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 Buddy Holly, and even older country stuff—Take This Job and Shove It—competed with the incessant thumping coins feeding starving hoppers of bar-top video poker machines lining 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 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; a four of a kind, a full boat, even a dead man’s hand would do.
The 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 for a mic with the string attached to the bottom end of it the twisted cotton conduit broadcasting his fuzzy lyrics to the blown speaker directly above her. She placed a large bill on the bar and said, “Gimme 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 issue coins. 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.
The couple arrived well after lunch hour.
A late August Santa Anna gusting wind hurried the couple in, ripped through the foyer and battered the woman at the bar. Mitch Ryder wailed “Girl with A Blue Dress” rattling the adjacent ceiling tiles. The woman’s hair flattened forward. Her back stiffened plumb. The automatic door closer struggled to beat back the belligerent desert gusts. The woman at the bar 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 the portion of his clothes that weren’t sweaty wet, and 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 stroll along five city blocks of sun-seared concrete. “My hair feels like a burnt Brillo pad, and I just sweat off a pound 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 high above her head and rattled the melting ice cubes inside impatiently gesturing for another comped refill, “And another rack too,” she said.
He stopped further up the bar with his back to the woman. His lover headed 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 ordered another double and guzzled it before she 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, 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 aged soft pine wood table top. The couple faced the bar.
“Damned wind’s brutal,” she said. She slipped her arm around his neck and closed in, leg to leg, hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder.
“But this is Vegas—the best lit desert oasis in the world—Paradise,” he said.
“Another county heard from,” she said. “Find work, get a car with air conditioning and tinted windows; that’s Paradise.”
“But, I got work.”
“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 date said. “Let’s lease a place together as far from Fremont and Eastern as we can, furnished, maybe Boulder City or Henderson.”
“Sure thing, 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 monumental import rise in a mist from the backwash in her glass?”
He and the 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 current date 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 both crossed paths half sober, sprung on rocks, sometimes nodding off on a dose of Afgan 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 knew each other from their tit dancing days together, and they remained chums since. He figured someone he swindled in the past might vengefully expose the couple to the woman at the bar. Come another time, another place, alone with her face to face; that was fine, 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?” She looked up toward the bar spotted her friend and groaned. In full blush, she turned to him, her breath raining humid warmth in his ear. She whispered, “What now? If she sees us, well, if she sees us…”
“…You’ll lose a close friend.”
She pulled away from him, “And you’ll lose a fuck buddy.” She no longer whispered.
“Doubt I’ll miss that, long as you keep your motor running.”
“We were close once, even before you. Not now, though. She’s distant, or too busy whoring to find time for me.”
“Off and on, I squandered nine years of my life with her; years I’ll never get back.”
“She cheated on you when you were in prison.”
“Betrayal begins with implicit trust. I’d have done the same if she were locked up. She knew that. Look; she’s emptied another Iced Tea dry. She’ll be blind ‘til this time tomorrow,” he said
“Do you trust me implicitly babe?”
“And then her drinking,” he said. “She’s a sadistic mean bitch; loves to roll around in the dirt scratching and clawing anyone who offends her.”
“Yup, she’s a scandalous drunk alright.”
“Hell, she’d get blacked out stumbling drunk clock me in the jaw, call
Metro, blame a two day old bruised wrist on me and off I’d go to the city jail overnight.”
“Shouldn’t have slapped her around so much.”
“I don’t recall ever leaving a mark.”
“Still a bit bitter?”
“No. Remorse? Yes. Bitter? No.”
“After all, it wasn’t all on her; you worshiped that bottle just as much as she did.”
“That’s what heavy drinkers do.”
“She wasn’t street until you got to her. 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 debris.”
“I’ll call her over; we’ll have a threesome.”
“I’ll pass. She was a decent pole dancer when we worked the tit clubs together in Naked City. 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 you?”
“Naa, none of that, just your dirty love later.”
“Look at her,” she 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 one foot in the gutter, and one on the curb’s my guess.” He glanced at his rolled up sleeves relieved they covered the crooks of his arms.
“Got granite 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.”
“You turned 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 a large 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,” she said.
“Now here she is, face down in a downtown shit hole bar,” he said. He caught a harried waitress in mid-stride with an authoritative, “Hey, order here.”
“You again,” 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.
“Naa, double sour mash whiskey here, double gin for her, neat in rock glasses. Just the cheap 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.
“Let’s sit on the other side of the booth, backs to the bar,” he said. “Less chance she’ll spot us.”
“Why do you keep screwing her?”
“This is 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. 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 Extacy tainted threesomes with her and her rock fiend hooker friends. His current lover had heard about their recent 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,” he 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 unnoticed to the vestibule unscathed, both lit on ninety proof, wobbling a bit. He opened the door for her to pass. The 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 wallowing 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 ‘till death than rise.