The shock of finding over a hundred thousand dollars hidden in the bedroom ceiling temporarily got me out of the stupor I’d been in. I got an old army surplus duffel bag out of the cabinet under the bed and Shaun and I shoveled the money inside. Then I got a trash bag and began throwing clothes and shoes into it. When I was done, Shaun and I surveyed the Beast. It looked like it had been been lived in by sloppy drunks and then torn apart by desperate crack addicts.
“I should just give this thing away,” I said.
“No, man, that would look really suspicious. You’ve got to sell it. No one can know we have this.” Shaun jerked his head at the big bag of money he’d slung over his shoulder. “Sell it cheap. Act like you need some cash.”
And that’s just what we did – sold the motor home for a thousand dollars, to two girls from the taffy stand who’d been sleeping in a mildew-spotted army tent all summer. And then Shaun and I drove away in his red Chevy, the thousand in my pocket and the duffel bag stuffed under the bench seat. We didn’t talk about where we were going.
When the adrenaline wore off, I felt like shit again. Shaun drove and fiddled with the radio for what felt like hours and hours of country stations with bad reception. I sat scrunched up on the passenger side, my face pressed against the cool glass half the time, alternating between feeling sleepy and feeling nauseous. All the time my stomach and chest were aching like I’d been hit head-on by a truck. We cut through Wyoming, down to 80. We were traveling out of habit. It felt like we were on our way to a fairgrounds that would never materialize.
We stopped for gas at a big interstate truck stop. Shaun ate a ham sandwich and I stood in the men’s room, looking at myself in the mirror. Under the shadow of my hat my face looked pale. I looked like a bad person for sure, the kind of person who would get drunk and pissed off one night and turn his own girlfriend into the cops. The kind of person who would have gone along with such a crazy girl in the first place, one who had convinced him to steal and lie and run away with her.
Shaun was waiting for me up by the door, wearing his fluorescent orange t-shirt and standing next to a rack of “What Would Jesus Do?” paraphernalia. He threw one arm around my shoulders.
“Cheer up, Red. At least we never have to be carnies again. We can go anywhere we want.”
I thought of Kate and the great escape she’d been planning to make. I hadn’t even considered an escape, not once. And yet here I was. I tried to force a laugh and choked.
“Are you gonna be okay?” Shaun asked me.
I just shrugged, leaning into him.
“You didn’t do anything she wouldn’t have done,” Shaun said, steering me out the door and across the parking lot. “You know she would have screwed you over any way she could have. I don’t know why you feel so bad.”
It felt better in the truck, letting the hum of the tires and blur of the brown landscape and the dotted yellow lines lull me into a quiet place where I didn’t have to think about anything. For almost a whole day we traveled and said nothing to each other, lost in an in-between place where we had no destination at all.
Then, sometime after Rock Springs, on the way to Salt Lake City, Shaun turned to me and said, “Let’s go to Vegas.”
He was eating a cheeseburger, one hand on the wheel. I was lying down across the seat, with an old work jacket balled up under my head and my boots in Shaun’s lap.
“I’ve never been to Vegas,” he explained, his mouth still full. “It seems as good a place as any, doesn’t it? We could have some fun.”
“Maybe,” I said. I’d never been to Vegas either.
“It’ll make you feel better,” Shaun assured me. “It’s that or I turn this truck north in Salt Lake and we end up in Idaho with my family.” Shaun’s family was sort of mythological to me – a fanatical Mormon plumber and a housewife with twelve kids. Shaun was the second-oldest. He hadn’t spoken to any of them in three years.
“Living with them with them is kind of like living with carnies,” Shaun said. “Carnies at the very end of a big state fair when everyone’s fed up and exhausted, only with a lot more praying and a lot less drinking and swearing.”
That night in a Super 8 outside the city we sprawled across the king size bed, drinking the expensive tequila Shaun had bought before we crossed the state line and watching TV with the sound down low. I was afraid to move my head and find out exactly how drunk I was. I hadn’t eaten in almost two days. Shaun fell asleep with his hat on and his feet hanging off the edge of the bed. I turned off the TV and lay next to him, thinking he didn’t understand about Kate, because I had loved her so much once and Shaun didn’t know what that was like. Shaun didn’t even like girls.
The next morning I woke up and the first thing I did was throw up. Then I brushed my teeth and took a shower and shaved and put on clean clothes for the first time in a few days. I ate a bowl of cereal in the hotel lobby and I got in the truck with Shaun and I felt good. We had a bag full of hundreds of thousands of dollars and we had the open road in front of us. We didn’t have to sell tickets to freak shows or corks to shoot at beer cans. We didn’t have to do anything we didn’t want to do.
The first thing Shaun did was miss the exit to 15 and then refuse to turn around. He just kept driving west, saying we’d take the next highway because we weren’t in a hurry. Driving west into Nevada the land was flat and brown and the salt flats glistened in the mid-morning sun. We’d never done a fair in Nevada, not that I could remember.
Las Vegas reminded me a lot of the midway – by day it was gritty and crowded, with lots of trash on the ground. By night it was colorful and a little more glamorous, mostly because you couldn’t see all the grit and the litter that you could in daylight. I was driving, inching my way along the Strip with a thousand other vehicles. Shaun had fallen asleep, his head lolling against the passenger side window, his hat clutched to his chest, his long legs tucked up against the dashboard. I shook him awake at the second stop light.
“Where do you want to stay?” I asked him.
Shaun blinked a few times, then pointed up the street at a building that looked like a huge castle. A fake canal wound through the wide sidewalk in front of it, illuminated by enough tiny sparkling lights to power a small nation.
Our room in that hotel was huge, with two king size beds, a big fluffy couch and a TV with a four-foot high screen. There was a complimentary bottle of champagne and a huge bathtub that shot underwater streams of water. Shaun locked himself in the bathroom right away with a glass of champagne and some free soap in a fancy silver wrapper.
That night we went out, looking for something to drink and something to do. We walked down the crowded sidewalk, passing juggling clowns and a lone male hula dancer and a hot dog cart that was selling Bud Light. A teenager in baggy pants with dark, pock-marked skin thrust a bunch of little fliers into my hand, each one advertising a different girl you could get for the night. The one on top looked startlingly like Kate, only younger and cuter, with a tiny black star covering each nipple.
“That’s disgusting,” Shaun said. I threw the whole stack onto the ground, which was already littered with hundreds of them.
We ducked into one of the casinos. They all looked the same to me. I wasn’t really itching to gamble. We already had our jackpot. But Shaun had it in his mind that it might be fun to drink and play poker for a few hours, so I figured I’d watch and play some quarter slots.
Kate and I had once won what we thought was a good amount of money at an Indian casino in Iowa – a hundred bucks off a dollar slot. We’d spent it on dinner and gas for the Beast.
Shaun and I were headed to the back of the casino, which was low-ceilinged, like a deep burgundy-carpeted cave, full of flashing lights and sound. We were walking past the bar when we heard a familiar throaty voice.
“Hey, cocksuckers! Fancy seeing you here!”
We froze. It seemed like a horrible dream. I didn’t want to turn my head and look toward the bar, but I had to. And sure enough, there he was, the Insult Clown. He wasn’t wearing a clown suit, exactly. He had on a pair of baggy black pinstriped pants, new-looking cowboy boots and a loud Hawaiian shirt featuring surfing Santa Clauses. He had a tumbler of whiskey, which he held up as if to toast us. I think he may have winked, but it was hard to tell because he was wearing a black eye patch over one eye.
“Hey, cocksuckers, come over here! I won’t bite. I wanna reminisce about the old days, that’s all.”
Shaun and I looked at each other warily.
“I’ll buy you a drink, whatever you want.” We sat down reflexively, like we’d forgotten we had plenty of cash and didn’t need anyone to buy our drinks for us. The Clown waved a fist of bills at the bartender. She grimaced as she came our way.
“Hey, hot stuff, get these losers something to drink. Hop to it.”
“Two Jack Daniels, straight up,” I said, giving the bartender a sympathetic look, but she just narrowed her eyes at me. The clown gave me another one-eyed wink/blink, gesturing towards the bartender’s backside as she leaned over to get some clean glasses out of the dish machine.
“I tell you, Red Brown, that’s a fine piece of ass. But you faggots wouldn’t care about that, now would you?”
“Oh, fuck off, clown,” Shaun muttered. “You’re not working the midway anymore.”
“And neither are you, cocksuckers. What brings you to Sin City?”
“Just taking a little vacation,” I said.
“Sure you are.” The Clown shifted his weight on the bar stool. “You know, I was mad enough to kill you fuckers after what you did to me that day with the cork gun. But I’m a rich man now, thanks to that no-good slut girlfriend of Monkey Ears here. And her idiot boss.” The Clown chuckled at the thought of his former business partners. “So, I’m feeling forgiving. You jerk-offs will be slaving away at shit jobs for years to come. I’ll probably be traveling the world, living it up…” He took a deep sip of his drink. “This is all small league, Las Vegas. There are prettier girls in Europe, I’m sure.”
Shaun and I were starting to realize that the Clown was very drunk.
“Listen here, Monkey Ears,” he gurgled at me. “You should go to Europe. Forget about that slut. She was cheating on you all the time anyway. What a slut! You’re better off with Day-Glo Billy the Kid here, it’s true.” The Clown took another gulp from his glass. “It was only a matter of time before I had her,” he lamented. “If I’d been rolling in dough back then, maybe. I guess she’s in prison now though. Tough luck. I would have had her just to spite you, Monkey Ears.” He laughed.
I wanted to get up and leave, but somehow I felt magnetized to the stool. I watched the Clown’s face get redder and redder as he shook with laughter. In the end, it looked more like he was crying.
“I’ve missed you cocksuckers, I really have,” he said, draining the last of the whiskey from his glass. “Vegas is a lonely place. It’s no carnival, that’s for sure.”
Shaun and I walked the Clown back to his room. It was a huge hotel, a maze of elevators and fire doors. The Clown kept slumping against the gold-and-white papered walls, repeating the room number “146A” as if saying it enough times would get him there. In the end we hauled him into an elevator and down a long hallway to find it. Shaun took the key card from the Clown and let us in.
The room was huge and it was a mess. Empty liquor bottles littered almost every surface. One of the king-size beds was completely covered in money – at least as much money as Shaun and I had, if not more.
“I have told them, under no circumstances, to disturb me,” the Clown slurred, pitching face-down on the other bed, amid a pile of dirty clothes and wrinkled newspapers.
We let ourselves out quietly.
“Do you think he’s going to die in that room?” I asked Shaun as we got into the elevator.
“He’s too evil to die,” Shaun said.
The next day we slept until nearly noon, then walked all the way down the Strip, past the older hotels and then past the construction sites where they’d torn down the old hotels and hadn’t put the new ones up yet. I was walking fast to keep up with Shaun’s long-legged stride. I was thinking that I’d been out of the real world so long that I didn’t know how to break back in. I wondered how to do it, how to make a hole in this unreal world and get back to the other. How to become a real person again. It seemed impossible. I could never go back to the world I had lived in years ago – my studio apartment in Iowa City, my job as a shelver at the public library. That life belonged to someone profoundly different. Now Shaun and I were like characters in a long, aimless novel. Always going places, but not connected to anything around us. And after all I’d done with Kate and then to Kate, and after everywhere I’d been, this was what remained: me and Shaun.
Shaun stopped me when we came to a crosswalk. We looked out across the street at a bunch of parked cars and a boring looking office building.
“That’s it,” he said. “We can turn around, if you want.”
Here is what we decided: there was no use staying in Vegas. We spent two more nights wandering and drinking and trying to avoid the Clown and we knew we were done with the city. We drove up to Cheyenne, aiming to meet up with the rodeo. Shaun bought more clothes, including more fluorescent t-shirts. He bought a trailer and a saddle and a roping horse named Cassidy. I bought a laptop and a gun.
One week, after months on the road with the rodeo, we’re in Calgary. We’ve got plenty of money left and it’s well-hidden. We’ve been sleeping in the back of the truck, nestled close together in our sleeping bags because it’s cold up in Canada, even in June. Shaun is riding that night, riding broncs, which I don’t really like to watch. I’m sitting in a bar with a bull rider named Steve, interviewing him for the book I’m going to publish the next year, the book that will make me another thirty thousand that I don’t really need. Steve talks about bulls for a good long time and then he tells me about his dad, a no good surly drunk who ran out on him and his mom when he was eight years old. He hadn’t seen the guy in twenty years and last week, out of the blue, a lawyer calls him and tells him that his father has died and left him almost a hundred thousand dollars. He can’t figure out where the money came from, because it turns out his dad was traveling with the carnival the whole time, working as the clown that shouts insults at you from the dunk tank.
“He drank himself to death in a hotel room in Carson City,” Steve tells me. “He only got in touch with the lawyer a few weeks before he died and told him to find me.”
I’m scribbling furiously, trying to play it close to the chest.
“So, what are you going to do now?” I ask Steve. “Are you gonna quit the rodeo?”
“No way,” he says. “This is where I belong.”
I nod, like I understand him completely. He says he’s going to pay for my drinks, now that he’s got so much money coming to him, and I let him.