In the Vegas Room
She came over, clad like a cowgirl arriving from a hoedown, all flares and fringes, except for her Santa Claus cap.
In the Vegas Room
Christmas Eve, 1967
By Dell Franklin
On Christmas Eve Marshak and I sat in a booth in the Vegas Room in the rundown section of Long Beach off Pacific Coast Highway. The Vegas Room had tables, scuffed dance floor, piano bar, and, for good cheer, a plastic Christmas tree and strings of tinsel and the usual dime-store decorations. The lounge was dark enough that nobody could get a close look at one another, which possibly helped those trying to get laid, though Marshak and I had not gotten laid since our discharges from three-year Army hitches a few months past. Because we were best friends before enlisting, we’d decided to become roommates, renting a second-story slum apartment overlooking a beer bar called the Hull. Earlier in the evening I had eloquently recited portions of my novel to Marshak, and he had encouraged me, intimating, it was good, but now the bastard was turning on me, grousing about my destroying one used typewriter after another and tossing it out the window in a fit of rage.
“You’re probably too immature, too self-obsessed, too inexperienced, too out of touch with reality to write a novel at this point. Maybe you should go to college and take up journalism and be a sports-writer. After all, you were once a big time jock. Why not scribble about what you know, instead of driving yourself nuts and alienating the human race with this goddam novel you’re writing…the…”
“That title alone eliminates half the readership in the country, automatically. What agent or publishing house is ever gonna peek at something written by an unknown like you, with a title like that?”
“Go fuck yourself, Marshak.”
“I mean, you know sports. But what do you know about women, besides getting rejected and paying for prostitutes?”
“What do YOU know about women, besides getting rejected and paying for prostitutes, you miserable puke, ey?”
“I’m not the one writing a novel.” He took a contemplative drag from his Camel, issued smoke into the dense pall overhead, flicked ashes patiently into his plastic ashtray. “Maybe if you took the time to talk to women like a human being, tried to understand them, stopped either trying to impress them, or intimidate them, or kiss their asses just to get laid, you might learn enough about them to really write a novel, and you can call it the WOMAN LOVER, ha ha ha.”
Marshak owned a bachelor's degree in marine biology, while I’d been booted off my college baseball team and seen a once promising career as a professional ball player go down the drain. Both of us, as jocks, had boozed it up in high school, but the Army had turned us into foul-mouthed alcoholics and unleashed us on the public.
“I’m also sick and tired of your volcanic rages, while I’m trying to study,” he went on. He was going for his masters at Long Beach State on the G.I. Bill, his only source of income. Short, stocky, his thuggish Slavic looks belied his intellectual capacity to read and understand Nietzsche, listen to Mozart and Beethoven, and memorize thick scientific texts, as well as discourse on any subject, special-izing in sports and politics. “Everybody in that apartment building gives me dirty looks during the day,” he groused, gazing around as the lounge filled up, with a few younger gals coming in. “Why should I get dirty looks because you’re a deranged, demented, psychotic, suffering artist trying to be like like Jack Kerouac.
“Who gives a shit about a bunch of lowlifes? Besides, the biggest lunatic in the complex, Art, lives next door to us.”
Art was ex-career Navy and drove semis cross country. Alcoholic speed freak homosexual. Bald, stringy, sallow, chinless, terrible posture, downright repulsive. Sometimes, when Marshak and I were engaged in titanic drunken shouting matches, he knocked on the door, fearful of a homicide, and sometimes he knocked on the door to invite us over for drinks when he was plastered, and when he was plastered his feminine hormones transformed him into a flouncy, flamboyant co-quette. Sometimes he brought sailors home from dives down on Ocean Boulevard and became involved in violent sado-masochistic brawls that shook the apartment building to its foundations.
“Art wanted us to join him on a nightclub tour of Ocean Boulevard tonight,” Marshak said. “You should’ve gone with him. Good new material for the WOMAN HATER, and you might even get in on some action, ha ha.”
“Maybe YOU should’ve gone with him, Marshak. At least you’d stand a better chance of getting laid than you will in this rat-hole.”
He puffed his cigarette, gazing around sourly as the joint began to rollick with more dancers. “Yeh, this place is a real pit, but what else is open on a dismal, putrid night like this, ey? I’ll tell you what—dumps for a buncha desperate hard-up pitiful motherfuckers, like us.”
Folks in the Vegas Room were staring at us. Because we’d been in the Army, we were loud, used to yelling to he heard over the din. A few single women sat in clumps, faced away from us, no doubt discouraging our asking them to dance to such favorites as “Funny Valentine,” “Scotch and Soda,” and peppy and syrupy Christmas songs crooned by the piano player, a dissipated looking dude around 50 with a white carnation in the lapel of his suit.
The waitress brought us shots of bourbon from a weathered, middle-aged woman who sat with a man at a nearby table. We raised our tumblers to her and swilled. She came over, clad like a cowgirl arriving from a hoedown, all flares and fringes, except for her Santa Claus cap.
“You look so sad, so unhappy,” she said. “Please be happy?”
“We’re trying, ma’am. Thanks for the drinks.”
“Yeh, thanks for the drinks, ma’am.”
“Why you so sad, boys? It’s Christmas Eve. A time to rejoice. You should be happy.”
We couldn’t think of anything to say.
“You wanna wear my Santa Claus cap?” she asked, full of sympathy.
We shook our heads, issued thank yous.
“One of you handsome lads like to dance with me?”
“I can’t dance, ma’am,” I said.
“We’re stumblebums,” Marshak told her.
Now her husband was there, in a Western suit, bolo tie, false teeth, Santa cap covering a white mane of hair. “Now, now, Ruby. Leave the boys be, hon,” he said in a kindly manner.
“But honey pie, they look so down in the dumps. It just breaks my heart when I see somebody so sad on Christmas Eve. Maybe the poor boys got nowhere to go, honey. I just wanna cry, I surely do.”
“Now, now.” He led the poor woman away.
The piano player launched into a request—“White Christmas.”
“I hate that goddam song almost as much as I hate Christmas,” Marshak snarled. “Why doesn’t that guy play something like he’s supposed to, like ‘The Girl From Ipenema’?” The waitress plopped down beers on our table, doing an excellent job of concealing her loathing of us with a stiff, polite smile. We’d tipped her as well as possible for being dirt poor, myself working as a stock boy for a hundred bucks a month. “I hate to say it,” Marshak went on. “But we were probably better off in the Army. At least we could buy a ten-dollar hooker.”
“We hated the Army.”
“We hate everything.”
A group of four in the booth beside us gaped over, appalled. The women were upset, nudging their beaus. All of them smoking.
“Why shouldn’t we hate everything, Marshak? The country’s going down the tubes, like the last days of the Roman empire. The blacks are burning down their cities, the whites are fornicating, guys coming home in body bags from ‘Nam; and these goddamn degenerate hippies, they’re talking all this altruistic love and peace bullshit, like civilization is ever going to change and stop being a bunch of murderous depraved barbarians! Only reason those scrawny bastards are hippies is so they can get laid!”
One of the men in the booth beside us, dressed in a baggy polyester suit, stood. “For God’s sake! It’s Christmas Eve!” he exclaimed. “You’re depressing everybody with your talk. Give it a rest! We been listening to you two for an hour now and we can’t take it any longer. Christ, I’ll buy you a round if you just change the subject and have mercy!”
“Sorry,” Marshak said.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Hey, I was in the Army in Korea,” he said, more reasonable.
“You’ll adjust. I know it’s tough. Give it time. Things are good.”
He rejoined his crew. When our round came, we raised our beers and swilled. We looked around. Everybody in the place, it seemed, at least 50 people by this time, were staring at us. We chugged our beers and skulked out.
On our way to the Hull, we picked up a pint of Walker’s 10 High.
At a storefront on PCH, where many of the business windows were boarded up, two slinky, attractive women popped out and accosted us. One was Asian, probably Japanese, and the other was blonde and built, and had a German accent. They were aggressive, charming, and literally dragged us through the door and into a hot, spacious room, where some sort of religious revival was going on. The girls each had us by the hand, and we were overwhelmed as they pulled us through a crush of folks, sweaty and singing. At second glance, the place seemed a lunatic asylum unsupervised. The howlings and wolf calls were terrifying.
Up front, in a raised area behind a counter, was this huge German guy with crazed sky-blue eyes, long blond goatee, dressed in a shabby pin-striped suit. He shook our hands with his enormous paw and the two women disappeared. Then the big German tried to browbeat us into some evangelical nonsense. His face came at us like a big hump-nosed frightmask, hair askew. We couldn’t understand him, except that he wanted us to join the club and find Jesus. We edged away. He called us anti-Christs.
“You have no foundation!” he shouted. “You are fish-eye loo-sers!”
We backed away from his powerful, booming voice, which carried over the hellish din of the holy rollers. “You have no spine, you are weaklings without Christ. You will neffer find a woman! You will neffer find peace and happiness! You burn in hell!”
We thrashed through the crowd and scurried back onto the sidewalk and down the last few blocks to find refuge in the Hull, perhaps the most decrepit beer bar in all of Long Beach. A horseshoe in a hut.
Filled with rat-nosed, pot-bellied, fish-scale white alkies on their last legs. No Christmas decorations here. We stood, ordering draft from the shrill, harridan barmaid, Maggie. It was that time of night, well after midnight, when they were all on the verge of fighting each other in the grassy patch that separated our apartment building from the Hull. Often, around eleven, Marshak and I stood by our window and listened to the garbled arguing, and came down for a beer to observe the fights—usually harmless slow-motion affairs.
All these guys had weathered horrible childhoods and worse lives and had ended up here, in the Hull, after careers as oil workers on Signal Hill, slugging it down, bitter, angry, rancid, spoiling for any kind of confrontation that would lead to their lackluster fisticuffs, which never seemed to do any damage, and, most likely, were forgotten immediately as they returned to their stools for more booze, until Maggie flushed their asses into the street and sent them to their dumpy boarding houses and tenement garrets.
Whenever Marshak and I dropped in for a beer and entertainment after studying and writing, they hardly acknowledged us, for we had not paid our dues, suffered the way they had, and they were no doubt confused by our young beings drinking in such a god forsaken dive where hopelessness and demise reigned supreme.
Soon, like clockwork, Buck and Barney were engaged on the grassy patch, swinging, missing, falling down, rolling around and grappling, huffing and puffing, wheezing and gasping for breath as their faces flushed bright red, and members of the crew who had emptied out of the bar began pulling them to their feet.
“That was one of the worst fights I’ve ever seen,” Marshak re-marked, as we stood in the cold night, mugs in hand, traffic slashing down PCH. “Christmas Eve deserves better than this.”
“What a dismal night. Let’s get the fuck outta here.”
We trekked up to the room with our bottle and found some half quarts of Bud in the fridge and stood by the window watching Hull regulars mill around in blind staggers, babbling incoherently.
Marshak and I had nothing better to do now than talk. Soon we were arguing over who knows what. Politics. Sports. Literature. Marshak indicated that as an aspiring writer I was pompous, judgmental, an ignorant know-it-all, but what gnawed at me incessantly was that we both knew everybody, including my big league baseball playing father, felt I should have been playing in the Majors by now, instead of toiling at a menial job and writing crap. The sense of disappointment and failure was lacerating, and I was constantly flagellating in the abyss of vicious rage and mawkish self-pity while faced with the long, tortured march to become a real writer, in my or anybody’s eyes.
I had Marshak cornered, and in his eyes was recognition I was on the verge of strangling him as we cursed and shouted. I was halted by some furious pounding on the door, which shook the room. I dashed to the door and ripped it open, and there stood our neighbor, Art, toting a quart bottle of Southern Comfort. Clammy and frightened.
“For god’s sake!” he squealed. “I thought somebody was getting KILLED in here!”
I pointed at Marshak, who was still in the corner. “I’m gonna kill that miserable wretch if he doesn’t stop goading me, Art!”
“But Day’uhl,” he said so soothingly, touching my shoulder. “He is yer friend, yer brother. Ah know, deep in mah heart, y’all love each other like brothers.”
“Art, don’t make me puke.”
Art placed the bottle on the lone card table in front of the sofa. We only had two plastic cups, so I used my badly crusted, stained coffee cup that had served me in the Army and had never once been washed, out of superstition, and poured three triple shots. Marshak played some Sinatra on our scratchy stereo, because Art liked romantic, sentimental songs. We settled in, Art holding court, standing over us, hyper as a humming bird, as Marshak and I sat apart on the sofa.
“You boys, yer mah-frenz. Y’all know ah feel so good knowin’ y’all live next door. Y’all know if ah git in any kinda trouble y’all’ll come to mah rescue, like good sons, like m’own sons who won’t talk to me cuz ah’m queer.”
As always, he become sloppy and saccharine, talking about how he missed and loved his beloved Texas, and the Longhorn and Cowboy foot-ball teams. He loved the flag, and America, was proud to be a veteran, and knew we were this way also. He especially loved Christmas, missed his family in Texas and admitted he was lonely an’ oh so thankful he found us tonight, because, after all, Christmas was a time of love, to be shared with friends, and we were his best friends, and just because he was an ugly old queer nobody wanted anything to do with, it didn’t mean he was after us, because he wasn’t, not one bit, and we knew that, and told him so, and toasted our friendship, and the bottle went down…and well into the wee hours Art invited us over for breakfast the next day so we could watch the pro football game on his TV, since we didn’t have one, and this seemed a good idea, and we agreed, toasting again, though there was a possibility we would be blessed by being so hungover we’d sleep through Christmas day. §
Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.