I’m worried we’re too late. Mustangs and Astro vans and stretch SUVs brim over the Peppermill’s parking lot because there’s no such thing as an unbeaten path. It’s already hot enough to feel the asphalt cooking the soles of my cheap-leather, criss-cross sandals as we walk through the double glass doors. But this is our last-chance-weekend escape, our meet-up between the coasts, on the Las Vegas Strip. We’re old high school friends: I’m the one who left and she’s the one who stayed. I’m the expert who does her research; she’s just along for the ride. I’m the one who knows we need to eat here before we die, the one who thinks about dying that way.
Across the diner’s hut-shaped roof, the sign flashes P-E-P-P-E in rainbow stripes, and I miss the “R.” Inside, the mirror ball walls make everything go on forever: the electric pink, neon bands chasing one another around the counter since the 70s; the dusty silk flowers between the booths; the ever-blooming, plastic cherry blossom branches. The counter’s sinister grin around the kitchen has a toothy gap big enough for two, so we slide up and order.
“What are you getting?” she says, losing herself between the plastic pages that keep going and going.
“Old fashioned pancake combo,” I say. The reviews all agree; you can never go wrong.
“I’m thinking about … the Fantasia Waffle,” she whispers with conviction, as if this mysterious menu item holds all of the world’s promise. I know I’ll ask for a bite.
When it arrives, I’m jealous. The steaming, thick, Frisbee-disc of a Belgian comes loaded with Seasonal Fruit, which in Vegas means honey dew melon and cantaloupe carved into chunks so huge I can’t imagine how everything fits on a fork. The butter is sprinkled with the rainbow sugar that fills every canister on every table. All together, the sugar is nothing special, just a muddy, red-purple-green mess. But spread out on the butter, the crystals sparkle like pennies in the bottoms of fountains.
The old man next to us watches, too. He sports Bermuda shorts and wiry, aviator glasses without the shade and the widest, brightest, most envious eyes—eyes like he is young again. His on-the-brink smile and sucked-in cheeks convince me that the Fantasia Waffle possesses divinity. The only thing more pleasing to this man is his own order: a voluptuous mound of whipped cream and pink-white-brown ice cream scoops, topped with chocolate chips and fudge drizzles and three maraschinos.
As the old man works his way down the line of cherries and the scoops caving in on themselves, I worry. I worry about whether he should eat like that, but more urgently, why he eats like that. Why he orders the mother of all banana splits at his age, alone, in a diner, on the Vegas Strip. I wonder if it’s a ritual or an addiction—if he eats this every week. Or maybe every day. And, I wonder why he doesn’t worry, if only I worry this way. Who am I to watch and speculate and bring up dark questions to a guy escaping into a mouthful of breakfast?
If I could, I would ask him if he ate at the Peppermill when the Stardust casino’s pink, atomic cloud rained its confetti of neon stars across the street. I want to know how much that sign was like the real thing—if the sky sparkled when people sat on rooftops, unknowingly expediting their own demise to watch puffy mushrooms fly out of the Nevada Test Site. I want to know if he carried a mound of pennies that jingled in his pocket to play on the slots at the Riv, now a pile of rubble next to the Peppermill’s parking lot. I want to know if the Peppermill is all he has left. But I don’t ask because not-knowing in Vegas is always better.
On the way out, I notice the sugar in jars, for sale: muddy, dead rainbows that no one should take home. It’s better to leave your escape behind on the table, with a couple of dollars and some loose change. I exit through the dirty glass doors empty-handed, the only way I can.
Erin Langner writes arts criticism and creative nonfiction in Seattle, WA. Her work explores the ways wondrous objects offer insights into our lives and has been published in Hobart, Eleven Eleven, Hyperallergic, Entropy and elsewhere. She is at work on an essay collection that examines her identity through the lens of the Las Vegas Strip, a place she’s shamelessly visited over twenty times.