To the Artist's Page To our home page
To James Cho's previous piece To James Cho's next piece
A Short Trip to Las Vegas Before Returning Home
"That'll be $50, Mr. Park."
Ronald opened his black leather wallet and took out a crisp, $100 bill. He handed it to the front desk attendant. As Ronald Park waited for his change, he stared at an advertisement which read, "One Free Night With the Purchase of 48 Gallons of Gasoline."
"How strange," thought Ron.
"And $50 is your change. Your room is 738. Now that's on the seventh floor, and remember, there are thirteen altogether. Here's a layout of the floor plan, and you would be here. This is your room key. Checkout's at noon, and I hope you enjoy your stay at The San Remo Hotel."
"Thank you," and as Ron walked towards the elevator, he thought about how the Elvis Presley slot machine guarding the front door had more personality than that cardboard clerk.
As he wiped away this thought, his eyes searched for the elevator. He found it at the other end of the hotel. It was ninety feet away, a ninety feet filled with beeps and clangs and shouts and moans and the occasional ching-ching-ching of coins spitting out from a screaming slot machine. This was Las Vegas, the ultimate in extremes. No other place in America measures hope and despair like the brilliantly constructed scale that is Las Vegas. No other city in America highlights winners and losers quite like the elevated arena of Las Vegas. It is pure joy; and it is pure pain. And even for a medium-sized casino like The San Remo, the hypnotic noise of gambling rang in Ron's ears like a dinner bell clanging feverishly from the back porch of an old, prairie farmhouse; and that haunting, humming noise of gambling tingled the nerves in Ron's empty stomach and uplifted his spirits so that he twirled through that thirty foot stretch of cool, oxygenated air like a ballerina twirling into the arms of her destiny.
Ron reached the end of the casino and found the elevators beside the gift shop. He pushed the "up" button, and the doors opened. Ron stepped inside, alone. He pushed the button for the seventh floor and watched the dull gray doors slowly squeeze shut his frame of sight, collapsing on the crowd of faceless, well-dressed bystanders muttering hollow condolences to each other. The interior lighting was dim. His sagging eyes studied the inside paneling. It was polished wood-grain. A slow, guttural saxophone moaned an eerie tune that sat like a thick fog in the boxed elevator. A numbness flashed through Ron's body. The elevator started its ascent. The movement felt awkward and unsettling as if the elevator's four corners, for some strange reason, weren't properly supported. Unnerved, he examined the numbers above the door to check his present floor. All the bulbs were burnt out. His location was a mystery.
Suddenly, the elevator doors opened, and Ron stepped forward unconsciously, attracted by a cloudy white light that flooded the hallway, and even though the light nearly blinded Ron, he cracked a faint smile which widened when he realized the rose colored carpet under his feet stretched to the end of the hallway and around the corner, and that perched along both walls in increments of five feet were stunning bouquets of sweet-smelling flowers swimming in beautiful Chinese vases which were painted in an elaborate rainbow swirl, and when the sensuous scent from the flowers danced through the hallway and tickled Ron's nose, he chuckled in time with the soothing sound of a giggling newborn baby drifting from around the corner.
Ron found his room. He unlocked the door and stepped inside. His leather sandals sank into the room's plush carpeting. He flicked on the light switch. The illumination revealed an orderly and neat room. He snickered, thinking about how his mother always yelled at him for his messy room and at how this level of professional cleanliness would probably meet her approval.
He moved to the night stand where he emptied the contents of his wallet onto the bed. He searched for his most prized possession: a fake California driver's license which he bought for $1,000 from a fraternity brother about two months ago. It was a near perfect replica. It listed Ron's date of birth as 5/2/77, making him 22, and it included his real name, picture, and California holograms. But in reality, Ron was born in 1981. His name is actually a clue to his true age. Being immigrants from South Korea, Ron's parents wanted the name of their only son to be a genuine American name. What else than to name him after the newly elected President, Ronald Reagan.
Next, he picked out his bank card and dialed the toll free number on the back to check how much money remained in his savings account. At the start of the spring semester, his parents deposited $5,000 into his account. This financial security, in the eyes of Ron's parents, would enable him to concentrate all of his time to his studies.
"Two-hundred four dollars and seventy-one cents," the electronic voice announced. He hung up the phone and placed the bank card into his wallet. Ron then grabbed the remaining stack of plastic cards, which included his real driver's license, his San Diego State University student identification card, his Blockbuster Video card, and a Visa Gold card issued to Dr. Kim Il Park, and tossed them into the night stand drawer next to the token bible. A slip of paper remained on the bed. A telephone number was scribbled on it. He picked it up and held it high in the light. It was his sister's telephone number at Stanford. Ron was scheduled to pick Myung up in his car after he finished his finals. Myung was expecting him to arrive in two days. Together, they would drive home to Redwood City, and the next day they would attend a dinner party held by his parents in honor of Myung's first full year at Stanford Law School. What Myung didn't know and what his parents didn't know was that Ron wasn't taking his finals this week or any other week. Since he hadn't attended a single class all semester, Ron and the Dean had decided academic participation in finals week was unnecessary. In fact, Ron's participation in next semester was also unnecessary. The Dean had suspended him.
Ron folded the slip of paper in half and buried it in the right pocket of his khaki pants. He laid back onto his bed and closed his eyes. Sleep became his new companion.
When he awoke, Ronald Park had forgotten he was in Las Vegas. Disoriented, he studied his surroundings. He laid on a pretty blanket decorated with colorful flowers. The light in the room bounced off the ivory white walls with excitement. The buzzing air conditioner chilled the room to a comfortable temperature. Most of all, the untainted oxygen entering his lungs invigorated him. He stretched his tense body.
Still unaware of his location, he walked to the window and opened the blinds, revealing a city comprised of a thousand lonely light bulbs-multicolored bulbs of red and orange and yellow and green and blue-each burning in painful solitude while the blank, dry desert, which seemed to flat-line into an infinite emptiness, swallowed the desperate illumination of those isolated bulbs whole like the unhinging jaw of a snake. He stepped aside, and he watched the light in his room slowly drown in that unforgiving darkness outside. Then, he remembered. He was in Las Vegas. He checked his wallet and sighed, somehow feeling satisfied.
It was time to go. As he walked towards the door, he stopped at the full length mirror to examine himself. He frowned at his bony six foot frame. Curious, he pulled up his polo shirt, revealing the sickly ripple of rib bones poking through his pale, white flesh. He thought about the last time he ate. It must have been three days ago, before finals' week started and before diving into one last drug binge of acid, mushrooms, ecstasy, cocaine, marijuana, and heroin for him and whoever didn't have a final during those three straight days in which he sat in his dorm room with the blinds tightly shut so that time was dead, and so that he could float off, away from his classes, away from the fraternity, away from phone calls, away from himself, and most importantly, away from his parents. A sharp pain shot through his right arm and triggered a memory. He held his right hand to his face and studied the scar around his knuckles. With a sagging pain of regret, he remembered smashing the only mirror in his dorm room sometime in the middle of those three straight days. He pressed his face close to the mirror so that his breathing left patches of fog on the glass and peered into his own slanted eyes. They looked as if someone had rubbed charcoal rings around those slits, those simple little slits that made him different from the world around him. He stepped back from the mirror and looked down at the carpet. Then, he left the room.
While walking to his car, he pushed the button on his key chain. It deactivated the alarm to his brand new Acura Integra. He climbed in, started the car, and drove across the street to the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino. He found a parking spot and turned off the car. Before getting out, he opened the glove box and removed a 0.38 caliber revolver. He removed one bullet and buried it into his left pants pocket. He placed the gun back into the glove box, locked it, and exited his vehicle. He set the alarm and marched towards the nearest entrance into the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino.
Standing before a quiet yet glittery entrance, he peered through the clear glass door and studied the long, dark hallway stretching into an unrecognizable commotion. A row of faint, golden lights hung like lynched criminals from the concrete ceiling. He stepped through the door. Once inside, he grew nervous and sick. He dug up the slip of paper with his sister's telephone number on it and read the numbers again and again in his mind until he sighed. He turned around and took one step towards the exit and stopped. A familiar sound rang in his ears. He turned around again and took a step closer to the sound ... and then another ... and then another. Before he knew it, he was running towards that sound, that unforgettable sound of gambling that is the morphine cure to the wounded spirit.
He continued running until he came to the entrance of the casino and stopped. There, the sound of gambling which Ron could not escape from and which hypnotized him to the maddening rush of the bet, paralyzed him. He stood frozen before the pulsating glitz and bustle while the omnipotent sound of gambling-the dealer announcing the dice at the craps table-the waitress shouting for cocktails-the change girl bringing coins-the slot machines blinking and beeping wildly like they too were addicted to the bet-transformed in Ron's ears into the full throttle rush of Orff's Carmina Burana during the song's feverish climax.
Quickly, he scurried to the nearest money machine where he withdrew as much as he could, $200. Together with the $50 from the change for his room, he had $250 to wager. He searched the huge labyrinth of gambling for a roulette table. He found one. Four people sat in chairs around the table. He studied the table's electronic scoreboard. It displayed six consecutive blacks followed by a green double zero and then six consecutive reds.
A seat became available when a tall, drunk, Caucasian male stumbled off, counting the chips in his hand. Ron sat down. He took out his $250 and threw it down on red.
"That's a big ole' bet for a young college boy like yourself," shouted the man sitting next to Ron. He was old and fat and wore a huge cowboy hat. He spoke with a thick, Texas accent, and after he spoke he laughed hysterically so that his double chin slapped against his hidden throat. "I know them 2 to 1 odds can be temptin', but if you're gonna' be bettin' that much money, you best be prepared to lose it. Are you prepared, son?" and that old, fat cowboy with sun-burnt cheeks became perfectly still and serious, and his swollen eyes stared intently on Ron, daring him to take away his bet.
A peculiar silence overtook the roulette table. The dealer, dressed rigidly in a black tuxedo, sank his mannequin eyes into Ron. The dealer's empty glare went unnoticed. Nothing existed in Ron's world except the roulette table. He reached down and ran his right index finger along the soft, green felt and encircled the two boxes for betting, the black on the left and the red on the right, until finally running his finger through the black box. He looked up at the Texan sitting next to him and replied, "Don't worry, sir. I'm ready to lose." With that, the dealer removed his eyes from Ron.
"Well hell then, so am I!" screamed the jovial Texan, and he pushed $250 worth of chips on black and let out a bellowing laughter so that his bursting belly bounced in huge convulsions as he struggled to breath. Finally, he caught his breath and added, "Now you remember here, son. There's a lot of damn fools out around here that think winnin' and losin' is measured by how many chips you bring to that there cashier window. And that's a goddamn shame, ya' here me boy!" and the Texan's mammoth left paw thundered through the air and blasted into Ron's back, knocking out what air his weak lungs held.
"Ah, sweety, you shouldn't be so rough with that poor college boy," teased the cocktail waitress hovering near the table. From her booze tray, she planted a Jack and Coke in front of the big Texan.
"Thank ya' sugar, and here's a little somethin' for you," and he tossed a $25 chip onto her tray and gave the thinly dressed waitress a pat on her sagging ass. She walked away smiling, and in one gulp he finished his drink.
At last, all attention turned to the dealer. He took the ball and spun it around the wheel. The two other players at the table rushed to complete their bets.
Nervous, Ron stood up. His heart thumped in unison with the soothing, rhythmic, humming sound of the roulette ball as it spun blindly around the wheel. He buried his sweaty hands in his pockets. In his right hand, he held the piece of paper with this sister's telephone number on it, and in his left hand, he clutched the bullet. His eyes stared at the two colored boxes on the roulette table: the red on the right with his $250 in cash on it, and the black on the left stacked with the Texan's $250 worth of chips. The dealer's hand passed over the table. All bets were final. In Ron's ears there was silence, except for the hum of the roulette ball as it rolled around, and around, and around, and around, until it lost its momentum and slowed ... and finally dropped into its resting place and bounced several times, making an ominous click, click, click sound until it laid lifeless and still in its grave.
At that moment when the dealer called out the final verdict, hundreds of people moved like robots in the assembly line of gambling with the vain disguise of winning big. A young, Hispanic accountant fresh out of college and pumping with adrenaline walked away from a black-jack table with $200 in profit only to throw it all down on a hand of baccarat and lose. A wrinkled old lady with empty white hair held a plastic tub provided by the casino under a slot machine while it vomited out quarters; and once the $1,000 payoff was complete, she sat down again on her warm seat and started feeding the slot machine with her winning quarters trying to hit the big payoff: the million dollar prize. On the other side of the casino, a tired, middle-aged African-American man sat in a chair with his face buried in his flexing arms while in front of him on a jumbo-sized screen, his team-his favorite football team-kicked a field goal from the one yard line to pull ahead by nine points, one point short of the spread with fifty-five seconds left in the game. A tiny slip of paper worth $500 lay crumbled underneath the shrunken black man. And of course, there's Ronald Park, standing like a statue beside the roulette table with both hands dug deep into his pockets, breathless, and a slave to the bet.
To the top of this page