by Matt

You can read it here or download the longer, not necessarily better, PDF version to enjoy while you're sitting on the john, or to annoy your spouse with.

Part 2 of 6 - The Dance of Death
Part 1 || Part 3 || Part 4 || Part 5 || Part 6

Very Late Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Players put out their odds and come bets. The dealers hustled to position the chips. I glanced at The Hoodlum as he put two more chips on the table. He glared from under his cap and hoodie. This time, however, he had a whipped cream mustache. I reflexively rubbed my finger over my own lip. He mouthed, "What?"

I don't know what it was about The Hoodlum that so unnerved me. I had seen a lot of unsavory characters in my twenty years in Las Vegas, but there was something more sinister about him. I tried to shake off my uneasiness. After all, nobody else seemed to be bothered. Besides, there was fifteen feet of table separating us, a burly pit boss nearby and two security guards patrolling the room. I needed to show him that I could be as young and tough as him, that he wasn't going to throw me off my game.

I threw the rocks with a flourish, high and deep, aiming for his knuckles and hoping he'd flinch. He didn't. He stood still as the dice came down inches from his face. He sipped his daquiri, the mustache thickening. The dice landed.

"Seven out."

Nobody told us they'd have "Sexy Craps" at the Joker's Wild.
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Oh, crap. There was a collective groan from the other players. Drinky punched me in the kidney as he left the table. "God damn sissy." I didn't dare look at The Hoodlum. I kept my eyes fixed on the felt in front of me while the dealer took my chips. I felt his fury, I sensed him tensing his muscles, clenching his fists.

"We need to go," I told Mike, who had just taken Drinky's spot. Only Phil was still on the sidelines. He was still staring off into space.


"Look down there," I said, eyes still cast down. "See The Hoodlum?"

"Yeah, so?"

"Is he still staring at me?" I asked.

Mike nodded.

"If we don't leave, he'll kill me."

"I just got in," Mike protested.

I looked again at The Hoodlum, or where he should have been. He was gone. I caught a glimpse of him behind the other players coming around the table, charging my end. His creamy mustache shone in the casino lights. Thinking fast, I ducked and disappeared below the chip rail. My heart thumped and my chest constricted so much I struggled for air. My arthritic knees ached from the deep squat.

"Is he gone?" I asked from my crouched position.

Mike shook his head. "No."

I waited a second. "Now?"


The Hoodlum stood over me, so close I could see the thick mat of hair on the palms of his hands and the dark red stains on his Dickies. I could smell the motor oil embedded in his palms.

I should have stood up and faced him like a man. To be fair to myself, though, I was scared shitless. I hoped that if I remained in a squat he'd mistake me for a rock. I was silent, like rocks are, and I tried very hard to look gray. The Hoodlum wasn't buying it. His thick hand moved toward my neck.

"Kill him!" screamed Robert as he pumped his fists in the air. He said it so loudly that everyone, even The Hoodlum, stopped and looked at my friend.

With all eyes on him, Robert smiled with embarrassment and said, "What? I love beatdowns."

The explanation made sense to everyone, even me. The Hoodlum turned his attention back to me. I was still motionless and thinking rocky thoughts. His rough, moist hand curled around my throat.

"Look at you. You're a disgrace," scolded Mom. In addition to fear, I now also felt shame.

"You look like a slob. Tuck your shirt in, for Pete's sake." She ordered. I was confused. My shirt was tucked in. It's always tucked in. It's always ironed, too. Same with my jeans and underwear. I like ironing stuff.

She continued, "And why are your jeans cuffed? They sell pants your size at the May Company, and for a good price." I realized that Mom was talking to The Hoodlum. This was good for me. Maybe she'd berate him until he forgot about killing me and go after her instead. I stayed down low because, once I squat, it takes me a while to get back up. The Hoodlum let go of my neck.

"What does your mother think of you? Don't you wash your hair? And why are you wearing that silly hood? It's not raining in here. You look like Sal Mineo, you little gangster."

Mom tapped The Hoodlum's chest with her finger to emphasize each of her points. He took a step back, farther from me. Then he took another step back as she expressed her disgust with his fashion sense, education, upbringing, manners and liberal use of Aqua Velva. We were watching experience and age crushing rebellious youth.

If you want to win, you gotta live the hard life.
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Mom ended her rant with, "You're no George Raft." They stood ten feet from the table. The Hoodlum had gone from seething to cowering. His eyes were watery and red, his lower lip trembled, his whip cream mustache dribbled off his chin. Mom marched back to the table. The rest of the players stared at him. He wiped his nose with his sleeve and ran for the exit.

"And don't come back!" I yelled about five minutes later, once I was absolutely certain The Hoodlum had completely left the building. The craps game resumed.

"Good job." I patted Mom on the back. "I was gonna tell him the same thing."

Mom shot me a sneer. "You're next, Squiggy." She returned to her place on the rail, looked at her rack and snapped, "I'm missing chips. Give them back."

"So," said a frowning Robert, "no bloodshed, then?"

Steve shook Phil's arm and snapped him from his reverie. He pointed to the spot vacated by The Hoodlum and Phil took it. He glumly put his money on the table to be changed.

A couple shooters later, Mom took her chips plus a few of her neighbors' and left. Probably there were no thrills in craps as exhilarating as browbeating a thug. Steve took The Hoodlum's vacated spot. He was the last of our crew to get in.

The game improved and all of us but Phil got vocal. He spent his time on the verge of tears and writing in a small notebook. The shooters delivered. Robert shook, Steve knuckled. Phil rolled the dice softly. Mike hurled the dice into the poker room. I hung 'em high. As my profits grew and the threat of The Hoodlum faded, Vegas worked its magic. I felt invincible, alive and ready for anything. The Hoodlum may have been younger, but I could outrun youth. I could outsmart it, and I could live forever. I wanted to play all night.

"Good thing The Hoodlum left when he did," I said to Mike.

"Why's that?"

I slammed my fist into my hand. "Because I would've kicked his ass." I believed it.

"I was gonna split his skull open and eat his brains. Then Mom and I were gonna get it on. Right on the table."

"Okay, Matt," said Mike.

"We were going to have babies."

"That's probably enough," he said as he adjusted and readjusted his chips in the rail.

"And the babies were going to work at May Company." I went on like this for thirty minutes or so. Mike moved to another spot, so I told the cocktail waitress the rest of the story, about the babies' Ivy League educations and how they would destroy The Hoodlum's greasy offspring.

The come bets piled up. We put the dealers on the line, and stacked them on the hard ways. The cocktail waitress brought our drinks: red ones, blue ones, and girl drinks with speared pineapple slices. She brought Phil murky gray ones with wedges of avocado that he drank silently. I filled one rail and my chips spilled into the next.

The boxman looked at his watch and called, "Last shooter!" It was 11:30, or on Vegas terms, early evening. Normally, the Joker is our first stop. Tonight, however, the six of us agreed to quit early so we could get a cheap breakfast and put in a full day's work.

I wasn't ready to sleep. I wanted to keep shooting dice, winning money and shouting nonsense that confused the break-in dealers. I didn't want to go back to my hotel room and take out my contacts, take my arthritis medicine and try to fall asleep by counting the people who had achieved more than me at my age. My only hope was for the last shooter, a sad, round-faced bald man, like a Charlie Brown made out of Play-Doh, to get hot.

Despite the bling, Phil is sad.
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He didn't. He sevened out in two minutes. My only consolation was the money we won, which was a fortune. I mean a hundred bucks. That's forty pairs of shoes at the thrift. We had all won, Phil most of all. And yet he was the most indifferent to his newfound wealth.

"How much did you win?" I asked him.

He shrugged. "One-hundred-sixty-seven dollars. Not that it matters."

I didn't know what he meant and one thing I had learned is not to ask questions when I didn't understand. So I slapped him on the back and said, "You said it!" I turned to Mike, Jerry, Robert and Steve and said, "Who wants to ride with me? I'll tell you about Mom and my grandkids."

I guess Mike's Prius is cooler than I thought. I drove back to dowtown alone, the radio cranked up to a radio station for hip young people.

On to Part 3

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