Todd shuffled along Highway 15. The river he had followed had dried up long before and all around him lay the wastes of the western desert. The wide road in front of him shimmied in the daytime heat. He followed the road, knowing that it must lead somewhere. He also knew he must be close to wherever that somewhere is, for at nighttime he could see a great light shooting into the sky. The sun was setting and he was going to have to find a ride soon, or else spend another night in the cold desert.
Soon he could hear the faint sound of a car screaming down the highway from behind him. Todd did not slow, did not turn, he knew this car wouldn’t stop, just like the others. The car finally blew past him, it was a brand new Mustang convertible, cherry red. When the car was about 100 yards ahead of him, the driver suddenly slammed on the brakes and threw it into reverse. He could just barely make out the lyrics of the song blasting out of the radio as the car barreled back towards him in what looked like highly-controlled chaos.
And there’s ladders, and there’s snakes
Ladders give, snakes take
Rich man, poor man
Beggar man, thief
You ain’t got a hope in hell
That’s my belief.
Todd leapt into the scrub next to the highway in order to avoid being hit as the car screeched to a halt right next to him. The driver could have been anywhere from 35 to 60. His face was hidden behind a pair of dark sunglasses and he was wearing a khaki hat that made him look like he was ready to start some sort of South American coup d'état.
"Don’t just stand there gawkin’ boy, get in."
Todd threw his duffel bag into the back seat and vaulted himself into the front. "Damn, I can’t believe you stopped. Thank you so much. My name is Todd."
"No problem kid. The name's Johnny, but everyone calls me "Firehouse, " the driver said. A small smile played Todd’s face as images of teased hair and keyboard guitars entered his mind. "And if you fucking start singing "Love Of A Lifetime" General Mendoza is not going to like it." Johnny whipped out his arm and flipped a huge silver knife out of its handle. "Thumbin’ for a ride these days ain’t as safe as it used to be, on BOTH ends of the deal. Do I have to worry about you?"
Although the weapon itself was a bit imposing, Johnny wielded the thing like an excited 14-year old boy alone with a girl: he knew what it was for, but he sure as hell didn’t know the right way to do it.
"No no, don’t worry, you won’t have any trouble from me."
"Good good. You keep your nose clean and I get a feelin’ that we could be friends"
Johnny retracted the blade with an audible sigh, attempting to hide his relief that his bluff hadn’t been put to the test. He put the Mustang in gear and burned back onto the interstate in a fountain of gravel.
"So where ya headin’ to stranger?"
"No place in particular. Just as long as you’re heading west you can take me as far as you’re going…ummm where ARE you going?"
Firehouse let out a small chuckle. "Where am I going? Where’re WE going? The only place that’s worth going to on this godforsaken highway. The jewel of the desert! The fertile valley! CIBOLAAAAAAAAA!!" Firehouse bellowed into the evening sky and slammed his foot harder on the gas pedal. He turned up the dial the on the radio as the speedometer broke 90.
So spin that wheel, cut that deck
And roll these loaded dice
Bring on the dancing girls
And put the champagne on ice
Todd and Johnny were sitting at the bar in the Venetian. Johnny had parked the Mustang at one of the public parking garages that dotted the east end of The Strip, and they had made a beeline to hotel right away. As Johnny hustled him through the lobby, Todd marveled at the sheer decadences of the room. Massive columns rose from the marble floors up to a high arched ceiling covered in paintings. Huge murals of Italian scenes covered every wall.
"This is the first stop I always make when I come here. A nice place, but not like the Bellagio, buncha rich fucks over there. I mean what’s the point of gambling if it doesn’t make any difference of you win or lose? But this place is still classy, much better than those shitholes downtown. You ever been here before?"
"No, I’ve never seen a place like this. We are surrounded by wasteland, how can they dissipate so much water and electricity? What does this place run on?"
"Same thing the rest of the world runs on: money and ass. But here, the ass runs on money too!" Johnny stated, manically laughing as though this was the funniest thing he had ever heard, spilling his whiskey ("Neat goddammit!") on the table. "That’s another reason I like coming here, the women are the best. I mean shit, the girls at Caesar’s are so old and beat-up they probably haven’t seen any action since the last Ali fight."
As if on cue a waitress came over. Her blond hair, tanned skin, and wispy low-cut outfit turned her into almost the living embodiment of sex. The golden nameplate on her right breast read STACY. Johnny was right about one thing, the women working in this casino were some of the most beautiful Todd had ever seen.
"Can I get you boys anything else?" She bent over to pick up Johnny’s glass and gave him a nice long look at her cleavage, all while shaking her ass in Todd’s face. This woman clearly knew the drill.
"Sure thing darlin’, I’ll have another one of the same. Todd my boy, do you want something?"
"No thanks, I really don’t drink."
"C’mon, sure you do. Besides, liquor tastes better when you’ve got problems." He turned to Stacy, "Get him a Bushmills on the rocks."
After Stacy walked away, Todd asked, "What makes you think that I have problems?"
"Anyone who’s hitchin’ a ride in the middle of the desert must have a mess of problems. Why are you on the road? And where are you really going? For a man with nowhere to go, you sure seemed like you were in a hurry to get away."
"I’m moving to Los Angeles. I want be in the movie business."
"Heh, you and about a couple million other people."
"Yeah, I know. It’s just that movies are the only thing that grabbed me. Everything else would just be another job. Something that will waste my time only so I can pay the bills. I want something more than 50 hours every week, vacations in Wisconsin Dells and a nice gold watch before I die of a heart attack at 65. But Hollywood, that would be something amazing. I gotta take a shot."
"You couldn’t find something like that where you’re from?"
"In Rantoul? A pimple on the ass of Illinois? The men work the nickel mine and the women work the cheap antiques stores and tourist traps. There wasn’t anything for me there."
"So you just set out on the open road, hoping that you would make your way when you got there. Ballsy. A little dumb, but ballsy."
Todd chuckled to himself. "Johnny, have you ever read Huckleberry Finn? There’s this part near the end where Tom Sawyer shows up and they have to break Jim out of prison. Huck wants to get him out the simple and easy way, but Tom has read The Man in the Iron Mask too many times, so he feels it should be this grand adventure featuring all these over the top plans and secret tunnels and all that crap. Everyone I talked to always ripped on Tom, but I understood where he was coming from. To him, there’s just a certain way that things should be done. I guess I’m a little like that, it just seems a bit more romantic."
Johnny roared with laughter. "What are you going to sit at the soda fountain until you’re discovered be like Lana Turner? I hate to break it to you kid, but it ain’t the 1930s anymore and you ain’t as good looking as Lana Turner."
"I don’t even want to act. I just want...something. I have some money saved up so I can survive out there for a little while. All I need is a chance."
"I hate to break it to you, but just because you’re all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed doesn’t mean that you’re going to make it. Well, no matter. Come with me kid, let’s go shoot some craps and see if we can increase that bankroll of yours. You might get lucky, I feel like I got ten passes in my arm tonight."
Todd and Johnny traveled around the city hitting various casinos and quickly moving from one place to another whenever Johnny declared that the dice were cold. Todd received a crash course in craps and soon knew how to properly place his bets and push his winnings when the time was right. Johnny showed a remarkable ability to schmooze anyone who came within 10 feet of him. He could pump out the life story of every cab driver that transported them. His craps wins were always coupled with shouts of "C and E for the boys!" as he constantly tipped the workers at the table. Even the drink girls (whom he spoke to as if they had been friends for years) would bring him his drinks a little faster than everyone else.
They wound their way north through the city and eventually found themselves at Binion’s. The combination of Todd’s lack of experience with Johnny’s luck and gambling acumen had left them at about even for the night. Binion’s was a relic of the old part of Las Vegas, from a time before the thousand room hotels and when sawdust joints could still be found. In an effort to remain competitive with the classy places on the Strip, the craps tables at Binion’s offered up to 10X odds, allowing a lucky gambler to multiply his winnings even faster (which also meant that an unlucky one would lose even faster too, but no one seemed to pay any attention to this.)
But these better odds were no help at the table they settled at. As the dice made their way to the shooters around the table, the house slowly chipped away at Todd’s bankroll. The game wore on and suddenly Todd realized that he was almost to the point where he was going to have barely enough cash to make the rest of his trip. Quickly he turned to John, "I have to cash out now!"
"Are you crazy? Our luck’s gonna change any second now and we’ll be on a roll like you wouldn’t believe."
"Listen, one more missed point and I’m done. There will be no way I will be able to make it on the money I’ll have left."
"No, you listen. Every time I come to Vegas I finish it out at Binion’s, and no matter what happened on the rest of the trip I end up making a little money. There’s just a certain way that things should be done. Trust me, Tom Sawyer."
Todd turned away and stared at his neat little row of chips, it was much smaller than it had been a few short hours earlier. He had underestimated the seductiveness of this place and it had made him lose track of his overall goal. He knew that he should just cut his losses and run, but something held him there. The calls of the dealers, the whirling lights and the clanging of the slot machines, even the subtle *thwap* of the automatic card shufflers were all instruments in an hypnotic gambling orchestra that controlled his mind and rooted his feet next to the craps table.
"Todd. Todd. Tooodddd. TODD!!" Johnny yelled in his ear. "Pay attention. It’s your roll. Make it a good one." Todd grabbed the dice and started his turn. He threw the dice across the table seemingly without care for where they landed or what number was being hit. The dice rolled down the table again and again, each time hitting a different number, never making the point or even repeating a number for a cash payoff, but also never rolling the dreaded seven.
The craps table was at its most dangerous moment. All of the numbers had been seeded with chips and now it was make or break, it was the time of maximum risk on the table, but also the most likely chance for payoff. Todd could either start throwing numbers and making money, becoming a hero to everyone at the table, or he could throw a seven and wipe the entire slate clean. All of the money that was lined up waiting for it’s number to be hit would disappear back into the boxman’s coffers and the dice would pass on to another player. Everyone would lose.
Todd bent over and snatched the translucent red dice into his sweaty left palm. He fought the urge to nervously shift them to his other hand, which would have incurred the wrath of the boxman, fearing that Todd had palmed the house dice and switched in a pair of ringers. As he pulled his arm back to make the throw, his mind dredged up a forgotten piece of his childhood modified for this moment
I must not throw seven.
Seven is the point-killer.
Seven is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face seven.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the seven has gone there will be nothing.
Only my chips will remain.
Todd released his arm and the dice flew across the tub-shaped table, ricocheting off the far wall. They came to rest behind a massive pile of chips and he couldn’t see what the number was, but Johnny was at the far end up the table and he pulled his eyes up with a small wince. A chorus of groans emerged from the gamblers situated around the felt-lined basin.
"Seven!" called out the stickman as he deftly pulled in the dice. "Better luck next time fellas."
They stumbled out of Binion’s and into the cool night. Johnny lit a cigarette and stared up into the light-polluted sky in the vain hope of seeing some stars. Todd just backed himself up against a wall, feeling like he was going to throw up. He had blown it. He could probably make it back home on the money he had left, but there was no way he could survive in L.A. on his depleted bankroll.
"What can I say kid, sometimes the dice don't fall your way."
"That's it? That's all you've got? No proclamation that everything is going to work out? No vague assurances about the nature of luck? Why thank you. Thank you and fuck you!" Todd replied, pointing his finger in Johnny's face.
"Did I put those dice in your hand? Did I put your chips on the table? You could have walked away if you really wanted to. You knew there was risk, that's why they call it 'gambling'."
Todd crumpled back against the wall. "I screwed up. There's nothing left for me to do. I don't have enough money to finish this out, but I sure as hell can't go back home. Everyone told me I was stupid to leave and to think I was going to make it. I don't think my parents would take me back even if I did. I can't face them with my failures."
"You have choices. There are other things you can do."
"If the only choices you have are to do the wrong thing, isn’t that fate?"
"Oh now that's just bullshit! There ain't no such thing as fate. There's no fate but what we make, you should know that! There's always something you can do. Let's get back to the car and you'll figure this out."
Johnny hailed a yellow taxi and they both piled in. Todd sullenly looked out the window as they drove down the highway that encircled the west side of the city. The driver of the cab was a woman in her 40s or 50s, and she was beat-up. Her scratchy voice and yellowed fingernails were the physical manifestations of a lifetime of too much cigarettes and booze. Her sunken eyes had seen too much. This woman was used goods.
"So, do you like diving a cab here." John asked the driver his standard question.
No, please John, don't pull this now. I'm not in the mood to hear your whole "Aren't I a personable guy?" crap and stage your own little version of Taxicab Confessions Todd thought, checking out a large billboard for a local strip joint.
"Oh yeah, I love it here. It's the best city to drive a cab in, ya'll make lots of money all year round and ya'll get to see some of the craziest shit in your life." The woman spoke in that mixture of urban ghetto and southern drawl that made Todd feel like he was in the middle of an episode of COPS.
"Really, huh? Like, what's happened to you?"
"Well you get hookers and johns in the back seat all the time. I remember the first time it happened, I turned around to yell at them and the john threw $10 at me. Figured it was worth it since he paid the fare too." She cackled as though it was the funniest thing in the world.
"So what was the biggest tip you ever got?"
MY GOD SHUT UP!! No one cares about your little small talk!! Why must you continue? I’ve lost the money, now I have to go back home and face everybody. I’ve blown it…
"I once sucked off three guys for $80"
"Yeah, I was driving them out to the airport. The boys had a good weekend and wanted to celebrate. So we settled on a price. They took turns driving while I got in the back and did the job"
"Isn't that a little dangerous?"
"Naw, we had a ball. Those guys had some great beer too. For the kind of fun we had, it sure was worth the price. There's only two of you, so it wouldn't even be as much." The driver turned her head towards the back and looked at Todd with what could only be described as a come hither glance gone horribly wrong.
"Gee, thanks for the offer, but here's our stop. Good luck on your next fare." Johnny threw some money at the driver and both the men jumped out of the cab. The second the doors closed, they both collapsed, laughing hysterically in the middle of the driveway of the Venetian.
"Now that was fucked up," Johnny said, clutching his sides.
"Is that what you meant when you said there's always opportunities?" Todd grinned at him.
"The only opportunity you had there was a chance to catch a disease. Like I said, the ass runs on money here, it's just that it might not be worth the price. Have you figured out what your next move is?"
"I don't know"
"OK. I'm going to go get the car. If you meet me here in about 15 minutes I'll be happy to give you a ride back east as far as Kansas. If not, well, good luck on your travels." They shook hands and Johnny walked down the street towards the garage where the Mustang was parked.
Unable to stand still for long, Todd went into the casino. He walked up and down the rows of games, his mind filled with thoughts of missed chances, blown opportunities, unnecessary adventure, and the fickle finger of fate. For some reason he found himself standing in front of the roulette table, which had been almost totally been hijacked by a group of drunk young women. They were betting gobs of chips on every spin and replacing them with almost robotic precision whenever they won or lost. They laughed and hollered when one of their numbers got hit, and seemed to wail even louder whenever they won nothing.
Todd decided to let the roulette wheel make the decision for him. Betting a single number paid off 35 to 1, if he bet all his money and won, he would win back everything he had lost and then some. If he lost, he could go back to meet Johnny and face the consequences at home. The casino worker at the table set the wheel in counterclockwise motion and spun the ball along the rim in the opposite direction. Todd's eyes scanned the table, searching for the right number to put his money on. His vision locked on the big red "7" near the top of the board. Perhaps the number that destroyed him before might now be his redemption. He pulled out his wad of bills and threw them down on the 7 spot. The second after they hit the felt, the spinner splayed his hand over the board and declared in his monotone, "No more bets."
Todd watched the little white ball ricochet around the inside of the wheel. It seemed to bounce for an eternity until finally coming to rest on the...16. Todd hung his head as the drunken girls around him screamed, one of their number had bet heavily on the 16 and had even surrounded the number with a series of side bets. Slowly he turned away from the table and made his way back to the elevators that would take him back down to the front where Johnny's car was likely waiting for him.
Just before the elevator doors closed, a hand wedged itself in the middle, popping them back open. Into the elevator stumbled the drunken big winner from the roulette spin, laughing and giggling to herself. As she leaned up against the back wall to gain her balance, she turned to Todd and managed to slur out "You know, it's my birthday tomorrow."
"Well, it's no fun being alone on your birthday. Do you want to stay in my room tonight, loverboy?"
"Great," she awkwardly stuck her arm out into empty space "here's my room key."
Todd took the key from her hand as she clasped his arm and nuzzled her face into his shoulder. He flipped the magnetic card over to see where this room actually was - 30th floor- a high room for the high rollers. The woman lightly purred as he reached over to hit the elevator button. Just before the doors closed, he glanced over to her purse and saw that it was practically filled with beautiful black $100 chips, representing more cash money than Todd had ever physically seen in his life. A smile broke across his face as the final line from the song that had been blasting out of Johnny’s car stereo seeped out of his memory.
I’m gonna win in Sin City.
Lyrics excerpted from "Sin City" by AC/DC