Story of the Year, 2014
Inkslinger Award Winner
Issue No. 4 – June 2014
LONGHORNS -11.0 Fliers
Devon Spoors missed the last two free throws, keeping the score 45 to 35. The final horn blared and a minor celebration ensued in the stands, the home court Woodbury Longhorns having now advanced to the Las Vegas eighth-grade city championship over the visiting Findlay Fliers. Parents high-fived and took pictures while students danced and jockeyed for each other’s attention.
But in the far corner of the bleachers, back against the water-stained wall, the baggy-eyed guy in the faded maroon sweatshirt and Nike baseball cap clenched his hands together in an effort to keep from lashing out at the goddamned shit of it all. At the parents, the students, the whole fucking bleachers, the whole fucking game, all of it.
The spread had been eleven points, so with Spoors’s miss, the Longhorns hadn’t covered. And Ben Marks now sat twenty-seven grand in the hole. A stupid bet, with Mason Willis out because of a failed math test and Spoors the only pure shooter left for the Longhorns. Still, he’d thought that the Fliers defense had been vastly overrated due to inferior competition and that they’d crumble against a pick n’ roll-based offense like the Longhorns’.
And crumble they had, just not to the degree Ben needed. Ben was up in his seat when Spoors got fouled on a jumper from the corner, cheering louder than anyone. But his attempts to shush the crowd for the free throws proved fruitless. The last shot clanged off the back of the rim, giving an agonizing whirl around the hoop before dropping off the side. Spoors didn’t care, he’d already scored 17 and caught the attention of every chick in the crowd. But Ben did. He’d put three grand on the Longhorns to beat the spread, having done more research on the game than either coach possibly could have.
He’d even been prepared to resort to shadier measures, like bribing a Fliers player to tank it. He’d brought along a box of Twinkies, but a middle-aged man offering a 13-year-old a Twinkie could’ve been construed the wrong way, so he’d eaten them himself at halftime. Did kids even eat Twinkies anymore? What the hell should he have brought, a goddamn…Nintendo game? He sat through the on-court celebration, the handshake line, and the teams filing into the locker room, the gym emptying until only the parents were left, grouping together as they waited for their sons. They eyed him first amiably – thinking him one of them – then coolly, and at last with suspicion as he became the only non-parent left in the gym. A few dads even nodded in his direction as they huddled together. Time to leave.
Not that he wanted to stick around and creep on the parent-son congratulatory hugs. He just didn’t want to leave the gym, where all his problems could be confined to the 74’ by 42’ slab of hardwood. Out there, other things waited for him. Things he didn’t want to face, didn’t ever want to face.
But he had to, and so he exited the gym through a side door and stepped into a cold desert night, the wind snapping at his cheeks a reminder that you’re alive, like it or not, you’re alive.
Big Lo ran his sportsbook from the hidden inner room of a low-end arcade in a deserted Northtown block. Outdated quarter machines with cracked displays blinked sadly, running through demo modes for an absent audience, title images ghost-burned onto their monitors like permanent tattoos of shame. Empty except for two teens playing Pop-a-Shot in the corner, tossing not basketballs, but trash from a nearby bin: soda cans, food wrappers, a discarded jacket that clogged the hoop. The smell of stale salty snacks covered something deeper, something fishy and frightening that Ben feared without quite understanding.
He approached the ticket redemption booth, the shelves behind the bulletproof window a depressing display of redeemable items which fell into two categories: plastic crap and stuffed crap, none of which had been touched in years. The guy inside didn’t look up from his cell as Ben approached.
“I’d like to redeem my tickets.”
It was a different guy every time, but they all fit a mold: thick build, dark suits, Asian. This one had bleached hair and a scar running from the back of his neck, jutting to a right angle in front of his ear and ending near his hairline.
“Which prize would you like?”
“The slap bracelets.”
The attendant pressed a button and the door to the booth swung open. Ben stepped in and, spreading his arms Christways, submitted to a rough patdown. From close up, Ben could see the guy’s scar was actually a tattoo, greenish tint and Frankenstein stitches, its contrivance somehow more frightening than the violence a real scar would’ve implied. Satisfied, the guy grunted towards the back wall, where he lifted up some empty shelves hinged on one side, then pushed open a hidden door.
Big Lo had the weirdest prop bets, the highest vigorish, and the worst odds in town. He attracted the desperate, and Ben liked him because he didn’t patronize, didn’t hold it over your head. You both knew you were in trouble if you had to bet at his place, so no need to dick around. His sportsbook reflected the no-bullshit utilitarianism: small square room, bare bulbs, a chalkboard with the betting lines and just one old TV tuned not to sports, but instead some Chinese soap opera. After he’d burned his way through the Strip and then Fremont Street and then the scattered outliers, Ben was left with Big Lo, where he’d always known he’d end up, ever since the slide.
Big Lo sat at a card table, buried in his laptop, another one of his goons leaning against the back wall. A bearded guy snored in the corner, a bottle of off-brand gin nestled in his lap, his slumped body blocking a thick metal door. A series of rhythmic beats issued forth from the computer, and Big Lo bobbed his head as he regarded Ben.
“Dig this, Bean.” He punched a button and the volume from the tinny speakers increased, like somebody’s earphones turned up too loud. “Made it myself, in Garageband. The sickies.”
Ben smiled absently and inspected the board. “The free throws killed me. I can’t cover.”
“The sickies,” Big Lo repeated, and clapped his computer shut. Everyone stared at something: Ben at the chalkboard, Big Lo at Ben, the goon at Big Lo, and the sleeping guy at the back of his eyelids. A long moment of silence.
“So you’re asking, what, double it up?”
“I’m asking for whatever lets me walk out under my own power.”
A dry chuckle. “Jocular. That’s a word, right? You’re jocular.”
Ben studied the lines, mind collapsing into that recessed place where the possibilities played out in a gooey mix of numbers and symbols and floating dollar signs, trying to will himself into a Rain Man sense of calm as the solution presented itself. Could the LVFD flag football team beat a fourteen-point spread against the team from Home Depot? Would the average grade on Professor Kinney’s freshman psych exam be over or under 81.5%? Who would be the next worker laid off from the Paradise Valley post office? Did anyone who went behind that metal door come out again?
Big Lo’s voice pulled him from his ruminations. “Don’t bother with those. You, my friend, have sunk yourself out of anything normal.”
The over/under on total daily sales at Desert Honda was $132,870. Ben turned to Big Lo. “What’s normal?”
Afterwards, Ben drove around Northtown to bide his time. Lots of “For Sale” signs, the whole state wrecked by the recession. Could get a decent house pretty cheap. Neighborhood wasn’t great, but would’ve been good for Jessie to grow up streetsmart, stay sharp and learn how to handle herself. Like he couldn’t.
The slide began February 3, 2008: Super Bowl XLII, Giants upending the Patriots’ perfect season. Hadn’t even bet on a team, not trusting either prettyboy Tom Brady or oafish Eli Manning, but the over/under was 55 and he’d taken the over in a heartbeat, would do it again with those same numbers. Shit, Brady alone had scored that before a few halftimes during the season. Laid only a grand on it that morning but got antsy, saw the stats on ESPN pregame and had to go bigger: ten, no, twenty, his whole roll. But the total score was only ten at halftime and with each minute dripping away in the second half the hole in his stomach grew wider and wider, little toothy molecules eating through the lining and expanding the bottomless void where all the hope, from that point on, would go to die.
Final score 17-14, twenty-two points under. After that he’d gotten stupid, betting desperately: the Pro Bowl, spring training, unimportant games where teams just played grabass, winning a little but losing more. He went on like this for months, every victory a little tease that would set him up for the next loss, the creeping inevitability of the slide not so bad once he embraced it. Watching people leave – watching those who had loved and trusted him clench their faces and say they were sorry, but this couldn’t go on – that got old, until he cut himself out of everyone’s life first to save them the trouble. After Liz and Jessie left it’d become easy, people disappearing like minor characters in a sitcom. Cashing Out, it’d be called, or something less on the nose.
So he’d pared life down to its simplest elements: a studio apartment, a part-time job delivering phone books, and Big Lo. When he offered Ben the parlay, Big Lo had a lighthearted smile, the whole thing funny to him, and then he laughed when Ben agreed, incredulous.
But what were his options? He didn’t have the money, so the next step would’ve been either behind Big Lo’s metal door, or a frantic cross-country evasion that he didn’t have the energy for, or the bottle of sleeping pills and the fifth of Jim Beam waiting on his nightstand. He didn’t think Big Lo knew about Liz and Jessie – Ben didn’t even know where they were – but he could never be completely sure of their safety as long as he owed so much. So he’d taken the bet.
Goddamn right, he’d taken it. He was a gambler.
VOMITERS 7:30-8:00 ±3
He reached the Stratosphere via the back roads, out of sight from the glare of the Strip, light years away. A few minivans and station wagons were scattered around the lot. The Strat attracted families with its rides and cheap rooms, too far off the Strip for the drunken partiers to wander in. Ben was pretty sure he didn’t know anybody who worked there whom he would’ve owed, but everyone bounced from job to job like a roulette ball – which would’ve made working at the Strat the bright green ‘00’. So he pulled his hat low and trudged through the red-faced dads leaning over blackjack tables and their impatient wives standing cross-armed behind them. There was something sad and familiar about that scene, Liz’s voice dampened in his memory to a generic female whine, pleading to cash out and come home, did he really need one more drink, one more bet? Pay attention, he wanted to shout to the gamblers, but each man’s stack was his own.
He’d intended just to buy the elevator ticket to the top so he could watch the bet unfold, face his fate like a man. But when he reached the front of the ticket line and saw the deals offered for a tower admission and ride combination, the plan materialized so quickly that he bought an unlimited ride pass before his brain had time to process the stupidity of it.
A parlay is a series of bets tied together. Higher odds, but a bigger payoff. If all three bets hit, big winner. But if one loses, any one, the whole thing is gone, and your paycheck or kneecaps along with it. A parlay would normally be a few football games on a Sunday, or a few races at the track. But, as with the rest of Big Lo’s wagers, nothing was normal.
He’d only given Ben the details of the first bet out of the three.
In case it doesn’t hit, then I wouldn’t have wasted time explaining the others.
Big Lo had nothing to gain from this, Ben knew. Ben didn’t have the “double” to pay, so the best Big Lo could get was the “nothing.” Not like he could kill him extra. Most likely just a diversion for Big Lo, a gladiator battle for a Roman emperor and – in a thought that startled him, but that had to be right – maybe Big Lo liked him, was offering him a way out. Maybe he genuinely didn’t want to fuck Ben up.
The bet was an over/under on how many people would vomit from 7:30-8:00 PM while riding Insanity at the top of the Stratosphere. Big Lo set the number of pukers at three, and Ben took the over. He’d never ridden it, seen maybe a few pictures, but the Strat crowd would be rife with kids oversaturated with soda and junk food and distracted parents who’d let them ride as much as they’d want. Big Lo had smiled and told him good luck, that he should go watch, maybe enjoy a ride himself.
Which Ben decided to do, after downing three White Russians and two heat lamp hotdogs. His stomach roiled and he immediately began to second-guess himself. And when he stepped out onto the observation deck and saw the grotesque monstrosity that was Insanity, he grew dizzy and had to step back into the elevator, where the attendant grabbed him by the shoulder.
“It’s okay, sir. A lot of people become overwhelmed.”
He wanted to tell the guy that he had no idea, but the food and the height and the consequences all hit at once and he had to go hands to knees to catch his breath.
Insanity wasn’t a ride so much as a three-G death simulator. A giant crane-like arm extended out over the edge of the tower, a circular spinning base with four smaller arms attached to it which ended in metallic pods. Riders sat trapped in the open-faced pods that, when the arms started whirling and flaring out, faced the Strip 900 feet straight down, offering a glimpse of the neon-plated death below. So there was the G-force and the dizziness and the fear of heights to contend with, any one of which could make a person hurl. Combined together, no way he could lose.
Except that he could. Except that he might not be losing for himself this time. He waited at the tower’s rail, getting a feel for the frenetic geometry of the ride and trying to figure out which of the workers were part of Big Lo’s team. Maybe all of them, eyes and ears and grasping little fingers everywhere in the city.
Observing the first full ride, Ben thought maybe he wouldn’t have to utilize his plan at all. The sheer violence of it made him want to throw up just from watching. But then he saw the riders stumble out, loopy and hooting, before quickly regaining their legs and demanding another go. Aggressive teenagers, bachelor partiers – no sniveling merry-go-rounders here.
He fought in vain against another round of gas, knowing he had to go through with the plan. The pods sat two each, so when he joined the line the kids in front of him began jostling each other for position, not wanting to be stuck with the haggard-looking loser who clearly hadn’t showered in a few days. Had it been a few days?
The guy who checked his harness eyed him suspiciously – one of Big Lo’s? Or just weirded out by a lone middle-aged guy riding with no kids or friends? – but told him to have fun as he snapped the plastic yoke over Ben’s head. The gears clicked and caught, and as the pod began to move, the machine warming menacingly to life, Ben’s hand grazed the hand of the kid sitting next to him as they both reached for the grip bar at the same time.
“Sorry,” the kid mumbled as he pulled away. Ben would’ve told him it was okay, you could even leave it there if you want, but heavy metal blasted from unseen speakers and hell ascended around them.
The G-force hit as the ride whipped around, slamming him against the seat. As the pod loosened and began to spin on its own axis, the horizon gave way and the neon lights that detailed the ride above him became the neon lights of the city below. The distance was too far to frighten, though. It was cinematic, the spinning dulling his senses, the world beneath him too quick to register. Through it all, his stomach strained to keep its contents, the pressure trying to force everything out of whatever orifice was closest, but Ben squeezed his eyes shut and focused on the bet, just make it through, screaming that could’ve been his or could’ve been the kid next to him, the music chugchugchugging and god he was going to puke –
His body lurched out from his seat, pressing against the harness as machinery whined. The ride slowed. The music died. The pods locked into their original horizontal position, and the spinning clacked to a halt. The kid let out a girlish “Whoooo!” that was echoed across the ring of pods by his friends. A sly smirk from the ride attendant as he unlatched Ben, who had to resist the urge to let loose right there.
Instead he waded into a crowd of parents and onlookers waiting to greet the riders, digital cameras and smartphones held at the ready like a firing squad, high-fives and backslaps all around. His stomach screamed to be turned loose, and he finally obliged. With an overexaggerated bellow, he let loose with a milky stream, vocalizing it as best he could for maximum effect: “BAAAARF!”
Big Lo had never told Ben he couldn’t be one of the three pukers. The White Russians and hot dogs made for a toxic mix that burned on the way up, and the splatter haloed around him into the crowd. He kept his head down and gasped, undulating his stomach in an effort to draw out more. Standard shock and disgust from those around him, That’s so gross and Who let a bum in.
His stomach tapped, he gave a few loud dry heaves for good measure, trying to pick through the noise for any sign that a domino effect would take place. Nothing. Smell wasn’t as powerful as he’d hoped. Still nothing. Then, he heard the first one, telltale gulping and a big release, and somewhere to his side the slapping of viscous sugary fluid against the ground and another collective groan.
Ben looked up and locked gazes with someone in front of him. Not just someone: the kid with whom he’d shared a pod, his eyes struck with deep-set horror inspired by the primal fear of vomiting. A security guard approached from inside and worked through the throng towards Ben. C’mon, kid do it. Ben opened his mouth and stuck out his tongue and started gagging, eyes still locked, the guard now right on top of him, and Ben pretended to stagger forward and sloshed a little of the puke onto the kid’s shoe. That did it. Just a thin streak, quickly wiped clean with a kleenex from a ready mother, but it counted.
The guard grabbed Ben a little rougher than one would expect a sick man to be handled, and, as he wiped himself off, he began to wonder if Big Lo would void the bet because of interference, or if he wouldn’t allow Ben to count as one of the pukers, or what other variation of cheating he could be called on.
But then, a gift. Another one. A skinny girl waiting in line who’d watched Ben and the boys in horror and who didn’t want to go on the thing in the first place, probably only there because of the bullying of her older brothers, brothers who now shrieked with delight when she let loose a second torrent of slushie-colored spew, then a third.
Ben smiled as the guard hustled him into the elevator.
“I won that one.”
Guard punched the button for the bottom floor.
“Didn’t win shit, pal.”
Right before the doors closed, Ben caught sight of a single stream of vomit that had run from his initial puddle and caught a groove in the tower’s ridged floor, which took it winding through the crowd, out past the security fence, and off the edge of the tower itself, where it dripped down into the night and the throbbing city below.
“Got me on a technicality, Bean.” Big Lo sounded more amused than angry. Ben could hear the thumping of Lo’s self-made dance beat in the background. “I did not specify. About you not puking. Or causing the puke. The hell’d you eat?”
Ben sat on a bench in the middle of the Excalibur midway, watching as children and their parents rushed from booth to booth in attempts to win frighteningly massive stuffed animals or glowing medieval weapons. Something about seeing all those kids at the Stratosphere had pinged inside him, led him here. “Hot dogs. White Russians.” He was scanning the faces without wanting to, unsure of what he’d find.
Big Lo made a gagging noise. “Dude, hardcore. Guess now I know.”
“Not the first time I’ve been nuts to the chopblock.”
Big Lo’s voice distant, talking to someone else. “It’s ready? It’s good?”
Stupid, though. Why would they be up this late on a school night? Liz was a much better mother than that. Jessie was probably too old for all the stuffed crap anyway.
A scratching noise as Big Lo came back on the line.
“Ready for the next one?”
Ben stood up, turning his back on the shrieks of joy.
“As I’ll ever be.”
HAPPY HOUR PICK ‘EM – ASHIA/RANDIQUE/RAYZOR/PERSEPHONE/NIKIYA
Foxy Girls sat a few miles back from the Strip, in a gray-washed commercial zone next to a gun range and a discount tire shop. Underneath neon lettering reading “Foxy Girls – Top-less Dancers,” the sign had a Jessica Rabbit-looking rendition of a stripper giving a wink, features pulled back into exaggerated vulpine points. A pink Cadillac sat next to the door, maybe to give the facade a more sophisticated look. But the car’s split leather interior and cracked paint negated any sophistication that may have transcended the location, the name, or the various other sketchy factors.
Ben couldn’t place the last time he went to a strip club, probably in his teens. The Hollywood portrayal of someone hitting big at a casino, then rushing off to the Spearmint Rhino was true maybe for tourists and the rich dilettantes who entered a poker tournament every six months. The real gamblers, the lifers, knew that when you were fat with a roll you never wasted it by celebrating with tramps who had one hand in your wallet. You had to reinvest, keep building, shore up a safety net for when the snake eyes stared at you and wouldn’t look away.
Though Big Lo had made Ben give him his wallet so as not to try to sabotage the bet with his own money, Ben still found himself instinctively reaching back for it as he pushed open the door and met the waiting cloud of smoke. The place was weirdly lit for a strip club, way too bright, highlighting every ripple of cellulite and every unfortunate tattoo that seemed to afflict all the strippers as they slouched over mismatched furniture and wandered idly around the stage, upon which a pink-haired woman was giving a listless performance to “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Midnight on a Tuesday and only a dozen or so other customers, spread out along the stage a comfortable distance from each other. The closest stripper to Ben, a hefty number in a Dolly Parton wig, made a beeline towards him. She started asking about a lapdance before he even made it past the cigarette machine, but a sharp grunt from the bartender stopped her in her tracks. Working the bar was the Frankenscar goon from Lo’s arcade. He shook his head at the stripper, and she flipped him off, flipped Ben off, then sulked away. The rest of the strippers turned back to their conversations and video poker. Ben gave Frankenscar an unreturned nod of thanks and proceeded unmolested towards the stage, taking a chair directly in front of the stripper pole just as the song ended.
Big Lo had pulled up the list of that night’s dancers, the website complete with pictures, and had Ben bet straight up on who he thought would make the most tips during the late night happy hour. Big Lo was part owner of the joint, a fact that shouldn’t have surprised Ben as much as it did, and giggled as Ben scrolled through the women. They all seemed in various stages of disarray, cracked out or bloated or just plain ugly. Foxy Girls dwelled in the grime-encrusted bottom of the Vegas strip club hierarchy, Single-A compared to the majors of Sapphire or Spearmint Rhino, all bumbling rookies straight off the bus from Montana or bruised veterans too proud or stupid to give up.
“Like choosing MVP at the Special Olympics, right?” Big Lo laughed.
Just face shots on the website, nothing with the body, so Ben was choosing half-blind. Eventually he settled on Persephone, liking her raw youthful looks and her name, which hinted at a deeper intellectual curiosity than did Rayzor’s, or any of the others, and thus perhaps might lead to a more nuanced performance.
That supposition certainly wasn’t disproven when Ashia strutted out to booming hip-hop and began to gracelessly grind her hips into the pole, gaping jaw sagging like the fleshy rolls hanging off her body. The few other guys half-heartedly tossed ones on stage and were rewarded with a lewd smile and a close-up of various organs, all of which she was skilled at using to pick up scattered bills off the floor. She eyed Ben and gave a few stutter steps in his direction, but when she saw that he wasn’t offering any cash she shouted at him over the music to kiss her fat ass and moved on to other customers.
She danced to three more songs and then mercifully ended her set. He wouldn’t find out the totals until he met back at Big Lo’s, but Ashia’s take looked pretty light as she collected her pile and left the stage. But every stripper’s pile would be light here, with the sparse crowd, so Ben ordered a bourbon and coke – on Big Lo’s tab, what the hell, add it to the debt – and hoped that Persephone would have better moves, a better body, anything to get the crowd digging into their wallets.
Randique did somersaults for her dollars, starting near the center of the stage and ending with her legs whomping down onto some guy’s shoulders, giving him a face full of crotch. Rayzor did weird jumping jacks, parts flapping everywhere, whipping bills into the air with her feet that she would catch with her cupped breasts. Despite the agility, neither girl received noticeably more than Ashia had, probably fifteen bucks each.
Ben took a deep breath as the DJ told everyone to put their hands together, comeoncomeoncomeonmakesomenoise, for…Persephone! She slinked out, pretty face, body not tight, but tighter than her colleagues’, keeping good rhythm as the customers began lining up their dollars along the stage. It could work. It would work. He’d bet on a winner, like he used to. But a sudden twitching move from her arms and – what the hell?
She had a stump.
Her left arm ended in a smooth nub at the wrist, which she now clapped in time to the music with her other hand. A noticeable start from the crowd, then guys began surreptitiously sneaking their dollars off the stage, a few even moving back to the bar. A hollow retch and Ben felt the erection he’d been nursing slump back in his pants, totally deflated. Another drink. What was the point, now?
She’d finished one song to a total of two bucks and was beginning to slouch her way through “Baby Got Back” when a commotion at the door turned everyone’s attention. About ten dudes whooped their way in – members of a UNLV fraternity, as indicated by the backwards white baseball caps and drunken enthusiasm tempered with ironic disdain. “Let’s get the pussy on!” one shouted, and a few peeled off to the bar while the rest crowded around the stage. Persephone was immediately met with a series of incredulous shouts, the frat boys transfixed with a boozy mixture of awe and revulsion, and she gamely strode over to them and met their madness.
The one in front nodded to her stub and asked where she could fit it, and she said she’d show him for the right price, so he threw some bills down and she showed him, then showed him someplace else she could fit it, then one more place, and the crowd went apeshit and started tossing money at her. Ben was on his feet, bouncing along to the music, cheering her on despite the shivers of disgust crawling through him, herding errant dollar bills towards her pile. The money rained down for the rest of the song, probably triple what the other three dancers had made. As she left the stage Ben wanted to buy everyone a round, but figured that’d be pushing Big Lo’s credit a little too far and settled for joining the brothers in a sustained “Whooo!” of admiration.
He’d forgotten there was one more. The house lights and music went off for Nikiya’s entrance, then a spotlight hit and Prince’s “Cream” kicked in, all moans and dirty guitar, and she appeared dead center.
Seeing her, Ben gagged on his drink. He’d walked right into it. No body pics on the website, no way to tell what Nikiya’s true drawing point was. A reason she came last in the lineup, and he was too stupid to put it together before.
Her tits. Had to be FFF, if that was a size, riding high on her chest like two museum-grade geographic globes, no sag or bunch whatsoever. Fake as hell, and yet works of art in their own right. She had no rhythm and kept her harsh features wooden as she wavered back and forth precariously in her high-heeled leather boots, but her titanic fake breasts mesmerized the crowd, especially the frat boys, who now began to pile bills on the stage in anticipation of getting a closer look.
He had to do something. Glancing back, he saw Frankenscar arguing with one of the frat boys, happy hour pricing apparently not applicable to twenty Jagerbombs. Other patrons turned to watch the brewing conflict. The DJ even rushed out of the booth to jump in: now or never. Didn’t have time to check for cameras – a dead man if there were, but a gambler goes all in – as he bumped into a distracted frat boy, spilling the icy remnants of his drink across the stage. The kid wheeled with raised fists, but Ben had ducked into the growing fracas, moshing with the crowd until he was spat out near the door.
Nikiya was in the process of backing up, trying to do some sort of twirling heel move, and didn’t see the puddle as she went up on one leg. She fell, ass first, letting out a cry as she landed. Everyone turned in time to see her try to rise, almost regain her balance, and fall again. Flustered, she tried once more, laughter and catcalls from the crowd now, and slipped again. She crawled back offstage, not bothering to collect the few dollars she’d earned from her dances, as the DJ called out to her from the bar.
Ben gave a sheepish glance around, and, satisfied no one was after him, slipped into the night, giving a wink back at the cartoon stripper on the sign as he passed.
“Frat boy fight and spilled drinks? Caught some luck there, Bean. Don’t they tell you at Gambler’s Anonymous that you can’t rely on luck? That it ruins you more often than redeems you?”
“Don’t know. I stopped after my first meeting.” Ben nodded and pulled away from the table.
The betting parlor seemed smaller than before, a claustrophobic movie set that hadn’t been altered since his last visit, still with the Chinese soap operas, the lurking bodyguard, the metal door. Most disconcertingly, the sleeping guy was still propped against the door, not having moved at all.
Big Lo sighed as he looked Ben over. “You really might do this, huh?”
“This is epic, you know. A three-part parlay, odds stacked bits-to-tits against you, all this weird stuff to deal with. You’ve made quite an – ”
“What’s the last one?” Ben cut him off, back turned, afraid to look Big Lo in the eyes. The betting lines on the board hadn’t changed, but why would they? It’d only been a few hours since the basketball game. A lifetime’s worth of prop bets in one night. “Tell me so we can end this.” A harsh tone to be taking with an underground bookie, but Ben had earned it, playing along with this bullshit, puking over kids and enduring the freakshow at the strip club.
A long pause. He could feel Big Lo’s eyes boring into his back. The sleeping guy snorted and shifted, and Ben jumped in surprise. When Big Lo spoke, his voice was flat, all humor and levity excised into a precise businessy clip.
“Let’s do the damn thing then. I was trying to tell you how epic this was. Got to end it on an epic note. You ready?”
He shrugged again. Too late to stop now.
Are you sure? the metal door whispered from the far side of the room.
LIZ ±0 JESSIE
He parked across the street and waited as the first pinks of dawn slowly scratched across the sky. Their house was small, smaller than Ben would’ve wanted, but clean, a tidy little yard – who was tending that? – and no bars on the windows. The smallest house on a nice block, but better that than the biggest house on a shitty block. No lights on. The urge passed as quickly as it came, to get out and spy through the windows, take an unfiltered glimpse into the life he should’ve had. But it wasn’t his life, never could’ve been, and rather than add tom peepery to his recent list of transgressions, he reclined into the driver’s seat and waited.
They’d have to be together. Maybe Liz would be walking Jessie to school, the one just around the block with the rainbow mural on the side. First grade? Second? Time barreled on like a semi with severed brakelines, unheeding and destructive, and Ben fought against the pangs of guilt he’d gotten so good at repressing. His body lagged with fatigue, but no way he could sink into sleep now. Had to stay sharp, focused.
Pointless to say no when Big Lo gave him the third bet. They’d both knew he’d take it, would’ve taken it no matter what it was, would’ve jumped off the damned Hoover Dam. Big Lo had a sneer on his face, the jocular imp replaced by the badass crime boss, daring Ben to question, to falter. But what could Ben do? Had to prove a point, now. That he could do this. That he could win again. It’d equal out the last few years of losing, the last few lifetimes of losing, reverse the slide and give life an upwards tilt; harder going up, sure, but he needed the feeling that the struggle was for something, was to something.
The microphone burrowed like a tick into his chest. Ben worked his fingernails underneath the tape and carefully relieved an itch without disturbing the mic. The transmitter was stuffed into his pocket – no need to give it more than a cursory hiding. They wouldn’t expect him to be miked up. No one would.
Big Lo’d put as much effort into the parlay as Ben had: time, money, connections. Ben should’ve cared why, should’ve been suspicious or at least curious as to what Big Lo was doing with all this, what he had to gain. But Ben didn’t care. Big Lo had probably filmed the whole thing, planned to turn it into a documentary with his stupid-ass beats as the background. Whatever got him hard, Ben didn’t care, as long as he cleared his debts.
Two hours later, well after the morning burst to life with a phalanx of mothers marching their children towards the school, the garage door creaked opened and a beat-up Tahoe pulled out and gunned past him. Liz was driving. Hair cut into a severe punky angle, face set with a hardness he couldn’t remember, but definitely her. In the shotgun seat a pinkish blur barely peaking above the dash. Jessie. They were headed to school, late, and as Liz rolled heedlessly through a stop sign, Ben had to resist the urge to honk. He’d wanted to catch them at the door, handle things in private, but now it’d have to be the schoolyard, just another dramatic scene among the thousands that occur on blacktops and playgrounds every day.
Except they didn’t stop at the school, where children were beginning to line up outside of the main door in anticipation of being let in. Didn’t even slow down, sped through a yellow light that shifted to a condemnatory red as Ben shot through the intersection beneath it. Private school? Specialized tutor? Didn’t look like they had the money, and no way in hell Liz would keep Jessie out, probably wouldn’t even let her take sick days unless she had body parts falling off.
Directly behind them now, he kept trying to make eye contact with Liz in her rearview. Her gaze remained fixed on something ahead, and he had to laugh when they veered into the McDonald’s drive-thru. Laughed long and hard, directly into the mic, let it echo down the wires and into the transmitter and across radio waves over the city and out Big Lo’s tinny speakers, let him see that Ben was loving this, it wasn’t just a bet, it was a life. He was going to see his family.
He followed them into the lineup of cars, waited until they ordered, then cranked his car to a stop in front of the drive-thru menu, trapping them in the narrow lane one car back from the window. Her arm hung out, beating a heartbeat patter on the door as he approached. Hands in pockets, shrinking himself to nonthreatening size, he popped up next to her.
“Breakfast of champions?”
She jumped and jabbed a hand over Jessie’s chest as though bracing for a crash. The surprise loosened her face for a moment, an open, artless look that pulled at Ben from way back, pierced through him, a tempered shot of pain that clenched then slackened his organs nearly to leakage. So beautiful. He’d forgotten. No celebration, no laughing, no winning, even if he won. She was what he’d lost, not the money. Ben couldn’t hear it but knew Big Lo was, at that moment, laughing a deep maniacal laugh, listening to the stretched silence of Ben’s shock. He’d set Ben up for this emotional gut-punch, and Ben had been too flush with winner’s high to see it.
Recognition hit and tightened Liz up, deep-set scowl lines cinching around her mouth, along with the haircut giving her a ferocity that hinted at deeper trouble than any Ben had ever brought. Wore more makeup than he remembered, a weird bluish eyeshadow that doubled the surface area of her eyes and shrunk the rest of her features to a cartoonish pinch.
“How the fuck did you find us?”
She patted Jessie on the shoulder, perhaps in apology for the obscenity, perhaps for reassurance that this was real, that they all existed not in a dream but in life, in a McDonald’s drive-thru at 8:00 AM on a Wednesday.
He nodded past Liz. “Hey, Jess.”
She extended a flat palm outward in greeting.
Polite, maybe too polite – he was her father, not a crossing guard. Her puffy pink coat cocooned around her, allowing just her head to poke through. A swaddled baby. Still with the puffy cheeks and oversized eyes nearly the same proportions as her mother’s. But her ringlets had lost their curl and now only gave a few half-hearted twists as they fell to her shoulders. A tiny set of furrows around her mouth mimicked her mother’s as she examined Ben.
“You go to school back there?”
Jessie nodded, then looked to her mother as though expecting rebuke.
He smiled at Liz. “Time flies, huh?”
Liz inspected Ben’s face, his clothes, held back a scoff. “You can’t start wanting things again. We don’t have anything left to give.”
He raised his eyebrows at Jessie in an attempt at collusion. This lady’s crazy, huh?
It worked. “I made a pyramid for art. It’s at school, though.”
The car in front of them pulled away from the window, and Liz put the car in gear.
“Ben, please, you can’t do this.”
“I miss you guys.” Hadn’t realized how true it was until he said it. The crushing, terrifying loneliness of the past few years, for what? “You miss me?” He touched her arm where it hung over the door, and she pulled back.
“Go, please?” The car behind Ben’s honked. “You can’t be crazy like this, we have enough in our lives as it is.”
He was teetering on the edge. No, a plateau, another slide below him, bottomless this time, and above him some kind of tortuous path upwards, to a summit he’d forgotten he’d known. “Please tell me you love me.”
A snort. “What?”
“Jess.” She looked up, smile on her face, enjoying the unexpected excitement. “Do you love me?”
She looked towards her mother. “Mom?”
“No, don’t ask her, just tell me. Do you love me?”
A bemused worker leaned out the window ahead of them, waving a bag of food to entice them forward. “Ah, dude? You can’t stand in the drive-thru.”
He’d bet on Jessie – the young are abstracted, they don’t know the permanence of things because life is still malleable to them – but now it didn’t matter, the parlay didn’t matter, winning and losing didn’t matter. He just needed to hear it.
Static crackled from the speaker post behind him, a demand for Ben to order or move on. Jessie, distracted, leaned out her window to look at the line of cars behind them.
“Jessie. Do you love me?”
You’re alive, like it or not, you’re alive. The bet was even money between who would say “I love you” to him first. Straight up, 50-50, no spread, no favorite, no underdog, except maybe Ben himself.
“Mom, I want to go to school.”
Liz looked straight ahead, towards the worker and their dangling food, towards the street, and beyond that to whatever disappointment had led her to this, this shitshow of a morning. Her face had reddened beneath the makeup and tears bulged from her eyes, only surface tension keeping them from streaking down her face. People began yelling from their cars, lyrical accompaniment to the long low dirge of the horns, and she let up on the brake, slowly, car edging forward as Ben kept pace.
He was so close, so goddamned close, almost had it, had all of it. He inched along with his hand braced against the door. Another few feet and he’d have to duck or let go in order not to be scraped off against the jutting drive-thru window.
“I promise, I love you guys. Everything can be right.” He reached under his shirt and ripped off the mic, then took the transmitter from his pocket. The wire dangled like the neck of a limp animal, and he tossed the electronic array to the ground behind him. “I’ll never do anything so stupid again.”
Liz finally met his eyes, breaking into a smirk that would never leave Ben, never leave him as long as blood and breath flowed through him, as much or as little time as he had left.