For Héctor, Las Vegas was the American city.  The Strip at night suggested, Héctor thought, an explosion in a fireworks factory—all the flashing, soaring, running, bursting lights in every color of the universe; the gaudy hotels, like upended cruise ships; the fancy stores, luxurious casinos, and romantic cocktail lounges; his compatriots crowding everywhere and jabbering at one another in every dialect known to Viejo Méjico.  Vegas was his dream town, a cornucopia of everything he’d sought in coming to the United States in the first place.  Las Vegas, Héctor felt, soothed his soul—which very much wanted soothing in the wake of his political disgrace and the Democratic Party’s landslide victory when Tomasina Luna crushed his emergency replacement as the Republican candidate for District 1.  (That, at least, had not been his doing, as he’d warned Santa Fe in the strongest terms against running his former campaign manager, Haníbal Aragón, in his stead.)

Besides embarrassment to contend with, Héctor now found the Department of Homeland Security, the Minutemen (once again), and, a viciously anti-immigration website, breathing down his neck.  (True, President Bush had praised him, publicly and by name, as a selfless Mexican immigrant seeking only to take upon himself a civic burden of the kind Americans won’t tolerate anymore—but that had been on the President’s weekly radio address, which, in New Mexico as everywhere else, went completely unnoticed.)  Thus, Héctor considered he had a compelling excuse to get away with his family for a week.  The MGM Grand Hotel was offering a fall discount rate he couldn’t pass up, especially since he’d been able to discount it further by offering to help service the hotel’s computers, where needed.

Héctor felt too exhausted following his ordeal to wish to drive the distance to southern Nevada and back.  And the airfares between Albuquerque and Las Vegas were dirt cheap, he discovered.  The Villas left home in Belen at a quarter to eight in the morning and landed in Vegas shortly before noon, Pacific Time, not over half an hour late after their flight was nearly diverted to Phoenix when a stewardess observed Dubya pulling a small, orange plastic machine gun from his play bag.  The incident caused some further ado on debarkation—certain questions to be answered, and so forth—but for Héctor, twenty minutes later, the sight of the famous Las Vegas Strip lifted his heart in a way that more than made up for the routine unpleasantness of modern air travel.  He checked in at the hotel desk and rode with the bellboy and the luggage to the fourteenth (the thirteenth having apparently been overlooked by the construction company) floor, while the family remained below to investigate the marvels of the MGM Grand.

In his expansive mood, Héctor tipped the boy twenty-five bucks, kicked off his Adidases, took a beer from the courtesy bar, and propped himself with fat pillows on the bed to watch TV.  From this position, he could also admire, through the window, the towers of the city rising around like grand sequoia trees wreathed in mobile Christmas lights and, beyond them, vaguely through the smog, the sere desert mountains that reminded him, less pleasantly, of the landscape surrounding Namiquipa.  Almost an hour passed before it occurred to Héctor to wonder what AveMaría and the kids had been up to all this time, just as a sudden commotion sounded outside in the hall and impatient fists thumped the door.

“¡Papaíto!” Contracepción shouted.  “Let us in—quick!  I have to pee so bad!”

Héctor opened the door—and promptly fell back into the room, away from the shaggy-maned lion, so realistic it appeared to him full-sized, though, in fact, it stood no taller than about three feet at the head.  “¡León! ¡León!” Dubya roared, while Contracepción, over her shoulder on a run to the toilet, screamed, “We visited the Lion Habitat, Papaíto!”

Héctor was considering there must be plenty less innocent places for a young girl than the Lion Habitat in the MGM Grand, when his daughter came tearing back from the bathroom, and AveMaría thrust Dubya unceremoniously into his arms.  “Here!  He wants to go see the lions again.  You take him this time, Panchito!  Contracep’s got an appointment in five minutes at the Grand Spa, and I have one with Christophe—you know, the famous Hollywood beautician!”

Hanging around with a child in his arms to observe a collection of mangy oversized cats wasn’t what Héctor had had in mind to do on his first afternoon in Las Vegas.  He tried, however, to be a good sport about this.

“OK,” he told his wife, shortly.  “Try not to make it longer than necessary, though.  You know how cranky Dubya gets without his mother.  And take that damn lion out of the doorway before someone trips over it.”

“His name is Metro,” Contracepción corrected him, in a reproving voice.  “He’s a nice lion, Papaíto.”

The women vanished like magic as soon as they’d retouched their makeup, leaving Héctor alone with his son and the stuffed lion.  A boxing match had started on the closed-circuit TV.  He switched it off reluctantly, tied his Adidases back on, and descended with Dubya on his shoulder to the lobby, in search of the Lion Habitat.

The Lion Habitat was inside the Grand Hotel Casino, close by the entertainment dome.  To Héctor, it resembled a vast terrarium thirty-five feet high, with waterfalls and a pond, rock ledges, and thick East African foliage, including acacia trees.  Eventually, he was able to make out five lions, barely visible over the heads and packed shoulders of a hundred times as many visitors.  Though the crowd made it hard to approach the inch-and-a-half-thick plate glass, Héctor felt reassured by its massed presence as he pushed his way with Dubya along a see-through tunnel, with a glaring lioness pacing on either side of him and a huge male lion stretched out on his side for a nap over his head.  Dubya, Héctor was aware, was a somewhat obsessive child.  He hoped very much that lions were not about to become another of the kid’s obsessions.

When Héctor learned that evening how much money AveMaría had paid Christophe to do her hair, he decided they couldn’t afford to eat at the Wolfgang Puck Bar and Grill after all but would order in from Domino’s pizza instead.  After supper, Contracepción wanted her father to take her to see Céline Dion at Caesar’s Palace.  But Héctor, pleading fatigue after a long day, promised to take her the following night—and AveMaría, too, if a sitter could be found at the hotel for Dubya.

“I’m going down to the casino for a beer and a game of blackjack,” he added.  “I won’t be gone long—not over an hour or so, is all.”

His wife gave him a suspicious look.

“Remember, Héctor—you’re not to talk to those putas in miniskirts they call cocktail waitresses here.”

“¡Deseo visitar los leónes!” Dubya yelled from the bathroom, where Contracepción was giving him a tub bath.

As Héctor had feared, a single visit had been sufficient to hard-wire the boy’s brain so far as the Lion Habitat went.  For most of the next day, and the day after that, he found himself nearly as much a prisoner as the lions while AveMaría and Contracepción shopped and took themselves to lunch in exotic restaurants featuring cuisines from all over the world.  Héctor and Dubya would watch the dozing lions from various angles for an hour or so, after which Dubya demanded to be taken to the adjacent gift shop to purchase another stuffed one.  Then they would return to view the lions again.  After two days of this, relieved only by an outrageously expensive evening courtesy of Céline Dion, Héctor was in a rebellious mood.  From having read Dr. Spock in Spanish translation years before, when Contracepción was a baby, he knew he should be less selfish and more understanding of the kid’s needs.  Only, this was his vacation, after all!—God and President Bush knew how well earned.  He should have left the whole kit and caboodle of them at home, he told himself. AveMaría, however, would never have believed he hadn’t spoken a word to those cocktail waitresses the whole week.

The third morning at breakfast, Contracepción offered to take Dubya at eleven, following her belly-button ring implant appointment.  Héctor sniffed a rat—he’d noticed the way she and the Mexican kid who worked the cash register at the gift shop ogled each other—but he was so fed up and frustrated with the way his week had gone as to be almost beyond caring what his daughter was up to. He accepted her offer, therefore, hoisted Dubya onto his shoulders, and took the elevator down to the Lion Habitat.  The crowd was denser even than usual, people lined up three deep to gawk at two big lionesses, shiny from a fresh shampooing and lying back-to-back on a flat rock with their black-tipped tails hanging over the edge.  Only the thought that, in just two hours from now, he’d be free to buy himself a cold beer and head for the blackjack tables gave Héctor the strength he needed to get through the ordeal.

“We don’t want to see any more girl lions, do we?” he asked Dubya in a coaxing voice.  “Why don’t we look around for the daddy lion—the King of the Jungle—instead?”

Away from the lionesses, the crowd thinned considerably, until Héctor found himself standing almost with his nose against the glass, staring at a pond surrounded by bushes and the mouth of a cave yawning behind it.  “Come on now, get down and give Daddy a rest,” he said firmly, swinging Dubya off his shoulders and setting him on his own two feet on the concrete floor.

The boy stared at the isolated pond, then started to snuffle and rub his eyes.  “Ningún leónes,” he protested.  “¡Deseo ver algunos leónes!”

Héctor, looking about, spied a man in a keeper’s uniform approaching with a bucket in one hand and what looked at a distance like a carpet sweeper in the other.  Watching the keeper draw closer, he saw that the man was either Mexican or of Mexican descent.

“Maybe you can help us,” he said.  “We want to see a real lion—you know, like, with a mane.  Are they off somewhere hiding, or what?”

The keeper, who had been staring intently at Héctor, never answered him.  Instead, he inserted his index and forefingers into his mouth and produced a long whistle.  Seconds later, a hairy leonine head in which a pair of amber eyes glowed appeared in the door of the cave. “¡Eh-eh! ¡Leo!” the man shouted.  The lion, his curiosity satisfied and seemingly unimpressed, lay down, half-in and half-out of the cave, and commenced licking his broad spotted paws.

“You don’t count for nothin’ with them, ’less you’re one of the ones feeds them,” the keeper said.  “I’m just the Poop-scooper-upper, is all.”

Héctor was flabbergasted.  “You mean, you climb in there with the lions and follow around cleaning up after them?” he demanded.

The fellow laughed.  “You loco or something, hombre?  The owner takes them back out to his ranch in the desert ever evening.  That’s when I get to work, with this.”  He raised the sweeper off the floor as he spoke, and Héctor saw that the thing was in fact an enormous version of a pooper-scooper.  “Rest of the time, I’m the typo carries out the trash and stuff around here.”  He winked.  “You know—one of them jobs only poor Mexican folk like us will do.  De paso, compadre—ain’t I seen you on television once?  The hermano got beat up by the migra down on the border somewheres?”

Héctor blushed.  After living for so many years in the United States, the publicity every American craved only made him uncomfortable—a totally un-American attitude, he knew.

“It was the Minutemen, not the Border Patrol.  And they didn’t beat me.  They called in a couple of agents, who took me in to the station.  No big deal, really—I was out of there in half an hour at most, after they’d checked my residency claim.”

The Poop-scooper’s face suggested he wasn’t buying Héctor’s story.

“Hokay, compadre, hokay!  Now I remember—you’re into politics, too, over in Arizona.”

“New Mexico.  And I’m not running for office now and never will again.”

The Poop-scooper looked sorrowfully at Héctor and shook his head, as if disappointed in him.

Hermano, it is no good pretending.  You are a big man, a real jefe—an American success story!  You have made good in this country.  But you were not born in America, no?  From where in Méjico do you come, then?”

On learning Héctor to be a native of Namiquipa, the Poop-scooper rolled his eyes in amazement.

“And I am from San Lorenzo!  Imagine! Only a few kilometers away.  Compadrito!  You must allow me to buy you a drink while you are in Vegas.  It is Juanito Villalobos who insists.  I will not take no for an answer, my friend.”

Against his better judgment, Héctor gave the fellow his room number.  So far, AveMaría and Contracepción had nothing scheduled for the following evening.  It seemed to him prudent he should tie himself up, here and now—if only for an hour or two—before they did it for him.