They drove east through the desert towns: Hesperia to Victorville to Barstow to Yermo, past the dusty bed of Soda Lake, dry now, a ghostly crater waiting for rain. The route was familiar, a memory stored in his bones. The return trip, Sandy had driven in every condition—exhausted, panicked, blind drunk, sick with shame. But the eastbound journey occurred, always, under controlled conditions. They’d left L.A. at three in the afternoon. You’re crazy, said Myron Gold, whose car he’d borrowed this time. It’s the hottest part of the day. But the timing was no accident; it was part of the protocol: rolling into Vegas at first dark, slipping away (this was the hope) before dawn. Vegas at noon would look stripped and diminished, like a Christmas tree in daylight. It was no place he wanted to see.
He glanced over at Marnie, curled up in the passenger seat, her breathing slow and deep. She had never been to Vegas. It’s your birthday, she’d pointed out. We should be together on your birthday. Bringing her was a mistake, he knew it already—a clear breach of protocol. A month ago his No would have been easy, automatic. But she loved him too much, had lost too much. Now he couldn’t refuse her anything
In the rearview mirror, the white sun was nearly blinding. Years ago, crossing the desert in his Pontiac convertible, he’d kept the top up and sweated through his shirt. Later he’d borrowed girlfriends’ cars, a Chevy Bel Air, a Mustang. He remembered both distinctly, more clearly than he did the girls. The trips, too, ran together in his memory—the radio stations that petered out every ten minutes; the stops in Barstow or Baker for cold sodas and gas. The desert heat had been a constant, a character in the story. But Myron Gold’s Eldorado had air-conditioning, an unsettling development. When Marnie turned it on full blast and bent her face to the cold, Sandy had snapped to attention. Another break in the protocol. His nerves prickled, a flash of alarm.
The protocol was scientific, based on experience. He’d learned through trial and error—expensive, devastating error—which conditions produced the desired result. In Vegas, he’d have a light supper at the Boxcar, scrambled eggs and coffee; then a single drink to smooth him out. Nerves were the enemy. He’d seen it plenty of times, from both sides of the table: the anxious player under a toxic cloud, fear rising off him in waves. One drink was enough to dispel it, but two was risky. Three, and you might as well leave your wallet on the table, a lesson it had taken him years to learn.
He’d left Vegas—for good, he thought—in the summer of ’60, grateful to get out with his skin. In the Pontiac convertible, watching the desert fly past, he’d made a series of resolutions.
Three squares a day; bed at a decent hour.1
A daytime job—steady, respectable.2
No cards or dog track or lottery tickets, no slots or craps or betting on sports.3
The central promise, the critical one, he adhered to strictly. He did not set foot in a casino.4 Since then, he’d ventured back only when necessary, when his material circumstances left him no choice. Now, for instance: his phone shut off yet again, the landlord clamoring for rent. He owed thousands to Myron Gold, hundreds to his relatives back in Pennsylvania. Try to cut back on your expenses, his sister Joyce had suggested in a letter, Joyce the prim schoolteacher who wrote him faithfully once a month whether he answered or not, and tucked a ten-dollar bill into the envelope. Because Joyce loved him more than anybody did or should, he tried to follow her advice. He smoked fewer cigarettes. Finally he sold the Pontiac at a price that sickened him, and rode the bus to work.
Work, he knew, was half the problem. Tending bar kept him out and circulating. If a card game was happening somewhere in North Hollywood, it was impossible not to know. But the warehouse gig had fallen through, and his various day jobs (driving a bread truck, selling vacuum cleaners) had ended badly. The last one—short-order cook at Myron Gold’s diner— had proved more dangerous than bartending. Gold’s wife had taken a shine to him, a development that could only end in disaster.
She had hired him off the street. Bleary, hung over, he’d wandered in for breakfast after an all-night card game. A sign in the window said HELP WANTED.
Can you cook? Vera Gold asked.
He looked down at his greasy plate. Better than this? Sure. You bet.
For months, they’d worked side by side, through lunch rushes and long, empty afternoons. Her husband had bought the diner on a lark—It’s smart to have a cash business, he told Sandy later. Vera kept the place running. She hired and fired and ran the register. On Friday afternoons, her husband appeared, heading straight for the back room. He emptied the safe into a zippered vinyl pouch.
Myron had noticed Sandy immediately. Who’s the pretty boy? he asked Vera, loud enough for Sandy to hear. A moment later, he barreled into the kitchen, a short, squat man in Clark Kent eyeglasses and a bristly gray crew cut.
Where’d she find you? he demanded.
I came in for breakfast, Sandy said. Where’d she find you?
And just that easily, they were friends. Every Friday afternoon, Gold spent a few minutes in the kitchen with Sandy, dispensing filthy jokes and business advice. Vera rolled her eyes good-naturedly; she had heard it all before. For work she dressed in clinging dark dresses. All day long Sandy was aware of her body—behind the lunch counter, at the cash register, her high heels clicking across the floor. Without even looking he sensed exactly where she was. Her whole life, probably, she’d affected men this way—a bombshell, tall and red-haired.
You mean it’s not natural? he asked later, when this fact had become apparent.
Smart aleck, she said, laughing low in her throat.
They were lying in bed at Gold’s house in the hills—their first time or second, half smashed on the Bloody Marys Vera mixed by the pitcher. In the afternoon light, her face was etched with lines, her makeup kissed away.
Her exact age was a mystery. He’d never had the brass to ask. She was Gold’s fourth wife—my child bride, he called her—but that could mean anything; the man was seventy if he was a day. He’d made a fortune in his youth, lost and then remade it. Somewhere along the way, he’d invested in the pictures. Vera had been a contract player at MGM, a rising starlet with a big future, until the war came.
Go ahead, do the math, she told Sandy. Count on your fingers if you need to.5
She was a voracious lover, nothing like the girls he was used to, pure or pretending to be, waiting to be coaxed. From his high school sweetheart, who really was one, to the fastest showgirl, each had acted like a virgin, a charade he was expected to uphold. But with Vera there was no playacting. She wanted him openly, fervently—as, against his better judgment, he wanted her. When he finally came to his senses, she dismissed him with a shrug.
You’ll be back, she said.
He quit the diner and got hired at the Beehive. It wasn’t hard to do. He could mix anything, make conversation with anyone.
Are you an actor? At least once during his shift, a customer would ask. In North Hollywood, it was a reasonable question. Half the guys under forty, and all the pretty girls, wanted to be in the movies.
Nah, he said each time. I just pour drinks.
He knew it wasn’t true, that in some way the bar back was his stage, a showcase for his best qualities, his wit and style and instincts and speed. It was an act he’d mastered long ago. He’d run the most popular table at the hottest casino in Vegas, which involved more than dealing cards. Tending bar was no different. Any clown could pour a drink, but Sandy’s customers became regulars. Men liked to be remembered: Rams or Dodgers, vodka or gin. A plain girl fed on flattery, a pretty one on judicious appraisal—an appreciation of her unseen qualities, her intellect and taste. In Hollywood, everyone, when you got down to it, just wanted to be seen.
In that way it was the opposite of Vegas, where taking a snapshot could get you bounced from a casino. Bartenders, drivers, dealers, stickmen. In Vegas you learned when to look away, to keep your eyes on the floor.
The sun was setting right on schedule, a fiery backdrop for the famous horse-and-rider sign. The Hacienda was a tourist trap catering to retirees. A mile ahead, the Tropicana marked the beginning of the Strip. Sandy would never forget his first sight of it, the tulip-shaped fountain dancing with light. To a snot-nosed kid from Bakerton, Pennsylvania, it had seemed the height of splendor, the swankest joint in town. Ten years later—an eternity in Vegas time—it had been eclipsed by flashier acts: the Stardust, with its elaborate signage, a panoramic view of the solar system; Caesars Palace, Ben-Hur with showgirls. But to Sandy, the Trop still sparkled—an aging siren, glamorous and wicked, still rife with possibilities.
Against his will, he thought of Vera Gold.
Beside him, Marnie stirred. “Wake up, baby,” he murmured, touching her shoulder. “You don’t want to miss this.”
She sat up in her seat, disoriented. “We’re there already?”
“Four hours door to door. Just like I said.” He drove too fast—he knew he did—but cops were rare on this stretch of freeway. He hadn’t gotten a ticket in years.
She stared out the window. The Strip unrolled before them, a throbbing assault of shimmering, bubbling neon. Same old Vegas, though changes were visible if you knew where to look. The Tally Ho was now the Aladdin, where Elvis Presley had just married his Priscilla. The Sans Souci had become the Castaways, recently bought—like half the Strip—by Howard Hughes.
“Is that a church?” Marnie asked.
“Wedding chapel. An old one. The new ones, you can drive through.” He signaled to change lanes. The Eldorado responded smoothly, a hell of a car. “There are a couple dozen more up the road.”
“Is this real?” she murmured.
“Sort of,” he said.
She rubbed her eyes, patted her stiff blonde hair. She’d had it cut recently, teased into a stylish bouffant. Still her hand went often to the nape of her neck, where her ponytail had been, as though she couldn’t believe it was gone. They had known each other four months, longer if you counted the run-up, when she’d appeared at the Beehive with an actor named Donny Valentine. My boyfriend, she’d called him, and no one had the heart to correct her, though everyone knew Donny was queer. To Sandy, her innocence was touching and a little alarming. He had no business messing with a girl so easily fooled.
“Wayne Newton is playing tonight,” she said. “I saw it on TV.”
“Old news, baby. He was headlining back when I lived here.”
“Did you ever go see him?”
“Nah. That’s for the tourists.” Sandy’s shift had started at 8:00, the precise moment when curtains were rising all over town. He’d been working the night Sinatra and Dean Martin first played the Copa, an act he wouldn’t have minded seeing. But he had never watched a show of any kind.
“That’s where I used to work,” he said, pointing. The familiar sign filled him with an old longing, the looming S with its tall, graceful curves. THE SANDS, it said. A PLACE IN THE SUN.
Marnie blinked. “Is that where we’re going?”
For a moment, he was tempted. The town had a short memory, and seven years had passed. Still, he wouldn’t chance it. He’d been known there, known and recognized: Sandy from The Sands. It wasn’t worth the risk.
They found a cheap motel a block north of Fremont. Alone, he wouldn’t have bothered. He could stay awake for days if he had to, drive home high on adrenaline and caffeine. But with Marnie, gentle measures were called for. He’d make sure she got to bed by midnight. He owed her that much, and more. (Loyalty? Protection? He wasn’t sure. He knew only that he was inadequate to the task.)
Now, for instance. The drive up the Strip had juiced him. He was ready for his eggs, his drink. Instead he willed himself to be patient as Marnie unpacked her small suitcase into the crappy particleboard dresser, lingered at the bathroom mirror in her stockings and slip. Sandy lay on the bed, watching her: the round freckled shoulders, the small ripe breasts. He hadn’t gone near her in weeks. I’m still sore, she said, the one time he’d tried. Ashamed of himself, he hadn’t touched her again.
“It might be a late night for me,” he said. “You can take a taxi back here when you’ve had enough.”
“Are you kidding? We’re in Vegas! And it’s your birthday. I want to stay up all night.” She turned, her bright face startling. Like all actresses, she was an expert with makeup. Barefaced, she looked like what she was— an exceptionally pretty twenty-year-old, the flower of her father’s dairy farm in southern Ontario, raised on milk and apples. Now her freckles were gone. In false eyelashes and pancake, she was just a Hollywood beauty, like all the rest.
She blotted her lipstick. “Come on. This will be fun.”
No, Sandy thought. The opposite of fun. Vera had understood the difference. The night before a trip, she could sense his sober mood.
You’re a barrel of laughs, kid. Like a banker leaving for the office.
That’s right, baby. I’m all business.
“The thing is, I’d like to win some money,” he told Marnie. “Need is more like it. I need to win some money.” The confession pained him. Myron Gold had loaned him another five hundred, but made him beg first. Behind the Clark Kent glasses, his eyes narrowed ominously. I’ll put it on your tab, he said finally, handing over the keys to the Eldorado. I’m starting to think you’re a bad investment. You know what gonif means? No? Look it up.
“Oh, I almost forgot!” Marnie reached into her pocketbook and brought him a small gift-wrapped package. “This is for you.”
Shame burned his cheeks. He was sorry he’d told her about his birthday. He hadn’t told anyone else, and so only his sisters had remembered. Dorothy’s card promised a month of prayers by the Carmelite Sisters of Loretto, Pennsylvania. Joyce was more practical, or maybe she simply knew him better. Her card contained two twenty-dollar bills.
Marnie sat on the bed beside him, leaned close to his shoulder. Her hair smelled of sugar and flowers.
“You didn’t have to get me a present,” he said.
“Well, sure I did. Thirty-three is special. You’re the same age as Jesus.”
“Jesus who?” he said, a smart-aleck moment he instantly regretted.
(You don’t believe in God? Vera asked him once.
I believe in math, Sandy said.)
“You shouldn’t joke about Jesus,” said Marnie.
He gave her a squeeze. “Sorry. Thirty-three, huh? Seems like he’s been around longer than that.” He ran a hand over the shiny gold wrapping and pictured Marnie in her tiny rented room, cutting and scotch-taping; measuring, probably, to conserve the pricy paper. It seemed wrong to tear it open— untender, a violation.
“Thanks, baby,” he said, kissing her. “You’re the best.”
The Lariat was a sawdust joint, built fast after the war by a character named Buster Kilgallon, who saw it all coming and put up his Texas ranch to buy two properties on Fremont—a narrow cowpath then, before it became Glitter Gulch. The Lariat and its sister casino, the Lasso, sat kitty-corner at a busy intersection. Their matching signage—two huge, whirling ropes, one red, the other green—had been visible for half a mile, until the neighboring casinos built taller and brighter. Same old story.
The place was busy for a Tuesday night. Men in hats and string ties drank cheap beers. Fleshy women in capri pants hunched over the slots. It was an older crowd—locals, mostly; tourists rarely left the Strip. The old sawdust floor had been replaced with carpet, the main room tarted up with chandeliers; yet the Lariat had remained low-profile, one reason he’d chosen it. Certain people were unlikely to venture here. Another reason, equally important: its blackjack tables ran on Strip rules. The dealer drew to 16 and stood on a 17. The rest of downtown played old-style: the dealer hitting a soft 17, a shady rule that favored the house.
Sandy sipped methodically at his martini—stirred, two olives, dry and cold. He had given precise instructions, like the customers he himself hated, the turkeys who rattled off entire recipes as though the barman had never mixed a drink. But tonight he had no choice; the drink had to be perfect.
Drink in hand, he scoped out the floor. Ten blackjack tables against the far wall, four cameras trained down on them from above. Just as he remembered, the corner table was in a blind spot. He hadn’t played the Lariat in years, but his memory was precise in these matters. If he stationed himself at the far end, his face would be hidden in shadow. An unnecessary precaution, maybe, but he played better when he wasn’t being watched.
Gonif: a thief, a swindler. He had looked it up.
He reached into his jacket for the new wallet from Marnie, soft blond leather with rawhide stitching, heavy against his heart. Inside was his bankroll from Myron Gold and, tucked into a hidden compartment, the two twenties from Joyce. Her birthday card had come a day early, his sister punctual to a fault. Her baby, too, would arrive on time, if it hadn’t already. (The actual due date had slipped his mind.) But a first baby at Joyce’s age was risky, something he hadn’t understood until Vera Gold explained it. Now he found himself worrying about Joyce, a strange reversal. It was Joyce who’d always looked after him. Who’d looked after them all: Lucy, their baby sister; Dorothy, their crazy one. Sandy’s worries were confusing and, he hoped, unnecessary. Joyce had more reliable people to lean on. Her husband—solid, dependable Ed—was certainly up to the job.
To Joyce. To her health, he thought, raising his glass. It was as close as he could come to prayer.
The corner table went hot, cold, hot. Sandy settled in, his nerves humming. The cards revealed themselves in canny combinations, 10’s and 3’s, 3’s and 10’s. It took him a moment to grasp the connection: the third of October, the beginning of his Jesus year.
By eleven o’clock he was down a hundred. Again and again, he hit on 13; again and again the face cards found him, inscrutable queens and smirking jacks.
(The king looked somber, disappointed. Gonif. Of course, he wasn’t talking about money.)
“You’re killing me,” Sandy muttered to the dealer. In an hour it would be the fourth of October. If the pattern shifted, he’d be even further screwed, forced to hit on 14.
He found the thin metal disk in his pocket, kept there for emergencies. It was smooth and flat, smaller than a quarter. He nursed his drink. His fellow players were two gruff men in Western wear—strangers probably, but alike as brothers. Beside them sat an old babe, Spanish-looking, and what might have been her daughter, both heavily made-up and enormously fat. Downtown: no sharks in suits, no beauties showing cleavage. Nothing here to rattle him, no distractions from the game.
Then, suddenly, the juice found him. He drew one sweet hand, and then another. Face cards arrived in decorous pairs, like dinner guests.
King and queen.
Queen and jack.
He was about to pony up again when he glimpsed Marnie across the room. He’d left her at the bar with a rum and Coke, hoping the scene would bore her into surrender, until he could put her in a taxi back to the motel. Now she was attracting lots of attention, from the men, anyway; nothing could distract the old babes at the slots. In her strapless dress, she belonged at The Sands or Caesars. For the chintzy Lariat—its chandeliers dusty, its walls dark with cigarette smoke—she was like visiting royalty, the best-looking girl the place had seen in years.
Sandy turned his back slightly, hoping she hadn’t seen him. To his dismay, she headed in his direction, teetering on high heels.
Not now, he thought, counting furiously. Please, not now.
A moment later, she lurched toward him. “There you are. I lost you,” she said thickly. Her eyes were bleary, her makeup smeared.
He spoke in a low voice. “Baby, are you okay?” Could she possibly be this tight on one rum and Coke?
“I drank too much. Some guy kept buying me drinks.” She glanced over her shoulder. At one of the baccarat tables, a man in a Western hat was watching them intently. It was a look Sandy recognized, known to bartenders everywhere: the hillbilly stinkeye. A drunk itching to pick a fight.
“Oh, Jesus.” Sandy ran a hand through his hair. Now, of all times? The juice surging, the whole table waiting on him. And yet he owed her.
The count fell out of his head.
“Cash me out,” he told the dealer. “Sorry, buddy. I gotta go.”
Outside, he led her to the taxi stand. “I’m sorry,” she said, her hand low on her belly. “I ruined everything.”
He could not disagree with this.
“Do you feel sick?” he said.
“I’m so tired. Aren’t you tired?” She leaned against him briefly, her hair fragrant, as though the stale casino air had not touched her. Sugar and flowers.
“Let’s go back to the hotel,” she murmured. “Come back with me.”
Well, he was up—a little. He could walk away now with cash in his pocket: five hundred bucks to catch up on some bills, plus enough for a nice dinner. He could end his birthday in bed with Marnie, the girl who loved him. What was wrong with that?
Marnie sighed. “Can’t you just quit?”
It was a question he’d been asked many times—by Vera Gold, his brother George. Tonight, like every night, walking away was theoretically possible. But he’d spent three hours at the table, sweating, his pulse racing. He had invested other people’s money, his own time and anguish; lost everything, then won it all back. It seemed worse than foolish, it seemed somehow wasteful, to leave holding exactly what he’d brought.
And back in L.A., Myron Gold was waiting: Gold, the human cash register, tracking every cent Sandy had borrowed, no longer so blind, maybe, to the precious thing he’d stolen outright. Booby traps were everywhere—hidden pits of quicksand, the ground sinking around him. And yet, at the table, Sandy had beaten the odds. In just a few hands, he’d won back all he’d lost, and more. If he could accomplish this much in a matter of minutes, what did the rest of the night hold?
“Baby, I can’t,” he said. “You understand, right?”
She nodded almost imperceptibly and stepped into the taxi. From the window, she waved goodbye.
That first night at the Beehive, he’d noticed her immediately, though Donny Valentine did his best to hide her. The two sat, always, at a secluded corner table. Donny came up to the bar and ordered their drinks. Then, one night, Donny kept her waiting, and Marnie herself approached the bar. She ordered a rum and Coke and fished a dollar in quarters from a little straw purse.
“I’ll need to see some identification,” Sandy told her sternly—a game he played with the young ones. “Just kidding,” he whispered when the color drained from her face. “I’ll make you anything you want.”
In a single night, he knew everything about her: her teenage reign as Dairy Princess; the conviction of all Winthrop, Ontario, that she was destined to be a star. Her very knowability charmed him. In the year he’d been Vera Gold’s lover, she’d confided almost nothing. Her dark complexity fascinated and repelled him. With Vera, nothing was what it seemed.
And yet a few crucial things had been simple. Without consulting him, Vera had taken precautions, or perhaps at her age none were necessary. He’d grown used to the freedom and, with Marnie, was careless. For weeks, he crept out of her room at dawn, careful not to wake the landlady, as though it were the worst that could happen.
Inside, he found a phone booth and lit a cigarette. She answered on the first ring. Television in the background, Vera nursing a highball in front of the late news. Like Sandy, she was nocturnal. Her husband slept like a bear.
“Are you up or down?” she asked. “Dumb question. If you were up, you wouldn’t be on the phone.”
“Marnie lost the baby.” On purpose, he could have added but didn’t. He had never said it aloud.
With Vera, he didn’t have to. “Ah, geez. Listen, Sandman: what else could she do?”
The line went quiet, Vera switching off the television.
“Think about it,” she said. “Poor kid still thinks she can make it in this town. Hell, maybe she can. What do I know?” Ice cubes clinking in a glass. “But not with a baby she can’t.”
Sandy had never thought of it in these terms.
“I didn’t tell her to do it,” he said.
“You didn’t tell her not to.”
This was undeniably true.
“It could have been different,” he said.
“Tell me how.” A click, a slow inhale. “What, you were going to marry her? Take her back to Bakersfield?”
“Bakerton.” Whose mines had killed his father; the bleak small town a prison from which no one escaped. And yet he had considered it: driving back East with his bride beside him, having stopped off in Vegas for a different purpose entirely. It was a task easily managed—no blood test, no waiting; the ceremony over in minutes and cheaper than breakfast. For a time it had seemed a real possibility, the right thing to do.
“I couldn’t make up my mind,” he said. “I guess she got tired of waiting.”
“Smarter than she looks,” Vera said.
Back at the table, the tide had turned. Sandy felt it immediately, the juice seeping from him like blood from a wound. He bet big and then bigger, a strategy that sometimes worked. The juice was fickle; she punished you like a pouty girlfriend. Sometimes you could win her back with a show of bravado. It was worth a try.
He fingered the cheap silver-plated medal in his pocket—Saint Barbara, patroness of miners—his father had been wearing when he died.
The juice was jealous. Sandy had seen it before: like an angry lover, she knew when his attention was elsewhere. And tonight his mind was crowded with other women. Marnie, passed out in the cheap motel room; Vera Gold, sleepless in the Hollywood hills, lying next to the husband who owned his soul. Back in Bakerton, the sister who loved him more than anyone, dying in childbirth for all he knew.
In his new wallet were the two twenties, Joyce’s birthday gift for the brother who rarely called and did not visit, who always had something better to do. Money sent without her husband’s knowledge: it was, he knew, the only lie in his sister’s marriage, the only secret she kept from Ed.
He’d kept the twenties in reserve to cover the motel, a tank of gas to get them back to L.A., expenditures Joyce would approve.
Forty bucks was enough, probably, to pay for a wedding.
It was ten to midnight, the last breath of his birthday. Sandy Novak was thirty-three, the same age as Jesus. The two twenty-dollar bills were all he owned in the world.
With the time difference, it was three in the morning, a fact he put out of his head.
“Ed,” he said, into the phone. “It’s your brother-in-law in California. How the hell are you?” His voice sounded manly, confident. With money in his pocket, his shame had receded. At the roulette table, he’d bet straight up, the whole forty bucks on 33. Happy birthday, pal, he said, to himself or Jesus.
The wheel spun.
“Sandy?” Ed sounded groggy, confused. “Is everything all right?”
“Everything’s great, Ed. Couldn’t be better.” In a single spin—a straight-up bet that paid thirty-five to one—the juice had come back, filling his veins like blood. Joyce’s forty had become fourteen hundred.
“Is my sister awake?”
“She’s not here, Sandy.” A pause that seemed endless. “She’s in the hospital.”
A flutter in his chest, his heart skipping. “Oh, Jesus. Is she okay?”
“She’s fine. A little tired.” Another pause. “She had the baby. Rebecca Rose. We have a little girl.”
It took him a moment to find his voice. “That’s great, Ed. Congratulations. That’s—” His throat ached. “When?”
Again, something stirred inside him, a feeble creature no bigger than a moth. His soul fluttered blindly toward the power that made it, the only power he believed in.
He did the math.
His niece had been born on his birthday. The odds against it were staggering, a split bet times ten. Three hundred sixty-four to one.
For the second time that night, he stepped out of the phone booth. Outside the glass doors, wheels were spinning. Cards passed like water through dealers’ hands. He heard a brash shower of metal, a jubilant whoop: one of the old babes had won at the slots. For a just an instant, his body was filled with it, a roiling storm of sound.
It was a feeling he’d remember forever, a rare and blinding flash of clarity as he crossed the carpet desert. The longest walk of his life, a journey he’d never made before and would not make again.
In midstream, the juice still flowing, he cashed in his chips and walked out the door.
Flashes don’t last, of course, and that one didn’t. After his Jesus year had come and gone, after Marnie went back to Canada and Myron Gold was looking for him and it wasn’t safe for Vera to take his calls, he would remember his one moment of grace. The wallet swollen in his pocket, a feeling nearly sexual, as he crossed the street to Western Union and wired fourteen hundred dollars, the sum total of his earthly wealth, to Rebecca Rose Hauser, the mathematical miracle. The baby girl who shared his birthday.
Welcome to the world.
1. Drinking and women were luxuries he couldn’t, at that moment, afford.
2. An old buddy worked at a warehouse in North Hollywood and owed him a favor.
3. A pledge he’d modify later, in the dazzling season of ’62, Vince Lombardi’s Packers an
irresistible sure thing.
4. Until he had to: the Thanksgiving Day debacle, Detroit over Green Bay, a rout no one could
5. In fact, math was the only subject he’d ever excelled at, the one part of his schooling that
seemed to have a point.
Jennifer Haigh is the author of four novels: Faith, The condition, Baker Towers, and Mrs. Kimble.