He was wearing his lucky blue wing tip gators and blue silk paisley shirt, blue pants, three shades of blue in fact, but that was just a sideshow: the real thing was this lucky feeling that was making the tips of his fingers and toes itch. He weighed his options: coasted the big Lincoln up and down Highway 51, twice up and back before deciding on GoldMine. He didn’t normally like to play GoldMine because it wasn’t where the pretty ladies hung out. He was in such a mood that he hadn’t even stopped to buy the cigarettes he only smoked while at the casino, instead checking the glove compartment for the two Black n’ Milds he’d stowed there after last week’s all-nighter, one of those long ones where he didn’t win anything but really enjoyed himself. His wife hated the smell of smoke and had a habit of opening all the windows in the house after he arrived home, even if it was the dead of winter, even if he hadn’t smoked a single thing, a habit that irritated him to no end because it let in the racket of the dogs out back barking at everything on four wheels that rolled down the stretch of road in front of the house.
A valet tried to flag him down, but he bypassed him and entered the VIP parking area. Harry would never let one of those young buddy boys park his Lincoln. They didn’t half know how to drive and they were likely to park his baby next to some big pickup truck. He patted his pocket for his Players Club card. Tonight would make getting through a week of work and a house smelling like corn worth it. It felt like a year of Sundays between the weeks when he picked up his check from the trailer that served as headquarters of the Lovejoy Trucking Company, an operation run by two sisters who had spent years on the road, barking into CB radios before there were cell phones, layering their clothing on so thick they looked like men if they got stranded on the road at night.
The automatic gold doors parted, and even though Harry didn’t sight any lovelies right away, he strutted, stepped up in his stiff-new shoes, scanned the room.
Two young men slouched at a slot machine near the door eyeing him—he knew the type, buddy boys who scoped out the elderly. One hand on the slot button, the other palming a cell phone. Want-to-be rapper types. Not that Harry was elderly. He believed he was seventy going on fifty-five, and he refused to make it a day past that. “What the fuck y’all looking at,” he growled under his breath. They checked him out checking them out. In his day, he had been a pretty decent street fighter. He put some extra bounce in his step in case they were wondering.
If they wanted his jewelry, they would be shit out of luck because he didn’t wear much of it, didn’t even want to give them a target. And what he did wear wasn’t real—except for the lion pendant with the tiny emerald eyes hanging from the chain around his neck, a proper piece for a Leo Moon such as himself, bought from Hock it to Me Pawn Shop over in Batesville the day after he struck his biggest jackpot ever. He liked jewelry alright, but he preferred cars: a Lincoln Continental, a Cadillac Bro-ham from his younger days. Nothing but the best for the guy they used to call Harry Hippie.
First order of business was to get a drink. Harry was an old school player: Crown Royal over ice. In his closet at home, he stashed a collection of royal purple velvet bags full of loose change. He swirled the ice cubes with his middle finger and surveyed the casino from the bar, the bells jingling in his ears, rousing him. He would start small, he decided, because he had $500 to blow and didn’t intend on losing it. Tonight something was sure to hit: blackjack, roulette, dog track, and maybe even a game of bingo when the room wasn’t overwhelmed by old ladies sucking on squares. The only thing he didn’t like were the computerized games like video poker. Where the hell was the fun in that? Some people swore by the 9-6 video poker machines. But Harry knew that the best odds, if you knew what you were doing, were blackjack and poker. Roulette was a little under six percent, the craps table as high as nine percent, and the slots favored the house so much that you had to play the high-roller machines to even have a chance.
But Harry would try not to think of odds tonight. He was going to ride this wave. He went to get his chips.
Even though poker was his game of choice, it hadn’t started that way. In the old days, it was Spades and Bid Whist and Tonk, family living rooms during holidays—slapping cards on tables, whistling through teeth, talking-shit, drinking beer, smoking cigs, humming to Johnnie Taylor, tapping pinky nails on fold-up card tables. Then he ventured out—Gin Rummy, Blackjack, Pyramid, Hearts—until he started up with games most black folks in Mississippi didn’t know—like Bridge and Rook. Finally he stumbled into a poker game—some truckers from a line based in Clarksdale got snowed-in and had a game at a motel; Harry got the word through his cousin Stitch and sat beside the table in a cloud of smoke while picking up on the different hands—took him a while to get it all: was a Flush higher than a Full House; a Straight higher than Four of a Kind; how did you know what to throw away when everything in your hand was shitty; when to fold and when to bluff; how did somebody stomach losing that much money; how much money could he take home in one night, realistically speaking. Once he got down the fundamentals, it didn’t take long before Harry was finding a Poker game anywhere he could, and learning the variations: 5-Card and 7-Card Stud, Lowball, Spit, Murder, Baseball, Chicago, Anaconda, Follow the Queen, Salt & Pepper, Football, Criss-Cross, Omaha High-Low Split, Texas Hold ’Em.
Three hours in and Harry made his way to the tables on the second floor. He signed in and was walked to a 7-Card Stud table with a $60 buy-in. He slid onto the chair and took note of the other players at the table. Two hard-legs with buzz cuts looked like they might be military. A tall athletic brother with the size of a professional ball player but the clothes of a working class stiff.
Harry shut his eyes halfway and avoided eye contact, let the suckers do the talking. He caressed the slick cards in his hand, relished the spread in his palm.
He’d already had dinner, booked a room, and changed shoes. Now this lovely brown was giving him love, looking his way and checking him out from across the table. He sat up, squared his shoulders, sucked in his gut, thought of his nice room in the adjacent hotel and told himself, “I got this,” meaning both the game and the girl.
“Awww, sookie sookie now,” he said loud enough where she could hear him. He looked her up and down, and she smiled at the compliment. He was pretty sure she was a hooker. He wasn’t even sure how she had gotten a seat at the poker table. She didn’t have any chips in front of her. Bare legs slightly spread, drink going on empty, face slightly flushed, halfway propped on the chair like she was just visiting. Unnaturally black hair curled in perfect rings, sitting up high on her head like a pineapple. She was a less-than-pretty yellowbone. A too-wide face. Pencil-thin brows. Slight gap in her teeth. He made eye contact with her and she leaned forward—something sparkled on her chest like gems, tiny squares of glitter that drew the eye downward. He was so distracted by it that he folded on a decent hand. By the time the two military guys had left, she was sitting next to him and whispering the most exotic name he’d ever heard: Zena.
Ooh, this brown made an old man feel young again.
Thirty minutes later, they were sitting at a video poker machine with two drinks beside them. He never ever sat a video machine. He picked one in the corner because computers were for punks. Real men sat at the tables. But Harry had put fifty dollars on a card for her, and led this Zena over to a machine when she asked him to.
“See. This here is five card draw. The difference between stud and draw is that with one, you don’t pull no cards and with the other, you do.”
“How you decide which cards to throw away?”
“Now you ain’t listening now. You got to listen in this game called life. My daddy always used to make us boys sit on the floor and listen to him. Said sitting in a chair closed your ears up.”
“Depends on whether or not you playing highball or lowball. Most times, you playing regular poker, you gone keep your high cards.”
“How you know what hand to throw away?”
“You mean fold?” He chuckled. “When you ain’t got nothing. When you know you can’t win.”
“You seem like a winner to me.”
“Well, you know, I just got one of them instincts. I need to go to Vegas and win me some real money. Play on tv or something, you feel me?”
She sipped her drink and settled a hand on top of his. She remained quiet because she understood the value of silence. For a moment, she wondered what he needed, what he was seeking. They all wanted the same thing—power—but each took a different angle on it. She watched his image in the video screen, studied him.
He was checking out the same thugs from earlier. Sitting at the bar across from them. Was one of them watching him? They were dressed in baggy pants and oversized sweatshirts, the typical dress of young people these days. But Harry detected a certain wildness in their eyes, a skittishness that suggested they were up to something. A thought came to him, and he briefly lost his interest in the game as he contemplated it. Could one of them be Zena’s pimp? Did this broad have a pimp? He’d been telling himself that she wasn’t a hooker, that this was a personal thing.
“Hey, daddy. What you thinking so hard on? You done lost the last three hands.”
He glanced at the young men again and put a hand on her shoulder. “I got a room upstairs,” he said. “Want to see it?”
“Sure, I’ll take a look,” she whispered.
He emerged from the bathroom, his bare chest purple as gums in dark light. This wasn’t the first time he had brought a lady friend back to his room, but something about this Zena was making him nervous. He’d taken his orange pill, but he still felt unsure. Her dress was on the floor, a crumpled pile of carelessness, but he tried not to focus on that fact. She had pulled the sheet up to her neck, a show of modesty, and her queer round face stuck out like a coin.
In Harry’s mind, there were three types of folks in Mississippi: the smooth, good-looking type such as himself that could outsmart, outhustle lesser fools. Had the good looks, but didn’t have to rely on them. Second was the regular Joe: flat-footed, non-pool shooting, raggedy shoe wearing, stuttering, no-style having L-7. Third and final was everybody else, including the women: tall and short, fat and skinny, rich and poor, smart and dumb, short hair and long hair. All of them. Shorties. Broads. Juniors. Just waiting for a number one such as himself.
“You still ain’t tell me what you do for a living,” she said. She still needed to size up his bankroll. But she’d already decided he would be easy. He hadn’t even bothered to remove his wedding ring.
This one was no different from any other number three, he told himself. He sat on the bed and pulled the sheet down so he could get a good look at her titties. “I…” he stumbled. As many times as he’d lied about personal details, it still didn’t come easy to him. “I do folks’ taxes.”
He knew she was playing him. And yet he couldn’t help himself. He concentrated on the titties. It was all a game. A lucky hand. King of hearts for a day. He tried to change his expression to convince her that he was fooled by her. I think you like me. I think you here because I am one sharp-looking dude.
His wife spoke Spanish. And ever since she’d retired, she’d become obsessed with making food that Spanish-speaking people ate. And she insisted on homemade corn tortillas. When he returned home, it was close to ten o’clock the next morning. He could still smell the corn flour—the heavy scent filled the air of the living room, even seemed to seep from the fabric of his armchair. If he turned his head this way or that, he could still smell it. He rotated his head back and forth, and it only got stronger, as if the odor came through his ears as well as his nose.
“You home early,” she said. She began to open windows. She was a petite woman and had to stand on her toes to reach some of the window cranks. He noticed that the backs of her ankles were dry, but he still appreciated the fresh air. The bitch outside was barking again. Nonstop. He pulled a roll of bills from his sock and threw it on the coffee table. She barely looked at it. He’d left his shoes and matching hat at the door, as if shedding the man who had been hightailing it at the casino the night before. In moments, he’d sat in his chair, wearing a t-shirt, shorts, his favorite pair of slippers. He pushed the sock down and rubbed his calf where the edge had pinched.
“Your money can’t wash off your stink,” she said. “God gone be done with you before it’s over with.” She sounded unconvinced of his evolution.
“Easy now,” he said. She looked depressingly thin in her housecoat, and he remembered the soft passivity of Zena’s full body. Even though he hadn’t been able to get it going, she’d taken lotion in her hands and rubbed him until he fell asleep.
His wife never did like cards. She was from hill country, east of I-55, out near Dumas. At least she’d started out the way he’d expected: a good country girl. But thirty-six years in the school system teaching a language he never liked nor had any desire to learn had changed her. The day she’d talked to the stranded Mexican had felt like a slit across Harry’s throat. When had it all come to this?
One thing that hadn’t changed, though, was her self-righteousness. Harry remembered his wife’s reaction the first time he’d taken her with him—back when Splash casino came to Tunica in 1992—he’d first tried the penny slots, his wife at his side, eyeing the machine suspiciously, whispering about how it was a devil’s box. In those days he couldn’t stand losing his money and had gone back to his Friday night ritual—Jay’s Joint or Ricky’s. It wasn’t until he learned poker that he caught the real gambler’s itch.
“You feel like driving me to the store?” she asked. She did not look at him when she asked the question. She was already making out a list, opening the cabinets and refrigerators to check for missing items.
He looked up from his recliner. It wasn’t a real question. Of course he didn’t feel like driving her. She was making him pay for the night out. He weighed the payment and wondered what would follow. He hoped it wouldn’t be sex. Every now and then she demanded it, and it was all he could do to oblige. He put some clothes back on and took his time getting out to the car.
He pushed the basket along as she filled it. She took her time, lamented for the hundredth time that price labels were no longer on the food, only the shelf. Read labels for sodium content because she worried about his blood pressure. Retraced her steps when she forgot something on a particular aisle, annoying him because she knew the layout of the supermarket as well as he knew the casinos.
The store was cold, and Harry shivered. He rubbed an arm and watched folks walk by. A fat woman carried a baby on her chest in one of those newfangled baby carriers. An elderly man smelling of urine scooted down the aisle in his slippers. All L-7’s. His wife spoke to folks even if she didn’t know them. He left the socializing to her. Leaned against a display of peanut butter and thought about Zena.
The bright fluorescent lights made him feel sick. He wanted to get out of there, back to the house, stretch out in his chair. Her shopping list was endless. She studied a package of toilet paper.
“You got everything you need?” He failed at keeping the impatience out of his voice.
She didn’t look up from her list. “Mmm hmm.”
The cashier announced the total. She had a Spanish accent. He tensed as he waited. His wife remained silent.
Mississippi was changing. For years, he had wondered if she really spoke Spanish. She never spoke it at home, and he’d figured she knew just enough to fool those dumb-ass high school kids. Then a Hispanic community started growing in the area. And she’d surprised him by carrying conversations with them. Folks she hardly knew.
The cashier scanned the magazine.
“I’ll be in the car,” she said in a tone so nasty he was sure she hated him. Harry pulled out his wallet.
That night, he met Zena in the bar area. He called her on her phone and let her know what time he was coming. Now he was off for three days straight before he had to get back on the road. He saw Zena each of those three days. Even though he always gave it to her—slipped it in her purse or shoe or pocket—she never asked for money. But he delighted in imagining her surprise as she stuck a toe in her shoe and knocked against a carefully rolled cylinder of bills held together with a rubber band.
She brought him little gifts: a bottle of cologne that he was afraid to take home lest his wife figure it was a scent he would never buy for himself, a monogrammed Jack Daniels glass. Classy gifts. Nothing like the socks and underwear his wife always gave him for Christmas. It didn’t matter to him that she didn’t realize he hated Jack Daniels.
On the third night, he told her he was headed out. They sat on the sofa of the room he had booked even though it had been a losing night.
“Where you headed to?” she asked with her characteristic blank expression.
He had finally told her the truth about his profession, turned the original lie into only a half of one. He still did taxes, he said, but only at tax time. The rest of the year he drove a tractor trailer. He wanted this to be a longer term thing than he’d originally planned. He was liking this one.
“Topeka, Kansas!” he declared, as if it were some exotic place. “But I got a few stops to make on the way.”
“Then you turn right around and come back?”
He placed his nose in her hair. It smelled like plastic.
“What about your children?” he asked her. “You gone get a chance to see them this weekend?”
Zena had told him that the children lived with their grandmother for reasons unspecified. Ten year old twins.
“I hope so. If my mama let me.”
He thought of suggesting that he talk to this mother. He could even stop by on his way out. Depending on where she lived. The woman had no right to keep the children from their mother.
“You gonna call me?”
“Course I’m gonna call you!” he said in a voice so loud that it startled him.
“You want to go back downstairs?” she asked.
He pushed the power button on the television remote. “Nope.” He didn’t want to tell her that he was out of money. And tired.
“I like it when you gamble. You look so handsome when you be concentrating.”
He stiffened his back and turned his head a bit, thinking that his profile looked younger than his full-on face. He slid his wallet out of his pants pocket and flipped it open. There. The credit card the trucking company had given him for emergencies, never used, never swiped, a sign of the sisters’ trust in their old Leo lion. Perhaps he could get a little cash advance? He had never done such a thing. Always stuck to his gambling budget.
“Come on,” he said. “Put your lipstick on. Let’s do this here thing.”
She had never called him that before. He momentarily stuttered. “Let’s go to dinner, Nene.” He had decided that Zena was too strange of a name to call a person. So he shortened it to Nene. That was a better name anyway. He’d even joked—in his head, of course, because he knew better than to say it out loud—Why don’t you get down on your knee-knees, Nene?
“Alright then,” she said. They’d eaten lunch earlier, but the lack of daylight and windows in the casino had made the hours fly.
Instead of the usual buffet dinner, he decided to take her to the steak house. He was able to get them a table even though they didn’t have a reservation. It was the most expensive restaurant in the casino, and he had never eaten there. He ordered for both of them: two T-bones, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, broccoli, and pie to share. He put as much salt on his food as he wanted. When they were done, they sipped their drinks.
“I got to leave at six o’clock in the morning,” he said. “We better call it a night.”
He called for the check and was startled to see that it was over two hundred dollars. He’d known it would be an expensive dinner, but he was still shocked. He would have to put on his gambling shoes when he returned. He took out the company credit card and put it in the leather book.
They stood awkwardly in the lobby for a few moments.
“Why don’t we go to your car?” she suggested.
His Continental was parked in the VIP area near the front. When they were sitting in it, she scooted over closer to him. “This a nice car. I like Lincolns.”
Just as when he was younger, he was glad for a bench seat in a car. He remembered drive-in movies and the crackle of the speaker attached to the window sill. He kissed her hair and tuned the radio to an AM station. A smooth grooves set.
“I got one of them too,” he said quickly. “A Bro-ham.” Another half-lie. He did not mention he had sold it a couple of years before.
“You keep the room,” he said. “Just make sure you check out by noon tomorrow.”
“Okay, daddy,” she said.
He chuckled. “I guess I am old enough to be your daddy, ain’t I?”
They kissed for a few moments. He enjoyed it, but worried that she didn’t. Afterwards, she flipped open the visor mirror and freshened her lipstick. “Call me when you get to Topeka,” she said.
Then she was gone. And Harry just sat there listening to the music, trying to remember the year the old love song came out.
He stopped off at Harrah’s Casino near Topeka trying to win some of his money back. But after losing even more money drawn off the credit card, he stopped and put his remaining fifty dollars into a set of bracelets and some glitter lotion.
He didn’t have money for a hotel, and since he’d hit the $500 limit on the Lovejoy credit card, he took her to his house. His wife had gone to visit her mother over in Dumas while he was gone, and decided to stay a couple of extra days.
Zena set her purse down in his recliner. “What’s that smell?”
He licked his lips. She walked around the living room and disappeared into the den. The house only had five rooms: living room, dining room turned into a den, kitchen, and two bedrooms. He was thinking he would lay with her in the second bedroom.
“What’s your wife do?” she asked while looking in a kitchen drawer of carefully arranged knickknacks. She was making sure he wouldn’t tell later. Seeing what he had to lose. Sizing up his respectability. She felt bored with the ease of it. She did not feel sorry for him. It was not like he would walk away empty-handed.
“She was a schoolteacher before she retired,” he said. He didn’t say anything about the Spanish. Left out how after she retired from the school system his nights at the casino went from poker to pussy.
The windows were open and he could hear the yelp yelp yelp of the pregnant bitch out back; the dog had gotten out of the yard one day and come back pregnant months later. His wife had already promised the puppies to church members even though no one knew what the puppies would look like. The last thing Harry wanted or needed was another dog. He would have gotten rid of them all, but he felt they were a good security system for the nights he left her alone.
Zena was finished. She crossed her arms over her chest and turned to look at him. He took this as a sign that it was time to get on with it. Every now and then, he felt the business of the relationship. She had still never asked for money, but he gave it to her. He understood the absence of negotiation to mean that she was satisfied with the amount. It was a nice shift from some of the women who refused to even pretend. Zena did a good job of playing the role.
He tried to dismiss her expectancy by turning on the television. A trivia game show came on and he tried hard to think of the answer so he could impress her with his knowledge. “Make yourself comfortable,” he said.
After a pause, she reclined on the sofa, kicked off her shoes, curled her legs beneath her. They watched the show for a few minutes, the answers eluding him as he glanced over at her intermittently, trying to imagine her as his wife. What would it be like, he thought, coming home to her smudged mascara, her pineapple hair? Would she cook the way his wife did? Perhaps he would cook for her instead. A woman like her—who gave a man so much of what a man needed—should be pampered, taken care of like an exquisite pair of alligator shoes. Polished, rubbed, brushed, and cleaned each day even if he weren’t going to wear them.
Zena had a way of composing her face, pushing the features into nothingness so that there was very little expression. Not pleasant or sour. Just an insipid mask. At times it was disconcerting to Harry. But overall, he liked it. It allowed him to set the mood, tell her how they should both be feeling at any given moment.
She was doing it now, relaxing on the couch the way that he’d asked, not pressing him for anything.
He felt something shrinking. Without the lights and sounds of the casino, he felt skinny, weightless. His hand shook and he pushed it into the crack of the chair lest she see it.
“Corn,” she said.
“It smell like corn in here.”
Had it been an intentional strategy to get things moving, it couldn’t have worked better. In minutes, he was leading her to the bedroom, peeling off his clothes as he walked. It was exhilarating to drop his pants in the hallway and leave them there. By the time he entered the bedroom, his growing penis peered through the fold of his shirt. He would not need his pill after all.
Zena got out of her clothes quickly. Her flesh beckoned. She was almost fat, her thighs dimpled. A man could lose himself in a woman like her. Later that night, after he had dropped her back at the casino, he returned to the empty house and slept in the guest room, sniffed the sheets, thought of her.
Harry was in the hole deep and he had to get out of it. Zena wasn’t around, and for the first time in a while, he was glad of it. He had not told her he was coming. It was thundering and lightning outside, but the casino was still crowded. With the bill from that work credit card sure to come back soon, he had to get to work. He entered one of the daily Pot Limit Omaha tournaments, ordered a Crown Royal over ice, and settled into the table to study the faces around him.
There were three: two men and a woman.
The first man was a talker. Harry recognized the attitude. The guy had more money in his pocket than his chips suggested. He would play aggressively, even stick with an inferior hand occasionally. Omaha required a stronger hand than Texas Hold ’Em, and some gamblers simply refused to go along with this fact. Loose Lips would be one of them.
The second man was a yahoo in a cowboy hat and jeans and a shiny-faced blonde hanging on his shoulder. He was the kind of poker player whose game was to talk you out of yours. Harry knew the type. This one could beat you in a game of pool just by running his mouth and getting in your head. Same for poker. He was already everybody’s best friend at the table, shoulder bumping Harry twice when he discovered they both drove a truck for a living. Harry already regretted revealing that little fact. The man sweated a lot and Harry thought he would leave a handprint on his shirt at any moment.
Then there was the bony-faced woman wearing a loud purple hat pulled low over her eyes. The hat looked too big for her tiny face, as if it would slide down and engulf her at any moment. And it was not quite a perfect match to her purplish, rhinestone-encrusted suit even though she held her herself as if she were the best-dressed woman in the room. Harry hoped that she would get hot enough to take the hat off so that he could better see her face. Her pile of chips was small, and he wondered if she had any experience. She quietly munched on a plate of limp French fries the server had just set beside her.
Harry didn’t sense any real threats at the table.
Harry had borrowed the money from his wife. Well, it wasn’t exactly borrowing since he hadn’t asked her. He’d hocked the gold charm bracelet she’d brought back from Dumas along with his lion pendant. She’d shown it to him the night she returned, and as she’d fingered through the various charms—a fish mouthing a diamond, a teddy bear with tiny emerald eyes, a spider with a diamond on his back, a gold coin encircled by a chain link, a pineapple with tiny peridots inside, an Easter basket holding pearls and rubies, a watch face, a jeweled abacus, a diamond cluster engagement ring—he could only think of his debt. The bracelet was exquisite, the kind of thing that had been in the family long enough that no one knew its appraised value. He’d memorized each little charm. The pawn store owner had promised that the bracelet would be there with all of its charms intact when he got back. He had to get that bracelet back before she knew it was missing.
He was hoping he could make enough money to get the bracelet back, pay off the credit card, and take Zena on a little trip. She needed the break, what with the mess involving her mother and kids and all. He even hoped he might take her shopping. Somewhere fancy.
He perched at the edge of his seat, taking care not to move his hands or eyes too much. If he could control his breath and quietly observe the breathing of others, he was a step ahead of the amateurs at the table.
Everybody anted up. Then the cowboy bet the blinds, $60 to start. The dealer began to deal, starting to her left. Harry didn’t look at his four cards until he had all of them. Two Kings. A ten. And a three. But it was a rainbow hand. None of the suits matched. It was a decent hand for Texas Hold ’Em, but not so great for Omaha.
They began the pre-flop betting. Harry called the purple hat’s $75 bet.
The dealer spread the first three cards of the flop. Another King appeared. That was good. He would stay in this one. If he could get a match on his ten or three, then he would have a Full House. The cowboy folded. Loose Lips raised by $20. The purple hat pulled back a bit by checking. Harry decided to check as well, not quite showing how good his hand was.
Then the dealer dealt the turn. A two of diamonds. Harry didn’t have a chance for a flush. Too many suits in his hand and on the table. He already had a Three of a Kind, but he needed a better hand. A Full House or Four of a Kind would work nicely. Another round of betting ensued. Harry placed a bet. Loose Lips called him. The purple hat got all aggressive and raised the bet. Harry called her.
The River Card. A ten. He had his full house.
One more round. The purple hat went all in. She stared him in the eye. Harry had assumed that the cowboy was the one to reckon with, but this broad knew what she was doing. Harry wondered how she had learned. A friendly game of poker with the neighborhood gossips?
Harry called her. He had enough chips to match her bet and then some left over.
They showed their cards. Loose Lips also had a full house, but his was lower than Harry’s. Harry allowed himself to take a big breath. The purple hat showed her hand. A Flush. Harry showed his. The highest hand on the table. He won.
Finally. He was starting to have a little luck.
Two hours later, he was losing it all again.
It took Harry four days to reach his goal of paying off his debt and putting away enough money to pay off his debts. He had never hocked anything that belonged to his wife, never used the company credit card before. The desperate feeling was new and unpleasant; he vowed not to let it happen again.
Each night, Zena ignored him. He convinced himself that she was giving him time to handle his business.
On the fourth night, when he finally made the money, he rushed downstairs to cash in his chips and find her. He called her cell phone six times. It rang and rang. He needed a release, needed the fuel of her warmth. He had been comped a hotel room and he checked in, certain that he would find her before the night was out.
He discovered her coming out of the ladies room. She smiled when she saw him, an automatic expression, opened her arms slightly, and he felt a weight lift. He sang in her ear… “It’s you and me, baby. I’m gonna take you for a ride. It’s you and me baby. Cause tonight I’m bona fide.”
She came back to him as if she’d never left, as if it hadn’t been over almost two weeks since they’d lain together. His sweet Ne-ne. Telling him how big he was. How smart. How sexy when he was gambling.
Afterwards, he went into the bathroom and closed the door. He turned the gold levers and sat in the tub while the water filled it. He lay back and imagined his Ne-ne waiting for him, patiently, quietly.
He put his face beneath the water, let it run over his eyelids. He used the shampoo to lather his hair. He rinsed again and then wrapped a towel around his head like women did. He looked in the mirror. He felt good. The towel was like a crown. He practiced various looks—smooth, devilish, flirtatious, innocent. He smiled a little, then picked something dark out of his teeth. He turned off the water. Stood and turned sideways to better examine his size. He admired his physique. Not bad for a guy who never exercised and ate a diet bad enough to make Sammy Davis, Jr. dance a step behind. He stepped out of the tub, and opened the bathroom door to reveal all his naked glory.
She did not respond. He stepped into the room and stared at the covers. He turned his head, swiveling his neck from that one place as he surveyed the room. He could still smell her. He recognized the glitter lotion scent. But her things were gone. He searched the table for his cell phone but could not find it. His pants were still in the chair where he’d left them. He looked in the pocket, but his phone was not there. No wallet either. Maybe it had fallen out? Had he been pickpocketed earlier? The casino had been crowded.
He retraced his steps in his mind. Retraced them until he was entering the room with Zena and sitting on the bed. He remembered the feel of the stiff wallet in his pocket as he sat on the bed.
The money. He’d cashed in his chips right before coming up to the room.
He whispered: she wouldn’t do this. Nonono. Not Ne-ne. His little jewel. He was her daddy, her big man. He felt his confidence slip. The floor writhed like cardboard.
He picked up the hotel phone on the bedside table, dialed 9 and then Zena’s cell phone number. No answer. He left a message. Then a second one. Third. Each one more panicked than the last.
He looked around for his keys. Gone. He put on his wrinkled pants and shirt. He knelt on the floor, but his shoes were not beneath it. Only two stray socks. And so he had to admit that even his prize alligator shoes were missing. He could not find the room key, and without a wallet and identification, he would be unable to get a replacement at the front desk. He opened the door and stood looking back at the room, feeling foolish for wondering if he had left anything. There was nothing else. The room was empty, barren of the magic it had held just a little over an hour before.
He wandered through the casino, aimlessly, searching faces, knowing he would not find her. A security guard looked down at his stockinged feet and gave him an interested look. Harry moved towards the main door.
It was raining and dark outside. Maybe he had left a window cracked or a door unlocked on his car. His feet slapped in the rain puddles. The VIP lot wasn’t very large. He circled it over and over, his eyes gliding over everything larger than compact size. There wasn’t an empty spot. Yet he could not find his car. He could not even remember where he had parked it, only that he had parked in this section.
He began to run, arms surging, fingers stretched out. His heart rate quickened. He thought of his wife’s lovely charm bracelet, his stinking little house and blue recliner in front of the television. He ran faster. He began to pant wildly.
He was between two large pick-up trucks when he slipped and landed squarely on his hip. He felt something crack. His cheek hit the pavement, and he could see beneath the cars. The rain beat against his face. He coughed and tried to remember the day.
He felt a hand on his shoulder, and he looked up.
“Leave me alone!” he shouted.
“You alright? You need some help?”
“No!” Harry coughed again. It was the young, hooded buddy boy. The rapper. Hip hopper. Want-to-be pimp. The thug wanted to rob him and make a mockery of him. But Harry didn’t have anything left. She’d taken everything, even what he had not known he still owned. “Where is she?”
“Let me help you, man! Give me your hand.”
The sky exploded and in the instant of light, Harry could see everything clearly. He twisted away, a sharp pain in his side.
“Hey, old man. Can you hear us?”
Harry could not deny it any longer. He tried to admit to himself that he was old and broke down. He waited for a sign, but there was nothing but darkness when he closed his eyes. Darkness and the sound of the rain hitting the asphalt around him.
It had been a Sunday when the Hispanic’s pickup had stalled right near their house. The short, brown-faced man was alone, his left leg in a cast. He’d just stood there, leaning against the truck, waiting for somebody to drive by and help. Harry’s wife had gone outside. Harry could not hear the Spanish they spoke, but he imagined that if he could have, it would have sounded exotic and melodious. Like something that he could never enter. He had sat inside, fuming, waiting for her. But when she’d returned, he had kept his eyes on the darkened face of the television screen. Even as she went back out and rummaged around in the shed for what he knew was the gas can, he had sat there, silenced, trapped by his fear of something that seemed too large for the time he had left.
In his early sixties he had felt the elusive fruit was youth—strong legs, an ever-ready erection, dexterity. He had chased the feeling down, captured it at times. As he lay there in the parking lot, he saw what was left. He would be cast with the common—the earth’s salt, the inescapably dull folks plodding through an inescapably predictable existence.
The day his wife went outside to speak Spanish to the man in the cast, he’d felt a pain in his head and chest. But he had not known until later that the throbbing sensation would turn a poker obsession into a pussy hunt. He just wanted to be something different than he’d always been—sweet Jesus, sweet Jesus was that too much to ask?
“You get one side, I’ll get the other,” said the voice.
Harry flattened a palm against the pavement, turned as best he could, and the two young men gathered his weight beneath them. Harry put an arm around the shorter of the two. There was surprising strength beneath the bulky sweatshirt. Harry held on tightly—they had to hold him up because his right leg was useless. He felt pitiful and ashamed, almost wishing they had beaten him instead.
The three of them surged towards the building, Harry hobbling in the middle, towards the warm and dry shelter of the glittering casino lobby.