Zeke drank a lot and his fingers were yellow with traces of tobacco, but he could play. He'd won more in a night than most made in a week, and lost it just as easily. But the moves he'd learned in shady parlours through the haze of smoke never made him smart; he was still the dumb street kid who dreamed of being a high roller, the one who blew all his chances by going too long at the last minute. That night, though, he knew he'd have it, at last.
The sidewalk outside the joint was covered in condom wrappers
. They were thick like confetti
after New Year's and the beads of rainwater made them shine like diamonds
. He flipped up the collar of his snake-skin jacket and paced intently up and down the sidewalk, hungrily sucking at a menthol cigarette
. The neon black
of the night sky was drizzling steadily and showed no signs of stopping. Just as his finger tips were getting numb
, he flicked the last of his smoke on to the sidewalk and wandered inside.
The hallway was adorned with flaking, yellow wallpaper. The little flowers
, flying by as he hurried through the narrow corridor, made Zeke sad. They were forgotten in this place, in favor of easily accessible vices. All the beauty of the world is lost in the sea of human need.
He stood in front of the red door at the end of the hall and looked behind him, twitching nervously
. He knocked three times.
Men were gathered all around, some hanging out the window smoking Cuban cigars
, others lounging in the bathroom doing lines from rough cut mirrors
, a few watching television in a corner behind soggy stacks of magazines
. And a few, a cautious few, were sitting at the various tables, sizing up the competition. Zeke knew the crowd, a perpetual vortex of losers who always seemed to surface as the flotsam
of the underworld
. A few faces were intimidating, some big sharks in the local scene, but he felt confident. Inside the pocket of his jacket, his hand cradled the lighter his father had given him when they parted ways. He traced the contours of the engraved four-leaf clover
with his index finger.
He sat down at one of the stained green card tables. Dr. Gord's massive frame was hunched in a chair across from Zeke, compulsively wiping his brow with a soiled handkerchief. The guys called him doctor because of his vast array of medical conditions and the drugs he took to manage them. Gord always had a little black medical bag with him, and not everything it contained was purely medicinal. If you had an itch, Dr. Gord could scratch it.
But that didn't make him a good card player, Zeke knew that much for sure. The good doctor was there for the business, the connections he could gain by throwing a few chips away to the hustlers. Most of the players on the scene lived on some kind of edge, whether it was the drink or uppers or downers or what Dr. Gord liked to call "thinkers," a slightly more Epicurean chemical mixture comprised of stimulants, mood elevators and nootropics
. But Zeke knew that the best of them stayed away from all the chemicals; they were hooked on the buzz. For them, the game was the high, and that's why they were the big guns. The money was just paper, only the game itself could give them that specific brain chemistry
, ancient as emotion
, that fueled the greatest of men. Gord's nasal tone cut like a buzz saw
and was regulated by his heaving breath.
"Feeling lucky, Zekey? You want some dex, maybe a benzo? You wanna get up-down-all-around before the game, maybe give me a chance tonight?"
"Fuck off, Gord. You need to dose yourself, old man
, the veins on your nose are turning blue again." Zeke felt a cold run of contempt shoot through his heart. He may have been a compulsive gambler, fixed on the dream of making it big and getting out of Dodge
, but at least he didn't prey on the weakness of others.
Jimmy, the clerk at this particular joint, came around with a tray of chips and a heavily armored lock box. He was a slab of beef
, seven feet tall and two feet wide. Zeke had seen someone try to take the lock box, once. Every time he thought about it for too long, he had to fight back the edge of vomit
in his throat. But Jimmy was a class act; he always wore a dress shirt and tie, treating his job with respect, despite its ethically questionable nature. When you're making 35% for handing out chips and buying beer, it's easy to take pride in your job.
"How much you want, Zeke, two, three?" He fingered the rows of chips idly as he looked Zeke's skinny torso up and down, quietly sizing him up for weapons.
"Change me for ten." Zeke was completely dwarfed by Jimmy's massive physique, and asking for ten thousand in change made him feel even smaller, but he knew that if he didn't get out of town soon, then, that night, that he might never make it. It was his whole roll, all of it. He'd sold everything, called in all his loans and closed out all his accounts. The entire weight of his finances, his worth on the street, was sitting heavily in his pocket. As he brought it out into the light, he could feel the importance of it. He took the clip off and unrolled it, fanning it slightly to make sure it was still there, all of it. He eyed Jimmy, waiting for a reaction
. He could feel Gord hungrily eyeing the stack.
Jimmy stood very still for a moment. Then, his great mass shifted from one foot to the other and he smiled, slightly. "Hey, you know, if you're sure," his voice trailed off. He glanced at the money as Zeke handed it to him, their two bodies bridged by a wad of green
. The moment was heavy with purpose. Zeke's life was now sitting in front of him, multi-colored columns of chips standing tall like forgotten monuments.
Zeke stared at them for a long time, thinking about what he was doing, or what he was trying to do. Jimmy made the last of his rounds and the men gathered. A few stray bits of moonlight
filtered in from outside, through the smoke and haze. All the voices in the room, once loud with the boisterous laughter of drugs and booze and anticipation were quiet. The only sounds were the shuffling of cards and the gentle thud of chips hitting velvet
And outside, in the alley, hours later, he knew where he'd gone wrong. He could feel it then, wandering through the pre-dawn cold, feeling sick inside knowing with a grave certainty
that everything was gone. It was like a great chasm, his new found knowledge, spreading wide at the very center of himself. The last spark of his youth was extinguished
From the street, all the early morning commuters could see was the flicker of a lighter as Zeke lit the last of his cigarettes and idly tossed the pack further into the dark of the alley. He sat upon a closed dumpster and squinted to see the stars in the sky, regretting that the city life
had almost completely erased them. Some part of him wished he still had enough money to kill himself with Dr. Gord's pills.