It always ended at the Vegas Lounge. I don’t mean to say it didn’t end other places. It certainly did. But the Vegas Lounge had this power of holding you hostage until the night ceded. Nobody popped in for a few cocktails before a show or stopped by for a beer and a little mundane work gossip. No, far from from. Once you entered that bar, there was no going back. It led you down a path of destruction and blackness, and on the last day of autumn, on a surprisingly hot and putrid day, Billy Buttle, Jerry Saint, and Wally Martin were taken by the Vegas Lounge.
But I fear I’m getting ahead of myself. Allow me to start from the beginning, as stories usually do.
Their afternoon started with vodka, lemon, and ice, but they soon graduated to Old Fashioneds and Torontos. They drank their drinks, mostly in silence, intermittently placing the condensation-laced glasses against their foreheads.
“It’s too hot for December,” one of them said.
The other two wiped their brows, but said nothing.
They were atop a swanky terraced bar in downtown and were in the midst of a perfectly lovely, and respectable, Saturday. But as they finished the last of their drinks a plan began to formulate. Mayhem was brewing. What that mayhem would be was unclear. But one thing was for certain: they would find another bar; some place bound to have a happy hour. Downtown terraces hardly screamed thriftiness, so their wallets were thirsty for a dive.
“There’s a place across the river,” Wally said.
“What’s it called?” Billy asked.
“Terry’s. They have good burgers and a decent happy hour.”
Jerry chewed the last of his ice. “Yeah, why not?”
They paid their check, tipped (handsomely, of course), piled into Wally’s Saturn, and drove the mile and a half across the bridge. They parked adjacent to Terry’s and were pleased that it wasn’t terribly busy. They found three open seats, took them without asking, and ordered three burgers, three fries, three beers, and six whiskeys. They ate and they drank, but anything beyond that is of no significance to this story and I will promptly move on from it.
The sun dropped and the moon rose and they stumbled out of Terry’s and back to Wally’s rusty Saturn. They had spectacularly full bellies and a blaring buzz; the day had treated them well. But just as they readied themselves for the comforts of the Saturn’s bucket seats, a light from across the street caught their eye. But it was more than a light. It was a beacon. And though they would never admit it, the beacon was calling to them. Under the beacon’s glow was a modest concrete building similar to the outside of an elementary school. There were two windows, tinted black, and a parking lot that housed mostly pickups.
They let go of the door handles and made their way toward the building, moving like drunken zombies, souls possessed. Billy saw a loveless couple standing out front, a cigarette burning in the woman’s hand. She inhaled and exhaled calmly. The man, however, was irate. He frantically waved his arms and pointed his finger at the woman. It was the most accusatory thing Billy had ever seen. Wally and Jerry seemed not to notice.
As they got closer they noticed what the beacon was: a nondescript sign hanging loosely over the building’s entrance. It almost seemed to be dangling. One strong gust could rip the thing from its screws. On the sign were full block letters against a coarse white background. The words were simple: THE VEGAS LOUNGE. Though, nothing about the place screamed Las Vegas. If anything, it seemed like some podunk place you’d stumble upon in east Nebraska. But flashes of Nebraska were more than all right for Billy, Jerry, and Wally on that good night.
The Vegas Lounge had the faint aroma of stale tobacco and Coors Light. It was filled with blue—hairs and little else. The people, who smelled of freshly trimmed grass and gasoline, milled about listlessly, as if the bar was some sort of purgatory. Billy, Jerry, and Wally were paid little attention as they cut their way through the faceless seniors.
Crazy Connie was working. Even in the darkness of the Vegas Lounge they could tell her exterior was exceptionally pallid. Wrinkles crowded the sides of her mouth and eyes. Her grey hair was spiked with gel that glistened against the bar’s spinning disco ball. Of course, none of them had come across Crazy Connie before, but she made her presence known even before they stepped to the bar. “Whatcho doin’ in here?” The place was swimming in a sea of Oldies—tons of Ricky Nelson, Fats Domino, and The Ronnettes—but the three could still hear Crazy Connie’s voice boom over the jukebox.
“Got anything good to drink?” Jerry asked.
“It’s all good to drink,” she said gruffly.
“Is that right?” Jerry was acting a sleaze.
“I just said it was, didn’t I?”
“Did you?” It was unclear if Jerry was hitting on Crazy Connie or not. But, in the Vegas Lounge, who hit on who was hardly of concern. It was who you woke up with that mattered.
Billy looked to his left and saw a man standing next to him. He wore a grey beard and a leather jacket that had seen the ends of time and had come back unscathed. He sipped on a Coors and gave them a knowing nod as Crazy Connie laid into them. “I ain’t got time for an attitude, boy! Now did you come to drink, or did you come to drink?”
Jerry took a step back and said plainly, “Three whiskeys.”
“Real predictable.” Connie sauntered off as The Shirelles came over the jukebox.
“What is this place?” Billy asked.
“I have no idea,” said Jerry.
Wally wandered off as if he heard some noise the other two hadn’t. There was a place Wally needed to be, and only the Vegas Lounge knew his path.
“Where’s he going?”
“Who cares?” Jerry said.
Crazy Connie came back with three glasses of brown. The color of the booze didn’t seem like whiskey, and it didn’t seem like rum, it seemed like something Crazy Connie had concocted shortly before dawn in the unsanitary depths of her bathtub.
“$9.50,” she grunted.
Jerry handed over the money (a tenner) and she returned with no change. Billy grabbed two of the drinks and Jerry grabbed the other. “What a battle axe, huh?”
They turned to the rest of the bar and, amongst the slew of old people, saw a dwarf with curly hair, a drag queen (or an otherwise poorly dressed woman), and a gay couple engaging in an act of domestic abuse. Everyone passed in front of Billy and Jerry like a dream. And not the kind of dream you’d want to wake from, the kind you are a part of and you know it’s a dream. There was nothing real about the Vegas Lounge, but there was also nothing fake. Everything existed, and it existed specifically for them. They drank their “whiskeys” and watched their puppets, and suddenly the world didn’t seem so complicated.
Wally came back some time later—after many whiskeys had been downed. Crazy Connie had quit keeping a tab and the men merrily drank on. Wally had a woman with him. It was a low-class broad who was missing one of her front teeth. Her eyebrows, painted, had merged into one. She wore a purple sequins dress that hugged every one of her horrible curves. And when she smiled, Billy and Jerry swore the mirror behind them cracked. (Though this fact has never been proven). There was something awful about the woman with Wally. But there was also something majestic, mysterious—but in the worst kind of way. Sometimes people have secrets you never want to know.
“What about you two boys,” the woman asked abruptly.
“What about us?” Jerry was drunk and irrationally aggressive.
“What’s your boys’ story? I know Wally’s story…” the woman ran a hand through Wally’s matted hair. “But what about you two? You boys like to party the way Wally does?”
“Party?” Billy asked.
The woman laughed with that toothless mouth. “Oh, you boys are a delight!” She laughed again and they caught a whiff of her fishy breath. “I’m gonna go freshen up, sugar. We still good for later?” “You know it,” Wally said drunkenly.
The toothless woman wandered off.
Someone put on John Fogarty and a bevy of couples took to the dance floor.
“Wally, what are you doing, man?” Jerry asked.
“What do you mean?”
“What are you doing with Una-brow!”
“She doesn’t have a Una-brow.” Wally thought about it and then, “Does she?”
“She does! But that’s not the point.”
“What? She’s nice.”
“She’s a hooker.”
Billy turned and looked at Jerry with the same puzzled expression Wally was wearing. “What?” they both asked.
“She’s a prostitute,” Jerry said, dropping his volume to a whisper.
Fogarty blared on.
Wally glanced back at the bathroom, but the toothless woman was still inside. “She’s not a prostitute.”
“Yes,” Jerry said. “She very much is.”
“Really?” asked Billy.
“Are you sure?” asked Wally.
Wally stroked his chin and glanced back at the bathroom. He said absently, “How much do you think she costs?”
“What?” Billy couldn’t believe his ears.
But Jerry said, almost instantly, “A hundred bucks.”
Billy blinked. “Okay, what is happening right now?”
“Really, a hundred bucks?” Wally asked.
“Are you guys putting me on?” Billy’s eyes flitted between them. “Is this a con?”
“A hundred bucks ain’t bad.” The wheels in Wally’s head were turning. He pulled out his wallet and flipped through the cash. Even in the gloom of the Vegas Lounge, Billy and Jerry could see he only had a few bucks. “All I got is eighteen.”
“How are you even thinking about this?” Billy asked.
“What’s the problem?”
“She’s a hooker.”
“It’s illegal. It’s immoral. It’s unconstitutional.”
“It’s not unconstitutional.”
“You know what I mean!”
Jerry, meanwhile, considered the prospect. After a few moments of contemplation he came to the conclusion that Wally’s point was far more valid than Billy’s. He took out his wallet and rifled through it.
“Oh, not you too,” said Billy.
Jerry counted out $94. “Surely enough to cover the cost and tip,” he said.
“Tip?” Billy asked.
Jerry stuffed the bills into Wally’s pocket just as the toothless woman returned.
“We still gonna do this?” she asked.
“Hell yeah we’re gonna do this,” Wally said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the wad of bills. His hands were a clammy mess.
“What’s that?” the toothless woman asked.
“It’s for you,” said Wally.
“Why is it for me?” Her face seemed to darken.
Wally looked at Jerry who merely shrugged. “Well…because you’re a hooker.”
The toothless woman took a step toward him. For a brief moment Billy thought they might kiss, but then she hissed, “Excuse me?”
“Oh,” Wally said nervously. “I’m sorry. I guess you people don’t like that term.” He corrected himself, “Because you’re a prostitute.”
“Is this some kind of joke?” the woman asked.
“I hope so,” Billy muttered to himself.
“Jesus,” Wally slurred. “You want me to call you an escort? I can call you an escort if you want. It’s just that, hey, I’m the one paying for it, so it seems like I should be able to call you whatever I want.” With each passing word Wally sounded more and more intoxicated. His eyes glazed and then his eyelids fluttered. He was sounding moronic.
“I’m not a prostitute, you dick!” the woman screamed.
“I’m not a prostitute!”
“But…wait…what were you talking about before? About partying?”
“You came up to me and said we were gonna go dancing. That’s what we were gonna do.”
Wally’s nose scrunched into an odd sort of angle. “Oh…”
The toothless woman whipped her hand around and struck Wally in the face. Blood exploded out of his mouth. By the glare of the disco ball, Billy and Jerry saw Wally’s lateral incisor shoot out of his mouth and follow after the shower of blood. The toothless woman now had a toothless companion.
She stormed off, but they didn’t watch her go.
Wally grabbed the side of his face, sobbing. “The f’ck ‘as ‘dat?” he gurgled.
“That’s your tooth,” Billy said, pointing to the floor.
“You tol’ me s’e was’a hooker!” he screamed at Jerry.
“I thought she was.”
The toothless woman returned, this time with the drag queen (which, as it turned out, was an actual drag queen and not a poorly dressed woman), the dwarf with curly hair, the gay couple, and—as if things weren’t bad enough—Crazy Connie.
“What’d you say to my girl Rhonda?” the drag queen asked.
“It was an honest mistake,” said Jerry.
“Look what she did to my face?” Wally cried.
Crazy Connie ignored him. “You think calling a poor girl a whore is an honest mistake?”
“I mean, she’s in the Vegas Lounge and only has one tooth,” Jerry said. “It seemed like the odds were pretty much in our favor.”
The gay couple advanced on Jerry and slapped him across the face, one hand to each side. Jerry slapped them back and they recoiled with the most awful expressions.
A melee followed. At one point the dwarf bit down on Jerry’s thigh so hard he drew blood. Glasses were flung, punches were thrown, and the boys were eventually thrown out the back exit by the drag queen and the gay couple. Billy, Jerry, and Wally landed to the asphalt with a dull thud. They had cuts and they had bruises, but they had left with no bill and a buzz. Crazy Connie would comp them, as she had done so many times for the souls whose nights had ended at the Vegas Lounge.
The three gathered themselves up, dusted their pants off, and found a cab home. The Saturn could wait until morning. Their night was over and autumn had come to a close.