Thursday, July 18, 2013

Issue #56 -- July 2013

By Steve Prusky

Willy is a bitter man. By birthright, he inherited the same fifty-two-card deck as the rest of us, including two jokers. During the sixty five years he has trod this earth he drew no face cards; no aces, kings, not even jacks, just low numbers, two’s and three’s mostly--in spades--and even then never a pair, a wild card, three of a kind, a full house.

Willy is content to wallow in despair, embellish the history of his misfortune, guzzle rat piss bourbon, narrate myriad tales of him--the luckless loner--versus the world. Most importantly, to Willy at least, he has me, his involuntary confidant, personal bartender, the imagined friend who slings short shots and diluted cocktails to him and the bedraggled few during the late hours on graveyard at the Pair-a-Dice Lounge. Fremont and Eastern, the corner the Lounge occupies, is the premier skid row that sets the bar all other Vegas skid rows mimic.

By mid-shift, the early morning crowd has thinned. My slit-eyed house pimp is off to fuck his favorite filly. Springer, the resident rock ho, gave up selling sleeve jobs for a hit and left with an all-night trick. The prowling undercover cop slithered out early, shed the glued-on beard and guinea tee to cruise other parts of town on his endless quest to cuff potential felons, streetwalkers, smack back nodding junkies. The prison-inked Aryan Brother biker is finished feeding the last of his meth money to the bar top poker machine. He pounds his beer mug on the video screen, shattering both, and slowly saunters toward the door. He is in no mood to stop if I threaten a Metro call. I am no mood to keep him occupied until the police arrive. That leaves me alone with lost-in-the-sauce, swimmy-headed, talky Willy and a destroyed poker machine.

Willy wanders in here this morning already half drunk, probably eighty-six’d from the Sunset Bar two blocks north on Eastern. Willy visits the Pair-a-Dice on occasion. This morning he continues to drink his breakfast on my shift in this mausoleum for the breathing dead. He starts right in where he probably left off with the previous bartender. “Life cheated me,” Willy says wearing a downtrodden pout. “I never got a break. No chance. Ninth grade as far as I got. I had to claw my way through existence on my wits alone. . .”

It is immediately evident what wits he has have done him little good. I focus on his silhouette in the krypton orange neon glow of humming beer and liquor signs attached to the wall behind him. Inch-long curling hairs sprout from his ears. A thriving grey beard approaches its fourth day of fruition. His blank, thousand-yard stare accentuates fleshy dark puffy circles around his yellowing eyes. His turkey neck flaps when he talks, his bulbous jowls undulate in rhythm with each vowel. His body must have the shelf life of a Twinkie, although by his appearance death is just one more shot of no name bourbon away. He is gaunt, sagging flesh that once held genetic substance dangles loosely from his boney arms. His only nourishment now is hard liquor, and an occasional Karl's Jr. Happy Star. He exists as if he still stands in the soup lines of the Great Depression unable to venture beyond the past. When he gives it all up to feed the worms, my guess is his last words will be, “It was a shitty life and now this!”

"So, what is it today Willy, bourbon or bourbon?" I say.

"Always a wise ass huh! A shot for each fist . . ." Then he starts again, ". . . Deserted by my parents, my ethnic heritage stripped from me. Divorced twice; bitches got it all both times." Willy tinctures each lament with various shades of anger, self-pity, contempt, but is his tirade more a cloaked appeal for empathy than a complaint?

"How so? How did that come about?" I say.

"Set up another shot, pour yourself one too and let’s talk about it." I suspect I will hear an excess of ‘oh poor me’s’ this morning.

"Why do I set myself up for this?" I mumble.

"What?" Willy says. I'm unable to understand why he glumly back strokes laps around his shallow pond of emotional penury with no interest in reaching shore.

"Nothing Willy . . . nothing. Crown Royal for me, well, bourbon for you, right Willy?"


I take a twenty from the bottom of his neatly organized stack of bar top bills. Willy, like the select few who call the Pair-a-Dice home until dawn, is too content in his misery to end it with a knife to the spleen, or a quick bullet to the brain. He is intent on drinking himself to death and he is failing at it, but he certainly excels in the effort.

"Now, what were you saying?"

I pour two shots. Willy swills his as if shooting cheap liquor is an art. He quietly stares somewhere far beyond this life, well past me, ignoring the reality of the present, silently waiting for the warm alcohol rush to take effect. I sip mine dry and pour two more.

"So, go on Willy, I got 'till eight." We clink and tip our glasses empty. I earn forty dollars a shift to be an understanding ear feeding the peevish their appeal for sympathy.

"What luck I have." He lights his first Pall Mall of the morning and holds the smoke in to calm his nicotine jones. He sarcastically rasps his lament in a guttural growl while his lungs absorb another dose of carcinogens, "Went from Litvak immigrant parents to a Catholic orphanage, survived the Great Depression, the Army and World War II all inside the fifteen worst years of my life." He forcefully blows jet-like contrails of grey/white smoke through his nose.

"What's a Litvak?" . . . Will I regret asking? Will his reply be one of the reasons why I drink too?

"A Lithuanian Jew. I grew up during the Great Depression a first generation American born Jew in a Catholic orphanage. . . Another round, one for you too."

"A Lithuanian Jew in a Catholic orphanage. That's a new one." All right, I take the hook--he has me. I must be polite. It's a bartender’s essential task to stand by and listen when drunk fucks like Willy vent. "I gotta hear this one Willy." I slur a bit--I'm four shots of ahead of Willy's visit. I silently toast Willy’s generosity--I refuse to hear his diatribe sober. I sink twenty in the dollar bar top video slot machine a stool down from Willy--no luck.

"Ma and Pa emigrated from Lithuania in 1918. I'm the youngest of thirteen brothers and sisters. I was born in '24. Pop deserted us just before I turned eight in January of '33. We were always hungry after that and not just for dinner either." I dig in the till, play another twenty on my machine, get a free pass on two of a kind; it all disappears on four diamonds and a spade. I sink a dollar in, it deals a hand, I hold off on the draw to leave the video screen active; no one else will play it lit.

"Your mother couldn't find work?"

"It was the Great Depression idiot; no one had work."

"Yea, that's right. I forgot about the Depression." I hold back a yawn, pour us both another shot. "On me," I say. He quaffs his drink slower when the house buys.

"Ma handed me over to St. Joseph Orphanage in south Milwaukee that winter. The place is an asphalt parking lot now."

"No Jewish relief society?"

"Not in a town filled with immigrant Polish Catholics, German Bunds peopled by Nazi sympathizers. The orphanage was on the corner of 18th and Euclid, near a part of town called Polonia: another word for 'Little Poland' if that tells you anything about the ethnic character of the institution. I never saw mom and pop again. I don’t recall what happened to the others, my brothers and sisters I mean. They were older. A few spent maybe a year, two, or three at St Jo's, turned eighteen and left. The rest were old enough to strike out alone. Don't even know their names . . . Set up two more." I pluck another twenty from the stack next to his empty glass, ring up two shots, keep the change, heart-felt sympathy from a captive audience costs.

"Do you remember your parents’ names?" I sink fifteen more in the machine full up at five dollars a hand, draw five times; get nothing better than a pair.

"Nope, forgot those too."

"How long were you in the orphanage?" I glance up at the clock. End of shift is an hour nearer.

"Long enough to forget my heritage and . . ." Another drunk arrives from the Eight Mile Bar a mile east of here. I hustle toward the new drinker in mid-sentence. ". . . Hey! I'm talking here," orphan Willy says.

"Be right back."

The morning star peeks over Sunrise Mountain. Shift change traffic rumbles both ways on Fremont to and from the downtown casinos. I return to my complaining stray. It's 6:30 a.m. My shift ends at 8:00. I make eighty dollars in tips off Willy the past few hours, owe the till forty and there is still a stack of Willy's bills on the bar. The place fills up fast with speedy-eyed graveyard Keno runners, leathery-faced Black Jack dealers, egotistic pit bosses dressed in ill-fitting, unaltered, off-the-rack J.C. Penny suits. This is the late night set just off shift from Jackie Gaughan's El Cortez Casino a mile and a half west on Fremont. They huddle at the pedestal tables farthest from the door. They hunch over their drinks like pointy-eared, concave-cheeked Nosferatu knock-offs avoiding the destructive light of the morning sun blazing through the poorly tinted glass door. The late comers line the bar and risk a tap on the shoulder from the deadly Gamma rays of day. They get drunk, loud and boisterous within an hour. I ramp the jukebox volume to the top peg, glasses rattle, the bass pops eardrums. The carousing throng joyously bellows inebriated laughter, the chancy ones slam the red buttons on the video machines betting on the draw, others pound the bar demanding another round. I have a profitable drunk fest going. I collect my tips from a tall chrome tumbler and donate the money to my machine. I am still in debt to the house, take twenty more from Willy and play it; he is too drunk to notice.

"The nuns changed my Litvak name from Jakoov Posval to Willy Poplawski so I would fit in with the Polish kids, but the official records the nuns kept tagged me a Jew--the only Jew in St. Jo's. Nuns even taught class in Polish for those that couldn’t speak English. No Yiddish, no Torah, no Talmud for me though." His eyes droop past his cheeks with an 'I feel sorry for myself' frown.

"What?" I run past Willy, drinks in hand stop and say "Oh yeah! Could they do that? Weren't there laws about name changes back then? Doesn't a judge need to rule on name changes?"

"Don't know. Got no birth certificate. Can't say for certain when my birthday is, although I think I'm sixty-five. No Social Security number, no credit cards. Not certain I can recite my service number from the Army. Not even sure of my . . ." I move on quickly; tips are flowing in as fast as I can play them.

"Don't let Immigration find that out," I say the next trip past. "These days they scoop up anyone that can't prove who they are," I say, and trod to the far end of the bar with more drinks in hand.

"They fed us lamb twice a day; broiled, charbroiled, fried, boiled--lamb is lamb. Never chops though. Haven't set a knife and fork to lamb since I left. Attending Mass was mandatory morning, noon and night. I was a conscript Jew for Jesus, a hesitant chameleon--Jew or Catholic, Catholic/Jew--never certain when or where to change color and blend in."

I hint I must clean up, stock the coolers with beer and keep the drinks flowing before my relief arrives. I abandon my machine. Willy contentedly mumbles his monologue to the top shelf liquor on the wall behind the bar. Stoli, Maker's Mark, Sambuca are his attentive audience now.

"The Felician sisters at St. Jo sanitized me, synthesized me, they systematically dogmatized me, nearly Christianized the Jew right out of me. They were staunch, determined to persevere even if the Vatican elected the Dalai Lama Pope. Hell, I'm glad Catholics aren't dunkers; I would have drowned for Jesus too."

I briefly stop on my next trip past him, "Sounds like pretty harsh treatment," I say, well past paying close attention to the reasons for his emotional deficiencies.

"Some of the other kids got adopted, but when a barren young couple interested in me showed up, they passed me over when the nuns told them a rabbi had carved my foreskin."

A player takes over my machine scores a Royal Flush full up the first hand played--four thousand dollars.

"A lot of that money you won is mine asshole. Been playing that machine all morning," I say.

"Your money's mine now," the winner taunts. I get a four hundred dollar tip, probably two hundred more than he would have given had I not complained. My luck is like that, always five dollars short from winning big, but I take what I can get. The lucky one orders drinks all around for over thirty thirsty drunks.

I played two hundred on that machine. I have the rent plus whatever tips are left. Deduct the money I stole from the house and I end up a hundred and fifty ahead. I move faster, I pour single shots, charge for doubles, toss the difference in my tin tumbler. No one in the crowd is sober enough to notice. Fuck the owner's profit margin.

"I left the orphanage at nineteen, in 1942 with no prospects. The Felician Sisters set me up with a job sweeping floors in the college dorms and maintaining Gesu Church at Marquette University . . ."

I field the phone. "Your shit's on the porch. I changed the locks," my fuck-buddy roomy says.

"But, I have enough right now to catch up on my share of the rent."

"Too late prick. You’ve said that before, but come back drunk and broke." She screams, “I'm done with you.” She slams the phone against the kitchen counter as if she aims the earpiece at my temple. I hear white noise on my end, hypnotic white noise.

" . . . They didn't teach high school at St Jo’s." Willy continues. "Couldn't do much with a ninth grade education; no skills much beyond pushing a broom and changing light bulbs. The Jesuit cook took to me and fed me well. I learned to drink flat back right next to him under the spigots of the sacrificial wine casks in the basement under the church. I got drunk and liked it. Been staying drunk to this day."

"So then, it worked out okay for you." I finish washing glasses and changing bar towels, pour two more shots, seize another twenty from Willy‘s pile.

"Naa, the war; that was the worst of it. I got my draft notice just after my nineteenth birthday in January of '43. Wasn’t out of the orphanage nine months. I was pissed, about to implode. It wasn't fair," he says. "But I expected it; in early '43, the war going badly, just out of the orphanage, the summons to serve was no surprise, but its implications were. A draft notice during World War II was as close to a death sentence one gets without trial. Ill fate. My bad luck I guess. Life owed me better than I got. I had just traded the strict discipline of the orphanage for the stricter discipline of the Army, but the Army came nowhere near preparing me for Eniwetok, Saipan and Okinawa. Learning to survive during the insanity of combat is brutal on the job training."

I sense an epic war story coming, but Willy's eyes roll up behind his lids, too drunk to share any lengthy tales.

My sleepy-eyed relief arrives, stops this side of the glass door and looks around in shock. Her face turns raspberry red. She places her palms to her ears, drags her fingers through her over-dyed red hair. She is not ready for this rowdy crowd at eight o'clock in the morning. She looks at me terrified, angry, turns toward the door to leave, thinks on it a moment and turns back my way. Willy crosses his arms on top the bar and lays his head on fleshless bony pillows. I come round to the drinking side of the bar and order my off-shift comp Long Island Ice Tea. I sit next to a sultry, Paris Hilton, "What the fuck do you want" type tit dancer I know. She has a cultivated, sinewy, boy/girl body built for rapid, acrobatic sex. We get friendlier than we should, briefly talk of screwing the day away, but agree our friendship is too good to destroy over a twice stepped on eight ball and an earth-tilting orgasm. Instead, she helps me play my money on the dollar bar top slots. We agree that if she wins on her machine, I get half. "Honky-tonk Women" roars from the jukebox. Mick Jagger drawls "Sitten' in a bar, tippin' a jar in Jackson." The music bounces off all four walls, the vibrations knock a cue stick off its rack.

My relief shakes Willy by the shoulder. "Up," she says. "Can't have you sleeping on the bar." He's too drunk to move. His bar top cash disappears. "Let him be," I say to her, "He's an orphan. He paid the price of admission." My tit dancer friend and I keep playing slots, drink, fondle. We get the spins by noon. My four-hundred dollar tip is gone. I have enough money left to stay overnight in a bug-infested room on Charleston and Fourth.

The aged stuffiness of my room is an orgy of every secretion deposited on the sheets since the motel became a third rate way stop for short stay whores and their johns. The neighbor to my left is a heroin addict I have served drinks to before. Through the wall to my right I hear a woman moaning "Oh daddy, oh daddy, ooohhh," as her headboard thumps the wall in rhythm with her lover's strokes.

I lay down, drooling drunk, clothes on. The overused sagging mattress strains my lower lumbar. I stare blankly at the old-fashioned popcorn speckled ceiling. It's 1:30 in the afternoon. Darkly smoked windows convince day to remain night. I'm no less a waif than Willy. This hotel is my orphanage, the room my dorm. I'm a lone cast off foundling no one will adopt; the Pair-a-Dice, Vegas nights, elusive jackpots, poor Willy's plight are my bunkmates here. Before I pass out, I imagine hearing the dead bolt click to the locked position at the hand of a phantom Felician sister on the other side. She will keep me here until my fellow orphans' beckon we gather at the Pair-a-Dice next graveyard shift.

Steve Prusky is a native of Detroit. He has been a resident of Las Vegas for the past twenty-seven years. Steve credits Joe Clifford, Bukowski, Faunte among those who have influenced his prose. His fiction has been featured in Circus of the Damned, Flash Fiction Offensive, Out of The Gutter, A Twist of Noir, The Legendary, and others.

1 comment:

  1. Vivid, unrelenting imagery that Faulkner would have approved of highly. Gritty as a mouthful of desert. A nightmare Sad Cafe. Cool.