Aurora borealis

The northern shine of 99.

RAIN. I sit smoking my last Spirit in the vacant lot (7201 Aurora N.).

Cold. In a larger sense, I can't remember how I got here.

Intoxication. Feeling displaced and leaning this way, looking up at the lights that hold the road in glow, I drift. I'm somewhere, troubled by magnetic fields, solar wind, and charged particles blowing away from the sun.

I'm at 7 Eleven (7314 Aurora N., 522-7066). "This store is a bookend," I think. I point at what I want, and he gives it to me. I climb back in the van, light up, and shumble at the rain, "Tonight I am a pinball! Tonight I tilt Aurora!"

This body needs comfort, coffee, meat, and pie. I find myself at the door of the Aurora (8800 Aurora N., 522-4324), which the menu boasts is a "family" restaurant—families that gather in banquet rooms once a week, one step at a time.

I eat chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes, pie, corn, bread, salad, and cigarettes. It's cheap and tastes like cafeteria. No booze here. I go.

Enter the dragon, the China Dragon (10119 Aurora N., 524-5525). It smells like chow mein. I slip into the lounge. It's small. "I'm a Republican, Ms. Chang. I'm a Republican," boasts the guy next to me. She ignores him. I drink Scotch with a Tsingtao beer back and stare into the corners. I feel far away, regretful.

The men are suspicious of me. I remember the urinal graffiti: "This place is full of cocksmokers." They think I'm a "cocksmoker."

"Ms. Chang" points to me and says, "Your father's here." And while it does seem rather unlikely, I rise, unwilling or unable to question her words. "Not you." She points elsewhere. I like this woman. She makes me feel at home. I leave.

I need more than dishes. More than things lying on plates and resting in cups. That's when I see it, the Dancing Bare (10340 Aurora N.). "Burlesque," says the sign. I envision a poker game, cigars, cheap gin, and chubby worn-out women in fishnets and fake eyelashes. I push the door. It's padlocked. Onward.

DESPERATE NOW. What I lose in hope, I gain in speed. I drop anchor at the Drift on Inn Roadhouse Casino (16708 Aurora N., 546-8040). It's Vegas without the Vegas. Everywhere you turn, mirrors. I'm trapped inside a disco ball, where lumpy raked-over men begrudgingly force its revolution with cardboard mustaches. I sit at the bar, surveying the clientele. These people remind me of old apartment carpet. This one, she looks like a stripper. And him, a high-school quarterback. I imagine her press-on nails digging into his cologne-soaked back while he thinks about that one game that could have changed everything. He looks over at me. I know what he's thinking: "Cocksmoker."

The upstairs features '50s decor with recreation-center ambiance. It's like the worst wedding reception ever. Two thugs roll out a plywood stage as DJ McNugget informs us that it's "Men of the Northwest Night." Enter the man parade. I'm sipping a Budweiser as young steeds squeeze baby oil into their G-strings. I move north.

Darrell's Tavern (18039 Aurora N., phone number mysteriously elusive) is owned by a man named Bob. The bar is decorated with the flair of an ex-accountant, brightly lit and smoke free. A ten-speed sleeps in the corner with a sign, "For sale—$40." I imagine buying it and picking up a hooker: "It's only a couple more blocks, baby, pedal harder."

Bob's got signs everywhere, things not to do: "Seats—for your ass not your feet." I ask Bob about the seven Lincoln Continentals parked out front. He says, "Hockey."

Back at 7 Eleven. I fill a bag and drag it across the street to the fenced-in vacant lot. I kick down a panel, pop a coldy, and slump down. There is scarcely a trace of what once stood. It could happen to any of us. But I remember. I'll never forget those two beautiful teepees. I lean into the dirt and stare up at the rain as it falls past the lights and listen to cars pass in the night. All of them full of charged particles blowing away from the sun.

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