Double or Nothing is the semi-sordid story of Jason, an ex-MMA fighter, being blackmailed by his lactose intolerant grandfather, while befriending a Congolese immigrant named Aba, while playing poker with his buddies, while reflecting on his childhood, while loving his Sri Lankan wife Tara, while attempting to survive the holidays, while caring for his deaf daughter Lindsey, during a presidential election, while the anger and frustration of working at a dead end job at a venerable hotel slowly builds until he can take no more and places an outlandish bet on something called destiny.
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“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
I am caged in a prison cell, where boredom is moderately alleviated by contemplating jabbing a sterling silver fork deep into a molar. Two dozen or so, along with their dishwasher-speckled counterparts, spoons and knives, languished in a nearby heap. One of the assigned punishments for the night was to roll the silverware into tight bundles for the hungry, hungry masses. On a corner of the room service office desk sat a sullen slab of newly laundered black napkins.
I sighed and picked up a fork.
Rumor had it (to be investigated on the next MythBusters episode) if a utensil were jabbed correctly and deeply enough into a filling, there was the possibility of picking up a radio station.
Local or Taiwanese—it didn’t matter, nor did I care. I was tired. I was bored. And it was late, very late.
I opened my mouth and tentatively prodded a molar.
Devices alleviating the tedium, excluding silverware, were strictly verboten. Years ago some dolt missed a few orders due to something called a Walkman: hence, my boredom, my desperation. And, if The Ventura wasn’t such “an antiquated and venerable hotel exuding Old World charm,” (Sunset Magazine, March, 2008), I would have a computer in my second floor office, prison cell. I would have Internet access and the world at my fingertips. I could catch up on scores or check the injury status of my fantasy football team. Instead, I contemplated jabbing a fork deep into a molar.
However, before I injured myself or began the thrill that was rolling silverware, the phone rang.
“Thank you for calling room service. This is Francis—” Not my real name. Pseudonyms were standard practice when Travis was the graveyard grill guy. He thought it was amusing to occasionally sneak a pubic hair into people’s food. It was difficult enough being berated at three in the morning, but somehow it wasn’t as bad when it wasn’t my name they screamed at me.
“Sean! Do you think it’s funny there’s a hair in my wife’s salad?!”
“Thomas! Guess what I found in my burger?!”
“David! Is hair an ingredient in The Ventura’s lasagna recipe?!”
What was (almost) worse than the justifiable yelling was Travis’s post-delivery phone call to me….
“Did they find it? Did they? Did they?” Recently his enthusiasm had increased to the point of nothing short of disturbing.
“They didn’t, did they? Did they?”
“Guess where it was. Guess. Guess. You’ll never guess where it was.”
This week, on my room service shifts, I was Francis.
“Thank you for calling room service. This is Francis, how may I help you tonight?”
A gruff, smoke-scabbed voice said, “I’d like a thick twelve-incher sent to room 666.”
One of the inherent problems with The Ventura was its “antiquated charm.” This charm extended to the phone system, which didn’t have caller ID or the ability to display the caller’s room number. It also included Marvin, the octogenarian doorman incapable of opening the front door or a cab’s, but knew the address and phone number of every pub and strip club in Portland.
“I’d like a thick twelve-incher sent to room 666.”
“Gramps,” I said, tearing up the order ticket, “what the hell do you want?”
“I’ll call right back.” And he hung up.
“Antiquated charm” also had many inherent advantages. A few of us had discovered the cracks in the walls and had, for a few years now, taken advantage of that charm.
The phone immediately rang again. I stood, closed the door to my expansive view of the catering kitchen’s silent, greasy grills and fryers, and answered, “Hello?”
“Yes, I will. Hello? Cherry?”
“Hey, Jason! What’s what with your butt?” I could tell, just by his enthusiasm and slight slur, he was five or ten bourbon-and-sevens into the night.
“Sore as ever, Gramps.”
“The man still stickin’ it to ya, is he?”
“Afraid so.” Our standard repertoire negated actually discussing anything of import.
“Yeah, I remember when I was bent over and takin’ it. Shit, howdy, did I lose a few years like that. Probably explains my aching back and the blood in the morning.” Few appreciated his colorful vernacular. And, since grandmother’s passing, it had become more and more colorful.
“Uh, Gramps, what’s up?”
“You mean, like wood in the morning?”
Gramps hadn’t always been so bad. Growing up, Gramps had at least seemed relatively normal to me. Then God sneezed on the family’s dominoes: Dad got injured playing soccer at some picnic, he lost his job, Ma had a breakdown, we filed for bankruptcy, Ma had another breakdown, we lost the house, Ma attempted suicide, Dad had an affair, Ma attempted suicide, Dad got shot by someone’s husband, Ma attempted suicide after nursing Dad back to health, Dad left the apartment, Ma began drinking and sleeping with strangers, Dad spent a year in jail for breaking and entering, Ma attempted suicide, Dad got out—found a job, a girlfriend, and God—Ma attempted suicide, Dad knocked-up some lady, Ma attempted suicide, Dad learned the twins weren’t his, Ma drank and slept with everyone, Dad killed himself, Ma drank and drank and drank and, usually, sobbed into the early hours of the morning. For some reason Gramps took it all personally and then took it out on Grams. Now that she was gone he didn’t know what to do, except drink and gamble. I suppose it may’ve been the wisest choice, after all.
“Uh, Gramps, what’s up?”
“You mean, like wood in the morning?”
“I mean, why are you calling?” Normally he needed rent or food money, or a fifty for “a white show” (I don’t know and I haven’t asked). I rubbed my bloodshot eyes and glanced at the digital clock perched on the stack of menu inserts touting Waiting for Godot at Portland Center Stage as fall’s must-see show. “It’s the dead of night?”
“I … I just wanted to say, ‘Hi’.”
“High is for hippies and addicts—particularly at this time of night—what do you want?”
“Damn it, Jason, when did you become such an asshole?”
“The day you ‘borrowed’ my paycheck and lost it at Sam’s Town.” Somewhere directly after one of Ma’s idiot boyfriends and Dad’s suicide, I ran off to Vegas where Grams and Gramps had inexplicably parked their trailer. A few weeks after my arrival, Gramps had given the armrest on the couch I’d been sleeping on a swift kick.
“Wh-what?” I rasped, rubbing the sleep from my eyes.
“Let’s go get you a job,” he said. His smile made me nervous.
“Jobs are for suckers.” The instant I said it I realized I sounded stupid. That was the first and final time I quoted my father.
Gramps introduced me to Smitts, an old school bartender at The Town as Gramps liked to refer to Sam’s Town Casino and Hotel. The Town was one of a few dozen two-bit Casino-Hotels far back from the strip. They catered to the suburban residents of Las Vegas who were too smart or too poor to gamble or drink with the tourists.
“Well, Al, what have ya dragged in this time?” Smitts asked, appraising me from head-to-toe and back again. “Ya know, he don’t look old enough.”
I’d worn the best outfit I’d stolen away with, black Converse high tops, jeans—not too dirty and, surprisingly, no holes—and a green, long sleeve shirt. There was only so much room in my duffle bag, only so much allotted luggage on Greyhound.
“How old is he?” Smitts asked, attempting to fit a cigarette between his dry lips.
“Old enough to wipe himself,” Gramps answered, ambiguously.
“Let the boy talk, Old Man.”
“Look who’s calling who an Old Man, Raisin Face.”
“How old are you, boy?”
“Old enough to wipe, flush, pull up my pants, and screw the nanny on the way out.” Smitts smacked the bar with his towel and laughed. Gramps smacked me upside the head and began cussing like the ex-sailor he was.
Once Smitts’ laughter and Gramps’ indignation had stopped, Smitts said, “I need a barback to handle the deliveries on Monday and Thursday. You can take it, leave it, or fuck it.”
“If it’s got a hole, I can fuck it.” Gramps smacked me again.
“He,” Smitts said, “can start tomorrow.”
Smitts only worked the morning shift, Monday through Friday. Smitts knew ten drink recipes, which was why he worked the morning shift. He also worked the morning shift because it allowed him and Gramps to gamble the rest of the day away.
That Thursday, after another sleepless night on the couch listening to Grams and Gramps fight, I was an underage barback getting paid under the table at one of Vegas’s least popular casinos. It was like being a janitor in heaven.
“Damn it, Jason, when did you become such an asshole?” Gramps asked.
“I’m pretty sure it was the day you ‘borrowed’ my paycheck and lost it at Sam’s Town.”
Four months later, Grams attacked Gramps with his favorite fish-gutting knife. He clocked her with a firm right and sent her into their lone bookshelf, her collection of romance novels cascading down upon her. That was the day I left.
Smitts, a day later, found me curled in a tight, shivering ball in the casino’s recycling shed. Smitts waited until I’d clattered off the boxes of empty beer and bourbon bottles to explain life to me.
“Kid, look, life’s a dirty bitch. And she is going to fuck you. One way or another, she will.” His fingers and wrists were covered in short, white scars. Another ran from beneath his shirt, halfway up his neck. Like Gramps, he had a few washed-out sailor tattoos. He tossed the beer box he was carrying onto the heap and finished, “The only choice you got is how you’re going to give it to her.” Before I could ask for clarification (which I desperately needed and wanted), he cut me off. “Go get cleaned up. We got work to do.” And, sure enough, the delivery truck was already beep-beeping as it backed up.
That night I found myself curled on Smitts’ couch in his cramped one-bedroom, still wondering what the old codger had meant.
Three nights later, Smitts kicked me out. In each hand he held a fifth of vodka (stolen from The Town) and he said, “It’s just for a few hours, so I can entertain a lady.” The “lady” was Sangria (at least that was her working name). Elderly compared to the other dire damsels patrolling the casino, her laugh and titanium-tinged hair were smoke infested and insincere.
As I walked out of Smitts’ second story, cat shit-scented apartment, Sangria finished her cigarette. She flicked the smoldering butt out into the parking lot. The ember flared and arced through the night. It bounced and danced across the hood of a green Chevy. I attempted to see where it disappeared.
“Here,” she said, tapping my shoulder with disdain. I glanced at her cigarette stained fingers, the chipped red nails, holding a wrinkled ten-dollar bill.
“What’s that for?” I asked.
“For the arcade—so you can go play with yourself.” Before I punched her yellow teeth out, Smitts yanked her inside and slammed the door.
And I almost slammed the phone down as Gramps asked, “Damn it, Jason, when did you become such an asshole?”
“I’m pretty sure,” I replied, “it was the day you ‘borrowed’ my paycheck and lost it at Sam’s Town.”
“Jason, ya gotta let things go. Gotta forget the past. Otherwise you’ll end up in an early grave.”
I glanced around. The chipped cement walls, recently sprayed with some kind of gray, fireproof adherent, already contained Naomi and Duncan’s (two other room service slaves) initials. Waiting for Godot’s last performance date was two weeks ago. And the mousetrap, perpetually placed beneath the faux wood table, had a new, glistening slap of peanut butter.
This was as dead end as any grave. And Gramps, unfortunately, had a point. But I was tired, bored, and not in the mood to hear it or confront it. I traced the slaves’ initials with a finger and asked, “So, how much do you need?”
A short pause collapsed across the line.
Perhaps he’d hung up again, which he did from time to time. He’d call (like tonight) from a casino pay phone, drunk. In the background the slot machines’ bells and whistles clanged and clanged in a psychotic cacophony. Occasionally a woman’s voice would slur something lecherous over his shoulder and into the mouthpiece.
He only called when he needed money, only after he’d lost everything at a crap table, or to appease a certain amount of loneliness. Usually, (like now) just as we began to negotiate, he’d hang up.
It was that old, stern, unforgiving Sawyer pride. Pride passed down from some noble who seduced and impregnated, his scullery maid, then conveniently forgot them both, without the convenience of a dowry or righteous widowhood.
While Dad pulled one of his jail stints, Ma decided to prove a point—“my Huxleys are so much smarter than his Sawyers”—and spent nearly a thousand dollars on an extensive family tree from a company that specialized in English and Irish genealogy. Usually, one should leave the past alone and concentrate on the future. How could it help to know the son of the scullery maid became an indentured coopersmith and exemplary alcoholic, as were his two sons, and the only surviving son of the second son, as was his son? How could it help to know that that son, besides being a coopersmith and exemplary alcoholic, was also a hopeless gambler? How could it help to know one of your ancestors was incapable of paying his debts, and, rather than jail him for his indiscretions, was shipped off to the colonies on a well-used schooner? How could it help to know that the barrel making, alcoholic gambler eventually married a widow in Philadelphia? Sadly there are no details or journals, only certificates, licenses, and dockets, only slight blips on time’s fuzzy green radar. How could it help to know, particularly when your husband was in jail, your father and mother were, at least in the blurry photos, almost identical twins to their great-grandparents? And what of your only son, likely destined to a fate of struggle and destitution? How could it help? No one knew, except maybe Ma. She’d been in a good mood for the seven months she’d known her ancestry, and that we were “from royal loins,” as she liked to say on her third strawberry wine cooler.
Father was released from prison. Unexpectedly, he came home. He, and a dozen cold cans of courage, waited for Ma’s return from her swing shift at the plant.
Nervously she danced from one foot to the other, as she explained (in great and distinct detail) the elaborately colored and coded, framed family tree. She of course, and smartly so, again proved the Huxley’s superior intelligence and neglected to mention why she’d done what she did. However, it didn’t matter.
“Yeah, that’s all fuckin’ great. But where’s my goddamned money?”
Dad, obviously unconcerned with the past, cared for only one thing, and it wasn’t Ma or me.
“Where’s my goddamned money?”
Ma continued to dance. She continued to talk and explain. Unfortunately, this time, she lacked conviction. Her movements lacked the illusion of joy. She danced as if she were back at the plant. I saw it. She knew it. And, worst of all, Dad did too.
She’d inadequately finished explaining the squandered money and handed him the thirty-three page document outlining the lives lived and lost to plant us here in Sacramento in a grey, plasterboard duplex. He stood and, in no uncertain terms, while beating her, only with his right hand though, explained his concerns. His left hand stagnated in a discolored and tattered cast. He received the cast in prison while attempting to stop the guards from closing his cell’s door. He continued to explain, “It was my goddamned money! My goddamned money!” Once she’d curled up on the floor and began sobbing, he subsequently added an addendum of hate and ignorance, he only “beat her for her own good” and “it could be worse.” (Neither Ma or I were sure how.) He then, thankfully, left for his cellmate’s sisters’ apartment. A month later he was back in prison for statutory rape, while Ma attempted to sell (unsuccessfully) the framed family tree on eBay.
A short pause collapsed across the line. Yes, the Sawyers were just stupid, but the Huxleys had their stupid pride. Royal loins, indeed.
Before I hung up, Gramps’ rough, dry voice coughed something.
“What? What’d you say, Cherry?”
Gramps laughed like a struggling, coal-fired steam engine. Eventually, once he’d cleared the West Virginia hill, he replied, “Ten thousand.”
Ten? Ten thousand? Once he’d asked for five hundred, but that was for a reunion with his sailor buddies in San Diego. And I had actually put him on the bus. But that was years ago, when I still lived in the circling cesspool of Las Vegas.
“Uh, Gramps, you know—” suddenly a knock resounded on the office door. The door began to swing open. I slung our safe word, “Tabasco,” and launched directly into camouflage, “Yes, Miss Okanagan, we’ll be more than happy to deliver those delicacies to you as soon as possible. And, thank you for selecting The Ventura. Good-bye.”
I hung up and scrambled for a pen and another order form, which I frantically, though hopefully deceptively, began filling in. The door creaked further open. Uh, burger. Uh, medium. With fries. Uh… she wasn’t alone. Cherry had a mysterious lover. Uh, it was his burger and she was having the… the…. The door squeaked farther and farther. She was having the… Crab Louis and an iced tea. As I put the finishing flourishes on the form, a big, round, glistening black head with a magnificent set of gleaming white teeth peered around.
Thankfully, it was the new night security guard, Obu… Abu… Ada… and not Scott “The Complete Dick” Simons, the night manager.
Obu… Abu… Ada’s uniform hung on him like a heavy tent on a weak pole. I’d seen him around, late at night, gliding through hallways and confirming locked doors were locked. Occasionally I’d see him lift his key-laden chain and slip silently through a doorway. But only occasionally. It seemed he reserved this power for very specific instances.
“Hey… Ooo… Aaa… Ad—”
His smile broadened and blinded, as he confirmed, “Abadandaman.”
“Exactly, Abada—” He assisted and encouraged until eventually I got it right, “Abadandaman?”
“Yes. Yes. Bravo. Bravo. Yes.” He clapped his hands. They sounded like thunder, and I feared for lightening and rain. His voice, cold water over heavy gravel, contained opposing elements—spring snow, winter sun. Mesmerizing.
“Abadandaman, what… what can I do for you?” Maybe he was here to investigate the unauthorized use of a collect call?
“But, yes, you call me Aba. Yes?” If so, he would be the friendliest investigator with the world’s least imposing name. A very clever ruse.
“Yes?” He hovered on the room’s threshold, surveyed for incriminating evidence.
I ignored the bloody, screaming order slip and asked, slowly, steadily, “What can I do for you?”
He turned his brown eyes on me. Could he see my guilt? Or was that something that simply coursed through me, with every heartbeat?
“Yes,” he said, dropping his eyes, “I have come to talk,” and he took a small, thick, well-soiled book out of his uniform’s sagging, breast pocket. As I stared at the top of his head, he meticulously consulted the book’s thin, yellow pages. His long, thin fingers turned pages, traced lines, searched thin, dark script. His forehead wrinkled with concentration. And, finally—a forefinger repeatedly tapping a line—he raised his head and said, “Yes. Here. Here. Yes.” He returned the book to his pocket, took a breath, and said, “I have come to you to talk turkey with you.”
I echoed his smile, pointed to the only other chair in the room—an abused boardroom chair, a swiveling monstrosity, that had endured far too much red wine, gravy, and ego over its lifetime—and said, “Take a seat, Aba, it’s been far too long since I’ve talked turkey.”
This should give me something to do while Gramps moped about calling me back. Ten grand? Talk about high. The old nut-job was becoming crazier and crazier. The more I thought about it, I respected Grams more and more. God bless her, wherever she was or wasn’t.
Aba sat precariously on the edge of the burgundy leather. Once settled, he again clapped his hands, and said, “Good. Yes. I have never talked turkey.” Again, quickly, he consulted his well-abused book, replaced it, and looked up. His smile, gone, had been replaced by a stare of genuine earnestness. “Please. Do tell me this. Yes?” Okay, so this was when he confronted me about the collect calls, the faked delivery meals, the occasional missing bottle of wine, the… Instead he said, “What does this ‘nigger’ mean? This is a…” again he consulted the book, poked the appropriate phrase, “this… this ‘nigger’ is an American Joe saying? Yes?”
Wow, so much for boredom, though the fork in the molar now had added merit.
Not knowing what to say, I stalled. I tore the slip up. (Cherry and her mysterious lover would have to go hungry.) I threw the stack of Waiting for Godot flyers away. I gripped the desk drawer handle, picturing its contents. Unfortunately, I knew all too well—thirteen leaky and useless pens; an empty box of breath mints; four old, cracked rubber bands (one blue); twenty-six cents (two dimes from 1988, a 1999 nickel, and a 2004 penny), a slew of varied order slips, and a Hans Solo Star Wars collector’s card. Therefore, I simply pulled the drawer a few inches open and shut it. Opened it. Shut it. Opened it. Shut it.
Aba’s smile sensed the awkwardness, expanded, and unfurled its wings.
He asked again, “This is an American Joe saying? Yes?”
I had no idea what to say. I wondered if maybe Gramps or Cherry or Francis did. I sure hoped they did, because I sure as shit didn’t.