Orville’s Song, by Brett Riley

Almost every day, for the better part of two years, I saw the old man near the intersection of Galleria and Boulder Highway. He always wore faded, fraying blue jeans, a jacket zipped up to his chin, a black toboggan, fingerless gloves. His gray beard looked symmetrical, as if a barber had shaped it. When the light changed, he never crossed the street. He just watched the traffic. What really struck me as odd, though—even odder than his garb, which must have kept him warm in the mild Las Vegas winters and baked him in 110-degree summers—was that he waved. A child’s gesture, his open hand level with his throat and wagging left to right, right to left. As if, in his naiveté, he expected people living in a major city to wave back.

Once, I drove to the In-N-Out Burger on West Sunset and bought a Double-Double and fries. On the way home, I bypassed the freeway onramp and took Gibson until it intersected with Galleria, where I turned right. When I reached the stoplight at Boulder, the old-timer stood on the south side of the street and waved at oncoming cars. To the northeast, rust-colored and jagged Sunrise Mountain thrust skyward like a shark’s dorsal fin, hinting at the mass beneath the surface. A bare, flat spot on its southwest face marked where the city used to dump its trash until the occasional rainfalls avalanched all that garbage into the valley—roads and yards filled with dirty diapers and old pizza boxes and broken bits of furniture. If the old man ever noticed the weather, though, he gave no sign, and I never saw him gazing past the traffic into the mountains.

I’ve never seen him eat or drink, either, I realized. Not even a bottle of water. I rolled down the window and held the sack toward him, but he didn’t even look at me. I shook it, hard, crinkling the paper and rattling the food inside. I honked.

Hey, Orville, I shouted.

He kept waving, but not at me.

 

People say that native Las Vegans are almost as rare as Bengal tigers, but that’s not exactly true. I’ve lived here all my life. That’s how I know Orville’s story. Not that most people care. Tourists want to hear about Sinatra, Wayne Newton, even Flavor Flav. Nobody asks about Orville. But he had been somebody’s son once, maybe somebody’s father. He might have been somebody’s whole world. Now he’s just a story that locals tell each other over beers. That breaks my heart.

 

Like damn near everything else in this town, it all started with a woman and a casino. Reagan was President. MTV still played music. Men wore mullets and Members Only jackets and women rocked shoulder pads and hair that towered like one of those giant anthills you see on NatGeo.

The legend goes that, back then, Orville worked as a pit boss on the Strip. Some people swear that they saw him working Bally’s, but others put him as far northeast as the Golden Nugget. He shaved every day and wore his hair short and slicked back, like De Niro in Casino. He dressed like an old-school gangster, too—lots of pinstripes, silk ties, and pinky rings. He ran the floor like a third-world dictator, glad-handing the high rollers and sending them enough comped drinks to plaster an army. He scowled at the gamblers who beat the house at table games and ignored the eighty-five-year-olds chain-smoking at the nickel slots unless they won. He caught card-counters and terrorized dealers and herded drink girls like cattle.

Until one of those girls caught his eye.

She was fresh off a bus from the south. Exactly where in the south depends on who’s telling the story. In the first account I heard, she came from Toad Suck, Arkansas. The town really exists; I looked it up. They’ve got their own watermelon festival and everything. Really, though, she could have been from Birmingham or Little Rock or Natchez. Every storyteller gives her a different accent. My favorite version mixes southern cornpone with Brooklyn, which always reminds me of New Orleans.

She wore a skimpy top and one of those bras that pushed her boobs up to her nose, along with a skirt cut short enough to show you the color of her panties. Walking the carpet on heels high enough to qualify as stilts, she carried trays of beer and cocktails for the gamblers. On the night she met Orville, she was serving the high-stakes slots area where a half-dozen septuagenarians were catching emphysema and pissing away their savings on cherries and lemons that would never quite line up. She picked up her latest order from the bar, arranged the tray, picked it up, and turned around just as a drunk stumbled over for another pitcher of beer. He careened right into her. The tray fell at their feet and splashed margarita and Jack Daniels with soda and Budweiser all over the floor. She fell against the bar.

Orville saw it happen, and before she could stand up straight, he had grabbed her by the elbow and pulled her away.

What the fuck? he said. Do you know how much money you just wasted? Well, you’ll find out. It’s coming out of your paycheck. Next time, I’ll fire your ass. You get me?

Her arm still clamped in his paw, the woman looked into his eyes. Hers were blue, almost azure. They watered, as if she were about to cry. Then she opened her mouth, and her voice reminded him of a tinkling silver bell. She said, Yes sir, though it sounded more like Yay-yus surr.

Maybe she came from Alabama.

Nobody knows what got to him: the eyes or the voice, the breasts or the long legs, the feel of her skin, the atmosphere, a moment of human weakness in Orville’s tough-guy life. But something happened as soon as he grabbed her, as soon as she looked at him and spoke, like when the Grinch hears all the Whos singing on Christmas morning. Orville felt his heart trip-hammer and his palms go sweaty. His mouth went dry.

Sorry, he said, releasing her arm. Just be careful. Please.

Yes sir, she said again. She brushed past him and went back to the bar.

Some say her tits brushed his arm and that Orville nearly creamed his underwear right there in front of God and everybody. Some claim he blustered at a nearby dealer and stomped away. But everybody agrees that he sought out the woman after his shift and said, I’d like to make up for what happened earlier.

 

For propriety’s sake, he took her to a different casino; some say the Riviera. Orville ordered cocktails at the bar, surrounded by people from Milwaukee and Atlanta and Hong Kong. He drank whiskey, neat. He drank six or eight. The woman wanted gin and tonic with a club soda chaser. After her first, she ordered water. Families wandered by with kids in tow, headed for Circus Circus. Outside, the desert heat beat down on the buildings and the sidewalks and the people, pressing itself into skulls and skin and dreams. Door handles burned unwary fingers. Fair-complexioned tourists reddened and blistered after a quarter-mile stroll. Inside, slot machines pinged and plunked; dealers shuffled their cards; gamblers cheered when someone won and groaned when everybody lost.

At the bar, as their conversation lapsed into an uncomfortable silence, the woman began to hum. Then she sang.

He learned her name—Eunice, which sounds like somebody’s eighty-nine-year-old grandmother. She was more like twenty-four. She came from some town where people probably went to bed at ten PM every night, while Orville stayed up too late, kept himself wired up and sizzling, drank too much. He was fifteen or twenty years her senior. They had almost nothing in common, and Orville should have seen that. He should have finished his drink, said goodnight, and then moved on with his life before her second verse. Instead, he looked into her eyes, and God help him, he listened when she sang, and not just one verse but the whole song, a capella, right there in the bar with the drunks and the guys who had just lost their next house payment on some ball game.

The song was Amazing Grace.

When she finished, Orville took one of her hands in his and said, Sing it again. Please.

She had the kind of pure alto meant for four-part harmony, but when she sang alone, people called her voice mellifluous. Orville, on the other hand, was a serviceable if unspectacular tenor, the kind that would sound best in a small-town church choir. When they sang together, the result seemed somehow both more and less than the sum of their parts. Eunice sounded a little flatter than before, and Orville a little deeper and richer, but the mixture moved nearby drunks to tears, as if their voices collapsed and expanded until they plateaued somewhere near perfection. They sang Amazing Grace at the bar, and the poker players forgot their games. Sports fans stopped watching the overhead TVs. People drifted over from the slots and the roulette tables, their eyes wide open and their faces blank. When Orville and Eunice finished the song, everyone clapped and drifted away again, still looking shell-shocked. But for the rest of the night, they all seemed happier than they had before. The wins seemed sweeter, the losses less bitter.

 

It must have meant something to the singers, too. Orville and Eunice began meeting at that bar every night after their shifts. They got off at eleven PM, wolfed down a burger or some nachos, and sang old gospel hymns. People who knew Orville looked at him like they’d look at a badger that suddenly stands on its hind legs and speaks French. Nobody knew whether he had ever walked into a church in his life, but he seemed to know every hymn in Eunice’s repertoire—It Is Finished and Just a Closer Walk with Thee and Consider the Lilies and I’ll Fly Away and How Great Thou Art and Just as I Am. Once or twice they even broke into a little gospel boogie, something like Old Buddha or Heaven’s Choo-Choo. They sang until they drew too many people away from the games, after which the Riviera’s ownership quietly advised them to take their act on the road.

 

For months afterward, from approximately 11:30 PM to 1:30 AM, you could find them standing somewhere on the Strip, singing their hearts out. Listeners took out coins and crumpled bills, only to find that Orville and Eunice hadn’t brought any kind of tip jar, not even an old hat. The two of them just wanted an audience. They looked into each other’s faces as the neon and the billboards and the vehicle headlights painted exotic colors on their skin. They sang in the crushing summer heat and the windy fall chill and the cold winter nights, and everyone within earshot stopped to listen over the sounds of traffic and a hundred thousand conversations. People surrounded them, tourists and cops and hustlers and homeless, bottlenecking the Strip’s foot traffic. The audience’s eyes would seem far away, their faces placid and blissful, like the songs took them back to their safest and most treasured memories.

One night, near the old MGM Grand—where Bally’s stands today—a couple from New York City bumped into a man from New Jersey, causing New York to spill his beer on his lady friend. Both men were drunk.

Why doncha watch where ya goin? New Jersey said.

Why don’t I kick your fucking head in? New York replied.

New Jersey grabbed New York and threw him to the ground. Out of instinct, New York grabbed his companion’s wrist and pulled her down with him. New Jersey aimed a kick at New York’s ribs. He caught the woman on the hip instead. She cried out and fell to the side, moaning. New York leaped to his feet and threw a right cross that might have taken New Jersey’s head off if it had landed flush. The glancing blow still knocked him backward. New York pursued. New Jersey regained his balance and assumed a classic boxing stance.

New York saw him and grinned. He pulled a switchblade out of his back pocket. Let me show you how we do things in Red Hook, he said. People trampled each other to get out of their way.

But then they heard something. Perhaps ten yards down the sidewalk, surrounded by a gaggle of rapt listeners, Orville and Eunice were singing Wings of a Dove.

New York dropped his knife. New Jersey lowered his fists. Both men turned toward the song and joined the crowd. When the lady from New York dragged two cops through the crowd and spotted the men standing together, she ran up to her partner and tugged on his sleeve. He did not seem to hear. Then the music reached her, and she fell silent. The cops joined the rest of them. They all stood there until the song ended. Then the two men turned to each other and shook hands. The woman kissed New Jersey on the cheek. The cops walked away, entranced.

People responded to Orville and Eunice that way. When a song ended, the audience members would shake their heads and move on, some of them weeping. Maybe they couldn’t quite remember why they had stopped in the first place. But even the sad ones’ steps seemed lighter, as if they had all put down some enormous weight.

 

As for the singers, the simplest way to put it is that they were happy.

One theory says they were fucking. Another version claims that Orville was gay and that she was his beard, or vice versa. Most people seem to think that they were the kind of good friends that sometimes brush up against love or sex without ever committing, one of them too nervous, the other afraid that signals had been misread, both of them wary of ruining everything.

Whatever they had, it had to end. Most things do.

You couldn’t blame either of them for what happened. They never meant to take things any farther than that first drink. Neither of them meant for things to turn sour. Sometimes these things just happen—two people drawn together through some weird kind of gravity until that same force shatters them.

 

Most versions of this story claim that what brought them together also drove them apart—a harsh word in front of the customers and the other servers and the barmen. The only confirmed facts are these: one night, Orville spent twenty minutes trying to calm an overbearing jerk who swore that his blackjack dealer was pulling from the bottom of the deck. As Orville walked away, Eunice carried a tray of beers toward the nearby slots area. Someone jostled her; she lost her balance; and one of the beers—just one—fell off of her tray, rolled across the carpet, and came to rest near Orville’s feet, spraying suds all over his expensive shoes.

He stared down at his loafers as the cold beer soaked his cuffs and socks. Eunice walked over, probably to apologize. But Orville never looked up. Before she could say anything, he snapped, Are you kidding me? Do you know how much these cost? Open your goddamn eyes and watch what the fuck you’re doing, or get the hell off my floor.

Eunice’s mouth opened. Her eyes widened. For a moment, it seemed she might burst into tears. Instead, she responded with a curse so foul that a passing leather-clad, tatted-up biker blushed and scurried away.

Only then did Orville look up. His expression softened for a moment. He still had time to salvage the situation. But he couldn’t just give her a pass, not in front of the other employees. A pit boss cannot afford to show weakness, or so Orville believed. So he gritted his teeth and lashed out.

You can’t fucking talk to me like that, he said. I’m the goddam pit boss, and you’re just a pair of tits in high heels.

Eunice looked at him. Her eyes moistened. Then she dumped her entire tray onto Orville.

Jesus Christ, he cried.

She dropped her tray at his feet, pushed past him, and speed-walked toward the front doors.

Dripping wet and shocked, Orville watched her go for a moment. And then he turned pale. His anger and uncertainty turned to anguish, and he panicked. He forgot himself, the open-mouthed customers, the wide-eyed servers and snickering dealers. He forgot everything except Eunice and the life that she had shown him. With her, he had been a person, not a suit, a boss, a tyrant. He had been a man with a voice worth hearing. Now he had pushed her away.

Eunice! he cried. I’m sorry!

Sad and disgusted and regretful all at once, she looked back at him.

He held out a hand to her.

She shook her head and wiped away a tear. Then she backed away, passing through the door and into darkness.

Orville sprinted for the entrance, steamrolling a businessman in a thousand-dollar suit, not caring, bursting through the doors and onto Las Vegas Boulevard. He shouldered his way through the crowd, first moving northeast, then heading back southwest for four or five blocks.

Eunice! he shouted. Eunice! Eunice!

He stepped out into traffic, where he dashed back and forth, peering through windshields and windows. The passengers gave him the finger or told him to fuck off. When the light turned green, the drivers pulled away, leaving Orville to dodge traffic and chase passing taxicabs.

He stayed on the street, calling for Eunice, until somebody grabbed his collar and yanked him back on the sidewalk. Then he sat down on the curb and said nothing else.

 

Nobody ever saw him work a casino again. No one knows if he quit or got fired. For years, he wandered up and down the Strip, sometimes stinking of cheap gin, sometimes not. He just stood on corners and waved. He wore his suit until it pretty much disintegrated. Who knows where he gets his clothes these days, where he sleeps, what he eats? Nobody’s ever spotted him at a concert or a restaurant or comedy club. Maybe all he really had in the world was that job and those nights with Eunice, and when she walked out, perhaps she took half his life with her and left the other half empty and meaningless. Or she could have been the last in a long list of heartbreaks that nobody ever witnessed.

He must have convinced himself that if he just stood in the right place, then the world would turn and life would cycle back around and he would see Eunice pass by. That she would see him and wave back, perhaps even forgive him, because, after a time, Orville vanished from the Strip. Later, he started popping up on street corners all over the valley, standing on corners and waving, waving, waving. Maybe he forgot how to do anything else.

 

Now he’s heading south. Maybe next year he’ll be in Boulder City, or Arizona. Maybe he’ll wave all the way through Mexico and out into the ocean.

 

Whenever someone tells me that they’ve seen Orville on a given corner, I try to avoid it. I just can’t bear to look at his zipped-up jacket and pants ragged at the cuffs. He evokes too many associative images—an old man lying down in a park and curling into himself, humming a gospel song, or trudging under the intermittent rains and the unmerciful sun, through the car exhaust and the baked air until something tells him to stop and wave, that maybe he has finally found the right corner, the right time. How the seconds and minutes of his life would tick by in solitude, no one to converse or share a joke with, no one to hold. If I think about him too much, I’ll wind up in therapy. Yes, Orville had been somebody’s son once, maybe somebody’s father, but what was he now? Was anyone looking for him? If he died, would anyone mourn? Would anyone even notice?

I suppose I could help him—take him to a hospital, a shelter, my house. But like most people, I get caught in my own life’s currents. Most days, I’m too busy treading water to save anyone else.

But sometimes you can’t escape. Sometimes the stories of your life dissolve into someone else’s, and they become as hard to separate as the sugar you stirred into your coffee. And so, in spite of my best efforts, I saw Orville again.

 

On a pleasant valley Sunday, for no particular reason, I was driving through Henderson and singing along to classic rock on the radio, something by the Eagles or Fleetwood Mac. The valley’s southernmost residential area surrounded me, apartment complexes and cookie-cutter housing projects squatting amidst the boulders and cacti, their muddy colors not unlike the face of Sunrise Mountain itself.

As I pulled up to a stoplight, I saw Orville on my right, sitting on the curb underneath the inconsequential shade of a palm tree trimmed in the shape of a toilet brush. His lips moved. Four dogs sat nearby—not walking, not sleeping, just watching him as if he were speaking their language and addressing matters of great import. Other animals had gathered, too. I can’t explain it, because these creatures should never have gotten within ten yards of each other, but I saw them there all the same—a half-dozen feral-looking cats that lay only feet from the dogs; a dissimulation of birds, two Canada geese and a dozen pigeons and larks and magpies; a lupine animal that looked like a coyote; and, improbably, a roadrunner. A scurry of woodchucks. A nest of mice. They had congregated around him in an irregular circle, like disciples. Like an audience.

A couple of cars came toward us, headed back the way I had come. Orville stood and waved, his lips still moving. The animals watched him, craning their necks upward. The passing cars honked and Orville kept waving, left to right and right to left, his hand level with his throat. Profiled against the flawless blue sky, his toboggan pushed back to reveal a sunburnt forehead and a swatch of gray hair, his jaw set and straight and square, his jacket threadbare and his pants stained, he looked like every blasted hope and broken dream I’d ever had.

The honking cars did not affect the animals at all. If I hadn’t seen them breathing and moving their heads when Orville shifted position, I would have sworn they were stuffed. It was like he had enthralled with his eyes. Or his voice.

I turned down the radio and rolled down my passenger-side window. With the other cars gone, I could hear him—that perfectly adequate tenor voice that I had heard so much about, wavering in all the right places, rising and falling in perfect time, if not quite perfect pitch.

He sung Will the Circle Be Unbroken? He sounded like Johnny Cash, like a man who has lived too long and seen too much, but somehow that sad, steady voice wormed its way into my mind, and I found myself thinking of things I’d long forgotten—feeling summer grass under my bare feet, playing catch with my father, seeing the ocean for the first time, falling in love with a woman who showed me how to crack open my heart and fill it with compassion for people I didn’t know. I felt awash in comfort and grace.

My God, I thought. What must it have been like to hear Orville and Eunice sing together? That would have been such a privilege. How could anyone stand it?

As he paused between chorus and verse, I called to him. Orville, I said. Hey, Orville.

Slowly, he turned toward me. I could still feel that sense of deep joy, that peace. He stepped into the road and approached my car, standing with his hands at his sides, staring in at me with wide, unblinking, slate-colored eyes.

Orville, I said. Have you seen her yet?

His mouth moved, but I couldn’t hear anything. He might have been imparting the secrets of heaven and hell or reciting a nursery rhyme.

Have you seen Eunice? I asked.

He bent down, his hands on my windowsill. When he spoke, his voice was clear and deep. Do you know Amazing Grace? he asked. I used to know it, but I’ve forgotten all the words.

No, I said. I don’t know it.

Nobody around here does, he said. Nobody knows.

Then he stepped back, the light turned green, and I pulled away, leaving him standing in the street. I looked into my rear-view mirror. His lips were moving again. The animals stood their vigil, watching him, listening. The wind seemed to bend the trees and scrub brush toward him, as if they strained to hear. Perhaps he had begun a new song. Or maybe he spoke to Eunice across time and distance, hoping that the Nevada winds would carry his words to her like pollen while he sang and waved and hummed the tunes to all the songs he used to know.

 

About Brett Riley

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