Joyland

Los Angeles |

Koreatown

by Leah Bailly

edited by Katya Apekina

1.

The Koreatown mission started like any other sunny four o’clock in Las Vegas. Yes, the sky was clear, the traffic humming along Charleston, Martin Luther King. Yes, we were on to Lynchburg Lemonades at a table at the Four Queens but we all called it Dixon’s for no reason that I could remember. Yes. Captain Rick was telling jokes and counting quarters, our heads rattled with new speed and our mouths were puckered— it was a very positive feeling. And also, there was the cashier. Bosscat really liked her, the cashier girl with the natural red hair and the unpainted nails. She wouldn’t look at him. What’s her name, at least. At least give me that, he shouted. Nobody paid us any mind.

I couldn’t focus. I would get transfixed by the cocktail waitress in the heavy mauve tights, the purple-sequined figure skater’s outfit she wore and her crimped bangs, both graying out. Then it would be the pling-plinging machines, then the pair of very wrinkled musicians playing synthesizers. If only that bitch would look at us, Bosscat said too loud to nobody in particular. I tried to agree but it came out strangled. Vegaboy steadied me with a shaky hand of his own. My eyes plinged around: from Vegaboy to the wrinkles to the carpeted wall, a mirage of wavy circles and teardrops.

Our problem was this. It was suddenly February, and in every other city in the world it was winter, a staunch time of debt and early darkness. My wife and baby were still stuck in a city way colder than Las Vegas, a tidy place with a serious depression problem in the winter. I finally knew what it was about the place: I simply couldn’t work that hard and walk that fast and I got too depressed when it rained and snowed and then rained on top of that. Winter killed us up there; the days were short and the clouds hung very low over all of those good Protestant people keeping everything clean. Everyone buckled under those clouds. By February, it was a city of impotents and cowards.

Here in Vegas though, our sun was perpetually sunny. On the way to Dixon’s we ran right into a pair of dusty yuccas, blooming huge flowers out their tops. I lost my mind. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the desert bloom, but God— it is a truly psychedelic thing, big Seuss-like orchids that shoot out of the cacti, grotesque and sexual. That afternoon it was pulsing through me, a deep want for bourbon and speed and sex with a natural ginger. It was spring outside. We were ready to swim, but the pools weren’t heated. We rattled with impatience.

These guys knew all about that. Captain Rick was from Iowa, and Bosscat was from some crowded Jersey City suburb, not an interesting story, just a cold one. The only one of us who was born nearby was Vegaboy; but he was born in Kingman Arizona, a shit place he moved away from when he was ten. He was the one who pointed out the ginger behind the cashier desk; he had a good eye. We just want to talk to her! Bosscat cried out. He stood up and called the waitress. A security guy whooshed by our table in a cloud of stern navy blue. Vegaboy was pushing for a really big job, a seriously handsome ransom, and he was plying me with ideas, things we could do with the ginger. He had a bunch of his collections laid out on the table: matchbooks, mismatched keys, two cassette tapes, three or four pay-out slips he had somehow lifted from the machines since we arrived. I was always the most intrigued by his little piles, a habit I acquired too and that lingered long after I quit running with Vegaboy.

To quell things, as usual, Captain Rick pulled out a twenty and signaled for another round, and as usual, that got the waitress’ attention. I had another deep rush of wanting, for Rick’s money, a few hands of blackjack, something to do with my hands. Another drink! Yes! Captain Rick shouted, and my desires were his desires. We were all smoking. That felt unquenchable too, the pulling on the cigarettes never going deep enough. I looked up and Bosscat had the waitress’s cape in his damp fist. She whined a little, and he let go. She wooshed off in a cloud of lingering mauve.

That was how it was back then, the feeling of wanting everything and getting only half. The spring outside and us, not even capable of getting her name-- a simple name. Security breezed by us again. I smoked and drank and touched the piles. A good Protestant couple from a cold place took the table next to ours. They both sat too carefully in their chairs, staring at us, at the old-timers playing songs we couldn’t hear. Vegaboy bravely pushed on. He gathered his pay-outs and went to the cashier and returned with four dollars and seventy-five cents. Then we left. I touched the carpeted wall as I went by it, and it pushed back under my touch.

I don’t know how he did it, but she was there, outside waiting for us. This was his sideways luck in those days; seventy-three degrees outside, sunny and clear, and the ginger was impossibly with us, the natural ginger whose name was Trinity. Yes. We felt good, so good we grabbed her hand and pulled her down that bit of Freemont, laughing, the warm ground pulsing under us. Yes. All of us spinning with it— our perpetually brightening sky.

2.

Drugs kept us inside for two days— two days of watching Vegaboy with the ginger. Bosscat was hungry for her, but he would never cross Vegaboy. To get our minds off it, twice Captain Rick drove us over to Mariana’s, the immense Mexican groceria on the corner of Tropicana and Paradise. Mariana’s was the place with the cafeteria at the back, with comfortable orange booths where you could drink dollar-horchata and eat these sandwiches bathed in a tomato sauce called Tortas Ahogadas. Bosscat and I would stroll the aisles between pollo asado in the bag, spicy vinegar and family-sized cakes, picturing a chubbier Mexican life. It was gorgeous sunny vibrations in there. Then we’d order taquitos with sour cream and giant freaking tortas; drowning. I’d usually drink two huge glasses of orange soda. The second time we were there, a group of quinceñeras with greasy mouths gave Vegaboy the eyes from a booth on the other side of the cafeteria. One of them licked her lips for him. He was impossible like that.

The girls wanted drugs, so Vegaboy told them if they were planning a real fiesta we needed a piñata and one hundred firecrackers. The girls helped us choose the prettiest one, the unicorn in silver and blue. They led us to the back of the store by their ponytails. No se puede vivir sin amar, one of them told me, her breath hot in my ear. I remember— my tongue was burning from the peppers in the torta sauce. That was one thing I never lost, my ability to taste.

3.

So this all leads to how we ended up with the busload of amputees heading for Koreatown. We were having a kind of party; we had those firecrackers, three drop-dead chicanas, Trinity the ginger who hung off Vegaboy like a piece of thick jewelry, and a half-eaten cake mashed into a chaise lounge. We were out on Captain Rick’s patio on Golden Santa Drive. It was the middle of the afternoon but there were no neighbors left who would complain; the families on both sides had foreclosed. Rick had rescued an iguana from next door by smashing the kitchen glass after they’d been gone over a month. It was nearly dead but he and Vegaboy brought him to life with spiders they caught around Captain Rick’s pool. Now we were thinking of ways to sell the iguana.

We had also spent the morning looting a newly abandoned place on the other side of Golden Santa Drive and cooking more drugs in the lady’s abandoned kitchen. The fruit in her little glass bowl had withered to shells in the week she was gone. The wall still had a calendar, though it looked like somebody tried to rip up the tiles in the kitchen. The fridge was gone but not the stove. The utilities people still hadn’t turned off the gas either, which was a good stroke of sideways luck. The whole time we could have cooked the drugs down the road in Rick’s place but we never came to that.

Anyway, that afternoon, the drugs cooked and the chicanas wasted, a half- mangled piñata hanging by its throat from the pergola and the lot of us up to our knees in Captain Rick’s pool, that’s when Vegaboy got the call from Slots-a-Fun. She’d been working for the past few days, AWOL. She did that all the time, dropped Vegaboy for a week to go back to her job at the Cockpit, the airport lounge where the girls wore sixties stewardess outfits and go-go boots. That’s the way it went: she’d disappear and Vegaboy would pick up a new ginger like Trinity. Then she’d pop up somewhere and surprise us, her hair smelling washed and a new spangly halter top hanging off her bony shoulders, and suddenly, the girls would evaporate and we would all just dig on Slots-a-Fun bossing us around. This time, she wanted us down at the airport. Right away .

You got some girls there with ya? she asked Vegaboy, and we all heard her voice through his phone’s little speaker. Yeah, Bosscat yelled for him. Well... Bring em along, she said. The chicanas cheered from the far side of the pool. They were blaring boleros and feeding each other cake in big sugary mouthfuls. Captain Rick was sort of swaying between the two youngest ones, occasionally dipping his paw into the water to stroke their thighs or fish out chunks of soggy cake. You gonna make me wait all day? Slots-a-Fun called to us. Vegaboy finally shook Trinity from his neck. Naw naw! We’re coming sugar! I swear, I swear! I love ya! God Damn! The chicanas cried out; it sounded something like glee. Trinity kept staring at Vegaboy glassy-eyed. Bosscat cupped his hand around Trinity’s ass, but she didn’t notice. Then Slots-a-Fun snorted into her speaker: Yeah yeah baby. I love y’all real bad.

4.

That was the way it was those days— the car, the freeway, the exit, the airport, it all blurred under our big golden sun. The thing was, even after nearly five months on and off the drugs, I still had ideas. Out of no where, my brain would suddenly burst about the fucking buildings and the way they glinted, how that was calculated by some casino boss. Or about Trinity. Or that waitress. The bangs. The iguana. It was fucking staccato, but it still felt excellent, if a little edgy, to be high. My vision was clear but the places I moved through had a sort of drive-by effect, each casino floor a running movie set that shifted under my feet.

That afternoon, it was the 215 that moved under us, then the off-ramp with the barrage of billboards, then bingo: Passenger Pick-up. She was there all right, in the go-go get-up. Vegaboy bounded out to her like a collie, and we all waited inside Captain Rick’s Escalade, behind the safety of his limousine-tint. We were hiding from the parking attendants, fond of rapping their palms against our hood if we idled too long. There were seven of us in there, Me, Captain Rick and Trinity and Bosscat and the iguana, nuzzled in between a few of the chicanas, all of the girls getting cagey and freaked out by the lizard in the front seat. Then, from the sidewalk, Slots-a-Fun swept her arms around like on the Price is Right: behind her was a big old bus, idling, with a massive American flag decal across the side. It seemed normal, more sideways luck. Slots-a-Fun gestured to the bus. Inside, forty, maybe fifty war veteran gentlemen, most of whom I would learn were missing limbs, were sitting patiently and staring out the windows. She raised her penciled-on eyebrows at us.

We all got bursts of ideas then. The girls started singing boleros and Captain Rick pealed into a parking spot and Rick and I filed out of the doors with a quick workers’ way of walking, like we had a job to do and this was the beginning of our shift. They’re war vets, from the Korean War I guess. Heading to Koreatown— in LA, she said to us. And they lost their driver. Captain Rick nodded, and dutifully tucked in his shirt. And they want to have a fun time on the way, she said and smiled and waved at the boss amputee, who shook his stump of an arm Slots-a-Fun with a knowing grin. I nodded then too, and Vegaboy assured everyone that I could drive the Escalade, that I was not tripping that badly and I could do it, all the way to LA, no problem. The whole gang would make a party for the amputees and Captain Rick would drive the bus. I would pick them up in Koreatown. This was worth a very handsome ransom, Vegaboy assured us. This can be done.

The airport was lousy with cops and parking attendants; we were trying to look sober, a near impossible thing with the chicanas squeezed into the trunk of the Escalade, squealing like little pigs. Vegaboy calmly strolled to the back window and lifted the iguana from the lap of a grinning quinceñera. You girls ready to party? he winked at them. They burst into a storm of giggling. Then he jumped in shotgun and lit the pipe, right there, right in the parking lot, and he passed it to Trinity in the driver’s seat. We all had our turn— we all plied ourselves with new speed, our mouths puckered, the music blaring, and the trappings of the airport parking garage swirling around us. Then Trinity said, out of nowhere, like some sideways miracle brought to me by Vegaboy of the Desert: Ima ride in the Escalade with Jimmy here. The chicanas cooed like pigeons and Bosscat snarled and Trinity leaned into the back seat and pecked at my neck. I could have died right there.

Vegaboy and Bosscat and Captain Rick, they all took off with the chicanas shortly after that. Bosscat begrudgingly took the iguana, which looked dead to me. Slots- a-Fun scooted the girls up the stairs into the bus and Vegaboy grinned from the doorway like a devil with a new soul. That left me and Trinity in the Escalade, with the billboards and the clear sky and the hundreds of blooming yuccas and Joshua trees up and down the boulevard— all of it part of the running movie that moved around us. Trinity drove with purpose up along the off-ramp and onto the Interstate, our hearts soaring with sunny vibrations.

5.

I wish I could say it lasted, but nothing lasted in those days. The one thing I could be sure of was that Trinity was her real name. Trinity, Trinity! I cried out and her voice came at me from afar. When I came to it was her lips that brought me back— beautiful. She was crying and slapping me awake and I could feel nothing but her lips, her lips mashing into mine. She was crying and it was my job to make her feel better. I was kissing the tears away, cawing, Baby Baby No. C’mon don’t cry, in a voice that was nothing like my own. Trinity had perhaps crashed the Escalade— she was sobbing about Vegaboy and whiplash, and how now we were now in Barstow. Barstow, she moaned. Trinity was taking turns sobbing and kissing me and slapping my face in the corner by a Quiznos booth, the bloated families hunched over their fast food a safe three-table distance from us. I couldn’t feel my cheeks. Trinity was trying to get me to drink a soda so I drank it down. Eventually I stood and walked straight out the front door.

Outside, it was night, another surprise. A gross shiver passed through me; I couldn’t remember the crash, what brought us to Barstow, nothing. Around us was the sickest Greyhound station in the world, a pit stop of asphalt and gun posters and greasy smells. The desert beyond was a pretty sky of blinking lights, only my heart knew it was a sea of crack shacks, all up and down Victorville way. I had no idea if Vegaboy was still driving to LA with the amputees. And he’s got the drugs, Trinity said. She was shaking under my arm. Naw, naw, I managed. My eyes staccato-jumped along the blinking I-5. Here I was with a cashier from Dixon’s, in Barstow, in California, hundreds of miles away from my Maddie, my Felix, my impotent city, my forlorn existence. The crack shacks twinkled. God, I whispered, and my legs buckled. I had ideas. The world moved around me.

6.

I was suddenly in Koreatown, at a love hotel called Kissy Kissy. And somehow, I was marrying Trinity. She was dressed in the grey taffeta. Vegaboy set firecrackers off at our feet. I recoiled when Bosscat shouted, Holy fucking matrimony, and did tricks with the iguana. Everybody gets what they want in Koreatown, the amputee boss confided in me after I unwittingly kissed the bride. Yes, her lips tasted like Lynchburg Lemonade. Yes, she had a pink sash around her otherwise naked breasts and she was feeding me plates of tortas ahogadas. Yes, Captain Rick was dutifully searching for spiders around the pool. The quinceñeras led the amputees around by their ponytails. Even the other waitress from Dixon’s was there, her cape flapping behind her in the desert wind. Then we all blew neon kisses to Slots-a-Fun and Vegaboy as they took off in the amputee bus. The bus-horn trumpeted over the firecrackers, the boleros. I wanted to be Vegaboy now. I wanted to be Slots-a-Fun, at least for long enough to leave. The chicanas and the amputees started swinging at me like the fated unicorn piñata. I started losing limbs, first a hand, then a lower leg. No se puede vivir sin amar, the chicanas said through clenched teeth as they swung their clubs at my chest, hoping to crack me open. No se puede vivir asi, they whispered—their voices a breezy song.

7.

Then, a stab of white light, like a dick in the eye. I was curled up on a musty back seat; my own leg’s twitching must have woken me. First, I saw the dead iguana splayed out on the hatchback’s worn rug. In the front seat, I could make out the last chicana, her lips dry, cracked, tight against her teeth. She was breathing in shallow gulps but that didn’t stop Bosscat from rubbing his knuckles up and down her naked arm. I swallowed; my mouth was caustic and missing its first tooth, an incisor. The window was open a crack and I finally opened my other eye and lifted my head just enough— we were heading East, back to Vegas, and it was dawn, the sun rising big and glinty just over the dash. The noise of the engine was a real palpable thing grinding in my teeth. My ears throbbed but I was afraid to reach for them, afraid of blood or torn skin. I had a deep longing for more drugs. The chicana in shotgun was humming tunelessly. It was the most mournful thing I could have hoped for.

It wasn’t long before Bosscat noticed me awake, and as soon as he did, he started cooing at me, smooth and soft, like a mother. There there kiddo, he whispered. I knew I’d wronged him, I’d crashed Rick’s Escalade, I’d lost his ginger. Those days I’ve tried to erase, I’ve tried to burn those recollections to white ash like the desert out the window, dead of trees, rabbits, a waste of rock, a dust storm of failure. But I won’t forget that car ride. I can’t forget that gentle lulling from a fiend as loathsome as Bosscat, who I’d later see knife a common thug for a car stereo and kick the man’s neck when he was bleeding against a bus shelter, who was really just a heavy for Vegaboy, not a man at all. You’re fine kiddo, Bosscat sang to me. Everything’s gonna be just fine. But no. Finally no. Nothing would be fine again. My cards would be cut off that day. We would no longer be satisfied with the Sin City scams. We would start venturing out now on the infinite quest for handsome ransoms. And soon, it would be my job to lead them to treasure. I shuddered at the inevitable. It would be an hour before he’d drop me back on Freemont, back at Dixon’s, that woeful synth music pulsing at me like a heart. But until then, the sky was clear, the traffic humming along our bit of highway. The sun was as pure and good as the yucca in bloom.