I almost fell into Jesse Huber’s grave. Cate, Jesse’s widow, laid the gremlin bell off Jesse’s bike on top of his coffin before they lowered it into the hole.
“Better luck in the next life, baby,” she said, crying.
As the top of the casket got to ground level, one of the cylinders on the lowering mechanism slipped. One side of Jesse’s box dropped about half an inch and the bell inched toward the edge of the lid, tracing little crescents with its lip like a starling feather falling through still air. I tried to grab it but I lost my balance. Fat Leon got hold of my jacket at the collar from behind and held me back but I missed the bell. When it hit the bottom of the vault, I heard a tinkling sound. I thought, Jesse got his wings!
As far as I know, gremlin bells don’t work in the after-life. Cate should have had Jesse anointed with holy oil to protect him from whatever but she didn’t because Jesse was a devout agnostic. Plus, he didn’t have a forehead to anoint. Jesse had no idea how lucky he had been to live long enough to die when he did. But he didn’t believe in luck either. He figured he deserved the credit for everything that went right for him. Jesse thought he was the headlight and everything that came at him was bugs.
An hour before he bugged himself head-on into Big John Brown’s cement truck, I offered Jesse a ride home in my pick-up. Partly because it was starting to rain, but also Jesse wasn’t walking straight; he was slurring his words a little and calling everybody at the bar Brother like it meant something. He got on his bike to leave and almost dropped it as he was mounting up. Fat Leon grabbed the handlebar and held the bike straight. Fucking Leon is always in the right place at the right time.
“Maybe you wanta ride Jesse,“ I said.
“I’ll be fine once I get rolling.”
“You know it’s rainin, right brother? Kind of a gamble.” said Leon.
“Let go, man.”
“You sure? No shame in takin a ride. How you gonna ride shit-faced, in shit weather? And you got shit for tires?”
Shit for brains. I thought to myself.
“Don’t make me fuck you up Leon”
“Okay Jess. It’s your shit. I jus–”
Jesse fired his scoot up, Leon let go and that was that.
“Ahright, Jesse. Good luck on them tires,” I said.
He stomped his bike into first gear. I was hoping he would think twice. But he was an invincible drunk. He tipped the shifter up into neutral and leaned toward me. He liked to preach when someone put an idea in his head. Over the potato-potato-potato of his idling engine he spoke to me in his most sincere voice.
“Brother,” he said, “Luck is the prayer of atheists. There is no such thing as luck. There is only skill and good judgement. That’s all I need, brother. Luck has nothing to do with it.”
And that was the last time any of us saw Jesse tits-forward. He didn’t believe in luck, but it was the very thing that let Jesse live long enough to die when he did. Fat Leon was right. Jesse was gambling with his life, riding drunk on shit tires in the rain. But that didn’t make him a gambler any more than putting out my flaming bacon on the stove made me a fireman.
Unlike Jesse, gamblers seem to believe that luck, despite terrible odds, will cause them to win. It’s like a religion where Luck is the Savior, like losing money isn’t even part of gambling for a gambler. Every time the gamblers I know win a substantial amount of money they forget the thousands of dollars they spent to win a hundred. Every loss is a step closer to the next win.
I’ve been known to take chances, more than some people, but less than others. I gamble sometimes, not with my life, not the way Jesse did. I use good judgement when it comes to rain and bad tires. I know my limitations. I gamble more with my time than anything else. That’s how I met Malory.
Malory works at the TRU STOP convenience store where I used to buy my morning coffee. She has shiny, straight, black hair and deep, dark almond-shaped, Asian eyes that sometimes look like they’re half closed when she’s talking to you. She’s curvy and she’s very friendly, a combination which always disarms me. There have been times when, looking at her, I almost forgot why I went into the store. One November morning she wore a black t-shirt with a gold Chinese symbol that seemed to stand out on the front of her shirt. When I brought my coffee to the counter, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I wanted to say something nice that wasn’t weather related.
“Cool shirt! I don’t know what that means, but I like the way it looks.” I figured she could take that more than one way and ignore any meaning she didn’t like. I know. Smooth.
“That’s FU!,” she said with a smile, “It means good luck.” She spotted my grease-stained hands and asked if I fell down on the playground, then laughed a little as she rang up my coffee.
“No, I didn’t fall down. I’m a mechanic at ARF and ARF Specialties.”
“I need a mechanic,” she said, “My check engine light is on and my emissions test is due. ARF wanted a hundred twenty just to look at it. Do you work on the side?”
I was between squeezes and she looked warm and sexy, which clouded my judgement.
“Well, I don’t do much side work in winter as a rule, but depending on what the problem is I might be able to help you out. What kind of car is it?”
She pointed at a white 2003 Sebring Convertible parked under the rusty Play Lottery Here sign attached to the light pole with muffler clamps and what looks like a coat hanger.
“The engine light came on the same day my license sticker expired. A guy was going to look at it, but he’s been too busy.”
Fucking Chrysler I thought. Why didn’t I look at the parking lot before I opened my mouth? I didn’t want to make her feel bad about a car she was probably stuck with but I hate working on Chryslers, even when I’m getting paid. I thought If I blow her off, I won’t want to come back here for coffee and I won’t get to see her. One of my favorite recurring fantasies began to fade away.
I set my coffee on the counter and moseyed over to the donuts and stared at them like I couldn’t decide. If I promise to look at it, I knew I would most likely get sucked into a vortex of hard-to-reach sensors, insane diagnostic puzzles and a nest of brittle, leaking plastic vacuum lines. And I wouldn’t charge her for it because the car is not worth fixing. But she looked beautiful that morning and the idea that I could cause her to smile gave me goose bumps of anticipated rewards. I took a deep breath and grabbed a donut twisted into a figure eight.
“Sure. I can take a look at it for you. How does it run?”
“Has anybody worked on it?”
“Not yet. My brother’s friend was supposed to fix it, but he hasn’t been around.”
Usually, a boyfriend, father or uncle who shouldn’t be allowed to open the hood, has been pulling wires, replacing sensors and filling the driver’s head with nonsense like: You need a flux capacitor. That’s a dealer item, which is code for I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.
“Okay. I’ll check it out and see what I can do.”
After work I gave the Sebring’s gas cap a twist, then opened the hood and looked for obvious problems. I checked the air filter and as many vacuum hoses and lines as I could reach. Everything looked okay on the surface. I gritted my teeth, plugged my scanner into the data port, turned the key on and hit the button to pull the trouble codes. The scanner read COMMUNICATING WITH VEHICLE, then NO CODES FOUND. I started the engine and waited for the dash lights to clear. The MIL wasn’t on. I drove the car around for about ten minutes. It was fine. Sometimes I get lucky. I went back into the store and handed Malory the keys.
“The light’s off”
“What was the problem?”
“I don’t know. I checked it out and the car is okay.”
She smiled. Her eyes fluttered. She leaned forward with her palms on the low counter and her back arched. Her breasts pushed the FU symbol out like it was a sign from luck-heaven.
“That’s great! How much do I owe you?”
“Well, nothing. I didn’t actually fix it. I don’t charge for no results. Drive the car for a couple of days to make sure the light doesn’t come back on, then get the emissions test. It’ll pass if the check engine light isn’t on.”
“Can I get you anything? Would you like coffee? Water?”
I was so relieved that I didn’t have to crawl around on the monkey-puzzle that her car should have been, that all I could think about was getting out of there while I was ahead.
“No thanks. Maybe one of these mornings you can buy me coffee.”
“Deal. Thanks! How about a couple of lottery tickets?”
She handed me two one-dollar scratch off cards and a quick-pick for Mega Millions. I didn’t win shit.
When I saw a new sticker on her license plate, I stopped in for a free cup of coffee. The store was empty except for Malory and me. She came from behind the counter and gave me a big hug.
“You’re a miracle worker,” she said.
I smiled, thinking it was worth the risk of working on that car just for the hug. I drank my coffee as we talked.
“Let me make you dinner,” she said, as she rang up a customer who bought a handful of scratch-off tickets.
“That will be a hundred and twenty even, Fred” she said to the old man.
Fred’s gnarled hand shook a little as her handed her a wad of small bills, a handful of change and three wining cards. Malory scanned the cards and counted the money. Then handed him a combination of tickets without asking which ones he wanted.
“Good luck Fred!”
“Thanks Mal. I’ll cut you in when I win big.”
The old boy shuffled out to a waiting Uber parked next to my pick-up. It was Cate, Jesse’s widow. She was driving people around to make ends meet. I would have waved but Cate-the-widow was staring down at her lap. I turned to Malory and watched her slide the bills into her cash drawer, double-check Fred’s winners and put the tickets in a box under the counter. She grinned when she looked up.
“Fred is my best customer. He always wins. How about spaghetti?”
“Sure! Let me know when you’re ready.”
Weeks later, Malory came to my place and cooked spaghetti. She brought meatballs and sauce too. I supplied the beer. We ate in near silence. The spaghetti was good. I just kept eating to avoid the risk of saying the wrong thing too soon, which is something I seem to have a knack for. After dinner we sat around and had a few beers. I turned on the TV and heard Robert Di Nero’s voice, “That’s the truth about Las Vegas. We’re the only winners. The players don’t stand a chance.” The scene was the busy, flashy floor of a big casino full of people and color. I told her that Casino was one of my favorite movies. I wasn’t sure she heard me. She sat back, staring at the TV. Her dark, almond eyes were fixed.
“I go to the casino in Aurora every New Year’s Eve on my birthday. I usually go with my friends, but they’re in Las Vegas. If you want, you can be my date next week.”
I had never been to a casino. I’d seen them in the movies and on TV. That was close enough. I have cousins who go to Las Vegas and talk about how much fun they have playing the slots and they rave about the free buffets. They’re happy, mostly, but broke. And fat. Malory was cute, plus, she said “date!”
“That sounds great!”
“I’ll come to your house New Year’s Eve and we can go from here.”
She showed up on December thirty-first and we were off. As we walked into the casino it became clear that Malory knew all of the employees, the guys standing next to the turnstile at the entrance greeted her with smiles, two guys dressed in suits with gold colored casino name tags hugged her like she was a sister. The guy running around the floor with a computer strapped to his arm wearing a headset like a football coach greeted her by name with a grin and a soft-touch, one-handed hug, like they were both happy to see each other, but afraid something might rub off, or on, if they got too close.
Malory opened her purse. It smelled like cinnamon. She whipped a hundred-dollar bill out and held it up to the narrow mouth of a dollar slot machine. It sucked in the C-note and lit up. Malory swiped what looked like a credit card. An information screen greeted her by name, WELCOME BACK MALORY. It displayed some numbers next to the word ELITE.
She pushed buttons the size of Halloween candy bars that were spread across the playing surface of the big-faced bandit like she was playing high-speed Whack-A-Mole. Lights flashed and brightly colored symbols morphed in a constant barrage of hope and good fortune on the screen. Carnival music blared and beeped while she pushed the play buttons. Bells rang in perfect rhythm until the display read 0 POINTS, about ten minutes later.
The screen blinked and the symbols fluttered, then floated up and down, waiting. The music was a subdued elevator version of the happy sounds it had been making, like there was something missing. Feed me. I was stunned. I had never spent a hundred dollars and got less than an hour’s entertainment and a smile, or a part from the Harley dealer. Malory looked around the room.
“I don’t usually play this machine. Let’s go over there.”
We made our way through a crowd of old and middle-aged people, some wearing ratty shoes and old coats, sitting on chairs with their folded walkers leaning like kickstands against their machines mixed with others dressed in tuxedos and evening dresses. The casino seemed like a great equalizer.
I noticed a guy on a tiny stage off to the side of the room. He was sitting at a portable keyboard playing a Gerry Garcia song, singing:
“…it costs a lot to win and even more to lose…”
People looked at him as if the sound coming from his amplifier might be a new way to dispose of their money. It wasn’t. They moved along looking disappointed. I felt bad for the guy. He got paid to sing and play as a prop so the pigeons could tell themselves they are there for the entertainment, not just to gamble. Like the thought-provoking stories and essays are filler between photo spreads in Playboy, that sad singer is in the casino to let people feel less desperate as they steadily lighten their wallets and empty their bank accounts.
After watching Malory lose another hundred-dollar bill in a few minutes to the chirping penny slot machine, I felt bad. That was a lot of money to lose in less than thirty minutes. I wanted to break the tension I felt creeping up my back.
“Looks like I’m bad luck.”
“No! There’s no bad luck! We don’t say that! Ever! There is only Luck!”
Malory looked frantic. I felt my chances of a good time drift away like Jesse’s bell rolling off the casket. Malory shoved in a twenty. The machine came back to life. I stepped behind to watch over her shoulder, out of sight. I felt like I not only caused her to lose, but stepped on my dick when I tried to apologize. Like I actually affected something in the outcome by uttering a few words. Then, I remembered that this whole thing was her idea. Jesse’s words haunted me for a moment “…There’s no such thing as luck.”
“Here. You play,” Malory said abruptly.
It was an order. I grabbed an empty chair and sat next to her.
“Okay, push that button.”
Then, she pointed at different buttons in what I assumed was a special order as if skill and good judgement were involved.
“This one, then that one. Again. Again.”
She pointed and I hit the buttons. I couldn’t tell who was playing. I felt like an accomplice to robbery. I kept playing as instructed until the balance hit $.05. Malory took over. She loaded another hundred-dollar bill and started over. After a few minutes her total got up to a hundred-twenty-five. I was impressed for a minute. Then, the balance came back down to seventy-eight dollars after three or four more button mashes.
Malory stopped for a moment and stared at the machine, possibly thinking, which by then didn’t seem to be part of the game to me. She took a breath and like Liberace at a piano, hit a sequence of buttons which produced a paper voucher for seventy-eight dollars. She put the voucher in her cinnamon-scented purse, pulled out two twenties and slid them into the slot. She rested her hand on the sloped playing surface of the six-button bandit with her finger on the play button ready to scrub my mention of bad luck from the machine. A minute later, forty dollars was gone like wash water down the sink.
She kept shoving in money and pushing that fucking button again and again. Apparently, the trick to gambling with a slot machine is to ignore the losses and convince yourself that the result might be different each time you hit the button. I wanted to be sociable. So, I played with some of my own money on the next machine over while she shredded another hundred dollars. I couldn’t get the hang of it. No matter which finger I used or how much I tried to believe I’d win, I didn’t. Forty bucks was gone in a matter of minutes like I never had it, like I left work early one day that week and my check was short.
After that I just watched. I felt like a gawker at a bad accident on the highway. I imagined white sheets spread over dead gamblers trapped in shredded wallets and purses, paper vouchers scattered and dancing in the slip stream behind slot machines the size of cement trucks lumbering down the highway leaving cheap tiaras, mangled walkers and old gym shoes in their wakes, beeping, popping and playing Chinese carnival songs.
“Excuse me,” A shrill voice hollered behind me, “Can I get through please?”
I stepped aside. An old woman in a faded green cardigan wearing a blonde wig more like it was a hat than hair, was leaning over a walker with her purse in a basket clamped to the handlebars. She scuff-shuffled past me like rolling downhill with no brakes in a beeline to an idle penny slot machine with a chair propped against the front. I looked at Malory and shrugged, palms up.
“Bathroom break,” she said, “The tilted chair holds the machine if you have to walk away from it, but the floor manager will only leave the chair up for so long, then you lose the machine.”
Malory fed another twenty into the slot like it was her first, pushed the buttons and watched as the numbers turned to zeros, again. She wasn’t surprised or disappointed. Just twenty dollars poorer.
“That’s it,” She announced, “We’re done. I hit my limit. We can go now.”
It was only ten PM. I thought good, we’ll go back to my place and bring in the new year there, hopefully with a warm hug, a kiss and who knows what else if I play my cards right.
When we got back to my house, I smelled cinnamon again when Malory opened her purse to get her keys. She leaned toward me, gave me a half-hug and was out of the car before I could think or say a word. Better luck in the next life. She got in her Sebring and headed west, probably back to the casino to give that seventy-eight-dollar voucher back to the slot machine. I think it was unfinished business that she didn’t want me around for, like I had done enough damage for the evening.
I brought in the new year with my dog. I turned on the TV and looked for anything that wasn’t a commercial. Casino was on, again. I heard De Niro “This is the end-result of all the bright lights, and the comp trips, and the champagne, and free hotel suites, and all the broads and all the booze. It’s all been arranged for us to get your money.” I Remembered Jesse’s last words to me “Luck has nothing to do with it.”