Part 2 - "You're my Special Project"
I bolted from the hotel before all those artificially bubbly people from the anger management seminar could catch up to me and invite me to eat in the microbrewery with them. Like I said, I wanted to get plenty liquored up and that's all I wanted. I headed straight back to the Cal-Neva with a plan to play quarter craps and suck down free booze until I slid under the table, where I would untie all of the dealers' shoes.
I headed up the stairs to the third floor of the casino and then back down a short flight of stairs into the little den-like Top Deck casino. The craps table was hopping, with a burly bearded man throwing the dice. Half of the time, he chucked them right off the table and the dealer said "Keep 'em on the table, Sport." The casino was full of the usual undesirables, smoking cheap cigars and slugging domestic beers.
This old toothless guy in a mesh Fitzgerald's hat grabbed my arm. "You want some prime rib?" No, I told him, I was here to drink and then drink some more. "Can't drink on an empty stomach." With his grip still on my arm, the guy insisted that I eat a two for one prime rib dinner with him. I was determined to drink, but not so much that I would argue with a crazy old toothless guy. Besides, he said that with his two for one coupon it would only be $2.50 each.
We got in line at the HofBrau coffee shop, which serves prime rib and Lobster, cafeteria-style. The counter help were all escaped and paroled convicts with homemade tattoos and homemade hair nets. I figured it must be some tender prime rib because nobody else in line had a full head of teeth. As we were waiting in line I told the old-timer that I would split his coupon but I didn't want to sit with him. He sniped back, "I didn't ask you to."
I sat down alone, across the dining room from the old guy. As I chewed my meat I thought about what made him think he was too good to eat with me. What, was he saving his extra seat for the Queen of England? There he sat, picking up the prime rib with his fingers and working it between his calloused gums until a morsel tore off. He thought he was such hot stuff. I got up and marched across the room. I asked him why he wouldn't eat with me.
The old guy smiled and there on his purplish-brown gums were all these little corn skins. They were dribbling from his mouth and sticking to his whiskers. He told me he wasn't one for hanging around with people or animals. He was a loner. I asked him what made him Pope of the world and he said, "The College of Cardinals." I practically blew my top. I wanted to yell into the old guy's face, but that Cardinal business kind of threw me off-guard.
I stormed off to the bathroom, picking up the rest of my prime rib on the way out and carrying it with me. In the john, I set the beef on the counter and ran a sink of cold water by plugging the drain with paper towels. Then I punched myself in the face. It hurt, but it felt good to know that somebody was getting the snot beat out of him. This guy in a plaid jacket and derby stood there, holding a wet paper towel, and watched me. I thought he was gonna say something, so I pointed y fist at him. "You're next buddy." My legs stopped jittering and my anger subsided to a dull roar in the back of my head, like a tiny soldering iron, welding together all of the synapses that trigger emotions. I dunked my head in the sink of cold water and could feel my cheek starting swell. I held it there, underwater and waited until my brain was oxygen starved. When I came up for air, the other guy was walking out the door with my prime rib.
I was well enough, just barely, to play craps.
The craps table was still bustling. Some wiry-haired kid had the dice and was throwing them like his pants were on fire. This is not to say he was hot, but that he did this little dance that was meant to coerce the dice into a winning combination. I stood next to him, sandwiched on the other side by this retired firefighter that lived out of his motor home.
The kid was dropped quarters around like they were candy, covering numbers, points, props and then a few for the boys. I bet conservatively, 25 cents on the line and 50 cents behind. I knew it was my lucky night because a pretty cocktail waitress was there almost immediately to get my whiskey sour. Two of the kid's dances later and I was in the plus column. The wiry-haired punk altered his dance with every throw, depending on the number. A twist to the left on sixes, and a one-legged hop on eights. Normally this kind of nonsense would chafe my hide, especially since on his five and nine dances he invaded my personal. But, he was winning and I couldn't argue with a winner. Only some of those hot-heads from the seminar would argue with that. The waitress brought me my watered-down drink and I tipped her as prettily as she was, which was more than fifty cents, but less than a dollar.
Seven dollars on the plus side later, the kid set the dice down, looked at his watch and told the dealer, "I'm going to pass the throw. I gotta go to bed." What the hell? This guy was winning twos and threes of dollars and he just wanted to walk away? "Quitter!" I yelled as his Brillo head disappeared through the crowd. To top this off, my jaw was tender and bleeding a bit between my cheek and gum. All I had to console myself was my third cocktail and the dice being shoved in my direction.
I threw snake eyes on the come out roll and the fat, bearded guy at the other end of the table said, "Put some hip into it." An old man threw ten dollars on the Don't Pass. I threw again, jerking to the left, just like the kid did. Nine was the point. The firefighter patted me on the shoulder and I said, "Please don't touch me."
I threw the dice again, jerking to the right, and crapped out. "Raise your foot next time," the bearded guy said as I took my money and walked away from the table. I didn't care what he said, I was up almost seven dollars, plus a few cocktails. I could do whatever I damn well pleased.
On my way to the blackjack pit I caught the pretty cocktail waitress and asked for a Labatt's beer. It was the closest that the Cal-Neva would come to serving me an import.
In the blackjack pit, I sat across from the friendly and polite Suzanne, a friendly lass who had just moved out from Wheatridge, Colorado, which is just south of my crib. We talked about the beauty of Lakeside, the world's greatest amusement park, and the prairie dogs in the clover interchanges. I was getting along swimmingly with Suzanne, and being careful not to tell her that I was married, or that I loved my wife deeply. She was giving me handsome rewards for sitting at her table, and I was boosting my self-esteem by pretending that she liked me. Then, we pushed at 20. I noticed there were no tokens in front of me and so I said, " We pushed. You can't take my chips."
Now I got a sense of what was going on. Suzanne had lured me into a sweet sense of security with her batting eyelashes and coy smiles. Meanwhile, the cocktail waitress foisted free Labatt's on me, so Suzanne could take my two dollars at a moment of weakness - while I stared at her breasts. I was about to raise a nasty ruckus, like in this documentary where scientists got these Rhesus monkeys hooked on crack and then made them quit cold turkey. I felt just like those monkeys, pissed off beyond comprehension, and ready to start swinging and throwing bananas. Suzanne said, "I think you're right."
She flipped the discards back onto the table and sure enough, there was my seven, three and ten to her face cards. She gave me my money back and dealt the next hand. I had twelve, which I hit to nineteen.
Suzanne asked, "Are you playing two hands?" No, I said. "Then whose is this?" She pointed to the cards and money in the circle next to me. I realized that I had been wrong. I thought she took my money from a circle I wasn't even playing, and that I had probably gotten my blonde friend into trouble with the eye in the sky. I felt crummy, embarrassed and worried for Suzanne's job security, so I did what I always do in these touchy situations. I picked up my money and left.
It was practically midnight anyway, and I had to get up early to eat free muffins before the morning anger management session. By the time I got back to my room I was feeling pretty good about getting a bunch of free money and about being kind of tipsy. I felt so good, in fact, that I didn't even bother accosting any bums on the street. I just strolled down Virginia Street through the moist night air as the neon buzzed quietly about my head. I was pretty proud of how I didn't get in any fights, even though I didn't get drunk. Without Gary Preston's help I was becoming a better person.
I headed up to my room and the muffled arguments of my neighbors. I wanted to spend my winnings on some sort of adult movie. Maybe the adult movies at Circus Circus had people in clown costumes in all sorts of compromising positions. Kinky Clowns in face paint, blue wigs and red noses, I must confess, are a bit of a fetish of mine.
But there would be no movies for me. In my room, the little red light on the phone was flashing. When I called for my messages, I heard my mom's voice. "Matt, I have some dirty jokes for you. Call before ten. I love you."
I knew the day would be miserable when Gary Preston walked up to me during the free continental breakfast. At the moment, I was sticking some of the muffins in my pocket for later when he poked me on the shoulder. I told him he was in my space and that he should never ever touch me. Then Preston winked at me. I thought he was coming on to me. He pointed at my bruised jaw and asked, "Rough night?" I tried to ignore him. He smiled and put his hand on my shoulder and said, "You're going to be my special project." Without saying anymore he walked away. The last thing I needed was a patronizing ass always winking and touching me.
The day was supposed to be split into two sessions. In the morning we were going to do some "trust building" exercises, and in the afternoon we were going to practice conflict resolution. Gary said that for the morning he wanted me to sit in his group. We broke up into groups of six. Even though Gary was in my group and continuously touching my shoulder, I was going to try to be real polite and gentlemanly. I couldn't, though, because of my pants. The muffins I stole from the continental breakfast were blueberry and the berry juice was leaking through my khakis. It looked like my groin was bleeding. I kept shifting so that people wouldn't notice, but the more I shifted, the more people looked.
For lunch we went to Sterling's steakhouse, which is in the Silver Legacy. This was all paid for out of our enrollment fee, which I thought was cool. The food was swordfish and a bunch of mushed up vegetables. The swordfish was tasty and salty; way better than a filet-o-fish. There were garlic potatoes, too, and they were all right. I discovered I liked eating with people with bad tempers, because they don't talk much. Halfway through the meal, however, Gary sat next to me and said "Hi, Special Project." He kept talking throughout the lunch about how he liked me and I shouldn't be afraid to let people like me. He knew there was a world of potential under all my "bluster", as he put it. I swear, the guy was giving me the willies.
During dessert there was a woman from their psychology department of the University of Nevada. She droned on and on about how intelligent people often cannot fit into society because they see so much of it as absurd. Anger is their only outlet, she said. She was trying to tell us that the reason we were freaks was because we were so smart. But if we were so smart, why couldn't we all get together, build a big bomb, destroy the planet and then each take a country to live where nobody would bother us? She also kept saying "We" like she was messed up and really smart, too. But her expensive plaid jacket revealed that she wasn't so smart or messed up. She wanted to trick us with her $1.95 psychology. As far as I could see, the only person she was fooling was Gary. During her whole talk, he just smiled and laughed like he totally agreed. Over and over, He said, "that's so true."
I don't want to talk about the afternoon session much because it still makes me sick to my stomach. Suffice to say that Gary was very bad at conflict resolution, and by three p.m. there were sixty people in thirty heated arguments, screaming at the top of their lungs, with Gary squeezing everyone's shoulders and asking us to please settle down.
This was my last evening in town, so I thought I would do it up right. I went to the liquor store on Virginia and bought a pack of Swisher Sweet Perfectos and headed back to the Cal-Neva. I felt pretty good because I had once again shaken free from all the angry losers. I had a few dollars in my pocket and I had every intention of making a complete ass of myself.
I sat down at a two-dollar blackjack table on the third floor and lit up a Swisher. Man, I'll tell you right now that there isn't a finer cigar for less than twenty cents. It's got a sweet flavor and it makes a lot of smoke.
Those are the two most important things about a cigar. Suzanne wasn't in the casino and I didn't have the guts to ask if she had gotten canned.
I was winning pretty steadily, up a cool sawbuck, when this woman sat down and started ranting incoherently about it being her 47th anniversary. The dealer got all excited and happy for her so I said it was my 47th anniversary too, but I wasn't married to that old battleaxe. The dealer didn't get nearly as excited for me as she did for the woman.
The anniversary lady rudely barked at me not to blow my cigar smoke at her, so I didn't. Then she yipped at me to move my ashtray because she thought she was going to die. Rather than speak to me, she blathered to the dealer how she had asthma and that she couldn't stand cigars. I started blowing the smoke back at her to see if she was telling the truth about the asthma. She coughed and hacked, but in a very phony way. I asked her why the hell she came to the smokiest, dirtiest casino in town if she had asthma. And, how was a cigar worse for her asthma than all the cigarette smoke? Finally, I asked what kind of miserable provider her husband was if she had to spend her 47th anniversary in this dump. I couldn't even enjoy my cigar anymore. The old hag just looked straight ahead and repeated to the dealer how she thought she might die. I wish she had.
Finally, the pit boss came over to see what the commotion was all about. It took him about three seconds to decide in favor of the annoying crybaby lady. I told him I knew about my constitutional rights and that Amendment Seven was my right to smoke cheap cigars in lousy casinos. But the Pit Boss was adamant. And the annoying lady sat there smugly, like she was Plutarch and she had just won the Pyrrhic War. Grudgingly, I put out my cigar, but while nobody was looking I dropped the butt into the woman's purse. Happy freakin' anniversary, lady.
I asked the dealer if she would let me overturn the table. She said that no, Cal-Neva didn't allow that. I promised to tip big and she still said no. I asked if maybe I could do it at an empty table. The pit boss told me no and asked if I had been in the casino the previous night. I said that I had never been to the Cal-Neva before.
I told the Pit Boss they could make a lot of money letting people tip over empty tables for five bucks. And for ten bucks they could take your picture and have a dealer standing there acting surprised. He said it was not a good idea, even though he knew it was probably the best one he ever heard. So I kept after him. All he could say was "Because I said so," because he wished he'd thought of it. We went round and round like this and I offered to tip one over to show him how much fun it would be. Or, if he wanted, he could tip over the first one. After about an hour of this, the Pit Boss told me it would be best for everyone if I left the casino. I didn't think that would be best for me and he said I didn't get a vote. This was, once again, a violation of my constitutional rights.
No matter, though. I quickly found myself sitting on the curb out front of the Cal-Neva. All I did was suggest that tipping a table might be kind of fun, and I was pretty polite about it. I swear, I'm the unluckiest person in the world.
I was wide-awake and sort of bent out of shape. This was no condition for me to return to Circus Circus in, so I wandered around town. I walked down to the river where a pair of young lovers smooched on the sidewalk. They made me miss my wife something fierce, so I threw some pebbles and debris at them and hid behind a bus stop. Right beside the river, across from the National Auto Museum was a boarded up motel with graffiti covering the brick walls. I walked along, feeling sorry for myself and wishing my wife was there so I could complain to her about everything. I thought about the good old days, like last Fourth of July, when my friends and I got caught trying to break in to the Riverside Hotel and the security guard told us all kinds of dubious stories about the inner workings of Reno. She also let us inside the hotel and we got to see the water damage from the floods and the gorgeous old showroom that will never again be filled with drunken customers.
When my eyelids felt heavy, I went back to the Circus Circus, drew a bath and fell asleep on the bed without ever getting in the tub.
Gary Preston woke me at seven a.m. with a phone call. He asked me to meet him for breakfast at the Victoria Buffet in the Silver Legacy. I told him to suck rocks and hung up.
The continental breakfast started at 8 with the seminar beginning at 8:30. I was so desperate to avoid Gary's grabby hands that I skipped the free muffins and orange juice and rolled in at 8:30 on the nose. Gary smiled when he saw me, but I could tell that he wasn't really that glad to see me. He looked a little scared and that meant I won.
There wasn't much on the agenda for the day except that Gary was going to give us all our "diplomas" to show that we had successfully managed anger management. Diplomas: what a great idea. I'm sure they would make great conversation starters back at home. I could hang mine up and everyone that came over to my apartment would say, "Hey, Matt, I see you have problems with your temper." Then I could throw something at them.
Gary called each person up and handed him or her a diploma and said what area he thought that person improved most. Each person sat back down at their table and the rest of the people nearby would congratulate him or her and pretend to admire the cheap looking diplomas. Gary went through almost everyone and I was getting pretty sick of saying "Way to go" to the freaks at my table. But my name never got mentioned.
I practically made it through three days of garbage about anger management and I didn't get nothing. Gary started making some closing remarks about how we were the best attendees he had ever had. I raised me hand and he didn't call on me. So, after waiting a polite amount of time I stood up and pointed out that I did not get a diploma. Gary smiled and said that not everyone gets one, and that I didn't pass the course. Now everyone was looking at me and I didn't want all these crybabies and whiners to think they were better than me. I was tempted to overturn my table, but then they'd all think Gary was right.
I sat back down and could feel all the eyes in the room on me as Gary finished. As soon as he did, they all stood and applauded him. I bet all of them thought they were changed and that they wouldn't get into fights ever again. I felt so sorry for them. I left the room while they were still all glad-handing and applauding.
I knew I wouldn't get out of town without Gary putting his hands on me one more time, though, and before I reached the dart throw on the Circus Circus midway I felt his clammy paw on my shoulder. He said he was sorry to not give me a diploma, but it was what he called "Tough Love." He wanted me to know that I still needed work at controlling my anger. I nodded my head to get him to shut up. He asked if I agreed, then. I said sure and he put out his hand to shake. I refused. He said, let's part like gentlemen. I said no, I thought that was a bad idea and that I only pretended to agree with him to get him to shut up. Then I told him I hoped he went personally bankrupt and got bit by a very mean dog.
Gary told me I was a very bad person. I watched his hands tense into fists and then release as he spoke and it made me laugh. That only made his hands clench harder, so that his fingers turned white. "Punch me," he said. I asked him what he was talking about. The muscles in his jaws tightened and he said it again, "Come on, punch me." I told him I didn't want to. "You know you do," he said and he crouched into a position he must have thought mimicked a boxer. Now I was laughing too hard. I told Gary that I wanted to punch him earlier, but now he looked too helpless and pathetic. He slumped out of his crouch and his shoulders drooped.
I walked away, finally feeling pretty good. As I headed past a group of acrobats practicing their routine in the center ring, Gary punched me in the back and yelled "Special project." I turned around and he was gone, running away, arms flailing like a sissy.
The Circus Circus shuttle did not run out of gas on the way back to the airport. The pretty girl wasn't on it either. I sat by myself. The flight home was similarly uninteresting, with the seat beside me empty. I was happy to get home to my dogs and my wife. My wife loves me, but my dogs are the only ones that truly understand me.