GAMES OF CHANCE
“This world ain’t good enough for the caring man,” Cousin Jed said, his dishevelment a cause for concern. The last week or so, he’s been out of sorts–bedraggled and doleful–his outlook on life once again shadowed by too heavy a look beyond the periphery. He threw down the old Time Magazine, got up off the barrel, and limped over to the tree to relieve himself.
Mammie was tending the fire while Little Sis had taken serious to the two squirrels chasing each other around the base of an Oak Tree. The Mayor was down at the frozen lagoon, most likely in reminiscence–his talk often includes a few snippets of the boyhood–framed in memory for the evermore. “Yeah, Pappy and I would get up before the break of dawn and we’d go down to the crick and before the sun rose high enough to arouse the roosters we’d already have our daily catch.”
Cousin Jed returned to our makeshift encampment, muttering still: “This world ain’t good enough for the caring man.” Mammie turned from the fire and gave Cousin Jed one of those looks–the one that says, Come on now, it ain’t that bad. You’re among friends. Cousin Jed limped over to her, shook his head, and then threw the old magazine into the fire.
“That’s more like it,” Mammie replied. Little Sis agreed, clapping incessantly at Cousin Jed’s sudden surrender. Mammie handed Jed her cask. “Here, warm that blood of yours.”
Although I understood very well Cousin Jed’s disenchantment with the world; the senselessness of all that bore bereavement upon the staunchest of souls, I knew it’d be best if I voiced not too high an opinion on such matters. Our encampment depends on equanimity–because, as the story goes, it is we who’ve been purported to be teetering on the edge.
Surely, a few of our nervous breakdowns may have been attributed to the extraneous circumstances–those, in which we fought to control.
Mammie threw on the fire a few Spam Steaks, peppered and spiced–a few gifts of recompense from the Soup Kitchen, where I had been bartering my time with the clean-up detail…sometimes doing an extra run upon the floor with both bristle and brush.
A short while later, after securing our lunch we sat around the fire, exchanging soft words drawn from the simpler times–our childhood. We laughed and sang and carried on until the moon broke free from the horizon–an ample time, we figured to pack up and return to the shed — a shield to the velocity of winds, now spiraling off the second of great lakes.
Dooley happened upon our settlement this morning, his disposition hampered by a monumental loss perpetuated by his playing too stiff a number on Saturday basketball games.
Before he would embrace Mammie with his foolish wager, he confided in me that his loss included the forfeiture of his beloved pickup truck. “Mammie will turn a tooth upon my stupidity,” he said. “I promised her a ride through the Morton Arboretum come Saturday. Now what am I supposed to tell her?”
Mammie had no knowledge of Dooley’s predilections to the gambling, and I am sure, if she did, she’d certainly put heavy restraints on furthering their relationship.
A little drinking is one thing but gambling-oh no, she surely would throw her hand down. Not so long ago, fettered was she to the uncertainty of life shared with a gambling man. She told me, “We couldn’t walk down the street without worrying about gangsters, loan sharks, and hitmen intervening in our breathing. Never again!”
Knowing how more contented with life both Dooley and Mammie had been lately with the blossoming of their togetherness, I surely would despise myself if I couldn’t figure something out to help reconfigure the reality. Dooley and Mammie both, too good a semblance of spirit to see falter to the whims.
“Dooley,” I said, “I know you are an honest man but there’s no need to tell Mammie about your losses to gambling.”
“What am I supposed to tell her then?”
“What about my truck?” He kicked a small mound of snow with his heavy boot, dislodging unknowingly one of the cornerstones to our winter shack. He eyed me quizzically, then spat upon the ground a round of chewing tobacco. “How am I gonna explain I’ve no truck?”
“Just tell her it’s in repair.” Time–the fulcrum of resolution and dissolution. “Dooley, trust me…by Saturday you’ll have your truck. Oh, by the way, I didn’t know you chewed tobacco.”
“Only when I lose. Helps to ease my nerves.”
“I’ll go in and let Mammie know you’re here. And remember, after you go in, there’s no need to introduce her to your indiscretions with the Games of Chance. Accessories such as these Mammie can do without. You do understand, right?”
Dooley nodded. He then pulled from his coat pocket an envelope. “Here, give this to Mammie. I got to go.” He appeared as though he was about to cry and from a stolid man such as he, I couldn’t let him walk away without gestation — it wasn’t fair — not to me, and definitely not to Mammie.
“How about if we take a walk over to the diner on Halsted and I will barter us cups of coffee, maybe breakfast if you’re hungry.”
He wiped his mouth, stared at me sympathetically. “Well, I can use a hot cup of coffee.”
Early morning rise, the eggs scrambled delicately by Brenda’s spatula—she’d been breaking many a workingman’s fast for a good twenty years. A slight woman with graying locks and a smile that still shone brightly amidst the shadows, Brenda was good company amongst those who searched amongst themselves for a firmer commitment to a better life.
Brenda confided in me, that her own life, was as good as she’d ever would want it to be—the pleasure she found in feeding the masses and those perhaps a bit down on their luck was far too real to commit herself elsewhere. Bless her soul, that woman.
Slowly this morning, Mammie rose. Enthusiastic to meet the challenges of another ordinary day she exhibited little. Gone from her demeanor, absent from her movements was the vibrancy—the zest as evidenced the last few weeks.
During my time away could it be that Dooley had revealed to her such dire his condition? For Christ sake, did he do what he told me he wouldn’t—roll the dice upon Mammie’s soul?
While I was at the Fellowship last night did Dooley return to our encampment and deliver to Mammie the impossible news—his decision to flee forever from what stood behind reality’s door? He promised me he wouldn’t but then again, he’s a gambling man and sometimes a gambling man must depend on the bluff before anteing up the pot.
Mammie’s vanquished mood bore through me too deep and it was her silence that rattled my nerves all the more and my questions and her reluctance of answers compelled me to don my waffle stompers and head out. If my suspicions were right, I’d find Dooley down at O’Bryan’s probably saying his goodbyes. I handed Mammie her cask, she nodded in appreciation but that was all.
Time—the fulcrum between solution and dissolution. If I learned anything in this world, it was that the pendulum swung no matter what side of it you stood. I scampered through the slush and snow, harried cabbies and stretched limousines beeping and splattering every direction in which I turned.
Downtown Chicago—the finer establishments, contradictions perhaps—but O’ Bryans, did too, harbor the occasional street poet, city worker and itinerant wayfarer. And the betting man.
Ensconced in shadow, a silhouette beyond the bleary-eyed trawlers of scotch-laced merriment sat Dooley. Just as I figured, I found him—accompanying the last stool in the house.
A few uppity denizens of the moneyed class snarled their disdain upon my presence but I had not the time, nor the will to concern myself with condition of raiment—for Christ’s sake, I wasn’t there to meet the pope. Nor was I there to impress, then seduce the maiden—although she could’ve easily fulfilled a fantasy if I were so inclined to include one within the reality of my reason for being there.
Dooley stood quick as he acknowledged my reflection—a kaleidoscopic image of shabby trench coat, unkempt beard and woolen cap. He turned, extended his hand. I removed my glove, extended mine.
“Roman, what brings you here?”
“You,” I said. “And Mammie.” The old lady next to Dooley got up, rather hastily and under her breath she said, time to get the fuck out of here. I was rather glad because after the long scramble through the neighborhoods coupled with a few muscle spasms it would prove therapeutic if I sat myself down. I pulled back the stool, suggested to Dooley the same. Dooley offered me a drink and I readily obliged, something warm and inviting. A cognac would set me straight.
What have I left if not for my intellect? What have I if not my understanding? What have I if not for my compassion—the very reason perhaps for my commission to this life, although from a distance, in appearance most uncomfortable but to what comfort do I find the most sincere?
It is I suppose the sincerity of my friends. Cousin Jed, The Mayor, Little Sis, Dooley, Johnny Littlefeather, Brenda, Lucinda—those, who as well as I, know too well what truly matters.
The commonality lies not in the artifice projected beyond the walls of our being but in the truth of our essence within.
I related to Dooley the depths from which I came and he, for the first time since meeting me, seemed to better understand what I was trying to say. He let loose from his suppressions and revealed to me what hardships he endured growing up amidst the chaos. “If only you knew,” he said.
“I think I do,” I replied.
The crowd at O’Bryan’s shuffled about, the hours rolled along to the beat of an energetic jukebox and before the moon settled its score with the sun Dooley confided in me too great his affections for Mammie and he couldn’t bear the thought of hurting her. But this I knew. And I knew that gambling wasn’t the answer to winning her trust—“for Christ sakes, Dooley, she’s been through so much herself.”
He downed the whiskey, wiped his mouth. “I know,” he said. He stood, threw a five on the bar. “Come on, let’s go.”
[Led Zeppelin – “Down by the Seaside]
copyright 2021 by Ricky J. Fico & Golden Renaissance Productions