[This is chapter 3 of an ongoing work of fiction. To see chapter 3, click here: https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2016/01/02/five-meanings-of-i-love-you-2/%5D
The 1st day was a loaded moment. They both knew that. It was their first December 24.
In the absence of family, Evan wanted to create something familial, so he bought a tree. Kara bought egg nog and dug out an old motorized Santa Claus. The shadows were long and the traffic intense. It felt like December 24 always feels, a rarified time, like everyone is breathing expensive air. Evan had planned lovemaking for later, with cinnamon-scented candles and Kind of Blue loaded into the stereo system.
But after dinner and rum balls, in the middle of a langorous kiss and Evan’s hand down reaching into Kara’s blouse, there was a knock at the door.
Evan was suddenly stricken with the thought that it might be Kendra. Then again, he worried that every unexpected knock or ring might be Kendra. It had been over three months now, and Kara and he were now exchanging I love yous, but beyond saying it, he was surprised to realize that he truly meant it. He loved her in a way that was different from the way he had felt about Kendra. He was afraid for Kara. He didn’t want to hurt her. He didn’t like that look on her face. That hurt look. He believed that Kara didn’t want to hurt him, either. That she was incapable hurting him.
In the last two years, he had stopped believing in love. It was an evil little trick that biology played on us to make us procreate. Evan had lost his belief in love down the same hatch that he had lost God. Life was all just a flat, dusty dustbowl of unwanted truth.
When Evan opened the door, though, he stepped back.
“Hey, what the fuck,” his Uncle John said.
“So what’s up?” John said.
“Wow, I thought I’d never see you again.”
Evan couldn’t figure out what to say. Kara was still buttoning up her blouse and straightening her hair.
“Was it something I said?” John said.
“You busy or something?”
Evan had so looked forward to those candles.
On the 2nd day, the three of them walked down the Strip together. They stopped in at a big casino and were railroaded into their most expensive restaurant.
“Order some expensive shit,” John said. “The owner’s spotting us.”
The chef was a genius. The bill came out to over $500, but John just signed for it. They were stuffed like favorite Airedales.
On the 5th day, John and Evan were standing in a huge house in a gated community. It was John’s new home. There was a living room that was six times the square footage of Evan’s whole apartment and seven bedrooms and four bathrooms. Everything was new. On a table across the room sat an open book larger than a computer tower, who knows how much it cost, with thick, expensive color pages that were lovely to turn. They all sat on the long sofa and chatted while Amy Winehouse belted it out of the park. After Kara left to make her shift at the casino, John lowered his voice and leaned towards Evan.
“I have a proposition for you,” he said.
On the 7th day, New Year’s Eve, Evan and Kara toasted at midnight with French Champagne.
“It’s been a helluva year,” Evan said.
“This one will be better. I’m trying to convince myself of that. It’s against my nature, though.”
“Listen, I’ve got to run this past you,” Evan said. “John wants to bring me in on this project. Apparently, he’s in tight with the owner of that casino—you know, where we racked up that big dinner bill. He has access to a lot of high rollers who want a private game.
“A private game?”
“A game that breaks the rules. He’s talking Saudi princes, Russian billionaires, that sort. He needs someone at the table who can handle cards. And I guess someone he can trust.”
“It sounds dangerous.”
“Yeah, probably. But it pays $4,000 a day.”
Kara set down her Champagne glass.
“I don’t mean whoa as in what you say to a horse. I mean, dude, giddyup.”
“But…it’s not exactly….”
“Yeah, but didn’t you say 4k a day?”
“Plus, he needs a girl.”
“To do what?”
On the 15th day, Evan was learning the system. It was going to kill some brain cells. The deck was marked, but it was so subtle, it was going to take a month to fully learn it. There were other chisels in the toolbox, too, like daub. John preferred a Revlon blush. During play, Evan would secretly steal some daub onto his middle finger and then secretly smudge it on the back of, say, an ace. Deck gets shuffled, and then when you need an ace, you spread the deck and locate it by feel. Plus, John taught him how to nick cards. Use his fingernails to place secret nick marks on the sides of certain cards. He had to memorize secret signals that John, who would be sitting at the table across from him, would give. Play, trade two, fold, whatever, John was the pro, John knew how to play it.
Kara’s job was to dress like a cocktail waitress, serve drinks, and help ring in coolers.
“Coolers?” Kara asked.
“Switch in decks,” John said.
Finding a moment was an art. The biggest part of the art was waiting, but the other part was knowing the moment to act. One great magician had some wise words on the subject decades ago.
“How long do you wait?” one of his disciples had asked.
“As long as it takes,” he answered.
But this was a different context. If you screwed up a magic trick, people snickered. If you screwed up in this arena, somebody could pull a gun. You had to be good. It came down to looking and listening, which Evan saw as one of those priceless Ming vases that became more complex the more you looked at its design. There were worlds within worlds within worlds. Motifs could mean this or they could mean that. They looked like one thing but had a different meaning when you knew the historical background, like what a particular hand position meant in 1422. People, too, have historical backgrounds. Same for listening. You had to be a scholar to interpret it, like a scholar of the soul. Same for looking. You could look and not see. You could be looking and not really looking. Zero in on the vase. The vase was the basis of everything.
Evan had always seen himself as being moral, more or less. Then John had waved some money in front of his eyes and everything had changed. The way he saw it, there were ways of thinking about it that didn’t even involve the term moral. He now preferred the term experimental, as in, I’m just going to experiment with this thing for a while because the opportunity fell on my lap. People, he now felt, don’t experiment with their lives as much as they should. Their lives are filled with rules and rigidities. The tree that doesn’t bend will break, as the ancient Chinese used to say. It won’t just break, it will be ground into sawdust. The ancient Chinese knew a thing or two. You don’t see the Chinese turning down an opportunity.
Evan was playing a part. He was a Silicon Valley millionaire, so John gave him 10k to blow on a wardrobe. The marks themselves were a certain type: men with a fatal combination of too much money and not enough maturity. It wasn’t a hard combination to find. Trawl the hallways of any popular prep school. The high-roller manager at the casino would herd them over like prize cows, their udders swinging. The first evening, John and Evan would cheat in favor of the marks. Pretty quick, though, everything would go south on them, like Tierra del Fuego south. It was an art to keep a mark’s attention riveted over a period of days, and John, apparently, was an artist.
“I don’t want anybody knowing that you’re doing each other,” John said. “Not the marks, not the bartender, nobody. The less they have on you, the better.”
“But kids, listen, your main job is to stay cool, as in what a cucumber salad does, John said, squinting through his own Marlboro smoke. Can you do that?”
“When things get heavy, how chill can you be?”
Their eyes traded looks.
“We’ll fucking see,” John said before they answered, and walked into the other room trailing Marlboro smoke.
On the 22nd day, Kara met the bartender, Baptiste, who would be working with her. He was a tall dude had a major twinkle in his eye and who slurred his words even when he wasn’t drunk.
“That’s what she said.”
He dropped that line in response to something she said, and he flashed an eye-fuck. Normally, that would work with Kara. She would be in bed with him within an hour. But this time, she recoiled. She didn’t know why. Perhaps it was because of a fleeting thought she’d had about Whitney Houston. That girl had such a voice. She had a shot at happiness on a towering scale if only she could give up her Loki. And then she died in a bathtub or something. Those great pipes. That fabulous contract. What a waste.
On the 30th day, Evan and Kara got their second training payment, all in cash. They celebrated at a French restaurant for tourists. Evan was wearing his new clothes was starting to feel very Silicon Valley. The crabcakes were to die for and the sea bass was fabulously subtle. Evan had never paid this much for a meal.
Over her Cherries Jubilee, Kara leaned over and whispered in urgent tones: Dude, I’ve got 5k in cash in my closet!
“Yeah, I got 7.”
“What am I gonna do with all that money?”
“Spend it. You got a problem with that?”
“Yeah, I kinda do.”
Kara never said that last bit, she just thought it.
On the 47th day, Evan met Simon—his American name—who was the son of a man who owned a grocery empire in China. Just the clothes on Simon’s back must have set him back $5,000. His hair was bleached blonde, moussed, and waved in a way that made it look at once overproduced and yet absolutely forgotten about. He walked in—made an entrance was a better term for it—and didn’t shake anyone’s hand. It all seemed personal. He seemed to dislike Evan from the start, you could see it in his face. It seemed to be his way of addressing the world, because he didn’t need to like anybody. He had a shitload of cash with him, plus markers up the ass. There were two other moneyed players at the table, but it was Simon who had the bull’s-eye on his back.
After the third hand, Simon turned to John.
“You got some blow?”
“As much as you want.”
“I want it all. I want to win.”
John led Simon into another room, and he came back with his eyes all lit up like the Binion’s sign.
“That’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout!” Simon said. “At the casinos, they don’t give us these kinda perks, fuckin’ bitches. Dude, I’m cocked and loaded and I’m ready to pull the trigger, I’m a winning winner, bring it on!”
The first night, Simon was up 10k. The third night, down 70k. Fifth night, down 110. The more he coked up, the easier it was for them to run their game. Kara served everybody stiff drinks except for Evan, who got water disguised as vodka and water. Every so often, she rang in a cooler. It was so easy. Daub, nicked cards, hand signals, all functioning as efficiently as a gun without serial numbers. The hard part for Evan was staying awake without drugs. Caffeine helped. So did catnaps.
The 49th day, Evan strolled over to the bar. Baptiste wasn’t there, so Evan moved behind the bar to get some orange juice. It was sitting next to a pistol. It all made sense. Baptiste was a shitty bartender.
Three hours later, after Simon had left, and just after Kara was pulling away, Baptiste opened up to Evan.
“Man, that Kara could crack walnuts,” he said.
Evan saw red for a moment, but he didn’t dare show it.
“She’s a babe, that’s for sure,” Evan said.
“I’m going to make a play for her.”
“I’ll put in a good word for you.”
“You’re a bro. Hey listen, you got really good hands. Where’d you learn those big-league moves?”
Evan just smiled and looked at his virgin Scotch.
“Oh, okay, listen, I understand, homie. I talk too much. Always have. It works for me and it works against me. Bartenders are supposed to listen, but I’m not that good a listener, I admit it. But hey, a couple hours ago, when the deck was in your hands, I saw you dealing seconds. I recognize it. That’s a major move, homie. Did you have a mentor? Was it John? Because John is a major dude.”
“You’re right,” Evan said.
“That you talk too much.”
Evan threw his $500 muffler around his neck, walked out to his rented Lamborghini, and sped home at high volume through the quiet Las Vegas streets.
On the 53rd day, Simon handed over 925k and everyone was happy.
“Bitch, you gots a great coke supplier. Don’t suspect you’d give me a name.”
He didn’t even seem to be pissed off.
On the 55th day, Kara was staring at all this fucking cash on her kitchen table, all hundreds. P!nk was playing on the stereo and she was getting the party started. The bills were crisp and new, 15k rolled up in rubber bands. Kara’s heart was beating like it did when she was looking at some guy she wanted inside of her. P!nk knew the feeling. Kara had her cell phone in front of her, her eyes flipping from the money to the phone and back again. P!nk was belting it, keeping it going. Kara was ready to call her dealer, but something was stopping her. It was strange. In fact, it was a supreme mystery, like the Trinity or something. There was something inside her that had turned off, that was the best way to describe it. Like when you finally get the willpower to lose weight, and you don’t know where the hell it came from. Maybe it was being with Evan that had turned it off. Maybe it was the new job.
But somehow, she felt it was deeper than that. It was like something that lay beneath the bark on the trees, like the rings or the sap or even just the idea that the tree’s Momma had when she was thinking about conceiving that tree. Beneath beneath the beneath. Maybe it had to do with failing at being a big-time singer, and now, suddenly, having a shot at it again. Maybe it was the prospect of becoming a Whitney Houston, a bloated damp corpse in a bathtub. Maybe it was desperation and hope, that Yin Yang, because she’d had so much desperation in the last couple years, but an injection of hope always put her on top of things, no other way to describe it, on top of things like a little girl on a horse, the leather reins in her hands. She was riding. She was galloping again. Maybe Kara could win the race after all.
P!nk went onto another song, and then another, and then the moment changed and a thought slowly crept into her head like a tarantula, a creature as cool as P!nk herself, wove a web, and suddenly, she was reaching for the phone. Dialing.
But that last part happened only in her head. She was playing games with her own damn self. Something was holding her back, it was weird.
[This is an ongoing work of fiction. To see chapter 3, click here: https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2016/01/02/five-meanings-of-i-love-you-2/. To see chapter 5, click here: https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2017/07/02/in-the-labyrinth-of-selves/%5D