There comes a moment as a gambler when you know you’ve fucked up. I was having one of those moments. Actually, it was the latest of several that night. I’d fucked up bad. Again.
And it had looked like a smart move because I was winning. Winning big. Until I wasn’t.
And it had looked like a smart move because I was winning. Winning big. Until I wasn’t.
By the time 3:48 a.m. rolled around, I was still there, hanging tough, barely. How many hours? No idea. My brain was a bit foggy, an effect of the night’s relentless death march. I repeatedly tapped my fingers against my thigh in a vain attempt to count the hours that had passed by like vague mile markers on a desolate road to nowhere. My mental functions had deteriorated beyond the point of caffeine resuscitation. I’d been swilling Diet Coke by the gallon, but by then it was only jangling my nerves and coating my tongue with a chemical aftertaste and making me want to piss.
The place was packed when I rolled in after work. Now, only the dysfunctional flotsam and jetsam remained: the hardcore degenerate gamblers, a gaggle of strippers with G-string money to play with and a bouncer in tow, and the few desperate suckers chasing lost money they probably couldn’t afford to blow. These guys waited grimly like a punch-drunk fighter for the last crushing blow to put them on the canvas, convinced that either the casino or the universe was cheating them.
This mental numbness was when mistakes happened, and money was lost in stupid amounts. The voice of wisdom, small and annoying, demanded that I cash out and come back fresh another day, but it had no authority in these matters.
The voice of wisdom, small and annoying, demanded that I cash out and come back fresh another day
My eyes burned from the omnipresent cigarette smoke, and my lungs felt like someone had stuffed them with nicotine-stained tissue paper. The striking looking Asian woman sitting next to me — I figured her to be Thai or Vietnamese — had perfectly manicured nails and inscrutable eyes that glittered with the warmth of a snake’s; she was chain-smoking like emphysema was a personal goal, and she was way behind schedule. I would have gone to another table, but that would have been like climbing a different dune in the Sahara to get away from the sand. Plus, the dealer was giving me great hands, and that was something I’d risk lung cancer for, even if I had been unable to capitalize on them so far.
I should have stuck with my original plan. Go in, make some money, get out quickly. I had been about to call it a night a lot earlier when a cute dealer rotated in. She was Native American with an early Rachel Green haircut and endearingly crooked teeth. I was such a sucker. I stayed to talk to her and didn’t move tables when the cards went bad or scale my bets back because I was pretending to be the Big Man. By the time she rotated out, I was well on my way to losing my ass.
And that’s where I made my next critical mistake — trying to win it back when I was still up. Hence why, in the wee hours before dawn, I found myself stuck in my own personal Vietnam, fully committed, grimly holding on, and in way too deep to leave easily. The eight hundred dollars was long gone, and after several withdrawals from the ATM and a trip to the cashier’s cage for an extortionary credit card cash advance, a whole bunch more had followed it. My once mighty force of black hundred-dollar chips had been hammered, and the tiny stack of green and red survivors huddled in front of me was a testament to the savagery of the beatdown. But at that desperate point, retreat would have been a devastating blow to my wallet’s morale and my emotional well-being. So, I kept sending more reinforcements into the bloodbath, betting small, counting on the fact that things would turn around — victory was just a matter of sticking it out, betting conservatively, surviving until things turned around again. That would be the smart plan. But I was worn down and running out of time — the ugly reality of sunrise and a new work day was looming a couple short hours away. I was tempted to try to make my money back in a couple of big hands. I counted out two hundred dollars, thinking hard about it, but I’d mocked chumps for doing the very same thing too many times. Unless I got lucky, and I hadn’t been lucky in a long while, it was an even quicker road to despair. I talked myself back from the ledge, reassured myself that if I hung in there, I could earn it back. Surely the law of averages had to be observed at some point, right? So, patiently, I played conservatively and whispered the desperate gambler’s mantra: ‘My luck has to change. My luck has to change.’
I started to promise on my mother’s soul that if I got on a winning streak, I’d leave and never come back
I was still hemorrhaging chips, but I’d been on some good runs that night, and I just needed one more awesome run and then I could leave. And this time I meant it. I started to promise on my mother’s soul that if I got on a winning streak, I’d leave and never come back, but I didn’t want to dishonor her memory in a lie.
The Asian woman, whom I had dubbed The Dragon Lady because she reminded me of Madame Nhu and for her barely tamped down temper, was getting hit hard too but kept coolly peeling off Ben Franklins from a fat pimp roll in her purse, putting my junior bets to shame. Sitting next to her was a friendly good ol’ boy I’d tagged as Country Joe who was playing minimum bets no matter how hot of a streak he was on. The last player was a plump, brooding Goth chick playing the anchor spot at third base. Her pencil-thin emo boyfriend hovered over her left shoulder, watching pensively, and occasionally giving ill-informed advice. A former punk in my youth, I tried to connect with them, but my office attire screamed sellout, and they blew me off.
The Goth chick was inexperienced and committed the eyebrow-raising sin of splitting a twenty and ended up with two shitty hands — a fifteen and sixteen — and lost money on both. Unless you’re me, a twenty is almost a guaranteed winner, so the book says you never split it. Even worse, immediately after that hand, the table went on a bad run. Superstitious, The Dragon Lady turned her basilisk glare on the girl, and I caught her blaming her under her breath for altering the rhythm of the cards.
My current hand lost and cost me twenty-five dollars. I hesitated and debated dropping my bet to the table minimum, but five-dollar bets were not going to get me healthy quickly, so I pushed out fifty dollars and a two-dollar tip bet for the dealer. Zaina dealt me another twenty.
I should have gotten up and walked away, left that damned casino, at least left that table of doom.
Normally, I’d be feeling confident with a twenty, but Zaina had been working me over every time I got a twenty. She flipped her card, her lips forming a remorseful pout as she laid down a king of clubs on top of her face-down card.
“Please,” I pleaded. “Not another twenty — unless you want to see a grown man cry.”
She laughed wryly.
“Honey,” her voice was a low throaty purr, her accent rich like Turkish coffee. “I would never do that to you. Don’t worry. I won’t have it again,” she assured me. “There is a six under there. I got a sixteen.”
Man, I desperately wanted to believe her.
“All right,” I wagged my finger at her. “No false advertising. Favored dealer status is on the line here. Come on! No face card under there!”
Zaina smiled sympathetically because she was now a true believer — I could not win on a twenty. I had begun to think the only thing that would save me would require a full moon and a sacrificial goat. I stared at the king of clubs and the mystery card under it, willing them to total seventeen, eighteen, or nineteen — any of those would end the drama. Zaina flipped over her down card to reveal — a ten of hearts. Another motherfucking twenty! Unreal! She shook her head, grimaced, and collected the losing bets and lightly planted her closed fist over my chips to indicate a tie for the security cameras.
“I guess I should have been more specific and said no tens as well.”
Zaina was apologetic.
“Unbelievable! Every time. I’m sorry, honey.”
“Not your fault,” I said sincerely. No reason to hate on her; she was just flipping the cards.
“A push is as good a win, man,” Country Joe said pragmatically.
I’d heard this a million times. Hell, I had said it a million times myself. Normally, I would have agreed that any time they’re not taking your money is a win. But I had a goddamned twenty. I felt like the Universe was out to rob me.
An ace would keep her alive. A five would tie me. A six would be a FEMA-level disaster.
“Leave!” The voice of wisdom screamed impotently.
I could feel it. I was about to do something desperate. I just wanted to end this one way or another. There was never any question of walking out this far down while I still had chips in front of me. I felt sick, but I was either going to get healthy quickly or leave without two dollars cohabiting in my pocket. I was now the punch-drunk fighter trying to prevent a one-way trip to the canvas. My stomach churned out a month’s worth of acid as I slid one hundred and fifty dollars in chips into the betting circle.
Zaina dealt us new hands, and I got a six and a four. I bit my lip in nervous anticipation. Ten was a fantastic double-down hand if Zaina dealt herself a bust card. My heart thumped rapidly like a flamenco dancer’s heels. Double the risk, double the reward. It would take most of my remaining money, and I’d only get one more card even if it left me with a shitty hand. I kind of hoped Zaina would give herself a face card because I wouldn’t double down on the assumption she had a strong hand. That was defeatist thinking, but the well was almost dry. However, if I won, I would be kind of healthy again. The moment of truth arrived, and Zaina dealt herself the up card and — it was a five! Even The Dragon Lady was all smiles, and a thrill went through me — finally a fucking bust card. Nearly one in three cards in a shoe has a value of ten, so we were all assuming the dealer’s hole card was one giving her a fifteen. She would have to keep hitting until her total was at least a hard seventeen. If she did, in fact, have a fifteen, there was around a sixty-one percent chance she would bust on the first card she drew. This was what we were counting on.
The dealer pointed at my hand, and I riffled my chips anxiously. I didn’t have to double, or I could be cautious and double for less, but this was the type of money-making hand a blackjack gambler lives for. If I wasn’t going to gamble when the opportunity presented itself, then why was I still there? I slid four green chips out behind my original bet — another hundred bucks. As most dealers do, Zaina busted my balls.
Her years as a social malcontent caused her hackles to rise
I smiled ruefully as I threw two more green chips down and accused her of wanting to take all my money from me at once — I now had three hundred dollars riding on the hand. I also doubled the bet I’d made for her.
“Honey, I want you to win. You know that. I make nothing if you lose. We win together!”
“Alright, Zaina — I win, you win. Let’s do this! Ace it or face it!” I smacked my palm on the padded table edge praying for an ace or at least a brightly colored royal or a ten.
Zaina wished me good luck. She flipped over a jack of diamonds, giving me a twenty and my smile was as huge as my guarded sense of relief.
“See, would I let you down? And you were worried,” Zaina scoffed, flashing a smile that promised success.
Country Joe congratulated me, and The Dragon Lady nodded approvingly and almost smiled.
I was sitting good — no, make that fucking excellent — but Zaina’s knack for thwarting my twenties had that stomach acid burning a hole in my gut. Pushing would be extremely demoralizing this close to winning a big hand. I didn’t even want to contemplate the other negative outcome.
I should have felt confident because if Zaina did have a fifteen, nearly any card she drew, I would win. An ace would keep her alive with a sixteen and she’d have to take another card. A five would tie me. A six would be a FEMA-level disaster.
The Dragon Lady was as angry as a swarm of Africanized bees.
Zaina worked her way across the rest of the table. Everyone was sitting tight. The others had bad hands, but we were all salivating like Pavlov’s hungry dogs. The Dragon Lady and Country Joe waved off the offer to hit. They were going to play it by the book and let Zaina bust.
As a formality, Zaina pointed at the Goth chick’s thirteen, but alarmingly, she didn’t immediately wave the dealer off — instead, she sat there staring at her hand, her black-painted lips pursed, calculating God knows what. As my alarm grew, the Goth chick signaled tentatively for another card. Zaina’s index finger rested on the edge of the next card set to come out of the shoe. She hesitated, carefully shaped eyebrows arched questioningly and stared purposefully at the Goth chick, who wasn’t paying attention. A good dealer will always indicate, sometimes in a subtle way, when they think you are making a questionable play. The Dragon Lady was far more direct.
“What you doing?” she asked sharply in her high-pitched, imperfect English. “She got bust hand!”
Country Joe echoed her sentiment.
“I’ve got a fourteen,” replied the Goth chick condescendingly as if they were both fugitives from a remedial math class.
“Yeah, you no take card!” the Dragon Lady shrilled at her. “She bust! She bust! She got face card under there!”
I normally won’t tell someone how to play their hand, but I had three hundred on the line and was thinking she didn’t know the finer points of the game. I calmly pointed out the dealer would likely bust, but she ignored me. Her years as a social malcontent caused her hackles to rise in what I could only guess was a conditioned response to our small society trying to force her to comply with its will. She told us to play our own hands, and she’d play hers.
“Hit me.” She said tautly and jerked her finger demandingly across the felt toward herself.
Zaina slowly slid out the next card. She peeled up the edge carefully and looked at it.
“Fuck me,” I muttered forcefully. The Dragon Lady slapped the padded edge of the table sharply with her hand, giving her nemesis a death stare.
As Zaina collected the Goth chick’s losing cards and chips, the queen of hearts mocked us. Then she flipped her hidden card over. Ten of diamonds. She had a fifteen. Country Joe and I groaned.
“See! See! You take bust card!” The Dragon Lady was as angry as a swarm of Africanized bees.
My guts were twisting. The hand should have been over. My nails dug into my palms. I almost couldn’t look. The flamenco dancer’s pounding heels reached a frenzied crescendo in my chest, and I was close to hyperventilating. The dealer slid out her next card gingerly, and I prayed as she flipped it and then we groaned. It was an ace of diamonds — now she had a sixteen. Why did it have to be that? Any card but that or a six. At least we were still alive — but so was she. Being short of seventeen, she had to draw one last card.
“Come on, anything but a five. Anything but a five,” I chanted, standing up from my tall stool, and Country Joe chimed in with “Bust! Bust! Come on, you son-of-a-bitch, bust!”
Zaina slowly slid out the next card. She peeled up the edge carefully and looked at it. Then she looked up at the ceiling and pursed her lips and snapped the card down, appalled.
The five of spades.
“Twenty-one,” she said in disgust as we cried out in collective disbelief and dismay.
All the survivors lost.
Suddenly, I felt like someone with a very large foot had kicked me square in the balls. The Dragon Lady was so mad that what little English she was using was practically unintelligible as she unleashed what I can only assume to be a stream of invective at the Goth chick.
“It was only a five-dollar bet!” snapped the girl, absolving herself.
“You ain’t even thinking about no one else, you dumbass Gothapotamus!” snarled Country Joe unkindly. “This guy had three hundred dollars out there. You killed the whole goddamned table!”
“You stupid! Very stupid girl. No gamble!” railed The Dragon Lady.
The pit bosses looked like they were about to step in or call security, but the Goth chick had had enough and told us to go fuck ourselves, scooped up her tiny stack of red chips, and flounced off with her boyfriend in tow.
Regretfully, Zaina collected my bet and returned it to the chip rack. She thanked me politely for betting for her.
And just like that, with a six-hundred-dollar swing, I was all but done. Desolate. Gutted. Stunned. I had been so close. I looked at my depleted stack of chips. Twenty-eight dollars left.
Fuck. I wanted to bawl.
Ten minutes and two bad hands later, I was in my car, defeated and empty-handed. I was so pissed at my stupidity and my bad luck that I pulled out of the casino parking lot with my tires screeching my ire to the night and jumped on the freeway.
Shoes in hand, I crept down the darkened hallway like I was on jungle patrol deep inside enemy territory.
God, why was I was so fucking stupid? I balled my fist and delivered a painful hammer fist to my forehead.
As the graying dawn began to daub the sky behind the eastern mountains with faint pastels of pink and blue, I pulled up to my dad’s house. The poorly installed automatic garage door would wake the dead, so I parked along the curb instead and carefully let myself in the front door, inching it closed. Quietly, I slipped out of my dress shoes because on tile floors they were absolutely useless for any type of stealth — I might as well have been Michael Flatly clogging his way through River Dance. Mom would have liked the acoustic qualities of these tiles; they definitely would have aided her late-night ambushes when we were teenagers out past curfew.
Shoes in hand, I crept down the darkened hallway like I was on jungle patrol deep inside enemy territory. I couldn’t see a damned thing and banged my hand painfully into a wall I thought was another two feet away. Swearing under my breath, I waved my hands and moved uncertainly like I was blind drunk, searching for the hall entrance. God, I hated having to live at my dad’s because it was ridiculous a grown man had to creep around like a cat burglar; I felt the deep shame of a schoolboy who had done something wrong and might be caught.
But it was my own stupid behavior that was trapping me there. With nights like that, I could never afford to move out.
Finally, I was outside my bedroom, biting my bottom lip as I slowly opened the door, the hinges trying to betray me. Goddamnit, I needed to remember to WD40 them. I slipped in, and carefully shut the complaining door. Quickly, I undressed, set my alarm, and slid under the covers of my bed.
I woke to the feel of bile in my throat and the nervous percolating of acid in my stomach.
I closed my eyes and prayed for sleep, but my neurons were firing, fireflies above a dark meadow. What upcoming expenses did I have? How much was left in my checking? Did I pull anything out of savings? I wasn’t sure. Whatever was there I’d have to transfer over to checking. When was payday? Next Thursday, maybe? Did I have anything I could sell on eBay? I’d just sold a bunch of my nerd collection. Oh, Christ. Why had I done this? It always came down to that basic question.
“Say it, douchebag. Admit the truth,” said the tiny voice of wisdom, but I couldn’t.
I didn’t want to face the nightmare, but financial panic began to build like a deep-sea tsunami — not yet visible to the naked eye but racing landward. It was only a matter of time before it swept in and inundated me.
Why did that stupid bitch take the hit?
As I took a bleak mental inventory of my immediate financial obligations, I began to think I might be okay; however, overlooked bills kept popping up like goddamned prodigal sons, and I’d already barbequed the fatted calf a long time ago. At least I’d paid my car payment that month. Or had I? Oh fuck…
I’d have to perform a financial postmortem on all my bank and credit card accounts posthaste. How many times did I go to the ATM? How many high-interest rate cash withdrawals did I make on my credit cards? I had no idea; the only thing I was certain of was I had ravaged them more thoroughly than Kublai Khan and the Mongol Horde had fucked up China. My mind groaned. I was going to have to face the horror and get a full accounting, but that would have to wait till later. Oh God, I prayed, let me fall into oblivion.
Finally, as the day strengthened, with the queen of hearts tittering mockingly in my head, I slipped into the shallowest of slumbers.
I woke to the feel of bile in my throat and the nervous percolating of acid in my stomach. I looked at the clock — I had slept maybe forty minutes, a mere dip into the choppy waters of semi-consciousness, plagued by phantasms of my financial shipwreck. Eleven hours of adrenalized card playing — not a record, but definitely not advisable on a work night. Exhausted, I couldn’t fall back to sleep. I needed something to help me come down, to bathe my tattered nerves with soothing potions, but it was too close to the workday for a beer — and I already felt nauseous.
I hated myself. The lies came too easily, custom tailored to hide my shame.
So, I lay there in my bed for a while, miserable, before getting up to pace in the dimness. I couldn’t escape the night’s events. The stale smell of cigarette smoke was in my hair and on my skin, a miasma of failure. Every breath through my nicotine-tainted nostrils was a humiliating reminder. The smoke had swaddled me and left a poisonous veneer, and I scratched at it on my arms, face, and chest with my fingernails, as if I could scrape the whole experience away. Nail marks became my own scarlet letter on my pale white skin. I wanted to shower, to wash off the noxious film along with the shame, but I didn’t know what time my dad had last checked on me before falling asleep and I didn’t want to face the music yet.
Eventually, I heard my dad beginning his day and heading out for his newspapers. Once I was sure that he was out of the house, I slipped into the bathroom to shower. Hot water cascaded over me, but I still didn’t feel clean. I got dressed for work. The old man returned before I could affect my escape.
My dad had shrunk a bit in his old age and perched on his stool at the table like a scrawny bird on a fence. He had both the Republic and the Tribune newspapers spread out, and was doing a crossword puzzle. He looked up, peering at me through his black, Air Force-issued birth-control glasses. I put on a false front, but I felt transparent.
“You were out late, son.”
I told him I’d gone over to my buddy Greg’s and then had a bit too much to drink and crashed on his couch.
“You didn’t answer your phone.”
“Damn thing ran out of juice.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed he was watching me, his eyes measuring me as I stayed on the move, peering in the pantry, closing it, and moving to the fridge. I didn’t know if he believed me, but we both at least pretended he did.
I launched a diversionary strike to deflect attention and redirect his fatherly concerns.
“Have you heard from Kevin?”
My dad sighed, and I immediately regretted laying the false trail as he seemed to sag in on himself.
“Nothing. He won’t call till he’s done with the drugs and out of money.”
He took his glasses off, rubbed his rheumy eyes, and put them back on.
“Well, I’m not checking up on you. You’re old enough to do what you want. I just worried when I hadn’t heard from you.”
Suddenly, I felt like an asshole, bringing up my brother to cover my own tracks.
Dad sighed as he went back to his crossword puzzle. He asked for help on one clue.
I pulled out a stool and sat down at the table. I hated myself. The lies came too easily, custom tailored to hide my shame. There was so much I wanted to say. Should say. I wanted to confide in him, but I couldn’t even admit things to myself, and I didn’t want to disappoint him because I was the eldest. I was a coward and the moment passed, and then the door clanged shut on Opportunity. An uncomfortable silence fell over us, stretching out until it became unbearable, and I felt compelled to break it.
“I didn’t plan on going out,” I said awkwardly. That much at least was true. “Drank a bit too much. Fell asleep on Harrison’s couch, and when I woke up, it was late, and I didn’t want to wake you. Figured I’d crash there.”
“You’re a good boy.”
I was thirty-five, and he still referred to me as a boy. Probably accurate anyway. I definitely hadn’t been acting like a man. Not a responsible one anyway.
“I’ve never worried about you like I have Kevin. I was just concerned there could have been an accident.”
Talk about feeling like a fraud.
And so we sat there, and he went back to his crossword puzzle. I got up to finish getting ready for work and start my long hell day. There was a twinge of guilt, but it was easier to lie and stay silent than deal with the Tangled Ball of Darkness that was my life.
Where would I even begin?
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