By Jon Skolnik
When Eli couldn’t sleep, he gambled. And when he couldn’t gamble, he walked The Strip. But since he was newly bound by the limits of unemployment, Eli was spending more and more time on The Strip.
It was Thursday, December 24th, and the winter night spiced the desert wind with a sharp chill. Eli pressed his head against the glass, looking down in disgust at the view below. The sheer amount of wattage that powered one street could, in one day, service the homes of thousands for a lifetime. But during the holidays, this number surely broke a million. So much for Christian virtue.
“You’re staying home tonight. No excuses,” said Melanie. She was slipping candy into red stockings that hung from the fireplace mantle. A fake spruce perched beside them, each ornament equidistant from the other, glimmering in the firelight below. Chocolates, gingerbread, and a small glass of milk sat in a proud display on the coffee table. The ceiling was dressed in garlands of faux pine, whose once-woody odor smelled of plasticine clay.
Melanie had grown accustomed to waking up alone. Before Eli lost his job, he’d come back just after 5am, skulking around the kitchen, scavenging for scraps like a racoon. She’d hear the fridge opening and closing and sigh a hollow breath of annoyed relief. Annoyance in the fact that he was coming home so late. Relief in the fact that he was coming home at all. After all, Eli’s condition left him with only two options: take the Ambien and forget the delirious nights of serendipity, or forgo it and remember them. He reckoned, in either instance, he wouldn’t be sleeping.
Eli watched the yellow Fountains of Bellagio geyser into a dignified dance. Straight lines of water rocketed into the sky a thousand feet high, swinging side by side like weeds in the wind.
He dreaded the nights, lying in bed without purpose, too tired to move, yell, or cry, but too awake to succumb to the only thing his body longed for. It tugged at his sanity, which dwindled like a ball of yarn shrinking at the pull of a string.
Eli breathed against the windowpane and touched his nose to the moist layer of condensation. “I was going to go out and grab some Hanukkah gelt for tomorrow,” he said.
“For Saturday, you mean.” Melanie adjusted an ornament so the family could bear witness to its oversized portraiture of a naked Baby Jesus boasting a full head of hair.
“Sorry. Yes,” he remembered, “For Saturday.”
“I’m off to bed,” Mel said. She waited for him a bit and strode to the bedroom while Eli sat at the window, still pondering questions of wattage. By the time he took to bed, she was asleep. His bottle of Ambien stood on the nightstand next to a full glass of water with ice.
Eli made the rounds. Agnes was always asleep at her mother’s decree. And if she wasn’t, she was faking it. She’d spent the whole week preparing for the Christmas festivities with Melanie: choosing the tree, buying the decorations, baking the cookies. It was as though Santa himself had sent her from his workshop. And if she didn’t still believe Santa existed, she might’ve bought her own gifts, too.
Martin, whose Game Boy buzzed under his sheets, did not take after his sister. When Martin insisted upon celebrating Chrismukkah last year—glueing eight lit candles to the tree to consummate the union of the family’s two faiths (subsequently throwing Melanie into a didactic fury and Agnes into a sobbing mess)—an unexpected wave of pride fell over Eli. He admired his son’s dissident ingenuity. And when Eli had to reprimand his son, he did so privately, on the grounds of lacking common sense rather than rule-breaking per se. But when Martin did it again on the last night of Hanukkah—this time with nine candles—Eli knew, as a matter of appearances, that he had to scold his son publicly. He lectured Martin, straining to make sense of the family’s polytheistic underpinnings, and watched his son’s face turn red and wet with shame. It was then that Eli promised to Melanie a tearless holiday season for next year.
Eli stood there, watching his son’s silhouette thrash at the little device. “What level are you on?” Eli asked, quieting his voice with casual curiosity. The light under Martin’s sheets suddenly went out and his son threw his head onto his pillow like a ragdoll.
“Hm,” Eli said, “I could’ve sworn I heard something in here. Or maybe it was in the living room.” He paused. “Maybe it was Santa taking back his presents because he found out Martin was playing Game Boy past his bedtime.” Martin squirmed a bit. “I guess he’ll have to wait until next Hannuk—”
“No, no, no!” Martin popped out and Eli snatched him.
“Hey! I thought you were asleep,” Eli said, hoisting him up into the air. He brushed Martin’s hair from his face. It was dark and curly like his own.
Martin shook his head. “I don’t want to sleep. Sleeping is boring.” Eli admired the incidental cruelty of his son’s observation.
“Well, it’s not supposed to be fun. Fun is for when you’re awake.”
“Unless you’re dreaming,” Martin noted. Eli took him back to his room before the conversation could go any further.
Later in bed, Eli listened to the airy warmth of his wife’s breaths, her inhale and her exhale, equal in timbre and span. He slid his arm under Melanie’s neck, cradling her head on his shoulder. She slid off of him. He stared up at the rich blackness of the ceiling, picturing Martin’s likeness, and wondered if irony too was heritable: he, wanting to sleep but not being able to; his son, being able to but not wanting to. Eli threw his sheets off and went to the closet. He slipped $300 from his wife’s wallet into his and left a note: Out for gelt.
It was nearing 2am and the casino smelled of aged smoke and sour liquor. The lights and chimes suggested a bustling milieu. Eli scanned the floor, but failed to find a single soul unalone. Gamblers on Christmas were like ghosts, dreary spirits passing through the other. There was a mist of surreality that bound each soul together with the understanding that, if they were ever to see one another again—in the supermarket, at the gym, at a parent-teacher conference, or even in the very same casino—they would be, for all intents and purposes, complete strangers.
Eli went straight to the bar. “The usual,” he said.
“You’re in early.” The bartender spun around and collected a bronze bottle of jack.
“I don’t need to know these things,” Eli replied.
The bartender chuckled and poured Eli a glass with two rocks. “Merry Christmas. It’s on the house.” Eli thanked him and killed the drink. It went down like a chilled knife, then like warm syrup. Eli bought two more rounds and sauntered over to the cage for chips. He sat down at an empty blackjack table with a mangy dealer whose balding head advised against the length of his hair. Eli played for a while on weary instinct, hitting on 15s and 16s.
After an hour, a woman sat down at the other end of the table. Eli had seen her before. She was a late-night, early-morning drifter like himself. She wore a black suit jacket with red lapels and white pumps that hung off her toes. She was over twenty-five, but her makeup precluded any more speculation. She gave Eli a nod and watched him play for a while while she sipped her drink. The shuffling of cards and clinking of chips spoke in lieu of words. Finally, she turned to him.
“So what bringsyou to Hell on Christmas Day?” she asked.
Eli prepared himself for a brief repartee. “I don’t know. I don’t sleep well in Heaven.” She introduced herself as Jane Goldberg. Eli returned her question.
“I work here,” she said, eyeing the dealer, “Guest Experience.”
“In Hell?” Eli asked.
She chuckled and crossed her legs. “Hell’s not so bad.” A short silence passed. “How much of that do you have left?” she asked, pointing to his chips. Eli scanned them, unaffected by the deficit. He reckoned it was about $200. “Let’s go,” she said, “I’ll show you something fun.”
He followed her through the casino floor, taking in the lurid abrasion of the slot machines, the pulsing techno music, the gargantuan chandelier encircled by lines of dotted light spilling out like rays of sun, and the glossy marble floors, which doubled the display of all there was to see in this hotel, so strenuously proud of its architectural vulgarity that it would aspire to place itself in the annals of Roman history. He gave into his inebriated state, numbing his brain the intrusions around him. They weaved through faux gold-encrusted corinthian pillars, until stopping at a door that read Employees Only. “I need to get something,” Jane said, as she dialed a number on her phone. Yep, just twenty minutes, she mumbled into the speaker.
“Wait here,” she said to Eli as the door buzzed her in. She popped back out with a big metal key in hand. “My boyfriend works in Security.” Eli followed her through a marble archway, where two palatial doors stood before them, blocking the entrance. Jane fastened the key into the keyhole and turned it until a loud crack sounded from above. The door opened and Jane took Eli’s hand as she slipped in before him.
They were in the Forum Shops. Eli looked up at the ceiling. The fake sky throbbed in its pinkish blue hue, with long, motionless clouds scattering the undertone, giving the impression of an early dawn. He reminded himself that sunrise was still yet to come. The designer stores, whose outdoor signs boasted of holiday sales, were covered by roll-up security grilles. Chairs sat upside down atop restaurant tables and daily specials on cafe chalkboards had been erased.
“Pretty fucking weird, right?” Jane said. Eli remembered he was still holding her hand.
He walked alongside her, the bright calm of the sky hexing his eyes into a half-open stupor. “It’s so peaceful. No tourists.”
Jane walked over to a restaurant table. “You’re not supposed to say their name in vain,” she said. She took a salt shaker and sprinkled some over her shoulder. Together they wandered through the mall, passing topiaries of reindeer and wireframe snowmen. A twenty-foot spruce stood before them, generously lit with candle bulbs. Vines of holly stretched from storefront eaves and coalesced to a bright yellow star at the treetop. They laid down on a plush red chaise, with glittering tinsels hanging from its arms, glaring at the tree together.
The clouds in the sky had flattened into a pastel swirl of yellow and orange, hiding the false azure behind them. Eli yawned. “I’m getting tired,” he said, “Do you want to grab a room?”
It was on the 13th floor. The lights were already off. Dark shades of gold clashed as greys and browns on the bedspread. A pop painting of a Roman statue hung above. Eli took out his wallet and handed Jane the cash. He noticed a silver band on her ring finger. She thanked him and sat down in an armchair.
“Do you have kids?” Eli asked. He took off his watch and clothing before getting into bed.
“Did,” she replied. “Divorced.”
“Oh,” he said, “Sorry to hear that.” It was a response he was sure she’d heard countless times, in various tones and forms, all of which orbited the same meaning: I’m not quite sure what to say here. He waited for her pre-rehearsed line, some kind of trite aphorism to lighten the mood, but she gave none, and it frightened him. After all, his was a response he was preparing himself to hear.
Jane pried off her heels and looked at her phone. “You still have an hour left. Do you want me to join you?”
“Yes, but that’s it,” he said. Jane took off her necklace. It was collar-length, with a gold link chain and a heart-shaped pendant. She washed her face and crawled into bed, careful not to wake him. Eli slipped his arm under her neck. She planted her head on his chest as he grabbed her waist and brought her toward him. She laid there, wide-eyed, listening to the fury of the city, her head rising and falling with the rhythm of his breaths, until falling asleep beside him.
It was 9am when Eli awoke to the sound of rustling from the bathroom. He’d missed three calls from Melanie. Eli cursed himself, his eyes assailed by the glaring rays of sunlight. Jane was freshening up in the bathroom. They looked at each other like husband and wife. Eli busied himself with his shoes. She opened the door. “I fell asleep. I should really get going.”
“Right.” He looked around. “Have everything you need?”
“Yep,” she said, inching out. She thanked him and left as though she’d knocked on the wrong door. The brevity of her departure saddened him more than he expected.
When Eli went to grab his watch, he noticed Jane had left her necklace draped around it. He wondered if it was a mistake. But the thought eluded further analysis when Melanie called a fourth time, thrusting Eli’s stomach to his throat. Eli knew that a grand gesture would be in order upon his arrival home, or at the very least, a nice one. He let the call ring out, unsure of what to say, and then drafted a text. So sorry. Forgot your gift. Picking it up.
He stopped by a stationary store to wrap the necklace and picked out the most sentimental card he could find. On the cover was a picture of a stick figure family, a smiling ménage of six, arranged in a human pyramid. Family sticks up for one another, it read.
“For someone special?” asked the woman at the counter. He just smiled and left in a hurry. Traffic was not on his side.
He came back to the eerie quiet of an empty home. Eli announced his arrival at the front door, but nobody came to greet him. It was noon, and the kids had already retired to their bedrooms to play with their toys. Wrapping paper was strewn about the living room where the tree, whose trunk had once nestled the glittering medley of gifts, was gone, with three spruce needles lying on the ground in its wake. The room was ready for Hanukkah.
The bitter simmer of the day, which was peppered with cagey conversations about their future, had been brought to a night of solemn stillness that left both Eli and Melanie cold and charred. Eli sat at the foot of the bed. Melanie’s lower half was under the covers, her face buried in the new book Agnes had gotten her. Eli’s nightstand was empty and his bottle of Ambien had been thrown away. Words felt costly to say aloud.
“Where is it?” Eli asked.
“In the closet.” Melanie said, her eyes locked on her book.
Eli creeped his hand up to her ankle, but she recoiled and turned to her side, away from his view. “It looks nice on you,” he said.
“It doesn’t fit me,” she said, wiping her eyes. Eli searched for the right words.
“What can I do?” he asked.
She turned the page. “You can check on your kids.” Her words wove his woolly remorse into a blanket of self-hatred. He left the room, grateful for an excuse to, and went straight to Martin’s. He cracked the door open. There was no light under Martin’s sheets. No buzzing and or thrashing. His son was lying on his side with his eyes closed. Eli walked over to the foot of Martin’s bed and placed a hand on the bedpost.
“Can’t sleep?” he asked. Martin said nothing. “Martin, come on. I know you’re awake.”
Eli waited there for a minute, exhausted, giving his son a chance to say something. But nothing came. Eli returned to his bedroom, where Melanie was already asleep, and went to his closet. He picked up Jane’s necklace by his watch and clasped the chain in his hands, running his fingers down the ridges. Eli inspected the heart-shaped pendant. It must have been thinner than a penny. He looked back at Melanie, and put the necklace in his coat pocket before leaving.