Casino Joe by J.T. Townley
When I step through the door, all the croupiers sing: Casino Joe from New Mexico, we want you on our side! They can be mid-shuffle, doesn’t matter. That’s the kind of welcome they give me. Been doing it long as I can remember. Even have choreography, a couple steps and some hand motions. I’m not just talking one casino; it’s the same thing at all of them, Albuquerque to Taos. Where the bosses find that kind of talent, I know not.
Truth is (and maybe this is common knowledge) I’m not even from New Mexico. Not originally. I was born and bred in Hico, Texas, home of the Hico High Tigers, also the Billy the Kid Museum. But Harriet (3rd wife) hailed from Clovis, which is New Mexico, if only just. After we married, I never really left. Been here forty-some-odd years already.
I haven’t always been Casino Joe either. Most of my life, until around 1978, I was just Joe, plain old Joe from Hico. Even if, by then, I’d been here for going on a decade. But after Harriet passed, I met Lois (4th wife), who was from Las Vegas (the one in New Mexico). Did that gal like to gamble! How she used to beg me to take her to the casinos! But she’d wager on anything—if the toast would burn or the light would turn green, anything—so I was leery about it for a long while. Fact is, I didn’t have a high opinion of casinos or their patrons. That was something Blanche (2nd wife), a Baptist from Lubbock, really drove home: The Good Lord didn’t look kindly on games of chance or those who played them. She was a teetotaler, too, and did her damndest to rid Lubbock County of what I used to call Holy Spirits.
But don’t knock it till you try it, as the fella says. On the way home from a funeral in Albuquerque (one of her distant cousins) some years back, Lois asked, then goddamnbegged me to stop off at one of the Indian casinos. Just to play a few slots, she said. I need to grieve, she said. I slipped her a twenty and said, That’s it, Lois. You do what you can with that. Don’t come asking for more. I figured I’d just wait it out in a quiet corner or else sip a ginger ale at the bar, hoping the Good Lord didn’t smite us down right then and there. In His infinite wisdom, He didn’t. Instead, Lois won two-hundred bucks on the quarter slots. I decided to give it a whirl, though just on the dime machines. You know what? I won five-hundred smackers! Just like that! Coins pouring down like manna from heaven! And it only took four and a half hours and nine rolls of dimes to do it. Lois led me over to the bar to celebrate. Two whiskies, she said, slapping her open palm on the counter as if she’d been doing this her entire life. And leave the bottle.
Three days later we came to in the backseat of my Cadillac. We were out near Shiprock somewhere. Lois wiped away the drool and matted down her hair.
Some bender, she said.
Right, I said through my headache.
On the way home (300 plus miles), or maybe it was following some other bender, this billboard caught my eye. We were zipping along in the Cadillac I’d had all those years. It was a big, white convertible with longhorn horns bolted to the front grill. I bought it for Mildred (1st wife) when we were first married, a wedding present. Financed with oil money before the well went dry, the business bust, me belly-up. I loved that car, it’s probably what I miss most. So when Mildred passed, I drove it west to Lubbock, to the promise of another oil venture that would eventually go bust, too.
So we’re tooling down the highway in the Cadillac, Lois and me, hungover, wondering what happened to the bundle we’d won, when I notice this billboard by the side of the road. Two stories high, red lettering on a solid white background. FREE CRAPS LESSONS, it says, with a phone number. The whole thing’s larger than life. By now we’d graduated from slot machines to blackjack, or I had, since Lois still enjoyed plugging quarters. I understood twenty-one, it was logical and made perfect sense. But so far I’d had less success at the tables than in the oil fields, so I needed a new game.
Lois stopped nipping from her whiskey bottle long enough to express concern. Stay away from craps, Joe. You’re not ready for it, you’ll never be ready for it. She told me a cautionary tale about her older brothers, who were both in the state penitentiary for murder and would be for some time.
What’s that got to do with craps? I said.
I’m telling you, Joe, she said. You’re not ready.
A casino isn’t just a place to spend your vacation time and weekends and evenings after the five o’clock whistle blows. It doesn’t have to be merely a diversion. It’s certainly much more than an excuse to drink to excess and meet cheap, passably pretty hookers, who you take up to your room in the adjacent luxury hotel. It’s so much more, if only you’ll let it be. It can be everything you never had, or everything you ever lost, much of it, in fact, to the casino. Family and friends, ahome. All you have to do is look past the gaudy façade, the glowing neon and flashing lights, the second-hand smoke and babbling sad-sacks, and find the heart or soul of the casino, its heart and soul. Which is the pit bosses and croupiers, all of whom know you, which tables you prefer, which whiskey and how many, your cigarette brand, your taste in women and complimentary luxury hotel accommodations. And you know their names and stories, too, how long they’ve been with the casino, where they’re from, how many wives and kids they’ve had, their free-time hobbies and interests (horse racing, fantasy football), their hopes and dreams and somewhat unrealistic aspirations.
They don’t call you Casino Joe for nothing.
Lois had next to nothing when she passed. Two brothers in prison, in hock to every loan shark from here to Tucumcari. Paying them off put a sizeable dent in what Harriet (3rd wife) left me, my access to which depended entirely upon “maintaining residence in the Land of Enchantment and bringing the sunlight of God’s Word to the world.” I like to think I gave it my best shot, the latter part, I mean. For a long while, even after Lois lost the battle to cirrhosis, I thanked the Good Lord for His many blessings before every meal, and I’d praise Him in my less and less frequent moments of joy, such as when I hit on roulette or was dealt three aces in five-card stud. These days, His Holy Name doesn’t cross my lips so much. I figure by this late date, everything’s understood.
It was Louisa (5th wife) who took me to the other Las Vegas, the one a couple states over. She was from Española, a native New Mexican, what they call Spanish. Her mama was dying from the cancer, so I’d run into her down in the hospital cafeteria. Beautiful day, ain’t it? I’d say and she’d say, What’s so beautiful about it? and I’d say, Sun’s shining and the Good Lord’s smiling, and she’d say, It’s always sunny in New Mexico, and I’d say, That’s precisely my point. When Lois and Louisa’s mama were both under the drugs, we started jawing over bad coffee, talking about the weather, how we always needed rain. We mostly just needed somebody to talk to, didn’t matter who.
My wife and Louisa’s mama passed on the same day, not an hour between them, and soon as I heard, I said a little prayer and took off down the disinfected hall. Only she was struck with the same notion and caught me before I’d gone anywhere. I’m very sorry for your loss, we both said. We hugged and shed our tears and hugged again. I thought that’d be it. But she stuck out her hand and said:
We never introduced ourselves properly. I’m Louisa.
Name’s Casino Joe.
Do you know Las Vegas? Not New Mexico Vegas. The real one?
No, ma’am. That’s a whole other story out there.
Will you take me there, Casino Joe?
It was a bad idea from the beginning. But we both needed to get away after the funerals, and I hadn’t left the state since I moved out here after Blanche (2nd wife) died. There was an ill wind blowing as we pushed the Cadillac west through the desert, Louisa’s black veil aflutter. The Nevada Las Vegas was even brighter and sleazier than I expected, the casinos grander and uglier, the hotel rooms plusher and more sordid. No one sang when I stepped through the door. I bankrolled Louisa’s mourning, which made me feel good, though the dwindling size of my nest egg had the exact opposite effect. For a long while, maybe half an hour or forty-five minutes, I stood back and watched her work, if that’s what you call losing hand over fist at blackjack. Then I bought her a whiskey and she won a hand. So I bought her another and she won again. Then I bought her a third, along with one for me, and had the waitress leave the bottle. Louisa was up up up until we’d drunk almost half of it. Then she lost everything she’d won and more besides. Now she was drunk and mean and down at the mouth.
You’re Casino Joe, right? Let’s see you win.
It was a bad idea, from beginning to end. I was out of my element, didn’t know a soul and knew there’d be no mercy. But I slugged some more whiskey, backhanded my grimace away, and said:
First, we get married.
We found the nearest Elvis chapel and tied the knot. We were both three sheets to the wind. The whole thing took maybe fifteen minutes.
Now you’ll win, Casino Joe. I’m your good luck charm.
Okay, I said, we start with the slots.
That’s where it all began for me, but that night, it didn’t make a difference. I lost three-hundred bucks in twenty minutes. We changed casinos; I lost at blackjack. We changed casinos again, and I went to work on the roulette wheel. It looked promising there for a couple-three spins, but whatever luck I’d mustered went South in a hurry. We found a new casino when I’d lost more than I could count. I watched the card tables for a while. Louisa grew impatient and really started drinking.
I played seven-card draw and Texas Hold ’em, five-card stud and High Chicago. It took all night and two more bottles of whiskey. Louisa passed out on the carpet right next to the table. The casino staff tried to clear her away, offering us a complimentary hotel room, but I was winning at that point, so I demanded they leave her where she lay. They were insistent (casino policy, decorum), but I was drunk and belligerent. Louisa stayed put.
The ruckus they raised put me off my game. I’d heard about these Las Vegas casinos, how they’d come after you if you were on a hot streak. They even have a special name for the rats-ass bastards: coolers. And I’ll say this, they know how to do their job. Because I was winning, and then my luck soured and I was losing. I kept throwing more chips at the pit yawning open beneath me, but there wasn’t enough gold in Fort Knox to fill it.
My tongue was filthy sandpaper. Enough was enough.
I tallied how much was left and hit the craps table. It’s what had to be done. Not that I went all-in right away: I watched and learned and waited and watched. When I knew enough about the game, pass line bets on the come-out roll, odds bets thereafter, I stacked my chips and waited my turn. When I took those dice in hand, I knew good things were in the cards, so to speak. I bet and rolled and bet and rolled. I won and won and won again. A crowd gathered. I was in the zone. I bet and rolled and bet and rolled. I couldn’t lose, for a while. Can you believe this guy? somebody said. He’s hot hot hot. Beginner’s luck, said someone else, probably a cooler. He’ll go cold soon enough, trust me.
But I didn’t go cold. I was hot hot hot. I couldn’t lose. Until I lost. I wasn’t even the shooter. But I got cocky, also drunker than Cooter Brown, and I started taking the bad bets, Big Six and Big Eight, Hard Four and Hard Twelve. I was all over the place, didn’t matter who was shooting or why. Maybe, all those years back, I should have ignored Lois. Maybe I should have taken that billboard up on FREE CRAPS LESSONS. But it was too late now. It was Katy bar the door. I lost and lost and lost again. The pit boss and manager and cashier forced me into private discussion. One croupier coming off duty even pulled me aside, pointed at the exit sign, and gave me a little shove. I ordered up another bottle of whiskey and lost everything Harriet (3rd wife) left me, including all the land and the eight-bedroom Victorian, in the family since 1909. Also, the gold wristwatch Mildred (1st wife) gave me as a wedding present. And the Cadillac. Louisa was dead on the dirty casino carpet. I'd be in hock for the funeral from here to kingdom come. I never should have come to Vegas.
My luck had run out for good.
I only stayed out there long enough to hustle bus fare home, a year, eighteen months, maybe. I was no great shakes at panhandling, and it was tough to lay off the casinos. There’s one on every street corner. So every time I made a little something and lit out for the Greyhound station, that cash started burning a hole in my pocket, and I got sidetracked into The Bighorn or Arizona Charlie’s. Before I knew it, I was right back where I started.
But I got back eventually, boots busted and teeth rotten and liver shrunk up like a dirty old prune. I staggered and stumbled into the first casino I saw (The Route 66), and guess what? Those croupiers didn’t miss a beat: Casino Joe from New Mexico, we want you on our side!
Feels good to be home, I said.
They took me in. I knew they would. That’s what family’s for, right? In the beginning, I was sure everything would go back to how it had always been. Of course, I was out of money, no assets to speak of whatsoever. Even the denim I was wearing belonged to someone else. I was in hock up to my eyeballs. All I had to my name was my good humor and my old, busted boots. They may be Indian casinos, owned by the Santo Domingo, Pojoaque, etc., but they’re run by the Vegas machine, so no matter where I went, everyone knew I was in a bind.
But they took care of me. When I needed a smoke, they gave me a smoke, a pack, a carton, with matches. When, on occasion, I needed a meal, they weren’t stingy, heaping up spaghetti and meatballs or steak and eggs so I ate till I was blue in the face. When I could’ve been out on the street or down at the shelter, getting sodomized or lobotomized or throat-slit, they gave me a complimentary room, not a basic room, but a suite, with leather sofas and a balcony with a view. And when I needed a drink, they gave me a drink, drink after drink after drink, though never the bottle like I asked for, till they cut me off and said, You’ll drink the state dry, Casino Joe. Then they put me on a program. Ten days and a couple two-day follow-ups is all it took, give or take.
They took me off women, too, and gambling, except as an extreme last resort when absolutely necessary to fulfill the duties of my position. See, they gave me this job. Always wanted to be a professional gambler or high-class croupier, tuxedo, cigarette case, and hair oil. But they said, Anyone’s got luck bad as yours needs to work for us! So that’s what I do. Some lucky sumbitch in one of the casinos gets on a hot streak, they call me in. I disrupt things, change the momentum. It ain’t flashy or nothing. It’s subtle. What’s your drink, Mister? or Here for the insurance convention? sort of thing.
So far, it’s working.
But it’s day-by-day. I’m paying down what I owe the Vegas machine. I’m living good, too, eating right and chewing lots of nicotine gum. Laying off the booze. Still get the shakes, but less often than I used to. Feel like I’ve about come full-circle, back to the days of Blanche (2nd wife) and her teetotalling ways. Only jolt I get is from the coffee I drink by the gallon, also room service and the occasional ballgame on cable. But I’ve turned things around, thanks to the casino. Every day is a gift, every hot-streak-gone-cold a little more insurance the goon squad won’t break my legs or snap my neck. Maybe my back is failing and the gout won’t leave me be, but I’ve got hope. It’s something I haven’t known in many a moon, maybe since Mildred (1st wife) passed.
Who says the house always wins?
© J.T. Townley, 2013
J. T. Townley writes fiction, essays, and translations, and he has new work in Collier’s, LITnIMAGE, and Experienced: Rock Music Tales of Fact & Fiction. His story “A Christmas Letter” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He holds an MPhil in English from Oxford University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, and he teaches at the University of Virginia. http://jttownley.com
Casino Joe was read by Mark Woollett on 6th November 2013