by Matt

You can read it here or download the longer, not necessarily better, PDF version to enjoy while you're sitting on the john, or to annoy your spouse with.

Part 4 of 6 - Avoiding the Enemy
Part 1 || Part 2 || Part 3 || Part 5 || Part 6

Late Night - Thursday, January 27, 2011

We pointed our cars toward the desert, to the dark recesses of the valley beyond civilization. Mom wasn't at the Joker when we arrived. That was fine with me. I'd take down The Hoodlum alone. Except, he wasn't there either. Instead, a group of punks in droopy jeans and flat-brimmed ball caps loitered around the table. One in particular, whom we named Napoleon DynaDick, flitted about the table like an epileptic bee, butting in to strangers' conversations, making crude remarks to the cocktail waitress and becoming easily agitated. He didn't bet.

We all got in pretty quickly. All except Phil. Instead he just walked about the casino, looking at the various machines, occasionally stopping to caress one and weep. He was the last to join us, and only after we were winning. I took a slot as far away from Dynadick as I could.

Incredibly, the Excalibur almost looks nice at night.
Click pic to see bigger image

Once again, the table reinvigorated me. The dice moved slowly as each player hit a point or two. Our stacks grew. So did the camaraderie, the good cheer and the volume. My friends were glad The Hoodlum wasn't there. I was disappointed.

I stayed sober for my fight, but my friends consumed red drinks, blue drinks, cocktails with pineapples on tiny spears, and murky gray beverages that fizzed. After Phil finally joined us, he asked the waitress to bring him something that would make him understand the meaning of life. She did and he said it was pretty good but he'd need several more before he knew if he understood.

It was almost closing time when he showed up. The Hoodlum skulked to the table wearing the same skullcap and hoodie. He made a spot for himself at the other end of the table where none existed between two old-timers. He pulled a ball of crumpled bills out of his pocket and threw them onto the table.

This was exactly what I wanted. Or was it? Now that he was here, all my courage and bravado leaked from me, like air out of a Chinese tire. I felt like the guy who knew exactly what to say to the pretty girl right up until he needed to say it.

Suddenly, beating him up didn't seem like such a good idea. For one thing, I'd get blood on my good pants. For another, there was a good chance it would be my blood. Failure was nearly as good a reason to avoid fighting as my extreme aversion to broken limbs and teeth. My friends watched me, waiting for me to react to The Hoodlum, but I stayed silent, trying to be nonchalant and hiding behind the player next to me.

"Money plays?" the dealer asked The Hoodlum.

"Garrrrrrr," he grunted, baring his wretched teeth and glowering under heavy eyelids. The young dealer smoothed out the singles, fives and a ten. "Change twenty-three."

She pushed some blues and a couple reds to him. He spat on the reds. She exchanged them for more blues. The game finally proceeded. The table moved through choppy waters, a point here, two seven-outs, another point and a crap. We weren't making money and there was no momentum building.

Robert leaned over and asked, "When are you two going to fight?"

"I'm waiting for him to make the first move."

Robert put out his hands, stuck out two thumbs down and made a raspberry.

To my relief, The Hoodlum either hadn't seen me, or was pretending not to notice. His glare stayed on the felt directly in front of him. I could have caught his attention or said something to alert him, but I was more than happy to feign ignorance if he did too.

Napoleon DynaDick stopped his gadflying and bought into the game. He entered a few slots down from The Hoodlum just as the dice got there. One thing I know for a fact from all my years of graduate studies is that jackasses don't throw points. This is just basic, freshman year physics. I moved my bets from the pass to don't pass.

DynaDick bet the pass and don't pass simultaneously, and cheered wildly when his first roll was a four. Good for me. A seven is twice as likely to be rolled as another four. I backed up my dollar with a full twenty in don't odds. He bet the field, the Big Six, and "Any Seven".

The Hoodlum slowly turned to look at Napoleon DynaDick. Steam poured from his nostrils. His eyes glowed and his teeth dripped blood. No, sorry, that was just strawberry daquiri. DynaDick was too high and drunk to recognize death snarling at him from three feet away. He was too busy insulting the cocktail waitress's mother and being scolded for grabbing the dice with both hands. I chuckled that my friends put their money on the line with this loser. After some deliberation, small talk about cell phones and picking at a scab on his forehead, Napoleon rolled again. Hard four.

The table erupted in cheers, except for Dynadick, who had no clue what he had done, and me, who had lost 21 dollars. I didn't lose my faith in science, though. That roll was an anomaly, not a typical outcome. I put myself back on the Don't. Napoleon made a bunch of bets, not a single one of them a line bet. After a lecture from the dealers that he had to bet the Pass or Don't so he could roll. The Hoodlum's grumbled at the delay. His fingers tore at the rail padding.

Ten: a six and a four. Easy enough for that loser to screw up, I figured, and I put another full twenty in odds on my Don't. Napoleon barked at the dealers, at his friend at the nearby blackjack table and at a giant invisible spider he thought was crawling through his ear. He swung furiously at it while throwing the dice.

"Ten the hard way. Pay the line, take the Dont's."

In Dynadick's four rolls of the dice I experienced an $84 dollar swing between my loss and what I would have won betting the pass.

The grimn entrance to the Plaza, soon to be completely new .
Click pic to see bigger image


"Why are you betting the Dark Side?" Jerry asked me.

"Because I took physics," I said angrily. Something else I learned in college was that each roll of the dice was an independent event. What happened on the previous roll had no bearing on the next one. Streaks were illusions, not reality. They were just clumps in the infinite continuum. Or so I told myself as I bet the Don't again.

This time that son of a bitch rolled back-to-back nines and I was out another 16 bucks. The rest of the table was happy, though. Even The Hoodlum showed a glimmer of tolerance for the shooter's drug-fueled eccentricities by throwing a few pennies and a human tooth his way as a gesture of appreciation.

Science, I concluded, is bullshit. It is no match for reality. I moved my bet to the pass line, just in time for Napoleon to seven out. Eleven more dollars gone. I was now in the red for the evening while my friends were comfortably in the black. The meth head wandered away from the table, talking to himself and scratching at his leg.

I didn't feel young or energetic. The invincibility that came with winning was gone. I just stood there feeling old and broke. Meanwhile, The Hoodlum, with his dozens of dollars, exuded youth. He stood at the other end of the table with a strawberry daquiri in one hand and some Twizzlers in the other. I envied that at his age the entire world was wide open to him. He had yet to waste all the opportunities life would present to him.

The dice moved. I needed a miracle. I needed a hot shooter so I could press my bets, make them larger than my friends', catch up to their profits and feel the joy of gambling fill me. The next man at the table, one of Napoleon's friends, wasn't it. He hit an eight and sevened out. The next was an elderly man with his shirt unbuttoned to his navel, exposing a silver buzzard's nest of hair. He hit a six, then sevened out.

Then came The Hoodlum. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve, took the dice, rubbed them on the felt, turned one over, then the other, picked them up, licked them and chucked them down the table.

"Yo eleven!"

It was only a buck, but I was happy for any win. The Hoodlum set a point, sucked his daquiri through a straw, and hit the point. We cheered. He did it again and we cheered louder. Then again. When he did it a fourth time, my stack was in spitting distance of break-even. I didn't feel alive yet, and my knees ached, but I didn't feel ancient and useless.

As he won, The Hoodlum scowled less. I swear he even smiled when he hit a hard eight he'd hopped. After he hit another point, I even started to like him a little bit. I could almost see a little of myself in him. Really, were we so different? Did I need to fight with him when we could just as easily be friends? I could show him the wisdom of my years and he could, well, I don't know. Maybe change my oil.

This seemed an ideal time to bury the hatchet, to call a truce. Coexistence was better than nothing, and less likely to knock my teeth out than fighting. After all, we're just human; an engineer like me and a coldblooded contract killer like him.

"You can do it, Hoodlum," I shouted. I gave him thumbs up and a big smile. He acknowledged me for the first time, grinding his teeth and hissing. Maybe he wasn't ready to accept my olive branch. But he would be because I could be charming. And currently, nothing could hurt me.

He hit his point. My friends and I cheered. Winning is a drug. In fact, it's exactly like pharmaceutical Robitussin into which ecstasy's been dissolved. Or so I've been told. A winner is woozy, elated, thirsty and impulsive. He feels that everything he does is brilliant, that he can do no wrong and the world is pulling for him. He wants to share the experience with others.

I was winning. I shouted at The Hoodlum, "Let's go, Shooter, and I mean shooter in the literal sense!" His eyes glazed over. He probably didn't know what literal meant; vocabulary is not something they teach in the school of hard knocks. He fired an eleven.

The streak continued. The Hoodlum held the dice and hit his points, hit the hard ways, the come bets, a few hops and the field. The rails swelled with chips. Our reds were upgraded to greens. My friends and I high-fived and danced. I felt me bond with The Hoodlum strengthening.

"Throw 'em like they taught you in San Quentin!"

"Knock that point down like it was a little old lady!"

"Come on, Hoodlum, for once in your life make yourself useful."

He didn't respond. I took that as a good sign. His eyes only traveled from his chips to the dice, to the felt below my hands where they landed. We all made money.

"Last shooter!" called the boxman. It was 11:30. The Hoodlum grunted. He picked up the dice and threw them so hard they clapped like thunder against the backboard.

"Seven out!"

"Garrrrr," howled The Hoodlum. He slammed down his fist. He snatched up his chips and stormed to the cashier's cage. The rest of us stayed at the table to color up our mounds of blues and reds and calculate our profits. We chatted with the dealers, who were in good spirits thanks to the generous tipping that accompanied the hot streak.

I was energized, ready for anything. "Who wants to go rock climbing?" I asked my friends.

"So, you know him?" The boxman gestured to The Hoodlum who stood at the cashier cage forty feet away, rattling the bars and grunting at the workers. I shook my head.

The boxman eyes widened. "You don't know him?

"Never met him before last night," I said. "But I want to get married again just so he can be my best man."

"I thought you were joking around with him."

"I was."

The boxman swallowed hard and said. "He'll kill you."

Robert rubbed his hands and grinned. He said, "Finally!"

I snorted. "My best friend in the whole world's going to kill me?"

"I thought you didn't know him."

I rolled my eyes. "Don't nitpick."

The boxman shrugged. "They say he killed a man in the parking lot for stepping on his shoes."

"I'm sure that's just a story," I said. "He's really just a big teddy bear."

The boxman shook his head. "They say he carved the guy's guts out with a switchblade."

"I saw the security video," said one of the dealers. "It was gruesome."

"So, that's what he was holding," said Steve who had played at the same end of the table as The Hoodlum. "I thought it was a weird-looking cell phone."

I hard lump of cold terror formed in my throat. "Why didn't they have him arrested?"

The boxman shrugged. "He's in our slot club."

I needed to leave the casino before. The Hoodlum, but we had chips to redeem. My nemesis was at the cage, I went to the bathroom to hide. Steve, Jerry, Jeff, Robert and Mike took cover elsewhere: behind the curtain in the Troubadour Lounge, under a blackjack table, in the ladies room and in the coffee shop. I wish I'd thought of the Joker's Wild's coffee shop; nobody ever goes there. Phil, meanwhile, stood in front of a video keno machine asking it, "Do you know the answers?"

After fifteen minutes, the boxman entered the men's room. He peed, washed his hands, farted and said, "He's gone, for now."

We came out of our hiding places and cashed our chips. Phil stayed at the keno game.

"Hope to see you tomorrow night." The boxman waved as we left. "And also, he's probably waiting for you out there."

We discussed our options. I reasoned that there were seven of us and only one of him. My friends reasoned that I was a jerk. Robert suggested we get forks from the coffee shop and puncture him to death, then tie him to the bumper of the Hyundai and drag him through the desert.

"What if we sacrifice one so that six may live?" suggested Mike.

My friends all looked at me, so I shouted, "Phil!"

He looked up from his machine. I told him that the meaning of life, the answer to all his questions awaited him in the parking lot.

"What does it look like?" he asked.

"I'm not sure," I replied. "Wander around until you find it. Also, shout that you're unarmed and have a lot of money."

Phil stared at me with his sad eyes. "Should I take off my pants?"

"That couldn't hurt."

Six of us crouched by the casino's glass doors and watched as Phil made lazy circles in the wintry night, pants in hand, waving a wad of cash. He weaved between cars, asked people coming in and leaving if they knew the meaning of life, and finally gave up. He sat on the curb, shivering. But The Hoodlum didn't come for him.

"Poor guy," said Steve. "He looks miserable."

He did, so we only left him out there for thirty more minutes before deciding we were probably safe. Then we dashed for our cars. Jeff tapped Phil on the shoulder as we went by him and Phil caught up to us just as we were shutting our doors.

"He'll find you!" yelled the boxman as we pulled out of the parking lot. "He always does."

I wasn't going to let him find me. I was done fighting The Hoodlum and his youth. I was done trying to prove anything. I decided to do what anyone does when faced with the reality that there were younger, tougher and faster people in the world: ignore it.

By the time we got to downtown it was well after midnight. The Gold Spike's "Sexy" blackjack tables were closing soon so we took our itch for three-dollar tables to our home turf, the El Cortez. Robert begged off to go to sleep. Phil said he still hadn't found what he was looking for.

Jerry asked, "Do you want some beef jerky?"

One of the very talented panhandlers of Fremont Street. This one is in part of an ape costume
Click pic to see bigger image

"Its something more," he replied. "I don't expect you guys to understand, but I've just felt ever since we got here that there is more to life, and more is expected of me in this world, than playing dice and cards."

Jerry shrugged. "When I don't know what I want I eat a few Slim Jims and then I'm happy."

Phil wandered off into the night while the rest of us settled in at a table.

I'm sure something hilarious happened, but I don't remember it. I was consumed by the realization that I wouldn't be going back to the Joker's Wild to confront The Hoodlum. Returning would be just like going back to all the other places I had failed to live up to expectations: my childhood home, my high school, my college, my first fourteen employers, McDonald's and that porta-potty at the county fair.

I tread water at the El Cortez as the dealers changed from Estonian to Spanish to Bulgarian to Chinese. Although they came from all over the world, their bewilderment at us was universal. They all gave us wan, tolerant smiles as we played, drank and made a ruckus.

About three a.m., we called it quits and walked to the Cafe Cortez for the traditional nightcap of late night pie. They were closed until five a.m.

We were too beat to walk elsewhere for sweet sustenance. When we were younger, we were never too tired. But tonight, I was exhausted. I dragged myself up the stairs to my suite and fell asleep.

On to Part 5

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