Mark Fink
Encino, California

The wad of Sour Apple gum was baking to a near boil on the sidewalk of Las Vegas Boulevard. Hundreds of people and twice that many shoes walked ever so close to the sticky land mine, but none had made contact. Their soles would be safe for another day. This piece of gum had Arnie Chupak’s name on it.

In his thirty-six years Arnie Chupak had stepped in more than his share of gum. Peculiar, considering that this was a man who usually walked with his head down, eyes peeled for coins, casino chips, or the occasional mother lode, the errant twenty that had slipped out of an unzipped wallet or an overstuffed pants pocket.

Arnie was just trying to get a little back. Life had pretty much pissed on him and he was due. Of course, what gambler didn’t think he was due? Arnie liked to refer to himself as a professional gambler, if anyone asked. He wouldn’t dare tell people that he was the night manager of the Casbah Motel. The blinking neon sign advertised a desert oasis, but the Casbah was a fleabag of a dozen rooms a mile from the Strip. It may as well have been light years. The lobby had a leather couch peppered with cigarette burns, a leaky ice machine and no concierge. Its one saving grace was that it was lit only by a sixty-watt bulb.

He worked the graveyard shift, a front row seat to a parade of human flotsam and jetsam: hookers, johns, addicts and runaways. He was on a first-name basis with the police who invariably showed up three nights a week, in which case Arnie would give his eye-witness account of the latest assault or drug deal gone bad. He was becoming very adept at anticipating the officers’ questions, even using their vernacular. All this for two hundred and twenty a week, but he was paid in cash. And cash was the only thing this town understood.

Each day when his shift ended Arnie walked the six bocks to his one-room apartment and began his daytime routine. He took a long shower to rid his every pore of the stench of the job. Breakfast was eaten standing at the kitchen counter, flipping through the morning news shows on his thirteen-inch TV. A couple of bowls of Cocoa Puffs and a raspberry pop tart would keep him fueled until dinner and eliminate the needless expense of lunch.

This hour at home was Arnie’s favorite time of the day. Like his hero, Clark Kent, he underwent a transformation, not quite into Superman, but a significant change nonetheless. He had to shed the psychic skin of a loser desk clerk and will himself into becoming a Professional Gambler. He started with fifteen minutes of meditation, a journey during which he visualized himself as a whole other person: Winner Arnie. Taxpayer Arnie. Husband Arnie. Once his mind was fortified, he turned to his body with multiple sets of sit-ups and free weights that kept him at a lean one-thirty-seven. Budgeting only two meals a day didn’t hurt either.

But the best part of being Clark Kent was putting on Superman’s uniform. Arnie loved getting into his Professional Gambler clothes. The pleated black pants that cost him half a week’s salary were holding up well. He could choose between three knit shirts, depending on his mood and which one was clean. Thank God for the Neiman Marcus after-Christmas sale. The black leather belt studded with silver was his proudest possession. It was left in one of his motel rooms by a pimp with impeccable taste. Go figure.

He checked himself in the mirror. He looked good. If only he had the shoes. His black loafers were smart and serviceable, but at forty-eight dollars from Sears, that’s all they’d ever be. He couldn’t justify paying any more for shoes right now. When he hit it big he promised himself ten pairs of those soft Italian shoes at five hundred a pop.

Minutes later he walked down the strip affecting the Professional Gambler swagger. A professional gambler whose drug store sunglasses were no match against the glare bouncing off the mirrored hotel windows. That was another thing he promised himself: expensive sunglasses—cool ones like Jack Nicholson wears. Bleary-eyed tourists were coming out of nowhere on their way to the breakfast buffets. An overweight man aiming a video camera stopped short in front of Arnie, forcing him into a quick sidestep, right onto the melting piece of gum.

“Thanks, asshole,” Arnie said, dragging his sticky shoe over to the nearest bus bench. He took off the shoe and surveyed the damage as the stale odor of Sour Apple crept up his nostrils. This was the mother of all gum wads—some kid probably chewing six pieces at once. It was times like this when Arnie wished he owned a credit card. Instead he settled for a plastic action figure lying in a box of a half-eaten Happy Meal. He scraped for a good five minutes, removing all but little specs of the gum which would eventually rub off against the friction of the sidewalk. Arnie couldn’t help wonder if gum scraped off more easily from a five hundred dollar shoe. In the scope of things it was a minor inconvenience but it threw him off schedule.

The schedule was important. It was part of the discipline required and practiced by highly successful people. At least that’s what the book said. Arnie knew the book by heart. He had a clear goal and had mapped out his plan. The only thing he’d need was a little luck, but that was coming. He was due.

His goal was to cash out of Vegas, eighty-six this hell hole and never return. To do this he would have to win big, some serious “fuck you” money, which Arnie calculated to be a least five hundred thou after taxes. The only way to win that kind of money betting his kind of money was to play a mega jackpot slot machine, a machine advertising a huge progressive payoff, based on the amount previously dropped into it by the hopeful masses. This was the Holy Grail, a quest that would lead him to the Bellagio Hotel. But patience was a virtue and the ritual had to be followed.

Staked with fifty dollars—twenty-five in each pocket—Arnie’s first stop was the Boardwalk Casino, a dying breed, a mom and pop store in a town where monolithic hotels housed casinos larger than high schools. No high rollers here, thank you, just working stiffs and college boys eager to try their luck and suck down as many free drinks as their stakes would allow. Arnie, all business, was here for a more practical reason, the two-dollar table. The fancy hotels had raised the bar all over town, and it was nearly impossible to find a table without a ten-dollar minimum. It was a law of nature: Guys with fifty bucks in two different pockets couldn’t play at ten-dollar tables.

Emptying the contents of his right pants pocket, Arnie bought in for his customary twenty-five dollars. He would play until one of two things happened: he lost the money, or he built the stake into seventy-five dollars. In the rare event of the latter, he would cash out and transfer the money to his left pocket, taking the hundred dollars and his shit-eating grin to the Bellagio Hotel. If he lost he would still go to the Bellagio, minus the extra seventy-five and the grin. This would give him only twenty-five plays at the mega slot, but Arnie believed that Lady Luck was blind and it only took one little dollar to change your life forever.

He was a good blackjack player, at least compared to the typical mark who gave his money away out of stupidity or carelessness. He played defensively, always splitting and doubling down when called for, and never giving in to hunch or whim. At two bucks a hand it could be a grinding game, where, after two hours, you could still be even. You could also be broke in five minutes.

This morning the blackjack gods were smiling and the cards were falling his way. The majority of hands dealt him were eighteen or better, and the dealer was busting with regularity. It didn’t take long before he was betting three bucks a hand, then five. He accumulated seventy-five dollars quicker than ever and had to steel himself against the temptation of going for a few hundred. Walk away. Eyes on the prize. He cashed in, proud of his discipline, and transferred the winnings to his left pocket.

He had the grin. However the day ended, winning at blackjack had its immediate rewards. For starters he would spring for a bus to the Bellagio. Sitting straight up in his seat sucking up all the air conditioning he could, he would close his eyes and allow himself the luxury of “what if?” What if I win? The fantasy always started the same way: The magical three sevens appearing on the slot machine, bells ringing and lights flashing, the rush of casino personnel and security, the popping of the flashbulbs, the crowd of people thrusting forward, pointing, screaming, mouths falling open. The best part was the looks on their faces—a range of shock, joy, envy and downright hatred.

He would spend that night at the best suite in the hotel, even if they didn’t cover it, which they probably would. He’d take a luxury cruise and sail around the world while he contemplated the rest of his new life. He’d probably buy a small service business—hardware store, maybe a Kinko’s—somewhere in New England, preferably close to the ocean. He’d plant roots, join the Kiwanis, sponsor a Little League team, and, yes, meet a girl. Kids would follow. It wasn’t too late. Hell, he was just getting started.

The bus jerked to a stop across the street from the Bellagio and Arnie got out along with the maids and the busboys going to work. He was going to work himself, not exactly punching a time clock, but still putting in seven days a week doing the best job he could. With a hundred-dollar bounce in his step, Arnie walked up the long sidewalk to the Bellagio Hotel, marveling at its stunning Italian façade. The Bellagio was the crown jewel of Vegas hotels, an architectural wonder in a landscape of schlocky excess. If any place in Vegas had class, Arnie thought, this place was it. When he hit it big, he wanted to hit it big here.

Entering the casino he was hit by a gust of cooled air that heightened his senses. Unlike the other massive casinos, this one had a certain calm to it. The slot machines were distributed in such a way as to minimize their noise level. There were open spaces, abundant landscaping and tasteful appointments; Feng Shui in the land of Sodom and Gomorrah. But it was the clientele that was different. No clenched jaws, no bloodshot eyes, they were polite, well scrubbed and in no hurry. And they all wore nice shoes.

In his heart of hearts he knew he didn’t belong here, but somehow Arnie felt at home. After all, it was his office. Belong or not, the egalitarian dollar slots didn’t care whose hand dropped in a coin, how that hand was manicured, or what jewelry adorned its fingers.

His heart started to race as he approached the row of mega slots. The digital tote board above flashed the latest jackpot: $1,363,221. Oh yeah, I can get by on that. Arnie felt good, real good. Not only did he have a hundred shots at this today, but his luck had been dismal lately, which could only mean one thing. He was due.

From the corner of his eye Arnie saw her coming toward him. Cindy was not just a cocktail waitress, she was his cocktail waitress. He considered her a friend. On the wrong side of thirty, her undersized breasts pushed up by what had to be a hydraulic bra, Cindy was just pretty enough. Wearing the fatigue of an eight-hour shift, she still had that sparkle in her eye and a sexy huskiness to her voice, a byproduct of too much small talk and enough second-hand cigarette smoke to kill an ox.

She had his juice waiting on her tray—not the canned stuff she served everyone else, but the fresh-squeezed orange that she had to procure from room service. The orange juice was the only perk in Arnie’s life and he showed his appreciation with his only extravagance, a five-dollar tip. You couldn’t put a price on how it made him feel.

“Hey, babe, how’s your morning?”

“Good. I’m gonna be here a while,” Arnie said.

“A hundred dollar day. Way to go, Arnie.”

He loved when she called him by his name. She was the only one in this town who did.

“So, where we playing today, Cindy?” The “we” was no figure of speech. After eight hours of patrolling the area, Cindy would guide Arnie to the slot that had paid off the least, the one dry machine that just might be due. Arnie had a standing promise to give her ten per cent when he hit the big one. Cindy thought it was sweet of him. But she had heard more than her share of promises.

“I think we’re looking at number six, Arnie. Some Asian woman must have pumped seven, eight hundred into it last night Not a nibble.”

“Six it is,” Arnie said. “What would I do without you?”

“You’d be drinking crappy juice for starters.” Cindy laughed and he realized that this was a girl who didn’t laugh a lot. How he wished he could spring her from this job and take her to a better place. A place where they could laugh.

He took up his position on the chair in front of number six, the sixth mega slot from the left in the row of ten. Cindy signaled for the change girl and Arnie bought a hundred shiny slot dollars. Most people who played theses machines used a slot credit card and never got their hands dirty. But Arnie was old school—he liked to drop in the dollars, one by one. It was part of the job; if you’re going to be paid a million bucks, you should at least put in a little effort.

So Arnie Chupak went to work. He carefully unwrapped his four rolls of Bellagio dollars, emptying them into a large plastic tub. He took out one coin at a time, and before dropping it into the slot, made sure it was turned the right way, tails side up. “Tails never fails”, Arnie believed, and he wasn’t about to screw with superstition.

The mega slot was fairly simple. There were no cherries or plums, or annoying cartoon characters that wasted your time paying back two coins. The jackpots were designated by a series of black bars—from one to four—which had to appear straight across the center line. To win the mega jackpot, three red sevens had to come up. The sevens appeared frequently, but only one or two at a time, usually nullifying a smaller win.

Arnie fed the machine diligently with his usual patience. He hit a few small jackpots, one for a hundred, buying him more time and more chances. It was the ultimate tease. Sticking to his game plan, he would pocket any jackpot over five hundred, using that money for monthly necessities. Once, he won a thousand dollars and treated himself to a bus tour of the Grand Canyon. He wanted desperately to ask Cindy to come along, but couldn’t summon the courage.

After forty minutes he was down to his last twelve dollars. It was amazing how fast it went. Cindy came over with another orange juice and didn’t have to ask how things were going. He had the slouched shoulders and the forced smile, like the kid on Christmas Day who opens the big bright box only to find school clothes.

“I’m out of here, Arnie.”

“And I’m not that far behind you,” he said.

“You can’t beat these guys,” she said, throwing up her hands.

“Norman did,” Arnie said, pointing to the blown up photograph above. One Norman Solo of Saginaw, Michigan was holding a huge cardboard check for over two million dollars. The elderly man looked like he’d seen his own ghost.

“I wonder what he’s doing right now,” Cindy said. “See you tomorrow, babe.”

“You take care, sweetie.” Arnie only wished he could take care of her himself.

A few minutes later he put in his last dollar, raising himself up from the chair. The tumblers spun around and the first seven clicked into place. Been there, done that. When the next seven came up, his heart skipped a beat, never before seeing two in a row. The third seven stopped his breathing cold. It slowed down, fell in line with the other two, then clicked one final time, falling to the line below. He bit hard into his lip and broke out in a cold sweat. Son of a bitch. How did it know?

Arnie walked away, trying to tell himself that close calls like that were part of the game, nothing personal here, it’s all just dumb luck. In fact, if there was anything at all like gambling karma, this would probably make his chances even better. He’d be more due.

He tasted blood on his lip and wiped it off. These slot machines were getting dangerous. He walked past the crap tables and stopped for a moment, watching the carefree people toss around hundred dollar chips like they were candy. It was time to get out of there.

Coming up the aisle toward him were two burly security guards, each holstering a large caliber gun, and pushing a cart stacked with money. Metal boxes of coins and chips formed the bottom layer, covered by several layers of tightly bundled bills. He couldn’t fathom a guess as to how much money was rolling by, but it had to be a shitload. The thought occurred to him that it would probably be easier to knock off these guys and get away with the money, than ever hitting those three damn sevens. The guard closest to him flashed a look that said “Don’t even think about it.” Boy, these guys are good.

Arnie kept walking, picking up his pace. He was fifty feet from the exit when he heard the first shot. He wheeled around to see one of the guards on the floor, bleeding profusely. The other guard, the guy who gave him the look, was crouched behind the cart taking cover. Arnie heard screams as people dove for the floor. Then, behind a bank of slot machines, he saw two men in ski masks. Another shot. One of the ski masks hit the ground. Arnie couldn’t move, frozen with fear—or was it fascination? It was like a TV movie, except it was real life. And real death.

When this finally registered somewhere in the recesses of his brain, Arnie realized that he better take cover. But, as with every other big decision that preceded this moment in his life, his timing was lousy. Just as he started to dive for the floor, the remaining security guard was hit with a bullet to the stomach. As the man went down, he valiantly got off one last shot. The bullet struck before Arnie heard the sound. For several seconds the pain at the base of his skull was like nothing he ever felt. Lying motionless on the Bellagio carpet, the only thing he would remember later was the dirty wad of gum inches from his face.

Room 317 in the Desert Springs Hospital was larger than most. Propped up in a special bed like a mannequin, Arnie stared straight ahead as he listened to the whirring of the respirator that kept him alive. The .45 caliber bullet shattered his first cervical vertebrae, rendering everything below his shoulders useless. The doctors called it a classic C-1. In laymen’s terms you were classically fucked.

Forty-six days had passed since he was brought in unconscious. There had been machines, tubes and monitors, but no cards or flowers. He did have his share of visitors. On the sixth day, when he came out of the coma, the first lawyer appeared. A parade of others would follow, each toting business cards, condolences and promises. Arnie chose the one with the nicest shoes. He was a cherubic fellow who drove in from Salt Lake City on a tip from his nephew who was an orderly on the floor. His lawyer tried hard and meant well, but the Bellagio Hotel had a team of lawyers—with really nice shoes. After the customary posturing, Arnie’s life, or what was left of it, was valued at a million, five.

He tilted his head slightly to catch a glimpse of the TV. Some shrink on Oprah was talking about taking charge of your life. Of all the indignities he suffered, there was one he would never get used to: there was way too much time to think.

He thought of Christopher Reeve and how he wrote him a “get well” card when he heard about his accident. Reeve never wrote back, but how could he when he was receiving five thousand pieces of mail a week? He thought of Cindy, the one person in the world who might be missing him. Was she? And what the hell could she be thinking right now? Amazingly, he never thought about sex, working, or even combing his own hair. But what he wouldn’t give to step on just one more piece of gum.

Mercifully, his thoughts were interrupted when his Filipino attendant entered the room. There were respirator hoses to clean and waste bags to change. It was past three o’clock. He was due.