THE WRONG END OF THE STRIP: A Short Story

I was looking at the artificial limbs in the pawn shop window, thinking: that once belonged to Vietnam Vet, or some redneck who lost an arm in a piece of farm machinery, or some junkie who’d shot up his vein so full of smack that the limb fell right off. Then each of these guys ended up here, at the wrong end of the Strip, out of cash, out of luck, wondering what to hock, and deciding: well, I guess I can live without my prosthetic limb for a day or two. Until my luck turns. Until it all starts going right again for me.

Which is kind of how I see things right now. Ten hours ago I arrived here on a business junket – carrying cash for a guy named Sal who runs ‘many dry cleaning businesses’ in a dreary corner of New Jersey, and who had sent me – his accountant, the guy who washes his financial dirty laundry for him – out here with cash in a briefcase to buy him a condo just off the Strip.

Sal is a moron. I know that. And in his more lucid moments Sal knows that too. He’s a guy whose indulgent father – mob aristocracy, the ultimate in Jersey-shore grease balls – always realized that his son was Prince Not So Bright…. and, in fact, was the wrong side of stupid. But money does stupid things to everybody’s heads. Money is the illusion of freedom. Money is the illusion of choice. Money is the illusion of possibility, of cheating death, of escaping banality. Money is the ultimate self-delusion.

But Sal had entrusted me with a very significant sum of money: eight hundred and twenty thousand dollars. In cash. A very large briefcase full of big bills to buy him that condo. I checked the place out today. Two bedrooms. Marble bathrooms. Two-inch think plush carpet. A television room where the point of reverence is a fifty-two inch flat-screen set. And cream colored leather furniture throughout. Dubai meets Nevada,

Now I have to admit the fact that all the taste I have is in my mouth. I live in a dull little ranch house in a dull little suburban corner of New Jersey (question: is there actually an interesting corner of New Jersey?). My wife did the decorating – and the place looks like it has been designed by an old lady with a floral fetish. I’m fifty-two years old and run the small accounting firm that my Dad founded forty-eight years ago and which he directed until the man had the very bad taste to drop dead of a heart attack last June, leaving his only child with all the deep dark shit of his life.

Like Sal. Who handed me a briefcase full of cash to buy him his fuck pad and also shoved an additional ten grand in my pocket and told me to ‘”get myself to Vegas in style.”

So here I am, off the plane and staying in a crap hotel (fifty bucks a night) at the wrong end of the strip. Forget all the neon gloss, the fancy-assed themed hotels where you can pretend you’re in New York or Paris or some rock star fantasy, where you can spend excessive sums of money on a risotto which may be the best thing you’ve eaten this side of Milan (not that I’ve been there, not that I’ve been anywhere), or the arcades of luxury shops where you can throw away thousands on a suit, a designer watch, designer luggage. No, I’m staying way downtown. The old Vegas. The Vegas of pawn shops where you can buy artificial limbs and automatic weapons. Where every street corner features some guy so down on his luck that he seems to have melded with the pavement where he’s sleeping tonight (and given that it’s Augusr and 42 degrees centigrade at 23h00…). This is the part of town where the city gets ugly, cruel, Social Darwinistc, where the casinos are no-nonsense, serious dens of gambling, and where the where the gamblers who haunt these places are professional, grim, all-business, where the food is shit, where the liquor they serve you is cheap but potent (‘the more you booze the more you lose’ being their strategy here), and where you can find yourself a hooker who will spend the night with you for fifty bucks.

And how do I, a third-tier accountant, a family man from the faceless New Jersey suburbs, know all this? Hey, I may be a guy, stuck in a family firm I never wanted to join. I may be married to a woman who I once found amusing for five minutes (before she weighed over one hundred and fifty kilos). I may have two children in their early twenties who’ve never rated me (and whom I love but don’t seem to eve connect with). I may be someone whose life never seems to extend beyond the Jersey shore and an annual vacation in Florida, and who (like the vast majority of my compatriots) doesn’t own a passport, and who, in the past year or two, has been privately, quietly, overwhelmed with thoughts of mortality, and who, in his equally private moments, has been reading up on the finer points of blackjack (I never gamble, but reading up on games of chance does provide me with a certain vicarious thrill – the aura of living dangerously). I may sometimes see myself as a grey, small man living a grey small life (‘Know why I trust you will all my money?’ Sal once told me. ‘Because you‘re Mr Cautious, Mr Safe Pair of Hands’)…

I may be all that – dull, prudent, diligent, safe. But in private, I am always observing. Always assessing the odds, always wondering if I can ever extend them. Always thinking: maybe in the next life I’ll be an adventurer, a man of the world.

Vegas. First thing I did today was meet the realtor at the luxury complex where Sal is buying his pied-a-terre I showed up with a local lawyer I’d engaged before my arrival, and a private detective packing heat (he’d escorted me from the airport to the cheap hotel and then on to the realtor’s office – when you’re carrying that much dough you don’t take risks… especially in a town like this one). At the realtors I handed over the eight hundred grand in cash, and had the local legal eagle notarize the transaction, and insisted that the gumshoe escort the realtor to the nearest bank with the cash (even though the realtor insisted that an eight hundred grand cash transaction was nothing unusual). Deal done, papers signed, apartment in Sal’s hands (where, no doubt, he’ll install his twenty year old mistress of the moment), I returned to my cheap-ass hotel and spent ten minutes listening to a truly fat couple (I saw them going into the room next to mine) making love. (cheap hotel, cheap walls – and you could hear the greasy fusion of cellulite amidst the cacophonous groans and the heaving bedsprings from my circumferentially challenged neighbours). I found the sound of their sexual union both repulsive and unsettling. Because ever since Brenda (yes, I’m married to someone named Brenda) had gone to fat, making love to her had become a tri-annual event – not that she was particularly interested in such things anymore, as we had long ago become a couple who shared a house and little more.

Eventually tiring of the grim sexual sideshow from the room next door, I hit the street, thinking: I’m still walking around with ten grand in my pocket, and (more to the point) walking around a particularly low-life corner of a low-life city. Ten grand. My ‘expenses’ for the trip… but actually Sal’s way of tipping the ‘bag man’ for handling all that dirty money, no questions asked.

Ten grand. Once upon a time, that was running-away money. Get the fuck out of town money, Change your life money. Now it was small beer, chump change. I passed the homeless dudes on the street – all crazed in the sauna bath heat – and the hookers who, in this corner of town, all looked like they were walking advertisements for the HIV virus, and the gun shops where I could easily flash my driver’s license and buy a Glock for two hundred bucks, no questions asked. My dull little blue suit was adhering to my body in the insane heat. I needed air conditioning., Without thinking, I found myself being centrifugally drawn towards the 1960s neon lights of the Golden Nugget Casino. A huge dive. Room after room of games of chance. Hundreds of slot machines, the gamblers here the big-assed, the sad-faced, with their super-sized cups of coins, and the look of the perpetually disappointed. There there were the roulette junkies, all fixated on the spinning wheel, shifting money around the table with manic fear. And the craps players – who all looked like they’d been awake for the last five years on ultra-potent Dexedrine . And then the blackjack players – who were ever-silent, ever serious. Especially here at The Golden Nugget – where the blackjack players were anything but amateur.

I went to the cashier and handed over ten thousand dollars. She didn’t flinch. Wads of cash in Vegas were commonplace; ten grand a modest sum. I returned to the blackjack table where the croupier was Asian-American, with the face of a prison guard and an all-business dealing style (I looked over four blackjack tables before deciding he was the guy I wanted to be tossing the cards). I sat down. One of the waitresses – short skirt, lots of decolletage, a name tag saying Bobbi – came over. I ordered a Diet Coke – no booze while gambling. And bar one bathroom break I didn’t leave the table for the next six hours. My pile of chips went up. It went down. I watched a Japanese guy lose it when he split two aces and couldn’t beat the dealers Jack and Nine of Hearts. I lost big time on an Ace and a Ten to the dealer’s Ace and a Queen of Hearts. I won big time on a hold with a Ten of Diamonds and a Six of Hearts (the dealer crashed with a King hitting a Ten of Spades and a Two of Hearts. I kept drinking Diet Coke, I kept thinking: I am neither winning or losing. I am just holding my own. And somewhere around three that morning (I knew this because I glanced at my watch, as casino never have windows and never have clocks – it’s the perpetual air conditioned all-nighter within their confirms), I awaited the sign that would tell me I should do what I should do next

The sign came when I was four grand down and beginning to flag. But then I got dealt an Ace in the Hole, followed by a Deuce of Clubs. A shit hand. A no hoper. At that very juncture a voice somewhere deep inside my head – the voice that was always telling me to break loose, take risks, change the cosmic order of things – informed me: Bet It All. And if you win…

If I win. Outside of Sal – who knew I was so intimidated by him that I would never cheat him – my clients were insurance brokers, hardware store owners, garage repair shops. My two kids thought me dull and – having now left home to make their own difficult way in the world (they both seemed chronically unhappy) – dropped by three times a year for one of Brenda’s bad home-cooked meals, and rarely called. And my ever-expanding wife, who ran the accounting department for an actuarial company, complained all the time about life being a perpetual disappointment,

If I win. Can everything change with the turn of a card? Only if you want it to. That’s the thing about games of chance. You can gauge the odds, do the math in your head, calculate the risk. And then the card arrives – and most of the time, the random., the happenstantial, determines its value. Or not.

An Ace and a Deuce. That’s either a three or or a thirteen.

‘Hit me’ I told the dealer.

He pulled a card from the case in front of him. As it landed, and he announced to the Table, ‘King of Clubs’, something in me died. I now had a fourteen – a bad hand in blackjack, as anything lower that a four to follow was weak, and anything above a seven meant I would wipe out. Because, you see, I had my entire pile of chips – $5820 to be exact about it – up for grabs. I could hold at fourteen. But I would then only win if the dealer crashed out. And this guy was good. Fast on the uptake, the mental abacus always whirling. I had no choice but to say..
.
“Hit me again”.

The dealer – cool to the point of clinical – flipped a card towards me. As it landed I found myself involuntarily flinching. A Seven of Diamonds. Twenty-One. Unbeatable – unless the dealer hit Blackjack. But three cards later he dealt himself a Ten of Clubs on top of a Nine of Spades and a Three of Diamonds. And my $5820 became $11,640.

I cashed in my chips. I walked back to my hotel. I bought a fifth of bourbon at a liquor store, outside of which a dude offered me crack, crystal meth and a seventeen year old virgin. I told him I had better things to do with my time. Like go back to my hotel and drink the entire bottle of bourbon and wake for night to wake up back east. And still operating on no sleep – and surprisingly lucid with a fifth of bourbon sluicing through my veins – I called the CEO of a larger accounting firm in my corner of Jersey; a guy named Marv Irving who’d been making noises about buying my company for a couple of years.

‘Make me an offer’ I told him.

Twenty minutes and a lot of dickering later we agreed on $350,000 and no redundancies for my five staff. Then I called my lawyer and told him what I had just done (“You crazy – I could have gotten you twice the price”) and what I was about to do. Then I called my wife and told her I was not coming home; that I wanted a divorce, that she could have the house and the cottage on the Jersey shore and the life insurance policies and the big SUV she liked driving, but that if she tried to fight me for more I’d hire a legal attack dog. “You crazy” she asked, her tone indicating that she wasn’t taking me at all seriously.

“That’s right” I said. “I’m crazy”.

She started to rant on about how I was throwing an adolescent temper tantrum, and needed to grow up.

“No” I said, “what I need to do is gamble”.

“You a gambler? That’s hilarious”.

“Laugh all you want. I’m not coming home”.

“And what are you going to do then?”

“Games of risk” I said. “The turn of the card. The luck of the draw”,

“You’ve lost it, Arnie”.

“That I have”.

I clicked my phone shut. I turned it off. I put the Do Not Disturb sign on the door. I slept until five that night. I went online and answered no insurance emails, but did find a company back east that would collect my car from the parking garage at Newark Airport and have some one drive it to me in Vegas for five hundred bucks. Sold. Then I went downstairs and found they did efficiency apartments in this dump for four-twenty a month. Sold. Then I had a shower and a shave, and went to a nearby men’s clothing shop that seemed to be stylistically located back in the Elvis era. I bought a couple of really loud and cheesy Hawaiian shirt, a few pairs of shorts, and a pair of maroon sandals (it’s downtown Vegas – fuck taste). I brought my new wardrobe back to my room, changed into the floral nightmare of a shirt, the polyester shorts, the taste crime sandals, thinking: you now look like a man who gives a shit about nothing. On my way to the casino I handed my now-folded blue suit and two white button-down shirts and my still-well polished black penny loafers to the first homeless guy I spotted.

“The fuck I’m going to do with these jive clothes?” he asked me.

“Wear ‘em to church”.

“Only time I’m gonna wear this shit is when they bury me”.

I walked on, turning into the Golden Nugget. Security were frogmarching out a particularly angry and large Mexican dude who was shouting something about how they’d stolen all his money.
“You want to keep your money” the security guard told him, “leave it in your pocket, not on the roulette table”.

I sidestepped this little scene., found my way back to my preferred blackjack table. I was in luck – the Asian American croupier was on duty, H acknowledged my return to his table with the most cursory of nods. Then it was down to business.

The same waitress as yesterday showed up. She remembered me because I gave her a twenty dollar tip.

“You again” she said – and took my Diet Coke order and was off to the next table.

I placed my $11,600 in chips on the green baize of the table. I cracked my knuckles. I said to no one in particular:

“Let’s go to work”.

Because this is where I work now. This is how I define the day. This is what I do. I gamble.

  • Sigurdur Arngrimsson

    Loved it! It is such a joy to read because of all the small details which makes one get so involved in the story. So real, so ordinary, mundane, and yet so interesting as a result. A Douglas Kennedy story is like a great wine, so dilicous, complex and satisfying, and u don’t want it to end.

  • Luke Spyropoulos

    That is what Douglas does: finding the fascinating in the seemingly mundane.