It was dumb luck I was even at Clancy's that early, drinking my Sprite at the bar while the girls on first shift danced for the afternoon regulars. Those guys are a whole different breed. They never drink more than the minimum, they never buy a plate for the buffet, they never tip the girls anything. Clancy won't even let them in anymore unless they leave a credit card up at the bar, because these guys were coming in with just a driver's license and a twenty dollar bill to make sure they didn't spend more than what they intended. That's not the way Clancy does business.
But if they follow his rules, Clancy tolerates them, so everybody else follows suit. Down to a man they all want the same thing. They want a place they can go and be recognized, a place they'll be welcomed with open arms and smiles. Maybe that doesn't sound so bad, but it makes us all hate them. I hate them, the dancers hate them, the bartenders and bouncers and DJs hate them. The trouble is if you treat these guys with the warmth that they want, you'll discover it's never enough. These men are vampires. They will latch on to your polite smile and drain you dry of whatever kindness they can.
My girlfriend says it's a boundary issue. Ex-girlfriend. She says these guys don't know where they end and you begin, and they expect you to meet their emotional needs. I don't know about that. If that were the case, you'd think they'd move on because no one at Clancy's is nice to them. They come and they sit, they drink a beer and stare at the girls, then they scowl and complain about bullshit until the sun's gone down and they can leave without turning to dust.
I normally try to avoid them. Which isn't hard. As a driver, there's not really much call for my services at three in the afternoon. Clancy would rather have me around when the club closes eleven hours later to make sure his well-paying regulars get home nice and safe. But that afternoon, I was in need of somewhere to go. Michelle, my ex-girlfriend and still-roommate, was having her boyfriend over, and I didn't want to be around for it. So until I could scrape enough cash together to find a new place, Clancy's would have to suffice.
I was drinking Sprite and playing video poker at the bar when the club's phone rang. I was right in the middle of a winning streak, the kind where you get to put your initials in at the end. I couldn't decide whether to use my own, J-L-C, or go with a classic, like A-S-S. But first, I had to win this hand, and that was taking up all my concentration. That's why I didn't notice right away when the club's bouncer and my best friend, Big Mike, started snapping his fingers. Then he unplugged my machine.
“The fuck, dude?”
He made a scribbling motion in the air. To the phone, he said, “Okay. Where are you?”
“What makes you think I carry a pen?”
Mike widened his eyes, a look that conveyed it was in my immediate interest to stop fucking around. I opened a blank text and handed my cell phone to Mike.
“Yeah, I got it,” he said, thumbs tapping my screen. “We'll send somebody.”
Mike hung up one phone and gave me the other. I read the message he'd typed.
Gas station east washington state street
“Destiny's stranded,” he said, poking a finger at the screen. “That's where she is with her grandmother. You need to bring Destiny here, then take Grandma back home.”
“Grandma's car is the one that broke down,” Mike said. “Destiny's got repossessed.”
“Clancy should pay the dancers more money.”
“You still living with Michelle?”
“What's that got to do with anything?”
“Nothing,” Mike said. “Just sounded like you had some business advice. Thought maybe that meant you got your money straight.”
“Nice. Thanks, man. Thanks for taking the high road.” I slid off the stool and put on my jacket. Mike shrugged, smiling.
“You're very welcome, Jon.”
Destiny was waiting for me next to the payphone at Shell, smoking a cigarette and looking unhappy. She was dressed in baggy gray sweat pants and a Colts zip-up hoodie, but she'd done her makeup before she left the house. I pulled up beside her, and she climbed in the car.
“Hi, Destiny,” I said. “You look nice today.”
“Shut the fuck up,” she said. “What took you so long? Everybody out here's trying to pick me up.”
“Sorry,” I said. “Are we, um … missing your grandma?”
“We have to go get her,” she said, and she pointed up State Street. “I broke down a couple blocks up.”
I followed her directions until we found the gold Neon, Grandma still sitting patiently in the passenger seat. She watched me approach the car but made no motion to move, so I gently eased open the door.
“Hi, ma'am. I'm your driver. I've got your granddaughter with me. Can I help you out?”
Grandma shook her head and climbed up from the seat, using the door frame for support while clutching her purse. I held out my hand and she slapped it away.
Once we got settled back in my car, I pulled up my phone's GPS.
“What's her address?” I asked Destiny.
“She's not going home,” Destiny said. “I need you to take her to the Indiana Grand.”
“You want me to drive her to Shelbyville? That's an hour away.”
“I gave her money to play the machines, so Grandma's going to play the machines.” Destiny's tone made it clear this wasn't an ask. “That's what you want to do, right, Grandma?”
Her grandmother leaned forward and nodded, cloudy gray eyes both hopeful and sad. I was unmoved. I hadn't forgotten that Destiny's car got repossessed.
“Can you pay?” I asked.
“Fuck you,” Destiny said. “You don't think I can pay?”
“I didn't say that. I just like to get paid upfront, especially if I'm driving an hour outside of–”
She hit me in the head with a roll of quarters, then dug through her purse.
“How much? How much do you want?”
“Jesus, I'm just saying, I–”
She threw a fifty at me, which didn't hurt nearly as much as the quarters. It fell into the crack between the seat and the door, and I had to dig down to retrieve it.
“Yeah, get that money, you little bitch.”
“Okay, we don't need to start with the names.”
“Aw, boo fuckin' hoo,” Destiny said.
Sometimes you just have to know when to shut the fuck up. And I did know—I should have stopped talking ten minutes ago. I found the bill, shoved it in my pocket, put the car into gear, and then drove.
By the time we reached Clancy's, Destiny's mood had improved. She helped her grandmother into the front seat, adjusted her safety belt, then kissed her forehead. To me, she said, “Can you bring her home around midnight?”
“It'll be another fifty to go down and get her.”
“Aren't you going to stay with her?”
I didn't really know how to answer. Obviously not? That's an eight-hour shift of babysitting? But I bit my tongue. How else was I going to spend that time? If I came back to Indy, I'd spend it trying to get A-S-S into the video poker leader board. If I went to the Indiana Grand, I'd probably find a lot of people who needed a ride. If I stopped moping around, I could start banking money.
“It's still another fifty to bring her back,” I said, and this time Destiny did not throw it. She got another bill from her purse and held it out past Grandma. As I took it, I asked, “How'd your car get repossessed?”
“Because I'm not paying for that piece of shit,” she shrugged. “And it's not my name on the loan, so fuck it.”
I glanced at Grandma, but she seemed unfazed. I guessed the loan wasn't in her name, either.
I headed out to Southeastern and took that until it became I-74. Now and then, I tried to make conversation, asking Grandma about her car and where she was from and whether she had any other grandkids, but she wouldn't bite. Still, I could see her coming alive as we got closer to the casino. She sat up straighter, tapped her hands on her knees, and once the place was in sight, she started to hum. I couldn't help but feel jealous. When was the last time I looked forward to anything half as much?
We got to the casino, and she opened her purse to produce a handicap placard for my rear-view mirror. I saw no reason not to accept. I figured I'd only be staying a minute until she got settled, then I'd open the rideshare apps on my phone to start looking for fares. Now that I'd got past my inertia, I was actually looking forward to making some money.
“Do you have a phone?” I asked once we were in. Grandma nodded. “What's your number?”
“I don't call myself.”
“Okay,” I said, “well, can you call me?”
“So you'll have my number in case that you need me.”
“I won't need you,” Grandma said. She must have seen I wasn't thrilled about this because she squeezed my forearm and explained, “I think you're bad luck.”
“Right. Of course.”
She smiled, pleased I understood. Then she let go of my arm and made her way across the ugly red carpet to find the nearest machine. Everywhere I looked, people were transfixed by the slots, and some of them even got paid. But the charm of this place was as thin as an eggshell. It was just like what I saw at the club. Turn off the music and turn up the lights and there's nothing sexy about the place; it's just four cinder block walls with a cheap stage in the middle. Likewise, I get no thrill at casinos. Places like this have about as much intrigue as a conference room at the Radisson.
I walked around until I found the bar, and I ordered a Sprite. The bartender let me know via facial expression that I was now his lowest priority. I drank my soda and pulled out my phone, and thumbed open my apps. I figured I'd done my part for Grandma, so I was off of her clock and back onto mine.
First fare. Walter. Heading to the casino from Kroger.
“Are you Walter?”
“You sure you don't want to swing by home first? Drop off your groceries?”
“They'll keep — I do this all the time. The only exception's when I buy something perishable.”
“Milk isn't perishable?”
“Hey, man, trust me. I know what I'm doing.”
“I'm surprised they'll let you walk around with those bags.”
“They peek inside, but the main thing is they know I spend money. And trust me, this is the least of their worries. They've got much bigger problems from people sneaking in babies and dogs than a guy who comes in with his groceries. I seen one guy push around a mannequin in a wig like she was supposed to be his wife, asking what she wanted to play. The Grand attracts all types, man, all types for sure. Do you gamble?”
“I can't afford it.”
“Eh, anybody can afford it. Look at me. I go and spend whatever's left after groceries. It's a great budgeting tool. I take out a hundred dollars a week in cash, make it go as far as I can at the Kroger, then bring the rest here. Play responsibly, you know? And then if I win, I set that money aside and play it the week after. That's how you grow your nest egg. A quarter won is better luck than a quarter earned. You ever heard that before?”
“No, I don't think so.”
“It hasn't caught on. But it's true, Jon. I'm telling you.”
“Got any lucky quarters tonight?”
“Not tonight, brother. Tonight I'm on my own. Trying to win some money to take my wife on a trip. I think I've got her talked into Nashville. She's a little agoraphobic. Not diagnosed, but I think that's what it is. She got anxious after her mother died, started calling me five times a day. I'm trying to help her get through it. You married?”
“I … live with my ex.”
“Ah, shit. Is she with somebody?”
“Ha-ha. Jesus, you've got to get out of there. Ha-ha-ha. Sorry, I don't mean to laugh, that's just the kind of mistake you make when you're young. Does she bring the other guy over?”
“He's over there now. Ha-ha.”
“I'm sorry, brother. Now I wish I did have some winners on me — I'd give you one. You should play the slots, maybe you'd win enough money to find a new place. I know this doesn't pay shit, does it?”
“Not much, no.”
“Gig economy, man. Can I tell you what I think about people your age?”
“You guys are fucked.”
Second fare. Dana. Heading home from the casino.
“Are you …?”
“Yeah, that's me. Sorry, I need to update my picture—I shaved off the goatee. Here, see, I've got you on my phone too.”
“Okay. Yeah, cool, I see it now. Thanks.”
“How'd you do tonight?”
“On the slots? Do you gamble?”
“Oh. No. I'm on staff. I don't … I don't wear vests in real life.”
“Do you want the radio on or anything?”
“No, that's fine. Sorry, I'm … sorry, sending a text …”
“You're fine. I talk too much, that's why I'm rated three stars. My low reviews all say I'm too chatty.”
“Seems like you can't help yourself.”
“That came out wrong. Sorry, I'm having a fight …. Brave new world, right? Leave the house, take the fight with you. Really convenient.”
“Ha-ha. I really can shut up.”
“It's fine, I need the distraction. If I'm distracted enough maybe I won't murder my roommate tonight.”
“Give yourself credit, you seem like a very capable person.”
“Let me ask you a question. If you broke up with your … girlfriend?”
“Girlfriend, and then your roommate slept with her, would you really give a fuck if they told you right after?”
“In this context, if I'm giving a fuck, does that mean I'm mad? Or am I giving her credit for telling me?”
“Yeah, I'd be mad.”
“Fucking thank you! She's acting all aggrieved that I didn't just instantly forgive her. Now she says … do you care? You think this is stupid.”
“It's not stupid. What's she say?”
“She says I have no right to be mad in the first place because she and my ex are both consenting adults, and she only told me as a courtesy, not an apology. Is that not the most passive aggressive thing you've ever heard?”
“Maybe not the most. But it's bad.”
“I'm moving out. I have to move out. Wouldn't you?”
“What? Tell me. As an outside observer. Wouldn't you?”
“I think if you can, you know, find a way to live with it … It's complicated. You shouldn't have to uproot your life. Is that even what you really want?”
“I mean, I'm not taking her side. It's just, objectively, if you could set your feelings aside, would you really be happier if you left? And if you two were friends before, isn't it worth trying to salvage some part of that relationship?”
“... You can let me out here.”
Fare three. Cliff. Leaving the casino behind.
“You showed up fast. Busy night?”
“Yeah. Well, no. I've been staked out here all day, and you're only my third rider.”
“I'm not surprised. Nobody in there understands limits. A guy drinks too much in a bar, he probably knows not to drive. Gamblers? Not on your life. God grant me the confidence of a drunk with a gambling problem.”
“Did you do well tonight?”
“Eh. I came out to watch the races, but my game is poker. You ever play?”
“You can't drink and play poker. Well, not if you want to win. That's why I'm still sober, a buddy of mine's hosting a game tonight. You said you play a little. You know Texas Hold'Em?”
“Yeah. Me and everybody else.”
“Hey, it's popular for a good reason. And tonight, I'll tell you, tonight's going to be fun. We've got some fresh meat there tonight. Easy money if you know how to play.”
“You want in?”
“I shouldn't. I should really keep driving.”
“Workingman. I respect that. But to answer your question, very easy, if you're any good. The guy who runs the table always drums up some suckers, guys just dying to get out of the house and drink a few beers, smoke some nice cigars, and lose a whole lot of money. I know this sounds like bullshit, but it's like these guys want to lose. Proves they're the man of the house, I think. They'll be giving up a grand, and someone will ask, 'What's your wife going to say?' and the asshole will go, 'Who cares? It's my money.' And I'm just thinking, not anymore it isn't. Ha-ha.”
“Jesus. I wish I could piss money away.”
“Hey, don't we all. But listen, I can invite you in if you want. It's five hundred bucks.”
“Ha-ha. Take a deep breath, man, I'm not going to force you to come. But I tell you what. I'm not going to tip you. Instead I'm going to give you an address my cell number. If you decide to show up tonight, send me a text, I'll make sure you get in. Okay? Five hundred. That'll seem like chump change by the time you walk out.”
“If you say so.”
“Suit yourself, friend. More money for me.”
I had $373.89 in the bank. Not enough to buy in on the game, but I still couldn't stop thinking about it. Since Michelle and I broke up, I had one number in my head: fifteen hundred. That would be the first month's rent plus a security deposit on the cheapest place I could find, with a little left over to keep on the lights. If I could just bank that, I could leave.
Back inside the Indiana Grand I sat alone at the bar with my phone. Fares kept popping up, and I kept dismissing them one after the next. They were all small potatoes compared to the money flowing free at Cliff's table.
Just to see what would happen, I texted the number Cliff gave me. I didn't have the five hundred, I said, but I still wanted in. Maybe he could float me the rest?
Nobody's that broke, Cliff texted back.
Did he think I was trying to haggle? I looked around the room and weighed my options. I was in a casino, for god's sake, how hard could it be to win the money I needed? But the slots wouldn't do it and I don't know anything about horses.
I was starting to feel desperate. I pulled up my bank balance and took a screen-shot, then sent it to Cliff, throwing myself on his mercy.
Well goddamn. Guess you proved me wrong. There was a pause, then another message buzzed through. We'll figure it out. Bring what you have. But come soon
I was out of my seat in a second.
Maybe I should have checked in with Grandma, but I'd be lucky if she pulled herself away from the slots long enough to hear me explain where I was going. So long as I was back by midnight I figured she'd be none the wiser. I took out as much as I could at the casino's ATM, $360 in twenties. That figure didn't look like much on my phone, and in my hand it looked like even less. I shoved the cash in my pocket, went outside, got in the car, and drove.
Shelbyville's not somewhere you spend too much time unless you live there. With the casino built right off the highway, not even the gamblers have much reason to visit. The city was all new to me, but it didn't make much of an impression. Fast food, gas stations, open fields. I passed a few neighborhoods, a few drags of strip malls — all the standard sights of the American Midwest.
I don't like driving these areas because they don't make any sense. Indianapolis is laid out into orderly grids, its heart crossed with an X through the center. But small towns and suburbs have their own kind of logic, which is a nice way to say they have none. Even though my GPS told me which direction to go, I never once felt like I knew where I was.
Finally, after maybe five miles of driving, I reached the neighborhood I was looking for. The house hosting the game was at the end of a cul-de-sac, and it wasn't well lit, but it was far enough from its neighbors you couldn't make a mistake. That was one point in favor of living out here. A guy gets to enjoy some elbow room.
There were two men on the porch smoking cigarettes, and they watched as I pulled into the driveway. They were slim guys, but the way they held themselves reminded me of Mike, and I figured they served the same function. I put the car in reverse and sent Cliff a quick text.
I think I'm here. Two guys on the porch?
Can't be too careful, Cliff wrote back. Say you're with me.
I parked and got out of the car. Both men faced me with their hands to their backs, so I stuck mine straight in the air.
“I'm with Cliff! I'm here for the game!”
They exchanged a quick glance, then one waved me forward. What did this call for, exactly? I felt like an idiot holding my hands up, but I didn't want to make either one jumpy.
“You got the money to buy in?”
They were off the porch now, moving closer. I felt a few pinpricks of sweat.
“Yeah,” I said. My interrogator looked skeptical. “Tell Cliff, he'll know who I am.”
“Let's see it.”
“Ah,” I said. “Okay. I have some money, but let me explain.”
I reached into my pocket, wondering if they'd even believe me. If they would just go talk to Cliff ... The shock of a sucker punch doubled me over. Then came the boot, stomping on the side of my hip while I was gasping for air in the grass. After that, they took turns. You can't really think in situations like that. It's fetal position every damn time.
I didn't realize they had my money until they stopped all the kicking, and they only did that to complain.
“Man, what the fuck? You come here short?” one of them asked.
And then the kicking resumed.
Cliff's profile was gone from the app by the time I crawled back to my car. I couldn't even leave him a one-star review, let alone scrape anything useful. The two guys from the porch had long since gone inside. I guess they figured I wasn't the Rambo type to go after them.
Well. They figured right. I turned on the radio and started the drive back to the casino. Somewhere along the way, I turned on the heater, but I wasn't shaking from the cold. The GPS kept on pinging, and I followed along with it mindlessly, feeling steadily worse the closer I got to the Grand.
Grandma was right where I left her, bucket between her knees while she fed quarters into her machine. She seemed okay. The bucket, at least, was half full.
“Hey, Grandma. It's time to go home.”
“No, it's not.”
“I've got to get back.”
“No, you don't,” she said. “It isn't midnight.”
“Fuck's sake, Grandma, if you don't come with me, you can find another ride home.”
She turned to snap something back, but as soon as she got a look at me, she stopped. Then her lip curled up and she started shaking her head, like she was watching a dog take a shit on the carpet.
“Bad luck,” Grandma said. Then she stood up from her seat and picked a coin from her bucket. “Spin.”
“Spin the reels.” She patted the stool's vinyl cushion. “Try to get the triple stars.”
I sat down, and Grandma leaned over my shoulder so that I was nearly suffocating in the fresh linen scent of her laundry detergent. She fed in the coin but made me pull the lever. Just that effort made me wince, pain radiating out through my body. The machine whistled and dinged, but we did not hit the triple stars. We didn't hit anything.
“Again,” Grandma said, and she gave me another coin.
“Listen, you might want to keep your money,” I said. “I don't think I'm a winner tonight.”
“But I am,” she said.
“Again,” she barked. “If you're going to drive my granddaughter home, then we have to break your bad streak.”
Her eyes were more clear than I'd seen them before. We wouldn't be walking away.
“Did you win all those?” I asked, looking at her bucket of quarters.
“Some of them,” Grandma said, and she gave it a hard shake so that I could hear the full jangling chorus. I wondered if the quarter in my hand was one that she'd brought or a coin that she'd won from the machine. Maybe it was lucky. I pressed it into the slot and pulled down the lever. This could be it; this could be where my luck finally turned. And as long as those reels kept on spinning around, who could be sure that it wasn't?
Craig Francis Coates lives and writes in the Midwest. Find him online at BleakFrancis.com