An Amari Christmas (or The Pablito Who Stole Christmas)
by Pablo Harris
“Hey T, how’s it going?”
“Hutty! What up man?”
“Oh, just dealing with all this shit that’s about to go down.”
“Yeah, you all right with all this? You ready for it?”
“Yeah, sure, but got a question for you.”
“So, what’s up with Pablo? We got this Vegas bachelor party comin’ up and then there’s the big day. You know, my fiance’s getting nervous. She really wants to get a final headcount on this. Last time we talked he was all like ‘yeah, I’ll be there’ but that was two months ago and hasn’t responded since.”
“Yeah? Isn’t he a groomsman?”
“Yeah, s’posed to be. I even convinced Annie to have her friend Lena, Pablo’s favorite UCD Alpha Phi, be his wedding partner.”
“Leee-nnaaa. Shit, that guy owes you.”
“No shit he owes me. He still hasn’t paid me back for a couple of O-Zs of Humboldt’s finest.”
“Yeah, whatever, it’s not about the money. He owes me, owes Annie, owes you for sure, for giving that guy a roof over his head and getting him laid! Last new year’s, remember how he was all moping around because he had to catch his flight back to work in Tibet.”
“Ha! Korea, man.”
“Korea, Tibet, same thing. He was all sad because what, he was leaving that tall, skinny, super-nerdy white girl who spoke Spanish?”
“Yeah, Brooke. But in his defense, she was alright if you’re into that bookworm librarian thing.”
“Yes, we all know he’s got strange taste in strange. I mean, ‘with the first overall pick in the Great Texas Bush League College Porn Draft of 2000, Pablo selects: Women Over 40′. Not even that chicken-licker Elsa was going to touch it with a ten foot dildo. Then traded his second, third, and fourth round picks to move up in the draft to make sure he got Joy of Spexxx? Who the fuck does that?”
“The worst, real or fantasy, general manager ever.”
“Right. Anyway, you gave him a bottle of Fernet Branca. Annie and I introduced Lena to him. You know the rest.”
“I know, that lucky bastard. And what is it with ‘Frisco, restaurant industry people, and that vile liquor? Fernet to Pablo is like spinach to Popeye. In one shot he went from Dopey the goat to some drunk ass kid on Christmas. Like he just got all the Star Wars cantina scene figures and a Millenium Falcon tambien.”
“So, have you talked to that asshole lately?”
“Yeah, talked with him last weekend but I don’t know what’s up with him. He told me his contract ends at the end of the month but is considering extending his contract there at that, what do you call it, hogwash job he’s got. So, I don’t know, man. He told me some bullshit about how he needs to save some money, wants to move to the Bay but not sure when. So I called him out on this and how his life out there is bullshit and should be back to teaching in Cali. Hell, even his restaurant jobs got to better than what he’s doing now. So, after calling him on that shit he’s shoveling, he admitted: he’s scared of Vegas.”
“What the? Since when?”
“Since the last time he was there for that Christmas. And Heidi.”
* * *
December 2009. The last Christmas I spent in the States with my family while I was still bartending in Northern California and about to enroll for my final semester at Cal State. When my maternal grandmother passed before Thanksgiving it was a difficult time for the Herez family. Especially tough for my mother.
After the plates were cleared, another disappointing trio of Turkey Day NFL games were in the books, and we were approaching the dregs of vintage Graham’s Port, my mom requested the boys turn off the SportsCenter. Even my father and brother were quick to oblige. The TV is never turned off in the Herez house. That’s when I knew what was coming. “Aw shit, here it comes, the intervention, fuck. Now? Not now,” I thought.
She surprised me with an unexpected tack.
“Look, Paul, I know you don’t like Vegas but I don’t want to be here without my mom this year so we’ve decided we’re going to Vegas for Christmas this year. I need the distraction. I don’t want to be here without her.”
“I think this is the worst idea ever.”
“I knew you would say that. But I want this distraction. Your grandmother not being here, I don’t want to be here. And because I know you hate Vegas, I used my Platinum Points to book you a suite at Harrahs. So, if you’ll join us, your room’s already booked. You can take the train down on the 24th to Hanford and Dad and I will pick you up there and you can ride with us.”
“Or I can bring him,” my brother offered. “I’ll pick you up at the Bakersfield Amtrak, bro, and you can catch a ride with me.”
“Does that work for you, mijo,” my mom asked directed at me.
“Not really. I haven’t been home in a while -”
“That’s your own fault,” my brother interrupted.
“Fine. Sure. But I just want to lay on the living room floor next to a Christmas tree, watch some movies, eat some tamales, and be home. And for a family, especially for this family to go to Vegas for Christmas, this is a terrible idea.”
My mom began sobbing so my dad interjected, “Can you just think of someone other than yourself right now.”
Mom continued crying, “ I don’t want to be here at home for Christmas. And now, not only with your grandmother being gone, now one of my boys might not be here to spend Christmas with the family.”
I yielded, “You know, I’m sure it’s not easy letting go of your mother, my grandma, especially at this time of year. But there must be better ways to grieve. But . . . fine. Let me see what flights are available out of Sacto. You’re right. You know I hate this idea, but yeah, I’ll be there.”
“Thank you, mijo.”
The afternoon of Christmas Eve at SMF, waiting to board the plane, I read this brief article in an abandoned Time magazine: Best Opening Fiction Lines of All Time. Number one was awarded to Anna Karenina’s first line,
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
I don’t know anything about happy families but I do believe Tolstoy was onto something. “Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Each unhappy family is unhappy in the grips of its own grief and its vices. For my mom, its Vegas, bingo, and slot machines. For my dad, it’s golf and horse racing. For my brother, its prostitutes. For me, it’s drink.
Three hours later, I touched down at McCarron, grabbed the shuttle to the strip, immediately checked in through the Platinum reception, tossed my backpack and a small duffle of presents on the sofa, and took inventory of the mini fridge and wet bar. Eight dollars for a bottle of Heineken. Twelve dollars for a can of cashews. I’m not a gambler but time to hit the casino.
* * *
“What can I get for you?” she asked.
Eyes transfixed by the electronic spinning reels and entranced by the incessant pprrdlulululu-boo, pprrdlulululu-boo and the occasional cha-chinging sound to imitate coins hitting the payout tray, I didn’t even bother to look up to see who‘s taking the order.
“Campari soda lime,” I curtly demanded.
“Campari soda lime,” she slowly repeated, logging the order and noting his manner.
While slow playing nickels trying to drink as many as I can with the least damage accrued, she returned a good five minutes later.
“Campari soda lime,” she reiterated while setting a cocktail napkin next to the ashtray and the slot machine.
First I glanced at the just placed high ball glass and followed the trail of a pale dainty retreating hand up a well-toned arm. Over to fleshy mango-shaped breasts stuffing a burgundy spaghetti strapped corset top. Up to sparkling blue eyes that pierced the second-hand smoke framed by curly golden tresses. I was instantly sprung. We locked eyes as she meekly smiled then slightly bobbed her head a few times before averting my gaze as if she just dropped something on the floor.
“Oh, here, this is for you,” putting a fiver on her tray.”
Then an audible sigh before she opened with, “So, I got to tell you, my bartender told me ‘look out for that guy’.”
“Look out for that guy? Interesting. Why?”
“He said watch out for that guy because he might be a ‘made man’.”
“Made man, huh?”
“Well, only a ‘made man’ orders a Campari soda lime so you must be in the mafia. Sorry if you’re Italian. Are you Italian?”
“No. Just a fan of the amari, the bitters, and in need of an aperitif.”
“Isn’t Campari a digestif?”
“Actually it’s both. I make my own rules. And if I really was a made man I’d be drinking Averna. Campari’s from Milan, Averna is Sicily.”
“You sound like a made man to me.”
“Would a made man be plugging nickels into a machine at Harrah’s? I mean, if I were ‘made’ I’d be at the high end tables across the strip at Caesar’s, up at The Wynn, or downtown at The Plaza. No offense.”
“None taken. I’d rather be there, too, I guess. But you certainly are bitter.”
“Well then, if you’re not a ‘made man’ then let me guess, you’re in the industry.”
“So, you a chef, sous, on the line, garde manger?”
“Nah, I’m front-of-the house. I serve, bartend, stuff like that.”
“I see. Cool. Oh, I’m Heidi from San Diego. As you can see,” pointing to the name tag above her perfect left b-cup. “What’s your name? Where you from?”
“I’m Paul. I live, work, go to school in Sacramento.”
“And what brings you here Paul?”
“Well, my family wanted to do something different this year. So here I am, just killing some time before the Christmas Eve family dinner thing in need of a Campari,” before proceeding to drain my glass in three gulps.
“Oh, would you like another?
“Alright, I’ll be back.”
This time she promptly returned with a cocktail brandishing a vibrant, deeper hue and continued the inquiry.
“So, where you going for dinner tonight, Paul?”
“Upstairs at The Range.”
“Cool. The Range is really good.”
“Right on. Never been.”
“And Oscar’s working tonight. You should ask for a table in his section. Tell him you’re a friend of Heidi.”
We chatted about California, working in the industry, this and that for a few minutes.
“What’s your plan after dinner?”
“More of the same.”
“Drinking Campari for nickels?”
“Pretty much. I’ll be in need of a digestif.”
“Well, I’ll be around here until one. Come by and say hello when you’re done.”
I slammed another. “Alright then. But hey, Heidi, one for the road.”
“You got it.”
* * *
I returned around a quarter to one. Waiting for her to return. Preparing for an after dinner nightcap. Heidi sneaked up behind me.
“Any luck tonight?”
“Nuh. Not yet.”
“Well, let me help you change that. My fiance’s bartending at Rio tonight so we’ll meet him around four. So, like I said, I have a fiance but I do have a friend that I think you should meet. My friend Kat just moved here from Hesperia – ”
“You mean Hysteria.”
“Oh, you know it then.”
“Yeah, I dated a girl from there once. That place is just a dump in the desert. The locals look like Joshua trees, arms full of spikes.”
Heidi, shaking her head, “Well, yeah, but anyway, you’d like her. She’s cocktailing at Deju Vu but is starting at UNLV this semester in hospitality/restaurant management. She’s at my place now so I can give her a call. And a bunch of us are finishing work here soon. We’re meeting next door for some Christmas cheer at the Imperial Palace then to The Fireside.” She smiled coyly and leaned into my ear teasingly, “And you know, Christmas only happens once a year.” She erected her posture and playfully asked, “So . . . should I call her? Want to come?”
Of course she knew the answer. Of course, I should’ve known better. But after all the preprandial drinks, the Dom, the Rochioli, the Opus, and internally repeating her maxim, all commitments to Christmas Day family obligations were long forgotten.
“Of course,” I answered.
“Great! I’m almost done so let me get you a drink before I clock off and go change real quick. Another Campari, Paul?”
“Nah, J-Dub Black and water, please.”
“Alright then. Now that’s a drink.”
Christmas Day. 2pm. I woke up on the floor of a hotel room that was not mine. Then I saw her sitting there on an angry chair. My mother glaring through moist eyes.
“My God, Paul, I don’t know what to do with you.”
“What do you mean what to do with me? I’m fine.”
“No you’re not! You were supposed to go golfing with your dad and your brother this morning. They couldn’t find you so you’re dad went looking for you. He found you with two, two prostitutes, and a security guard trying to get you in the elevator back to your room. Your dad brought you here. You could barely walk. Your eyes rolling in the back of your head, slurring about Heidi this and Kat that.”
“Prostitutes? No, those are my friends.”
“Those are not your friends. Your friends do not leave you so messed up like this. So you missed golf, we were supposed to have brunch here and open presents and . . . I just don’t know what to do with you. So, you need to sober up and then we’re going to have a talk later. And you need to apologize to your dad when you see him for missing his tee time and for calling him a cock-blocking fag in your drunken stupor.”
“I said that?”
“Uh, yes, and you said worse to me.”
“Really? What did I say?”
“You know, maybe I will remind you sometime but not now. I don’t want to talk to you right now. Why don’t you get up, go back to your room, take a shower, go back to sleep if you need to sleep it off, and maybe we’ll meet up with you later.”
“So where are dad and Vince now?”
“They said they were going to Caesar’s to watch the Lakers game. If you clean yourself up perhaps you can catch them there later.”
* * *
“Hey this is Tim, leave me a message and I’ll call you back.”
“Hey, Big T, what up, it’s Paul. I am at the Caesar’s just off the Sportsbook, just pacing around by the elevators, trying to figure out my next move. So . . . maybe you can give me some advice. Answer your phone, damnit! I just need someone to talk to. My parents aren’t talking to me. My brother hates me. So there’s that. Oh yeah, merry Christmas.
With holidaze fading, no family to tend to, I wandered around the Forum and back to the Palace before staggering into Nero’s. I needed a quiet place to just sit and reflect on all that transpired. The lounge was helmed by a friendly, immaculately manicured yet masculine barkeep.
“Hey there, what can I get for you?”
“Hey, I need a glass of white wine, for now. You got a list?”
“Sure. What do you like? Something crisp and lean like a sauvignon blanc or something fuller, richer like a chardonnay? Or perhaps you like something in between like our house white, the Sokol Blosser Evolution from Oregon. It offers a little bit of everything,” slightly lisping but it went undetected since my gay-dar was debilitated from last night’s furious assault to the cranium.
“I see you have Sea Smoke pinot by the glass. Wow, that’s highly allocated and never seen offered by the glass. And for $18 a glass; that’s a deal!”
“Well, I guess you know your stuff then.”
“I love that wine. I say, if California was ever to do what France did and ranked all the towns and vineyards in Burgundy, Sea Smoke vineyard would certainly be a Grand Cru.”
“Oh, for sure. Well would you like a glass of that now?”
“I’ll wait on that. But please, a glass of the house white. I prefer white wine for breakfast. Works better than coffee.”
“Uh, you know it’s almost 5:30pm now.”
“Well, that’s breakfast for me today.”
“Long night, huh?”
“Long night. Long morning.”
“Ooohh, tell me about it.”
I spent the next couple of hours chatting with Gary about the fallout with our nuclear families and our love for our intimate, incestuous work families while I killed a bottle of white before Gary generously poured me a couple of glasses of premium Santa Barbara red, “on me”. Once again, I should’ve known better. Should’ve learned my lesson from the night before. Should’ve known that I was no longer a ‘made man’ to have one’s eye on, to watch out for, but a ‘marked man’, a mark, a target. Like a lost tourist to a pickpocket on Las Ramblas. Like a single straight who had wandered unbeknownst of what happens to a stray at The Asphalt, Flaming Saddles Saloon, or the EndUp: I was the mark.
“Hey Gary, it’s been great talking to you. Thanks for the wine but I should settle up. I got to get to dinner.”
“Alright, here you go.”
On the check was two house whites and one house red. $24. I put $40 in the book and handed it to him.
“Sure. And hey, after dinner, come back for a nightcap. I’ll be here until eleven. Or better yet, meet me hear then and I’ll take you to some bars where only the locals and industry know.”
The service trap was set and felt myself descending into the depths of another bar well.
* * *
“So Hutty, sorry to report but I don’t think Pablo’s going to be making this one.”
“Well, fuck him then. Speaking of gay ass Paul, do you think he went out with that guy and did some dirty deeds?”
“I don’t know. And there’s nothing that I can’t get out of him if you give him enough blue agave and smoking greens but he’s been standing pat for years with that fucking cliche; what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Also, he has some gay tendencies like all that Top Chef, art history, wine, Oscar Wilde. And what’s that dirty Spaniard’s name, that director, Pedro Almodovar? Pretty queer. But, you know, I’ve known him since seventh grade. I’ve seen nearly twenty years of his porn collecting habits, there’s some strange shit in there. But it’s all straight. He’s a vagitarian.”
“Ok , but I still wouldn’t put it past him. You know him. You never know what kind of depressing drunken depravity he could get into on a holiday bender.”
“Alright, but he’s kind of a faggot for not making it at least to Vegas for the Bachelor Party. And I don’t get he’s still living there with those kimchi-culos. So, what, he’s got a one-way on the yellow bus like all those other losers out there? Is that his thing now?”
“Not that I’m aware of. If he mentions any trim out there its either Kiwis, Canadians, or midwestern girls.”
“Well still, Paul’s cut. I guess you’ll slide into his spot and you just won the bridesmaid sweepstakes.”
“Yeah? Alright then! Thank you, Tibet.”