Red was purebred, Vegas
born, street degree and all: slight, lean, sinewy, a two-time
felon violating her parole. A deep-set black teardrop
below a jagged, meandering scar defined her sagging left lower eyelid. A pair of
prison ink lightning bolts nestled comfortably
on the underside of her right upper arm. A brightly lit neon town planted in
a desert wasteland of extremes, Vegas’ triple-digit summer heat and frigid winter
wind storms etched freeways of deeply furrowed wrinkles on her face with rest stops at
despair, anger, hunger. Vegas had rendered Red old young.
three years a widower, although he still wore his wedding band; “Not ready for that
death do us part business,” he’d say. He planned to bag his wife’s clothes
ready for charity the next day, the last vestige of her existence in their shared home.
All he would have left then would be his hazy memories of her. Chuck was a hobbled, twice-wounded
vet collecting government pension and disability checks. He was lavishly charitable, twenty
years on opioids, friendless, and glad of it. He grabbed his silver money clip thick with
crisp hundreds and twenties, pain meds, and his one-hundred-year-old, knotty hickory cane.
He opened his front door to a molten blast of 105° late-morning August sun and began the
had slept sitting upright; her back planted against
the side of a crumbling concrete loading ramp behind Smith’s groceries on Rainbow
and Cheyenne. She woke. Her entire body cramped, then drooped limp, then cramped again
with the urgency of a boa constrictor’s prey. Each new convulsion intensified the
serpent’s hold as it tightened around her. She fumbled through her possibles bag
for her fiddle-shaped spoon bent under the stem, twice shared syringe, and nickel of tar
heroin. She guzzled three fingers worth from a pint of Wild Turkey 101, cooked and fixed.
Soon, all was well in her world.
struggled with the heat and the throbbing pain in his hip. Halfway to the store, he ate
another Lortab without water and growled, “Shoulda drove, shoulda brought water,”
then moved on.
figured this day to be like any other. She’d forage
in the dumpster behind Smith’s for a morning meal of stale donuts. After, she would
set off on the routine walk a slow mile West to panhandle at the off-ramp traffic signal
on I-95 and Cheyenne. If her money fell short by noon, she would make the difference by
shoplifting in the Walmart across Rainbow from Smith’s and other nearby stores that
hadn’t blackballed her yet. She’d return the booty the next day for a cash
refund with no receipt. If she failed to make her nut by 4:00 PM, she’d walk Rainbow
and flag down tricks at $20.00 for 15 minutes in the back seat of the john’s car
behind Smith’s. She figured to have enough money to buy a pint of Wild Turkey by
dusk. Then, she’d chase another bag with needle and spoon at the ready, score, stab
a good vein with a reasonable dose, and save the rest for her morning fix. This morning,
she didn’t expect company at breakfast.
strayed from his usual route to shorten his walk in the
rising desert heat. He detoured through the truck delivery lane behind Smith’s, Red’s regular haunt. When he came upon the Smith’s trash
enclosure, he stopped and watched crushed soft drink cans fly over the graffiti adorned
walls land on the asphalt outside the dumpster. A female voice growled, “Goddamn!
Slim pickings today.” Startled, he stopped at the opening to the trash enclosure,
“Hello,” he said.
up with a crusty half-eaten cruller in her hand. She faced Chuck and said, “Just
me, asshole. What do you want?”
“I don’t mean you no harm,” the old man said, “just
passing by. Why are you dumpster diving? Do you need a meal?” She slid the half-empty
pint of Wild Turkey from her hip pocket and guzzled three more fingers’ worth. “Always
hungry,” she lied to see if there was an opportunity in the offing.
“Get a shot of your whiskey?”
Chuck hoped the liquor would enhance the effect of the Lortabs.
“Not enough left to share. You security
around here?” She said.
“Ever see a cop with a cane run after
a perp?” He said. “No, I’m just an old widower on a pension heading to
7/11 for smokes.”
call me Red,” The desert sun lit her auburn hair a fiery Titian hue.
“Chuck,” he offered his hand;
she refused the gesture. He said, “Do you live around here?” Red looked up
and pointed to the cloudless Las Vegas sky, “That’s my roof,” then pointed
down, “and this hot-ass asphalt’s my bed. Now, move on, old man; you’re
raining on my parade.”
Chuck said. He peeled off a twenty from his money clip and held it out. “I have a
proposition for you.”
“For a twenty, you get head,” Red said. “I’ll
flat back it with you for fifty.”
I’m way past that sort of thing. Here, take this, get a meal.” Chuck was always
soft on the homeless.
took note of her clothes. She had threaded a frayed, discolored hemp rope through every
other loop to hold up her soiled and torn camo cargo shorts. She cut the collar and arms
off at the seams of her former long-sleeved red and black checked shirt. Three top buttons
were missing, exposing the once blemish-free breasts of her youth that were now
shriveled, leathery over-ripe fruit passed over at harvest and left to wither dry. Chuck
spotted a pack of Pall Malls in her half-torn breast pocket, “Can I get a smoke?”
“Nope, none to spare,” she said.
Chuck said. “Well, look; tomorrow morning, I’m taking my sainted wife’s
clothes to the Safe Nest store for needy women. Meet me here at, say, 10:00, and you can
pick whatever you want out of the pile.”
Red studied his cane, “Can I?”
“Yup. How about that smoke!”
and reluctantly pulled a filterless Pall Mall out of her crumpled pack. She picked up the
cane, stroked its lumpy length, felt its weight.
an heirloom, four generations old,” Chuck bragged. She put it back in the truck
bed, “See you in the morning,” She said, swiped the money from the old man’s
outstretched hand, and quick-stepped out of sight to a nearby liquor store. “Got
me a cash cow needs milking,” she bellowed.
Red arrived in the passenger seat of a
never-loved speeding pickup truck. The driver didn’t let up on the gas, irritating
a rattling loosely fastened fender as the truck loped over a speed bump. Its front springs
creaked like worn-out bedsprings at an orgy. The brakes wailed, grinding the truck to a
stop next to Chuck’s truck. She gave the driver cash, and he passed her a tiny tin
foil packet. Red jumped out and slowly sauntered toward Chuck.
“You’re late,” Chuck said.
“Who made it your day to watch me?”
He took two Lortabs and leaned heavily on his cane. Red stared in disbelief at the
clothes in the cargo bed, “I can’t use these fucking things. Frilly blouses,
fluffy dresses, pastel knits, this is all old lady dress-up stuff! I can’t wear this
Hell, I’ll look like the queen of the hop dressed better than the marks I hustle.”
Loading the truck’s bed with his dead
wife’s clothes sapped most of the old man’s energy. He left his hickory cane
unattended in the truck bed and, grimacing in pain, slumped against the left rear flare
side panel, silently begging the opioid hurry. Red feigned a second-hand look at the clothes.
Then, she grabbed the cane and dashed out of sight. “Hey, Red,” he said. “Don’t
take that from me; it’s a family heirloom—priceless.” By the time Chuck
limped into the cab to chase Red down, she had run out of sight, elated by her incredible
good luck. She caught the downtown bus to Fremont Street and played nickel slots at the
Horseshoe until sunrise with Chuck’s hickory cane at her side. Chuck noticed the
handicap placard hanging from his rearview mirror had disappeared.
Afternoon shift change: the Strip casinos’
day crews jammed the north and southbound I-95. Chuck fondled a Lortab refill on his way
home from the pharmacy; double strength. A store-bought aluminum cane rested on the passenger
seat of his truck. He took the Decatur on-ramp to the 95 north and immediately slowed down
to ten miles an hour for the next three miles. An hour later, he squeezed into the dedicated
right-turn lane for eastbound Cheyenne, with an angry-looking khaki-clad cop an hour late
for shift change in a Metro black and white behind him. The line was 30 vehicles back
from the ‘No Turn On Red’ traffic signal. The old man crept closer to the intersection
five car lengths at a time, with each red to green cycle. The lengthy pause on the red
arrow was a boon for the panhandling crowd huddling on all four corners.
Chuck stopped ten cars short of the
signal. He briefly caught Red’s flaming hair bobbing up and down from one car
to the next, working her way down the line toward him. She faked a limp using
his hickory cane as a prop to shame those better off than her to contribute. He
admired her devious ability to improvise. At each green, she hopped to the
corner sidewalk, picked up a pint bottle stuffed in a wrinkled brown sack, took a nip,
and waited for the signal to turn red. Chuck slowly crept up the queue. He finally made
it to the faded white stop bar painted on the asphalt under his front bumper, the cop dead-sweating
him from behind. Red gimped toward him. They made eye contact. “Hey there, Red,”
he said. “Can I have my cane back? I’ll trade you,” he offered up the
replacement cane. “For one of those crisp Ben Franklins you keep on you, it’s
yours,” she said. “I saw that money clip you pulled out of your pocket. You
won’t miss a hundred dollars.” Chuck dug in his pocket for the clip as Red
reached in palm up under his chin, then the light turned green.
Steve’s work has appeared in Yellow
Mama, A Twist of Noir, In the Gutter, and others. Steve lives
in Las Vegas.