The bar was a skid row stage; its gamblers improv
performers, their facial expressions skits apeing greed, desperation, disappointment, panic,
hope, and they the only audience in an otherwise empty theater.
An eclectic mélange
of pop music from the past forty years; James Brown, The Four Tops, Sting, even older Buddy
Holly stuff, and Country when it was still Country competed with incessant
thumping coins feeding starving video machine hoppers.
Bar top poker machines lined the length
of the bar. Mostly street wise Vegas locals crowded the
machines. Jonesing rock-hoes played to earn twenty dollar rock double ups served up off
the cuff by the bartender, and with luck, they would not have to sell their asses this
day to get sprung. Muscled up thugs contributed the proceeds beaten out of their prey;
panhandlers gave up their day’s collections, then left to walk the median islands
at busy intersections for more. All played peekaboo with the elusive progressive jackpot.
Barring a Royal Flush, a less profitable return on their risky investments; four of a kind,
full boat, even a dead man’s hand would do.
blond woman claimed a stool at the bar earlier that morning. A five dollar poker machine
lay before her. Her back faced the entrance. “Country
Honk” thumped base tempos two decibels too loud.
A tinny treble twang distorted Jagger’s lyrics
as if he had substituted an empty soup can and a string for a mic. Mick’s cockney tainted Memphis drawl resonated
from the blown speaker directly above her. She placed a large bill on the bar and
said, “A rack and a Long Island iced tea.” A plastic caddy quickly
appeared loaded with a mix of one hundred silver dollars and casino-minted dollar size
tokens equal in weight and size to the bona fide government struck coins; only in Vegas,
the city greed rules, does phony money reign. Her morning wake-up tea arrived thirty dollars
into the rack. By noon the woman at the
bar had nested six hours at the same stool, the same machine, drinking free and losing.
couple arrived well after lunch hour.
A gusty August
Santa Anna wind hurried them in, ripped through the foyer and battered the blond woman at the bar. Mitch
Ryder wailed “Devil with A Blue Dress” rattling the ceiling
tiles adjacent to the defective speaker above the blond slot queen at the bar.
Her hair flattened forward. Her back stiffened plumb.
The automatic door closer struggled to beat back the belligerent desert winds. The
blond kept drinking, slipped five dollars more in the slot, and finger brushed her hair
back, disturbed less by the couple’s blustery entrance than the losing hand just dealt her. “Another
hundred closer to broke,” she mumbled to her machine. She hunched over her comped cocktail
and became one once again with its content.
“Damned wind, it beat me up; I feel like I just lost a brawl in a dark alley,” he said. He patted
and brushed the desert off portions of his sweat-stained
clothes. He slapped his frayed Oakland A’s ball cap against the thread-worn knees of his blue jeans.
“Can’t feel the balls of my feet,” she said. She was
a veteran topless pole dancer in the Vegas strip clubs just off the strip locally known
as Naked City. Her fuck pumps were designed to enhance her shapely calves on stage, not
embark on an urban marathon along five city blocks of sun-seared concrete. “My
hair is a burnt Brillo pad, and I just shed a pound of water weight getting here, coated in dust, and I need to pee.” The couple adapted their sight to the neon-lit dusk
inside and moved on.
The woman at the
bar tipped her glass and emptied the last of her Long Island Ice Tea. She raised it above her head and rattled the melting
ice cubes inside impatiently gesturing for another comped refill, “And another rack
too,” she said.
man stopped further up the bar with his back to the blond. His dancer quick-stepped a straight
line for the lav. He leaned an elbow on the bar top at a vacant machine, played twenty
dollars, and earned a comped double off-brand whiskey neat from the well. He contributed
another twenty to the progressive jackpot pool, flashed a two-dollar
tip to the bartender, emptied the glass and played
another twenty while he scanned the restaurant crowd for those he owed, those that
owed him, and undercover
cops in fake beards. No one. He fondled the ball of hundreds
in his front pocket; crooks have money. But he had debt—bad debt; nagging debt, a
vig two weeks past due on a fifteen-point loan, a keep looking behind your back loan. He
ordered another double and guzzled it before his tit-dancer returned.
The couple sought
a place on the restaurant side. They settled on a cluttered booth in a sea of cluttered booths in need of bussing. They sat together on a faded, abused bench seat with an equally tattered padded back. Parts of the vinyl upholstery had split and stiffened over time; the foam under it lost its firmness
after the Mob, who still owned the tavern, left town. Two concave molds had formed
on the seats from the past twenty years of punishment by every shaped ass imaginable. Carved graffiti littered the
soft pine wood table top. The couple faced
brutal,” The tit-dancer said; she slipped an arm around her lover’s neck and
closed in toward him, leg to leg, hip to hip,
shoulder to shoulder.
“But this is Vegas—the best lit
desert oasis in the world—Paradise,” the man
“Another county heard from,”
she said. Her sultry eyes gave way to an angry glare.
“Find work, get a car with air conditioning
and tinted windows; that’s Paradise.”
“But, I got
“Credit card fraud
is theft hon, not work. I was thinking of an occupation
that won’t land you back in the penitentiary too soon.”
He glanced up at the bar and recognized the woman slumped over her already
half empty refill. “I’m sick of your bug infested
room at the Blue Angel too?” his dancer said. “Let’s lease a place together as
far from Fremont and Eastern as we can, furnished, maybe Boulder City or Henderson.”
let’s get a cat too, buy bright shiny things, get monogrammed pillowcases, paper the walls,”
he said. “Quit carping.” A pregnant pause occurred, then, “I wonder,” he
said. “Is she anticipating some sign of epic import rise in a mist from the
backwash in her glass?”
# # #
He and the blond
woman at the bar quit each other after twelve off and on years of arrests, prison,
playing the streets smack back or sprung on rocks.
Her sin? Too many long runners chasing the high until
her dates ran out of money. His? Sampling her
myriad bi-sexual rock hoe friends, at first with her involved, but toward the end without
her knowledge. Since the breakup, they slept together
on rare occasions when both crossed paths half sober, sprung on rocks, sometimes nodding off on a dose of Afgan black tar. Before, as a couple,
they were an institution on Freemont Street, well known amongst the whores, slot cheats,
drug dealers, thugs, and cops. The woman at the bar was bound to find them out; both women knew each other from their tit-dancing days together,
and they had remained chums since. He figured someone he swindled in the past might vengefully
expose the couple to the blond. Come another time, another place, alone with her face to
face; he would tell her then. But not now, not here, not by a chance encounter in a downtown
Vegas skid row bar, not at the risk of a Bukowski-style Wanda/Tully catfight.
“Look to the
left near the end of the bar,” he said. “See her huddling with her cocktail. She’s almost wallowing in it?” The dancer looked
up toward the bar spotted her friend and groaned.
In full blush, she turned to him, her breath raining
warmth in his ear. She whispered, “What now? If she sees us, well, if she sees us…”
lose a close friend.”
She pulled away from him, “And
you’ll lose a fuck-buddy.” She no longer
“Doubt I’ll miss
that, long as you keep your motor running.”
“We were close once,” the dancer
said. “Even before you. Not now,
though. Bitch been distant lately, or too busy whoring to find time for me.”
“Off and on,
I gave up thirteen years of my life with her; that’s
time I’ll never get back.” Time is defined within narrowed parameters to a twice imprisoned felon.
on you when you were in prison.” The dancer
had marked her blond prey prepared to chuck more verbal spears in her friend’s direction.
with implicit trust,” he said. “I’d have done the same to her had she been locked
up. She knew that. Look; she’s emptied another Iced Tea
dry. She’ll be blind ‘til this time tomorrow.”
“Do you trust
me implicitly babe?”
her drinking,” he said. “She’s a sadistic
mean bitch; loves to roll around in the dirt scratching and clawing anyone who offends her.”
a scandalous drunk alright.” The tit-dancer reflected on her blond friend’s
ability to snap on call. The woman kept a butterfly knife in her pocket and had been known
to use steel knuckles in the past. The dancer found little difference between fear and
respect when applied to that woman. The dancer opted to
fear her as opposed to practicing cautious respect.
she’d get blacked out stumbling drunk, clock me in the jaw,” he said. “Then she’d
call Metro, blame a two-day old bruised wrist on me, and off I’d
go to the city jail, fines, court-ordered anger management class.”
have slapped her around so much,” his dancer said.
a mark on her.”
“Still a bit
“No. Remorse? Yes. Bitter? No.”
“After all, it
wasn’t all on her; that brown bottle clawed
at you as much as it did her.” The dancer
placed her hand on top his sturdy leg and caressed it back and forth full length.
what heavy drinkers do,” he said. He stuttered, a bit distracted as her practiced
palm took effect.
“She wasn’t street
until you got to her,” the dancer said. “You
turned her out. Her golden gash kept you supplied with a steady
stream of rocks, liquor, and threesomes with her
and her lezzy girlfriends. She’s your creation,
your invention; now she’s just your cast-off
“I’ll call her over; we’ll have a threesome,” he said.
pass.” The dancer wistfully stared at her blond friend “When her
and I worked together in Naked City she was a decent pole dancer. She always walked away
with two, three hundred dollars a night, more than the rest of us. No drugs and she never
tricked. I think of what you did to her; you’re
good at exploiting the worst in women. Makes me wonder what you have planned for
me? Gonna turn me out? Share a needle with me?”
His dancer sneered at him eye to eye until he blinked.
“Naa, none of that, just your dirty love later.”
“Look at her,” his
dancer said. “Probably drunk before we had breakfast.
Bet she got new tracks, not on her arms, they're sieves by now. Who but a smack back addict
like her hides tracks wearing long sleeves in a hundred-ten degree heat? Stabbing between
her toes now, I’ll bet. She’s got a foot in the gutter, and one on the curb’s my guess.” Her comment prompted
him to glance at his rolled-up sleeves relieved they covered the crooks of his arms.
for a heart too,” he said. “Cold, lifeless;
dynamite might chip off a chunk of it, but no amount of effort will ever penetrate it.”
her cold,” she said. “Call it like it is.”
The woman at the
bar put a straw atop her drink, got up from her
stool and left with the man to her right. She came back alone twenty minutes
later, called out, “Another rack,” and laid down another hundred-dollar bill she had just earned in the back seat of a ’62 Ford Fairlane.
“She’s pinned her street degree back on her
ass and gone to selling it again,” the dancer said.
“Now here she is, face down in a downtown shit hole
bar,” he said. He caught a harried waitress in mid-stride
booming authoritatively, “Hey, order here.”
the waitress said, “Who’s the new squeeze next to you? Hell, forget it, I don’t care, just don’t stiff me when you leave.
Interest you in a top shelf margarita? Maybe, a Maker’s Mark high ball?”
the waitress said.
“Nope, double sour mash whiskey
as usual here, double gin for her, neat in rock glasses. Just the
standard no-name off brand swill from the well; we drink for effect, not taste,” he said. He nodded to the dishes still on the table. The
waitress cleared the leavings away, wiped the table down, sneered a grin at his friend,
wrote up their meal order and scrambled off.
He spotted a
decorative mirror on the wall in front of him strategically
placed to reflect the foyer door and all who passed. He
said, “Let’s sit on the other side of the booth, backs to the bar, less
chance she’ll spot us.”
“Why do you keep
screwing her? Word is on the street you’ve been together recently.”
as close as I’ve been to her since we split the
sheets.” She caught him lying; all three mutually knew the street-wise cast-offs on Fremont; rumors
there spread fast as the click of a minute hand. There were no secrets on the Fremont
Street corridor. Their last instance together occurred
a few weeks earlier and stretched into a three-day carnal spree; him chasing rocks and
smack, and her whoring for the money to buy the shit. Then there were the Ecstacy-tainted threesomes
with her and her rock fiend hooker friends. His current lover had heard about their runner
before their first day together ended.
# # #
The woman at the bar signaled
for a refill and invested five dollars more on another
losing hand. The ice cubes were noisier this time;
they had little chance to melt.
Their appetites had dulled by the fourth round; their meals sat half eaten
and cold. “Drink up,” the man said.
“Let’s hoof it to my crib. I got a bottle of
Wild Turkey, and the liquor store is just across
the street. We’ll shower up, do some lines; you
dig up that hot pink thong and corset outfit along with the sparkly make-up shit you left behind last week. We’ll swing from the trees until
they come to change the sheets Sunday.” Her eyes slit narrow with lust. She firmly
gripped his inner thigh, stroked it softly from his crotch to his knee as a gesture of consent.
“Ah yes, been waiting for you to mention rutting season. Let it begin,” she said. She squirmed closer to him as if she were an estrus doe spraying an overdose of
pheromones in the direction of her randy buck.
The couple kept their heads down, avoiding eye contact on their way to the door. They made
it to the vestibule unscathed, both lit on ninety
proof, wobbling a bit. He opened the door for her to pass. The wind storm
had calmed; stillness intensified the desert heat.
She brushed close up to him, copped a feel and
kissed him. She hummed a throaty moan as her tongue stabbed past his lips, then
she moved on. He looked toward the bar and cast
an eye at his creation clutching a half empty chimney
glass, her face hovering inches above video screen. Then he turned his back to her,
assured he had successfully convinced another Phoenix of the streets
to languish in her flames than rise.
Steve Prusky is a native Detroiter transplanted in Las Vegas
past thirty years. His work has appeared in The
Foundling Review, Out of the Gutter,
A Twist of Noir, Media Virus,