Gambling with Angel
I watch the ignorance of his contenders, absorbed in his disguise. It is as if he has re-arranged his personality, shifting rows of dark pieces to the front.
Five sit around the table, though only four converse. They exchange probing questions and laughter while competing for dominance of the group. Their vies wrestle with the friction of a thousand machines, all ringing, clinking and dinging in a pulsing requiem, entrancing the mindless and the dead with the delights of undeserved fortunes.
The fifth on the table, a dark-skinned Spaniard, slumps in his chair. He forces back offers of conversation with silent contempt. His navy-blue turtleneck is zipped to the top, forcing his wiry beard to spill out over the collar. He pulls his Scally cap forward so it sits low on his head, so low that I can barely see his eyes – though I know what they look like. Bagged and bloodshot, their moist lenses have surely flickered over by now, the pupils dilating as the snake appears.
His head remains still as the green eyes peer from beneath his shadow. They roam the table with precision, cold and calculated like the barrel of a gun. The dealer, watching the clock, turns to the table and begins the match. The cards are dealt and the players rush for their hands, exchanging furtive glances as their minds busy.
The Spaniard breathes slow, calm, stoic; poker is as much about the cards as it is about your character. I know this because he told me this. He stands, unzips his jacket and hangs it on the back of his chair. Upon returning to his seat the players notice the white flaky crust, a second skin, spread from his elbows to his hands.
As a metronome ticks, the Spaniard repeats: raise edge of cards, replace them, lean chair back, pull cap forward, do not feel, do not tense, do not animate. Do this every round. Pattern maintains ambiguity, ambiguity maintains control.
I walk out of the poker room and into the car park. I can see that he doesn’t want me there and I am eager to oblige. The acre of bitumen is drenched in squinting white from 12 whirring floodlights, destroying the illusion of night. I walk through a shadow and look up to a monstrous billboard. White and brown greyhounds are caught in time upon its surface, muzzled, with numbers on their back. I follow it.
I want to romanticise my Bukowski self-image. I want to punish my bank account, whip its back, hear it scream, reassert my dominance in our master-slave relationship. Besides, gambling is a process, not a product.
You see, I have a 20-dollar share in the Spaniard, or Angel as they call him.
“Ju pronance Angel like Ankel, ya know?” he jests, pointing to his ankle with each person he meets. I own twenty dollars of Angel’s hundred-dollar buy in, and therefore one fifth of his prize money. First prize is ten thousand. Angel has assured me that he has won many times before.
At Caesar’s Palace, he and his friends shared a payout of $30, 000. In San Francisco a modest $5000 was divided by three. I have witnessed Angel haggle often – for life jackets, EPIRBSs, flares – our friendship born out of joint ownership of a sailboat. His calculated pleasure is a gift to my side. I without money, he without empathy, we squeeze every dollar out of every deal we make. Many times his eyes have flickered over and he has won: whether we save two dollars or fifty, the size of the kill is irrelevant.
That afternoon, following a grimy day’s work on the boat, siliconing windows to prevent leaks, we showered in neighbouring stalls. I came out clean while he remained dirty.
“The ignorant Americans will think I am a wetback and they will think they are much stronger competitors,” he said.
At the track, I buy a beer, put five dollars on the dog with the fastest name and sit down on a grey metal bench. Thousands of unpaid tickets scatter the floor while only a handful of punters remain. These are the pitied low-lives, the drunks and the ruined, the manic depressives, American scourge. Their wet mouths, all dripping with anticipation, ugly hope that the next dog is the ticket out of their dread, hope that lil’ old Norma Stitz, Jackolantern or Runya Beach can drag their raw, fleshy desperation towards untold happiness, or even a quick OD.
I light up a cigarette and inhale the depravity. Spending time with losers, not in conversation, but in space, contents those who rely on others. I sip my beer as the greyhounds pounce from their stocks. My hound, desperate for victory, immediately lunges into a two yard lead. The stands’ silence as sweaty hands crumple tickets. A firm palm on my shoulder interrupts my drool; it’s Angel.
“Where ‘ave ju bin dude, I lost my first hand, I ‘ave bin looking everywhere in casino for ju. I very unlucky, I should ‘ave won but that fat man and his dumb luck. If ju provide me another twenty I can buy back in and make us the money.”
I look up to the track and see my dog falling behind, worn out by his hasty break.
“Okay – I need to come in and use the ATM though.”
“No, no, no it is okay,” he says, “I will record with what ju already owe me okay, okay, I go win us the money now.”
He runs back up the steep slope and out of the track. Angel is a hustler, a gambler, a fiend and a friend. I have confidence that he will win. We have an unnatural trust, crudely welded by our boat, mutated by optimism, a trust that is resistant to fear, to stress, to analysis – our cramped thirty-foot sloop leaves no room for suspicion.
My dog places third. I walk to the machine and feed it the ticket, despite knowing that I bet on a win and have won nothing. SORRY YOU HAVE LOST flashes on the screen, accompanied by a sullen tone. I hesitate at the machine, pondering where to spend the few remaining coins in my pocket.
Angel will win, I decide, and head back to the bar for another drink.
Cover by Elena Margherita Colli