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The Madonna of Las Vegas

Chapter 1: Standing in Line to Jump Off the Golden Gate Bridge

At the party, he began setting women's hair on fire. It seemed the right thing to do, what with the Apocalypse on CNN and all. The first time had been an accident, the ash from his cigarette somehow finding its way into the office receptionist's hairdo, but now he was on his third victim, sitting in the office lounge with his arm draped over the back of a couch, nonchalantly nosing his Kool's smoldering tip into the black hair of one of the waitresses from the Golden Calf. He would quit in a minute, he told himself. He would pack up his moral destitution and go home.

His name was Cosmo Dust and that wasn't the worst of it. Just what the worst of it was changed from day to day, though a good candidate right now was the Apocalypse taking place on television: the FBI up in rural Montana with their klieg lights and armored vehicles, the Kenotic Messiah reading from Revelation to the eager cameras. On another day he might have listed his living in Las Vegas, painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for a living, being 5'5" tall . . . oh! he could go on, but here he caught a whiff of acrid smoke from the cocktail waitress and rose to go before anyone else noticed.

Outside, he was dismayed to see he would have to stand in line to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge.

This was his friend Crazy Herman's millennium party, held at the offices of Amalgamated Illusion, the commercial art company responsible for most of the turrets and sphinxes of post-Sinatra Las Vegas. The offices were housed in the snack bar of the old Las Vegas Drive-In, the drive-in grounds themselves filled now with Quonset huts and windowless staging buildings in which every imaginable casino set could be designed and built. Cosmo himself had worked on the Versailles Palace and the Tomb of Tutankhamen. But just that morning, halfway through a three-year job of reproducing the Sistine ceiling for the Golden Calf casino, he had quit. Quit, just like that --- snap! --- right in the middle of painting God separating light from darkness, thirty feet above the blackjack tables. He had climbed down from the scaffolding, called Sane Herman with the news, and then driven headlong out into the desert where, with Lake Mead shimmering like a mirage in the distance, he had sat in his van in a state of euphoria eating CheezTwists and drinking Jolt and imagining a new life for himself. But the euphoria had slipped away, no new life had presented itself, and now he was back, not back on the job, exactly, but back at Amalgamated Illusion, setting people's hair on fire and looking for ways to destroy himself.

In the line ahead of him he could see his assistants, Betty and Veronica, holding hands and awaiting their turn. They liked to jump together.

Oh, there were moods when he wished it were the real Golden Gate Bridge and not just Amalgamated Illusion's virtual-reality version, the Realer-Than-Real Experience that had won Crazy Herman fame and a bit of fortune from the virtually disaffected. Cosmo had already experienced it any number of times. You paid your five dollars and put on the usual VR gear --- headpiece, gloves, body stocking --- and at the press of a trigger found yourself standing on the edge of the Golden Gate Bridge, the sounds of traffic behind you, the cool ocean breeze at your back, ahead of you the lights of Alcatraz, and Berkeley in the deep distance if it wasn't virtually hazy. If you turned to your left you saw the dusky greenery of Marin, to your right the Presidio, and behind you the terrifying Pacific. But just look down and boy! it was enough to give you virtual vertigo: the gray, moonlit waters of San Francisco Bay; the tiny waves (you were up two hundred feet, after all); behind you a car horn; maybe a randomly generated voice crying "Jump!" At UCLA someone had done a statistical study of how many people actually did jump, bent their knees and lifted themselves off the floor and felt the sudden whoosh of air, the spinning lights, the uprushing water --- 3.8 seconds; that's how long it took a human body to travel the distance in both real and virtual worlds --- and then . . . well, instead of the impact (how could you wire the body for that?), Crazy Herman's kicker: Just as the water grew life-sized, there was a flash of brilliant light and then the theatrical segue to one of twenty-four randomly selected afterlives ranging from the Buddha's Fire Sermon to the Hallelujah Chorus to a brief soliloquy by one of the suicides in the Eighth Circle. Among teenagers it was a status thing to collect all twenty-four.

Cosmo, an hour earlier, had awakened in the emergency room with Dr. Kildare peering down at him and whispering that everything was going to be all right, son.

Thing was, it hadn't been so bad at first --- painting the Sistine ceiling, that is. Cathy had been alive still, and he had been able to keep his real life separate from the fakery of the Strip: Cosmo Dust imitating Charlton Heston imitating Michelangelo Buonarroti. He'd even become something of a celebrity, the artist up on the scaffolding a must-see at the Golden Calf, with the local TV stations running stories about him, even a two-page article in People. But that was okay because at night, while their heads lay on adjacent pillows, he would talk to Cathy about the technical difficulties, about his battle to do the job right --- real fresco, not some bogus Las Vegas job, but real lime, wet plaster, powdered pigments. There were the Tuscan colors to be matched, the laying out of full-sized cartoons. And then there was the problem of the building code requiring a sprinkler system in the ceiling: How to camouflage the sprinkler heads in the folds of God's robes, in the Ignuti, in the architectural trompe l'oeil? He had gone about it with a good heart, from time to time calling his old mentor back at the Restoration Lab of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for advice and maybe to gloat a little. After all, how many modern-day artists got to paint the Sistine ceiling? Even if it was in a Las Vegas casino.

But then Cathy had died, and what had before been something that had kept him in touch with his old life, something he had shared with his art-professor wife, had turned into mockery, into caricature and plagiarism. Left on his own he began to feel overwhelmed by Las Vegas, blighted by the inauthenticity, driving up and down the Strip because he didn't know what else to do in his grief, crippled by the sight of the Roman Forum, the Chrysler Building, the Eiffel Tower, for Pete's sake. The final straw was when the Venetian opened and he found replicated next door to the Golden Calf all the beauties of Venice: the Piazza San Marco and the Campanile, the Rialto Bridge and the Torre dell'Orologio with its carved Madonna and Child, its field of blue enamel and golden stars.

Because they had met in Venice, five years ago, before Cathy got her job at UNLV, when she was still a graduate student and Cosmo was on a one-year internship at the San Gregorio Restoration Lab. He had been part of a team working on the stabilization of the Carpaccio Annunciation, every morning crossing the Grand Canal at the Gritti traghetto, putting on his smock and dust mask and working on the rotting, fungus-blackened canvas. He had been at it for five months, loving it, making plans to stay in Venice by hook or by crook once his internship ran out, when one day a pretty American showed up with the Superintendency's permission to see the painting. She was doing her dissertation on altarpieces of the Veneto, she said, and had a theory about Carpaccio's. Had he ever noticed a higher than usual proportion of terra verte in the skin tones? She was dressed in turquoise capri pants, a scrunchy bending her hair into a jaunty question mark. Fifteen minutes of talking to her in front of the painting, with the magical city on the other side of the walls urging him on, and he'd asked her to marry him. She'd laughed, taken it as a compliment --- no, no marriage, how about an afternoon coffee instead? --- and had put her hand in his as they made their way through the slanting alleys.

Oh, how the memory of those days smote him! He had followed her from church to church, palace to palace, all over the watery city, so full of love it had leaked out his fingers and toes. In the evenings, as the sun began to set and the calli grew blue with shadow, they would close their guidebooks and let themselves get lost, turning down whatever alley presented itself, delighting in the ancient stone-work and the tiny piazzas that opened unexpectedly. From time to time they would happen upon a niche with a salt-scarred Madonna and Child, and she would cross herself at the sight of it, the naïveté of the gesture making his heart ache. She was, he was amazed to learn, a practicing Catholic. A believer --- no kidding --- in Christ, redemption, miracles. Nor was faith the only quaint thing about her. She'd gotten her hands on an 1880s Baedeker and was putting herself through what she called her Henry James Grand Tour, reading the high-toned Victorian prose in front of the Ca' d'Oro or the Ponte dei Pugni and trying to see the city as Isabel Archer or Milly Theale would have seen it. An Irish girl from Boston with sea-green eyes and a love of Renaissance madonnas, annunciations, heartbreaking pietàs --- he went to bed at night thinking of her, woke in the morning thinking of her, spent all day in front of Carpaccio's Virgin thinking of her.

When in the evenings after their explorations they settled on an outdoor restaurant --- it was November, beginning to get cold, but they always took a table in the campo --- they would share a liter of wine and some carpaccio, talk over the day's discoveries with their fingers and faces growing cold. He would tell her about his childhood, growing up in depressed Pawtucket, Rhode Island, his father gone, his mother a bookkeeper for a Bradlees department store. He'd get the teary violins in tune, trying to play for sympathy. When he couldn't help himself anymore he would reach under the table and with a drunken smile caress her leg. She would call him buster then --- watch it, buster! --- and tally all the reasons why she couldn't marry him. There was her dissertation to finish and a teaching job to be found. In a few months he would have no means of support. He was shorter than she was --- yes, he was --- and she was Irish, she was Catholic, marriage to her meant family.

For Cosmo it had never ever been like that before. He nearly fainted the first time he'd dared, while they kissed in an out-of-the-way calle, to lift his hand to her breast. She had let out a little gasp at his touch. And then she had held him and kissed him so deeply that for a moment --- he couldn't explain it otherwise; there were a couple of missing seconds, an inexplicable haze --- he actually had fainted.

He wanted to go on record as saying that he was not really shorter than she was, but almost. He looked --- oh, the indignity of it! --- like one of the Beach Boys, the little one, Cathy said, with the too-big guitar and the sandy hair swept across his forehead. But he had a sweet face that girls had always liked. And he was kind. And he loved things. And one day, standing in the cool, stony air of San Giorgio Maggiore, gazing at the Tintorettos, Cathy Cullen had told him she'd written home to let her parents know she was getting married.

Excerpted from The Madonna of Las Vegas © Copyright 2005 by Gregory Blake Smith. Reprinted with permission by Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

The Madonna of Las Vegas
by by Gregory Blake Smith

  • paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Three Rivers Press
  • ISBN-10: 1400081866
  • ISBN-13: 9781400081868