Another chapter from my work in progress. Feel free to share your thoughts below.
Catch and Release
It’s been a profitable week of gambling, and after some thought, I decided I needed to mix things up and go to different casinos, just in case the security guys had a bulletin board with the photos of banned players on it and my constant presence causes someone to put two and two together. I don’t want to become a familiar winning face and draw attention. Plus, I somewhat optimistically assume I’ll be consistently plundering their bottom line and want to spread the pain around — I don’t want to screw up what I’ve got going.
So, late Saturday morning, I go to Wild Horse Pass near Chandler. Before I leave, I grab my wad of winnings — I’m not going to risk the whole thing, but I want it available so I can bet big from the start if I get on a streak. I also remove my debit card and credit cards from my wallet and put them in a drawer, except for one, just in case I have some sort of car emergency.
It has been years since I’ve been to Wild Horse, and I don’t recognize it. It used to be a one-story building, but somewhere along the way, they built a real casino and resort hotel. Gone are the days of banks of grubby electronic blackjack machines. Everything looks newish with rows of blackjack tables with clean, bright felt.
The table I park myself at has a couple of other gamblers. One is a weathered older man, an eccentric and garrulous character with gray whiskers who thinks he has the gift of gab and a willingness to share it. The other man is in his mid-thirties, a mean-eyed fellow with a surly disposition who sports a bad mustache that does nothing to enhance my perception of him.
A young guy in his mid-twenties, wiry and with short blond hair asks us politely if he can join us. He speaks softly with an accent, and his skin has the bronzed look of someone who spends a lot of time outdoors.
Gesturing to the open seat, I tell him it is fine with me while the guy with the mustache ignores him and sips his beer. The older man peers at the newcomer and responds loudly:
“I don’t trust a man if he has an armband or an eye patch. But as you have neither, you’re welcome to join.”
The newcomer chuckles in delight. He smiles easily and is soft-spoken and from his accent, I thought he might be French, but he surprises me when he explains he is from Serbia – I must be fucking tired if I was that far off. Our family friend, Mr. Vujicic is from the former Yugoslavia, so it’s not like the accent is unfamiliar. This guy is pleasant and speaks English well enough, and he tells me he is a construction worker, but I begin to wonder about him. To my chagrin, it is obvious during the first couple of hands that he is a novice, and his questions, which he has many, have a childlike quality to them. I give him some advice; however, after two hours, he still hasn’t picked up the game at all; in fact, I don’t think he even understands the object of the game or the basic concepts, like the values of the royals or the variability of the aces. I even begin to wonder if he can count because frequently, I have to tell him what his cards total. Not that knowing the value seems to matter.
“Oh, this is bad, right?” he gasps in dismay when his hand totals eight after two cards, and the dealer isn’t even done dealing.
“No, you’re fine. That’s a great hand to build on,” I reassure him.
Every hand, he seems confused in some manner, asking me if he’s lost before the dealer shows his hand or asking if he should hit when he has a twenty. The concept of splitting or doubling down is beyond him, and he wants to stay on his elevens, and I have to cajole him into taking a hit though he won’t double, except for one time, and he loses. The old talkative fellow down the table wants to use his own money on the Serb’s double downs, but the dealer won’t permit it.
“I hate those Qs,” the younger guy says when the dealer gives himself a queen. Fair enough, a face card showing for the dealer isn’t great, but my Serb friend doesn’t like the Qs when he gets them either. Like a small, friendly child, he finds the game exciting, but the cards mean nothing to him.
Fuck, I am George in Of Mice and Men, and my Serbian friend is Lenny. The poor guy is dead money; at this point, I’m convinced he has to have some form of mental deficiency or learning disability. Friendly, he just doesn’t seem all there, and I feel terrible for him. It would have been kinder to take his money at the front door and send him on his way.
He goes to the ATM several times after the dealer cleans him out, each time returning with forty dollars. I try to discourage him, explaining he should withdraw the amount he is willing to lose so he doesn’t keep racking up ATM fees, but he smiles. When he heads off for the ATM again, the narrow-eyed man asks me how I like babysitting Forest Gump. I give a fake chuckle and a non-committal ‘Yeah, I know’ trying to avoid further interaction. The man has been drinking beer steadily, which may have contributed to the beating he has started taking. After several more bad hands, he gets salty with the dealer who isn’t in the mood to take his shit and warns him about his language. After another disastrous hand, the narrow-eyed man’s frustrations boil over, and he begins blaming the dealer, and they exchange words until the pit boss intervenes. The casino staff is mobilizing to kick the guy out when he voluntarily departs with a few more choice words.
The young Serb returns to the table as the man moves off.
“I liked that guy. And he was doing really well!” he says in disappointment.
“He was. But he started losing badly at the end. Sometimes if it’s not going well, you just have to leave.”
Unfortunately, my Serbian friend isn’t taking the hint and doesn’t leave. His poor play and constant losing are bumming me out, and I’m having a hard time focusing on my card playing because I’m too worried about Simple Simon getting taken to the cleaners. Not that it affects my play, but it’s another level of stress I don’t need. In my mind, I’m at work. But I’m not getting through to the guy, and he quickly loses another forty dollars when the dealer beats the table several hands in a row.
“We started out good, huh?” he says mournfully. “But then we lost.”
“Sometimes luck isn’t with you,” I sigh. “Usually, it isn’t. It’s easy to lose all your money here. Sometimes it’s best to just leave and call it a day.”
Eventually, the young guy looks like he’s had enough and wanders off, to my relief. I get down to business, able to focus again, but the cards stay bad, and I’m losing more hands than I’m winning. I’m out of my rhythm, and things go poorly as I fall victim to bad hands, worse luck, and terrible decisions. Fuck, I should leave.
But I don’t. Fifteen minutes later, I hear a familiar voice over my left shoulder.
“You look worried.”
I turn and see my Serbian friend. Damn it; I thought he was gone.
“No, the cards have gone against me a little bit. But I’m all right,” I lie.
“Well, I have to go. Good luck.”
Finally, he wanders off. For his sake, I hope I never see him in a casino again. It’s tough to watch someone who is not only out of his league but doesn’t even know what sport he’s playing.
The next hour is up and down, though mostly down. I have a rally, and I string together some winners, and I’m feeling I’m about to make a charge and then, hot damn, luck goes my way, and I get a prime opportunity: a forty-dollar bet turns into a split and then another split with two of them double-down hands, and all four hands look like probable winners. Opportunities like this have been missing ever since I got here. If I hit this, I’m back in it, baby! I’m nervous making each bet, but I’m here to gamble; pulse-pounding I wait, but the dealer pulls a winning hand and beats all four of mine, and instead of making two-hundred-and-forty dollars, I lose two-forty. The air leaks out of my soul sending me crashing down into despair.
I’m not going to lie — it’s a huge kick in the balls, and I want to rage and scream. I’m frustrated, and from there, my fortunes collapse as I blow through the rest of my money, waiting for the cards to turn in my favor and making some questionable long-shot bets.
Finally, I’m tapped out. I’ve lost everything I’ve made that week and more. I’m beside myself. Fuck! I can’t go out like this, humiliated like some broke ass chump! I ask the dealer to hold my spot while I pretend to go to the bathroom. In reality, I need more cash.
I do stop by the Men’s room, and while relieving myself I have a heart to heart. My weak self is saying to forget it — the dream is dead; it was just a stupid dream. My demon, which has been giving expert advice all week, tells me to calm down, that we can do this.
‘You have a credit card with you; use it,’ advises my demon.
‘And go to jail,’ replies the whisper-quiet voice of reason.
No, I don’t want to use the ATM. So there’s only one choice. Actually, there’s two, the first being to go home—which I’m too amped up for, so instead, I go to the cashiers’ cage and tell one of the women I’d like to make a cash withdrawal with my card. She assumes I’ve run it through the ATM without a pin, which you can do at a higher cost, and I play dumb. I don’t have a receipt, so she says she’ll run it for me, but she seems mildly annoyed. I don’t know why I think this won’t trigger any alerts, but I can barely contain myself. I have to get back to the table!
“How much do you want?”
“Um, I don’t know. I guess two thousand?”
She looks at her screen.
“Sir. You realize the credit card company will charge you $110 for that amount? Do you still want to do it?”
Yes, bitch, I know. Just give me my money! This is the first time ever a cage worker has even so much as batted an eye.
“Really? Wow!” I pretend to be surprised and concerned — for about two seconds and then confirm that I want her to run it.
Fees and high-interest rate cash advances mean nothing to me at that moment — I have to get back to the table. Plus, I’ll win it back because I’m due. I’m standing at the counter waiting while the woman does her thing. Goddamn, calm down. My fingers drum on the countertop. God, this is taking longer than normal! I pull out my phone, looking through emails, trying to be nonchalant. As Nanny Layton would have said, she’s slower than molasses.
As I stand at the counter, the cashier moves away, and I sense an invading presence at my shoulder, one that demands my attention.
“Excuse me. Are you Sean Layton?”
I glance at a thirty-something Native American woman in a black suit with a name tag and an air of authority. She’s flanked by two security guards, a towering, rangy black guy and another a guy who looks part Indian and could have been the person they were thinking of when they originally coined the phrase ‘built like a brick shit house.’ His massive biceps have the short sleeves of his black shirt stretched to the limit and screaming for help. They’re all looking at me, shrinking my personal space. The sinking feeling I have could be described more accurately as a fiery plummet from high orbit.
I answer in the affirmative.
“Hi, Mr. Layton. I’m Deborah with casino security. Can you follow me, please? We need to talk to you for a second.”
Her business-like tone is ice water purging the fiery madness from my veins.
People look at me, wondering what the fuck I’ve done, and dread roots me to the ground momentarily. I really want to decline the invitation, but though she’s formed it as an interrogative, it’s a command politely wrapped up as a question.
Alarmed and scared, I nod and follow her as the two guards drop in behind me. Fuck, what was I thinking? I’ve tipped my hand. The security employee leads me and her tiny posse behind the scenes, down the hall, and past a break room where two employees watch in mild curiosity as she leads me to the security office. The further back we go, the more I feel my options disappearing; I don’t know how the hell I’m going to get out of this one. Finally, we’re there, and the woman sits behind her desk and has me take a seat as the guards stand nearby, attentive but bored.
Deborah is polite and straightforward; she has the patient air of someone who listens to lies daily. She already has my ID and credit card and then looks at her computer screen.
“So, Mr. Layton, we brought you back here because your name triggered an alert and came up as someone banned from this casino.”
“Oh? It did?”
“Did you, at some point have yourself excluded?”
I could play dumb, but why? Well, because I want to get out of this, but I’m not that skillful of a liar, and barring a miracle, I’m pretty much fucked. How badly, I don’t know.
“Um, yeah, I did a couple years back. But I thought…I’m pretty sure that was up?”
“Do you remember how long you chose to be excluded for?”
Yes, until 2014. But I’m not telling her that.
“I’m pretty sure it was for a year.”
She looks at her screen. She probably knows I’m lying (or thinks I’m a dipshit), but if she does, she keeps playing the game.
“No, I’m showing that you opted for a five-year self-exclusion up through July 3, 2014.”
“Really? Wow, I don’t remember doing it for that long. I don’t think I would have.”
When facing pressure and knowing you’ve fucked up, it’s human nature to lie, even in the face of overwhelming evidence; I guess, to try and save face or to see if the other person is bluffing. She doesn’t press me on the issue. I imagine she deals with bullshitters all week.
“Okay, by being on the property, not just gambling, you violated that exclusion agreement. That means you’re trespassing.”
It’s not said meanly, just matter of factly.
Drier than the Mojave Desert, my mouth catches at my nervous voice, holding the words back, making it hard for me to get them out.
“I apologize. I didn’t realize it.” I take a quick, nervous breath. I can sense the guards standing behind me. As far as I know, the tribal police are on their way, and I’m about to be arrested. Everyone says don’t get arrested on the rez. They never say why though. Oh Jesus. What’s going to happen to me?
“What happens now?”
She stares at me as if sizing me up. I’m having trouble swallowing.
“So, this is what is going to happen, Mr. Layton. I’m going to photograph you and notify the other casinos. Then you’ll be escorted off the premises. If you return to this property while your self-exclusion is still in effect, you’ll be arrested for trespassing. Consider this your one-time-only Get Out of Jail Free card.”
So wait — I’m not being arrested? My bones melt, and I want to sag in the chair in relief. While my situation is still humiliating and my cheeks burn, I just dodged a bullet.
I spend another ten-minutes getting processed, and then Deborah turns me over to the security guards. They escort me through the casino and out to where I’m parked. The black guard looks bored and like he doesn’t give a shit — he’s surmised I’m no threat and just another fool he has to deal with. But the other guy chats with me and why not? This was an easy one for them. I wasn’t an angry drunk or batshit crazy, and I’m not on the edge of a nuclear meltdown. I don’t know why I feel compelled to make small talk with the guy; I make some rueful comments and ask him about his job.
At my car, he photographs it and my license plate, and they wait until I begin driving away before they turn to go back in. I’m humiliated and disappointed in myself. Depressed. I’m so weak. At least I was unable to take out that cash advance at an extortionary rate.
When I get home, I lay around depressed then play video games. I can’t even analyze what went wrong. I can’t even stomach filling in my loss in my spreadsheet. At the end of the week, I delete it.
Coincidentally, the next time I see Kev, he asks me:
“So Gamblor, when’s the last time you’ve been back to the casinos?”
I grimace and respond, “Har har. Very funny.” Then I lie and tell him I haven’t. I want to tell him the truth, to scream it out, but there’s something inside that won’t let me.
My depression lasts for quite some time. So much for my addiction being past Geller’s midpoint. I don’t know if I am back to square one, per se, but my drama seems nowhere close to a resolution. Despite my former confidence that this story is in its denouement, it looks like my arc is still climbing toward impending conflict.
The fear of running afoul of the law has scared me straight — for a while anyway. Again, I vigilantly avoid the casinos as radioactive dead zones as I drive by on the freeway and try not to think wistfully about my glory days and my greatest defeats.
Of course, eventually, the itch comes back. It always does.
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