Popsicle

In a desert valley relentlessly blasted by a giant blow dryer set to kill, Greg roamed downtown Las Vegas during the deadly month of July, scouring the Fremont District in search of a hooker named Popsicle. He had no idea if Popsicle still possessed his Brett Velvet: Master Magician tickets, but she was his only lead. He pushed on.

Brain-like soup boiling in his skull, he ducked into an establishment called the Gryphon. Though he ordered Jameson with a few rocks, he received more ice than whiskey. Maybe it would cool him off.

“Heard of a woman who calls herself Popsicle?” he asked the bartender.

The young man wiped down a video-poker screen, refusing to make eye contact. “Doesn’t sound like someone we’d know.”

Greg lit a cigarette to keep his eyes from rolling and placed a dollar on the bar. “Thanks,” he said, downing his drink. Some of the whiskey spilled onto his shirt. He didn’t bother to reach for a napkin; he brushed at the droplets like they were dandruff.

“Sloppy,” he announced to no one in particular.

He never thought Larry would sink so low as to barter magic show tickets in exchange for the services of a prostitute.

It took everything he had to wrench himself out of the comfortable air-conditioned bar and into the oven of the street. Sunglasses would have helped. Too bad he had left them in his grubby downtown apartment. It wouldn’t be his apartment much longer. He had to admit that part of him—the most malicious part—achieved deep satisfaction from having punched his roommate’s face. After all, it was Larry’s fault. Greg knew better than to leave money lying around, but he never thought Larry would sink so low as to barter magic show tickets in exchange for the services of a prostitute.

Greg knew the economy was in the shitter thanks to Obama, but Christ, man. Were things so bad that hookers were now accepting Brett Velvet passes in lieu of actual currency? Sounded more like Kazakhstan than the U.S. of A.

Front-row tickets were to have been a pivotal move in his pursuit of Donna, a young housekeeper whom he wanted to impregnate. They worked together at the Baja Palace Hotel & Gambling Oasis on Boulder Highway, having met in the employee dining room. They had bumped into each other at the drink station, locking eyes in a way Greg could only characterize as blatantly inviting. He had asked her to sit with him and they instantly hit it off, mostly because Greg followed Mira Quien Baila pretty closely, just like Donna.

“I really like Erik Estrada,” he told Donna at one point. “I’ve admired him since CHiPs.”

Donna nodded, putting a napkin to her mouth whenever she smiled.

God, she was gorgeous. Which is why he had purchased the Brett Velvet tickets, carefully placing them next to his keys on the coffee table near the door. Yes, he knew of Larry’s propensity for late-night trips to Asian massage parlors, but Greg never expected his tickets to be used for such nefarious purposes.

Worse, Donna had seemed genuinely excited about the two of them experiencing Velvet in all his white tiger-taming glory. Greg believed Donna was eager to land a decent man like himself. OK, he had had some gambling problems well into his forties, but now he liked to think of himself as a responsible, mature adult.

Mouth bloodied, Larry had confessed everything: He had indulged in Popsicle’s carnal pleasures and, having no money to pay her, used the tickets to avoid a savage beating at the cruel hands of her pimp. Larry did not wish to be thrashed in his own apartment, you see.

“You invited Popsicle here?” said Greg, incredulous.

Larry shrugged, then coiled a Kleenex and inserted it into a nostril. “I didn’t have money for a room.”

“There’s an hourly motel across the street! Twenty bucks!”

“She works Fremont. You’ll find her there. Just ask around.”

“I’d better. The show is sold out!”

Thus, Greg, on the verge of heatstroke, searched for what was rightfully his: the keys to unlocking Donna’s sugar walls. Where was this damned Popsicle person anyway?

Jarret Keene | Photo by Nicole Perroni

Night fell. Under the brilliant canopy of the Fremont Street Experience, he felt small and besieged. Some kind of computerized supernova was erupting overhead instead of the usual sports and classic rock formula. As soon as he stopped to look upward, a ball-capped tourist wielding a plastic football of beer stumbled into him.

“Watch out,” the man slurred, stumbling a bit.

“Whatever, buddy.”

Beyond the drunken tourist’s shoulder, Greg spotted a plump hooker near the pawnshop on Fourth. He made his way toward her.

“The motor lodge got AC and I got the sugar.”

“Hello, ma’am? Popsicle?” Not wanting to scare her, Greg had approached her with what he would have defined as a casual jog.

“What you want, baby? Delicious frozen treat?”

“Are you Popsicle?” he said again. Winded, he leaned forward onto his knees. He should really stop smoking.

“The motor lodge got AC and I got the sugar.”

“No, I mean, I’m asking if that’s your name.”

“My name Shirley. Oh, you looking for the white girl Popsicle?”

“You know her?”

“I know where she stay.”

“How much to take me there?”

“Fifty.”

“Twenty.”

“OK,” she said.

Coughing, he fished in his jeans for a twenty-dollar bill and handed it to Shirley.

She took the limp bill, sniffed at it. “Three more of these, baby, and you get the best around the world you ever dreamed of.”

“I’ll give you another twenty if we actually find Popsicle.”

“Deal,” she said, tucking the bill into her bra.

They headed east, arriving at some apartment buildings on Maryland Parkway. Shirley led him to a unit with bed sheets covering the windows. Paint peeled off the door in long strips.

Greg rapped it sharply three times. He heard nothing.

“We can get in right here,” said Shirley, indicating a side window.

“You done this before?” said Greg.

“Hell yeah.” Shirley took a nail file from her purse and pried open the window. “Guys first.”

Greg squeezed himself headfirst into the bathroom, which was filthy. He scanned the cluttered sink, but saw nothing resembling tickets. Hopefully he would find them on the kitchen table or somewhere in Popsicle’s bedroom. If not, he’d have to turn the place upside down. Having knocked and not heard a dog, he still felt a twinge of anxiety.

“Move your ass,” said Shirley, who had pushed herself through the window.

“Look for a pair of tickets.”

Shirley scrunched her face. “Thought you was looking for drugs. What kind of tickets?”

“Brett Velvet: Master Magician.”

She studied Greg for another second. “What you want with him?”

“I’m taking my woman to see his show.”

“You trying to impress a lady with a gay magician?”

“Yes.” He badly wanted to light a cigarette.

He heard voices from another room and what sounded like the front door closing. He stood still, praying whoever had entered the apartment would soon leave.

“Mmm-hmm,” said Shirley, nodding her head. She began to examine herself in the bathroom mirror. “These tickets must be hard to come by. How’d Popsicle steal them?”

“She didn’t. My roommate took them to pay for her services.”

“She love magic, be the reason.”

“Fine. But they’re still my tickets. I’ll pay for them again if I have to, but not at those insane scalper’s prices.”

“Who be scalping Mr. Velvet?”

Greg made his way into what must be Popsicle’s bedroom, kicking over piles of laundry. He went through a few dresser drawers, but found only more clothes.

He heard voices from another room and what sounded like the front door closing. He stood still, praying whoever had entered the apartment would soon leave.

A woman stepped into the room and, seeing Greg frozen in place, crossed her arms and frowned. She was lean, hawk-nosed, with platinum-fried hair.

“What the hell is this?” she said.

“Just looking for my tickets,” answered Greg, raising his hands.

A slender dude with a ragged beard remained at the doorframe. “This right here is some bullshit,” he said.

Shirley took this moment to exit the bathroom and explain things succinctly, “He looking for the Master Magician.”

“The what?” said the man.

“Honey, let me handle this,” said the woman.

“Oh, this is a whole lot of bullshit.”

“Are you Popsicle?” asked Greg.

“Some call me that.”

“I want my tickets.”

“Who are you?”

“The cop that’s going to bust your ass if you don’t show me two Velvets.” He balled his fists in an effort to look like a menacing authority figure, which, of course, he wasn’t.

Arms still crossed, Popsicle gave him a hard look. Finally, she opened her pocketbook, revealing the tickets, which she extended to Greg.

“Oh, this is a whole lot of bullshit,” the man added, brandishing a handkerchief to wipe his forehead. “He ain’t no cop.”

Greg felt it was growing hotter in there, too. Inhaling the man’s bad vibes, he took the tickets from Popsicle. “Thanks,” he said. “Do I owe you money on behalf of Larry?”

Before Popsicle could answer, the man whimpered like a dog and charged Greg. Formidable Shirley, however, managed to get between them, stabbing the man’s thigh with her nail file.

“Ouch!” The man crumpled to the ground clutching his leg, the file sticking out of it.

“Violence,” said Shirley, “is not the answer.” She then stooped down to slap the man’s face.

Naturally, this caused Popsicle to tear at Shirley’s hair, the two of them careening into the dresser and shattering a lamp.

During the melee, Greg took the opportunity to escape out the bathroom window. He ran a few blocks down Maryland before turning toward Fourth, checking behind him every few seconds to make sure no one followed. He laughed at his good fortune. After a while, he might even tell Donna how a night with Brett Velvet was nearly lost only to be found at the last minute through his determination and cunning.

He went back to the Gryphon and ordered another Jameson with three rocks. And then another. A different bartender was pouring drinks with divine generosity. Greg sensed a profound transformation in the works. He patted his shirt pocket to make sure the tickets were still in his possession. They were. Also a fresh pack of Marlboros. He couldn’t help but smile at the evening’s bright promise.

“To Popsicle,” said Greg, raising his glass.

Everyone ignored him.

 Jarret Keene is an Assistant Professor in Residence in the English Department at UNLV, where he teaches creative writing and literature.

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