Urban Passage | Brittany Bronson

Urban Passage | Brittany Bronson

After he told me our city had no culture, I took him to every museum I knew of—mob, erotica, the Titanic. I made him read placards on conspiracy theories. On silent-film porn. On a set of dishes that stayed precisely stacked, wedged into the ocean floor, after the wooden cabinet that held them eroded beneath seawater acid. We walked out over a replica boat deck, stared at a fake Artic sky, then counted more stars then either of us had actually seen beneath our light-polluted nightscape. We ended in downtown Las Vegas, at an outdoor museum where old neon signs go to die, or are resurrected, and sent curse words toward a massive sign of a yellow duck, one of the original, bright, synthetic yardbirds that had, for our entire lives, kept the stars incarcerated.

In the makeshift aisles, we passed unlit wedding chapel signs with bulbs as dead as our parents’ marriages, then followed the one that pointed to “Information.” It was, after all, what we were searching for. Some proof. Some explanation for how, despite our best efforts, we still morphed into the city’s oldest clichés: A cocktail server and a blackjack dealer, both of us unapologetic gamblers, passing swings and graveyards in the basement of a black pyramid with a beam of light that astronauts can see from space.

We turned the corner to discover a sign of an Asian woman with her hand held high. I was confident that like us, she was a casino worker. It was the way her smile was permanently plastered over her chin, and how her hair was styled in Japanese Geisha buns but she wore a Chinese Hanfu.

“That’s our culture,” I told him. “Bright lights and appropriation.”

“Hey,” he laughed, “You’re supposed to be converting me.”

Beyond the museum, the Stratosphere speared the sky with tourists taking pictures and riding amusement park rides. I had a younger cousin who worked up there hooking hotel guests into bungee jump chords. Last summer, she worked the Fremont zip line. Before that, the indoor skydiving tunnel. She still asked me to get her on the casino floor, but at her twenty-first birthday last year, as her Princess tiara clung off-kilter to her sweat-soaked bangs and the club strobes ignited her skin with a ghostlike sheen, I promised myself and her: I won’t let you get stuck here.

“I actually did learn some things today,” he told me.

“Like what?”

“Like the history of the peep show.”

“Sexy and useful.”

He grabbed my hand and squeezed it, but it wasn’t romantic. This day—our urban passage—was not a date. It was a walk through the city with a boy I grew up with, who on three separate occasions during high school, packed canned beers for us to drink while we watched the Sands, the Aladdin, and the Hacienda—the hotels the signs around us once belonged to—implode then crash toward earth in a shower of cement meteors.

“Could the beam end up here?” I wondered aloud. “It’s not technically a sign.”

“Or neon.”

“But it needs a place. When the pyramid finally goes down.”

“If it does,” he said. “Let’s hope we’re not still in it.”

He slipped his left hand into my back pocket as we circled a paint-chipped sign shaped like a King. It was tall, with outspread arms that floated above our heads and welcomed us back to a place we had not yet left. Beneath his shadow, I pictured myself twenty years from now still arranging cocktail straws, still pressing briny olives onto toothpicks, but letting my hair go gray around the temples like the real casino lifers. I didn’t look unhappy, paused there at the top of the parking garage, admiring the sea of LEDs, which years ago replaced the neon, because they are cheaper, more efficient, are glittering fossils of energy strong enough to outlast even me.

Brittany Bronson lives in Las Vegas, Nevada where she works as an english instructor and cocktail server. Her fiction has appeared in Paper Darts, Cosmonauts Avenue, and is forthcoming in Juked. Her non-fiction and essays appear regularly in the New York Times, where she contributes as an opinion writer. In 2016, she was awarded a Literary Fellowship in Creative Non-Fiction from the Nevada Arts Council.