Recap: In the last chapter, Shep confessed to Lyle that even though he has a steady job — unlike many people in their generation — he’s still not happy with his life. He can’t pinpoint what the problem is, but he says he feels unfulfilled. However, he tells Lyle that he’s aware that he’s responsible for his own happiness, and that it’s up to him — and him alone — to make the best of things.
From the scattered recollections of Lyle Colane:
We were somewhere on McCarran, on the edge of the city, when the beans began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I don’t feel so good; my stomach is hurting….” And suddenly there was a terrible explosion and the air was filled with a horrific, rancid stench that permeated the tight confines of the car, which was going about forty-five with the windows up to downtown Reno. And a voice was screaming: “My god! What the hell did you eat?”
Then it became quiet again. My cousin had rolled down the window, to facilitate the wafting-out process.
“You do that again and you’ll be walking,” he said behind rose-tinted sunglasses.
“I hope not,” I said. “I think I blew out the back of my pants. People might look at me funny as I walked down the street.”
And now, settled here at a bar in a downtown casino, with the slots in the background gurgling change, the mindless tourist-yuppie-freaks wandering around with stupid grins pasted to their faces, pulling along children wearing Mickey Mouse baseball caps, my cousin and I sat with empty glasses waiting for a refill. We’d already downed two glasses each of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and required a third. Our thirsts had grown intolerable.
However, the bartender seemed to think we’d had enough. We’d been waiting for fifteen minutes, yet every time I waved my hand, he skulked away to wipe glasses or to chat with an attractive young couple at the other end of the bar. I’d pushed my empty glass as far forward as possible, trying to be conspicuous, to show the swine that we needed attention, now … but the bastard kept pretending to be busy.
Which was a horrifying proposition, because the thought of retreating back to sobriety seemed inadvisable. We’d come this far, after all, and in a situation like this, cowardice can kill you. Reno’s a city that preys on the weak, with vices and sin and sex twinkling from neon marquees, luring in the losers with the promise of jackpots and a two-for-one special at the buffet.
Shep sat next to me at the bar, feeding dollar bills into the poker machine. He jabbed a couple of buttons, holding a king and an ace. The computer dealt him a bum hand.
“Crap,” he said, turning to me. “Give me another dollar. I got to win my money back.”
“I think the bartender’s ignoring us,” I said. “Look. He’s watching a Golden Girls rerun, for Pete’s sake.” I raised my glass. “Hey. Hey!”
The man gazed over, frowned, and turned back to the television hanging over the bar.
“Well, forget him. I guess he doesn’t want that dollar tip I had planned for him.” Shep drained the remaining foam from his glass, then slammed the glass on the counter. “I’m out seven or eight dollars. Give me a buck. I’ll win it back.”
I handed him a dollar. He crammed it in the machine and bet the max. Another bum hand. Another honest dollar down the drain.
“Just like a casino,” he said, shaking his head. “They take take take and never give back.”
I rolled my glass in my hands, surveying my surroundings. Man, what in the world were we doing here? My nerves felt thin and ragged. Lights blinked everywhere. Hoots and hollers erupted from a table behind us. Change clanged into metal trays. Electronic blings, zips, boinks and bleeps drenched my ears and flooded my consciousness. Sensory overload. The carnival atmosphere, the funhouse surrealism — all of it designed to fondle your synapses, to stimulate your mind, until all of a sudden you started jerking with a mental orgasm: eyes closed, frothing at the mouth, spitting your seed into any orifice labeled “insert change here.”
A safe haven for the slaphappy tourists and elderly locals, for sure. But what were we doing here, in the midst of all this madness? What kernel of truth were we trying to uncover? The plan had been to canvass the city, to unveil the undercurrent of Reno’s nightlife, in the true pioneer spirit of Hunter S. Thompson — excluding, of course, the hallucinogenic drugs and generational insights.
An inquiry of this magnitude required all the tools of Gonzo Journalism. And yet I already had doubts. Once we stripped Reno down to its core, shedding it of the neon, the billboards, the booze, the whores … what would we find? What foundation did this place stand on? What kind of a city have these crazy bastards built out here in the middle of the freaking desert?
These, of course, were questions too harrowing for a sober mind to ponder. We needed drinks, immediately. Forget this bartender and his ignorance. In a city like Reno, the booze flows twenty-four hours a day, and if this jerk didn’t want fill our mugs, we’d find a place that would.
“I’m out eight bucks. Eight bucks.” Shep slumped on his stool. “I can’t believe it. That’s half of my hourly wage. I pissed away a half-hour of hard work on this frickin’ machine.”
“Let’s get out of here,” I said, standing up. “We’re not going to meet any women sitting here at a casino bar. The only ones I see are over sixty-five and wearing pink sweatpants.”
Shep looked up. “You’re right. It’s the hot single women we’re after. As your cousin, I advise you drive to a nightclub at top speed.”
“A nightclub?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” Shep said. “You’re a journalist; you’re on assignment. How are we ever going to get to the bottom of this story if we sit here like jerks? C’mon, let’s go.”
He tugged my sleeve and led me from the bar and into the crowded casino. Together, we wormed our way toward the exit.
Shep encountered trouble on the escalator: his foot caught on a step as the wretched device made its descent. He tripped and slammed into an elderly man.
“Watch it!” the man said, glaring as he rubbed his arm.
“Up yours!” Shep snarled.
We reached the first floor and quickened our pace.
“Did you hear that guy?” my cousin asked. “I’ll bet you he was one of the evil combatants of Captain Zondo. If he caught us, he’d have put us in an underground detention center and sizzled our scalps with an electric baton.”
My body started to tremble. I needed to sit, take a break, and rethink this entire situation. I felt on the verge of losing control. All this tense energy flowing through my body … I began to wonder if I’d taken on more than I could handle. Now Hunter S., he had courage, moxie, but me? Who was I? What business did I have mucking around for the truth with nothing on my side but a heart full of anxiety and a cousin deranged on booze?
“I can’t believe that jerk on the escalator,” Shep said, as we barged outside into the summer-evening air. “That crazy dude wanted to kill us! What kind of a casino are they running here?”