Steven J. Rogers is an avid canoesman and beardsman from Northern Wisconsin. Alas, he currently lives in Los Angeles, California. Steven is not an absolutist, so he is willing to accept the idea that there might be a hell. If there is, he’s pretty sure it would involve writing bios. He has a BA and MFA which he’d happily trade for some beer money. To learn more about him and his upcoming publications please visit www.stevenjrogers.ink.
A Short Story
By Steven J. Rogers
Across the poker table, Sarah massages a man in a grease covered trucker hat. She has to keep her masseuse soft hands below his shoulder bones, to avoid brushing against the fat jowls that hang off his cheeks like the floppy ears of an elephant. It’s uncomfortable to watch, but that’s the way it goes in poker rooms across the country. Attractive girls, wander the tables offering massages for two bucks a minute.
I can tell she doesn’t like touching him, but she talks and flirts anyway. She tells him she used to be an actress. There was a movie, she played the lead, the flick went to a couple of festivals, but it was never released in theaters. The stuff she did on the internet was what she was most proud of. A dance number with a hundred thousand views, a superhero spoof with a million. That’s how she got the agent, and why she moved to Los Angeles.
She meets my eyes, and grins through her sadness while she talks about trying to make it in the City of Angels. I don’t look at her, I’m the middle of a hand against a farmer in a bright orange hunting jacket, with cheeks so wind-worn little black dots cover his pores. It’s the last month before he has to return to the soy fields, and he’s looking to blow off a little steam before the real gambling begins.
I know this about him, I know as much as I can about the six other players at the table. The kid on my right, in a backward baseball cap, has an ego so big he can’t fold a hand, even if he knows he’s beat. The boomers on my left, talking politics and real estate, aren’t going to play a hand until they’re ready to go home.
The farmer slides out a bet of sixty dollars, the most a player can bet in the state of Minnesota. I have a pair of fours. Not a good hand, but knowing what I know…
I study the man; his neck and eyes. When some players get excited their pupils dilate, or the vein in their neck twitches. Earlier in the night, his eyes dilated when he had a good hand, but I can’t tell now. I should probably call, but I don’t have the gamble inside me that I once did. I’m distracted.
The guy in the greasy trucker hat presses his back against Sarah’s breasts, and tells her if acting doesn’t work out she could always model. She needs the tips, so she lets him lean, and she digs her hands into his ribs. By the smile on his face, I can tell he doesn’t need the massage.
That sixty dollars doesn’t matter anyway. I have all the money I need for the surgery. I toss my pair of fours to the dealer, rack up my chips, and leave the table.
I work my way across the floor of the Turning Aces Card Club and Horse Racing Casino, where hundreds of players congregate around dozens of tables. Their musty stench of two-day- old cologne and nervous sweat assaults my senses. My stomach turns. There’s only one way to calm it.
There’s a bar in the middle of the casino, with floor to ceiling picture windows that look out over the poker room. It’s covered in those blue and green circular lights that were all the rage in the early two-thousands. I belly up to the bar, and gaze at a wall of flat screens that blare horse races from places with far less snow than Minnesota. They seem like better places to be than here. Then, I remember I’ve been to most of them, and every place in this country is the same; strip malls, vinyl sided ranch houses, and endless highways that lead to carbon copies of where you just came from.
The bartender, whom I’ve seen at parties at least a hundred times, walks over and asks me what I’m having like it’s the first time she’s ever seen me. “The cheapest, dirtiest, pilsner you’ve got on tap,” I say. She looks confused, but doesn’t ask me what I mean.
A minute later she brings me a stout. Close enough.
I slide a couple bar stools down and look out at the poker room. The sounds of the clanking chips and cacophony of dull conversation are deafening even through the windows. I can see Sarah, she’s done with greasy trucker hat, and moved on to the shoulders of the farmer. I head to the other side of the bar, where there’s a window that looks out at the race track.
The whole track is dusted with that late spring northern midwest snow. The kind that melts during the day, refreezes at night, then mixes with dirt and debris from the interstate. I feel melancholic dread looking at it, but it’s better than looking at whatever lowlife she’s digging her perfect hands into.
I hear someone call my name. I know the voice. Piggy.
I turn, look him up and down. His department store fedora hangs low enough I can’t see his eyes. Though I haven’t seen Piggy in about five years, it looks like he’s still wearing the same cheap suit as the last time I ran into him.
“I haven’t seen you in a Coons age,” he shoves his hand out. It smells like cigars and salt. I shake it, and nod to an empty stool.
“Have a seat, I’ll buy you a beer if you don’t ask me to borrow money.”
Piggy’s expression looks like an upper-middle-class kid’s on Christmas morning with the smallest presents under the tree, but he sits anyway, then orders a shot of the most expensive tequila in the place.
“How much you up?” He asks, still working some sort of angle.
I dig in my pocket and feel the six hundred dollar bills pressed against the side of the cloth of my khakis. Six hundred bucks. A far cry from what I used to make on my daily trips to the card club. “I broke about even,” I tell him.
“When did you get back from Vegas?” Piggy asks while slowly nursing his shot. I’m not in the mood to recap anything, and regret asking him to sit.
“I’ve never seen anybody crush cards like you did back in the day,” Piggy continues, the silence seems to bother him.
“I don’t play anymore. I’m a hump now.”
“You’re playing me. There’s no way you got a real job.”
“Got my real estate license. You think I’d wear these khakis if I was still chasing marks?” “I don’t believe you.”
“I’m not very good at it either. Sold like, three houses since I started.” “Why don’t you play anymore? You were a boss.”
There’s a whole slew of reasons why I’d lost my nerve and moved back to the midwest to sell houses. I went broke after the feds shut down all the online poker sites, my dad had stage 4 pancreatic cancer, and then there was her.
“I just got sick of playing,” I tell him. “Then what are you doing here?”
“Something came up. I needed a couple extra bucks.” Though I’m telling him the truth, I can see Piggy’s jaw grinding. If he we were playing cards, I’d think he thought I was lying.
Piggy points at one of the TV’s. The horses are in the gate at a racetrack in Florida. “I got a guy down in Tampa, tells me the next race, smart money is on the Arabian, ‘Ghost in the Sky.’ You make a bet I’ll go in on it with you.”
Piggy slams his shot, mumbles something about needing to use the can, and meanders down the bar to find someone else to borrow money from. No matter how much of a sad sack he is, I’m jealous of the guy. For him, it feels good to lose. He doesn’t have expectations, doesn’t need anything out of life except enough hustle to make the next bet.
Money means nothing and everything inside of a casino. At least, that’s kind of duality one needs to be embrace if they’re going to win any kind of bet. It’s a duality I once embodied,
but I’ve lost it. Maybe it’s age, or maybe I think there’s something more to the world than hustling farmers out of their mortgage payments. I just haven’t found it yet.
I can hear her approach from across the bar. It must be her break. “He had twos,” Sarah says as she sits on the stool beside me, “the farmer showed his hand after you left. He had a pair of twos.”
“He had the best hand. I had ace high.”
“Good fold. Close, uh, equity, or whatever you guys say.”
Sarah waves down the bartender who greets her like an Italian sister, with a little peck on the cheek and a half hug. “Usual?” The bartender asks and doesn’t wait for a response. She pours Sarah a mineral water, and lingers.
The tension is thick between Sarah and I, and the bartender, being a bartender, intuits this. “I’ll leave you two alone.”
“If I’m ever as fat as that guy in the trucker hat, remind me to shoot myself.”
“The guy owns a bunch of strip malls. He must be able to afford decent steak,” Sarah responds. Her half-hearted attempt to defend elephant jowls, makes my eyes narrow. If I was playing poker against myself, I’d be able to tell I was angry.
“I’m going to work late tonight, but I still want you to come over.” Sarah fishes her apartment key from the small pocket in the butt of her yoga pants, and places it on the bar.
I dig in my pocket, pull out the six hundred dollar bills, and hold them out for her. “You don’t need to work late. I called planned parenthood, it’s five fifty for the — you know…”
“You don’t need to give me this. I’ll pay for it.”
The midwestern, pseudo-masculine take charge attitude inside me wants to insist she take the money. To tell her to stop fondling those disgusting men, to go home and get some rest. Instead I put the money in her apron.
“Call it a tip, and do what you’re going to do.”
The middle of her forehead scrunches into a cavernous “V.” I can tell she’s thinking, but off the poker table, I never know what anyone is thinking about. After a minute she says, “are you sure this is what you want?”
It’s the most loaded question anyone has ever asked me. I assume she means that we could actually do this. Find some sort of a way to have the kid. Maybe even do the whole white picket fences, and a car with more than two seats kind of thing. Or maybe she means, there’s no way we’d be able to wrangle the money to afford a kid, but she just needs me to say it.
“I don’t know,” I say. An equally loaded statement.
Sarah grabs my hand and massages the skin between my thumb and index finger. It relaxes me, but I want to pull away. I know where those hands have been.
“I don’t know,” she echoes my sentiment, and stands. The bar light strikes her hands, her carpal bones are twisted, her fingers mangled like the branches of a pinion tree. I imagine those massage worn bones holding up my baby, eventually driving it to school, and anything but soccer practice practice.
“I’m going back to work. Come over if you want, I’ll be home when it dies down.” She points to the key on the bar, tightens her apron, and walks back to the floor of the poker room.
The stout I didn’t order is still on the bar beside the key. She’s left me no choice, I pocket the key, and slam the remainder of the earthy beer. On my way to the parking lot, I stop and look out over the tables filled with men with slouched backs and dirty shirts.
I can see her, she’s talking to the kid in the backwards baseball hat. He tells her something, and she fakes a laugh. There’s no doubt it’s fake, she does the same kind of laugh for me whenever I tell one of my old man jokes. She’s smart to flirt with that kid, if he gets a massage he’s going to tip well.