On the last day of his life, my father bought two scratch-off lottery tickets. We had just finished a lap through the Price Chopper, filling a cart with foods his urologist said he should eat during treatment for the metastasized renal cell cancer wreaking havoc on his body. The cancer was incurable, Dr. Petroski had told us, but not untreatable. I latched onto that word, to the possibility of prolonged life; I married myself to it. Only three days had passed since the terminal diagnosis, so I floated through these tasks with little sense of reality, a bride who keeps forgetting her new surname. Got cancer? Buy frozen veggies and V-8.

Hard Eight

By Slade Ham


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?”

There was one seat left at the diner bar next to a white-haired gambler. I sat down as he ordered a soda and bowl of chili. I ordered the $4.95 Binion’s Burger, potato salad and a two-dollar Coke.

The white-haired man didn’t say a word as he waited for his food. When it arrived he took a couple of bites, washed it down with a sip of his drink, then paid for it with two five-dollar casino chips.He might be a fan of USGamblingSites.com too !

“Keep the change,” he said.

A female worker with sunken cheeks and poorly dyed hair stood behind the counter and shrugged after he wandered away. “I sure hope he was finished,” she said.

As she tossed his leftovers in the trash, a soft-spoken black man with a beard walked up on my right. He put a bag on the chair between us. “What kind of beans you got?” he said.

“Pinto,” said a Binion’s diner worker named Mel. I swear he worked the same counter ten years before. He was so matter of fact that I considered ordering some beans too.

“Give me some of that. And some corn bread. And a water,” the black man said. His food arrived almost as fast as he ordered it. The https://www.slotsformoney.com/casinos/us/florida/ is where one can go to gamble online.

My burger was juicy. There were three tomatoes along with other fixings on the side. I carefully placed the tomatoes on top of the patty, replaced the bun and took a bite.

I looked over at the black man. He’d dismantled his cornbread and mixed it into his beans.

In the morning I saw a woman asleep in the warm Las Vegas light. She sat on a chair and leaned against a pole. Her dirty head was flopped forward and to the right. She leaned slightly against black and blue bags. Both had been silkscreened with the words, “Las Vegas.”

She’d been there all night.

My first night in town I walked from the sardine-packed crowds of Fremont Street to find the Downtown Transit Center. I was going to start taking a city bus to my new job.

The streets were nearly empty along Main Street Station. I rounded a parking garage to find a limping black man talking to his friend about getting in a club. One of them said something like, “We can get in there.” They disappeared into an alley lit by historic neon signs that led back to the tens of thousands partying under the Fremont Street Experience.

Up ahead, glittering blue and pink lights lit the top of the transit center like a slot machine just hit a jackpot. I walked through its doors to find a man sleeping on a chair. The long hallway was empty, silent. If it weren’t for the flashing lights on top of the building I would have thought the bus station slipped into hibernation.

A young hustler slunk past closed cashier windows. A Latino janitor pushed his cart through the station. He didn’t look like he wanted to work. I checked the price of bus fare. Seven dollars a day. Steep. Those are deadly prices. Tourist prices. You have to have a hell of a good job just to afford the stale bus air and a spot on seats that rarely catch a whiff of hand sanitizer.

I walked back out through the same set of doors that I entered.

“What do you mean it’s not open twenty-four hours? What the fuck am I supposed to do after hours?” said a man into a cell phone. The world around him was a big dark mess lit in the distance by neon and schools of light bulbs that swam through the Vegas night. He had a black bag slung over his shoulder and looked to be in his late fifties. Maybe he had grandchildren. He could have been a drifter. Maybe he was like me and just found a job in a big city far from where unemployment still dipped near twenty percent.

I slipped past into the glittering night.

Walking south I could see the closed Lady Luck had spent her nine lives. I remember when it was open. When I worked in Las Vegas ten years before as an artist for the big canopy of lights above Fremont Street. I remember a midget Charlie Chaplan twirling his cane outside the casino like he was some kind of shrunken Alice in Wonderland street performer. I had waved at him.

“Look at all the casinos,” said one of two men in front of me. I couldn’t hear anything else they said. My ears practically deaf from too many factory jobs.

I lost sight of them walking toward the Gold Spike.

I made a right turn and snapped a foggy, lonely photo of the El Cortez after a herd of cowboys slunk past toward the raving party on the promenade.

Across the street, a gutted room basked in white light. Empty bench stools hung under the weight of ghosts.

I made a left, toward the shadows of shady motels. I passed the old glittering historic Aladdin Hotel lamp and a flickering vertical sign that was nearly burnt out. Only two letters worked at all. They flashed and buzzed “FR-FR-FR…”

Tired, I turned around and headed straight toward Fremont Street.

A man in a wheelchair sat at a corner. His thinned grey hair on his big round head looked like a mess of moonlit grass. Two men leaned against newspaper racks about ten feet away from him. They waited.

“I’m going to hustle her,” one of the men said about a woman across the street. She stood by herself on the corner as if crack was going to flow from a nearby storm drain.

I shuffled across the intersection, past a club, a nearly empty Cuban restaurant, and an Albanian pizza parlor. A 7-11 that once flashed its gaudy convenience store sign had closed since the last time I lived on Fremont Street.

Since the last time I lived in a casino.

Further ahead, tourists stared into the big metallic sky. They waited for more lights to explode. I soon entered the hotel where I was living. I peeked at a tank where two sharks slowly circled with schools of fish. They look like they’d been gambled out. This was it, their last show. Out near the pool someone hit it big. Or maybe they just didn’t bust. Or maybe they were enamored by the lumbering sharks.

I went up the elevator to the 22nd floor. Outside, there were shouts from an alley. The walls shivered with conversation. I shut the blinds, the curtains and the lights and eventually fell asleep.

In 1947, author and certified intellectual Simone de Beauvoir left Paris to travel America for four months.She chronicled the experience in her long-unpublished book L’Amerique au jour de jour (America Day by Day, University of California Press) making both critical and gushing observations on American culture that are remarkable in the way they still apply, as though she either had uncanny foresight or else the country has, in fact, shifted very little since the first years after the Second World War.

She points out:“Tourism has a privileged character in America:it doesn’t cut you off from the country it’s revealing to you; on the contrary, it’s a way of entering it.”This she says leaving Las Vegas , the city that has become a truer portal into the American psyche every year since de Beauvoir first visited.Sadly, she never laid eyes on Paris Las Vegas, where she could have experienced the acute ironic thrill of sitting down at a caféin the shadow of the Eiffel Tower beside eight lanes of traffic and a row of swaying palm trees.

TNB Headquarters could not be more excited about this year’s Superbowl.

That’s not entirely true.  We could be more excited for plenty of reasons.  One of them would be if there actually were a TNB Headquarters.  Especially if it was someplace cool, like New Orleans, or Branson, MO.

But, while there are plenty of things more exciting, the game promises to be a good one.  For the first time in a decade, the Superbowl is a match-up of the two top seeds in each conference — the Indianapolis Colts, representing the AFC, and the NFC’s Saints, from the aforementioned Big Easy.  And both teams have offenses that sportswriters often describe as “high-voltage,” which is a fancy way of saying “electric,” which is a fancy way of saying “good.”

While an Asian pro with a rhinestone ass wiggles next to a pot-bellied shooter sporting a runaway moustache at the Bellagio craps table, I wonder what the percentage of self-deluded people there are in the world.

Probably pretty fucking high, I think as I scan the room. At the video poker bar, a bachelorette pops a caplet of X into her mouth as her friends cheer her on. “Scooby Dooby Doo,” she howls at a passing geriatric, then preps a line of coke on her wrist to rev her high.

She catches me watching and smiles. “You wanna line, sugar?”

Mississippi. Maybe Alabama. “No thanks.”

“Delusion is the cornerstone of happiness,” she offers with a snort. “You sure you don’t need a little help? You look too grounded.”

“Thanks. Clean living,” I lie before turning my attention back to the Asian ass wiggler. She turns around and I can see her ridiculous tits falling out of her see-thru lace tank top. Her areolas are the size of eggplants, and I can’t stop staring.

If her tits were planets they’d have their own solar system. A universe of silicone leaching into her bloodstream and killing her that very moment.

“Long as you look good dying,” I imagine her saying between sucks off the pot-bellied shooter’s dick.

The shooter rolls the dice, and I turn away to chase a waitress for a drink. I order a bottle of Fiji water and then mosey over to the craps table to get a better look at those tits. If I can get a peek into that cleavage, maybe I can discern my fate. Like reading tea leaves or chicken bones.

Or crystal balls.

“Yo, yo, yo,” the shooter calls to the dice, but it’s a big zilch for him.

“That all right, Daddy. I fuck you good no how,” Tits says as she smacks him on the ass.

I inch closer to her as a Hadda Brooks song plays: “Need a Little Sugar in my Bowl.” One of my favorites. I squeeze up to the table and make a pass line bet, hoping for a seven or eleven. I had a lot riding on today. More than just a few chips. But it was six o’clock already and the call still hadn’t come.

“Now would be a good time for an eleven,” The Shooter begs as he hops from one foot to another, shaking the dice in his fist. He rolls a twelve. Craps. 

“Come on, baby. Let’s go fuck,” she says, as if she’s asking to go to the store or get an oil change. Well, maybe an oil change is indeed what she’s after.

The Shooter brushes her away. “I’m down 5 g’s, and I ain’t goin nowhere til I get it back.”

The Tits heave a sigh. She knows in the hierarchy of addictions, The Game trumps The Hump. She steps back. She knows her place.

“Mentos?” I ask taking my opportunity.

“Thank you, baby,” she replies as she pops it into her Restylane-riddled mouth.

“Maybe I bad luck,” she worries as she watches The Shooter lose another round.

“I don’t believe in luck,” I offer as I lay a few chips down for another pass line bet.

“Why you in Vegas if you no believe in luck?”

“Because I believe in strategy,” I reply.

“You a player?” she wonders, examining my shoes.

“Nah. I’m here to drive a car back to Texas.”

“You drive cars?” she asks, scratching a mole on her left tit.

She catches me watching again but doesn’t seem to mind.

“Not really.”

“What kind of cars you drive?”

I try to explain, but she cuts me off.

“Ooh,” she coos. “You take me for drive, I fuck you good.”

“Yo, yo, yo,” The Shooter calls as he rolls a two. I double my money.

“Ah, thanks, but I’m straight,” I say.

“Then why you look at my tits? They nice, yes?”

“Yeah. They are,” I reply as I place another bet. “Didn’t mean any disrespect. I just like looking at tits. And well, yours are kinda hard to miss.”

She tosses her head back and laughs, squealing like the first three or four seconds of a tornado siren.

“Long as he losing, no fuck for me. Come on. You buy me ice cream, I show you tits.”

I take my chips off the table. “Ok.”

Thirty minutes later we’re in the bathroom out by the pools and she’s got her shirt raised. A maid changes the garbage, paying us no mind. A drunk tourist washes her face.

“I pay top dollar, yet still small scars. See?” She heaves up her tits to expose two minute scars.Maybe fake tits are part of mankind’s evolutionary process. Maybe these scars become fins and we need the silicone for buoyancy, I wonder as I notice a long hair curling out of her nipple.

“Do you float any better?” I ask as she drops her tits.

They’re denser, I notice when they fail to bounce.

“I no swim,” she says. “Extensions,” she offers, curling a lock around her finger.

I examine her tits for a few minutes longer, but I can’t help feeling disappointed. Nothing had changed. I was the same person. With the same problems. And the same questions. And the phone call still hadn’t come.

“Thanks,” I say as I hand over her ice cream cone. She lowers her shirt and takes the cone. The Vegas wind blows hard, and it reminds me of my dog’s breath after a midday run.

“You wanna go for a ride?” I ask, not really knowing why. Maybe I thought if I preoccupied myself, I wouldn’t notice that the call hadn’t come.

“Ok. Daddy be in there all day.”

She grabs a paper towel and tucks it in her purse.

“We be back by 5?” she asks. “I dress for Noodles tonight.”

Noodles was my favorite restaurant in the hotel. I had planned to eat there tonight as well, but decided to nix that idea. I didn’t want her to think I was some kind of weirdo. Not that it mattered. So why did it?

“No problem,” I reply as we head towards the garage.

I hand the valet my card, and within a few minutes, he returns with my boss’s car, a yellow convertible Maserati Bora.

“Nice car,” she says, and it’s only then that I realize I don’t know her name. But I don’t ask. Somehow, I feel everything will be spoiled if I know her name.

“Where are you from?” I ask instead.

“Phnom Penh. You know?” She gets in the car. 

“Thailand?” I guess.

“Cambodia. But I grew up in Sa Kaew refugee camp.”

I don’t feel like getting heavy, so I just say, “Heavy.”

We make a left out of the garage onto Las Vegas Boulevard into a sea of tourists. I’d like to hit a few with my car, particularly the ones with the blinking margarita glasses, but I decide against it. Not in the mood. Not today. Plus my boss would kill me if I put a scratch on his car.

Tits fondles the radio and finds Usher. Dancing in her seat, she sings, “She said baby let’s go…”

…so I turbo charge the Maserati, almost hitting a Honda on my right.

“Yeah!” she sings over the purr of the engine.

We make our way out of the city and into the quiet of the desert. “Where we go, baby?” she asks, wiggling her ass in the seat, probably scratching the leather with those rhinestones.

“Ever been to Red Rock Canyon?” I ask.

“You sure you no wanna fuck instead?” she asks.

“Yeah. I’m sure.”

My phone rings.

It’s the call.

I smile and let it go to voicemail. Then I grab a celebratory CD from the visor and pop it in the stereo.


Singing, I blast the radio.

“She went away for a holiday

Said she’s going to L.A.

But she never got there

She never got there

She never got there

They say…”

Surprisingly, my Cambodian hooker joins in.

“The KKK took my baby away,

They took my baby away.”

 I turn into Red Rock, and while Joey Ramone laments about his girlfriend, an eagle shoots across the sky.

 “They good luck,” she says, pointing to the sky.

 “Yes. They are.”

As I look across the mojave, it twinkles like my future.