Cousin Bonnie says that to press a grapefruit of its juice is to skin a cat, is to interrogate the youthfulness of everything pink, is to commune with the lawn ornaments, is to take a gamble. She points to her eye, its wildness, the burst vessels mapped through the white in what she describes as mice pussies in the snow. She laughs, then asks why she’s laughing. She forgets things easily these days. She mutters something about over-parenting, but we can’t make it out. Outside the desert throws the smallest bits of itself against the house, the windows that haven’t been cleaned in years. Through the film of the pane, we can see Las Vegas begin to turn itself on. We can hear it. Bonnie sits down on the couch, drains her third Nevada Cocktail from a plastic Flintstones cup. She points to her eye, mutters something about the awful heat of this bloodshot world.
Bonnie’s right again. According to the Center for Occupational Health and Safety, “Children are exposed to the most obvious form of citric acid from citrus fruits including oranges, grapefruits, and lemons that they are served at school or are encouraged to eat at home. It is easy for the citrus juices to squirt into a child’s eye when he or she is peeling or separating the fruit. [We have] documented incidences where individuals have suffered permanent eye injury after their eyes were exposed to citric acid.” She sips and roars after the swallow. “If the lions are inside,” she says, “at least they’re not out there waiting for us.”
In the late 1930s, Jewish gangsters Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky began investigating Las Vegas, mining the desert for “legitimate” business opportunities. Legend has it that, in 1946, when Siegel and Lansky, with black market building materials and money laundered through Mormon-owned banks, built the Flamingo Hotel and Casino, Siegel, a man with a taste for strong acidic drinks, called for a celebratory concoction of rum, grapefruit and lime juices, a dash of bitters, and the sort of sugar we now categorize as superfine. Siegel’s lieutenants followed suit, and soon, the beverage became known as The Nevada Cocktail, the sweet-sour intoxicant that, in claiming the name of our state, also means The Snow-Covered Cocktail, which confuses Bonnie as she listens to the window A/C unit hiccup and wheeze, as she adds an ice cube to her cocktail, as she closes her eyes, as she sweats and sweats and remembers too much.
As Siegel and Lansky, in 1945, scoped-out the future site of The Flamingo, and muttered things like, We only kill each other and Don’t worry, don’t worry..., the Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz and, thereby, Cousin Bonnie. With droppers, she says, the Nazis would bathe her eyes with grapefruit juice, and, Oh! she says, the constellations! It was a better fate for her eyes, she says, than to be scooped out with a thumb.
With her thumb, she stirs her fourth Nevada Cocktail, dares the grapefruit juice to do something about it.
Flamingo derives from the Greek, meaning, “purple wing,” which further means that even in ancient Greece we confused one color for another.
We are a species of bad eyes...
If she wasn’t so busy drafting the soliloquies of The Waves, Virginia Woolf might have written, Because the thumb ends with mantra, like fascism and fascism, the ghosts are the least of our worries. Because it’s a finch, the ditchdigger biceps hated after the advent of language, we are lit up in a glass torch, a lantern casing cut with [Bonnie’s] constellation. That could be a windmill back there, if it wasn’t a firing tower.
Bonnie roars and the desert tries to get inside. In Cactus Springs, a 76-year old retired restaurant owner rubs her eyes, sips the state’s cocktail, admits, “I tell you, I’d rather run into a mountain lion than a thief from Las Vegas. Your chances are better.”
In 1947, two years after the liberation of Auschwitz and one year after The Flamingo’s construction, Bugsy Siegel’s head was torn apart by the bullets of a .30-caliber military issue M1 Carbine, the standard firearm of the U.S. Military during WWII. He was memorialized at the Bialystoker Synagogue. Bonnie holds the spent grapefruit half to her face. We remember that she once told us how, in the concentration camp, she would press her face to the cinderblock wall, the pores of it, searching for any kind of safer air.
Into the grapefruit, the remaining pulp hanging in wet strings against her lips, she mutters, to no one in particular, the Mourner’s Kaddish.
Funny, how our state is named for snow, and this city is named for meadows that we can resurrect only in dream.
The nightmare, or the waking to this desert bedroom, this asthmatic ceiling fan torturing itself to whine in circles: which the sour, which the superfine?
Funny: Before it became known as the site of the concentration camp, the land around Auschwitz was known for unusually beautiful oak trees, birch, chestnut, poplar. Nazi soldiers forced prisoners to plant additional fruit trees—typically pear, apple, and cherry—in order to conceal the gas chambers, mass graves, crematoria pyres. Bonnie remembers the pine forests in the distance, the fields of tallgrass and the wind in them. Funny, how Nevada means coffined in snow. Funny, how Birkenau means birch meadow.
Sweet, sour, alcoholic, Wayne Newton says, “Vegas has taken a bum rap over the years. If you’re sleazy and looking for that, you’ll find it. We also have more churches per capita than any city in the United States!”
Funny, how our dead can’t mourn us; how, per capita, we’re nothing in the face of them.
In December, in celebration, the Nazi soldiers carried Christmas trees into Auschwitz, and, in celebration, had their prisoners decorate them with tinsel, ornaments, stars.
Some churches in Las Vegas: New Morning Star, Greater Cavalry, Oasis, Shadow Hills, New Revelation, Sunrise, Paradise, Birchman Baptist, Victory, Prince of Peace, Desert Storm.
The grapefruit, upon its discovery, was thought to be the original forbidden fruit of paradise from which all human immorality descended, including the practice of mutilating each others’ eyes until they resembled, at best, the same pulpy oblate spheroids that shook Adam’s and Eve’s genitals from their moorings and sent them to Vegas in search of a new sort of good time.
If she wasn’t so busy tinkering with Flush: A Biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, Virginia Woolf might have written, Because a barking soldier wore a necklace of pinky bones, and I have the document to prove it, and the defibrillator that shocked us with its failings retuned what he took after he fell asleep on the butt of his gun, gave it to the dumbest heart, waggiest tail, buried under sawdust in the meadows of another kind of desert.
Here, the grapefruit, halved, is just another kind of sick eye, open wide to dream and ambition, to businesses named after big pink birds who have no place here, to the bullet that wants to blind it.
Bonnie roars, but thinks she’s only breathing.
Here, the grapefruit wrung-out is as innocent as hair, or the hair of a dead sister, or the hair of the dead sister going bright in the orange sparking stars of the crematorium.
So, we add superfine sugar, and think not anymore of her beautiful thin hair, but only of the sweetness necessary to temper the acid, and the alcohol jabbing at our throats with the butt of its gun.
Adolf Gawalewicz, Auschwitz survivor, remembers, “A tree can be seen by the entrance to the camp, to the right of the gate inscribed ‘Arbeit macht frei.’ This is no ordinary tree! Beneath it stood the tormented parents and siblings of a prisoner who had escaped. Here, also, stood those whose escape attempts had failed. They stood with their skin ripped by the claws of the dogs, holding a sign reading ‘Hurra! Ich bin wieder da!’ (Hurrah, I’m back!) as a warning to the labor details returning from work.”
Bonnie puts down her glass, works her hands, squeezes in the air, invisible grapefruits, branches, the shoulders of a man with a gun who will knock her back to the ground.
What is the value of this drink, the sand in our teeth, the rum and sand, rum and sand, proof that we’re still capable to taking in air.
We breathe with Bonnie and somewhere inside of us, the separating of the fruit...
...we have a leg to stand on. One leg.
And the grapefruit is a hybrid, is suffering an identity crisis, increases the bioavailability of most drugs, and can therefore promote drug overdose toxicity, is said, when eaten daily, to increase the risk of breast cancer in post-menopausal women, is an excellent source of Vitamin C, is sitting there on the naked Formica, depleted and winking, a horsefly the size of a dime copulating with its dead iris.
In the meadows, so many bodies—the stacks, the piles, the snow-covered mountains—can no longer contemplate value as they fertilize some of the world’s most beautiful birches, and the flies buzz like the alarm the world sleeps through.
Says Victor Stoffer, casino supervisor, “You see so much money that you lose what money is worth. It just doesn’t mean anything to you.”
If she wasn’t so busy putting the finishing touches on her final novel, Between the Acts, set in an English village just before the eruption (disruption?) of World War II, Woolf might have written, And so, as the stars fall, the thumb falls, because it is thirsty for falling, it wants to be kissed on its face by some laryngitic cantor, wants to be dirtied with pepper and birch sap, to be a grandmother to the oil. It’s just a staid cork after all, we’re the ones who shot it skyward with our own thumbs, forced it to search for its original bottle—what a life!—the surprised hole to fill, but we all want to love it because it is dumb. Because we’re an ill-built cooperative of bricklayers, of grapefruits—shouldn’t we have our hearts in our hands, or our lungs, or even our hips, some irrational whole that wouldn’t wake the soldier with our squeezing, the pressing of our juice, our flightlessness, our egg-shitting, our pecks that can no longer break any skin? Faithful Earth, heroic sugar, pink nostril to the Zyklon, heart inside me, you are unopposable, my sister, we are unopposable...
Bonnie sips and speaks of a waste that’s so much more than nuclear.
Virginia Woolf, in her diary, did write, in 1915, “I do not like the Jewish voice; I do not like the Jewish laugh.” Lyndall Gordon, in her book, Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Life, chalks up such statements to fluctuations in Woolf’s “sanity.” “There is a recurring pattern to her bouts of ‘madness,’” Gordon writes, “The diary entries from 1915 and 1941 show, just before collapse, a phase of studied mundaneness, preceded by—and sometimes interspersed with—a Swiftian hatred of the human race... There was no attempt to control the irrational malice.”
Bum rap , says Wayne Newton. Sleazy, he says, and churches.
Bonnie’s not laughing. That’s because she’s drinking another Nevada Cocktail.
Virginia Woolf did write, in a 1930 letter to her friend, the composer Ethel Smyth, of her Jewish husband, Leonard, and his family. “How I hated marrying a Jew—how I hated their nasal voices, and their oriental jewellery, and their noses and their wattles.” When Hitler later blacklisted her, she also began indicting fascism.
“Her genius does not one any good, has no social force or perspective, and—like most literate—is not needed: It is the intolerant genius of riddle,” Cynthia Ozick writes of Woolf in the October 2, 1977 New York Times article, “The Loose, Drifting Material of Life,” “But she is also malicious in the way of the class she was born into. She calls the common people ‘animals,’ ‘a tepid mass of flesh scarcely organized into human life.’ Unlike the majority of her class, she mocked the war; but the celebrations that mark its end she ridicules as ‘a servants peace.’ Of famine following massacre: ‘I laughed to myself over the quantities of Armenians. How can one mind whether they number 4,000 or 4,000,000? The feat is beyond me.’ She has no piety or patriotism, but retains the Christian bias of the one, and the Imperial bias of the other.”
Bonnie wonders if, like the flamingo, we are paraphyletic—if we too belong to a group descended from a last common ancestor, or if this is all just another sort of bias, riddle. She says, Fuck Adam, Fuck Eve, stretches her body like a cat, filling the length of the couch. There’s plenty of space for her body. Luckily, we are not long-legged.
The desert at the window whispers so loudly on the glass, it sounds like screaming.
In his book, The Last Gasp: The Rise and Fall of the American Gas Chamber, Scott Christianson writes, “Nevada prison officials tore down the original death house and built a more elaborate structure using convict labor. In response to the safety concerns posed by the first lethal gassing, the designers had devised a sealed compartment to fit inside the building. Given all of the problems with employing liquid cyanide and the crude gas-delivery system used in the first execution, Nevada authorities tried to be more careful in selecting the type of lethal gas they would employ in future executions. The newest and most potent form of cyanide gas in the United States came from Germany. The product was called Zyklon. Nevada’s shiny new gas chamber was inaugurated on Bob White, who had been condemned for killing a fellow gambler at Elko. In the face of new refinements in gas-chamber design and fumigation, other states also began to consider switching to gas,” and soon, we all began executing our own prisoners with the efficiency of the Third Reich.
Our grandfather, or anybody’s grandfather, helped to liberate the camps, then returned to Nevada with a marketable idea.
Not even another Nevada Cocktail can solve all of the Zyklon of Auschwitz. The desert knows, near the prison up the road, still, so many old tanks of it, shoring up or breaking down in the heat.
The desert as storage for toxicity. The martini glass as sugarcoated, as a reminder of all things that incompletely dissolve.
Somewhere, the flamingos of the world convulse beneath the parasitic teeth of the beautifully named feather lice, and we too, exiled to this other desert, scratch at so many things we can’t see. In frustration, we try to speak out into this heat, but, like the flamingo, in this circle, our tongues are considered a delicacy...
Bonnie wonders about the intersection of solve and dissolve, the equals sign of the lung, the melting down of air.
This living room is super-saturated and, therefore, both heroic and drowning.
According to the Ministry of Forests, “At present, the conservation of vegetation at the [Auschwitz-Birkenau State] Museum is comprehensive and includes care for grassy surfaces and the trees, as well as the use of herbicides for weed control.”
Uncle returns from the bar smelling of grapefruit and sugar. Bonnie is on the couch roaring or breathing. She says something about the bodies in the meadows, says nothing about the heat, Uncle’s favorite subject. He watches us nodding with her, tells us not to listen to anything she says about the quality of the things we take inside of us, about the desperate tempering of all sharpness with something that fits on a teaspoon, tells us, “After what she went through, boy, she’s retarded, you know.”