Strip to Sewer: Three Tales of One City
He could feel the warm metal grates against his back, it was mid-December in Las Vegas and the sun refused to stop shining. It was noticeably cooler now than it was just last month but the sun still shone. He turned his head to look down at the highway and the continual stream of traffic, another thing that refused to stop he mused. In front of him were walking examples of wealth. Their clothes screamed it, as did their wallets and purses. The blind self-assurance of most tourists was mind blowing to Matt, to lift off these people would take seconds, and they wouldn’t notice until they went to pay for someone’s Christmas present at the M&M store. Matt shook his head, then raised his eyes to the azure blue sky above. He liked to look at it while he could, there was no blue sky where he lived.
Heather was trying her hardest not to get crushed by the sea of humans waiting to cross the street. She knew that some of the hotels had walkways from one to the other but not all and as she was searching for someone who wasn’t likely to be spending money in the Forum Shops, keeping to the ground seemed logical. Roxanne had last been seen by the staff at the SRO five days ago, it wasn’t like her. Yes, she was lost lately, had slipped into drugs and alcohol when they lost their mom to Cancer, but disappearing altogether? She might know that Heather would follow her but still no word. The light changed to green and she was swept along in the tide.
Detective Mark Westgate stood at his office window drinking from a bottle of water, it was towards the end of his weeklong shift and he was looking forward to his days off. He could hear the sounds of a busy shift crew out in the detective office, phones ringing, questions being asked and answered. When his line rang it jolted him out of his reverie. He reached to pick up the receiver, listened to the caller and literally saw his weekend plans turn to vapour.
Matt rose from the sidewalk at six thirty, counting the meager coins before pocketing them. Obviously, he’d have to change his sign, give it a new message ‘I’m hungry, please help’ wasn’t reaching hearts and eyes. Lifting his backpack over his shoulder he strode against the flow, head bowed, blue eyes scanning the cement. His dark black hair was tied in a bandana and covered in an old fedora. His cutoff cords, a concert t-shirt and high tops completed the outfit. All of the clothes on his back came from somewhere or someone else. He thought back to his arrival in Sin City over two years ago, bored of the same faces in the schools, neighbourhood, and in his parents Princeton New Jersey church group he decided to leave and see the country. Heading west was cliché but it was really the only direction he considered.
For the first year he worked as a bartender on Fremont Street, tips went for partying, his wage went to a single bed in a coworkers apartment. When the party turned into increased drug use his coworker tossed him out then he lost the job soon after because he had nowhere to shower. He fought the drug use, most times he didn’t have the cash for it anyway and he wasn’t about to prostitute himself. For the last eighteen months he’d been drifting between parks, SRO’s found by the local HELP charity and then lost through his behaviour, and most recently down in the tunnel system with hundreds of other lost and dispossessed humans. It was an odd existence, some of the occupants raised kids, some had suits that they’d put on to blend in with the tourists. They’d float through the casinos, looking for cash credits left on machines or betting slips they could check. It was an eye opening and often stressful situation for a guy on his own.
Heather collapsed on the gawdy orange and brown patterned bedspread, a true disaster to the corneas. She was tired, it was the end of the third day and she was no closer to finding Roxie than she was on the first. Her available cash would run out soon, and her credit card was precariously close to being ‘in the red.’ After checking her cell for the fiftieth time that day, she realized how hungry she was so headed to the pancake house next door. A club sandwich with fries later she wiped her mouth and pushed the plate away. She glanced out the window to her right and her eyes caught a movement in the parking lot, a youngish man strolling nonchalantly towards the back of the restaurant. The waitress came by and without stopping she dropped the bill folder. Heather continued to watch the figure as she foraged in her purse for her wallet. She slid some bills into the folder and slid out of the bench seat. Initially she was going to return to her motel room but she thought of what she’d seen and pivoted.
Mark sat in his personal SUV observing the two figures from his position in the lot. They didn’t know each other that was plain, but he studied them just the same. As a favour to his brother police officer in Princeton Mark had been checking in on Matt. The two men had been in basic training together a lifetime ago and had formed a bond that hadn’t broken. When his son had run away three years ago Doug had asked Mark to help.
He heard through the open window the woman say in a pleasant voice, “I just want to help, maybe you can buy yourself something fresh to eat, I don’t have much but you’re welcome to it.” She unsnapped her pocketbook on his nod and pulled out two bills, they clearly weren’t singles based on Mark’s reaction. When a small square fluttered to the gravel and blew towards Matt, he shoved the bills into his back pocket and bending, he picked it up and looked at it. He grunted and a half smile came to his face. The woman looked surprised. “Do you know her, that’s my sister Roxie, I came to Vegas to find her. Oh please, I’m so worried, she’s not returning any calls or texts.” Matt handed the picture back and replied “thank you for the help. I don’t get this much in a week on the walkways. I’ve seen your sister and she was alive about 8 days ago, I’ll ask around”. Heather told him she was over at the motel, Matt turned and walked through a line of trees as both the cop in the car and the woman with the picture watched.
In a convenience store a half block away he picked up some groceries that wouldn’t go bad in his tunnel site, he grabbed a loaf of sliced bread, cheese slices, apples, and a jar of sliced dill pickles. “Do you know where I can buy some shower time.” He asked the cashier quietly. She gave him an address for an area shelter and smiled tremulously as she handed over his bag. He slid it into his backpack and nodded at her, “Thank you miss. We’re not all bad guys you know, some just can’t catch a break.” He slid out the door and walked the distance to the shelter. After a shower and shave he changed his pants, socks and underwear and felt miles better. He looked at his reflection critically as he combed his hair. ‘It’s not too terrible’ he conceded. As the shelter wasn’t one he’d been to before he wandered around until he found the kitchen and a coffee.
He cupped the hot mug, thinking on the picture he’d seen back at the parking lot. He didn’t doubt that the woman was Roxie’s sister, their eyes and mouth were identical, he’d wondered when he first met her this past summer if she was a runaway. When he’d last come across her in the tunnels last week they’d shared a packed joint that she’d brought in. They chatted and giggled and there was a bit of kissing but in the end they just lay down on his sleeping bag and crashed while the stuff flowed through. When he woke up she was gone, a roach and slight dent on the folded-up sweatshirt the only evidence she’d been there. He finished the coffee and walked back to his hidey hole to sleep, he had a shift tomorrow. In the summer, his social worker had snagged him a few days a week re-stocking food at a buffet in a smaller hotel and he didn’t want to mess that up as the leftovers came in handy. They provided the uniform he just had to be cleaned and clean in that order.
“Doug? I saw Matt last night, he’s looking okay, well still has all his teeth based on his smile. Why what? Oh, yeah I was surprised too. He was smiling at a woman. No, nothing like that, she was a stranger giving him money, she dropped a picture and that’s what he was smiling at. There was a brief chat, he handed her back the photo and disappeared. He has his job this afternoon so I’ll swing by. I think it’s time he knows he’s got support here. Maybe he’ll let me help him. Pride is one thing but there’s limits. Yeah, I’ll let you know how it goes, love to Nancy.”
Heather had just finished dressing when she heard the knock, she waited for the ‘housekeeping’ call but it didn’t come. A second thud got her moving towards the door, she drew the curtain aside so she could see the visitor. She beheld a well-groomed man, about thirty, dark red hair, sunglasses and dressed in a white shirt and tan pants. If he weren’t some kind of policeman or government agent she’d be surprised.
“Hello, can I help you?”
He flashed his badge and she flashed her smile at the same time.
“Is something funny ma’am?”
“I just looked at you through the curtain, saw how you were dressed and immediately went to police. I’m simply happy I haven’t lost my touch. What can I do for you?”
“It’s about the young man you were talking to last night, he hasn’t done anything wrong,” Mark added quickly. “He’s kind of a nephew and I’ve been keeping an eye on him from a distance.” Heather turned into the room and waved an arm at a club chair in the corner. She took the mate.
“If he’s a family friend why haven’t you intervened before now, last night he was heading towards the dumpster for something to eat. It seems you could have stepped in earlier?”
“It was a decision his father and I made a couple of years ago, he’s not a child and it was his decision to leave his home and family. He needs to ask for help himself. I’m asking you if referred to where he lives.”
“Really?” Heather raised an elegant eyebrow. “Well he’s not staying in the Venetian if that’s what you’re asking, sorry, I’m just at odds today. I’m looking for a young person here myself. They seem to be able to melt into a crowd.” She stood and retrieved Roxie’s photo from the dresser and brought it back to him.
“I’ve been here looking for her for the last three days and this is my third trip this year. Is there anything you can do?” She blurted out. “Since your interest appears to cross with mine?”
“Does Matt know your sister? I wondered when he saw this.” She sat and nodded at him. She relayed the conversation she’d had then added “I was going to drive out to Laughlin today, I know it’s a long shot she’d be there but I can’t leave the state without knowing I’ve done all I can.”
Mark stood and looked out into the parking lot. He cleared his throat. “I can take her picture and make copies, send one to the agencies and SRO hotels that kind of thing. One question, why haven’t you ever come to the police station, or the newspapers for that matter?”
“My father is the CEO of Kendrick Enterprises.” Now it was his turn to raise an eyebrow. If she came from wealth, if both girls did then why was there not an expensive vehicle out there, come to that, why was she staying in a Motel? When he asked out loud, she explained that she knew that neither she nor Roxie came across as trust fund kids but their mother had always told them to stay humble and human, to work hard and make their own way. “When mom died he just lost himself in the company and is rarely home, he’s incapable of emotion right now. I need to do this on my own as much as I could use the help. Dad would never forgive me for making this public. He’d be surprised I was even here again, he as much as told me to cut my losses.”
“Where does he think you are?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Me? On some school course, Christmas shopping at Macy’s, I don’t know. Roxie? Rehab somewhere. When he doesn’t see the charge on his credit card next month he might look up and wonder, but I doubt it.” He took a business card from his wallet and asked her to call him when she returned. She nodded and saw him out. Ten minutes later she’d backed out of the space and turned towards Laughlin.
Matt was just finishing his shift when he spotted someone by the cashiers’ desk. The guy resembled his Uncle Mark but it couldn’t be. The last time he saw Mark was at his graduation from high school.
The dude was striding toward him now, “Matt, how’s it going? I wanted to stop by and see how you’re doing.” Matt worried then, what was really going on? What if something bad had happened to his family, why else would Mark come to him at work but to deliver sad news?
“Stop by? Bull man, how did you know I was here? Why are you here in Vegas anyway? Is something wrong at home?” Mark closed the distance and whispered, “‘I’ll answer all your questions, promise, I’ll be waiting for you in the lobby okay?” On Matt’s nod, he turned on his heel and left.
The search was draining and Heather decided that after today, whatever Roxy was going through, she was technically an adult and would have to survive on her own. She’d been caring for Roxie most of their lives, where was her support? Covering the hotels and casinos took longer than she thought. According to a pamphlet she’d read there was only about 7,100 people here but the town was quite spread out. In the last hotel she sat in a lounge and rested with a beer, she checked her cell and was shocked when the message icon had a one in it. A message from Roxie finally.
‘Heather, quit msging me. I heard you’re in NV again, go, and live your life. You don’t have to save everyone. XXOO R.’
Heather reread the text in disbelief, it was official her family had all deserted her. Her mother dead, father unavailable and her sister, gone underground. She sat up then, recalling the story she had seen on a news show. It revealed that there was over ten thousand homeless in Las Vegas at any time, and hundreds of them lived in the sewer system under the decadent casinos and hotels, a real disparity between the super-rich and the desperate poor. She returned to her car and steered north promising herself, ‘one last look and then I’m gone.’
They sat facing each other in a Taco Bell booth, on hearing his family was okay Matt relaxed a bit but was pissed when Mark revealed he worked in the city.
“You knew I’m homeless and didn’t step up?” He looked out the window and saw that clouds had started to gather, it suited his mood.
“And you my lad took off without a word. You wanted to be independent, a grown man, guess what. You got what you wanted, but left people that care about you wounded and desperate. What goes around kid” He couldn’t finish the thought without saying something he’d regret. He felt his cell vibrate in his back pocket. It was a text from Heather, ‘Roxie’s alive but doesn’t want help. I’m going to check the sewer tunnels before leaving town, help?’ He typed out, ‘will let you know asap’, then put the phone away. He regarded Matt. “Maybe we can help each other.”
“What do you need me for?” Matt replied sulkily.
“Well the woman you met last night needs to know her sister’s at peace. She wants to go into the sewer tunnels to look, you and I both know how dangerous those places are. You could step up here.” He smiled at Matt’s nod. They stood up and Mark typed out a text as they approached his vehicle.
Heather stared in wonder as the raindrops hit her windshield, all her time here and she’d never seen it rain. Sitting and waiting was hard but Mark was insistent. Movement from the entrance to the tunnel caught her eye. The trio filed toward her and she ran to meet them, the now lashing rain mixing with tears as she and her sister hugged for the first time in twelve months. They talked over each other, heartfelt regrets and apologies exchanged as the December rain fell unheeded.