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  exit 99

The first time, you've been telling yourself, was an accident. By pure coincidence you were in the area; really nothing else to it.

It was last Friday. You'd gone after work to see a guy about a lawn mower up in the woods north of the highway, and when you got there nobody was home. Nearby, you remembered, was that new Indian casino, Three Lakes, your best buddy Jack has been trying to drag you to since the day it opened. You're a family man, you always tell him, not a gambling man. Still, there you were, with an hour to kill.

So you went and checked it out. A huge place, like a mall: waterfalls, T-shirt stores, a restaurant with a $9.95 all-you-can-eat buffet. Guys in Red Sox shirts and old ladies with towering hairdos were playing roulette, craps, and cards. You found a $10 blackjack table and in a half hour managed to turn $30 into $60--not bad, you thought, for an amateur. You cashed in your chips and left.

Over the weekend, you kept meaning to tell your wife about your little excursion, but something always got in the way, the groceries needing to be picked up or the baby changed; then it was Monday again. And now all week you've been wandering back to how you doubled your money in that half hour and walked away, clean and green. Driving home from work you feel the thought tugging like a beggar at your sleeve, and it takes an effort not to turn off at exit 99 and head for the casino.

What's eating you? your wife asks.

Nothing, you say. Why?

You're not a gambler, you remind yourself. Never have been. In a football game it's the play on the field you care about, not the point spread. On the slopes at Killington you can bash the moguls with the best of them, but you're no risk freak, you don't have any interest in courting death. Life itself is risky enough, you believe. You like telling people your chief vices are Bud Lite and your two girls.

Once you picked up the phone and overheard a girlfriend of your wife's saying "What do you have to worry about, you have Tom!" You liked the sound of that. But sometimes you wonder. You're a foreman at the plant, pulling thirty-nine G's before taxes, and still it sometimes feels like you're barely making it. What with the monthly nut on the house and cars, the credit cards to pay off, the secondhand piano you bought to go with your daughter's lessons--with all that there's never anything left.

I can't catch my breath, you tell your wife. I'm always two steps behind! It burns you to think of all the guys out there who are always two steps ahead. You see them on the highway, zooming by in their $50,000 BMWs, wheeling and dealing on their car phones while you, meanwhile, are struggling to budget a family trip to Disney World two years from now.

Arriving home from work you sit in the driveway, thinking again about how the $30 became $60. Some of the people who go to a casino, for them it's an illness, an obsession. But you're not that kind of guy. For you it would be a limited, one-time thing, a way to make a quick hundred or two and spread a little happiness around the house.

You think about your wife and girls. Sure, they're doing all right. But they deserve better.

When you were a kid, for your eighth birthday, your father took you for a ride in a hot air balloon. You were scared of being scared, but when the thing lifted off, just you and your father and the pilot on board, it turned out your old man was the scared one, while all you felt was the thrill of it, the dizzy tingling rush as the ground pulled away and you went up and up.

It's Friday afternoon at Three Lakes, you've got the center seat at a $25 table, and you're winning. At the bank you hesitated before scribbling $300 on the "Less Cash Received" line of the deposit slip and handing it over with your paycheck to the teller; and half an hour later, when the dealer scooped up your six fifties and gave you twelve green chips, you felt a second twinge of nerves. But then you began to win. You're not flashy: no playing the sevens, no splitting or doubling unless it's perfect. But bit by bit you're eking it out. As you do, you sneak chips into your pocket for safekeeping. Your wife doesn't know you're here--you told her you're putting in overtime on a shipment--but if she did, she'd like this careful way of handling things.

The dealer is a woman named Cheri with a dynamite figure and a gold-capped front tooth. Cheri smiles when she deals you a winner, and she's dealing you a lot of them. Again and again you win, and it's like that memory of rising in the balloon, the tingling in your legs and stomach. By six o'clock you've got the original $300 safely pocketed and $425 more on the table in front of you. Just two or three more hands, you decide. Get to an even five hundred, then get out.

You lose the first, taking a hit on an eight-four and busting with a queen. So now you put out three chips, $75, your biggest bet of the night. Cheri lays down a six and a five, perfect for doubling--except she's showing a king. Come on, Cheri, you say, tossing out three more chips, do it for me! She deals you a ten--yesssss!--but when she turns her card over, it's an ace. Blackjack. "Sorry," she says, taking the chips away. You shrug to let her know you're not taking it personally, and push your chair back.

On the way to the cashier, you count ten chips in your hand --$250. You're still way up, but it hurts to think of the $425 you had just minutes ago; it's a desolate feeling, like someone has died. You gravitate toward a roulette table where players are spreading chips around the grid like farmers planting seeds.

Two chips, you tell yourself. One shot. Back up to $300 and out. You step forward and put $50 down on red.

The avalanche that follows is so quick it's over before you know what's happening. It begins with the wheel spinning, the croupier calling out "Thirty-one black!" and a cute girl next to you calmly collecting $10 from black and leaving her original chip in place. Quickly you lean in and slap four chips down on red. The ball spins and tumbles.

Black again.

A dull pressure thrums in your temples, but there's no pulling out now. From your pocket you borrow four chips from the $300 to go with the four left in your hand--eight chips, exactly enough to get you out of here. The wheel spins, and then--sonofabitch!--there's the girl, taking her chip once more, and you're groping in your pocket, fingers filmy with sweat. A monster roars in the back of your mind, but you haul the door shut on it with the knowledge that this can't happen, not four times in a row, no way. The wheel spins.

"Twenty-two," says the croupier. "Black."

It's over; your pocket is empty.

The whole nightmare has taken all of ten minutes. Like a sleepwalker you wander across the room, picturing yourself driving away in the pickup, the radio playing some bullshit song.

There's no way you can go home like this, a voice says. You have to undo the damage.

At the cash machine out in the front hall, you find today's deposit hasn't been credited yet; there's only $229 in your checking account. You can punch in $200, but it's not going to clear you enough room to make things good. You flip through your wallet, the monster roaring louder now, and take out your credit card.

Back at the table she's still there, the cute girl, still playing her crazy $10 bet. You've got eight fifty-buck chips in your fist, black-and-white checkered ones, and when the croupier spins the wheel you push your way to the edge of the table and unload all of them on red.

People crowd like vultures; you feel the hot breath on your neck. The ball slides for an eternity along the rim, and as it does, the curtains in your mind part and you see with a sickening certainty exactly what is about to happen--how you've fooled yourself into believing the girl can't win five in a row against you when the cold truth is that every spin is a new beginning, it's fifty-fifty every time, and you've put everything, all four hundred bucks, on a single wild bet against a girl with luck running her way; and now you're going to walk out $700 down, a whole paycheck that's going to have to be made up somehow, and fast, either by borrowing or by selling something, or else it will open like a hole in the ground and your family will fall right smack down into it.

The ball drops from the rim and clatters across the grooves. You turn away, raising your eyes toward the ceiling.

Outside you're shocked to find it's still light; it seems like weeks have gone by. The Friday evening rush is on, Caddies and Jeeps pulling up to valets in the front circle. Back in the truck, engine idling, you separate out the original $300, then the $400 from the Visa card, and you're left with one crisp new hundred in your hand. You haven't felt this bushed since high school, when you wrestled in the 145-lb. class and would come home limp as a rag, your muscles trembling as you sat at dinner shoveling down your mother's good food.

You're glad you came, you think as you drive away. It was a little ragged at times; still, it was an experience. Your wife won't be too happy about it, but she'll come around. You'll have to work a little on a few of the details. Everything that happened after the blackjack--the cash machine part, the whole roulette part of it--is no good. The feeling of rising in the balloon; the thrill and terror as you heard the ball dancing across the numbers; the surge of relief when the croupier called out "Red!": you try to imagine explaining this to your wife. You did WHAT? you hear her saying, with that look that can crack ice cubes.

Off to your right the sun is setting, flooding pink through the trees. You find yourself thinking about the one and only time in nine years of marriage you cheated on your wife: a five-day fishing trip in Pennsylvania, a sweet young thing at the lodge who made her intentions very plain. You worried yourself raw for three days until finally you acted, and as soon as you did you knew you were in the clear, knew it would be once and once only and wouldn't touch anything at home. You could build a wall around it so nothing could get in or out, and that way it would stay separate and wouldn't matter.

It's five of eight when you pass a spanking new minimall a quarter mile before the highway. There are a dozen stores, including a florist; a girl is wheeling a display cart of flowers across the parking lot. You pull in and climb down from the truck.

A big bunch, you tell her. Load it up nice.

She picks from this and from that. Even in the dim light you can see it's going to be beautiful. You pay and drive off, the flowers propped on the seat beside you.

The dangerous thing about talking, you remind yourself, is that it punches a hole in the wall you've built, and pretty soon things start leaking out and you can't control them anymore. You picture the smile on your wife's face when you pull the flowers out from behind your back.

If you were the kind of guy who was going to do this all the time, who couldn't control it, that would be one thing, you tell yourself.

But you're not that kind of guy. Right?
 
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    Photo Credit: Melissa Haydenk  
    Excerpted from Big As Life: Stories About Men by Rand Richards Cooper. Excerpted by permission of the Dial Press, Dell Publishing, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

Originally published in American Way.

All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.