creative non-fiction by Jason Lippert, 2016
It’s 1988. I’m 16 and male. My hair is long, feathered a la Van Halen, left ear pierced twice. I can only wear hooks or hoops in the second piercing, it’s too close to the cartilage and studs are too tight. The stud in the first piercing is cubic zirconia. I didn’t give it back when I broke up with one of my girlfriends. I live in a 14’ by 39’ trailer, situated in a dusty, despair-filled trailer park in North Las Vegas, where more than one barefoot woman in cut off shorts and a sweaty tank-top spends the day leaning on her aluminum door frame, pulling hard on cigarettes with one eye closed, grimacing against the smoke, the sun, and the future.
Operation Wolf was an arcade game. It was a shooter, with a chunky Uzi replica, complete with crappy sights, a mock grenade launcher and black paint that, where it was chipped off the stock, revealed what I have to assume was aluminum, dull and grey. A round red button on the side fired grenades, and an oversized trigger fired the gun. A rumble pack of some sort shook when you pulled the trigger. After completing your first mission, the game allowed you to select the next one (from three options, if I remember correctly) by shooting it. Though they started out differently, they all ended up pretty much the same. Selecting your mission (by shooting) was followed by more shooting, sprinkled with (well-timed) use of the grenade launcher. You even shot ammo to pick it up….
In the Spring of 1987, in a courthouse in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, my mother transferred my guardianship to a friend of the family. He was in the Air Force, stationed at Nellis in Las Vegas. A member of the Security Police, he was assigned to what would eventually, in the civilian world, become known as IT (Cyber Security). I don’t remember what it was called then, maybe it already was called Cyber Security. The computers were clunky, loud, and hot. They weren’t particularly impressive, but he was: Disciplined, Conscientious, Ethical. He paid his bills on time. Other than a car loan he was making extra payments on, to pay off early, he had no debt.
We planted grass in the 400 square feet designated as our yard by chain-link fence and kept it alive as visible notice to our neighbors that we were better than them, in absolute defiance of common sense. We built a porch with bamboo mats for shades. I can still feel the shock of stabbing a second-hand shovel into that miserly, tight-packed dirt—over and over—arms trembling, sweat evaporating without cooling, measuring my progress in teaspoons. When we moved out of the trailer the following spring, it looked better than it did when we moved in, down to the vacuum cleaner pattern in the living room carpet. Suburban values.
I had one friend in Vegas: Speedo. He was an Air Force brat, a year ahead of me in high school. Yes, his nickname originated where you think it did, but also because he was a poster-child for ADHD, with extra ‘H’. In 1988, the population of Las Vegas was around 600,000. I think it was about 800,000 if you included the surrounding areas. Whenever I tell people about my time in Vegas, I tell them it was 800,000. The daily population, bloated by tourists, was easily well over a million. In any case, there was, outside of school and school-centric activities (i.e. sports), nothing for a teenager to do. That is, as I imagine you’ve guessed, there was nothing good for a teenager to do.
We spent our time in various ways. Our efforts to keep ourselves entertained starting in different parts of the city (or the desert), all ultimately amounting to the same thing. One was to go troll the Circus Circus for semi-abandoned high school girls, parents gambling in some other casino on the strip, and, if they were willing, take them out to Sunrise Mountain to look at the city lights, drink and, if we were lucky, make out. One was to drive out to Lake Mead, by starlight, headlights off, until we saw the orange of a desert bonfire reflecting off the layered gypsum flakes that, if unfractured, shone here and there like dying, dust-covered embers. On the shoreline, we drank (Wild Turkey in grape Kool Aid) with strangers, those with the best sound systems pushing exponentially decaying noise into the cold, clear night. One was to run through trailer parks, after curfew, hopping the walls that divided them. Often, there was a spot where someone had knocked three of the blocks out; made it easier to get over. We would do this until the malt in our stomachs threatened to come back up, until confronted (or invited) by a trailer park resident, or until a police copter picked us up, switching on its 50 million candle-power spotlight, probing us with photons. Then, the game was to lose them, but I doubt we ever actually did. It’s more likely they lost interest.
And one was to walk a few subdivisions away from where Speedo lived (alternately climbing low cinderblock walls, picking our way through stretches of untamed desert, walking down the middle of smooth sub-division streets), stand outside of a 7-11, and get someone to buy us 40’s. These were by no means my first drinks, or my first 40’s. My uncles are both alcoholics (recovering, now); I had my first 40’s with them. In the winter, they would leave them in the car as we walked around the Fox Valley mall. After a couple of hours, we would go back to the car, where the 40’s, now partially frozen, delivered alcohol more efficiently. The weak winter sun made the concentrated 40 look like a bottle of cold piss with ice crystals in it. Only alcoholism, or adolescence, could make someone want to drink it.
40’s procured, Speedo and I would walk off into the nighttime desert, pale and flat under any kind of moon, drinking as fast or slow as we cared to. So long as the sky was clear, even the light from the Milky Way was enough to see by; the powdery dust so reflective and the lights of the strip so far away. We didn’t talk about anything. There was nothing to talk about. We sat in the desert learning how to drink in silence, exploring a possible future where we might, one day, end up squatting on a curb in Vegas, high school dropouts; homeless, shabby, sunburned and jaundiced, drinking from a paper bag at eight in the morning.
Bottles smashed against one of the indistinguishable dividing walls (separating the desert you didn’t rent/own from the desert you did), we set out to manufacture entertainment. This particular night, Speedo took us to a bar situated just outside a subdivision, at the top of a long sloping hill. A single streetlight lit the intersection. There were no lights in the parking lot and only a couple of neon signs in the high, narrow windows. A moth and insect beset light illuminated the door in a careless way. I was nervous, but Speedo, already opening the door, assured me there wouldn’t be a problem. Speedo had a full beard and more than just the confidence that brought. I didn’t.
Inside, the smoke to human ratio skewed heavily in favor of smoke. Low-hanging lights were bright enough to show every defect in a pair of empty pool tables’ felt: holes, bits of pilled felt, shiny spots where the cue ball was set for the break. The rest of the light was indirect (reflected from the faded felt) or courtesy of slot machines; kaleidoscope colors tinted with the thin brown stain of accumulated nicotine. I didn’t learn about this effect until a few years later, when, as a college dropout window cleaner, I washed the windows of some of Oshkosh’s multitudinous taverns and watched the TSP (trisodium phosphate) and ammonia-infused water turn a poisonous brown, the same color and viscosity as snake venom, as it ran off the windows. By mid-morning, I was nauseous from putting my hands into the nicotine water in my bucket. The lead guy on the crew made fun of me, his fingers yellow from countless thousands of cigarettes, teeth brown, or missing.
The blinking lights and electronic bells of the slot machines, infantile echoes of absentee parenting, competed for space in the visual/aural arena, to no one’s benefit. To one side, a couple of blandly-shaped people smoked, drank, and slapped buttons with their cigarette hands as they gambled away money they didn’t look to have in the first place. Several more generic humans sat at the bar, swiveling to facilitate turning their stiff necks toward the door. But their eyes, flat and sour, slid over us without seeing and they turned back to the bar in unison. The bartender paused a conversation and gave us whatever counted for his full attention, frowning. Speedo smiled and pointed, pistol-style, toward a door to a side room. The bartender shrugged, and we were in. Everyone knew there was nowhere for us to go, and nothing to do when we got there.
The side room was inexplicably, almost bafflingly, unnecessary; it held another pool table, a couple of high top tables, and a single arcade game: Operation Wolf. I couldn’t think of a reason for the room to be walled off from the rest of the bar. The game was what we had come for. Speedo went to get change and a couple of sodas. I took in my surroundings and tried to imagine how they could do anything but promote depression. He returned with two plastic cups stuffed with ice, topped off with a splash of Coke, and ten dollars’ worth of quarters stuffed in his pants pocket.
So, there we were, in the presence of our nights’ entertainment, for as long as the quarters held out. Operation Wolf was neither fast-twitch nor precise. Its optical element was, in the tradition of Duck Hunt, annoyingly inaccurate, though I suppose as a representation of the effects of recoil it might have made some sense. Still, there was no reward for laying your cheek on the receiver—using the iron sights, no reward for holding a proper stance, no reward for pressing the butt firmly into your shoulder, no reward for using controlled bursts. There was nothing that you might be able to take with you as a real-world skill, nothing to actually be proud of. If I had had a choice, I would have played something else. For the record: Discs of Tron is my all-time favorite arcade game, and the only one I ever ‘beat’ (technically, it could never be beaten—but it did max out on variations so that eventually, every level had every variation in it, the essential equivalent of beating it).
It’s after curfew. I’m playing Operation Wolf and swimming in second-hand smoke. Def Leppard’s ‘Hysteria’, suppressed, punctuated with 16-bit gunfire and explosions from Operation Wolf and bells and other bright noises from the slot machines, does its best to distract (distraction being perhaps the poorest form of entertainment). I sip Coke, chew ice, take my turns squinting down the barrel of a toy gun, and spend the rest of the time imagining what I look like from above, standing in this extraneous room, imagining what the bar looks like from far above: Cigarette butts huddle by the door, and the desert beyond is quartered by a thin, useless road, empty intersection illuminated by a solitary light.