Despite some of the men she brought home throughout my childhood, you wouldn’t call my mother a gambler. She didn’t bet on sports, didn’t play craps or 21 or poker. The only reason she was in Vegas was for business, an annual MGM Grand jewelry trade show spanning nine days in June. Each year come May my mother would start talking of the harrowing days ahead. Did I know what it was like to spend that kind of time working in Vegas? It was hell. Hot, boring, laborious, she was, in her words “Too old for this shit.” And yet the business she and her sister Wynne, a co-owner of the company, brought in was far too much to pass up. So off they went, year after year. And yet my mother would return home to New York afterwards appearing as if she had been in Vegas, not to sell jewelry, but to contend in a title bout.
“Did you play any the tables?” I would ask her.
“Play tables? Of course not. It’s work and sleep—that’s all!”
Now my mother’s older sister Wynne had always been a great fan of the pop star Lionel Richie. She had loved him as a member of the Commodores, and even more so as a solo artist with one song after another pin-balling its way up to #1. “Hello,” “Say You, Say Me,” “Dancing on the Ceiling”—in the soundtrack of Wynne’s mid-’80s life, these iconic chart-busters had played in heavy rotation.
In Vegas for the show, the final night, a Saturday, Wynne read that Richie would be performing downstairs in the MGM Grand Garden Arena, and she threw down a thousand dollars for two front row seats. A little well-deserved fun after so much hard work. Besides, she wouldn’t rest in bed while twenty floors below her hotel room Lionel Richie was up on a stage singing his classic songs.
“I bought us each a ticket, Michelle. You’re thrilled, aren’t you!”
Eight days on her feet, and my mother’s varicose veins were severely inflamed. The black circles under her eyes were wounding her vanity. The impossibility of reconciling a lifetime of success with the veins and the circles had her going up against a surge of bitter feeling. Was she thrilled? “There’s no way I’m going,” she said.
“But I can’t go alone! And I spent five hundred on the second ticket. You have to come.”
Their flight out of Vegas was scheduled for 8 am the following morning, they had to be up at 6, and staying out late for Richie would turn an already difficult travel-day into something intolerable.
“There’s just no way, Wynne. Now stop asking.”
But Wynne didn’t take “no” for an answer. Instead, she appeared outside my mother’s hotel room twenty minutes before showtime and began to knock. When my mother, soaking in the bathtub with slices of cold cucumber over her eyes, didn’t answer, Wynne, dolled up like a late-70’s Studio 54 version of Ms. Robinson, continued to knock.
Eventually my mother came naked and dripping from the tub. “What are you doing!” she screamed through the door.
“Michelle, come on, let’s get out of here.”
“Wynne, I’m not going. What’s the confusion?”
“Well, do I have to have security remove you?”
“Mushy, please. Why are you so mean? I just want to spend time together.”
“I’m going to bed.”
“Oh, you’re cruel. You love this. You love to see me suffer.”
“I just want to go to bed.”
“Please,” said Wynne. “I’m your sister, I love you, I’m begging. Lionel takes the stage in 30 minutes!”
My mother said that that settled it then because she would need at least an hour to get ready.
“I’ll give you ten minutes.”
“Get real! Our whole industry is in the hotel, Wynne. ”
“You’ll be in a dark room, Mushy. Now throw on a dress and let’s get going. I don’t want to miss Mr. All Night Long’s opening number.”
I had never seen my mother get ready in less than two hours. Didn’t matter if we were just going to the grocery store for a carton of milk or to the pharmacy for a sack of cotton balls—if she were walking out her apartment door, she would prepare herself as if she were Sarah Bernhardt taking the stage as Cleopatra. Why? Because should she be seen by a customer or a fashion magazine editor or anyone who knew her to do what she did professionally, she had to look not only presentable but in a way that supported the image of the very product she designed and sold.
Three minutes later, however, my mother wasn’t ready and Wynne began to knock again and she didn’t quit until my mother shot straight past her out the door and down the hall. Mom mascara-ed her eyelashes awaiting the elevator, applied red lipstick between floors eighteen and four, spritzed Chanel No 5 rushing through the hotel’s shopping mall corridors. At the entrance of the Garden Arena, she abruptly stopped, though.
“What is it now?” Wynne cried. “You look great. You always look great.”
A sign posted above the theater’s doorway—“A Brand New Cadillac Could Be Yours For Just Fifty Dollars!!!”—had caught my mother’s attention.
Because what happens next is for almost any narrative medium—literature, but also television and film—too hard to believe, I’ll tell the forthcoming sequence as if each moment of relevance were a card in a deck of fifty-two cards being looked at like a flip-book.
My mother decides she’s going to win the car; she’s convinced of this; the winner of the Cadillac is to be announced just before Lionel Richie takes the stage; Wynne points out that Lionel goes on in four minutes and that they must head in right away; my mother puts down fifty dollars for a raffle ticket; next thing, an usher escorts the sisters down the center aisle to the front row; Wynne sinks into her seat but my mother is perched forward, raffle-ticket in hand, like a sacrament-receiver; the lights go down and a man who is not Pat Sajak but is clearly influenced by the Wheel of Fortune host takes the stage; just seconds earlier a voice has boomed down from speakers overhead introducing the evening’s host and for a split second my mother regrets having failed to catch the host’s name because she’s positive that she’s about to shake his hand and she’d like to be able to call him by his name; the host speaks about what a great night it is, beautiful, and how we all can’t wait for Lionel Richie but that there’s some business to attend to first; a curtain rises and a silver Cadillac on a rotating pedestal is revealed; my mother thinks, I can’t wait to win that car; the host asks for and receives a drum roll; the drum roll sounds; the host calls out a series of three numbers; my mother looks at her ticket and they are her numbers; she cries, “I won;” her sister let’s out a Beatle-maniacal scream and throws herself on my mother; my mother is invited to come up onto the stage and collect the keys (replicas) to the Cadillac; Wynne walks with her until her passage is blocked by security; though my mother hasn’t been in jeopardy of losing consciousness, she looks up and sees her image being projected on three Jumbotrons suspended from the ceiling and she is short of breath, ready to pass out; but then Lionel Richie struts in from the wings of the stage; and now my mother is hugging Lionel Richie and her powers are restored; Mom gazes out towards the audience and can’t see a thing; she turns back towards Richie, who hands her the car keys and then exits stage-right; my mother shakes the host’s hand and again she regrets not knowing his name; she is then guided off, stage-left, by a blonde and a brunette in short white iridescent dresses; she wants to call her own mother right away, because she’s already concluded that she’ll give her mother the Cadillac; but now she is being led by a large bald man in a black suit into an office; she is congratulated by a manager of the hotel; she can hardly speak; she fills out papers; she signs her name four times; she is congratulated again by the same hotel manager; asked if she’d now like to return to her seat, she declines; she goes back to her hotel room and she crashes.