JOHN D’AGATA

WHAT HAPPENS THERE

ASIDE FROM HEART ATTACKS, STROKES, AND THREE TYPES OF CANCER, THE THING MOST LIKELY TO KILL YOU IN LAS VEGAS IS YOURSELF.

DISCUSSED: The World’s Oldest Bottle of Tabasco, The Problem of Teen Suicide, The Most Stressful City In Which to Live, The Perfect Suicide Hotline Call, Cultural Criticism v. Pro-Business Pandering, What Might Upset the Tourist, Chocolate Coffins, The Maximum Air Speed Our Bodies Can Reach, The Tallest Dick in Las Vegas, TV Land, Johnny Pot Roast, A Wave Goodbye

1.

One summer, when sixteen-year-old Levi Presley jumped from the observation deck of the 1,149-foot-high tower of the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas, the local city council was considering a bill that would temporarily ban lap dancing in the city’s strip clubs, archaeologists unearthed shards of the world’s oldest bottle of Tabasco brand sauce from beneath a parking lot, and a woman from Mississippi beat a chicken named Ginger in a thirty-five-minute-long game of tic-tac-toe.

On the day that Levi Presley died, five others died from two types of cancer, four from heart attacks, three because of strokes.

It was a day of two suicides by gunshot as well.

The day another suicide from falling, too.

At a record 113 degrees, it also happened to be one of that summer’s hottest days—a day that caused the World’s Tallest Thermometer to break, raised the price of bottled water to five dollars for eight ounces, and caused a traffic jam on the north end of the Las Vegas Strip as a tourist family traveled toward downtown Las Vegas, rolled over a broken bottle from a homeless woman’s cart, blew out a back tire, hit a parked car, and stalled outside the entrance of the Stratosphere Hotel when the jack inside the back of their rented Dodge Stratus sank into the heat-softened asphalt of the street.

We therefore know that when Levi Presley jumped from the tower of the Stratosphere Hotel at 6:01:43 p.m.—eventually hitting the ground at 6:01:52 p.m.—there were over a hundred tourists in five dozen cars that were honking and bumping and idling and yelling at the base of the Stratosphere tower.

Some of them looked up from the traffic jam that night and briefly saw in the sky something fall from the dark, and then through the palms, and then to the city’s pavement. Some of them left their cars to look down at what had fallen. And six of them gave statements of what they saw to the police.

When I asked the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department whether I could read some of those statements that the witnesses had given, Police Sergeant Steve Barela explained, “You don’t want to read any of that, man. That stuff is just facts. None of this is gonna sound like a Mickey Spillane novel. You know?”

When I asked a woman at Las Vegas Teen Crisis whether suicide is a problem for teenagers in the city, she told me that she preferred I “not write any of that down.”

When I asked Michael Gilmartin, the public relations manager at the Stratosphere Hotel, whether his hotel has a system in place for discouraging people from jumping off his tall tower, Michael Gilmartin first asked if I was kidding, and then Gilmartin said, “Listen, I don’t want to be associated with some piece about a kid who killed himself here, OK?… I mean, really, what’s the upside to that? All I can see is a downside. If you can tell me how this story could benefit the hotel then maybe we could discuss it, but right now I don’t want to be a part of it.”

What I know for certain about Levi Presley is what he looked like, how old he was, what kind of car he drove, what school he attended, what girl he liked and what girl liked him, his favorite outfit, favorite movie, favorite restaurant, favorite band, what level belt he held in Tae Kwon Do, what design he had sketched onto the wall of his bedroom—very lightly, in pencil—and later planned to fill in, which drawings of his from art school he is thought to have been particularly proud of and whether their themes could be said to provide an indication of suicidal “ideation,” the nickname of his car, the two different nicknames his parents had each given him, his answers to the questions on the last pop quiz he took in school —

What is good? What is bad? What does “art” mean to you? Now look at the chair on the table in front of you and describe it in literal terms…

— and of which bottle of cologne among the five Levi kept in the medicine cabinet down the hall his small bedroom still smelled, even after his parents had ripped up its carpeting, thrown out its bed, and emptied its closet of everything but his art, by the time I first visited them, three months after his death.

What I know for certain about Levi Presley, in other words, is whatever Gail, his mom, and Levi Senior, his dad, were willing to say to a person they’d never met before about their sixteen-year-old son, which was, I quickly realized upon meeting them, anything.

“Whatever you want,” they said. “We’ll go on the record about anything.”

But, among those who did not know Levi Presley personally, among those in Las Vegas who only knew of this boy by body or rumor or newscast or name, what officially would be placed on the record about his death, and what officially would be taken off it, and what officially, from the very start, would never be allowed to get anywhere near that record of Levi Presley’s death, would come to contrast so completely the eager openness of Levi’s parents that there appeared at times to exist two entirely different versions of Levi Presley’s suicide. There was the one that happened on a Saturday, July 13, at approximately 6:01 p.m., on the herring-boned brickwork of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino’s north entrance driveway, a hot night, the winds from the east blowing white palls of dust, the stock market low, unemployment rates high, the moon only showing half of itself, and Mars and Jupiter aligned, which isn’t particularly rare, and so there is no phenomenon to which one in desperation might try to attribute the disparity of facts that surround this particular death’s most blunt fact: that Levi Presley’s body had been found “supine” and “damaged” but “relatively intact” on the driveway of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino, according to the Coroner of Clark County, Nevada; or that Levi Presley’s body had been found “splattered to a million pieces” on the driveway of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino, according to an officer with the Las Vegas Police; or that parts of Levi Presley had been found a day later, sixty feet away and across the street, according to a witness at a nearby motel.

And then there was the death, according to some in Vegas, that simply did not seem to have occurred.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

John D’Agata teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa. His new book, About a Mountain, will be published next month by Norton.


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