake is still there though, with its thousands of miniaturized boats and docks. His girlfriend, Slots-a-Fun—the Cockpit’s bartender—agreed. Said: Chicago’s still like that, green and whatever.
Another bit of the future that I could perceive right then: Vegaboy would never leave the desert. He was a doomed desert rat; he knew its sage smells and dust devils and splintered earth the way he knew his own flaking skin. I wanna die in an airplane, Vegaboy would tell me one day. When it lands, I want the whole thing to come down. Supposedly, there was turbulence on Vegaboy’s one and only flight. They even said it over the intercom: Flight attendants, take your jump seats. Vegaboy had unflicked his seat belt, hoping the plane would lose sudden altitude and he’d drift up for a suspended moment, floating, before his head would crack against the overhead bin. Our friend Captain Rick would tell him that it had actually happened on a training flight over Utah—the plane dropped and some junior officer broke her neck on the roof. It’s the only moment that we’re all thinking about our deaths, Rick would say. There’s just a difference between those praying to crash and those praying to land. It was the only thing we would agree on—me, Captain Rick, Bosscat, and Vegaboy, even Slots-a-Fun—how we’d all had moments when we’d rather crash than land. Even Captain Rick would shake his head and confide: It’s everything I can do to keep it on the runway.
At McCarran, departures thrummed around me, the air supercooled and fragrant with off-gassing carpet and candy air freshener. I sat sweating on the bench as the flight schedule picked up, the video warnings chiming overhead, the line-up lengthening. That night, planes were scheduled for Atlanta, Newark, JFK, Raleigh—the greenery alone too much for Vegaboy of the Desert. A passenger got busted with a penknife. Bosscat found a cell phone toy with traces of gunpowder. The weapons accumulated in a pail behind the x-rays; Vegaboy called dibs on switchblades, had a collection. The water from the roof was just a trickle now, Vegaboy lifted his face to it, the wash of cold chemical water most likely stinging his eyes. I blinked for him, burning.
Finally, Bosscat noticed the kid’s wet uniform and closed the third turnstile, clapped his hand on Vegaboy’s shoulder. He could take off early, he was done. Vegaboy’s hair was sticking to his head, but he looked clean, washed up, a little puddle beside where he was standing. I followed as he removed his security shirt, as he walked away from the line-up, his stride long, his white undershirt almost see-through from the wet. I trailed him right out through the swooshing doors to the dark outside, still sweltering, the August air hot enough to dry him in a second. I stepped into the wall of heat, grateful for it, chilled now after so many desperate minutes waiting in departures. I stayed back, smoking, waiting for the right thing to say.
Hey, I offered.
He coolly ignored me. The suitcase was gone, I was without camouflage, naked in my need. Soon enough, it struck me, like a miracle rain. Do you know where I can get a drink?
Maybe, he said.
Like, like a party? I said, my tongue too big for my mouth.
You a cop? he asked, eyeing me. I wanted to tell him I was a nobody, just a mother, I had a weak pelvic floor from carrying a child not so terribly old, certainly not old enough to care for himself. My hair was thinning around my forehead. My breasts drooped. Vegaboy saw all of that and then he flicked his smoke and we both saw it get tidily run over by a cab. Vegaboy’s sideways luck. He just strolled back inside, past the security line-up and the giant TVs and the airport’s quarter slots. I followed, like I would follow him for the next several months of my life.
Slots-a-Fun was waiting for him at the Cockpit, all done up in her sixties’ stewardess getup. At the bar I ordered myself a glass of cheap white and Vegaboy just had to look at Slots-a-Fun and he got a bourbon and a beer. I wanted his drugs. I sat there and sweated. Vegaboy was quiet, chewing on his lips. I almost screamed. I wanted so badly for a new life in Las Vegas to take off; I had located my emergency exit, but no, this kid refused to read my mind. Vegaboy just drank silently, feeling me beside him but doing nothing—just shredding his coaster into a mountain, the sweat from the bottle a river beside it. And then obviously, dumbly, I opened a snakeskin wallet gifted to me by my dead mother, the magnet still unclicking satisfyingly but the silk interior frayed and torn around a little stack of twenties, and I pulled them all out. I just gave him it all.
In exchange, Vegaboy palmed me a very small square of cigarette paper containing a miracle. I almost pissed. I had to close my eyes lightly and hold on with my fingertips to the stool. Around me, the airport undulated, all of it recognizable and then blurry—the video poker and the Cockpit with a bartender dressed up in a beehive and go-go boots, her nipples pointing at me like buttons you could press. Now, our telepathy came easily, Vegaboy made a joke about how, in times of emergency, her tits would inflate like the oxygen masks that fall from the overhead compartments. Slots-a-Fun didn’t crack him over the head, she just shook her head and swept up the beer labels and coasters and napkins he had shredded into little hills over the bar—Vegaboy’s topography. I pretended like I didn’t know our whole past and our whole future, mapped out like the miniature valleys and hills I beheld through that plastic plane window that he recreated with his piles of shredded receipts and discarded boarding cards, brushing them into a disaster geography. And I asked: So, what do you do here at the airport? And Vegaboy said: I fly.
Out of Order
I was born from a drunk woman’s body, a woman who had not drunk for so long that when she birthed me, she was so parched, so thirsty, she gave me that thirst. I was born the first time I sipped my mother’s vodka from the bottle. The first time I puked Alabama Slammer all over my new winter boots. The first time I crouched, drooling, billows of pot smoke pouring from me. I had thought my lungs had filled with water when they had only filled with cannabis, inhaled through a glass bong gurgling through the neck. I was born as my eyes swam with real human tears, and my head fluttered, and I was for the first time, high. I was born with each small square of paper on my tongue. I was born on my sixth line, and the seventh. I was born a wanted creature by undeserving parents, who drank so they could forget the life they occupied with me. I was born in the front row of a Health and Career Management class with my hand on my heart echoing Just Say No while my head was swimming with mushrooms and my teacher’s hair swirled beautifully around the front of the room, a growing, rippling thing.
I was born, seated on the edge of the operating table, my pregnancy almost at term but stuck in breech and the medical team hovering around my peripheral vision, pediatricians and surgeons and obstetricians and an anesthesiologist stabbing my lower spine with needle after needle, four, six, eleven shots into my spinal column, trying to paralyze me from the neck down. Watery tears squeezed from the sides of my eyes. My body tried to hunch over the giant mass at my middle, but you were too big. So many shots and I could still feel everything.
Then I couldn’t. I was born the instant I felt the drug spiral into my ears, drops of rain that collected on the bottoms of my lobes, like earrings. The feeling hung there, suspended, as they made the incision and pulled you from me and tugged and stitched and placed those organs back inside my gut. For a second, you were placed on my chest and we breathed together before you were ushered away to be weighed, cleaned, dosed with new medicine. Then I lay there, empty, you wailing in the background, and I could feel nothing except the humming in my earlobes, the first sip of narcotics I’d had in a year, my eyes welling up from the relief of it.
I was born the day my husband, your father, escorted me to the intake office of the rehab center in the suburbs so far away from the city the air still smelled of ancient cow and grain. He did not admit to anyone that he was a nightly scotch drinker, that only three years ago he blew lines off my naked chest in the bathroom of the university club, that he was also prone to disappearance, particularly at parties or large gatherings, because under the influence of gin and vermouth he enjoyed the intimate company of undergraduates. Instead, he opened the door to an office stinking of Tupperware lunch, and he sat me down on the dumpy couch, then he closed the door and left me there under the care of Erin, a motherfucking drug counselor.
Erin had wrapped herself in a terrible, pilled cardigan over a polyester blouse, all of which was scrunched halfway up her freckled arms. Erin’s wrists jangled with nature-inspired jewelry. Erin’s chin waggled at me under her salt-and-pepper bob. Erin betrayed me, betrayed us all, when she asked me to take another test, this one designed for mothers struggling to cope. Did you ever have thoughts of harming yourself? Did you ever have thoughts of harming your child? Erin didn’t see her own damage. Erin didn’t feel for all the mothers, evaluated like me. Erin didn’t tell me that to answer those questions is to admit every woman answers yes to something.
Are you/Were you ever:
♥ financially unstable
♥ housing insecure
♥ subject to systemic discrimination
♥ under social, professional, familial pressure
♥ prone to episodes of paranoia/anxiety
♥ a victim/survivor of sexual misconduct/abuse
♥ living with an addict
♥ the child of an addict
♥ a drug user as an adolescent
♥ a drug user as a child
♥ desiring escape from your regular life
♥ experiencing feelings of worthlessness
I was born at my final event on campus, in person, everyone in the audience: the dean, the chair, the old hapless husband, a babysitter, and you (my idea, thinking that you would calm me, give me someone to hold). Fifteen minutes into it, you were howling for me down the staircase to the main floor, a cry I could hear not only faintly through the door but also deep in the marrow of my wrists and shoulders and skull.
I was about to go on stage, to put my face in front of forty-seven other faces, though the only person I could focus on was the philosophy prof whose office was usually next to mine. I would hear him, too often, berating students with his impenetrable deadlines and philosophy of the mind. The men in the room shared his hubris, wore black and gray, were unshaven and double-chinned and looked down at me through their gradual lenses. Some of the women had joined them in frump, hair cut for function or surrendering to their gray gray gray. The students were knockouts, many of them Brown and Black and incredibly fashionable and talented and doomed to enter our horrific field of study under these colonizers and tyrants. I was this creature in between them, white, yes, not so old as to be near-dead and tyrannical, not so young as to be relevant or chic. That evening, I overshot. I’d been fearing death; I wore a violent red jumpsuit and jittery lipstick. I wore readers but those chunky tortoiseshell ones. At least that morning, I’d had the good sense to dye my grays.
I only had to read from a thing I had written myself, while somehow hiding all the drugs I had done that year and all the nights I’d drifted away from home into the unsafe proximity of strangers. I didn’t feel confident, per se, but I had muscled many layers of cosmetics onto my skin to brighten my sunken eyes and dropped eye drops onto my retinas to erase the burning red.
I had also been writing high. It was the bravado I needed, to write like a man, someone who could blunder through completely intoxicated and not stumble really, only land. I clocked how many people wanted to publish my work when I wrote this way, with brawny sentences, muscular prose, pushing people around in the discourse. I started to write like the aggressive philosophy professor, the one who ripped an exam from a student’s hands because her ninety minutes were up.
So that night, the piece had already been accepted, my peers had reviewed it, and all I had left to do was read. This was part of my job, and yet, the thing they were asking was so fucked up. To read in the aftermath of a great and miraculous high? It was a near-impossible task, I’ve only met a few unlikely junkies who can pull it off, wonder writers, all of them. For most of us, it seems insane. It was a mistake, certainly, but it felt unavoidable. The dean had asked, and of course I said yes. Maybe that was how I got this far: they knew, as I would, that I could never say no to a man with authority.
They probably thought I wanted this: the sea of gray heads, the smell of their bodies, that microphone picking up the exact tenor of the host’s voice, telling us we would begin soon. I tried, there in that small lecture hall, to want it. I tried to breathe normally in full hair and makeup, to politely perspire on my lip or hairline rather than deeply through the pits. I just tried so hard to be normal, sitting, waiting like a human for the host to begin his introduction. Waiting was a performance too, and I did not perform well. When he gave me a three-minute warning, I leapt out a side door, to a bathroom at the end of the hall.
The smoke was pure. It rushed my synapses. Outside, the host began, the tinny nature of the audio was flattened down the concrete hall, the introduction washed like dull waves over the tiles. My eyes watered. My lungs filled. I grew taller. I smoked. I kept going, I was born.
There was no recording, so I cannot tell you what they saw at the lecture that followed. I believe I read something. I believe my words were heard.
I believe there was also a student in the restroom, who had witnessed the smoking, and reported it, her feet up on the toilet, holding her stupid breath. Bathrooms, sanctuary to any user, can betray you too. All outsiders will congregate there, and there can be conflict, there can be spies. The fact that someone reported me is another betrayal, one I’ll never forgive. Never tell me it was you, I’ll kill you for it. What the fuck ever. It was quickly corroborated by my performance.
Who are you? my husband had asked, overdramatically, when I returned to my body, slumped at the exit as people filed past. I wanted to tell him all I was not: a good mother, an adjunct with a future, a respectable person with a reasonable commute and affordable childcare and a spotless evaluation file. But I couldn’t lie to your father, he knew me! He knew my stretch marks from carrying you, my weak wrists and bad morning breath. I was his wife, who when pregnant and then nursing, managed three hundred and forty days sober. He knew the tremble in my hand all of the time now, running deep through the nerve-base, up through my heart.
I said, It’s just me. But that was a lie.
He turned, he left; your little body clutched to his chest. It doesn’t matter now, all those people vanished, just like that. Dead to me.
I was born in a hospital run by nuns; it was 1979 and those celibate women in habits delivered babies back then. The place was old and tiled and haunted. It was called St. Mary’s and it was both a hospital and a girls’ school, joined by a web of long dark hallways.
My maternal line is full of labor. After her Catholic education ended when she was eighteen, my grandmother moved down the hall and started having babies the following September. It was a full-time job for a while, that breeding. Including three miscarriages, Grandma was pregnant seven times before they removed her womb at twenty-five.
Twenty-six years later, my mother birthed me in the same hospital, still nuns doing the dirty work, still celibate, still shrouded in habits and cloaks. Soon enough, in swept Mom’s wealthy husband, who brought cut roses and a bag of ice to crunch. The story is he arrived halfway through, didn’t miss anything.
But in a private moment, drunk, Mom admitted she birthed me alone—the nuns down the hall and my father still drinking at the club. She said she took a swig of secret scotch and after nine months sober, the liquor sent a shiver all through her that was so propulsive, I burst out of her in a wash of shit and blood. I find this an impossible yet maybe possible story. My grandmother’s miscarriages, I believe. They run in the family.
That day in 1979, the records show that I was born into the hands of a white-haired Scottish doctor who had delivered hundreds of babies before me. My father’s story was that I was stuck; the nuns had called in the doctor to use his forceps. My father said he had to look away while these instruments reached into my mother’s body and clenched me by the head and neck. Supposedly, he had to pull and pull.
But Mom’s story was different; the room was empty, the whisky burned her throat, her pain cut through her, the baby was part of her and then it was not. It flopped from her onto the delivery room table and stayed like that, screaming, until a nun rushed in to clean everyone up. Maybe neither of us was ever the same, after we were cleaved from one another, born into loneliness, born into a cold room with no one to catch us. Maybe I was born into the hands of a skillful man, or maybe I was not. Maybe he had said, It’s a girl, as if he knew exactly what I am.
This much must be true: my mother’s thirst, and how I was born, screaming.
LEAH BAILLY lives on the unceded, stolen territory of the Coast Salish First Nations of Vancouver, Canada. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing & Literature from the University of Southern California and an MFA from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Other Vegaboy stories have appeared in PANK, Joyland, River Styx, Hobart, subTerrain Magazine, and The Rupture. This past summer, she completed the manuscript for the novel Vegaboy while in residency at MacDowell. Find her on Instagram @leahbailly.
Featured image by JC Gellidon courtesy of Unsplash