An excerpt from From Nothing
Victor pulled off I-15 at the Tropicana exit and merged onto Las Vegas Boulevard. He knew he was getting onto the Strip much too soon, that Petrumi had told him to check into the Golden Nugget downtown, where his room would be covered, but it wouldn’t be Vegas without an approach. The sun would come up soon and the city before dawn looked the same as it did all night, almost inviting despite the rampant lights and fountains where they were never meant to be. Las Vegas was almost inviting in the night hours, but in sunlight it gracelessly invaded the timeless desert with a glut of marquee signage and bad taste.
There were worse afterthoughts in America than Las Vegas, but not many, and not by much. The evidence was widely exposed in the mad zoning sprawl. He knew the town reasonably well, the post-modern grid deliberately easy to master. Each January he would make the pilgrimage to the Consumer Electronics Show with some 100,000 other gadget peddling corporate types. He had been going to CES every year since he joined Global Harmonics. He was familiar with trade events at the Disney-like hotels flanking the gateway to the Strip, the Luxor and Excalibur. Nearby towered the indoor-outdoor frolic at Mandalay Bay, where European sun-bathing was allowed and advertised. He usually stayed at the Mirage, the former home of Siegfried and Roy until that one awful incident, but that had brought the Beatles Love to town, so somehow light had shined on sorrow. Lennon, McCartney, and Cirque du Soleil—sure, why not? If George Martin hadn’t done the mix it might not have worked, but he did and it did, so there. There it was out the car window, the Mirage, adorned at the crown by blown-up images of all four Beatles, a luxury citadel with license to the revolution. Another long block of driving and the lads were behind him.
Onward he crept through the emptying crosswalks. Onward past a child street performer singing on wood crate. Onward alongside the shimmering monorail linking hotel to hotel, as if Uber drivers hadn’t put enough taxis out to pasture. Onward beneath Andrew Dice Clay’s enlarged visage somehow reborn and relevant on a mural overhead. Onward beyond a smorgasbord of tattoo options and adult video superstores, old school peep shows, easy-money lawyers on billboards, myriad chapels to pray, and pawn shops to buy time in the shadows of the Stratosphere tower and rollercoaster drop. Onward past the looming golden letters T-R-U-M-P and the border zone SLS. Onward to destiny.
Downtown wasn’t the downtown of old, but it was half the price of the Strip and reinvented as a friendlier community than the high rent glamor to the south. There were more locals, fewer big money losses by individuals, reasonable prices on food and beverage, and a covered walking mall where Fremont Street was closed to cars. The Greyhound station remained a sound reminder of the sorrow in so many departures, and the homeless were never more than a few blocks from the bronzed glass doors opening into air-conditioning. The Golden Nugget was forever a landmark, remodeled and reborn, its roots the heart of old school nostalgia. It would be a fine place to stay. How could it not be? Petrumi told him not to ask unnecessary questions.
Victor put the Acura in the parking structure and checked into the Golden Nugget just before 7:00 a.m. Petrumi had told him there would be a message waiting for him at registration about what to do once he got there. Victor approached the front desk and silently handed his driver’s license to the drowsy clerk on duty, who found him instantly in the system.
“Victor Selo, third party booking, standard queen, staying with us indefinitely.” The desk clerk looked at Victor with noticeable caution. Victor’s war wounds couldn’t be hidden.
“Car accident,” said Victor, his appearance inescapable. “I’m going to be fine.”
“I’m sure you will be.” It was Vegas. He couldn’t have cared less. “Your room and occupancy tax are covered, parking included in your rate. I’ll need a credit card for incidentals.”
Petrumi’s check list item one was delivered. One promise kept, a place to sleep without cost. That was a good start, but incidentals like eating, how would he pay for that? Petrumi told him he would get paid by the band. He could use that money to pay his credit card bill online. There would be a time delay between the incidental charges and when the credit card bill was due. He could deposit his pay from the band to his PayPal account and then use that to pay his credit card bill for the hotel’s incidental charges. Yes, that would work. The hotel wouldn’t boot him as long as Petrumi paid his room rate and his account was current. He could eat. He handed the clerk his Visa card.
The clerk ran the credit card and looked at his screen. “I understand you’ll be playing in our lounge.”
“Yes, I was told you’d have a message for me at check-in, a contact person.”
The clerk handed the Visa back to Victor with a pair of room card keys and pointed behind him. “That’s your contact.”
A handsome, well-built African American man was standing between the registration desk and the main lobby. He was over six feet and probably under one hundred eighty pounds, part Apollo Creed and part Jimi Hendrix. No one could miss him. He carried himself with an aura of stardom. He was minted to stand out, a head-turner, a magazine cover live in person.
“He just happens to be standing there?” asked Victor.
“I texted him when I saw your name in the log as requested in your file. Good luck with the band, Mr. Selo. Enjoy your extended stay at the Golden Nugget.”
Victor stepped back from the counter with his plastic card keys and walked toward his leading man stalker, whose physical presence was a monument Victor had to absorb slowly. This magnetic being, this carved marble Adonis—he knew where he walked eyes fell upon him. Was he famous, a known star Victor should have recognized? He glowed with star quality. He was indescribable. Leather boots, likely handmade, with inscriptions of some sort, Native American artistry. He wore a down vest, bright gold, casino gold, like the sun glowing upon him. He had a half smile, enough that he was approachable, but with measured distance. He was mysterious, far from an open book, fancifully intimidating against Victor’s plainness.
“I’m Torch. You the guy the agency sent?”
“Torch?” Of course he was. Illustrated ardor, fire, and ice. Petrumi had mentioned the singer by name, but this wasn’t how Victor pictured him. For some reason he was thinking Rocky Horror. Must have been Tim Curry stuck in his mind. Petrumi said that Torch would be a good fit for Victor’s style, even though Petrumi knew little about Victor’s style beyond an ancient YouTube clip.
“Yeah, Torch. It’s my band. From Nothing. Petrumi send you here to fill the shift?”
“Yes, Petrumi sent me. You make it sound like I’m temp labor.”
Torch kept up his trademark smile, fully emitting joy. There was something about him, something beyond words. “What else would you be? We lost our guitarist. We need a substitute, maybe a replacement. They told me you can play. Can you play?”
“I can play. Rhythm backup, right? What do you mean lost?”
“Man, what kind of an amateur stiff are you? He’s alive, no one killed him.”
Victor knew he struck a nerve. He was off to a bad start, but he was similarly annoyed. “Please don’t call me that. I’ve heard the word amateur too many times for the rest of my life.”
“You got a name or should I make one up for you?”
“It’s Victor. I mean, I’m Victor. Victor Selo. Didn’t Petrumi pass that along in a text?”
“Probably, but that’s not going to work around here. Where you from?”
“I’m from nowhere, okay? What does it matter?”
“We’re getting somewhere. I got a name for you. You’re going to be our Nowhere Man.”
“I know you’re hiding out from something, so I’m guessing you need another name.”
“You can’t call me Victor?”
“Nope, you’re Nowhere Man.”
“Fine, I’ve lived with worse.”
“What’s your story, Nowhere Man? When did you start playing pro?”
“I went on my own at sixteen. It wasn’t working out. Foster parents, not on the same page. I found gigs, I played.”
“You make money?”
“Not much, enough to get myself into night classes at a city program. Transferred to UCLA on a grant when I was nineteen, finished at twenty-five. Learned computers, kind of went that way.”
“Wow, UCLA computer lab. I studied at the U of Shitsville. No dorms. Classes conducted outdoors. Final exam is finding a place to live without a job or references. Left the system when I was twelve. Got you beat by four years going solo but here I am. I got a good gig. It’s a golden gig I conjured from the void—a golden gig at the Golden Nugget in the 24 Karat Lounge, otherwise known as My Room. I own the room and I don’t even pay rent.”
Victor was stumped. Where was this going? Where did Torch want to take it? He was from the system, too. They had that in common. He needed to break through the defensive line, change the mood. “Torch, I’m sorry if I’m not saying things right. I haven’t eaten since yesterday. You want to get some breakfast?”
“Yeah, let’s do some breakfast. Get to know one another some. They have a renowned Claim Jumper here, can’t beat the selection. I have a feeling you’re going to be a regular once you figure out your routine.”
Victor followed Torch from the check-in desk across the pinging, binging casino floor. Even at this early hour the slots and tables were half-occupied, the glassy-eyed crowd rolling over to daybreak like the tired overnight clerk.
“You stay at the hotel?” asked Victor.
“No, that’s you, man. Hotel rooms are for guys passing through town. I live like a civilian in Summerlin, little house on the prairie. No one there even knows I do this. Most mornings I like to read, even if I’m not university material.”
They made their way across the carpeting to the Claim Jumper—coffee shop by day, diner by night—and grabbed a table that peered onto the casino floor. It was an all-purpose Claim Jumper, no different than any in the chain Victor and his coders had frequented—reserved western theme, laminated spiral-bound menu with a hundred choices cutting the same ingredients in different shapes. It could have been anywhere, but this one was in Vegas, enshrined in a downtown hotel. Torch hardly seemed to acknowledge the casino was there. Victor desperately wanted to make a good impression, but connecting with Torch was a task out of his league.
“Mind if I asked what happened to your guitar player?”
“Questions, man, you got questions. I don’t always have answers. Be cool with that. His name was Doctor Sludge. He’s in county, busted with five grams of the wrong stuff. They took him down Saturday night. Sunday we played with a ringer from Harrah’s who knew C, D, and F, not a lot more. I told Petrumi we needed to move along. Now we got you. You don’t do the wrong stuff, do you, Nowhere Man?”
“No stuff. I drink a little. That’s all.”
“Social drinking is okay, part of being a musician, unless you’re a twelve-stepper like our drummer, which is cool, as long as you stay in the program. By the way, it’s lead, not rhythm.”
“What do you mean?” asked Victor.
“Your part, what you play. Actually you play both. We’re a one guitar band. Economics matter, we keep the payday a five-way split. Another guitar would be less dough for all, so you play it all. That gonna work?”
Victor nodded, still getting used to Torch’s style. He was direct. He was charming. He was in charge. A waitress came by and took their order. Torch ordered English breakfast tea, a fruit cup, and yogurt. Of course he did. That’s why he glowed, the brightest energy in the room. Victor ordered the stack of pancakes and scrambled eggs, plus coffee filled to the brim. He badly needed the energy boost—carbs, protein, and caffeine to heal.
“Tell me about the band,” said Victor, again trying to build a bridge. This was his new boss. Making a good first impression wasn’t optional, yet it wasn’t happening.
“Anchor on the electric piano is Synthia Hamada. That’s Synthia with an S, like synthesizer, that’s how her parent’s spelled it. I guess it’s a Seattle thing. Parents were both doctors, sisters are doctors, everyone in the family is a doctor. She’s the black sheep, probably worse because they think she’s sleeping with me, which she’s not. I don’t mix real business and personal business for all the expected reasons. I like winning, not tension. I met her twelve years ago. We both sang backup one night for Celine when her regulars called in sick, been together ever since. She’s the keyboard goddess, grew up with classical lessons in her living room. She holds the whole thing together. Likes this Greek yogurt between sets.”
“Got you eating it for breakfast,” observed Victor.
“Yeah, she’s an influence. Bass player is a local guy named Baker Bagley. That’s not his real name but he likes the way it sounds when we announce him in the lineup: Baker Bagley on Bass. We think his name is Joe Smith but who cares? Always call him Baker Bagley, first and last. Says he played minor league baseball a few seasons, loser didn’t get past Single A. I can’t find mention of him online in any league ever, so who knows his real name or if he even played. Says he played bass in bar mitzvah bands to cover the rent and he has natural perfect pitch, no pun there. We know he can do that, so he stays in the band.”
“Perfect pitch is definitely something.”
“Dude is dull as a riverbed, but he mostly doesn’t bother me, especially when he’s not sucking up. On drums is Phil-Phil Tagalo, part Samoan, part Tongan, part Irish, tough dude. He’s pissed off a lot. Grew up playing drums in his parents’ luau business on an island somewhere. He doesn’t talk about it, doesn’t have much to say. He had a big break, backup percussion for Elton John at Caesars, blew it when he didn’t show up one night, too wasted to remember. Bad behavior like Sludge, but at least he cleaned up, learned his lesson, I think.”
“Sounds like a diverse group. And you?”
“I’m The Act. Torch from Oakland. That’s what you need to know. You ready for this?”