Catching Smoke

A couple of cards, a 4 and a King, lay on the green felt in front of you. You clutch a cup of coffee with your left hand. There’s a stack of casino chips in your right. You're shuffling the chips over and over.

Catching Smoke
Photo by Michał Parzuchowski / Unsplash

by Richie Zaborowske

You love the casino. You love the rows of dayglow disco lights racing along the ceiling, pulsing along the walls, exploding off the mirrors in an infinite, cosmic, loop. You love the noise. The cacophony of crashing coins, the jackpot jingles, the flat-footed thud of a poker chip landing on a card table. You love the quicksand camaraderie that forms so easily between gamblers, between those that are grasping but forever sinking.

The smoking. You love the smoking. All those metal-mouthed ashtrays gobbling up spent butts. And the old ladies at the nickel slots with their smoke ring haloes floating overhead. There must be several pews worth of them, all puffing away brazenly on slim 100’s, all poking away at screens full of cherries, stars, and 7s. They’re hoping to sneak in a big payout before Judgment Day, or until their day trip is over and the St. Francis' bus takes them away. Walking past them is exhilarating, like skirting around a forest on fire. And the smoke stench clings to your clothes, follows you home—becomes a companion.

You love Tony, your favorite dealer. Big, burly, and soft, like a plush animal county fair prize, he ambles across the casino floor hunched over, his arms jutting straight down like he’s carrying buckets of water. He deals cards with a ceremonial flourish as if he’s distributing bread to his acolytes. When you peek at yours, when you see an ace and a ten, you have to stop yourself from saying amen. He doesn’t judge you. For him dealing cards is just a job; the casino is where he clocks in and where he clocks out. And when you're losing, when your mortgage payment has vanished on a bad flop, you find his apathy to be a small mercy—and for that, if nothing else, you love him.

And blackjack. God, you love blackjack.

What else? The casino’s coffee. Your favorite is brewed in the industrial unit they have set up way over by the poker tables. That section of the casino doesn’t see much action, and the coffee just sits there ignored. It stews for days. Becomes concentrated. Develops terrible flavors that can only be found by running your tongue along the underside of a charcoal grill, or a wayward highway hubcap. But when you’ve been awake for two days and you have to remain at the blackjack table to ride out a hot streak, a cup of the stuff hits like a hammer and will nail you right to your chair.

What else do you love? Your wife, of course. But you're beginning to think maybe she doesn’t love you. Not that you blame her. After what happened. After you came home and finally fessed up to her. Told her that because of your gambling the bank was set to foreclose on all that the two of you owned; the mid-century modern ranch that she adored, both your vehicles, the cabin in the Upper Peninsula. Small comfort that they couldn’t take the savings because there was no savings; you had pissed that away a long time ago.

But after your wife threw her wedding ring at you, after you found it lodged underneath the refrigerator, you brought it to the pawn shop. The man behind the counter stiffed you. But you had hoped it would be enough. You went back to the casino, succumbing to its embrace. And after two days, countless miracle hands, and a string of luck that would make a leprechaun jealous, you are amazingly, wonderfully, even. You have enough money to pay off the bank, to try and win back your wife and your life back.

You stood to leave, and Tony smiled. He’s actually happy for you, and it breaks your heart. Because at that moment you realize you can’t leave even. Even is zero, and zero is nothing. You want to leave ahead. Buy your wife a little something. Take her on a trip. Lord knows she deserves it.

So you sit back down. Tony shakes his head like a parent; he’s not mad, just disappointed. But still it’s his job and he’s a professional; he shrugs those big round shoulders of his, he deals. A couple of cards, a 4 and a King, lay on the green felt in front of you. You clutch a cup of coffee with your left hand. There’s a stack of casino chips in your right. You're shuffling the chips over and over. Click, clack. You draw them up with one hand. And two stacks become one. Two stacks become one. Although they feel the same as the other smaller denominations these are all ten grand chips. And the difference in mass may be imaginary, but these feel heavier, they have a certain satisfying heft. And you love to toss them on the table—to tell Tony one last time, and then once again, deal me in.

Richie Zaborowske is a dad, librarian, and author from the Midwest. He has worked in a cheese factory, a metal plating plant, and many other jobs throughout the years. His writing is forthcoming or appears in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Brevity, The Los Angeles Review, Barstow and Grand, X-R-A-Y Lit, and others.