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"Borges in Vegas" Short Story

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"Borges in Vegas" Short story by Phillip Koch
Published in Descant, Winter 2001



by Phillip Koch

     We were both quietly absorbed in the pristine Nevadan landscape as our plane made its final approach to McCarran Airport when I overheard Borges softly chortle as if to an old friend deep within himself, "Now we come to where beats the true heart of the beast." I wanted to engage him in further discussion, in particular how he would parse that sentence, but the incessant giggling of our companions distracted me. We began the journey from Buenos Aires alone, just the old man and myself, but in the process of changing planes in Atlanta, we were joined by two very ingratiating American ladies, the sisters Tavonda and Tisha Jackson, or "Tee Squared" as they called themselves. They were both wearing leopard print coats in the middle of a scorching heat wave and it was that curious irony that charmed the old man and melted his heart. The heat had already melted Borges’ supply of Godiva chocolate and from that day on, the girls devised a seemingly endless diversion of picking yet another piece of coagulated candy out of the old man's suit clothes. I argued that a grueling United States lecture tour allowed hardly enough time for a civilized evening meal let alone hours of idle dalliances with young admirers. Borges was, as usual, quick to disagree. "We have much to learn from such creatures. American women are an endless mystery to me. Besides, they have long legs, a sweet disposition, and they can help us with the luggage.

     As always, his quixotic reasoning prevailed and we were soon settled in a taxicab taking us, I assumed, to our respective hotels. I mentioned to Borges sotto voce the question of accommodations, an awkward situation even among old friends. Borges was unperturbed.

     "My friend, you persist in assigning undue weight to trivial matters. I'll take the tall one and you take the short one, no? But if you are truly uneasy, I propose an expedient but ignoble solution. We'll ditch 'em at the next stoplight."

     I demurred since our bags were locked in the trunk behind us and the two sisters were sprawled across our laps, fast asleep. I also found it difficult to continue normal conversation considering that Tisha had wrapped one arm around my waist and had entangled the fingers of her other hand in the thick hair at the back of my head . I took no comfort in acknowledging, when prompted by a single raised eyebrow from Borges, that Tisha was the shorter of the two sisters.

     My fears of an unpleasant scene at the registration desk were allayed as I checked into one room and Borges checked into another while the girls waited discreetly among the slot machines in the lobby. However, much to my horror, that evening the sisters brazenly moved into the old man's room, mistaking Borges' casual invitation for cocktails as something less innocent. I chided Borges for his generosity but he was unmoved.

      "American women are a continual revelation to me. Look, stud poker with seven cards. What a strange and wondrous land. Come on, Tavonda, are you in or out?"

      For Borges, an American lecture tour was always a great springboard for literary reminiscences. Any evening might find Borges deep in discussion of Nabokov and his butterflies, Hemingway and his wives, or Joyce and his laundry lists. An innocent question would set the old man off for hours, regaling his listeners with enthralling first-person stories of this century's great literary figures.

     "Borges, aren't these chairs just like the ones you broke that night with Mishima in Les Deux Magots in Paris years ago?"

     "Please, don't remind me, they're still sending me bills. Say, does four kings beat a full house?"

     Before I could answer, Tavonda cried out, "The Magic Fingers is on the fritz. Does anyone here know how to fix it?"

      I tried another tack. "Was it Dostoyevsky who compared the act of writing to a game of solitaire? Something about the cards coming up just as we experience chance encounters with ideas? Or was this another desperate attempt to reconcile Zeno's paradoxes with Hoyle's Rules?"

     Borges was already on to other concerns. "Who's up for some Chinese food? I'm starved. We can get a bellboy to get some for us, no?" I was determined. "Borgie, wait. Tell us again how you were trapped in an elevator with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Marlene Dietrich at the Cannes Film Festival."

     We didn't spend all our time absorbed in the pleasures of intellectual colloquies. We had lighter moments as well.

      Las Vegas was originally planned as a stopover before embarking on the initial western leg of the lecture tour. But after Tavonda and Tisha button-holed nearly every middle-aged male guest in the hotel to sing the praises of Borges, hotel management realized that there was some publicity value in sponsoring the inaugural lecture. Borges was hesitant until Tavonda and Tisha volunteered to help him adapt his academic lecture material to the special demands of the American nightclub stage.

     The Wing Ding Room was packed when the house lights dimmed and the curtains parted to reveal a ten-piece band revving up a Latin version of Richard Strauss' "Thus Spake Zarathrusta." The conductor was attempting an awkward impersonation of Tito Puente. We later found out that he was indeed Tito Puente. Then Borges came out, supported by Tavonda and Tisha in matching lavender and gold showgirl costumes, fishnet stockings, and six-inch stiletto heeled-shoes. Inexplicably, both girls were also wearing rather garish-looking tiaras.

     "Take my poetry, please. A funny thing happened on the way to the lecture tonight. A hooker wanted to proofread my shorts. What about all this romantic expressionism we've been seeing lately? Wild stuff, if you ask me. Just the other day, I was reading a short story by this hot new writer. What I thought was a existential polemic was actually a utopian futurist parable. Boy, was I confused. I told the author, 'I think it's a little prosy.' He thought I said, 'prissy', and he punched me in the mouth. I don't get no respite. I'm walking the Strip the other day with my friend, minding our own business, debating the dialectics of materialistic rationalism, shooting the breeze, when my friend...Wait a minute, he's in the audience. Stand up and take a bow, Julio."

     My cheeks returned to their normal color four days later.

     "Julio says to me, 'Are you talking about the rational nature of Being in general or of material Being in particular?' I said, 'Hey, man, what's the difference?' He says, 'Forget it, read Kant.' I said, 'Sorry, I can't.' He says, 'Can't read Kant. Very funny.' Then he walked right into the path of a speeding tour bus and had to go to the hospital for multiple fractures of the spine. As we were waiting for the ambulance to arrive, I leaned over him and said, 'Now what do you think about the primacy of Being over freedom?'"

      The lecture was a big unexpected hit. Borges had been told that it was a tough room, particularly when you refuse to "work blue," a phrase Borges seemed to understand immediately whereas I had to inquire several times to learn its meaning. Borges and the girls continued to entertain an audience at booth number one far into the night, signing autographs, posing for photographs, doing impersonations of literary figures and leading impromptu sing-a-longs. I had to turn in early as my back was acting up again.

     Borges later distilled his impressions of these adventures into the widely anthologized short story, "Party is My Middle Name." Throughout this triumphant but sadly penultimate tour, Borges asked each college or university to provide him with a ten-piece band, at least a three hour rehearsal session before the lecture, and a long list of exotic appetizers and liqueurs to be available in his dressing room before and after the lecture. These requests were always gently turned down by a smiling member of the host department with a variation of the comment, "Sir, you are incorrigible. Every year you become more and more Borgesian."

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PBS broadcasts "The American Flag"!!
Producer/Director Phillip Koch &TV/Film Producer Norman Lear

Photographed at Second City in Chicago
Harold Ramis interviewed for the PBS program "The American Flag"