Part 7 - The Final Crap Out
Dan, Matt, and I bolted down the middle of Fremont Street, sending sprawling the fanny-pack-clad tourists staring up at the canopy of lights overhead made to look like rocket ships and bald eagles. It was like a chase scene out of a Dirty Harry movie, except that no fruit stands were overturned. We galloped past Binion's and the Golden Nugget, stopped at the intersection, looked both ways to be safe, then trotted past Fremont and the Four Queens. By the time we reached Fitzgeralds, the three of us were so completely out of breath that we had been reduced to wheezing and walking. We looked back and didn't see any angry mobs rushing our way, so we figured it was safe to continue on to the El Cortez, for the traditional post-soiree all night craps game. We knew anyone who hunted us down there would be too distracted by the dice to bother mauling us.
Our usual craps table, on the south side of the pit, was almost full, so the three of us each approached the rail, dropped twenties on the table and began loudly talking about boils we'd had lanced and the dead cat we'd seen on the freeway, to try and clear up space for our friends. For the most part, we were ignored, but soon, the bruised and bloodied stragglers from the Golden Gate melee trickled in and squeezed into whatever space was available. As usually happens, the mostly quiet, serious regulars grew fed up with our hi-jinks and headed for the other table or for home. We never took over the entire table with Soiree attendees, as we had in the past, but the majority of it was ours for the rest of the night.
We managed to just barely outrun the unruly mob of Shrimp Cocktail Contest spectators.
My affection for gambling really began at the El Cortez craps table. Sure, I learned the intricacies of the game at the Plaza, back when they had quarter minimums, but that table never sang to me in my dreams the way the big boat at the El Co does. Gambling in any other casino always felt forbidden and slightly scary. The staff never learned my name, or at least recognized my face, because guys like me and my friends were a dime a dozen elsewhere in town. Not here, though. We've always stuck out like cross-dressing speed freaks at a society luncheon on Park Avenue. Somehow, all the employees, from Patty, the grandmotherly cocktail waitress, to Rusty, the humming dealer who was so inept they made him a pit boss, have welcomed us for it. Sure, they sass us sometimes, and blatantly ignore our pleas for a comp for just one lousy breakfast, but the place feels like home.
I was thrilled. I had been winning all weekend, and a sense of warm calm at the prospect of continuing my good fortune at this place so dear to my heart washed over me as Burt, Oke, Andrew, two different Phils, Mieko, Mike, Steve, Karen, Jerry, Bill, and others whose names I don't care about enough to commit to memory filled in the empty space at the table
Until, that is, those losers actually started throwing the dice. Whatever excitement we all felt, from anticipation, too many cocktails at the Gold Spike, or the adrenaline rush of being part of a crazed mob out for blood at the Golden Gate quickly dissipated as shooter after shooter set a point, tossed enough meaningless numbers to give everyone time to spread some money on come bets, and then rolled a seven. We were set to hoot and holler, but all we could muster were groans, peppered with an occasional pitiful round of applause when we won a measly buck thanks to a yo on the come out.
Phil can't believe how bad Stinky's gambling urges have gotten.
The mood was dark, and the stupid jokes and childish name-calling that inspire gales of laughter at a hot table were either ignored or dutifully chuckled at. Into this depressing scene stepped Mary, a short, loud girl whose plastic surgeon seemed to have ordered too many silicone breast implants and felt the need to clear out his storage closet the day she was unfortunate enough to arrive at his office. She claimed to be a stripper, which impressed Phil, although by that time, he'd socked away enough Southern Comfort to be impressed by the amount of dust that had gathered on the Big Mouth Billy Bass plaques since our last visit.
I could see Matt, who has always had nothing but the highest regard for women in the sex industry, wasn't buying it, and his face was turning redder and redder with every lame joke or lewd comment that she screeched in her nasally voice.
He leaned over to me and whispered, "That girl's no stripper. Look at her, trying to get everyone to notice her. A real stripper would comport herself like a lady, with class and dignity. Besides, with her here nobody's listening to me."
The worst part was, we kept losing and couldn't seem to drown her out. My original $20 was as distant a memory as first grade, I'd lost another $20 directly after the first, and my third was disappearing as well. Lawyer Stevie was throwing his patented (Seriously, he had them patented. It's US D482,251 S if you want to look it up.) knuckle dice, Matt hung 'em high, and Dan rocketed those bones across the table so hard that he broke one of Karen's dollar chips clean in half. Nothing worked. We just kept losing. My excitement turned to depression and then to despair. The room began to feel more like my real home on the Thanksgiving I announced to my family that I hadn't actually spent the past four months at a medical school in Aruba, but had been down there mopping up after wet T-shirt contests, and not like my sweet, adopted, El Cortez home.
That fat stripper was driving me nuts. She thought she was sassy and sexy, and she let us know it every 30 seconds with some cheap entendre about how we wanted to have sex with her. I definitely wanted someone to have sex with her, because they don't let people do that right at the table so she'd have to leave us. We'd have some peace and quiet. Well, no, not peace and quiet, but our own brand of obnoxiousness, and that was far more charming than her cat-in-heat impressions.
Her grating mewl, my mounting losses and a head full of Heineken had me so distracted that I was barely paying attention as Stinky pulled twenty after twenty from his wallet. I could see he was losing, but I couldn't even think about intervening because I was so irritated by Mary. Well, that and this barstool that--I swear to God--had really nice breasts.
What was with Matt? I kept trying to catch his eye, but every time I did, he'd look away under the pretense of reaching for a cocktail, drinking a cocktail, or ordering another cocktail. It was time to intervene Stinky's frail frame into the dust, but I couldn't get back-up from the Matt side of things. His eyes were rolling, his lips were drooling, and he was coming on to a particularly cute bar stool.
"Att-May!" I cried. "It's-way Ime-tay Or-fay E-thay Intervention-way!"
It sucks how long words in Pig Latin sound just like their English counterparts. But I might as well have been talking in Sheep Greek for all Matt cared. Just when I needed him to be here and now the most, he was off on another drinking binge, messing up our chances to stop our friend Stinky's heinous addiction.
While I was itching to slap the gambling out of Stinky, Matt seemed to be totally distracted. But out of nowhere, Phil, at least as drunk as Matt, started laughing maniacally. Although that's not an unusual phenomenon, it seemed to awaken Matt. Suddenly, he seemed to remember himself and our important mission. He looked right at me, mouthed the words "Let's Do It," and started moving toward Stinky with his fist aimed at nose-level.
But just then the dice came to me, so I made a loud show of coughing and clearing my throat: "Harrummph! Ahem! I think I'll just go ahead and take my turn throwing the dice now. I don't really want to do anything else now because I've been waiting for my turn to throw the dice, so I guess I'll do that right now and maybe do something else, such as helping out a friend in need, a little later."
And I had one hell of a long roll. I set the point at ten and rolled about thirty-six times before sevening out.
The table stayed cold, and my pocket full of money was rapidly being converted into my normal, everyday pocket, filled only with lint, some empty gum wrappers and a paper clip or two. Jerry, who had been leering at Mary's ample bosoms all night, had mustered the courage to ask her if she wanted to go get some breakfast, and to everyone's surprise and delight, she had said yes. We weren't so much happy for Jerry's good fortune at possibly scoring an anonymous lay, but at least if Mary was off with him, she would no longer be here with us. Anything that could make that table even slightly less painful was welcome.
I took Mary's departure as a sign that my luck was about to change, and bumped up my bets to obscene levels. I dropped $2 on the table, and with the point set, backed them up with $20 in odds. I managed to put two $1 comes with $10 odds behind those. Except for a few blue chips, I was all-in. My gambling life had come to this--it was all or nothing. I could feel a difference in the casino's smoky air, and it seemed to have the stench of a big win. Dan held the dice, and he was throwing numbers. None of the numbers I had my wagers on, but not a seven, either. People started to hit come bets, and small murmurs of happiness rumbled around the table. He threw a four, then a nine. He followed those with an eleven, a three, and a six. A couple more yo's, snake eyes, another four, and then I turned around to accept my can of Heineken from Patty and hand her a tip. She asked me how our trip had been, and I started to tell her about how I'd lost, then won, then won some more, went down again, and was about to turn it all around.
Burt Cohen, about to seven out again.
Thanks a lot, Burt.
Suddenly, a voice out of Hell itself called, "Seven out! Line away, no field, pay the don'ts." The next five seconds felt like a year. Everything happened in slow motion. My muscles went gooey, I dropped the can of beer, which bounced off of the rail and spilled on my pants. I didn't look at my legs, but at the table, where a skinny kid with sandy brown hair and a nametag that read "Alex from Bakersfield" or "James from Ohio" or something scooped up my very lifeblood. I heard my own voice inside my head, but it sounded like it was coming from a deep, jello-filled hole, calling out, "Nooooooooooo!"
Still dazed, I backed away from the table, pants dripping icy beer on the carpet. I bumped into a seated poker player, who turned and glared, but I hardly registered what I'd done. He harrumphed and shifted back to his game, and I kept walking, each step more effort than I'd ever put into any job I'd held.
I heard Dan's voice. "Matt," he called out. "Stinky! Get him! The time is now!"
Then Matt. "Fuck Stinky. I'm not going anywhere until I hit some points."
Their voices snapped me back into reality. I suddenly knew where I was and what had happened. I was standing at the El Cortez, flat busted, the bright oldies pop songs wafting from the overhead speakers cutting into my brain like red-hot needles. I turned and ran.
I breathed deeply, doing my best to contain my rage and refocus it. Stinky had just hit rock bottom. His addictive agony was at its greatest. Furthermore, he wasn't near any obstructions that would have hindered a clean take-down. The timing had been ideal, as though we'd been Microsoft employees in the early eighties and had held on to our jobs and stock options to this day instead of getting advanced degrees in poetry that left us always going from job to job, never really qualified and never really content with our careers.
Anyway, Stinky must have known something was up because just as Matt refused to act and to selfishly throw the dice instead, Stinky bolted for the door.
You know what? If Dan got to postpone the intervention for his roll, so did I. Stinky had hit rock bottom. He'd still be there after I finished my roll. I picked up the cubes and hung 'em high. We can take care of him after we take care of ourselves. Besides, Patty was bringing me a boilermaker.
When I get enraged, I try to keep my body moving in normal ways while I breathe deeply and focus my rage in a constructive way. With robot-like precision, I placed my bet and prepared what I was going to say to Matt, basically a terrible lambasting against his selfishness that everyone could enjoy.
He threw an eleven, and I collected the dollar, while below the table, I clutched a beer bottle and thought it might be a better expression of rage to simply smash the bottle on the edge of the table and slice that smarmy dude from weezand to snotch. But then he threw another yo. And after that, a buckshot eight; then a buckshot six. Even playing modest odds, I was starting to come back up. My muscles seemed to loosen as Matt hit another point.
The table had started to yell. Mary, who was betting wrong, took Jerry's offer to get some late night something-something, and left the table to be replaced by not one, but two women. Man, Mary was wide! April and June, the two Mexican girls who came in, were totally pleasant to be around. They laughed at our dumb jokes and smiled politely. And they diced well, each of them hitting a number of points.
In about thirty minutes from Stinky's departure, the table seemed to have gone into another dimension. It was unrecognizable as the glum flat-line that it had been. Now, people were laughing because they were not only breaking even, but starting to rack up some change in the black.
A conservative bettor, I made out with just over $100. Burt Cohen, who I watch with a mixture of awe and apprehension, was throwing brown chips, and walked away several hundred dollars over his buy-in. Some guys have all the luck. To counteract this trend, I pilfered his cigar when he wasn't looking, took it into the men's room, put it in a naughty place, and then returned it surreptitiously to his person. Enjoy your good fortune, Burt!
See if you can spot the object in this picture that caused Phil to feel so dang happy. (Hint: it's not the keno card.)
Man, there's nothing like Vegas when you're winning and drunk. It's great when you're so loose, limp, and loony that you're throwing hard-ways, betting the horn, calling hop bets--mainly losing all of these--but still winning money on the good old pass line with odds. Matt called a hop four-six and it hit! I'd never seen that before.
By five a.m., most everyone who was left was finding it very difficult to remain vertical. It was time for the last stop: the Gold Spike Diner for pie. As usual, it was super-sweetened and Phil laughed himself into oblivion in the diner booth.
After pie, I walked outside for one last look at the lights of Vegas. The sun wasn't up yet, but it was obviously thinking about it. The sky was graying and a street sweeper rumbled down Ogden. At night, you notice all the brilliance of the displays, but by morning you notice the details: the burnt-out bulbs and grime covering the neon tubing. The lights no longer twinkled and danced; they dutifully followed rote patterns.
I stumbled through the Gold Spike casino to the elevator. A few half-asleep drunks still haunted the blackjack tables and another handful of veterans fed the slots. Security guards placed numbered buckets at the foot of each machine to collect the day's haul. I leaned against the wall of the elevator and felt my bones slump under my skin. I was dog-tired, drunk and richer than I was three hours ago when Stinky left the craps table.
Holy shit! Stinky! What happened to him? I hoped he wasn't in a gutter somewhere, at least not one where he'd get run over by a car before I could get to him. And that would take a while because I needed sleep more than anything.
The suite was dark and I maneuvered as best I could around the bodies of my sleeping friends. As I walked back to the bedroom, I noticed that the sliding glass door was open and a light breeze ruffled the curtains.
Stinky stood on the balcony, looking into the distance with his leg hooked over the wall. What a relief it was to see him, and to know I wouldn't have to waste time searching gutters for him in the morning.
"You airing out your crotch?" I asked as I joined him at the railing and hung my leg to let the breeze up the pantleg.
He didn't answer for a while, so I assumed we were having one of those moments. You know, like a profound coffee commercial moment where two friends silently enjoy each other's company, not saying anything and nobody's even making farting noises. This is what I thought it was, and I was trying really hard to enjoy it. Really, though, I'm glad my friends and I have sports and alcohol to talk about because poignancy is boring as hell.
Finally, Stinky spoke, "I can't go on."
"Go on what? The Stratosphere rollercoaster?"
Stinky sniffled, "Life. I can't stay on this crazy carousel called life."
I immediately recognized Stinky was serious. He talks like a Hallmark Greeting Card when he is. He wanted to kill himself. I had to think fast, before he threw himself over the ledge and broke both his legs on the "d" in the Gold Spike sign 30 feet below.
"You can't kill yourself."
"Why can't I? What have I got to live for?" His hands gripped the railing tightly. "I lost over a hundred dollars tonight. What if our readers and fans found out I was throwing around that kind of money? What about the little kids who look up to us?"
"But you can't kill yourself here."
"Try to stop me." And with that, he swung his other leg up and sat on the railing, teetering drunkenly above the casino roof.
"No, no!" I grabbed hold of him and made my last stab at talking sense into him. "I don't mean you shouldn't. I mean you physically can't. I applaud the dramatic gesture, but you'll only fall 30 feet and break some bones. And, for God's sake, this is the Gold Spike. You'd probably go right through the roof and land on the blackjack table. Then they'd make me clean up the mess."
"Yeah," Stinky said as he pulled his legs back behind the railing.
"Come on," I patted him on the back. "Let's go get a nice 99-cent breakfast, on me."
Stinky brightened, "Really?"
"Yeah, and some coffee and we'll just relax and laugh about the trip."
"That sounds nice."
My friend pulled away from the wall and we walked back into the dark suite. I said, "Then we'll take the city bus down to the Aladdin. That place is pretty tall; a jump off it will kill you for sure."
For the first time in ages, I saw Stinky smile a true and genuine smile. "Thanks. That means a lot to me."
"No problem, man. Can I have your watch?"
After the pecan pie, I'd stumbled up and fell into bed just as the last of the sugar buzz was deserting me. But the sounds of the conversation on the balcony had awoken me and I was ready. As soon as Matt came in the sliding glass door, my muscles tensed like a leopard's. Then, Stinky walked in and I pounced, knocking him back onto a bed and winding him. Ghizal, who was in the bed at the time, moaned, rolled over, and continued to sleep. But I sat on Stinky's chest and began pounding a hole in it with both hands.
That's when Matt pulled me off, and I figured that he wanted some too. I grabbed Ghizal's pillow from beneath his head, which didn't disturb his sleep in the slightest, and lit into Matt hard. Good thing pillow are soft, because I was swinging it for maximum damage, just like they taught me in the Marines. Rah! Semper Fi! Grrr!
"What the fuck are you doing?" yelled Matt.
"Intervention, baby!" and I turned again upon Stinky, who screamed like a girl. He put up his dukes nonetheless and got into a combative squat. "No more gambling, for you, mister!"
"No!" Matt was trying to stop me, but I didn't know why. It was too late to stop the swing anyway. My fist arced toward Stinky's head. It's a good thing his combative squat was so low because my punch sailed right over his head, throwing me off balance, and landing me hard back in the bed, on top of Ghizal, who moaned again, but continued to sleep.
"Intervention, Nyet!" said Matt. "No, Nein, Uh-uh."
It started to sink in that this wasn't the critical moment that I'd been waiting all weekend for. "But why?" I asked.
"Stinky hit rock bottom just now, right here on top of the Gold Spike. Now, everything's going to be okay. We're going to The Aladdin."
That bastard never did jump off the Aladdin. After all Dan and I did for him. Next year for sure.
On the flight home, I had plenty of time to think about the valuable lessons I'd learned over the weekend. Maybe I was being pigheaded. Maybe my family, my friends, my acquaintances, that brochure I'd picked up in Atlantic City, the employees at the corner deli, and the crazy homeless guy who sleeps on my steps weren't all ridiculously stupid. I guess I did have a gambling problem.
But I was one of the lucky ones. I was beginning to face my addiction, and I was blessed with people in my life who would give me plenty of support. Dan's vicious attack meant the world to me. If he cared enough to bloody his knuckles against my face, we must truly be friends.
After talking me down off of the balcony outside our room, Matt made good on his promise of a free breakfast. He knew I was broke, so he allowed me to pay off the $43 I owed him in push ups on the sidewalk in front of the casino. Like the true friend he is, he told me watching me strain myself until I collapsed face down on the hot pavement was worth at least fifty bucks, even though I knew it was at best a $20 show.
Since that trip, I've hardly placed a single wager. It's tough waking up every day knowing that any money I get will have to either be earned or spotted in the gutter. But I'm a better person for it. And now I know, by the next Soiree, I'll have the self control to only play a comfortable amount of craps, never betting more than I can afford to lose. Unless, of course, I just get a couple good rolls going. Then it just makes sense for me to hit up the ATM, right? I mean, you gotta strike while the fire's hot, and I can feel it warming up already.
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