I AM SITTING at the window of my seventh-floor room in the Sands Casino in Reno. The wallpaper is magenta and chartreuse, the bedside table purple formica. You don’t want to know about the carpet. I look out the window and pray. Bone beads slip through my fingers. One. Ten. Twenty. Begin again.
The air conditioner is louder than my whisper. My whisper is louder than the morning desert light outside the window, a window that is the entire western wall of my room.
Below, a man walks away from the sun. His black jacket gleams like the carapace of a beetle. He stops near a green dumpster, bounces on his heels, looks up and down the street and disappears around the corner.
Sixty beads later, he reappears and stands a few minutes looking at something on the sidewalk. A shadow. A pile of clothes. The man’s right arm lifts and falls in the mudra of a man with a cigarette. He paces. He gestures at the pile of clothes.
It shifts. I see a man — maybe a woman — sitting on the sidewalk, leaning against the concrete wall, legs stretched out over the walk, so the woman on her way to work in her bright casino uniform has to step out into the street to pass.
A gray and black mutt trots past the men. Pigeons jitter up. Their wings catch light. The birds could be ash, tatters of prayers rising from a burning ground.
The man in the black jacket dances. Something old. The Madison. The Boogaloo. Jump back. Let your backside slip.
The prayer came to me a few days after the attacks of September 11. I was reading Eliot Pattison’s brilliant crime novel, Skull Mantra. The book is set in occupied Tibet. It is a story of grinding oppression and luminous hope. I needed the latter. And perhaps more deeply for my spirit, oppressed not by violence or wiretaps, but by my addictions. Addiction. Singular. Far from unique. Casino gambling. Or gaming, as it is now more delicately known.
I began to repeat the mantra daily, running mala beads through my fingers as I had once held a rosary. 240 repetitions faithfully, half in the morning, half at night. By the time I came to Reno for the Great Basin Book Festival, I had murmured the prayer 86,400 times. There had been no more attacks from Bin Laden. The bludgeoning of American Constitutional rights had escalated. Exponentially. As had my gambling. Exponentially.
So I sit in a chrome chair at the chrome table near the window of my Reno hotel room and pray. No intention. No hope. Nothing but the assurance of pigeons rising like ashes and a man who dances and dances. And the light bouncing off his jacket and shuddering in the smoke of a slow freight moving north.