Get Happy

The Stacks: Pete Dexter on What It’s Like to Lose the Knack of Having Fun

Somewhere, somehow, the author Pete Dexter forgot how to have fun. If you find yourself in that fix, all you have to do is read this story.

Max Bailen/Getty,Cultura RM/Max Bailen

In this week’s episode, our hero Pete Dexter tries to figure out how he forgot to have fun. Originally published in the Philadelphia Daily News on July 17, 1986, it is reprinted here with the author’s permission., please enjoy “Having Fun: One Thing You Know It Isn’t Is Waking Up Near A Big Dog.”

I was afraid of this.

You got to bed one night in the desert, in a room where the ceiling is a mirror, filled with remorse and a normal dread of that unnamed, inevitable thing out there waiting for you somewhere in the blackness of the mountains—waiting for us all in the blackness of the mountains—the thing that tells you that you are going to be messing with real estate agents the rest of your life, and the next thing you know, it’s eight o’clock the next morning and you aren’t having any fun.

I do not remember exactly when this started, but it has been at least seven or eight years since the first episode, and it has been going on, off and on, ever since.

I was in a hotel that first time, too. In New Orleans during Mardi Gras. I woke up stuck to the sheets with some red stuff that may have come out of a glass spilled on its side of the bed next to me.

That or I was bleeding to death. I moved my head one inch off the pillow to find out which it was, and something growled. I remember saying this out loud: “Jesus, please let that be my stomach.”

I moved my eyes without moving my head, and there was a horrible black dog with blood-shot eyes and what looked like skin cancer lying in the corner, watching me.

I tried to get up, but as I rose off the bed, he rose off the floor, and the noise in his throat stirred again. To this day I have no idea how I got that animal up to the 18th floor of the French Quarter Holiday Inn, but I can tell you I was more than an hour getting him down.

The procedure for that, by the way—in case you happen to be in New Orleans and run into the same dog—is to call room service for three hamburgers, and then break them up into about three parts each and drop them, carefully, a couple of yards in front of the dog’s nose, leading him that way to the elevator.

You throw the last piece into the elevator itself and hit the button marked LOBBY.

Anyway, the morning that happened I went back to my room, walking fresh into the smell of the dog and the alcohol, and instead of the satisfied sort of feeling something like that ought to give you, I was curiously empty. Suddenly I could hear Peggy Lee singing “Is That All There Is?”

And it took me two or three years to figure it out, but the problem was that I’d lost track of what was fun.

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And I will tell you something else. None of the things that you hear about on the six o’clock news that are supposed to be “fun”—world record sandwiches, for instance, or throwing softballs to dunk local celebrities for a good charity—are any fun, either.

And what is really wrong, I guess, isn’t that I am lying here in a $100 room with mirrors for a ceiling in the same hotel as Susan Anton—did I mention Susan Anton?—and I’m not having any fun. What is wrong is that there are maybe 2,000 other people staying in this same hotel, looking at themselves in the mirrors on the ceilings—some of them cannot be happy about that—walking through the same slot machines and craps tables, listening to the same dead noises, and all of them, in some way I don’t quite understand, are having fun. Or at least will think so on reflection.

And so I watched these people, trying to figure it out.

I watched a guy late last night, in fact, who was having so much fun I’m still depressed. He was sitting at a blackjack table, with a beautiful girl who worked nights for a living, playing with the blackjack chips, which are worth $100 each.

He touched the chips all the time, enjoying the feel. And he had a cowboy hat that he liked touching, too—he smoothed the brim back like it was a ducktail haircut. And he had a cigar that he rolled in his mouth, looked like he was sucking a Doberman’s leg, and he had rings and a watch, and he touched all that stuff too in an admiring way.

And he called both the dealer and the girl who worked nights baby, and neither of them seemed to mind.

And I sat at the same table with this guy into the morning, trying to see how he did it. I mean, I’ve tried cigars and it wasn’t fun, it felt like something was decaying in my mouth. And I’ve worn cowboy hats, and that’s all right for a little while, but the truth is there’s only three ways to wear one, and after you’ve done that, you’ve done cowboy hats.

And what that left was the jewelry and the stack of black chips and the girl who worked nights for a living. He touched her some, too.

And after a while he and I began to talk, and I asked him if he was having a good time in Las Vegas. Don’t tell me these years in journalism haven’t taught me how to ask questions.

He said yes, he loved risk.

I said, “A safe risk, right? You can afford to lose.”

And he smiled and touched his cigar and his hat and finally patted the girl who worked nights on the bottom. He smiled, she smiled.

He said, “Safe, hell, my wife could walk in here any minute.”