Two enormous chandeliers hung at even intervals above the vast casino floor and swayed gently, almost imperceptibly, with the rocking of the boat. A million tiny crystals cascaded down their sides like frozen bits of waterfall and the light shining through them left confetti-like flecks on the surrounding walls and the backs of the revelers. A brass band dressed like voodoo daddies and accompanied by the weathered player of a stand-up bass guitar cranked out songs from Glenn Miller, Count Basie, and the Duke. The dance floor bounced and bobbed to the beats with more turbulence than the flowing river beneath our bow. Satin-faced twenties flappers weaved through the chaos, each wearing no more reaction than a carefully-measured smile. Golden flutes of expensive champagne bubbled upon trays without so much as a droplet of spillage upon any one of them.
When my guide tired of lifting my jaw off the ground he tugged gently at my collar and said, “It ain’t likely you’ll do much gambling just standing around with a string of saliva hanging from your lip. I told you, people like us know how to live life, so don’t be a bit surprised by the pomp you’re currently staring at. But we didn’t get here by jamming our hands in our pockets and pulling our knickers up to our chests, did we? No. We had to lay something down on the line. So follow me, young man. We need to get you started in the right direction as soon as possible.”
I’d only known Sam for the course of about fifteen minutes. But in all that time I sensed it was futile and maybe even a little dangerous to question his motives. Instead, I just followed him through the maze of revelers and deep into the bowels of the casino. The sound of coins showering from the slot machines, of chips hastily spilling onto felt, of cards expertly filtering from the hands of dealers into neat piles before their masters hung more thickly in the air than the cigar smoke.
I followed Sam to the remotest stretch of the casino, where he approached and lightly rapped his fingers on an old door. The response was a gruff and immediate ‘go away!’ to which my guide announced himself as ‘it’s me you rooster’s ass’ and the door swung open hastily. The familiar glow of a television set and two somewhat familiar gentlemen met us at the threshold. Sam attempted the Southern gentleman act again but was cut off by the tall one before he could drawl out a single introduction.
“What the hell do you want, Sam?” The words came out calmly but he was clearly annoyed. “You know I think highly of my privacy.”
I saw Sam’s lip curl into a wry grin beneath his mustache and he did a poor job of masking the bizarre gesture he was making with his elbow, presumably intended to alert the tall gentleman to my presence. “We have ourselves a stowaway,” I heard him whisper.
“A stowaway, you say?” The tall gentleman reached in my direction and consumed my hand in a calloused grip that threatened to pop no less than three knuckle joints. His face was expressionless. His eyes were frosted-glass windows and his features rugged. He wore a brown, single breasted sport coat with vest beneath. I knew him immediately. “Name’s Ernest,” he said noticing the gleam of recognition in my eyes. “You can call me Hem. Don’t call me Ernie. I hate when people call me Ernie. You have to know me a long time to call me that.”
I asked him if Sam knew him long enough to call him Ernie.
I asked him if, one day, I’d know him long enough.
I started to ask him something else, something more important like ‘what the hell was I doing here?’ but he cut me off and said, “Look, kid, that’s not why you’re here. You’re here to take a risk; to throw a few chips down on the table. I’m sure Sam told you that. Now stop with the questions and listen.”
I obeyed and followed my hosts inside the dimly-lit room. A flat paneled television hung ominously from the far wall and cast its glow on a great oak gaming table beneath it. A game of chess was either in session or had recently been abandoned. The near wall was that of a taxidermist’s office. It was filled with mounted pheasants and quails and accented with leopard skins. Hem poured three double whiskeys. He held one for himself and spared the other two for Sam and me.
“Nothing for me?” Hem’s friend had been mute up to this point, but he seemed quite insulted by his sudden omission from the festivities.
“You’ve had enough,” Hem said in monotone. “I’m not tucking you in to bed tonight. Look at you. Pale as a sheet and twice as limp.”
“Did Zelda tell you that?” A bloodshot red now rose above the ghostly pallor of the friend’s face.
“Scott, you’re drunk.”
“Do you think it’s congestion of the lungs?”
“No. We’ve gone through this already.”
“Can you take my temperature?”
“I haven’t got a thermometer.”
“Can you get one on the casino floor?”
They spun their wheels in this way for some time, during which Sam scrunched his eyebrows and pursed his lips as if to confirm things followed this course quite regularly between Hem and Scott. Just as things started to heat up, a bell rang out from the television set and a boxing match erupted into motion. Thankfully, Hem’s head ratcheted around at the first sound of a bell and his attention set itself firmly upon the professional fight taking place on the screen rather than the one brewing between friends.
Scott belly-flopped on a leather lounge chair and exhaled dramatically. He did seem rather pale, although quite more able-bodied than he was letting on in his suddenly fragile state. Hem didn’t take his eyes off the fight for even the briefest of instants.
“Got a bundle riding on this one,” he said to no one in particular. “Reminds me of a certain welterweight bout back in twenty-two. Britton and Walker. The old guard against the up-and-comer. Britton was pushing forty but he was tough. He’d defended his title more times than I could count. He was a legend. He was also a heavy favorite. Walker was a scrapper from Jersey, but he’d already had his block knocked off more than once and he was still young. It seemed to be a lock. Britton would handle him in two rounds, three tops. The old guard would keep producing more of the same and the up-and-comer would be sent back to Newark a glorified sparring partner. I laid it on the line for the favorite. And then I watched a real mystery unfold. Mere seconds before the bell, the odds made a jump in Walker’s direction that probably registered on a seismograph. Suddenly he was the favorite. I don’t know if it motivated him any. The scrapper took Britton’s beatings for the better part of ten rounds before unleashing some punishment of his own. Finally bested the champ in the fifteenth. Little bastard cost me fifty grand. Of course, some try to say he made me fifty grand that night as well.” He glanced over his shoulder at Scott who creased his lips into barely noticeable smirk. “I beg to differ,” he concluded.
I told him boxing was a very fine sport and that I admired its nickname, the sweet science. I explained that I wished I had a nickname, but even if I were lucky enough to have one I’d still never gamble on boxing because of the obvious corruptions behind the scenes. He agreed with my last but made no hesitation to inform me that I was quite stubbornly and quite idiotically missing his point.
“Don’t you see? It was easy to pin the results of the fight on a fix. Not too often you see a shift in odds like I did that night. I haven’t since.” Hem clenched his jaw as one of the fighters on the screen dropped to the mat. He watched nervously as the referee slowly counted to eight. The fighter wobbled to his feet. The ref pushed against his gloves and the fight continued. “Perhaps a more logical explanation is it was simply Walker’s time. I may have wasted my dime on the same old, same old, but Walker laid it down on himself when he stepped on the same canvas as Britton. The odds? Maybe they didn’t motivate Walker in the least; maybe the opposite was true; maybe it was something as simple as the look of steel in his eyes as he approached the ring that sent bettors scrambling in his favor; maybe Britton saw the reaper coming for him. I don’t know. I do know that Walker defended his new crown four times after taking it from the legend. He became a bit of a legend himself if you must know. Point is, you never can tell when it’s time, kid.” The frosted-glass eyes fell on me for a moment.
“Well, I certainly do know when it’s time,” Sam interrupted, “and I know it’s high time I finish rounding up some hands for Poker later. I trust we can meet back here after your precious fight concludes?” Hem grunted, which presumably stood as an affirmative in Sam’s book.