I don’t know how I ended up there. It wasn’t my original destination, maybe not even my second choice. But I found myself wandering aimlessly across the pier, inhaling the dank aroma of sodden timber and murky river water. I’d been drawn here, maybe by that same soft voice which beckons lovers to their chance encounter in the park, or which calls a worthy man of the cloth to lifetime service. I don’t know.
I wasn’t much of a gambler, but the bobbing lanterns of the riverboat and the raucous laughter from within bade me otherwise. I ambled up the gangway on legs not my own, taking small notice of the half moon melting into the river and the crickets chirping all around me in their low, familiar cadence.
When I finally reached an entrance to the vessel an odd thought occurred to me. Here was a supremely ornate riverboat with an obvious cargo of loud-mouthed party goers and not a single attendant to greet you. Only a pock-marked wooden placard hung above the open turnstile and read Claremont.
Of course, I found the sign to be of great novelty and regardless of the fact that I held no ticket and saw no viable way of ever holding one (there was no sign of a box office along the desolate strips of wharf that surrounded the pier), I decided to board the ship anyway. It was quite dark along the narrow corridors which outlined the vessel’s form, and my only logical choice was to follow the shouts of the nighttime revelers who were no doubt enjoying light and life somewhere aboard. But before I could take my initial step, two things happened almost simultaneously.
First, there was a loud grinding and the trademark waterwheel of the riverboat began tumbling over like an enormous hamster wheel rolling through molasses. Then, a human outline seemed to materialize right there out of the darkness. He was wearing a white suit and leaning against a white-washed rail, so he could have been standing there all along, but his ghostly form startled me nonetheless.
He smiled at me. It was a warm smile, like the kind that’s told a lifetime’s worth of stories in its past. The thin lines of the lips were bordered by a bushy mustache that flickered in the silvery moonlight.
This crispy-fried, Southern gentleman tipped the brim of his woven straw hat and said, “It’s about time, son. Been waiting on you a long time already. Glad to see you’ve decided to join us.” After assuring the gentleman I was of no acquaintance to him even if he did look a little familiar, I admitted in earnest that I had no idea of my whereabouts or how I’d come upon them. He just brushed the silver mustache with his index fingers and continued his somewhat chivalrous introduction. “You know, I make some of the easier marks on this here boat stay formal with me. They call me Mr. Twain mostly because I like to mess with them. Since you’re still waiting to play your first hand I’ll go easy on you. You can call me Sam.”
I told Sam I wasn’t much into gambling and that it didn’t make much sense at all for me to be hanging around a casino, floating or otherwise.
He said, “Son, some of us avoid gambling like the devil. But there’s a little bit of gamble in everything, wouldn’t you say? I trust you don’t need to drown in your own bath tub to know that. See, people like you and I can’t ever avoid the gamble. We must apply ourselves it; master its art; maybe learn to love it. No, we can never strive to avoid it. That’d never suit us. You may not be much into gambling, as you say it, but that’s why you’re here—to take the most significant gamble of your life. All I need to know is, what’s your game?”
I told him I wasn’t really at the level yet where I actually had a game to call my own. He responded by insulting my manhood. He told me to stop whimpering like his old Aunt Sadie used to do when she was afraid to ride the horse. I told him I wasn’t quite sure what he was getting at, but if his intentions were to get me to gamble by trashing my masculinity, he was on the wrong track. He snorted, adjusted his mustache, and told me I was just scared to get started; that I’d be a regular John Smiley once I laid my first bet.
“Leonidas Smiley,” he said. “The man would gamble on anything if there was a taker. If there were two birds sitting on a post he’d bet on—“ Perhaps with some rude intent I cut Sam off at the pass and politely mentioned it was John Smiley and not Leonidas Smiley he’d so aptly compared to me. His eyebrows formed two slanted darts and he released his frustration by exhaling dramatically.
“Originally,” he explained, “it was Leonidas Smiley, but it became John Smiley later on.” When I stared at him quizzically and stifled a chuckle he said, “Oh, never mind. It just goes to show you: what you have at the start might not be what you’re left with in the end.”
I meditated on this thought for a moment, along with the realization that something about Sam made me feel at ease. He seemed honest, reliable, not at all what you’d expect from a gambler. So I told him my game was poker. It wasn’t, but at least I knew most of the rules.
Sam’s eyes lit up. “Excellent choice,” he said. “I think I can scare up some of the boys for a special seating. Just for you, of course, son.”
I told him not to do anything special on my account and he responded by informing me he was doing nothing of the sort, that nothing was free, and that I’d be assisting him in the round up of various interested patrons from the gambling floor. With that, he swung open a set of French doors, impeccably accented in golden filigree, to reveal the liveliest casino I’d ever seen…