Adam Lloyd Baker:
've been watching that Korean guy, off and on, all night. He's sitting in the office, looking out the window. He was there when I went to get coffee and he was there when I got back. Doesn't read a magazine or anything. Just watches the sign say:
'ROOMS... VACANCIES... ROOMS... VACANCIES...'
and rain beating on cars in the forecourt. I wonder what he's thinking.
Elmer and I came south to make some money. Saw the motel sign and just as we ran out of gas. Ahead of us: Atlantic City. Behind us: unlit nowhere. I got a job washing dishes. Elmer hasn't got a job. He's kind of a broke dick.
We've been sharing this room for two weeks. He took the left side of the room to be close to the TV. I got the right side which means I got the window, the radiator, and a bed which vibrates if you drop a coin in the slot.
Maybe that Korean guy thinks we're fags. Maybe he doesn't think anything at all. "This is latte," says Elmer, peering at his coffee. "I wanted café au lait."
"That's what I asked for."
"Well this is steamed milk. Look. It's settling. I've paid for half a cup of air."
"Take it back."
"Fucking spics. Spit in your food. Look how much actual coffee is in this thing. Half. Less than half. There ought to be a law. You're gonna serve the public then at least speak some fuckin' English."
Me and Elmer have been in this room all day. We're going a little crazy.
I take a damp slip of paper from my breast pocket and put it on the radiator to dry.
"That the tickets?" says Elmer.
"For the concert."
"What's her name?"
Elmer lies on the bed and puts his hands behind his head. Elmer is thirty years older than me. He has White Power tattoos on his arms. We met riding boxcars.
"Let me tell you how it is with women," he says. "Forget all the sensitive, changing the diaper shit. The ladies want a man to be a man, right? They want an alpha male. You watch wildlife programs? Lions, zebras, so on. The alpha male is the king of the gorillas. The big-ass grey back."
"You're full of shit."
"No, really. You could learn something, kid. You see, your average chick is always on the look-out for good genetic material, right? It's a biological imperative. That's why a Ferrari is a license to fuck. It proves you're a successful animal. You go out in the world and take what you want. Lord of the Jungle."
"Look, I'm trying to help. Now this Louise girl. She waits on tables all evening and every time she goes to the kitchen she sees you scrubbing pans. Just another kitchen schnook. So when you take her to this concert you have to show her a better side of yourself."
"I can't get a leather jacket by Friday. Maybe not but at least get some snappy duds. I mean look at this" He gestures to my ragged jeans and sneakers. "I seen winos with more self-respect than that. What were you planning to wear on Friday?"
"My boots, my good jeans, that grey shirt with the stripes."
"You need a jacket. Black leather. Trust me on this. You'll look older, street tough." Elmer points at his Harley jacket hanging on the back of a chair. "Leather gives off pheromones. Girls are hot for it."
"I haven't got any money. The tickets cleaned me out."
"I thought of that. I have a plan. We get dressed and drive into town. Hit the casinos, right? Win you that jacket and be back before your shift starts."
"That's a fucked up idea."
"Trust me. I've got a system."
Elmer's little Dodge, hammering through the projects, headed for the downtown lights.
"How much money you got?" asked Elmer.
"Ten. Lend me twenty then we'll split the winnings half and half."
"Say three, three-fifty for a good jacket. I think a plain blazer style would suit you best."
"If this system is so fucking bullet proof how come everyone isn't bleeding these joints to bankruptcy?"
"Greed. Fucker sits down at a blackjack table and starts winning big every pit-boss, every camera in the vicinity, is on him. Whatever scam the guy has going they get wise, drag him through a Staff Only door and snap his fingers. We got to be smart. Take a little here, a little there."
Elmer parked outside the Taj Mahal and threw his keys to the valet. We went inside.
A windowless, cathedral space. Row after row of inert slot machines and empty seats. The graveyard shift.
"Okay," says Elmer. "The roulette tables are up ahead. Back here in an hour."
Elmer's system went like this:
When you sit down at a roulette table you can bet your lucky number at fifty-to-one and maybe walk out a millionaire. If you're the conservative type you can bet black or red, odds or evens, at two-to-one.
Elmer figured that if you stood next to a table and watched the ball land on a black number ten times in a row then common sense tells you a red square is coming up anytime and you should step in, place your chips, and double your money. That was his plan.
There were enough people working the tables that I didn't feel conspicuous hanging around watching the ball. Everyone's attention was on this cigar chewing jerk in an Acapulco shirt who yelled, "go, baby, go" at the ball like he had been taking advanced asshole lessons somewhere. Eight reds in a row so I took a stool and changed my thirty dollars for three little green chips.
I put ten on black, ten on evens. The croupier rolled black 22. My hands were shaking as I raked in the chips. Bet black and evens one more time. Black 38. I walked away with ninety dollars in my pocket.
Three more tables, three more wins. I was on a streak. I won so much they changed croupiers on me. A casino guy slapped me on the back and comped me free drinks at the restaurant. When I met up with Elmer my pockets were stuffed with chips.
"How much you got?" asked Elmer.
"Seven, maybe eight hundred."
"You're fucking kidding me."
"Swear to God. My money kept doubling."
"Jesus. I didn't win a thing."
"Streaks. They happen. Spent the last half hour in the bar."
"Let's find a cashier."
"Fifty-fifty. That's what we said." Elmer standing on the pier, waiting for sunrise over the Atlantic.
"Yeah, that's what we said."
I shuffle bills and peel off four hundred.
"It's too cold for this shit. Let's walk."
Elmer bought a pizza slice and I bought coffee. We strolled along the boardwalk. The sky was light and the stars were going out.
"You see this is what I'm saying," said Elmer, resuming a dialogue he'd been conducting in his head. "You and me. A man travels through life, he needs friends. You can't make it on your own. That's what jail taught me. Alone, you're nothing. But a bunch of guys looking out for each other can get through."
"Believe me. In the wing, on the yard. Got to band together."
"Didn't we park back that way?"
"I want to show you something if it's still here."
The lights were down in Atlantic Leathers, but we could see the window display.
"This is where I got my Harley jacket," said Elmer. "Must be, Jesus, fifteen years ago."
Boots, belts and gloves. A Harley Electraglide with leathers draped over it.
"See anything you like?"
"It's mostly biker stuff."
I squinted at the price tags.
"Shit. Look at this," said Elmer. "You have to see this."
The jacket cloaked the shoulders of a headless mannequin. It shimmered in the morning light. The card said 100% genuine rattlesnake. The tag said $900.
"My God," I said.
"Maybe we should just break the glass."
"Come on. I got four hours til my shift. Hit the tables, make some fuckin, money. We did it once, we'll do it again."
Elmer picked up a girl and a bottle of Cuervo Gold on the way home. I'd seen the kid before. She was one of the sex-for-smokes chicks who hung around the bus terminal. Black, late teens. Today her name was Tracey.
"It's a question of perspective," said Elmer, lighting a cigarette off the dash. "You dropped three hundred but you're still one-twenty ahead. You don't have a jacket but you didn't have one this morning so it's not like you lost anything. Am I right, Tracey?"
"Comes down to the type of guy you are. Is the glass half full or half empty, you know what I'm saying. I mean you're not going to sulk on me, are you?"
Elmer threw his jacket over the chair and said: "I'm going to phone for burgers. I think that place up the road delivers."
I swilled cups in the bathroom and heard bedsprings creak. Elmer had his shirt off and was lying on the bed. Tracey massaged his back and shoulders. She ran her hands over the swastikas and Aryan Brotherhood tattoos.
"It's nothing, baby," said Elmer. "Just jailhouse bullshit."
I gave them a cup of tequila each and sat by the window. I took a hit from the bottle. Elmer's Harley jacket lay across a metal chair. The corner of his wallet protruded from his left pocket. The girl had seen it also.
"Oh that's good," said Elmer.
"Magic fingers," said Tracey.
I went to the bathroom for a piss. When I got back Elmer was sitting on the side of the bed with his dick out. Tracey got down on her knees and licked his circumcised prick. Elmer laid back and let her suck.
I sat by the window. It was raining again. The Korean guy was still in his office. He was asleep at his desk with a pen in his hand.
"No good," said Elmer. He pushed the girl away. "Just not happening."
"Did I do something wrong?"
"I'm tired." Elmer took twenty from his pocket. "Here. For your time."
The girl took the money. She turned to me.
"Anything I can do for you?"
"That's all right. You can get going if you want."
Tracey looked out the rain spattered window.
"I got no place to go," she said.
"No friends or nothing?"
"You want to watch some TV?"
A knock at the door. A delivery boy with a bag of food. Triple order of cheese burgers and fries. We crowded round the cupboard, using it as a table to squirt ketchup and shake salt. Sometime, while my back was turned, Elmer's wallet disappeared from his coat.
We sat in the cold light of television. Racing from Daytona. Tracey finished her burger and lay on the bed next to Elmer. She stroked his tattoos and said:
"How long were you in jail?"
"Armed robbery. A cigarette warehouse. Me and a friend."
"That's a long time."
"A security guard got killed."
"Did you shoot him?"
"I don't remember. The cops ask you over and over, and you tell so many lies the truth gets lost along the way."
"What happened to your friend?"
"Well, out on the street you don't have no friends. Lesson number one. I don't need to tell you, right? The cops pulled us in on a rumour. If me and Billy said nothing, we would walk. But they put us in separate rooms and laid out the deal. You see the death of that security guard turned armed robbery to murder one. Capital crime. The trigger man gets the gas chamber, but the accomplice would be out in fifteen, maybe less. So the guy who snitches first, who downplays his own involvement, gets to live. What do you do in a situation like that? I told them Billy shot the place up. Everything between us, all the blood-brother bullshit, didn't mean a damn thing. You do what you have to do."
"That's a sad story."
"Yes, it is."
Tracey put on her shoes.
"Thanks for the food," she said.
"It's still raining."
"I think I saw a bus stop by the diner."
Tracey walked to the door and I followed.
"Maybe get some cigarettes from the machine," I explained.
I stood with Tracey beneath the eves of the chalet, watching waves of rain wash over the forecourt. I wanted to tell this feral child to stop turning tricks, to go to school or something, I wanted to say words that would keep her safe but I didn't know how.
"Will you be all right?" I asked.
"I'd drive you someplace but I've got to be at work in an hour."
"It was nice."
"Kept you dry at least."
"I got to ask you for Elmer's wallet back."
"I ain't got no wallet."
"It's no big deal but I got to have it back."
"Don't shit a shitter."
Tracey took the wallet from the pocket of her denim jacket and handed it over. I took another twenty from the wallet and handed it to her.
"Don't get too wet."
She ran across the street to the diner. I went back inside the cabin. Elmer was snoring on the bed. I kick him awake.
"What the fuck is this?" I demanded.
"This money. In your wallet. There must be a thousand, maybe fifteen hundred here."
I waved notes at him.
"I was gonna give you some."
"Fifty/fifty. That's what we said. You been winning all night. What's yours is yours, what's mine is yours, is that it?"
"I was just fucking with you. You want the jacket? We can get it."
I cuffed Elmer across the head and he fell to the floor, a jailhouse bitch once again.
"Nothing but a ball and chain. When I finish work tonight I am out of here. I'm taking three hundred for the rent. Do what you like."
"You aren't gonna leave me, are you Johnny?"
I pulled my bag from under the bed and packed my clothes.
"I am so sick of your noise."
"Come on, man. Amigos. You and me, huh?" Elmer sat on the bed. "Johnny, I ain't got nobody. Nobody in the world. Don't go."
I packed my books.
"You want some coffee, huh? To set you up? I'll get some coffee."
Elmer held a newspaper above his head and hurried outside.
Alone again. I sat on the bed and lit a cigarette. No sound but the rain.
Copyright © 2000 by Adam Lloyd Baker.