Again, we waded into the river of spilling coins and falling chips. Sam tugged at my collar when I found myself, as before, momentarily stunned by the ever-changing casino landscape. He lead me in this way, effective if not terribly ill-mannered for a Southern gentleman, past a minefield of slot machines, through a narrow and darkly-lit hallway of fascinating mosaics, and into an area filled with round tables.
The mood was decidedly refined. There was an eerie stillness in the parlor that seemed somehow superimposed with an underlying layer of angst. It was silent, or almost so, save the low hum of a dozen metallic balls spinning around their cylinders.
Sam casually pulled up a stool at a table that was curiously less attended than the others and he bade me join him. I did, and he immediately introduced me to the odd gentleman sitting his opposite. I say odd not only in word and action as you will soon gather for yourself, but in general appearance as well. His hair was tangled and greasy as if a comb had never been formally introduced. The face was strained and haggard beyond its years. Like the owner, it lacked traditional balance and made true mockery of the basic laws of symmetry. His hands shook nervously. His black eyes bugged menacingly from their sockets as if permanently gripped in terror.
“Son, I’d like you to meet a good friend of mine,” Sam said. His friend stretched a bony hand towards me.
“I’m Edgar,” he said in a raspy whisper. For a moment I thought I was shaking hands with a corpse, but the constant shiver running through the fingers reminded me otherwise. “I see you’ve come to take you chances,” he continued. “It was a very long time ago that I, feeling of age and at a satisfactory level of experience, sought to lay my first chips on the table. Those first few hands were not unlike my first dive into the emerald depths of an absinthe glass: a freedom from my cage; an escape from the container. My proceeds mounted, I was on to new games. Of course, all provided newer and harsher solutions that would rob me of all I had gained.” He paused as the ball came to rest on red twenty-one and the dealer pulled a large pile of Edgar’s chips which had been precariously stacked on black thirteen. He gasped, bit down on his thumb, and squeezed a few more drops of sweat from his sodden brow.
“Come now, friend,” Sam interjected. “Your risks didn’t turn out all bad, did they?” Then he cupped his mouth in his hand and I heard him whisper, “Let’s not scare the kid before he gets started.”
Edgar continued as if nothing had been said. “Each step I took was like one in a desert of quick sand. Each bet I laid brought me ever closer to the beating heart of the beast before spitting me out on the sidewalk, my lonely resting place. But my friend is not altogether amiss in his assessment. Tragedy has not reigned on all counts. The gamble still feeds the old soul even if, from time to time, it succeeds in gouging out the eyeballs in its haste.” He paused to push another mountainous pile of chips on black thirteen.
I told him his disturbing love of gambling was inspiring in a way, though I failed at satisfactorily explaining what way that happened to be. Regardless, I promised him I’d lay a bet before I left the vessel if not based solely on the sheer amount of time I’d spent aboard. Sam followed by inviting Edgar to our poker game. The latter accepted graciously and then added, “I doubt my experience shall be that of my noble friend the Duc de L’Omelette, but your proposed seating certainly does have a rather friendly tone to it.”
Sam laughed heartily at this mentioning of a Frenchman to whom I’d apparently never been introduced. When his raucous report finally cooled, Sam slapped me on the back and said, “Son, I need a drink. Follow me.”
We weaved back through the mosaic hallway and into the main chamber. Sam flagged a waitress and ordered three bourbons. When I mentioned there were only two of us he said, “An extra one will do a Southerner mighty well.” And before Sam could do so much as lift the drinks off the tray, another gentleman hovered before us like a hummingbird over sugar water.
He was perhaps the oddest one yet. He wore a blue conductor’s cap and a pair of red polyester slacks. A strand of pookah beads hung from his neck. He seemed rather younger than the rest of Sam’s friends. Sam handed him a drink and told me his name was Truman. Then he invited the man to our game.
“I’m here more for the party surrounding the gamble than the gamble itself,” he said apologetically. “I never saw much point in it; but somehow I set my standards high and still walked away with a big jug of silver. Still, there are more than enough ways to lose it around here even if you don’t gamble; maybe more. Fact is, my whole life’s been a gamble; and my parents were never known to answer any of my prayers. I had no choice but to throw it all down on me. I even won once in awhile; but I never wanted to let the winning get to my head.” He looked at me and smiled gently. He had a soft face and friendly eyes which contrasted the sharpness of his words. “Now you look like someone who’d let things go to your head; someone who’d drown himself in the latest fashions, strangle himself with the names of the day just to make a passing bow at the ones who deem themselves elite. I do not play poker with such men.” He said it with cold finality.
I assured Truman that I had never traveled in any circles that had ever been deemed “elite” by anyone, and that I scarcely knew where I’d even scrape up a spare nickel to play in the very game he was passing up. When he denied my authenticity I simply pointed to my shoes.
“I haven’t seen a pair with so many scuff marks,” he said, “since Miss Sook dragged me kicking and screaming off to the pharmacy to get me fitted anew. Maybe I’ve been wrong about you; I guess a few hands couldn’t hurt.” We each deposited our empty glasses on a passing tray and set off for Hem’s berth to begin my foray into the world of gambling…