The Way of the World
The largest amoeba gobbles up the choicest protozoa. The strongest tiger brings down the tastiest prey. The mightiest man takes what he wants.
When Kenny could see the tabletop and Carla could not, he took her yellow sand bucket and shovel.
When his father came home, he whacked Kenny on the butt. “Don’t take things from your little sister!” The next day, Kenny took a sand bucket and shovel from the neighbor’s back yard.
When Kenny started school, there were many kids to play with at recess. The first day he lost all his cat’s eye marbles. After he bellyached so much, his father took him across the state line to a game store. Kenny picked out a steel-gray ringer, heavier than the other marbles. At school, Kenny won his marbles back and all the other marbles too.
When Kenny turned 14, he discovered girls. He liked to dance. He had a nice smile and dimples. It took him awhile, but he learned the less he talked, the more they liked him. Every chance he had, he traded up for a more desirable girl. It didn’t bother him that his last girl no longer liked him. He no longer liked them either.
When Kenny was elected treasurer of the junior class, there was four hundred dollars in the prom kitty. Kenny celebrated with drinks and cheroots. Returning home, he found the doors locked, the lights off, and the doorbell disconnected. He’d been through this before.
When he walked over to the pool hall, the only place still open, he went to the backroom where there was a 5-card stud game. At 4 in the morning, Sweet Al told Kenny to take his last dollar and go home. Kenny said he couldn’t. Sweet Al said, “You can sleep on the cot in the kitchen. I like bacon and eggs on toast at noon.”
When the other kids graduated high school, Kenny laughed at them. He had money in his pocket and girls enough, the gaming circuit overflow. One day a young preppy wanted to buy into the poker table. Kenny taunted him, “Sure and I’ll teach you chemistry, college boy. I’ll turn your money into shit.”
When Kenny was 25, he met a pretty woman in one of Sweet Al’s legit enterprises. He took Margaret to dinners, to movies, to concerts, to the moon. They took an apartment together. Kenny expected everyday to be paradise.
When he lost to her at tennis, he called it a sissy game. If his team lost in baseball, he sulked until his second double screwdriver. After a loss in chess, he fumed and as the alcohol kicked in, he would strike out at everyone. Margaret made her goodbye decision then.
When the state law permitted parlor gambling, Kenny dealt every weekend night at the community center Sweet Al took over. The clientele tended from middle-aged to oldsters, enticing a few young sharks to cull the herd. Kenny stayed juiced enough to forget Margaret. He enjoyed fleecing ham-and-eggers into betting all their cash. His trickery paid for hobbies and vices.
When Sweet Al sent Kenny on a Vegas trip, Kenny hopped into his car and drove away, stopping on the roadside for catnaps and to roll joints. His sleep cycle meshed well with casino rhythm. He decided to stay. The older women liked when he smiled and didn’t talk. They didn’t mind picking up the tab for the night on the town. He dropped hints that he would be moving. He lied about his past. The less they knew, the more freedom he gained.
When a sharply dressed female player opened with two hundred at his table, Kenny focused on her. The local table limit was one hundred. She thanked him for ignoring the house limit. After she left a big winner, his tip included her cell phone number.
When the Bellagio pit boss saw her by Kenny’s side, the man nodded more often than in Kenny’s previous tries for jobs dealing on the Strip. Kenny used her silver Mustang to get from her condo to work. Often, she’d drive the Caddy in later, play at another table, and wait for him to get off.
When he asked the pit boss one night to extend his hours, Kenny told her he couldn’t leave. Shortly after she left, he took breakfast alone at a timbered bar near Red Rock. He visited his favorite one-arm bandit at the gas station off Sahara. Kenny waited until morning at Nevis. Jets practiced touchdowns and liftoffs. He smoked joints and quieted coughing spells with sips of Absolut.
When he arrived late for his Bellagio stint after missing a shift, the pit boss didn’t care about his tale of stomach pain. Kenny was told to pack up his things. The sharply dressed female card player sat at a far table with her poker face. He knew she was behind it. He stopped at her place, grabbed his clothes and stash, and took off in her silver Mustang heading south and east.
When the Big Bend came into view a long ride later, with his coke vial empty, his stomach rising, and his head falling, Kenny pulled over. Later he awoke, mad that another woman screwed up his good thing. He took a piss that hurt as much as holding it had. He ate an evening omelet with three cigarettes and a screwdriver. Revived, Kenny realized the bitch might report him for his little joyride.
When Kenny returned the car to her lot, he walked to the Rattlesnake Club, a place with 50 machines and an occasional poker game. He got the job by agreeing to every stupid rule. Why would he care? Rules were meant to be broken. Fortunately, it was rare for Strip people to drop into neighborhood joints. He smiled and nodded through the interview, hiding his thoughts. Not too many days later, a lonely widow, not too pretty, nor too rich, just right for him, gave up the slots and sat at his table.
When the lonely widow morphed into an unhappy McMansion mistress, Kenny continued to pick up enough work and side money to scrape by. One predawn on a break in the rest room, his right kidney killing him, he lit up a cheroot. He was nodding off when its ash caught the trash can on fire. The fire alarm woke him. He escaped but the casino burned down. He lost his gig. His stash was a bit shy of two thousand. A poker couple he recently met joined him outside. He dribbled out his sad luck story. Kenny had made them as easy marks on first sight. They invited him to short-order cook at their dude ranch near Biloxi until he got a dealing job on a riverboat. He accepted.
When he staggered away from the shipboard poker table after dealing just an hour, heading for the john, he knew he couldn’t continue until the pain subsided. The Biloxi doctor said kidney disease. Kenny bragged he would beat it. He beat odds all his life. He denied that dialysis was necessary, since he couldn’t afford even one good flush.
When Kenny drove the couple’s SUV along the Mississippi on a late November night, he yelled at the sky. He only had one play left. The tires lost their grip on the road. Margaret made her last visit to his mind.
The price of winning every exchange is never winning happiness.
Cover image of poker table. Marce Grez from Santiago, Chile, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons