American Soul

Sheila Heti

Slot machines sing their astral music in the background.

A tall man sits on the back porch of his Las Vegas home. It is in a gated community, which is also a country club, which was built seven years ago, and it is almost the only thing in the desert. A red mountain of sand can be seen in the distance, and another gated community is being built—it’s still just the bare wood frames of the houses. The tall man has made more money in the past three weeks than in his whole life. “It’s great,” he says. “If I still have a wife at the end of it.” He is smoking and drinking because he just arrived from New York, his first night at home in three weeks. “If one day she wants to move to Paris to paint, that’ll be okay with me. After all this, it’ll be her turn.” She is blonde and asleep in bed. Their four-year-old son has red hair. He is asleep in his bed. Every sentence from the tall man is a story of how he has done well by his gifts.

He and his business partner and his business partner’s wife are standing near the bar at a restaurant, waiting for a table. It is an expensive restaurant, inside a casino. A woman holds out her hand to the tall man’s business partner and says her name.

He takes it and shakes it. “My name is—”

He is interrupted by the tall man. “Asshole.”

The business partner continues: “Matthew.”

They are escorted to their table. The tall man tells his dentist, who is at the table with them, and he tells him this in different ways all night long, that he is not a faggot. Matthew is the faggot.

After the Gwen Stefani concert, which they attended in the stadium after dinner, he says, “I have seen every major performer in the world.” They are waiting for the elevator to take them to the top floors of the parking garage. “Yeah, Michael Jackson, too. But when you have a kid, you can’t enjoy it. I would kill for my wife and my kid. Kill. Gwen Stefani? I admired her athleticism, but the crowd wasn’t with her. The crowd was too drunk.”

His first night home, he fucked his wife all night. You could hear it; the bedsprings. There was no rhythm. It went on and on. Then it stopped. There were eighteen thousand people in the crowd that night for Gwen Stefani. “This is the end of my tour, Las Vegas! Today was a great day. Today was the first time I’ve seen my husband in six weeks! We went to the casino and . . . other things.” And later, to the entire crowd, pulling at the tight waist of her shirt, and in a certain way: “You’re making me sweaty.”

Not all of them could have been drunk. Some of them were not enjoying the show for other reasons—reasons of their own.

An old man is approached in a casino. He is dull and still, sitting alone with a drink, in the bar area of the casino, not gambling. A girl approaches him and asks if she can take his picture. It is for a school assignment on the nature of the American soul. She is thirteen or fourteen. Anyone is allowed into a casino in Vegas. The casino is where you sleep.

He says to her in a slow voice, turning his head and looking to see her, with eyes drooping down: “My wife is upstairs sleeping. But if she wasn’t I’d screw the living daylights outta you. Sound good?” He doesn’t look away from the girl, then he slowly looks away.

His name is Roy. He married an American girl but he is from India.

“I believe that the conscience in our heads is the word of God within us.”

All the slot machines sing their astral music in the background.

He pokes at an ashtray on the bar. “What is this made from? It’s glass. Glass comes from where? In the ground. But don’t tell me that God made this ashtray. It was made by man—from his mind— which was given to us by God.”

God knows all things that are going to happen. But it is his wife’s choice not to have sexual intercourse with him for the last six years. Costa Rica is where he would rather have vacationed, not Las Vegas. “To see the animals. See God’s nature. Meditate on the nature of God. Meet woman.”

He interrupts himself. “—No, meet woman and man. Meet interesting people. Turn that off. We talk for real now.”

The tape recorder turns off. “Do you talk to friends about sex?” he asks.


“I have many women as friends. They talk dirty with me—all the time. But they are just teasing. I shouldn’t say it is dirty-talk. There is nothing dirty. God made it all.”

The teenage boy outside the casino with Baggage written across the back of his shirt helps a woman into a taxi and turns away and smiles: “Sometimes people leave here happy. Everyone leaves here broke.”

He puts the people and their luggage into the taxis that pull up under the sphinx. Behind the sphinx is a pyramid, the same dimensions as the original pyramids, but made of smoky black glass. A cone of light shoots out from the top into the sky, so that even in an airplane you can see it illuminating the clouds.

Roy says, “Do you think it is right—six years? For a wife not to sleep with a man? No, she is not my soulmate. My soulmate I met two years ago. God forgives me for it, I think. God understands. But this lady does not know that I believe she is my soulmate. I do not think my wife thinks I am her soulmate. She has never said anything about it. Your soulmate is the one that misses you.”

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Sheila Heti

Sheila Heti is the author of The Middle Stories, Ticknor and How Should a Person Be? Her latest book project is Women in Clothes. She is the creator of the Trampoline Hall lecture series and she frequently conducts interviews for The Believer. She lives in Toronto and at sheilaheti.net.


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The writing contest whose name is almost as long as the entries! Deadline is May 20, 2024.


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The writing contest whose name is almost as long as the entries! Deadline is May 20, 2024.