There it was, in obscenely banal black and white: her grandfather's will. He'd been dead for years, and she'd heard rumors about the disposition of his estate, but she'd certainly never expected to see the actual document, much less have it casually handed to her as if it were a grocery receipt and not a real person's final words to his loved ones.
Her mother handed the red folder to her. "Will you look this over, honey? My mind's just not what it used to be." She smiled in self-mockery when she said it, but her face was a confusing mixture of emotions--one part sadness, one part fierce pride, two parts satisfaction at having a plausible excuse not to bother herself with the fine print or the messy details.
Suzanne, called Suze by her family and close friends, took the proffered packet and sat down on a bar stool to read. Her mother's house was full of fur from the three spoiled cats that called it their home; the thin but perpetual layer of Persian fuzz triggered Suze's most severe allergy, and the wooden bar stools were just about the only place she could sit down without risking a potentially dangerous attack.
July 5, 3:52 a.m.
Slowly canvassing the cavernous casino floor, she lit the day's 23rd cigarette and listened to the carpet's relentless song. "You're not tired, NOT tired, NOT tired," it intoned in an idiot garble. The ivy and flowers set against a minimal plaid with hothouse fury, making her brain bleed tiny points of ambivalence. If she kept looking at it, before long the call-and-response carpet would coax a twenty from her wallet and into the nearest Double Diamond slot machine. But if she couldn't get her mind off its current track, she might let the carpet seduce her, just to have something else to focus her attention on, even a machine.
Saving her from this questionable future, a pair of midgets came around the corner from the elevator, holding hands and passing googly-eyed glances back and forth between them. Or maybe they were dwarves; Suze found she no longer knew what to call anyone, including herself. But here it didn't matter--the little lovers were a sight she barely registered as her slightly unfocused eyes grazed over the sweep of the whole frenzied mess surrounding her. That was exactly why she loved Vegas; nobody fit. An insider's club for outcasts. She was relieved to have stumbled upon an escape hatch out of her thoughts, and she starting cruising the casino floor aimlessly, slipping into observation of them, avoiding herself.
A tired and hard-looking hotel hooker let one open toed stiletto dangle from the end of her flexed toes, resting her feet while her eyes scanned the room for a customer--potential or previous, hard to say. In the end, it didn't matter. The hooker was in no real hurry, though she'd often heard that time was money-- and knew it was true, though only in a limited way. Time is love, and love is money, and that was closer to the whole truth.
"You're coming to Vegas with us, aren't you, Suze?" Her mother had an uncanny knack for starting a conversation once she'd given someone work to do, making it impossible to get anything done. Sometimes, Suzanne thought her mother came up with odd jobs just to have a captive audience for her litany of complaints about her own mother, the curiously proud recitation of bodily complaints and health concerns, and a case-by-case enumeration of friends' faults and grievances. She stifled a sigh of exhaustion, the kind of fatigue only a bout of family time could create.
"Yeah, Mom, I'm coming." She paused to look across the counter at her mother's active but seated form. Suzanne had never known that someone could pace in a wheelchair. Hadn't known it, that was, until her mother ended up in one and took to wheeling it mercilessly back and forth through the living room and kitchen, pacing an endless circle that scuffed the floors and made the chair squeak in protest at the constant tight turns. She gave a small, quiet sigh. "You know I wouldn't miss your birthday, Mom. It's a big deal. I'll be there." Her mother beamed in satisfaction.
"You've got a busy life, honey, I know that. If it's too much trouble, it's no big deal." Her voice trembled only slightly, betraying the familiar mixture of sincerity and disingenuous selflessness which resided just beneath the words themselves, an unwritten subtext.
Suzanne gave a small chuckle. "Woman, if you want me to read this, you gotta leave me alone for a few minutes." Sometimes, a tone of gaiety and goodwill would allow her mother to hear others, to give them the space to protest her smothering.
July 5, 3:57 a.m.
A dulled roar of approval came from around an awkwardly angled blind corner of the game floor, a mass celebration as one gambler enchanted tumbling dots--"Eight's a Winner!" The applause of the crowd cheered the man who had succeeded in beating the house for a moment, embracing and elevating him--ten-gallon hat, hillbilly twang and all. It was his Homecoming, and he reveled in it. He took the proffered chips and called out "push it up!" in a voice full, for a time, of football-hero swagger and bravado, the hubris of the hometown heartthrob he'd once been.
The crowd thundered its approbation and was alive with lucky love for him.
The language was dense and convoluted, in that peculiarly affected combination of simplistic ideas and redundant sub-clauses unique to legal prose. Executor, trustees, the paying of debts, the burial clauses, all was par for the course, in the jargon of lawyers' favorite sport. Suzanne found it a little strange that she found her own name listed as one of the trustees , but not more than passingly so; her uncle and mother were in poor health, and somebody had to be in line for the job if they died or were incapacitated, leaving the estate still unsettled.
"Mom, you know that none of this matters unless Grandma passes away, right?" She called out to her pacing mother, who was just then rounding the far bend into the kitchen and was blocked from her view. "I mean, it's all set up so that it's Grandma's, all of it if she needs or wants it. Whatever's left will get divided up when she dies. So this is all kind of a contingency plan."
Her mother let loose with one of her patented long-suffering sighs, screeching her chair to a halt across from the stool Suzanne occupied for this twisted adult's version of story hour. "Yeah, I know. Bitch'll probably spend every dime, too, or let Brad nickel and dime her to death." The forbidden name was uttered casually--Suze's mother venomously indicted her own brother Brad for greed without a hint of irony. Suzanne barely knew her uncle, but for some reason she'd always suspected he hated her all the same. Hated all of them really, the entire family, and Suzanne wasn't at all sure why. For a family full of talkers, they could be strangely silent on subjects they didn't wish to acknowledge.
There was, of course, no right answer to her mother's remark. So Suzanne went back to reading, looking for the details of the disposition, the part she knew her mother was really interested in knowing about--as long as someone would explain it to her, that was. As long as it didn't interfere in her carefully crafted illusion of incompetence.
July 5, 3:59 a.m.
With the cresting waves of enthusiasm encroaching on her placid shores, Holly-the-Whore rolled back her shoulders, adjusted the subtle strings and pulleys which suspended her wares in the storefront of her halter dress and stood, making her way toward the source of all the excitement. She hummed softly to herself in time to the piped-in pop music.
She still had another hour of time to sell, after all. And time is love.
Skimming over the legalese for the pertinent parts, Suzanne felt guilty somehow and indifferently queasy, as if she'd peeked into her grandparents' bedroom and seen something vaguely perverse. It didn't seem right to her, poring over the details of an estate which belonged by all rights to her grandmother, a woman still alive and kicking--sometimes fiercely--at 72. It felt illicit in the extreme, a feeling which was not mollified by her mother's request that she perform the task. If anything, the insistent if intermittent stares from her mother only underscored her unease, as if she was in high school again, cheating in order to help out the hardworking but none-too-bright principal's daughter. It felt like a hypocrisy, and one for which she alone would bear the judgement.
She read further, waiting in morbid fascination for the appearance of her own name in the list of recipients. She was none too proud of the part of her that wanted to know what she would get, what tokens her grandparents would leave her in recognition of her love for them. Suzanne had never loved them for their money, she knew that for certain. But she wouldn't refuse the money they might leave to her either, and deep in her heart, she knew that she was counting on getting some portion of their significant holdings when the time came.
And she'd always been her grandfather's favorite, everyone said it was true, even though she already knew it and had known since she was too young to assign that fact any meaning. So she waited, too, to see if that fact held weight in gold.
She came at last to the list of names and numbers that would decide, to some extent at least, the family's destiny.
July 5, 4:04 a.m.
A sharp-featured drink hustler in a tantalizingly short dress attempted to skirt the fringe of a different craps table's chaos with an overloaded tray. Disconcerted by all the flashing lights and the speed and ease with which his pile of chips had unexpectedly grown, an oblivious vacationer backed into her, toppling a precarious beer bottle to the floor. Without thinking, she muttered a curse under her breath.
Embarrassed, certainly, but also fearing the quicksilver jinx which might befall him as a result of the barmaid's muttered words, he blushed and stammered. Obeying his superstitious Lady, he kissed a five dollar chip and settled it onto the tray, placing it in the wet vacancy left by the bombardier bottle.
Appeased but also unsurprised, the false king's sham concubine smiled brilliantly at the tipper.
Money is love, so love must be money.
Her own name came first, which surprised her although she couldn't have said, even if asked, what she had been expecting. Next to her name was a dollar amount--$75,000 to be exact. She scanned down the page. Other grandchildren received less, she noted. She did not know how to feel about this, what to make of the way her grandparents would express their choosing of favorites, even from beyond the grave.
Next to her mother's name was a percentage--50% of the remaining estate, after the settling of all previous claims. Next to Brad's name was the same magic figure. An even split between the surviving children, which only complicated Suzanne's feelings more. But, she'd do the duty she'd signed on for, she'd read it to her mother.
July 4, 11:54 p.m.
She answered groggily, snapped out of an apparently very deep sleep by the insectile buzz of the loud and impersonal ringing of the phone, a typically anonymous model situated on the nightstand only a foot from her head. Well, that explained the godawful racket, anyway. "'allo," she slurred into the receiver, her tongue lolling around her mouth uselessly, brain still mostly asleep.
"Suze, my mom, she's...well, I don't think she's breathing and I can't see well enough to call anybody and I don't know how long she's been like this and..." Her neurotic mother was all but useless in a crisis and the hysterical edge in her voice, that strange lilt which sounded like both laughter and tears, brought Suze up to full consciousness in five adrenaline-soaked seconds. "I'll be right there," she snapped at her mother and dropped the phone back in its cradle.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck," she swore as she stumbled to her suitcase to throw on some clothes. Less than two minutes from the first ring of the phone, she was already running down the hall. Seconds later, she was pounding on the door to the room occupied by the two combative older women--her mother had insisted, with a gleefully malicious note of self-pity, on sharing a room when the three learned the hotel had misfiled one of their reservations and accidentally over booked for the busy holiday weekend.
"Mom, I found it." Her mother came to a rolling stop right behind her, forcing Suzanne to spin around on the stool if she wanted to see her mother's face while she read the details to her. She read straight down the list, omitting nothing, not even the almost-forgotten relatives in the Midwest, the ones receiving four-digit remembrances and a variety of personal effects which amounted to little in her mother's estimation. Her mother's face was a mask of approval mixed with impatience. "So, she didn't try to screw me out of it?" The question was indecorous, but fitted her notoriously tactless personal style to a tee.
"No, Mom, it looks like you and Brad will split everything right down the middle. She hasn't made any substantial changes, at least it doesn't look like it."
July 4, 11:57 p.m.
Her mother flung open the door and stood aside as Suzanne rushed into the room and over to the bed where her grandmother lay still and silent. She could have been sleeping if it weren't for the silence; fifty years of two packs a day had supplied her with a rattling and sonorous snore but there was only the mechanical hum of the air conditioner's fan. Time seemed to slow and the bed suddenly looked improbably distant as she stretched a hand out toward her grandmother's placid face. She didn't hear so much as sense her mother shambling toward them, moving in awkward halting half-steps on malformed legs unaccustomed to carrying her. Suzanne's fingertips registered what her brain could not even as they inched down toward the exposed neck to feel for a pulse; later she would remember that her grandmother's cheek had been cool under her slightly trembling touch.
"Is...is she...oh, shit...Mom..." Suzanne's mother had slipped into her usual crisis mode, and stood hovering over her mother and daughter, gibbering but doing nothing.
"How long since she stopped breathing?" There was no point trying to get more than a little basic information from her mother; Suzanne knew that was all the help she could expect while her mother was in this state. Once she stopped off the edge into the emotional abyss, there was little she could do but watch as events unfolded around her. It had been that way with the accident, too; she said later that she'd seen the weaving truck headed down the wrong side of the road and right for her. She'd seen it, but she'd frozen stiff in panic, not able to react in time to avoid the horror of a head-on collision, not able to save her legs from being crushed from the knee down as all the machinery under the hood tried to escape its fate by leaping into the relative safety of the cabin.
"I...I don't know." Her mother gulped in a big breath and exhaled it loudly through her mouth. The wasted seconds had Suze almost out of her skin with impatience, but in those few seconds her mother, uncharacteristically, seemed to pull herself together, a blessing for which she didn't have time to be grateful. "I just came in and she was all quiet and I thought something must be wrong but I didn't know what to do and I couldn't read the little book with the hotel doctor's extension so I called you." The words tumbled over each other on their way out, running together.
"Where's the booklet?" Her mother handed her a brick red binder with 'Bellagio Hotel Services' embossed on the cover in pointlessly elaborate fake script. She tore it open and lifted the bedside phone's receiver while she quickly found the emergency number, the extension to the hotel's on-call medical staff. Punching the buttons hard enough her fingers would hurt the next day, she stole another quick glance at her grandmother's sprawled and unnaturally still form.
She tossed the receiver in her mother's direction and rolled her grandmother fully onto her back and prepared to start performing the CPR technique she'd had to learn one high school summer but had never used before. As she started the pattern of chest compressions, breaths into her grandmother's mouth, and brief pauses while she listened for some kind of bodily response, she heard her mother stammer some information into the phone and then slam it down.
"The doctor's on her way; ambulance is coming." She hesitated as if trying to remember something. "I didn't know you knew CPR." Suzanne found the non sequitur jarring and strange, but was pumped full of adrenaline and busy; she said nothing. Her mother moved in the direction of the door, a middle aged marionette on her stiffly twisted legs. Suzanne could hear her voice but not the words as she kept up a running monologue of some sort. Scared and busy, Suzanne didn't have the time to truly listen just then, but heard just enough to dismiss the ramble, ascribing her mother's disjointed commentary and oddly flat tone to barely-contained panic.
Perhaps five minutes later, there was a loud knock at the door, followed immediately by the sound of a hotel key-card in the lock and the entry of a tall Black woman Suze assumed was the hotel doctor.
"Well, alright." Her mother sounded somewhat relieved but also irritated, even pissed off, for reasons Suzanne couldn't begin to imagine. "Now all I need is for the old bitch to kick off sometime this century and it'll finally work out."
Suze had never been comfortable listening to her mother talk so rudely about her grandmother, much like she'd never enjoyed listening to her grandmother complain--as she did often and at length--about her mother. She shifted on her stool, ready to make a quick escape before her mom cycled herself up into a loud and lengthy fury over insults, both real and imagined, she had suffered at the hands of the woman she'd dubbed Blimpertha, despite the fact that the object of her ongoing outrage had also given birth to her, not to mention had arranged to leave her a very substantial sum of money when she died.
July 5, 3:04 a.m.
Emotionally exhausted and fighting an eye-throbbing skull crusher of a headache, Suzanne felt like she'd been awake for days--but she also knew that there was no sleep in her immediate future. She was overloaded with sensory input, confused and as yet unable to accept the blur of events that seemed to have flashed through her mind like the dim next-day memory of a nightmare. She couldn't think straight under the fluorescent glare of the hospital's hallways, and with her head pounding an aggressive staccato beat in time to both her heartbeat and her footfalls, it was all she could do to help her mother up from the hard plastic waiting-room chair and get them both in the taxi which would return them to the Bellagio.
The car was uncomfortably quiet; Suzanne's mother wasn't nearly as prone to bouts of silence as she was to bursts of profanity. Feeling duty-bound to break the awkward spell of their lapsed dialogue, Suze seized upon something that might give her mother a chance to gripe and thus fill the rest of the ride, taking the pressure to provide distraction or comfort off of her daughter. "Hey, Mom, I wanted to ask you earlier but I forgot. What happened to your arm?"
Her mother glanced down at her gouged right forearm and then looked up at Suzanne, rolling her eyes. "Oh, you know, playin' rough with the kitties again. Damn Casper took a chunk out of me, and you know how slow I heal. I'm gonna have to get the little shit de-clawed after all, I think." That was all she said; the events of the evening seemed to have quashed her usual enjoyment of such stories. The taxi became quiet again, and this time Suzanne accepted it.