The Master Builder *


     So, anyway, since the show was going to originate at the World Famous StarBurst Grandissimo Palace Hotel Casino, I had to meet the Big Boss. This was not as easy as it seemed since the boss lived high atop his new concoction, The Mother Gooseland Hotel Casino & Trailer Park. And Morty promised him free promos.
     The color scheme is what I couldn't get past. And scheme it was. All non-gaming areas of the place were painted in sort of a radioactive lime green and lollypop hot pink. This combination has been scientifically proven to induce vomiting in lab rats who haven’t even eaten. Patrons of this establishment, having somewhat less taste than rats, can stand it for up to three minutes… A time span calculated to get them from the parking lots to the pits and back if they didn't gawk or fuck around. What they didn't quite account for was the Total Experience. These geeks wandering in from the desert spaces…like sixteen hours in a camper from Ogden, Utah… the last stretch Turbo-Express as the gambling bug up Pop's ass was all atwitter at the proximity of the VegaRama basin… These geeks got outta the cab and ran bent over through the post melt-down parking lot… The hot pink and green edifice swimming and shimmering through the heat warp like a big poisonous birthday cake.
      These geeks were all bent over from driving. It might take them four or five days to really straighten up. Hell, why bother, when in 2:48 or so, they'd be sitting down to blackjack again, hands bent out, clutching face cards instead of the steering wheel…gazing straight ahead at the long lonely distance between the dealer's beady eyes.
      Ma, waddling along behind, has had her clutch purse clutched in her lap, her thorax pressing it down on her bladder, since the old man refused a pit stop back in Tonopah, nine hours ago. Visions of plumbing swim through her heat stroked mind. She may never straighten up again. You see these old folks all over the country now, bent over, turning into the sun, and I never fail to think fondly of Vegas.
      Anyway, these geeks get inside and that first big blast of Major League Air Conditioning hits them, it's like TotalShock to their system… What with the noise and the pink and green zoinging their eyeballs like a bad Technicolor print of Mogambo, well, they react sort of like electroshock…Their scalp seizes up so their eyebrows are popping up and down. Their hands are twitching…They're saying things like "Yehyeh yeh yeh yehyehyeh!" You know, not making even their normal, day-to-day sense. They stream through the hallways, making lemming-like twitchy gestures…and wash up in eddies in the corners like turkeys in a rainstorm. If it weren't for the Seven Percent Incline, they wouldn't make it to the casino at all.
     But Ray, the BigBoss, figured that one out too. Good thing he’d been a weasel farmer back in Kentucky and knew how to manage livestock. Ya see, everything in the whole building kind of like slopes downhill to the casino…Easy to get into… hard to get out. The corridors wind around for 3/5's of a mile, past junk food, junk jewelry, noise and bimbos. Just enough to get them winded so they wanna sit down. Lights flicker neon at just under epilepsy rate… Loud jangling jingles give a sense of excitement and doom. And then, through the darkness, the end of the tunnel…They're spun out like wharf rats into the sun… A vast indoor cavern arcing above them.
     The corridor feeds them out into a vortex. Counterclockwise and off-balance, they’re sucked around to the floor of the pit. Some of them stick in the slots and bang around there for hours in some pinball spree. But the heavy hitters, the ones with the wallets, are spun to the bottom by the force of their own specific gravity. That seven percent incline, is statistically proven to throw them up at the tables with just enough angular momentum to get an average one-hundred and eighty-five pound dirt farmer from Boise into a blackjack chair.
      Once seated, the geeks have been known to sit, riveted to the play like brain-dissected gerbils, as long as the lights flash and the bells go off. A statistically stable 1.8 percent come finally crashing to the floor with Acute Systemic Uremia… Vegas Bladder, they call it. Dealers are taught to look for signs and get the chips and cards out of the way.
     Meanwhile, their women lock up on the slot handles with Vegas Elbow and have to be pried loose by firemen with a Jaws-o-Life.
     That's the kind of place this is. But the good part, the part where he was proven a genius, I haven't even gotten to yet.
     The kid angle. Every joint in Vegas has historically had one problem, what to do with the wives and kiddies while the old man loses the family fortune and college fund. Now, Ray Sotto had found it!
     MotherGooseLand - Games of chance for kids! This brainstorm slipped through the Gaming Commission like the carnival was in town. “Ya, see, it ain't gambling cause it don't pay off in cash, and like ya can't double up or anything. What the kid gets for his coinage is the old early sleeve job, which is educational and gives him a jump on life. It teaches him an important lesson; mainly that he's a jerk-off just like his old man.”
     In galleries above the pits are these carney scams…you know, knock the stuffed cats off the shelf and win a bazooka, pop a balloon and whatnot. What makes this so choke-hold cute is that all the booths are patterned after some zonked out fairytale…only, you know, given the Vegas topspin; mean-looking dwarfs and gnomes being the specialty. It's great for the kids. They're all wired by the noise, and it’s great for the old man. If everybody loses their stash, nobody can call him a dipshit. And it's great for the casino; they can make sure they scraped out the whole family. None of this kids-holding-out-the-food money like at other joints.
     It's great all around. Down below, as you gamble, you hear happy childhood voices…"Who's covering the pigs? "Five to Two on the Princess"…"Paying 9 to 5 on the wolf…"
     

    So I was off the elevator and walking. At least I was trying to walk. The carpet was a herringbone pattern. It seemed to flash pink and green…my perspective ran off on me…and it seemed I was falling down endless green stairs.
     So I knocked. The door to the suite swung open and Sotto was there… I could hear his voice booming like the Wizard of Oz…
     "I am the great Sotto…
     “What?…”
     “Why, only one of the wealthiest and most seminally important individuals on the face of the planet, earth.”
     “What?”
     “You're on… Four thousand large."
     Later I found out he was on the line with his girlfriend, negotiating a sex act… something involving Catholic school girls. I didn't wanna know.
     I couldn't see Ray Sotto because he was totally obscured by the help. The help, I thought, was one, but turned out to be two identical bimbos. One stood right behind the other as they opened the door. The expressions were identical, what with having been studied off a large housewife bottle of Lemon Free Joy. They looked like they had just achieved orgasm wiping down a credenza or something.
     They said something together like "and it keeps my hands looking kissably soft and fragrant." At least my mind read it as that…what they’d probably said was "Hi, whatdaya want?", or "Do come in." My mind was acting funny that day. What with the carpet and all, I was seeing double…My brain tried to focus, but it was all trompe l'oeil.
     You know, like one of those pictures of the moon. You look at the craters and it looks like they're holes. Then, if you tell your brain that they’re bumps, you can see them the other way. Well, I wasn’t yet used to Vegas and my brain wouldn't obey. It locked on treating the two of them like one object and I couldn't get it out. From then on, every time I looked at them, they looked like one bimbo half out of focus.
     I walked into the room and bumped dead into a big fucking eagle. It's okay, I didn't hurt it, it being like seven million pounds of cast iron or something. It took up the whole of what for an earth person would be a normal room. But this was not normal room. Anything but. And the eagle was not like something you’d buy. It was way too big for that. But not here. It was like the centerpiece of a trade show. Like when all the chefs in Cleveland get drunk together and bake the world's biggest pizza. Well, this was like that. It was the world's biggest bad room art. Only here… it worked.

     The room itself was like an old Liberace Set. And I mean nothing disparaging to Lee, who was a man every bit as sweet as a cupcake in his own right. But this room was unreal. There was a balcony that was good for a sword fight…rafters and all. A chandelier you could swing from, and plenty of doors. I half suspect the doors didn't go anywhere, nothing else did. On the other wall was a two-story bookshelf and one of those plastic fires that goes around and around, simulating flames. This one must have been installed wrong; it's Vegas. It went round and round, only horizontal, the flames spinning in free fall. It looked like a fucking comet coming through the wall.
     I went to the bookshelves expecting Reader’s Digest, but no. These books weren't even half real. They were like vacuum formed in plastic seven-foot sheets. Why he needed two floors of them, I'll never know. He must like to not read a lot. But the thing I liked most was the ladder. More a ramp or a trellis, but whatever, it was an enormous contraption rising into the distance in rococo gold leaf. You could climb all the way up the condo to the books near the roof, say, if you wanted to inspect that edition of Proust vacuum sealed into the top shelf. Then, in four or five sweeping loops, it reached the floor. The only thing was, again, this is Vegas…reading is what Bimbos do at the pool… the ramp ended at the floor, just as it should, but it ended facing inward. I imagined the geek at the top, all weighted down with knowledge, staggering down forty feet, being spun into a vortex and slammed into the wall where his face was impact-formed in extruded plastic. I was welcoming just that thought when I was hailed by the twerp on the piano. He sat on his baby grand…sucking a stogie. The phone, when he slammed it, reverberated a minor chord through the room.
     He was short and he was padded. Some kind of growth sat on his head like the nest of some particularly nasty bird of prey. I almost couldn’t believe what he had to say. He counted it off on his fingers:
     "There are three great builders in the history of the world…Alexander the Great… King Ptolemy the Second of Egypt…and, ummm… me, Ray Sotto."
     I musta looked more than somewhat confused cause he went right on ahead.
     "Round Columns!” And he glared at me, all fish-eyed. I rose to the occasion:
     "Pardon me?”
     "Round columns" he repeated as if I was terminally slow. "Bet you never thought of that!"
     "Uh, can't say as I have."
     "Crowd flow! Square columns, they bunch up… you got, say, a whole casino…square columns, the crowd bunches, you don't get your flow…I have statistically proven the drop drops 1.65 percentile-of-take…Round columns, the crowd flows right through to the slots. You didn't think of that. And I did. That's why I'm rich and you're not. Gonna write a book…What'll I call it?"
      I didn't know who he was talking to, him or me, but I jumped right in:
     "How about…'Seven Pillars of Wisdom".
     "Hey, kid, that ain't bad!"
     See what I mean, Ma, these guys, ya can't even rag 'em along. They just don't get it.
     Ray had called me up to talk about something.. But first the OuttaFocus twins came twittering in on high heels. He had rung this dainty little bell. A little gold thingy like, you know, people with class have just got to have. The girls were called from the kitchen and from the looks on their faces it was like anything goes. Could be a blow job, could be just drinks.
     Ray ordered “Champagne a la Ray”, which I learned later was his own concoction… Champagne and grape Kool-aid. I ordered a beer.
     "It's important, you know," he opened, "to be a man of substance."
     I was thinking if he's of substance it's most likely controlled.
    "In this town, I am someone, How do I know it?" He looked at me hard now…
    I held my end up. "How do you know it?" I managed to say.
    "I can tell by the menu… I am all over town." The girls, all ateeter on gold lame platforms, just nodded in agreement, if that's the right word.
    "Clam's Sotto…The Forum. In the Hall of the Caesars, I'm top of the meat list."

    Now my mind was reeling. I smiled at the ceiling, which was a mistake.
    "You think what you like to, but people got to eat. And every time they do, they see my name. You think that's so easy, try to get your name on a dish. Hah…see! Morey Amsterdam!”
    "Morey Amsterdam," I just echoed, "who the hell's he?"
    "See! You'd never know him, except for the sandwich. Now do you see?
    I was afraid that I did. I was stuck in a room far above street level with a three-foot geek who wanted his name on cold cuts. I cut to the finish.
    "You wanted a commercial?"
    "You got it half right."
     "I do?"
     "I want it and I want it now."
     "Fine, you got it, if I have the say so. You pay for it, you got it, it's fine with me."
     Now he looked kinda sideways. "How much do I pay?"
     "Well, I don't know…" He cut in like a panther. I sensed what his game was; intimidation, so I played it hard and dumb.
     "He sent you up here. He said you were a pro." By this he meant Morty. I nodded.
     "He did? Then I am."
     "And you don't know what it will cost?"
     "Sure I do."
     "Well?"
     “Well what?" Now, I was getting to him.
     "How much will it cost?"
     "Well, that depends…
     "On what?" He sensed the kill.
     "On what it is!" His cigar stopped in mid-stink.
     You ever find yourself being taken over by an alien mind, Mom? Well, that's just like this was…I found myself captivated by this little weasel and talking like him. I was thinking I'll fake it…You don't want to stand out. Not in a town like this. I'll fake it and talk like them and try to be like them, or at least not draw attention, so they don't kill me and dice me and wrap me in tin foil and stuff me down the mail chute. I'll just be cool, real cool, till I can get a running start.
      I picked up his babble. It had gone on without me, as I mused to myself. His eyes were defocused; he was on a roll now and carried away. He waved his stubby arms like a drowning sailor to make a point. The girls sort of stood there engrossed, as much as they were able.
      He was making the point now; I tried to focus…but the words he was speaking didn't mean much to me. Something about a giant roller coaster.
     "And it ends in the fucking lobby!"
     "I'm sorry, what lobby?"
     "The lobby…the Fucking lobby…" He looked at me like I was some lower form of life that didn't speak Bronx. Probably so. I know I'd never heard these words in this order.
     "You're in the hotel right? Like, you go on up the stairs. The roller coaster is open and you get right on it. Before you know it, you’re shooting out the side of the hotel. You scream around the outside of the Casino like a bat outta hell, yelling to your friends…out over the parking lot, by now a hundred miles an hour." His arms were zooming all over the place. He looked like the bug in your iced tea.
      "Now it really takes off, swings over the trailer park, out over I-15 from Barstow, across the El Encantada parking lot, over the eighteen-hole, par-three Championship Golf Course, zips by the corner of Benny's Mount Zion Memorial Park, where you can pray for any deceased you might like…including Mormons. Under the microwave tower, down past the dog track and back over the Interstate. It swings under the front of the Hotel and right fucking through the Real Size Replica of Victoria Falls!"
     He looked over to me and paused in the action to catch his breath.
     "Do you know Victoria Falls?"
     "No, but I hear she goes down a lot." He didn't hear me, or pretended not to, which was just as good.
     "Africa or Brazil, I forget which, biggest fucking waterfall on the continent. Shitload of water. Wonder of the Fucking World. Well, the front of the hotel will be just like it, 5/8 scale… Lit up at night, reflecting the marquee. It'll be something!"
      "I'll bet."
      "Anyway, the tracks shoot under the water, go into the casino and swing three or four times around the pit, then it dive through the slots to the subbasement, and pick up speed"
      "More speed?" I injected, just to show interest. He nodded up and down like a raven.
      "For the final big climax!…the extravaganza!.. The Loop-de- Loop-at-the-Top. Fully inverted, thirty, fifty gamblers, wife, dogs and kids… upside down over the pit. It snap-rolls, rights itself, and, and, and slams to a fucking stop right in the fucking Casino!!! They stumble out, dizzy as shit, right into the slots…” He paused for breath "What d'ya think? After a ride like that, losing a few hundred in silver is no big thing. They're just happy to be alive!"
      Suddenly, I put it all together. He wanted me to do a TV Spot for this new wing of the Hotel to run on the show. The catch was, it hadn't been built yet.
      "That's not how it works, kid."
      "It isn't."
     "You don't know a thing."
     "Probably not."
      "See, first you promote it, then if anybody bites, you build."
     "Marketing at its finest! I should have known."
     He took a big, satisfied suck at the stogie and blew his own toxic cloud up through the chandelier.
     "There's just one problem."
     "What’s that?"
     "What am I gonna shoot?"
     "Whadaya mean, don't you know?” And then he turned to the girls.
     "This guy, Morty, sends me a TV guy who doesn’t know what to shoot."
     "Well, I mean, if it isn't built yet, there's not much to shoot."
     "You're supposed to be the pro, what am I paying you for? Make something up."
     And here he started waving his arms again and babbling. Luckily my phone rang. Morty.
     “I gotta go to the airport to meet the director, Ed Chicki,” I announced to the twerp. "Gotta go."

     "Wait!" But I was out the door and he was chasing me down the stairs.
     "I haven't told you about the theme restaurant."
     "It can wait"
     "No, listen… It's my greatest idea yet. Totally new, see."
     He was trailing me down the stairs.
    "Whadya get when you go out to dinner and spend a lotta money. "
    "I dunno…"
    "Well this'll be different. This'll be totally new. An experience, see? Come on, what do you usually get?"
     "I dunno, food?"
     "Right…Good food, what else?"
     "Service…"
     "Right, and class."
     "Yeah, right."
     "Hell, what fun is that? You can get that all over town."
     "Yours will be different?" By now, I was just stalling for time.
     "Right! We won't have none of that stuff. Instead we'll have broads with sweaty arms. And their hair up in nets… and they start giving you shit."
     "Shit?"
     "You know, abuse."
     "You'll go out for this?"
     "Sure, it'll be a scream. It'll be fantastic. And they'll be out of everything. You can't get what you want. You'll get, like, you know… you order lobster, you'll get meatloaf, it'll be a riot."
     "You're probably right."
     "Yeah… it'll be, it'll be…you know, just like home!"
      I hit the ground floor at a run and melted into the crowd… I got a glimpse, as I was funneled out the door, of a hand with a cigar weaving through the masses like the fin of a killer shark.