Chapter 10

“Even if you gain a seat
at the table, you may find that
the tables are turned.”

“Tell her I’m broke in Willup…”

“Hit me.”

           “And that Lawson’s out busting cokeheads. That it’s $142.50 and I barely have it, and I don’t want Ms. Rembrandt here to know. And tell her I don’t like where this is heading one bit…”

          “Hit me again.”

          “Sure, Randy, is it?  Oh, wait.  I have a message for you from Melissa, too.  Everything’s going according to plan. And as soon as she’s finished working this awards luncheon, she wants to talk to you about the part…”

          “Push!”

          Back then, I had shot out of Bonneville like Challenger I, wishing that our land speed record were toppling as precipitously as my miles per gallon. Gunning up from the Salt Flats, I felt for several vicarious moments the wild abandon of Mickey Thompson, the death-wish recklessness of Ohio Art Arfons’ ‘Green Monster’ jet car, of Craig ‘Spirit of America’ Breedlove at 600 m.p.h. Sydney was not nearly so inspired, however—and the squareback wasn’t buying into it at all. First, its fuel line knuckled. Soon the injector nozzles clogged up; then the fuel pump burst and froze.

          After blowing smoke so valiantly across the Nevada border, we were suddenly limping and sputtering on three fouled cylinders west of Wendover—Syd riding me the entire way to Palisade. We finally hit the wall outside Willup, shutting the Volks off altogether at a main drag gas station/casinette framed by an all-hours grain and gun shop and a boarded-over Western Tire. After a 100-mile overnight parts trip to Elko, the nearest Nevada outlet with an electric fuel pump in stock, I killed some down time here with sucker blackjack and this desperation call back to Boulder. “Ouch, you mean Ken…”

          “No, I think she specifically said Randy, I’m pretty sure.”

          “Fine, forget about it!  Damn, how can I be losing on some other guy’s hand…”  CLICK.  I had been bleeding red and white chips ever since returning on the Elko bus.  I’d stand pat hand after hand, waiting for a suede-fringed cowgirl dealer to pull a long overdue break and push. Probability theory, linear regression, law of averages, plain and simple luck of the draw: No dice, gambler’s fallacy, nothing seemed to work. Meanwhile, a hot streak of novice card-counters passed stool to stool, uncannily insuring soft hands, late surrendering hard. I just sat there with nary a clue, picking at old frayed green felt amid fan belt pulleys and tune-up kits, hitting too often on ten-value upcards, holding on fives and nines, as Wild Card Annie’s mechanic husband ran up a heavy repair tap next door. I finally resorted to betting on the stiff to my immediate left, not that it yielded any more of a pay-off.

          “Cleaned your clock, did they,” Syd soon met up with me midway between Grifter Gas’s gaming tables and the nearby public phones.

          “Yeah, yeah,” I groaned, “gotta settle up next door…”

          “Already did—all $142.50. Put it on my Gold Card.”

          “Really wish you hadn’t done that,” I returned to the table, picking up my depleted chip pile, pushing away one last losing draw.

          “Oh, like I’m supposed to wait here until a nit like you delivers?”

          For her part, Sydney’s plan had apparently been to Mastercard into a marginally decent motel room, to crease sheets and defrost her extremities through this pit stop at the Willup Motor Court. But she eventually caught fire in another casino next door—at a stingy, double-zero sort of roulette wheel geared to draining tourist drive-bys and relieving Willup’s seniors of their COLAs and disability disbursements with bankable regularity. She broke house rhythm with a silk-and-ivory panache gleaned from San Remo, doubling up on the corners, hedging by the dozens and columns. After cashing out, she rode her blazing hand down here to Grifter’s to spring the car.

          “I can’t believe you don’t carry any plastic,” she said, as we slipped between emphysemic Annie’s keno tables and a long rank of front-loaded slots.

          “Credit cards?  I don’t even have any credit—only overdue loans.” I negotiated floor displays of anti-freeze and multigrade oil, opening twin steel doors for her into the repair garage.  “But hey, that doesn’t mean I…Moon and I won’t repay you right off.  I’ve seen to it she already knows…I mean, I could probably fire off a money gram right this very minute.”

          “You just talked to Moon,” she asked, some quarter slots behind her firing chain-reaction whistles and sirens, making a dowdy former saddle stitcher’s day.

          “Uh, not exactly, but…” I was still wondering how even a snow brain like Regina could confuse names like Ken and…Randy.”

          “My, busy little fingers, haven’t we…”

          With that, she directed me out of Grifter’s fully gassed and lubed, back to The Busted Bronco: Willup’s largest family-style casino, billboards for which had been plastered like jumbo Burma Shave signs as far back as Silver Zone Pass. The Bronco shared a large corrugated steel shed with the business end of a Gamble’s catalog store and day-night IGA. Its coffee shop let to a roll-your-own art gallery of Doc Holliday, King Fisher, Mysterious Dave Mather and Calamity Jane—pretty as watercolor wanted posters—interhung with velvet cattle ropers from the Remington school. Trimmed in homebred horsehide and wagon wheels, the gallery opened forth to the teeming rawhide casino itself.  Therein, Syd herded me over to table number two.

          “All right, what’s your sign?”

          “Green—twenty five, can’t you read?  Press it…” Sydney said, nudging my elbow, shortly after we settled in with her fresh stack of chips.  “You going to make your point, or not…”

          “I’m trying, believe me, I’m trying…” One last shot for the road, she’d prodded, leading me from the coffee shop’s enormous stuffed white mustang to the heavier of Bronco’s action.

          “Twenty on the hard four,” shouted a retired range rider over his Early Times.

          “Back line,” Sydney shouted, adroitly slidehanding a major portion of her stack.  “Double down…”

          “Hands up, gentleman…lady…”

          Players wedged in around the craps table like porkers at the trough—riding the grinders, laying last-second hop, whirl and horn bets as if I actually knew my point from a waiting number. The boxman knew better, so did table three’s dealer and stickman. The latter slid a fresh tray of cubes toward me with a pick-any-two sneer and nod.  “OK, high-stakes, rip ‘em good…”

          “Yes, roll with authority, speed,” Sydney said, thrumming her remaining chips.  “This one gets us to Treasure Island.”

          “Twenty-five bucks—totally insane,” I blew my cupped left hand unconvincingly before letting fly off the backboard.

          “It’s my money you’re betting, flash,” she said, upon release.  “And I happen to have faith in you.”

          “Seven misses,” the stickman barked instantly, his dealer cropping my bet away, plus most of the table, with the exception of Syd’s and that of one snickering old wrangler around the bend—the sort who might start shotgun sniping from the rooftops if his luck ran any worse.

          “Terrifique,” she smiled, hauling in a new load of chips.

          “Terrific?!  I just lost us twenty-five more,” I said, as the dice tray moved one shooter down amid a clockwise chorus of groans.  “And how the hell did you…”

          “By betting the backline, weren’t you paying attention?” She scooped up her two colorful stacks, motioning to the few whites I could still call my own.  “Grab those, before they take them for another half-ass bet…”

          “Backline, what’s…”

          “The don’t-pass line,” she aimed me toward the cashier.  “I bet fifty you wouldn’t make your point.”

          “You bet against me?!”

          “Pass-miss, for-against—what’s the diff?  We won, didn’t we?  Enough gas money to get us to Golden Gate Park.”

          “But how could you…”

          “After seeing you at blackjack, it seemed like better odds,” she cashed out at the window, finishing off a rum-touched Pepsi into the gallery. “I learned that little trick in Europe. Could have played it any number of ways—free odds, big eights–Daddo says that I’ve a great head for numbers—for an artist, anyway. But of course my favorite action’s the come-don’t come…”

          “Yeah, that’s just great.”  I grabbed some house mints, then fumed through The Busted Bronco’s front doors.  “You still pegged me for a loser.”

          “So what, that cowboy geezer did, too” she waxed, pulling up along side.  “Point is, you and I were a real team in there…”

Care for more?

Chapter 11. Coming up empty,
he hits the road again, but she is
decidedly steering the way…