Kamis, 05 Januari 2012

LUCKY IN LOVE by Peter Nolan Smith

The dawn sun rose over the eastern mountains and flooded the Bonneville Salt Flats. The Torino station wagon was parked several miles off the interstate. At that distance even the trucks’ throttling diesels were waffled by the dry wind. I sat up on my sleeping bag. The red sun tinted the salt flats with a pale pink, as it had since the end of the last Ice Age.

“Pink sky in morning, sailors take warning.” The ancient marine weather saying had no bearing this far from the sea. The morning sky was cloudless.

Bonneville was the proving ground for land speed records. Rocket cars and super-charged motorcycles ran a measured mile to the north. Last night I had pushed the Ford Torino to its limit on the pancake smooth highway, which wasn’t even close to Craig Breedlove’s Green Monster hitting a little over 600 mph in 1964, but 121 was fast for me.

I stood and stretched my arms and legs. The cars and trucks on I-80 to the south shimmied on a mirage of water mirrors. If I squinted, my eyes could pick out which was which.

“Having an epiphany?” AK rose up from his sleeping bag with a jack knife in hand. He had crashed out thinking that the dregs of Charles Manson’s Family might murder him for Helter Skelter. The pianist smiled with a deep breath. He was happy to be alive.

“You know what today is?” Spreading my arms I welcomed the day with an open heart.

“Let me guess. You’re a Gemini.”

“And?”

“Today’s your birthday.”

“Absolutely right.” May 29 was my 22nd birthday and California was a two-day ride on the other side of the western horizon. The first music in my head was Spirit’s I GOT A LINE ON YOU. It was very West Coast.

“I have a present for you.” AK pulled out a joint.

“You bastard.” I had smelled weed on the pianist since Cleveland. He had been holding out on me.

“Carol wasn’t cool.” He lit up the joint with a match and passed me the first full toke.

“And I’m not?” My tongue said Mexico.

“You’re a drinker.”

“Okay, you’re forgiven.” I bogarted the reefer, for AK was right. Being half-Irish I liked beer better than marijuana.

The two of us smoked my birthday joint watching the sun expand over the desert in silence. The weed was strong as nature. I looked over my shoulder. Carol had spent the night in the station wagon, having heard too many stories about ax-murderers to camp under the stars. The keys were in my pocket. I didn’t trust my ex-girlfriend’s best friend not to drive off in the middle of the night.

AK and I rolled up our sleeping bags. Both of us were hungry.

“Bacon and eggs at a greasy spoon on me.” AK was a good friend. He read my mind. “As I said today’s your birthday.”

“Till midnight.” I walked over to the station wagon and rapped on the window. Carol rose from the back seat. Her tousled hair lent her a mask of Brigitte Bardot. She unlocked the doors and I threw my sleeping bag into the rear. AK did the same and I sat behind the wheel.

“What time is it?”

“Don’t know. I don’t have a watch, but today is my birthday.” Last year I had been with her friend Jackie in Buffalo. My birthday gift was a bottle of Tequila. We drank shots on the American side of Niagara Falls. Later that day I had played softball against her ex-boyfriend’s team in Delaware Park. I had knocked two balls over the railroad tracks.

“Happy Birthday to you.” Carol sang the entire song. She had a good voice. AK watched her lips love. He was entranced by her blonde beauty. It had something to do with her being a schitzah.

I turned the key in the ignition and looked at the gas gauge. It was hovering over E. The gas crisis of 1974 meant no open gas stations in Salt Lake City. I dropped the shift into Drive.

“What do you think?” AK peered out the window to the west.

“There’s a town with an air force base at the foot of those mountains. Wendover, Nevada. It will have gas.” I had hitched this way west in 1972 and east in 1973. “We’ll get there.”

My mother in Boston must have said a prayer for her second-born son, because the station wagon sputtered into a Phillips 66 station on the outskirts of Wendover and the engine stalled at the pump on vapors. Two fighter jets scorched the morning below the sound barrier. I imagined them on patrol over Vietnam. Asia was on the other side of the world.

“It is my birthday.” I was feeling lucky and gave AK $10 for gas. Carol and I entered the truck stop for a shower and breakfast. The interior mirrored the other fuel stops along I-80, except two steps beyond the entrance was a bank of slot machines. Their lights caught my eye. I had a couple of quarters in my pocket. I turned to Carol.

“Like I said I’m feeling lucky.” I had never played a game of chance in my life.

My great-grandfather disappeared from the face of the Earth to avoid overwhelming debts in the late 1890s. My great-grandmother and her two daughters were forced to take refuge up north with her uncle in Augusta Maine. No one in my family ever explained the causes of his misfortune.

I always chose gambling over a woman, since no one in my family gambled on horses, football, or cards, but a quarter wasn’t going to kill anyone. I dropped the coin into the slot and pulled the arm. The cylinders spun to hit a row of cherries. Quarters cascaded into the pay-out slot. My jackpot paid for a half-tank of premium gas.

“Beginner’s luck.” I stuck the coins and walked with Carol into the showers. They formed a lump in my pocket. Carol went into the women’s room and I stepped into the Mens.

The shower room had no walls. I stripped off my jeans and tee-shirt. A lean man was soaping his penis.

“Hey, hippie boy, where you going?” He was erect.

“San Francisco.” I had seen naked men before, but I lowered my eyes to the tiled floor.

“I’m heading your way.” He looked to be 40. Tattoos sprawled over his rawhide skin.

“I got a car and a girlfriend.” The first was the truth and the second was a pure lie. I soaped my body, as if the water was running out

“Too bad, we could have a good time in Frisco. It’s a wide open city. Try the Castro. It’s for men. Maybe I’ll see you there.” He was taking his time, hoping that I changed my mind.

“Yeah.” I grabbed my clothes and dressed without toweling dry. The summer of Love might be long over, but Sexual Revolution was coursing through America highway by highway. Exiting from the shower room I warned AK of the bushwhacker.

“I can take care of myself.” He had been brought up in New York.

“If you say so.” I sat at the counter and ordered breakfast without a menu. Thirty seconds later AK joined me in the dining room with a red face.

“I never heard anyone talk like that.” AK had gay friends, but was 100% straight.

“Better you than me.” I could fill in the monologue from having read hundreds of porno books in the Combat Zone. My research covered every genre.

Carol exited from her shower with a new dress and wet hair. AK fought to not stare at her. We had been with her for three days and he hadn’t worked up the nerve to put a move on her. We were dropping off the Torino in Lodi tomorrow. Time was running short.

Breakfast for the three of us came to less than $2. The owners of the truck stop gave away the food to insure that the gamblers hit the machines. I walked out with a full stomach and $5 worth of quarters. They were heavy in my pocket.

“Very few people know when to walk away a winner.” AK led the way to the door. The trucker was standing next to the cashier. She laughed, as if he was telling her a dirty joke. It probably had nothing to do with whatever he had said to AK.

Nevada was a lunar landscape compared to the Rockies. The brittle underbrush was scarred from the waterless weather. I-80 followed the trail of the Forty-Niners. The first town up the road was called Oasis. The highway shrunk into a four-laner divided by a double yellow line. Without the road this community would have shriveled to its population in the late 1800s. We drove past the gas stations, restaurants, and stores without braking for a light. Oasis had none.

Outside of town I-80 resumed its thread across Nevada. Dirt roads disappeared into the distance. Two years ago a speed freak in a Super Bee had driven my college friend and me across this wasteland. Today I thought the same thing as then.

“What do you think is out there?”

“Ranches, mines, and dirt.” AK studied the map for enlightenment. “I flew over here a couple of years ago. There’s nothing out there, but more of this.

“That’s what I thought.” I stepped on the gas and the Torino hit 90 with ease. For the first time on this trip we shut the windows and turned on the AC. The temperature was climbing into the 90s. AK’s attempts to find a radio station resulted in static. He lifted his hand over his shoulder. Carol handed him Joni Mitchell’s BLUE. It was our only tape. The title song sounded like a mist rolling off the Pacific into Monterrey Bay. After hearing it for the tenth time in five days I knew the words and the three of us sang backing vocals for Joni. We almost were in tune.

Approaching Wells the highway reverted to the old road and I slowed to 40 mph. Town cops out West were notorious for speed traps. I checked the gas gauge. It was reading half-empty The owner had instructed us to keep it full for better mileage and topping off the tank gave us the distance to make the California State Line in one go. I pulled into the first gas station.

AK wiped the windshield, as Carol talked to the pump attendant. The tall blonde teenager was a younger twin to the boy back in Sterling, Colorado. Carol had spent the good part of an hour in that boy’s car. Neither AK nor I had commented on her deviation from being the faithful girlfriend of the medical intern in Mendocino. The nursing co-ed would start working as soon as she reached her destination. She was still on summer vacation.

Across the street was a long one-story log cabin with a neon sign blinking CASINO. James Bond played baccarat at Monte Carlo. Tuxedos and low-cut evening gowns were required attire for the extras. Two men in jeans exited from Well’s casino. They blinked in the sunlight and shook hands, as if they had spent the night inside playing blackjack.

“I’ll be back in a second.” I stepped away from the car drawn by the magnetism of a movie myth. “Where you going?” AK knew the answer.

“To take a look.” A year ago I had passed through Las Vegas on the way to LA. Our ride warned us on the dangers of gambling. I wanted to see for myself.

A cool breeze blew from the ACs inside the casino decorated in a western motif. I walked through the gauntlet of binging slot machines. My favorite game at a bar was pinball. They only cost a quarter. Deeper into the casino a dozen green-felt tables were spread across the red carpet in two semi-circles. Three men sat at the one farthest from the slots. They smiled with success. Each had a pile of chips before them. A motherly dealer in a cowboy hat shuffled a deck of cards with the speed of a Japanese cook at Benihanas.

“Feel like joining us in some blackjack.” Her voice sounded like she might been the Lone Ranger’s sister.

“It’s a friendly game.” A man in the suit pulled out a chair.

“I’ve never played before.” My mother permitted Solitaire, Spades, and Rummy in her house.

“It’s easy. We’ll help you beat the house. It’s us against them.” The oldest man at the table looked like my uncle and Uncle Jack had paid for college with his poker winnings during the Korean War. The old man explained the rules.

“Figure the down card of the dealer is a ten or face card. If she’s showing a six, then figure she’s holding a sixteen. The house has to take a card on sixteen. If she breaks 21, then you win.”

I gave the dealer twenty dollars and placed a $2 chip on the table. She dealt me two tens. When it came my turn for a card, I held up my hand like the old man had done. The dealer was showing a nine. Her down card was a Jack. I won my first hand and the trio at the table congratulated my luck. They had also won their hands.

21 was a simple game and I had a good head for numbers as would anyone who had started college as a math major.

The next set of cards went in my favor and the next. I was on a roll. Carol and AK stood behind me. They didn’t say a word. Within twenty minutes I was up $100. Carol waggling the keys in her hand. The two of them wanted to be in San Francisco, not a dusty gambling town in the Great Basin.

“Sorry, it’s time to go.” I cashed in my chips and said good-bye to the three men and dealer.

“More beginner’s luck.” I stashed the dollars into my wallet.

“Birthday boy luck too.” AK sat in the back of the Torino.

“Don’t test your luck too much.” Carol had been at her girlfriend’s college dorm the night that I had left after drinking a bottle of tequila. The town police had arrested me five minutes after a high speed chase in a VW. She was well aware of my luck.

“Give me another minute.”

“You’re not going back.” AK was worried that I had been bitten by the bug.

“No, I want to call my mother and let her know I’m okay. Remember it’s my birthday.” I held out a handful of quarters and walked to the nearby phone booth.

Three minutes to Boston cost $1.20. My mother picked up on the first ring. She sang ‘Happy Birthday’ twice and asked if I was having a good time.

“We’re almost in California.” She didn’t need to know about my playing cards. She was a good Catholic and luck was a gift from God. St. Christopher was the patron saint of travelers and I remembered a nun telling me that he was also the patron saint of luck. He must have been very popular on Bingo nights. “I’ll call you from there. Love you and tell Dad I’m fine.”

“We miss you.”

“And I miss you too.”

My father had criticized this trip as an adventure. After university I was supposed to start a real job. None of the banks in Boston wanted to employ a hippie with a stutter. America was in a recession and I had been rejected by the banks in Boston. One of them wanted to employ a long-haired economics major with a stutter.

I returned to the Torino and sat in the passenger seat.

“Everything good?” AK had met my parents. They thought that he was a good friend, but a bad influence for my future.

“We can have birthday cake later.” AK’s parents probably felt the same way about me.

“I’m good with chocolate.” Carol pulled out of the gas station and the attendant waved from the pump. She had broken hearts all across the country.

I hoped the intern in Mendocino was worth it.

The map showed the next town was Elko. It appeared bigger than Wells. Carol didn’t refused my request to test Lady Luck at another casino. I pushed away from the table $220 richer. The starting salary at the banks in Boston was $20 less than that. No one at the casinos cared if i had a stammer.

I repeated this routine in Winnemucca and Lovelock. My thick bankroll didn’t fit in my wallet. I counted it several times in the back seat and told Carol to put on Joni Mitchell.

“She’s good luck.”

“How much you have now?” AK had avoided from the tables. His money stayed in his pocket. It wasn’t his day to shine.

“With the money I left Boston with, almost $2500.” A brand-new GTO costed $5300 out of the showroom.

“Happy birthday.” AK was happy for me. Our trip to the coast could last till the end of the summer.

“Thanks.” I shut my eyes and heard the surf of the Pacific. The water was cold and the sun touched my skin with gold. I was looking forward to being a beach bum.

A road sign was marked RENO 150 MILES.

Night was falling blue behind us, as we pulled into the Biggest Little City in the World.

“You mind, if we stop one last time?”

Carol groaned at the wheel and AK said, “I don’t think this is a good idea.”

“It is, it is.” I handed AK $2000. I had seen gambling movies. No one came out on top. “No matter what I say, don’t give it to me.”

“I’ll hold it.” Carol grabbed the cash and slipped the money into her pocketbook. “I don’t trust either of you, but Joni Mitchell wishes you good luck. One more thing.

“What’s that?”

“If you’re going to play, then play. Never fix a limit.” Carole was a junior at a girl’s college outside Boston. She was studying nursing. Her advice sounded dangerous.

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

Reno blazed with neon signs cascading rainbows above the street. These were the brightest lights since Denver. I picked out the Horseshoe Club as my next victim. I liked its 50s facade. Carol gave the Torino to a casino valet. I tipped him a dollar.

“Whatever you do, don’t let this man sell the car.” She warned the skinny valet.

“I’ll try my best.” He must have failed more than once before.

“A half-hour. Not a minute more.” It was my birthday. Joni Mitchell was saying prayers for me. Reno was at my mercy. Carol and AK detoured to an empty lounge, where he sat at a vacant piano. He played her Joni Mitchell and she smiled at him for the first time on the trip.

I rubbed my hands together and approached the blackjack tables like Genghis Khan on a raid.

After fifteen minutes I was up to $900. The balding dealer in the red vest congratulated my play. I placed a $100 worth of chips on the table. My two cards were an ace and a ten. The dealer paid out $150. A leggy redheaded waitress in a skimpy mini-dress asked if I wanted a drink. Her smile gleamed in the eternal neon night of the casino.

“Jack and Coke.”

“I’ll be right back.” She touched my shoulder and gave me a wink. It felt good not coming from a man for a change. I gave her a $5 tip. She asked my name. After I told her it was my birthday, she said, “Maybe if you’re lucky, we can celebrate it together once I get off work.”

“That would be great.”

My name’s Kim.”

I downed the first drink and pulled off a series on wins.

After each hand I counted the money in my head. Kim kept the drinks coming one after the other. She kissed me once on the ears. I lost a few hands and tried to recoup by wagering larger stakes. That strategy failed to curb the luck of the house. AK tried to pull me away from the table.

“I know what I’m doing.”

Those were the last words I remembered that evening.

The next morning bright sunlight seared my eye sockets with acid sunshine.

I was lying on the ground next to a rushing river instead of a penthouse suite. My head was pounding like a drum crashing down a cliff. Pine trees pierced the clear sky. Something hard was digging into my hip. I sat up with difficulty and my hands searched my pockets.

There was not one dollar in any of them and my wallet was gone. All I possessed was the $5 in quarters, which explained my hip problem.

This was not good and I stumbled to the banks of the river to stick head in the water. The cold revived me from the shock of loss for several seconds. The cascade rushing over the tumble of worn boulders had to be the Truckee River.

I pushed back my long hair and stood up straight to check my pockets again.

The result was the same.

For an instant I thought that someone had rolled me.

This was getting worse and I wondered how many Jack and Coke’s I might have drank last night. The razors slashed at my brain shouted more than ten and I shambled to my boots lying in the dirt. I picked them up and stuck my hand to the toes. There was not a penny in the boots.

AK and Carol were sitting on a rock eating sandwiches. She didn’t look very happy. I staggered over to them and asked, “Did I lose everything?”

“Yes.” AK confirmed the worst.

“What about the money I gave Carol.”

“Never heard anyone beg like that. Not even a junkie in the emergency room.”

“Shit.” I was 2700 miles from Boston without a dime to my name. “At least we didn’t sell the car.”

“Yes, but you tried.”

“Idiot.” Last night I had everything. This morning I had nothing, but a hangover. I washed my face in the mountain stream and we drove over the Sierras into California. Carol and AK kept their comments to themselves, as I called myself every name in the book.

At Sacramento Carol left us for a bus to San Francisco.

“It was fun.”

“See you in Boston.” AK had her phone number at college.

“Don’t worry, I won’t tell Jackie anything about last night.” Carol kissed me on the cheek. Her gesture was comforting as was her promise to keep my disaster a secret from my ex-girlfriend not that it would have made much of a difference Jackie was in love with someone else. My luck with women was as bad as it was at blackjack.

AK and I cleaned the Torino at a car crash in Lodi. The station wagon was untouched by the long trip across country. AK took the wheel for the last time and I sat on the other side of the car, wondering how long $5 would last, as I hitchhiked back to Boston.

“Here.” AK handed me a paper bag.

“What’s this.” I opened it and found my wallet with $1200 in it. My next words came from Captain America in EASY RIDER. “So I didn’t blow it.”

“You would have if I gave you this.” He turned the key in the ignition. The V8 purred with power. “I didn’t give it to you this morning, because I thought you would go back to the casino.”

“Thanks.” I was almost in tears.

“I hope you learned your lesson.”

“One, I’m no gambler and two drinking and gambling don’t mix.” $1200 was half of what I had last night, but $1200 was more than I started with this morning and that was that all the luck I needed today.

It was May 30, 1974 and I was one day older than yesterday.

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