Inside pimp-central, smooth charmers hunted for young runaways to befriend, turn-on, and turn-out. I kept my distance, stayed away from the men’s room in order to retain my anal virginity, and waited in the fume-filled, lower-level with scores of other dreamers and suckers for the express bus to “The World’s Playground,” Atlantic City.
I spotted an empty seat near the rear of the bus next to a woman who could lose herself behind a two by four. I hadn't seen her in the waiting room. “Is anybody sitting here?” I asked.
She looked up from her book. “I think you wasted your money on those glasses.”
“I'm not into fashion.” I kept some semblance of a smile.
“Hard to tell, looking at you.” A wiseass. When I just stood there nodding, she said, “Have a seat. It doesn't look like there's much choice.”
“This is choice.”
She looked me side-eyed down into my seat, staking out the armrest with a sharp elbow. Must be the two-day stubble and black Oakland Raiders cap, my macho look. She picked up her book and began reading. As we pulled out into the bright light and long shadows of Manhattan, she looked out the window, and I studied her. Pale, straw hair, silver studs crawling up her ear, and the head of a raven peeking out her shirt.
“What are you reading?” I asked.
“I read that. Yeah. I liked it.”
“It sucks the way people treat the poor.”
“People are too full of human nature.”
“Is that what you call it?” She went back to reading as we rolled through the Lincoln Tunnel, the slap of tires on pavement obnubilating conversations.
When the bus exited the tunnel and turned south, the morning sun poured in through our window. She slid the curtain closed and went back to reading, flashing me a smile on the way. With the muted light behind her, the telltale wrinkles of middle age faded away. A halo back-lit her gentle curves, flawless beneath her translucent blouse. She wasn't wearing a wedding ring.
I asked, “So, you going to AC to make your fortune?”
“That why you're going?” She didn't look up from her book.
She glanced up, “Me too,” and went back to her reading.
“You play cards?”
I put the seat back, absorbed into the relaxing vibrations, hypnotized by the thud of heavy rubber pounding expansion joints. Blup-blup...blup-blup...
I woke up. The curtain was open. The sun was high in the sky.
“My name is Sharon.”
I rubbed my face. Blinked away the cobwebs. “Hi. I'm Lenny.”
“I wanted to finish my book.”
“You enjoy it?”
“Enjoy?” She shook her head.
“We're almost there. Why you going?”
“What do you do?”
“Hostess. Waitress.” She shrugged. “You don't look desperate.”
“I'm behind in the rent.”
“I'm behind in a lot of things.”
“Oh. Good luck.”
“I hope you get that job. Where you staying?”
“I’m going back tonight.”
We exited the bus and parted. Outside, the high sun cast short shadows. Inside, the cool light left no murky corners. Even smoke was transparent. I hurried through a room full of repugnant sounds – rows of blinking and jangling slot machines – on my way to the more sedate craps tables, where the clackity riffle of chips, co-mingling with the human sounds of encouragement, told me I was in the right place.
My tax refund, nine hundred bucks, had just come in. It wasn’t enough. I kept chump change for dinner and bought chips with the rest. Within minutes I was down to four hundred. I plunked half of that on the table. I was sweating. This was what it was all about. Enough money to matter. Enough to hurt.
The table was full. There was a buzz in the air. As the stickman pushed the five dice toward a player at the far end of the table, my eyes followed their journey like radar tracking the space shuttle. I zeroed in on that swarthy, silver-maned shooter as he leaned over and picked out two of those twin red cubes. Burying them in his thick hand, he showed off his glittering diamond pinky ring, brought them to his bloated lips for a good luck blow, rattled them next to his ear, yelled last-second instructions, and sent them bouncing across the green baize. I watchedthem tumble off the back wall beneath me and saw their white dots on their flat tops moments before the dealer said, “Eight, the point is eight. Place your bets!”
Money poured onto the table. I stacked the last of my chips behind the line, laying the odds, betting against the table. The shooter repeated the same ritualistic movements; craps players had their own style, hoping to influence the outcome. Again those crimson bones zipped towards me accompanied by cries of “Eighter from Decatur” “One time, baby” “The hard way.” I stayed silent, bad form to cheer against, but I was silently repeating “any seven,” a loser for everyone else, but my salvation. There were a few groans amidst the silence when the dice finally rewarded me. “Seven – out” cried the dealer. After they swept most of the money off the table, I got my payoff: $770 – I was still alive.
The table went cold, and the dice quickly came around to me. I was back to even. It was quieter now. Many players had sought out other tables, hoping to change their luck.
“Yo-leven” – a winner on my first toss. Comforting words at a craps table; elevens are winners before the point is made, neutral after, and never a loser. A good omen. By the time I had made my seventh point, the crowd at the table was roaring. Everyone was raking it in. Chips were stacked all around. The pit boss drifted over to help the boxman. The eyes in the sky focused in. By the time I made my tenth point, a crush of spectators three deep raised the heat and the volume. Extra security accompanied the additional chips needed, and they stayed to help keep order.
The game slowed down as the boys paid out huge sums. I took a deep breath and inhaledthe seductive scent of the gathered cleavage and their macho armrests. This was exciting new territory for me. Everyone was betting with both hands now. I increased my bet with each new point. The decibel level rose when I made my twelfth. Before my thirteenth roll, I held the dice a little longer than usual, savoring the moment, then threw a four – a tough number to make. After rolling every number but the dreaded seven, “Little Joe from Kokomo” finally arrived – another huge payoff for everyone.
I felt like a hero amidst a monster roll. Everything was moving in slow motion. The dice teased all eyes. There were so many chips on the table, I could only see one die when it finally landed and held my breath until the deafening silence was confirmed by the call, “Seven – out.”
I was soaked with sweat and smell and needed a towel to dry my hands and face. I got a standing ovation. Everyone had the kind of night you dreamed about. I cashed ten grand. One guy won enough to buy a new house. But our hosts weren’t worried. Gamblers lose it back. The odds were in the casino’s favor, and tonight's anomaly was merely one end zone of probability.
My pockets bulged with cash. I toyed with the idea of a limo. Or a few more tosses of the dice. Instead, I grabbed a couple slices of pizza and strolled three blocks to the bus station, dropping an assortment of paper presidents on the homeless. The neon glitter didn't extend very far behind the stage set of boardwalk casinos.
The express bus was nearly full. The aisle was lit. Seats were dark. “Is anybody sitting here?” I asked.
“I think you need new glasses.”