Hard Luck Blues

My luck had been taking a nap lately. I’m not talking about a light afternoon snooze on the couch. I mean my luck had curled up in its sheets and blankets and burrowed its head down into the pillows and was planning on staying that way for a long while.

You could say my luck was hibernating.

I just lost my last twenty bucks on a game of poker dealt by a man with a glass eye. I’m not trying to bring the guy down. His glass eye was the reason I lost. It kept rolling around in his eye socket and it was making me seasick. I couldn’t concentrate on the cards, all I could do was stare at the green and brown and white as they rolled around from side to side.

My hand was good too, could have made some money off of it for sure. I mean you don’t throw away pocket nines before the flop. But that eye and my luck were working against me. I threw my hand down and got the hell out of there.

I think it reminded me of something, the eye I mean.

I leaned against the brick wall to the left of the door and looked through my pockets for a cigarette and a match. I was just about convinced I left them inside on the card table. I made one last search of my pockets before heading back inside.

The pack of cigarettes was in my shirt pocket and I sighed in relief because I didn’t want to hangdog back in there after storming off like I did. Didn’t want to face the questions that glass eye might ask. I stuck a coffin nail in my mouth and struck my last match against the brick wall.

It didn’t catch.

I tried again. And again. I kept striking the match against the wall until all the phosphorous had disappeared and all I was left with was a toothpick whittled by a blind man with the morning shakes.

I tucked the cigarette behind my ear, placed the toothpick in the corner of my mouth and walked north along the street.

After a few blocks, I heard a low growl and thought for a minute a pack of wild mongrels had caught scent of weak prey and were stalking me. I could almost feel their wet eyes on my back, could almost hear their too long claws clip along the sidewalk.

Then I realized it was just my stomach.

I rubbed it with my hand, hoping to soothe it until I could find a few bucks to buy a poor man’s lunch at a diner. The thought of mashed potatoes and meatloaf covered in a thick gravy made from a chalky powder made me feel like one of the imaginary dogs following me.

I entertained the idea of eating and running out on the check. Not for long though. This was still a small town and there were only so many restaurants to eat in. Dashing out just wouldn’t work. Hell, there would probably be three or four other bums in there that could identify me by smell alone.

I wrapped my coat tightly around me to muffle my hunger’s cries and kept walking. The only thing pushing me forward was the idea of never looking back.

I followed the road north. I left the seedier part of town and arrived on the main drag of a small residential neighbourhood. Small roads led off from the main street, twisting and bending like the branches of the trees that lined them.

I took the cigarette form behind my ear and stuck it in my mouth and asked a finely dressed man walking by if he could spare a light. I must not have spoken loud enough because he strutted right on by as though he hadn’t heard me.

That happened sometimes. I would think I was talking out loud but my brain wouldn’t send the message to my mouth and I would just stand there looking like, hell, I don’t even know what I looked like.

A fool I suppose.

I thought maybe people might be friendlier in the side streets so I tucked the cigarette into my pocket and turned right and started walking.

I guess I must have looked suspicious. People didn’t go out for walks in the late evening in this neighborhood. A prowl car pulled up beside me and a bull of a cop jumped out and charged at me. He stuck a fat hand flat on my chest and asked me what I thought I was doing.

I told him I was taking a walk, thinking.

“Thinking about what,” he said.

“The mysteries of the universe,” I said, throwing my hands up to the heavens.

“So, you must be some kind of philosopher then,” he said. A small fire caught in his eye and started to burn.

“I guess that is what I am,” I answered, and tried to step around him.

“Watch your smart mouth, Aristotle,” he said and leaned into a hell of a punch to my stomach.

My knees buckled but I managed to settle them down and stayed on my feet.

“We’re looking for a man matching your description,” he said. “Better take you down to station, maybe you’ll answer some questions.”

“Maybe I will and maybe I won’t,” I said.

He socked me in the jaw this time and I fell back onto his partner who had crept out from behind the steering wheel during our conversation. He grabbed me in a half-assed half-nelson and threw me into the backseat of the car.

We drove to the station in silence. We walked arm in arm through the halls without a word. They slammed the cell door with the boom of a thunder-clap.

I set my back against the far wall and slid down to a hunker.

I heard the cops laughing in the other room, as they told the heroic tale of my arrest. I knew they were lying about what I had done, how viciously we had fought, how strong and smart and brave they had to be to finally best me.

I was going to cry out and deny their tale but I had eaten too many punches and not enough bread for one day.

All kinds of hellish thoughts started dancing around in my head.

Then I noticed something lying in the corner. Two matches, one crossed over the other. Like an X pirates would draw on their treasure maps. I reached out and picked them up and tested their heads with my thumb. They were dry. I rubbed my hand over the cell wall to feel if it had any grit.

There was. I pulled the cigarette from my pocket, straightened it, put it in my mouth and struck the match against the wall.

It caught right away.

I put the flame to the end of the cigarette. I inhaled deeply, and exhaled slowly through a creeping smile.

I figured my luck had just changed.

The cops woke me up with a boot in the shins. It seemed like I had just fallen asleep, but they barked it was morning and time for me to move on. The desk sergeant handed me a scowl, a release form to sign and a paper cup of bitter black coffee.

A girl walked towards the desk with a box of donuts. She opened the lid and offered her wares to the desk sergeant. I waited and sipped my coffee while the cop went through the hardest decision of his day.

The girl offered me the box and I took the first chocolate donut my hand fell on. I thanked them both for their hospitality and left the station.

I had a bounce in my step. The sugar and coffee helped, but it was mostly the feeling my luck had turned around. I wanted get started but Tony’s wouldn’t be open for another few hours, according to the clock I saw on my way out of the station.

I decided to take a stroll through the park. I figured it would be a nice change from the concrete box I slept in last night. I got a smoke from another bum I saw on my walk.

“Good spirits?” I asked.

He pulled a bottle from his pocket and offered it. I took a small slug, a morning slug, and thanked him kindly. He smiled and nodded and shuffled off some dark corner.

I walked through the park. Hell, I even caught myself whistling at one point. The sun had reached its daily peak, and I sat on a bench and soaked it in.

“Beautiful day isn’t it?” a small voice said to the left of me.

I looked over and squinted and couldn’t really see anything besides a shape, but it looked like a nice shape, so I smiled and agreed. And when the small voice asked if she could sit down on this bench, I shuffled over and let her the room.

The scent of violets crawled up my nose. It was familiar, reminded me of something. I had a feeling it was something I didn’t want to remember.

I asked the small shape beside me if she had the time. She did, it was just past noon. Tony’s would be open. I thanked her and got up and left the park. Out of the calm sun and into the stink and exhaust and hurry of the city streets.

I tried to find that bounce again, but my feet decided then wanted to drag. I needed a fistful of scratch and then a card game to double it.

I made my way down to Tall Tony’s. It was little more that a basement under a furniture store, but it was the only place left in town that didn’t lock the door when someone saw me coming.

The name of the place had to be some kind of joke, because even I had to duck to get in, and I’ve never seen anyone in there who answers to Tony. The bartender that night was a lumberjack of a woman named Evelyn. My luck was looking up, because dear old Evelyn always had a soft spot in her bark covered heart for me.

“Hello gorgeous,” I said, sitting on a wooden stool at the bar. “Still beating the men away with sticks?”

She giggled and poured me a thick drink of the premium whisky. I thanked her and sipped it slowly. It wouldn’t do to drink it down in one gulp, I needed a reason to stick around, and this would be the only drink I wouldn’t have to pay for.

There was another man sitting at the corner of the bar, his stack of bills and coins beside his almost empty highball glass. You could see the alcohol coming off of him and Evelyn hesitated when he put his finger up for another drink. She walked over and admonished him quietly, he mumbled something and pushed the money toward her. Evelyn shook her head and filled the glass with the house rye.

“Has Jimmy been in today” I asked.

“He’s in the back, setting up a game with a few other fellows.”

“I don’t imagine you could spot an old friend a few sawbucks so he could get back on his feet, could you darling?”

Evelyn stopped wiping down the glass in her hand and stared at me.

“I’m not to give you or anyone credit anymore,” she said. “Jimmy’s orders.”

“Is that any way to talk to an old friend,” I replied. “Besides, when have I ever not paid you back?”

She looked around and then pulled a wad of bills from her apron pocket. She quickly peeled two fives and ten ones from the pile and shoved it across the bar. She filled up my glass and took back two of the crumpled one dollar bills.

I nodded and thanked her. I put the money in my coat pocket, picked up my glass and made my way to the back room. I knocked on the door a gruff voice answered.

“Who the hell is it and what the hell do you want?” the voice said.

I told him who I was and that I wanted to get in the game. I could hear muffled talk, and then footsteps approaching. The bolt slid back and Jimmy stood in the doorway.

“I heard you got cleaned out last night,” he said. “Where’d you get the money?”

“An enterprising young man such as myself always has a few revenue options,” I told him.

He sneered and cursed Evelyn. But he stepped back from the door and let me in. I said hello to the three other men already seated at the table, and hung my coat on the hook behind the door. I sat down at the only available chair and changed fifteen dollars into chips.

After about an hour, I was up to sixty bucks. Jimmy wouldn’t stop mouthing off about me quitting while I was ahead and paying Evelyn back. I let his mouth run. It seemed like it needed the exercise.

After another twenty minutes I was down to twenty-five dollars. Jimmy started pushing me hard, and I was getting close to not taking it anymore. But I figured the best way to shut his crooked mouth would be to beat him, so I let him prattle on an on.

The three other players had folded or had already cashed out. I had a pair of nines and told myself not to throw them away this time. Jimmy must have had something worthwhile because he shut up for the first time all game.

The dealer threw down the flop. Queen of hearts, three of clubs, and the nine of clubs.

Jimmy raised to ten and I called.

Eight of diamonds was the turn. Jimmy bet another ten and I called him again. His forehead started to crease up, and my shirt was getting tight around my neck.

The river was the nine of hearts. Jimmy called and I bet my last five bucks, going all-in. He screwed his eyes up at me.

“You dirty son of bitch,” he said.

“No need to get nasty, now.” I said. “It is just a game after all.”

“Game my ass. I call, show your damn cards.”

I flipped my hand over and when he saw the two nines I held, murder flamed up in his eyes. He lunged over the table and grabbed at my shirt. I was just fast enough to slide back in my chair so that he laid on the table, clutching at thin air.

The other players picked him up off the table and set him in his chair.

“You cash out, and get out, and I don’t ever want to see you in here again,” he seethed.

I smiled at him and shrugged at the other players. I gathered my winnings, and counted them up. I had one hundred and ten dollars. I cashed out and thanked them for a great game. Jimmy sat there and mumbled.

I picked up my drink and grabbed my coat and wished them all a wonderful afternoon.

“Looks like you did alright,” Evelyn said as I emerged from the back room.

“My luck woke up,” I said, and handed her a twenty-dollar bill.

Read the original drafts here: Part 1, Part 2 & Part 3


2 thoughts on “Hard Luck Blues

  1. I loved the description of the cigarette being the coffin nail and the match becoming a toothpick carving of a blind person. Brilliant.

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