Henry Cherry

Dark Sandy Nothing

                There was a slight discoloration on his lapel. The suit was woolen, darkened to a vague colorlessness. The spot might be spilled liquor, stray ash, no cause for alarm. He shifted attention to his trousers. They held the same achromatic emptiness. He moved an arm in a circle, watching as it compressed into a dimensional bloom of light. A minor victory, the movement produced little additional odor. Not rank enough for alarm. There were times when his rumpled appearance dressed the barkers and doormen with disapproval. The town ricocheted with volleys of disapproval, bounced from one neon sign to the next.
                He waved his arm in a circle. Patted his hair for obtuse angles. Then he froze, remembering the rules. Bad hair often supplied the downswing of advantage. High stakes gamblers ran perspiring desperation across unkempt scalps. After a long night, bad hair might secure your entry to fancy buffets and card rooms alike.
                The Queen of Hearts issued a soft tune, a contrast to the newer establishments. Hers spritzed what was, till now, forgotten- the timbre of restraint. Casinos treasure the lowest common denominator. They pepper doorways with amped up digital glop. Carnies inaugurated the scam when they tired of traveling and took barker jobs on the strip. And those places pipe classic rock at such deeply saturating levels the din grinds down the reserves of passersby, ushering them away from the barrage, into the pot.
                Any kind of emotional finesse had been killed off long ago, buried in one of those holes near the outskirts. Mapped by the missing bodies of dead Mafiosos and low rent imitations, chopped up, mulched, or dumped in one piece. The desert took over from propriety. Take Route 157 west, turn off into the dark sandy nothing and start digging.
                An Olympian sized man stood at the door. The drunk pushed close until he could read the name hand-written in block letters on a tag clipped to the hulk’s garish vest. D-O-N-N-I-E. Donnie wore the fatigue of life as his expression. Too many punches, too many deceptive ideologies.
                “Must be my lucky day.”
                “Excuse me?”
                “Lady luck, Queen of Hearts. My lucky day. I’m Francis.”
                He offered an outstretched hand.
                “Oh. Yeah. Must be.”
                Donnie jabbed his thumb toward the door and began a rather subdued introduction.”
                “Welcome to The Queen of Hearts, Mr. Lucky Day.”
                Donnie looked past the drunk to the meditative river of traffic, slipped on his sunglasses and surrendered to the electromagnetic pulses in his head. With that, Francis slid inside. He took direction, especially in bad situations, like the last time the cops arrested him. When they opened the driver side door, he spilled out head first, offering up his hands to the cop as he went.
                Now he rode the bus.
                Now he took taxis.
                Now he hoofed it.
                The Queen floated in an economic stasis the past five years. In that time, as the owner sat on the property, a new law was passed. To keep their gaming license current, a closed casino had to open once every two years for an eight-hour shift. The logic, if any, was an appeal to the collective sense of propriety. You had to pretend success was attainable to lure a suitor. Without a gambling license, the property value was equal to one of those holes punched into the desert.
                “That’s where they hide the monsters,” his ex liked to say, her arm stretched and dangling toward the arid outskirts, her red hued smile wrinkled with puckish implications. That was before she rooted out her own inertia. Before she stopped talking to him and started telling it to him.
                “No one moves sideways their whole goddamned life,” she said, the last time he saw her.
                “Bums, idiots, grad students, they all choose a path,” Francis said without making a real defense.
                Let this blow over, he repeated in his head, but in the heat, the irritation kept swelling.
                “This whole town is moralistically burnt to a crisp,” he said, placing his hand between her thighs.
                She didn’t brush him off. Instead, she feigned a step. When he swayed in the perpetual alcoholic fogginess, she backed out of it. She let herself into the car he had bought for them.
                “It’s my car.”
                She revved the engine and let the car’s forward momentum shut the door on Francis.
                The Queen of Hearts had no cocktail waitresses, offered no tarmac length of slots, no Pai-Gow table. All the place had was some ancient wooden dining chairs and some folding tables next to a row of ten outdated slots by the rear wall. Part of the bar had been cordoned off with dark, improperly hung curtains. It had the corrosive scent of spilled beer and smoked cigarettes.
                A small man with his nose bent to the right penciled a crossword behind the bar. He had the same overly complicated vest as Donnie from out front.
                Mr. Lucky meandered up to the bar, silently running through different drink concoctions. A drink could set the tone of an entire day if you picked it right. A drink was like a card game, a drink, he thought to himself, a drink is a drink is a drink is a drink.
                “Gertrude Stein,” he said into the blush of carpet under his feet.
                He licked his lips. The bartender looked up from his paper. They nodded to each other.
                “Let me have, now let’s see, how about a, what about a Gimlet?”
                “We have Jim Beam. We have Coke. That’s it.”
                “You don’t say.”
                Francis rummaged in the place where he used to store witticisms. He glanced at the bartender’s vest for inspiration. No nametag.                 “Let’s have a double shot, I guess.”
                The bartender pulled out a plastic cup and gestured toward a cooler.
                Oh, luck was with him. Thank you, Queenie. He pushed a five across the bar.
                “Five even,” the bartender said, slipping the money into a lock box by the sink.
                “Even Steven,” Francis fired back.
                He faded toward the far slot machine. A few minutes later he returned, pressing his ticket on the bar.
                “You keep that. It’s yours. You earned it,” he said heading back toward the single row of slots.
                The bartender shook his head and looked at the ticket. Ten dollars. He had worked these license-vivifying affairs for a year solid. The most he’d seen anyone win was seventy-five bucks. Nobody tipped him. If a machine hit, Mr. Rose, the man at the corner table drinking bland coffee, would trade the ticket for cash- a thing he did not like to do. He disliked it so much he only kept a thousand in small bills stuffed into the lock box. He insured it for ten, in case of attack. Mr. Rose rigged his machines not to pay out. He wasn’t going to cash this in for a tip, the bartender knew that much for certain.
                While he himself was not connected, Rose operated for people who were. His company was the company in the world of license renewing, eight-hour casino operations.
                He set up his machines.
                He ran the bar.
                He brought protection, all for one lump sum.
                But it wasn’t much to brag about. It was an illicit provision developed by the civil code. There was little sheen to the job. It hovered in the grey puffs of suspicion. Rose hired a new crew every couple of years, did not advertise his events. He was, he liked to tell his crew, the only boss in town who preferred an empty house. He drank coffee through the shift, switching to decaf after the first pot flagged his blood pressure.
                That jittery winning ticket, naturally it caught Rose’s attention. He changed tables to keep an eye on his lone wobbling customer. As he did so, another winning ticket sputtered out of the machine at Francis. Cheats always poured winnings back into the same slots. It was the one they’d fixed. Francis didn’t have that kind of verve. He stuffed the ticket in his pocket and moved to a machine closer to the bartender. The bartender, plied with money, opened for some camaraderie.
                “What’s a four-letter word for disciple of Mary?”
                “Lamb,” the drunk replied, adjusting his focus to the machine before him.
                “I can prove it.”
                “Come on, then.”
                “Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb.”
                “Shit, ok, ok. Alright, what’s a four-letter word for nuts?”
                “Oh, c’mon, I haven’t acted nutso.”
                “For the crossword, pal.”
                “Starts with L., Francis”
                Francis thought of angular letters in the alphabet. M. N. W and H and T and Z. L.
                “Try loco.”
                “Hey. That’s it.”
                “Let me have another round while you’re at it.”
                Mr. Rose got up and went behind the bar, pouring himself a decaf. He remained aloof, out of conversational reach, but with an eye on the drunk. When Francis reached for the ticket he’d laid on the bar minutes before, Mr. Rose snatched it.
                “How much did you win last time,” Rose asked with clipped irritation.
                “Same thing.”
                Rose was upper management. Upper management never cottoned to Francis. They took his disheveled appearance, his daffy atmosphere as an insult. Pit bosses, they saw past the red lines strung through his eyes to something inside of him. The hunger, they called it. The hunger was a manageable disease that whittled down the dignity of those it afflicted while upping their tolerance for pain and humiliation. A worthwhile pit boss could fill a room with degenerates like Francis and rim it with their loss for most of the shift. The half domes on the ceilings, the pit bosses, the table supervisors, the dealers, they operated on a premise divorced of happenstance. You took in a little. Then the house took it back, plus whatever else you had leftover. The house broke you back, pummeled your credit rating until your eyes were distraught saucers and you plied the juiced slots at the airport with stray coins. Corrections. Management didn’t care, corrections or not. Francis was a bum.
                The bartender reached for his pack of off brand cigarettes.
                “Let me get some smokes,” Francis said, patting himself down for a pack he knew did not exist.
                “We don’t sell them,” the bartender said.
                “We don’t sell cigarettes.”
                Now the letters were curves. C. B. J. O.
                “Alright then, how about one of yours?”
                In that instant, regret spidered through the bartender. Why had he opened up? He liked to spend his shifts in silence. Around five o’clock, he’d pour a solitary cocktail, and after that he’d shut it down. The job was an appellation of inconsequence; part time hours with full time pay.
                Now stuck, he handed over his lighter and a cigarette. Francis turned it into a parade of gestures, hands swooping to cup the flame, inhaling deeply and exhaling a gust of smoke. He set his head a few degrees askew, eying the horizon for secret winds.
                “Who’s the bag man over there, the mustache?”
                Without answering, the bartender returned to the crossword.
                “And what’s the deal with this casino, one type of booze, no people, no smokes?”
                “Why don’t you ask Mr. Rose, the bagman,” the bartender asked, derision steeped into his voice.
                Francis had time. He marinated in time. He wandered off to another machine. As he dropped his coins into it, he turned sideways to better view Rose and the bartender. It was a guilty move, a move made by someone comfortable with being relegated, a move that exchanged actual spirit for theoretical impudence. So, he dragged a limp finger across the screen of a slot. New cards emerged in his virtual hand. He held up a finger, first to Mr. Rose, then to the bartender.
                “For my next trick,” he started.
                The buzzer atop his slot interrupted him, splattering bordello red across the Queen’s faded wall paper. Mr. Rose stashed the money box behind the bar and walked over to the drunk.
                “Listen, fella, how’d you hear about us?”
                Francis raised his finger again, dragged it across the screen, one eye on Rose. This time, the siren did not fire. Letters emptied out of him, sprinkling the carpet with typesets only he could see.
                “Not this time,” he said, rolling his shoulders back to a slump.
                “Mister, I asked you a question.”
                “Yes, you did,” Francis said and gently slugged Rose on the arm.
                “I can’t say for sure. Voila! Just happened.”
                He walked over to the bar. Rose followed him. He wasn’t letting the drunk off that easy.
                Francis toed an imperfection in the carpeting with his shoe.
                “I’d already had to vacate one establishment. They didn’t tell me to leave, but there was a tone, a lag between drinks. I can read between the lines, Rosie.”
                Mr. Rose shot a look at the bartender and at the same time swept imaginary lint from the shiny pinstripes of his wide lapel.
                “A man like you might prefer a bigger room. Bells and whistles. Waitresses with a little leg show. Something more than what we offer.”
                “That’s just it, Rosie. I’m nothing if not habitual. Follow the code. But, sometimes, sometimes, you’ve just got to sidestep expectation.”
                The alcohol established in him a reconciliation of movement and Francis delivered a mildly vulgar bow, after which, he addressed the as yet untried machine before him.
                “Ruthie was my kind of gal. Ruthie, She had a duck and a leash for the duck, so ducky had to stick with her, he said to the machine.”
                Rose had no idea what the drunk was rambling on about. And this was Francis’s habit of pushing management back into the corners.
                “Oh, too old for me, too old, he continued. But I loved the idea of her. Never any money to her name, but always, always drunk. Her lips had once been slender and seductive. Someone had thought long and hard about kissing them, I’m sure. By the time I met her, she was hardened by men who took advantages Actually, you know, she had a series of ducks. Every time the duck got old enough, off came the leash and the duck waddled into traffic. The streets ran one way, but I guess ducks are stupid. Not one of them ever figured that out.”
                He won again. Clutching the ticket, he shook it overhead as the cheap red celebratory light spit onto everything. Mr. Rose went over to the row of slots. Donnie set them up with space enough between them and the wall that adjustments could be made if necessary.
                Rose squeezed in behind them and unplugged the winning machine. Then he stuck a Phillips head into a socket and gave it a couple of quick, vicious turns.
                When he got to his feet, Francis was right there with him.
                “This where the magic happens?”
                “Sir, you are not allowed back here.”
                “Oh, of course,” Francis interrupted, the abra-ca-dabra is off limits.
                He backed out of the space, as Rose pretended to adjust the other machines. When Mr. Rose came out from behind the slots Francis called over to him.
                “You ever know anyone like Ruthie?”
                Rose didn’t want to battle every single moment with this loser.”
                “There is no Mrs. Rose, if that’s what you’re after.”
                “I’m just after some conversation.”
                “If that’s the case, why don’t you go to another casino? The city’s filthy with them.”
                Donnie tensed at the agitated tone of his boss’s voice.
                Rose waved him off.
                “I’m gonna take my break,” Donnie said, disappearing behind the curtains.
                “What’s with all the secrecy,” Francis asked.
                Mr. Rose gave him a taut, show host smile, said nothing and went back to his table. He adjusted his chair and awaited more war. The drunk would drag his finger over the graphical sleaze. As the tuneless snippet of monotony determined consequence, he drifted into repetition.
                Sip from cup.
                Unfold bill.
                When he came out of the trance, he’d lost three wagers in a row. Rose returned his attention to the doorway, the afternoon quiet rectifying him. Then Francis hit again.
                “Rosie. Bring that box over here. A whole lot of Rosie.”
                When he neared Francis, without the box, Rose leaned in.
                “Listen close,” he said.
                Francis gnawed on the last chunk of ice from the plastic cup.
                “That’s a winner, Rosie.”
                “It’s Rose, not Rosie, or Rosegarden. Just Rose. And listen up, sir, I’m not paying this ticket out. I think you’re cheating. So, I offer you the opportunity to register a complaint or an appeal or whatever the fuck you want to call this with the gaming commission.”
                Rose threw some coins onto the bar, excavated from the silken expanse of his pleated slacks.
                “The commission is on Washington. That should cover the bus ride.”
                Francis instinctively pulled the coins toward him. His fingers rubbed the faces of ex-presidents entombed by lofty ideals propagandized and methodically restructured into civic codes that legitimized this kind of theft.
                “Right, Francis said. Right. You won’t pay that ticket. Right.”
                He weaved back toward the slots. A moment later, Donnie placed a mammoth hand on his shoulder. A new ticket buzzed into the tray. Ignoring it and unwittingly dodging Donnie, the drunk produced the coins from Rose’s insult and shoved the money in the slot. His fingers followed the coercive ladies until the mélange set off a trapdoor internally. Francis collapsed down an internal chute into an old memory, landing back inside the house he grew up in. A shabby black wooden wand with white tips quivered in his hand. His father sat in a patterned wing chair reading a magazine. With reservation, the kid waved the wand.
                “For my next trick, I’ll pull a bouquet of flowers from thin air.”
                He cleared his throat.
                “Go ahead, I’m watching.”
                The boy bent his arms back. Then, with the quick, awkward movement of adolescence, he shot them outright, dropped his left hand under the other, concealing the collapsed bouquet as it popped from his sleeve.
                The paper came to rest on his father’s lap.
                “Well, I’ll be,” his father said. “How d’ya do that?”
                “You weren’t even watching.”
                “No, I saw the whole thing. All of it. Wonderful stuff. How about that? Fascinating.”
                Back in The Queen, Donnie’s finger beat a rhythm into Francis’s shoulder.
                “I know, “he told the bouncer. “I know. But listen, there’s more to the story.”
                “Ok, you can tell me your story, fast. Then, out you go. Ok?”
                Donnie removed his sunglasses. Francis, guided by perversity, kept on.
                “My father told me about hybrids, it was a hobby of his. Plants, seeds, soil. He loved to fiddle. The first cross was an F-1.”
                “What are you talking about,” Donnie said.
                “Hybrids. Floribunda, mules, hinnies.”
                “Hinnies,” Donnie repeated, confused.
                “A hinny is, it’s like a mule, but it’s harder to find. Female donkey and a male horse get it on, voila, the hinny.”
                That’s an F-1?
                Exactly. First cross.
                Donnie looked over at his boss. Rose was bemused. He signaled to the bartender to cut Francis off. A happy go lucky jingle burped from one of the slots. Francis lurched toward it. Donnie moved between him and the machines. Francis took the unpaid ticket and slid it into Donnie’s vest.
                “I have a demand.”
                “You making demands ain’t part of this.”
                “It’s quite simple, far as demands go. I want one last drink.”
                He poked Donnie’s vest, like he was daring the bouncer into a confrontation. But, as he expected, it had the opposite effect. The absurdity of the whole day bathed them in a quiet mercy.
                “Alright, alright,” Donnie said, relieved an end was in sight.
                “One and done.”
                The bartender overheard their conversation. He pushed a generously filled cup toward the drunk.
                “Uh-uh,” Francis shook a finger at the cup.
                “What do you mean, uh-uh?”
                Francis dashed the same finger into the air with a flourish.
                “I want a real goddamned drink in a real goddamned glass filled with real goddamned ice. Then I’ll leave.”
                Mr. Rose had seen this before, men bartering away the last bit of whatever they thought they had on frivolity. What did he care if the drunk exchanged plastic for glass?
                The bartender found a rocks glass. He splashed in a ceremonious extra topping of booze.
                Donnie backed to up to the end of the bar, ready and rocking slowly on the balls of his feet.
                “Drink it up, now.”
                Rose returned again to his newspaper. The bartender started readying for close. When Rose looked up again, the drunk was bobbing around out on the sidewalk, glass in hand, sending another toast to the proprietor. Donnie started for the door. Rose admonished him.
                “There’s work to be done. Leave him be. Let him have his glass.”
                Traffic flowed between him and The Queen. A bus passed in a thick bloom of exhaust. The light changed. With the roadway clear, Francis whipped the glass high in the air, standing in place as it hurtled back down and exploded into bits and shards beside him.
                Mr. Rose clicked his fingers, at the bartender, at D-O-N-N-I-E.
                “Call 911. A drunk is smashing glass in the street scaring away our business. Tell them that.”
                The afternoon traffic lulled Francis into a daze. By the third time the light changed, a patrol cruiser rode among the other cars, lights pulsing, siren quiet.
                Francis sat down on the curb. The cops got out of their car. Traffic backed up. Car horns chirped. The first cop stood over him, arms crossed, uncaring. The other cop got down to face him.
                Breaking glass, huh. Tough night?”
                “It’s daytime, officer. But, there’s no real problem, I won’t resist,” Francis said offering his wrists. The cop didn’t cuff him. He helped him to his feet and the three of them walked over to the car. The first cop placed a gentle hand on Francis’s head, easing him into the back seat. When they were all in the car, the second cop turned around in his seat.
                “You gotta have a story. That guy back there was about to break his neck trying to find out what we were doing with you. What’s what?”
                “That’s a good question,” Francis said to the cop. “I don’t know, I mean I never make much headway when it’s quiet. It’s a point of view.”
                “Don’t go full on nutso on us, buddy, alright, is it a point of view or the quiet,” the first officer asked. Drunks annoyed him.
                “That’s just it,” Francis offered, it’s both. If I slow it down, if I ease up on the pace, then the emptiness comes back. It’s a sound, it’s a visual. It’s encompassing.”
                The second officer eyed him.
                “We’re not taking you to jail. If everyone that broke some glass went to jail, you know what I mean? Where you headed? We’ll drop you.”
                That there would be hope and possibility was beyond him. He remembered he had spent the last of his money. He was mimicking a search for a wallet he didn’t have anymore.
                “Listen,” the cop said, “here’s fifteen bucks. That’s all I got in my wallet. I know better than this and you ain’t likely to have this happen again. But you can’t get into much trouble with fifteen bucks and, like I said, we’re not taking you to jail.”
                Francis took the money and climbed out of the cruiser. He didn’t wait for them to change course. He turned left at the intersection. Beyond him, the frenzied electrical array signaled the coming night. An alphabet of impulses accompanying his passage back to the nothingness of all that neon.

Henry Cherry is a writer and photographer based in Los Angeles, where he lives with an english pointer dog and teaches photography to disadvantaged youth and works as a freelance journalist. He's been nominated for the Pushcart award several times for his fiction and poetry and won the Silver Needle Press award in 2018.
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