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Hard Eight

By Slade Ham

Memoir

Las Vegas would probably make my head explode.  I’ve been hiding in my hotel room as much as possible, huddled away safely distant from the blinking lights and the clanging bells of the casino floor beneath me.  I walked to the showroom earlier to see the layout, and then out to the pool to avoid the mile wide marketing ploys of my temporary employers, but now I have to go back down there.  I have a show tonight at one of the Choctaw Nation’s properties in Oklahoma.  The flashing neon flytrap I have to walk through to get to that show brings me mixed emotions.

Despite my own penchant for risky behavior, I am not a big gambler.  Blackjack amuses me because it offers the most control but poker is my only real temptation.  Even then, I prefer to stay out of the casino poker rooms and would much rather shuffle my chips amongst a group of friends.  It’s just such obviously orchestrated bullshit, the casino experience as a whole.  My job tonight is to make no bets at all.  Tell jokes, collect a check, soak in the hot tub, and go home.

It’s hard though.

Maddening patterns on the carpet floors keep your head up and moving.  Just when you focus on one thing, another thing blinks or pops out of the corner of your eye.  Look at this!  No this!  No that! Ancient, wrinkled women and men lie propped up, possibly deceased, against rows of slot machines.  The bars spin and stop, another loser.  Occasionally a distant bell signals a big winner, prolonging the myth of victory and encouraging the living dead to feed another twenty into the slot.  Somewhere a grandchild goes without college.

A man and woman pass me in hallway.  He is furious.  She is staring blankly ahead.  There aren’t enough lights in the world to distract her now, and even if they could, she has just cleaned out their bank account.  I know this because the man just said, “You realize that you cleaned out our entire motherfucking bank account, right?”  This poor guy.  God, have I been there.

He must be new at this.  He obviously hasn’t gone through it enough times yet to keep a separate, hidden account.  She still has access to his money.  You’re dating an obsessive gambler, I want to tell him.  You can’t share finances with her.  You have to hide your cash like Anne Frank at Oktoberfest, you dummy.  Believe me.  I know.

* * *

My ex was the queen of the casino.  Beaumont, Texas is a little city thirty minutes west of the Louisiana border.  Louisiana law makes it easy to gamble.  As long as a casino isn’t on actually land the government allows it so, scattered throughout the state are riverboats, perched inches away from shore and welcoming anyone that wants to lose a few dollars inside.

Table games are forced into the waterways but video poker is allowed everywhere.  There’s not a gas station or restaurant in the state that doesn’t have a series of eight-liners against one wall or another.  Brittany found them all.  She bet just to bet.  It was a compulsion.  She had VIP player’s cards at every one of the major casinos and the pit bosses all knew her by name.

I went with her for a while in the beginning, before I realized she had a problem.  I quit going the first time she bit me.  She had run out of money and thought she could somehow win back the six hundred dollars she had just blown – if I would only give her a twenty.  When I refused she leaned in and bit me, violently, then pickpocketed me while I inspected the wound.  She went on her own after that.

She would walk past security like the cast of Ocean’s Eleven.  I don’t remember if that ever happened in the movie or not, but I imagine it did, and encourage you to imagine it as well so my comparison will make sense.  Guards waved at her when she sauntered by and you could actually see wind blow through her hair in slow motion, even indoors.  Music played.  Employees greeted her by name.  She strode past the patrons at the five and ten dollar tables.  The common folk.  The riff raff.  Back to the high roller room, the casino staff practically carried her on their shoulders.  She wasn’t there to lose small amounts, dammit.  She was there to lose it all.

And this wasn’t a girl with a trust fund to squander or someone with a lawyer’s salary and a pricey vice.  Brittany was a waitress.  She took a week’s worth of tips and spun it into gold… before spinning it right back into nothing again.  It’s the gambler’s dilemma, not knowing when to stop.  Brittany was good.  Very good.  She just couldn’t quit while she was ahead.

My cell phone rang one morning at 8:00 am.  She had been gone for two days and was finally calling.  “I’m coming home,” she said.  “And you’re not going to believe this.”

She pulled up to the apartment in a shiny new black Chrysler Sebring.  “What happened to the Escort?” I asked.

“I left it at the dealership when I bought this one.’

“You bought a car?  At 8:00 am?”

“Yep.  Told the guy I’d give him a hundred bucks if he’d unlock the door and sell it to me.”

“So you won then?”

“Thirty-five thousand.  Blackjack.  It took a while and I’m tired.  I’m going to bed.  ‘Night.”

“Goodnight?  It’s morning,” I started to say, but she was already inside.

No wonder they loved her there.  She partied with reckless abandon, flinging hundred dollar chips around like quarters and almost certainly out-drinking and out-cussing everyone else at the table.  When she was on, she was on.  She never played it safe.  Blackjack, three card poker, craps, it didn’t matter.  Pass line?  No thanks.  Put it all on hard eight.

She fell asleep for a few hours and was back on the road to Louisiana almost immediately.  She shouldn’t have gone.  She should have quit.  Forever.  She had thirty-five thousand reasons to stop, yet twenty-four hours after her nap, she had not only lost every dollar from the day before, but an additional twenty thousand that the casino had given her as a marker.  She threw the money away like a crack head mother tossing out an unwanted baby.  It couldn’t have been gone faster if she’d put it directly into a dumpster.  It was staggering.

Casinos put signs up displaying a phone number to call if you have a gambling problem, but no one ever calls them.  It’s a drug, that feeling of victory.  Doubling down and getting your ten.  Splitting aces and watching them both hit.  Seeing the dealer draw to a bust.  It’s an incredible endorphin rush.  But it is still a drug.

Brittany would bet on just about anything.  That was almost the only way to get her to not go gambling – to bet her that she wouldn’t stay home.

* * *

So yes.  As I pass this girl in the hallway, I recognize the look.  The empty stare painted on the face of this now penniless zombie scares me a little bit.  It sends a ripple of goose bumps up my arm as I walk past.

“What are we going to do about Tommy?” she asks the pissed off guy walking ahead of her.

I don’t know who Tommy is, but I’m guessing he was relying on a portion of their bank account for something important.  He might be their son or her brother or a loan shark with an itchy trigger finger.

“Fuck Tommy,” says the man.  “We don’t even have enough gas to get home.”

As the two of them make their way down the hall to the exit, I turn my gaze to follow them.  Are they really just going to go stand outside by the car?  Maybe they’re going to walk home.  Maybe he will sell her into slavery for gas money.  I want to be sympathetic, but that guy has to learn his lesson sometime, doesn’t he?

Right now, I have my own set of problems.  I have to go into a room full of shattered financial dreams and empty wallets.  I have to stare at seats filled with broken souls taking advantage of a free show, probably the only thing they can still afford, and somehow figure out a way to make them laugh.

The casino wants the show clean, too.  I don’t work that dirty to begin with, but I still hate having the limitation thrown on my shoulders.  “Our customers have high moral values,” the manager tells me.  “They don’t use language like that.”  I laugh on the inside.

I can see them through the curtain from backstage.  The disappointment drips silently down their faces like frustrated molasses.  Arms crossed, they sit in the showroom, waiting.  We’re out of cash, their eyes tell me.  We’re beaten and we’re broke.  Now make us laugh, Chuckle Monkey.

Yeah, I’m pretty sure that even the holiest of these people have uttered the word “fuck” once or twice in the last few hours.

I don’t particularly want to walk out there right now but I have to.  My opening act just said goodnight and I’m about to be introduced.  The music is playing.  They can’t be that bad, right?  This show is going to be fine, I tell myself.

And then my subconscious answers me.  “Wanna bet?”