Like That Old Merle Haggard Song – The Newcomer Chapter 4

This is the fourth chapter in an ongoing series of speculative fiction about an alternative history of the USA. Chapter 1 can be found here.

“It’s somethin’ else,” said Chilton.

It was. The traffic that crawled along the strip was peppered with neon sports cars, thundering Mexican-made motorcycles, and stretch limousines that were wrapped in casino liveries.

The sidewalks were just as exciting. Even in the early afternoon there were parties of drunken revelers rambling this way and that along the sidewalk. Performers and costumed characters were vying for the attention of the crowds, but more than a few spectators were lined up to watch the parade of beautiful and exotic vehicles rolling by. Ernie’s matte black Mekong Phoenix had windows that were tinted so dark that nobody could possibly see who was inside, but Tucker could tell that a lot of folks were trying anyway.

The casinos were huge and garish and festooned with massive billboards and video screens hawking shows and brands. They were reminding Tucker of home, of Atlanta, but in a way he found unsettling. He suddenly realized how devoid of advertising Denver had been. He closed his eyes.

When he felt the car turning he opened them again. Ernie had pulled off the strip onto Sands Avenue. They passed by the faux tropical paradise of the Palazzo but the building stretched on and on. The side that faced Sands was surprisingly plain and bare compared to the strip-facing front facade.

There were no pedestrians here and only a handful of cars.

“We’re off the strip, but I prefer it that way,” said Chilton. “Keeps out the ruckus.”

They passed a few smaller casinos. They were like miniatures of the behemoths on the strip, complete with miniature billboards and miniature crowds. Tucker thought he saw a movie star walking along the road. The guy who played the bad guy in that movie about outer space. He was wearing a huge white cowboy hat.

The Gold Rush had a huge conestoga wagon parked in front that seemed to be made of solid gold, along with a team of glittering horses. A small child was straddling the back of one of the golden horses and grinning wide as their mother took a picture. Tucker had started to notice the children out West tended to have haircuts and clothes that made it impossible to distinguish their genders.

“Home, sweet home,” said Chilton, as a valet opened the door for them, which startled Tucker. After a moment’s hesitation he jumped out of the car and gazed around.

It wasn’t as busy as the huge casinos on the strip but there was a steady stream of people going in and coming out of the wide bank of huge doors of the main entrance. He could feel the air conditioning blasting out, even from this far away.

“Welcome back,” said the valet, shaking hands with Chilton. The valet took Chilton’s bag and reached for Tucker’s, but Tucker shrugged it away.

“I can carry it, thanks,” said Tucker.

“Let the young man take your bag up to your room,” said Chilton, “so you and I can have a drink before they find out I’m back and bury me in paperwork.”

Tucker relented and handed over his bag to the valet, who looked to be about twenty. He wore an enamel-painted silver badge on his chest. The words “TRANSIENT WORKERS SYNDICATE” circled around an emblem of a globe, with the number “327” beneath.

“Put Mr. Tucker here in a VIP room. On the house,” said Chilton.

“You got it, Mr. Chilton,” said the valet, before springing off, carrying the bags as though they had no weight at all.

“Wish I still had that much energy,” said Tucker.

“We do have a lot in common,” said Chilton, clapping a hand on his shoulder. “Let’s get in outta this heat.”

They walked into the chilly casino. The cries of stick men calling out craps rolls and dealers taking bets punctuated over an ambience of chatty guests and brassy jazz music.

Chilton brought them to a central bar. A waitress immediately placed a crisp white napkin with the Gold Rush logo embroidered on the corner before each of them.

“Oh, you’re back early, Mr. Chilton!” said the waitress, who looked like she could have been super model, with long blonde hair. It took Tucker a few moments but he suddenly came to realize that she must not have been born a woman. She had the same badge as the valet clipped to her skimpy cocktail dress but hers had the number “268.”

“They dragged me back in,” said Chilton. “I’ll have a double bourbon and my friend here will have…”

“The same,” said Tucker. He saw that her eyes were green.

After the waitress was gone, Tucker pointed back at her with a thumb.

“Was she a –”

“Transgender,” said Chilton, cutting him off. “But just think of her as a woman. You’re gonna have to get used to folks like that, boy. Out here we live our lives the way we wanna live’em, and if you don’t like it you might as well just pack it on up back to Georgia.”

“I ain’t bothered by it none,” said Tucker. “Just, she’s even prettier than most real women I seen.”

“She is a real woman,” said Chilton. “You just gotta wrap your head around stuff like that. It took me a few years to come around to it, myself, and I wish I’d caught up sooner. Vanessa there came from back East, same as you and me. Lost her whole family on account’a they couldn’t accept her as a woman. Lost everything, everyone she had. But she’s rebuilding her life here, found her a new family here. It’s a great thing, boy. Havin’ that kind of freedom.”

Tucker nodded, not sure of what to say. After a while the bourbons were placed in front of them, along with two icey glasses of water.

“Anything else?” asked Vanessa.

Tucker looked her over. Tried to make like he wasn’t.

“No thank you, ma’am,’ said Tucker.

“Alright, she is a real woman,” he said, glancing back at her as she walked away, which drew a phlegmy laugh from Chilton.

“You got a lot to learn, son,” said Chilton, “but folks’ll mostly go easy on you. Just tell’em you’re a newcomer right away.”

“I thought you wasn’t allowed to have employees out West,” said Tucker. “Seems you got a lot of people workin’ for you.”

“I hold an elected position,” said Chilton. “I can rightly say this whole casino is mine. But Vanessa could say the same thing. And so could Ernie, who drove us here. Same as Dwayne, who took your bag. Same as Mr. Easley, who’s currently pushing that broom over there.” He pointed to a white-haired man who looked even older than Chilton. “We’re all equal shareholders of this enterprise, and we all make the same salary.”

“You mean you run this place and you make the same money as a janitor?” asked Tucker.

“This place could get along pretty well without me,” said Chilton, “But if nobody picks up the trash and cleans the floors our guests are gonna stop comin’ in real quick.”

“Makes a certain kinda sense,” said Tucker.

“Mr. Chilton,” said a middle-aged man, handsome and dark-skinned, in a very nice suit. He looked very concerned about something. “Sorry to bother you, I just heard you’re back. We need you upstairs right away.”

“Of course you do,” said Chilton, with a heavy sigh. He stood up and grabbed his bourbon. “Take Mr. Tucker here to his room, would you? Dwayne can tell you the number.”

Chilton extended a hand to Tucker. “We might not see each other again this go’round, I’m afraid, but you have my card. Give me a call if you ever need anything.”

Tucker shook it, once again surprised by the strength in his rough, aged hands. “I appreciate this all very much, Mr. Chilton,” said Tucker. “You take care of yourself.”

“Y’all be good, now,” said Chilton, disappearing into the depths of the casino.

The room was enormous.

Tucker found his bag placed neatly on a side table by the door along with a basket that was filled with fruits and confections and a bottle of wine. A small kitchenette was to the left and floor-to-ceiling windows made the opposite wall. A white couch faced out the windows. There didn’t seem to be any TV, but then he realized there was a projector mounted to the ceiling that served that purpose. He didn’t even see a bed from the doorway. It was somewhere deeper in the suite.

“Is the room to your liking?” asked the man in the suit, whose name was Mr. Khatri.

“It’s real nice,” said Tucker.

“If you need anything at all you can call reception by dialing zero,” said Khatri. He sounded like he was trying hard to not sound like he was in a hurry.

“I think I’ll be okay, Mr. Khatri, thank you again.”

Khatri stepped serenely out of the room, but Tucker could hear him start to run down the hall once he was out of sight.

The bathroom was as big as his apartment back in Atlanta. There was a basket of soaps that were shaped like little fruits and a brand new razor set out on a clean linen towel. He looked at himself in the mirror. He could use a shower and a shave.

Tucker stepped out of the elevator and looked around. He knew a little bit about rolling craps so he thought he’d play for a while. He found a table with a $3 limit and sidled up next to a heavy-set older man in a rayon bowling shirt. The middle of the table was lined with Japanese salarymen in suits but no ties. They were chatting in hushed tones as they pointed at the chips and markings on the table. One of them seemed to be teaching the rules of the game to the others.

Tucker threw one of his ten dollar bills onto the table. A single red chip and five whites were slid to him in exchange. He placed three whites on the pass line.

The croupier shoved the dice to a woman in golf clothes who stood at the opposite end of the table.

“Coming out,” yelled the stick man.

The man in the bowling shirt yelled out: “Come on, let’s do it again!” He was obviously very drunk.

The woman rolled the dice and hit a two.

“Snake eyes,” said the stick man, and the dealers whisked away all the chips, including Tucker’s.

“Wanna shoot, pal?” asked the stick man, shoving the dice half-way towards Tucker.

Tucker nodded and held out his hand. The stick man gracefully flipped the dice so that a six and a one were facing up, set neatly before Tucker.

“Where ya from, shooter?” asked Tucker’s drunken neighbor.

“Atlanta,” said Tucker. “I’m just passin’ through. Headed up to California.”

“Lotta you Okies coming in, nowadays,” said the drunk man. Tucker didn’t understand what he meant, but it didn’t seem like a friendly remark.

Tucker placed another three dollar pass line bet and waited for the table action to settle. He saw that the drunk man had placed a blue chip on “Don’t Pass.”

Tucker snatched up the dice and rolled them the way his brother had taught him when they were kids, holding the dice between his index and middle finger and sort of flipping them underhanded towards the other side of the table. They bounced and rolled and came up a 7.

The Japanese men and the golfer cheered, but the drunk man slammed his drink down onto the elbow-polished hardwood of the craps table and shouted: “Gawdamnit!”

He swung towards Tucker. Tucker could smell that he was drinking coconut rum mixed in with one of those Mexican apple sodas that were popular out West. He couldn’t remember the name. Mundo?

“You gawdamn Okie!” shouted the drunk man. A heavy blast of coconut, apples, and alcohol.

“Cool it, ‘rad,” said the nearest dealer. “Just had some bad luck.”

“Place your bets,” said the stick man, trying to move things on. But the drunk man was relentless. He shoved his finger into Tucker’s face.

“You just lost me a hundred bucks, asshole.”

“You coulda bet with everyone else,” said the nearby dealer. “Now make a bet or walk away.”

“Fuck. You,” heaved the drunk man, reeling back to throw a punch, The nearby dealer grabbed his arm before he could swing and wrestled him to the ground in a quick, practiced motion. Several security guards rushed over, as if from nowhere, and in an instant the drunk man was gone. His half-empty coconut and Mexican whatever-it’s-called was still sweating on the rail of the craps table.

“Table’s closed,” said the box man, and the chips were whipped back and forth to their respective owners. The dealer who’d wrestled down the drunk man was straightening his gold-colored bow tie as he was kneeling. Tucker stepped over to help him up.

“Hey, thanks for stepping in,” said Tucker. “You alright?”

“Part of the job,” said the dealer. “Happens from time to time. Hey, looks like my shift ended early. Wanna grab a drink? I could use one.”

“Sure,” said Tucker, feeling the same.

“You want one?” asked the dealer. He was offering up a crumpled pack of JET cigarettes. Tucker could see an import seal from Vietnam and one of those ugly stickers with a picture of some guy with a tube in his neck.

“Don’t really smoke any more,” said Tucker. “But I’ll take one.”

“What’s Atlanta like, anyway?” asked the dealer as he tapped out two cigarettes, giving one to Tucker.

“It’s alright,” said Tucker. “They make Coca-Cola there.”

“So I heard. I’m Travis, by the way.”

“Tucker. Marvin Tucker.” They shook.

Travis lit his cigarette, then Tucker’s. Tucker realized it had become strange for people to smoke indoors, even back East, but Las Vegas seemed to do things a little differently from everywhere else.

“What was that guy calling me? An ‘Okie?’ Like that old Merle Haggard song?” asked Tucker. The cigarette was smoother than the Marlboros he used to smoke back in the army. Seemed stronger, too, but maybe that was just because he hadn’t had any nicotine in over a year.

“Yup, like the song. Kind of an insult for Newcomers,” said Travis. “My grandpa was one of the original Okies, back in the dust bowl. Snuck across the border from Oklahoma into New Mexico and was one of the founding members of the TWS.” Travis gestured to his own enameled badge with a globe. His had the number 146. “They were the original Newcomers.”

“Transient Workers Syndicate,” said Tucker, reading his badge. “I seen everyone who works here’s wearin’ one of them.”

“Most of us, anyway,” said Travis. He seemed to be about Tucker’s age.

“What’s a syndicate?” asked Tucker.

“Kind of has a few different meanings,” said Travis. “For us transients it’s basically our own commune. Sometimes we call it ‘Nowheresville.’ Kind of a joke.”

Travis took a drag of his cigarette, the cherry burning bright in the dimly lit bar they’d moved to. He ashed in a black plastic ashtray and ordered a Corona. Tucker asked for the same.

“So none of y’all live here?” asked Tucker.

“Transients don’t usually live anywhere for very long, that’s kind of our thing. But Vegas is a great place for us because we can convert Nevada dollars to cappy currencies.”


“Capitalist. I’m saving up to travel Europe.”

“So y’all enjoy traveling?”

“I can’t speak for everyone else, but I love it. We only get one spin on this globe, might as well see as much of it as I can!”

“How many places you been?”

“Just about everywhere in the Americas, so far,” said Travis.

“Except Atlanta,” said Tucker.

“Except Atlanta.”

The beers came. Tucker picked his up. There was a lime slotted into the mouth of the bottle. Tucker had never seen that before. He watched Travis and learned that you were supposed to push the lime down into the bottle. He did it and beer started to foam out over the top, spilling onto the table.

Travis laughed and helped him wipe away the beer with a napkin.

“Never had nobody put no lime in my beer,” said Tucker.

“It’s a thing they do with Mexican beers,” said Travis. “Kind of an art to gettin’ ’em in there.”

“Ain’t a lot of Mexicans back East,” said Tucker.

“I suppose there aren’t,” said Travis.

Tucker wiped up the last bit of spilled beer from his bottle and took a sip. It tasted pretty good with the lime.

“What do y’all need a commune for, anyway, if you’re always travelin’ around?”

“Look after our interests, organize contracts with all the other communes. Some transients are digital nomads, they have their own syndicate. The TWS is mostly hospitality drifters like me. We work in casinos, hostels, massage parlors, tour companies, wait tables. Whatever we can pick up. Have an online job board where we can find new gigs all over the place. We work pretty much everything out online, actually. Back in the old days they did everything through the mail, I guess, but that was before my time.”

“Sounds like a nice life,” said Tucker. “I wish I coulda did more traveling when I was younger.”

“Never too late,” said Travis. He pulled out his wallet and slide a little business card across the table. It had Travis’ contact info on one side and that same globe emblem and a web address on the back. “You should look into it. Might be the life for you.”

“I’ll think about it,” said Tucker, slotting the business card into his wallet behind Chilton’s.

“What you wanna see over there in Europe?” asked Tucker.

“All of it,” said Travis, taking the first sip of his own beer.

Chapter 5 can be found here.

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