Excerpt | “The Fix” by Robert Downs
The taste of liquor still lingered on his lips. Six months without a drink, and he had the chip to prove it. His eyes were downcast, the table was green felt, and his wooden seat jammed the lower part of his back. The overhead light was dim, and he had his hat pulled down over his eyes. Johnny Chapman had lost three hands in a row, and he didn’t want to lose a fourth.
The Indian sat across from him with his hands folded across his chest, wearing dark sunglasses in a dark room, his hair shaved close to his head, and a tooth missing near his front. He cracked his knuckles between hands and even once during. The sound bounced off the walls in the closet of a room.
“Well, what’s it gonna be?” Thomas Kincaid asked. “I ain’t got all night.” His lips formed a sneer before he took a long pull on a dark drink. His eyes flicked in every direction except straight ahead.
“Don’t rush me.”
“If you move any slower, we’ll both be looking up at the daisies,” Thomas replied. He looked at his two cards for what must have been the third time.
Johnny sucked his lip between his teeth, flashed his eyes once toward the ceiling, and flipped a chip onto the deck. The roar in his ears nearly pulled him away from the hand, but the click of the ceiling fan managed to hold his attention. The darkness helped with his focus as well.
The girl sat across from him, dark hair drifting to-ward her shoulders and even a bit beyond. Teeth as white as a bowl of rice. A drop of moisture near her upper lip entered the equation. Her T-shirt bunched out at the front, and her eyes were as cold as Alaska. She played her cards close to her chest, and her bets were even. For the most part. She managed to toss in a few extra chips when she had a hand. But she was a straight shooter and hadn’t bluffed once. Johnny knew it was coming, though. He just didn’t know when. Even if he managed to run like hell, she’d probably still clip him at the ankles. Her chip stack sat more than a third higher than his own.
She had a good smile. That one. Not too much of the pearly whites, but just enough for a man to take notice. The words on her chest accentuated her assets. Tight, clean, and turquoise—the T-shirt, not her breasts.
Johnny’s eyes flicked to his watch, and his phone buzzed in his pocket. The alarm. His leg vibrated for a second more and then it stopped.
It was almost time. The medication. It took the edge off, and stopped his mind from racing off to infinity and beyond. The man with the dark rims and the white lab coat prescribed it in a room bigger than the one he was in now. If he didn’t take his meds in the next ten minutes, the headaches would start soon after.
The ceiling fan whirred again. The backroom was stale and damp, the casino out on the edge of the reservation with nothing but tumbleweed and small trees for over a mile. Diagonally opposite from the little shithole that he called home for the past several years. The run-down piece of trash with the broken Spanish shingles, cracked stucco, and clouded windows.
Seconds turned over, one after another, and still there was no movement from the Indian to his right. Lapu Sinquah flipped his sunglasses up, and dragged them back down, but not before his eyes looked around the table. The Indian made a face and flipped two chips onto the green felt.
The girl was next. She scratched her forehead. Her expression remained neutral. When Caroline Easton flipped her head, her hair remained out of her eyes. Her look resembled cold, hard steel. She followed the Indian with a two-chip flip.
Thomas tossed his cards away, and it was back to Johnny. He felt it: an all-consuming need to win this hand…and the next one…and the one after. Desire consumed him, after all. Or maybe it didn’t.
The hand that got away. The hand that consumed him, pushed him over the edge, and had him calling out in the middle of the night. One voice. One concentrated effort before the moment passed him by. He couldn’t imagine losing, ending up with nothing. Bankrupt.
This minute reasoning had him playing cards night after night, hand after hand, reading player after player. Moment after moment. Until the moments were sick and twisted and filled with jagged edges and punctured with pain. Or left him dead and buried on the side of the road in a ditch with half of his face missing.
The winning streak wouldn’t last. It’d be gone again. Like a sound carried away by the breeze in the middle of a forgotten forest. This time, he wouldn’t fold too soon. This time, he’d play it differently.
The one that got away. The pot in the middle that would have covered three month’s rent. But he tossed his cards aside, even though he’d been staring at the winning hand for damn near three minutes.
His eyes flicked to each of the three players before he once more peeled his cards back from the table and slid the two spades to the side.
The Indian glared at him through the darkness and his dark sunglasses. “Well?” Lapu asked. “What the fuck, man?”
Johnny tossed his shoulders up in the air. “I’m out.”
“Just like that?” Caroline’s long dark hair whipped around her head.
“Sure, why not?”
The Indian rubbed his shaved head. “You’re one crazy motherfucker.”
Johnny shrugged. “I never claimed to be sane.”
The ceiling fan whirred faster, clicking every five seconds. The air was heavy and suffocating, and he yanked on his collar with his index finger. Two drinks were drunk, and a glass clinked against a tooth. One chair slid back and another moved forward.
“There’s over two grand in the pot,” Lapu said.
Johnny gave a slight tilt of his head. “And I know when to walk away.”
The Indian jerked to his feet and extended a finger away from his chest. “It was your raise that started this shitstorm.”
“True,” Johnny said. “And now I’m going to end it.”
Caroline combed her hair with her fingers. “You haven’t ended anything.”
“I’d rather have that as my downfall than lose it all to you nitwits.”
Caroline smirked. Her white teeth glinted against the light overhead. “Who made you queen of the land?”
“I’d like to think it sort of came up on me,” Johnny said. “It sort of took me by surprise. Existence is futile.”
The Indian smirked. His stained teeth were nearly the color of his skin. “Futility won’t help you now.”
The hand was between the girl and the Indian. Her assets versus his. One smirk versus another. The sun-glasses were down, and both the movements and expressions were calculated. Chips were tossed, and the last card was flipped. Caroline took the pot, and her cold expression never wavered.
A ten-minute break ensued. Johnny used the bath-room, washed his hands, shoved two pills into his mouth, cupped his hands underneath the spout, sucked water from his palms, dunked his hands underneath the liquid once more, and splashed the water on his face. He grimaced at his own reflection, the dark, sunken eyes. He sucked in air and dried his hands. His shoes clicked on the broken tile on his way out the door.
His chips hadn’t moved, and neither had the table. The stack of chips was smaller than when he started this game. As the losses mounted, his amount of breathing room decreased. His longest losing streak was thirteen hands in a row.
The blinds were doubled, and his mind numbed. Compassion was a long forgotten equation, and sympathy wasn’t far behind.
The conversation picked up again, and the Indian perfected a new glare. “I never heard so much chatting over a game of cards.”
“It’s not just a game,” Thomas said. “Now, is it?” One dark drink was replaced with another, and the man’s eyes glazed over.
The girl tapped her wrist with two fingers and flipped her hair. “I think we’re already past the point of sanity.”
“If there was ever a point, it was lost—”
“I had a few points of my own that were somehow hammered home.” Johnny flipped three chips into the pot in one smooth motion. He had a hand, and he was determined to play it, even if he had to stare down the girl and the Indian at the same time.
“The game of life succeeds where you might have failed,” Lapu said.
Thomas knocked back the remainder of yet another drink. “I don’t accept failure.”
Johnny’s eyes flicked to his wrist. “You don’t accept success either.”
“Why do you keep looking at your watch?” Thomas asked. “Are you late for a date?”
The girl called and tossed three chips into the pot with only a slight hesitation. She had a hand, or she wanted to make it appear as such. Her lips moved less and less, and her eyes moved more and more. Her features were clearly defined.
Johnny kept his expression even.
“You’re not late for anything that I’ve seen,” Caro-line said.
Both the Indian and Thomas folded.
“I’d like to take you out back and shoot you.”
“Would that somehow solve the majority of your problems?” the Indian asked.
Johnny nodded. “It might solve a few.”
“Or,” she said, “then again, it might not.”
The last card was flipped, and bets were tossed into the center of the pot. Johnny raised, and Caroline countered with a raise of her own. He called, flipped his cards over, and his straight lost to her flush. Half of his stack disappeared in one hand. He ground his teeth and chewed his bottom lip.
“I don’t like you,” Johnny said.
Her expression was colder than Anchorage. “You never liked me.”
“There might have been mutual respect, but that ship sailed out into the great beyond and smacked an iceberg.”
“Does not equal acceptance,” Johnny said.
“It will keep you up most nights,” the Indian said.
Determined not to lose again, Johnny kept his eyes on the prize and his dwindling stack of chips. The girl to his right had never flashed a smile, and now her stack of chips was nearly three times the size of his own. His eyes flicked to his wrist once more, and he grimaced.
For several moments, the ceiling fan took up all the sound in the room.
His breath hiccupped in his chest, and he swayed in his chair. The wood jammed against his lower back, and the angry green felt kept an even expression. His mouth moved, but no sound escaped from between his lips.
He fell out of his chair and cracked his head on the carpet. For the next few minutes, he drifted in and out of consciousness.
“Did his heart just stop?” Lapu asked.
Thomas leaned across the table. “What the hell are we talking about now?”
Lapu stood up. “I think that fucker passed out.”
“Which fucker?” Caroline’s chest pressed hard enough against her shirt to slow down her blood flow. Her eyes narrowed, but her hand was steady.
“The one that was losing.”
“That’s all you fuckers.” She tapped her tongue against her upper lip. “You’re all losing.”
Lapu shoved his chair back. “I don’t like losing.”
“But you do it so well.”
Thomas’s body shifted in his chair. “Not on purpose.”
The ceiling fan stopped, and the walls trapped all remnants of sound. One beat of silence was followed by another.
Lapu moved first. He slapped two fingers to Johnny’s wrist and checked for a pulse. The heartbeat was low and weak and arrhythmic.
“What do we do now?” Caroline asked. “Have you got a plan?”
Thomas stood up and sat back down again.
“Cayenne pepper and apple cider vinegar,” Lapu said. “Both have the potential to reduce the effects of arrhythmia.”
She pointed. “Or maybe he has pills in his pocket.”
Lapu nodded. “That is also an option. Check his pockets while I prop up his head.”
“I need another drink,” Thomas said. “I’d rather not be sober if a man is going to die.”
Caroline rolled her eyes. “Don’t be so melodramatic.”
Lapu had watched his father die with a look on his face not that far from the one Johnny wore now: the lost eyes and the still body, with his spirit on the verge of leaving this world for the next. Lapu poked through his pockets in a methodical fashion and found a prescription bottle with a half-peeled label. He popped the top, poked his finger through the slot, and removed two pills. He peeled Johnny’s lips apart, shoved the pills inside his mouth, and forced him to swallow. Minutes later, his life force had altered considerably, and color had returned to Johnny’s cheeks.
Lapu nodded his head. “There’s a purpose to every-thing.”
Thomas leaned over and slapped Johnny on the cheek. “I believe in the possibilities of a situation. Those moments that lead from one into the next, filled with passion and compassion and equality, and some other shit.”
Caroline smirked. “Which is what exactly?”
“Not losing another hand.”
Johnny inched his way to a sitting position and slapped his forehead. “Fuck me—”
“Not likely,” Caroline said. “It neither looks enjoy-able nor promising, but that’s a nice try, though.”
“Your perspective has gotten skewed,” Thomas re-plied.
“That’s certainly possible,” she said, “but I wouldn’t be so sure.”
More hands were played, and more hands were lost. Johnny’s stack of chips diminished faster until he was left with two red ones and half a drink. His even expression had vanished long ago, and his feet had started tap-ping during the last three hands. The Indian had six chips to Johnny’s two, and the rest were distributed between Thomas and Caroline, with the girl staring above a tower nearly level with her chin. Her expression hadn’t changed, and neither had her methodical approach to playing cards.
The barrel of a gun dug into Johnny’s lower back-side after he expunged the last two chips he had to his name. He didn’t have time to move or breathe, and he hadn’t even noticed Thomas shift his weight and remove the pistol from somewhere on his person. But the digging did further enhance Johnny’s focus and destroy his moral support. “Cuff him.”
“What the fuck?” Johnny replied.
“It’s time you realized the full extent of your losing.”
Johnny couldn’t see Caroline’s expression, but her voice was filled with menace and hate and exhibited more force than a battering ram.
“Stand up, you piece of trash.”
The gun shifted, and Johnny rose. The room spun, and he considered passing out all over again, but he pulled himself back and inched his way toward the metal door that was a lifetime away.
The barrel against his back never moved or wavered.
She hated cards. Had hated the act and aggression of gambling most of her life. The thrill of winning and the heartbreak of defeat neither moved nor motivated her. Tossing chips into a pot, calculating the odds in her head, reading players around the table, and playing the hands of the other players instead of playing her own made her head throb from the weight of the proposition. But she did it, over and over again. If she thought about it long enough and hard enough, Caroline might have called herself a professional gambler, but that was a term she hated even more than the act of taking money from unsuspecting souls who had a penchant for losing. But if her two choices were paying the rent, or living on the street, she would choose rent every time and worry about the consequences later.
She couldn’t change her fate, or her odds. All she could do was play the hand she was dealt, match it up against what the other guys and gals had around the table, and study the ticks and idiosyncrasies that made each player unique. Over-confidence and euphoria were concepts she knew well, and she could smell it coming like a New Mexican thunderstorm. Even though she understood what she needed to do, she hated her hands even more than she hated long division. With each passing second, her trepidation grew, and the calm she exuded on the surface was a thunderstorm underneath the shallow exterior. It had gotten to the point that it was totally out of control, and probably would be for the rest of her life. It wasn’t satisfying, or even mesmerizing, and yet here she was week after week, going through the motions. The same types of players sat around the table with the same types of expressions painted on their uneven faces. The voice in her mind echoed in time, and she did her best to keep the whispers at bay. But the plan backfired, just as all good plans did that were built on a foundation of lies.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Caroline asked.
“Trying to win,” Johnny said. “What does it look like I’m doing?”
“Losing,” she said. “And not even admirably. You really are one stupid bastard.”
She had been called to test him, to see if he would break and crumble beneath the weight of a bad hand or two or ten, and he had folded faster than a crumpled handbag smashed against a mugger’s face. She had chipped away steadily at his chips, until two red ones were all he had left, and a tower of multicolored circles stood in front of her.
Johnny had a hand that was planted in his lap by the gods, or maybe it was Julius Caesar himself. He couldn’t remember the number of times he’d lost in a row. Six or maybe it was seven. The torment and punishment continued unabated, and he licked his lips more with each passing second. The hands played out one after another against him, and the gates of Hell had opened before him. The girl to his right was methodical, and the jabs kept on coming, one right after another.
Her hands were probably her best feature. The way her fingers slid across the table, shoving chips and poking at her cards, and prodding the weaknesses of those around her, only made him long for her even more.
But this was it. His moment. And he wasn’t about to let it pass him by. Two minutes later, though, the moment passed, his chips were gone, a gun was shoved against his backside, and he was escorted out of the building.
Excerpt from The Fix by Robert Downs. Copyright © 2017 by Robert Downs. Reproduced with permission from Robert Downs. All rights reserved.