Custer’s Last Ride
Jesse Custer’s wife, Maribel, laid the gremlin bell from his mangled Low Rider on top of his coffin. “Better luck in the next life, baby,” she said, crying.
Someone flicked a lever and the casket sank slowly into the hole. When the top of it was at about ground level, one of the cylinders on the lowering mechanism jammed for a moment which dropped the other side of the casket about a half inch. The bell rocked in little crescents like a feather falling in dead air toward the edge of the lid, then down into the burial vault. It tinkled as it bounced between the side of the vault and the casket. I thought Jesse got his wings!
He earned those wings, if that’s a thing, when he slid head-on, next to his Low Rider, into a truck on Ophidian Road. According to the truck driver, Jesse slid across the double yellow line, kinda fast, into the oncoming lane sideways and laying down. This was on a curve we’re all familiar with. It’s popular with sport-bikers. He passed under the truck’s front bumper headfirst. Even the best helmet wouldn’t have saved him. Dead as ground meat.
Jesse had too much faith in his ability to get himself through dangerous situations against all odds. As strong as that faith was, he couldn’t make his tire grip the road, or hold air with a hole worn in it, and he couldn’t make that truck not be there. An hour before he died, I told Jesse he was lucky to have made it to the clubhouse on that front tire, which was bald as a marble.
Jesse said, “Jethro, luck is the savior of atheists and fools. There is no such thing. There is skill and there is judgement. That’s all I need.”
I didn’t know what Jesse meant by “savior of atheists.” It didn’t make sense to me, but it sounded cool. He told me he could read a tire and know with a fifty-mile degree of certainty how far that tire would roll before it blew out. I didn’t believe him; in fact I knew better. But Jesse was a patched Middleman and a veteran. I never went beyond pointing things out to him that might be helpful. Plus, I don’t argue with people. If he didn’t agree, that was fine with me. Everybody has the right to be wrong.
At Jesse’s wake, his brother Eddy said, “The man was lucky to get through the war without getting blown up. He should have bought a new tire a long time ago. Stubborn son of a bitch.”
Eddy was right, but I figured if I told him I agreed it might make him feel worse. So, I said, “I bet he was a good soldier.”
“Fearless,” Eddy said.
“Yeah,” I said, “Well, at least he got through that.”
The truth is that Jesse was gambling when he rode on that tire. It was pure bad luck that his tire blew out when it did. Ten minutes earlier or later and he would have been on a straighter road, or the truck would have been somewhere else, like before or after the curve. It could have been the difference of having one more or one less beer or taking a piss before he left the clubhouse. He would have got banged up, maybe a little road rash, some embarrassment, but he could have survived.
Instead, the tire failed when Jesse was in the middle of that curve at the moment when that truck was coming the other way. Jesse was gambling with his life, whether he intended to or not. But that didn’t make him a gambler any more than quenching the flaming bacon on my stove made me a fireman.
Every time any gambler I know wins a substantial amount of money, that’s all they see. They forget the thousands of dollars they spent to win a hundred, or tens of thousands they spent to win a thousand. They have no tolerance for negative thinking. Their belief in luck is strengthened when they win back a fraction of the money they lost. And they can’t wait to gamble with it.
Unlike Jesse, who was completely blind to the luck that kept him whole until it didn’t, gamblers know they’re gambling. They rely on luck to change the outcome of the game they’re playing–especially on slot machines. They seem to believe that luck, despite the terrible odds, will cause them to win. It’s like a religion where Luck is the Savior. They are able to convince themselves that if they keep playing the result will be different. Which it is occasionally, but not really, because they are gamblers. They put all their faith in something that is as random as ping pong balls blown up a tube.
Gambling is a way of making bad decisions seem like they were almost good ideas. I’m not a gambler. But, sometimes, I gamble. Not with my life, not like Jesse did, or with my money—not even my spare change. Mostly, I gamble with my time. Which is why I got to know Malory.
Continued in Part Two