I have retraced my steps in the windstorm. Sand and garbage blow down through the funnel of the Strip from its miserable northern mouth. The palms tremble and kick like the underskirts of its old chorus girls. Ugly sixteenth notes pip from wind on metal; invisible drums scratch rustle and thunder. Everyone struggling around me is a tourist: even the sun crusted families of the dry south, now fat and tattooed algae green – is it not sweet to fit in – teeter against this assault of consumer debris and hotlands anger.
I don’t struggle, though, because I have a mission: I’m going to go and take my beating without a single complaint. It was, after all, always my thing, my peculiar discipline, to go back after a badly played or badly behaved session, to the same place, and right what was wrong. It is unlikely I will win; I know what God wants of me and why.
I push my hat down to keep any more sand out of my eyes. I walk fast, faster. I’m trying, it might seem, to leave them behind, but the tourists bunch into a single line and follow.
Important life lessons are hard to identify, let alone learn from. My mother now thinks her faith is what is getting her through the terror of losing her savings, yet it is that very credulity that let her succumb to the scammers. Later, when I back to help her move, she tells me how wonderful a person I will be when I am a true believer.
That’s not the lesson I’m learning, however, but a far smaller and painful one, a pin prick I could easily try to outwalk. I finally see and accept, despite all the good, how petty she can be, manipulative, even here in what should be a wise old age, a benevolence of perspective, the Giving Tree I will mourn to have lost. Yet what is the painful lesson? It’s not that my eyes are open for the first time – that was done a long time ago – it’s that I must love her anyways. She is what she is – I can finally use that stupid expression sincerely – and I am simply supposed to accept it. It is a true resolution, a long awaited one, and one of pure understanding and acceptance: my family is not what I wish them to be and that is alright.
Is that not one step away from saying I am not what I wish I was and that is alright? A disturbing thought!
Either way, it’s meaningful because I’m not good at accepting things, not at all. I always seem to sniff a better path, a way out of the inevitable or consequential. In fact, because of this, how close I came to preventing her from the fall! God crept behind her furniture most uselessly then, didn’t he? I knew it, I knew from the very rhythm of her emails, texts, words, that something was going on while the scammers took her retirement and, in a sense, much of my peace of mind. I had called her, dragging myself to my duties, in the middle of the fleecing, in those horrible hours while she was stuffing her lifetime’s gains into a Bitcoin machine, bent over, afraid, and ashamed, old and delicate and alone, some dim rube at the counter reading online and glancing pointlessly at her while she said goodbye to peace and tranquility. The mother had been convinced her family would be harmed if she stopped or told anyone – the best criminals know exactly what buttons to push.
The bulging brown borderlanders fall further behind. I am on the casino property now. How is it that one hundred years from the founding of Las Vegas most of it is still dust? Yet the seeming random, unaccountably lively life of healthy humanity surrounds me immediately: they are their own typhoon. Sour, eligible women in their helpless, cheap little factory dresses crush dust and glass with their glossy crippling heels, marking a light staccato march alongside their perfumed men, slack-jawed stoners in joke suits who don’t even know what they are imitating, all of them outfitted like jackals and jack in the boxes and ready to squawk at some adversarial sports score.
They are infinitely limited – the phrase, those damn words, the incantation, won’t leave me. They are all infinitely limited, my mom, everyone, me. It’s fine, surely? I don’t know, and I’m not going to figure it out. I’m learning to let things go, to diminish not to disappear but to refocus on what matters.
I’ve beaten our little caravan to the door – I can still move quickly when I want to, apparently. I am the old, fat coyote the rancher can’t quite trap; I get a name and special bullet for my troubles. The herd is here, too: good times, it’s the usual bunch in the poker room – they didn’t know him, but he knew them.
I sit in and it’s clear the game is going to be especially good, even before I see the ridiculous, stupid shit that is happening. Five-way three bet pots. Min-raise three bets. A guy who never gets off the phone while he plays, trying to convince a buddy to come down from the hotel room. It’s all so beautiful, but the lesson is not that I will get a piece.
No, I will see only sets and bets from unbalanced players. One will shake my hand then announce that he has the nuts after I make a tough call. If it were a joke, if it was good conservation, it would be funnier then instead of funny now, but he’s no wit, he couldn’t outsmart his dog. He’s just another of a billion souls imitating the images he sees on the screen. He is having fun thinking he is free but all the while he is reenacting The Image, the one thing Muhammed knew to be most afraid of and to ban. Imitation is the death of virtue, so the best criminals always know what matters.
I lose everything in one final flip, drawing dead when my opponent shows me another set. The bros close in to celebrate with him, to draw the water of life from the body and spend it on sacred edibles. One finishes his interminable call: “oh I thought you were upstairs but you’re in Chicago. My bad.” Good luck in the next 5/10 tournament, he nods to me empathetically.
In other words, all is well. I’m given relief, too: soon I will get to be in my car, my own comfortable vehicle, free from obligation, blaring the messy soundtrack I never exchange for another. The industrial crash of A minor seven on a cranky, noisy guitar, an open chord from the dirty past that spits and bridles at digitization and cutesy contemporary agreeableness, a few bars and then the harmonica stream; a tinny, reedy, rasping, blown-out anthem for walking to war and back. It’s the same song, same dirge for me every day, every night, win or lose, since forever, for year now. I can’t get enough of it. It fills the blown ballast tank in my chest, it closes the lava black hole of times lost.
Later, I will see myself in a mirror. Outrage. It’s always an accident as I try not to look, but it sneaks up on me from its wall in the restaurant. Like the old smuggler of Seaworth, I don’t really recognize myself and I know I don’t like it, and far more than he didn’t. Things have to change, but… that word is poison, because, of course, no one changes.
They do reorganize. Finally, poker hero Billy returns to Vegas. It’s been an age, a real cycle. I go to his dinner, taking the effervescent Moldyfish, a happy character out of Kundera who is in town to play big and take his shot at the WSOP. There’s a funny intro period where the guests try to guess where the best seat is, but of course, you make your own fate and our table is fantastic, even if the host doesn’t join us. I chat with some clearly deranged poker girls who are looking for coaching help but are obviously profound trouble: I’m too wary for that obvious iceberg, however tempting. I enjoy food and life talk with Lance, who has joined the Lizard’s cuisine events and is always most agreeably high. Meanwhile, one of the patrones decides to wildly emotionally dump onto Moldy, Marle and a few others who keep their bewildered composure: fun times.
While we stuff ourselves on novelty sushi, I think about settling things with Billy – I still love him but the dust up over his pod review was never actually resolved, just ignored – however, it’s not how things go. I understand better now, I’m beginning to get it. There are many overlaps in our lives, but this friendship is not to be, not for now anyway. It’s a one-way street, one I didn’t recognize, naively, until I was already on it. That’s fair, because I am not important in his world, which is rightly focused on money, credit, business, family. As the meal winds down, I see him in the corner sitting next to someone I know all too well, one of the great social climbers in poker, someone for whom everyone is a friend: the ambitious always surround him. I wave good-bye to them all. This is a resolution, a quiet one, not the one I thought I wanted or even consciously made, but I did instinctively choose to take Moldy back to his apartment rather than talk an unwanted talk. Who am I, after all? This isn’t my show, I’m just a fan, a ticketholder, an observer, a patrone. No, it’s important to recognize your own – and who is not your own. To respect difference, and in doing so, respect all the more the people who respect you.
I was growing up late, perhaps, but doing it, and doing it in a circus town and industry where many others simply implode.
Getting it, knowing where you belong, frees up everything else. The drive from Vegas to the home counties is, in fact, beautiful, and I let myself love it. I’ve been especially present for a month, enjoying the Vegas stage and now this last leg of it. The Lounge Lizard and I drive the hardest, slowest way, along the mountains. We see the animals, we see the trees, we see the water and the ice, all the soothing elements nature has to offer. We even find paradise too, which is apparently a brewery in Cowiche, set atop the rolling heart of apple country. You sit outdoors in a near English pastoral tranquility, but it’s a warmer, hazier, broader one. There is a soft, cooling but not cool breeze that removes all worry, while the grey outlines of the mountains, like the fog of benevolent, sweet dreams, roll comfortably behind. The clouds aren’t pillows like they say, no, the mountains are. They sleep. Patches of green farms, cows, and the fruits of the land unto the horizon make all ambition seem foolish and all conflicts forgotten.
When I walked out of the casino, my mission complete, I was not angry, not this time. Still, this session was my Vegas, all over again, once again, again and again, and however small, because nothing good came in the black chip games for me. For the most part, when I played big, I ran sickly. It affected me rather quickly, pressured already by the neediness of friends and family, warped by my own sunken state. My questionable calls were all with huge hands, unfoldable hands that had to be folded, and so I rarely won. The games weren’t even that hard, I just couldn’t overcome showdowns and a certain predilection for playing “correctly” that I had picked up uncoincidentally at the nadir long ago, so disassociated from myself that even my poker game was depressed.
You can’t stay depressed in Las Vegas, fortunately! I had too much fun merely being free again, for one thing. To be able to have a drink and write and eat at some bar four a.m. under incurious supervision is a privilege. My walks in the crushing heat, exploring the doodads and munchies and peoples of the urban crevices kept me curious; the late-night drives past ghettos and encampments and the nocturnal wanderers kept me focused. Even the social life, if skin-deep, was always happy light, and fun. I’ll never stop laughing at one of the poker hosts I liked and showed up for: his thing was to put a game together, then decide within a few minutes there was a better game somewhere and announce he was leaving his own game. As if that weren’t enough, he’d drag out leaving, shaking hands with people even as they objected. I’d challenge myself not to start laughing until he left.
There were bitter moments in the capital of gamble for me, of course. Once, I assigned bluffs to some loutish local pro in a rather straightforward spot where I needed to call with an overpair (I lost), only to later learn he and the table were mocking me after I left for thinking he had bluffs. (Am I supposed to respect these swine, this “community” the chimping heads praise and worship? What lover of the game, what lover of anything, behaves like this? For a while, Las Vegas taught me to hate poker and its ugly denizens.) Yes, there was one sweet session where I was able to break out, forget about money, and really dominate – one shove bluff was so insanely dialed in that it felt like I was another person, or in a dream – but for the most part, the life changing stakes in Las Vegas simply changed my life for the worse. The rhythms were all off, the stars slept. As I’ve said before, there’s always some poor bum who gets his teeth kicked in, who just can’t fade the swings – I guess I was pretending to be surprised that I was both due and at just how untimely it all was.
I moved down and after a while, grew to accept and even embrace some severe bankroll management. In the need to survive, to pay for all my oaths and extravagances (my outrageous restaurant habits really are shocking), I had nearly forgotten all the wise money wisdom stuff and the prudent people things. Taking more care had been the smart move all along, and correspondingly, my life soon got better when I did. I wanted to feel good, and I wanted to not take huge chances on a nightly basis. After all, there is no endless credit line for me; I never kissed the right rings nor asked for aid. I ‘ve never even put my name in the Main Event rip-off lottery at one-point-freeroll. I have sold a few pieces here and there for fun, but real staking hasn’t once entered my life. It’s a mistake, perhaps, but it’s very me.
However, I also relearned something just as valuable as the old money management dance: I like the lower stakes better, and by that, not just the game, I mean the people. The social experience, the culture, the tables. (My old friend B. from Seattle, who noted that I do my best work looking up from the gutter, had been right all along.) Is it where I belong? I don’t know what to make of it, not entirely, but I know I am not as sharp as I used to be, and maybe it’s really that simple: just a broken-down poker cowboy who is ready for his Cowiche pasture.
I tried to create a more accessible, little weekly poker paradise, of course, while I was there, but I wasn’t really the best person to carry off the Sahara game. I know I did a few things that worked, but I’m not the friendliest, not the most outgoing, not the impresario that a true host is. I don’t gladhand, I introduce. I don’t smooth, I offer. So, I’m glad it works without me, because that means I did something right in spite of myself.
However, another truth is I couldn’t give it much more time than I did: yes, my departure from the Las Vegas coincided with taking the Lizard back to Redmond and to looking after my family, but also with my exhaustion at dealing with my favorite poker room. I ask for few favors, and when I was denied by management on an important and harmless request, my patience finally broke. To not hear back from Mr. Meruelo also reminded me of my place in things in an unpleasant way: I thought he liked poker, and I thought what I was doing mattered. Never mind, sorry I asked. I like having a “home” poker room, but I’m also not someone who takes slights very well. I had to swallow my pride just a bit to go back a bunch of times toward the end of my stay: learning to accept, once again. This time, though, it was healthy. I was learning how to ignore people, to care less, to diminish properly, to be innocent and simple. I had wanted to save the room and somehow be involved, like the neighbor and the neighborhood park, but in the end, I’m just another voting citizen.
And a broken one at that. The personal disasters have knocked me off my feet. I no longer recognize myself, and not just in the old smuggler’s sense. I feign desires in order to have some. I set goals to make up for things, to show that I can still do it. A big one has been looking after my old friend, one who is really more like a little brother. People kept asking me about our odd relationship: why do you look after the Lounge Lizard? Why do you support someone when you have so many other things to do? Why won’t you behave like everyone else? The answer of course, which I would not tell, was all-along very simple yet too hard to explain: there is no point in being a half-friend. I was tired of compromising with my principles, of ending up making the wrong decision because I had thought of myself, my foolish human self, first.
I have been very tired for a long time of negotiating with that particular terrorist.
Now I have been blessed with many rich friendships and powerful relationships but frankly I have gotten much of their workings wrong. Of course, the irony was looking after the Lizard probably didn’t do either of us any good. It’s also easy to forget I was the basket case when we left the safe confines of the northwest: it was his good idea to get the hell out of there, to mix things up in the midst of stagnation and the embarrassing covid hysteria. However, once I saw the underlying truth of the matter, I thought he would rise out of his oblivion, but he could not do it. He even seemed to call out for help, but I stuck with my methodology, my post-tragedy personality, which however attentive has an inflexible element of Edvard’s mask – shocking to see yourself through the lens of a child looking at the adult when you are now the exact thing you could not have imagined becoming. The telescoping magnifier and microscope of art lays us bare and low. If we are paying attention, it is the call to restart and fix everything.
Well, it’s easier not to pay attention, of course, to go through life like a rolling stone; you have to bottom out, they even say. Indeed, that would have saved me a lot of time and money – but that’s no way to get through the long days of the wagon train. Someone has to get everyone somewhere, even if it is end up in the middle of a dusty meadow valley. I had help along the way from loyal students and new friends, one of which was particularly good to me during this time and deserves extra thanks.
We may be infinitely limited, yet if we can name something, put our mind to it, we immediately wish to change it. The human is the imitative animal but more importantly the most perverse one, the one who disagrees, who says, this is not enough. Ignorance really is, therefore, bliss, permission to go to seed, and since I have recently had so little of that comfort, pushed to every extreme, I am fine with pushing myself one step further, toward the thing I (barely still) believe in: resolution.
In a few days I will have seen my mother off on her own mission to Idaho and the grandkids. She will be bankrupt soon but free. She is already putting it behind her, somehow. We’re just not the same and there is no real understanding. I’ve done my part: I want to let her and her problems go, too. I will spend several months working, I hope, on long-avoided projects, including the hardest project of all: the infinitely limited, partially malleable self.
I’m not satisfied with this particular special desert project’s outcome, not exactly; I’ve seen him in the plans and in the mirror once too many times now. I know all his triggers and fuses and masses; I’ve studied the blueprints in the sunless hours. There are too many questions, and the answers seem clear enough to be discouraging: What if I started playing well again? What if I gave it all up? What if I took a leap of faith? Can I bend fate once more and invoke the fission that once promised so much, too much, light?
Diminuendo. After a few days of impatience and chores, a peace comes over me in the sun of my mother’s house – is that the breeze of paradise, twice in one month? I forget that I am supposed to be unhappy. Where is Edvard’s mask, did I leave it with my sunglasses? Is this all I really want or need? Can I beg, find a compromise, can we split the difference with the devil and merely say: can’t I stop being his half-friend? Didn’t I just prove – suffering, alone, distraught, my one true love forever absent – that I could take care of everyone around me, compete for my nightly bread, and still make everything around me work?
There is hope in conflict, none in peace. Bring on the windstorms, send me all your trash, you garbage, corporate munchkin neon highway robbers. You fake of fakes, you suburb without a city, you Sysco guide to cooking, Target guide to sex, you Siren of the railway depot.
The rainforest I go to, supplicant, is what I would escape from, so this is the monster returning to his cave, the Grey Havens for dummies. To stop the hammering of shoemakers, the old musician said, finally understanding his own music. To escape the dreary, cloudy north and its sullen gnomes. To move from A minor seven to a giddy major F, full of almost stupid promise, skipping right past merely cheery G.
When we hit the Northwest, the traffic slows. The right lane is the fast lane because the drivers perversely seek the safety of the now crowded left.
Maybe… maybe this is a fake peace, the Phoney War after the formal declaration, the eerie, nearly stumbling closure before Brahms summons the immortal rage of that final canon, that impossible round and row which terrifies the gods themselves because they now know that at least one man cares more than they do. And I still care, somehow, just enough, perhaps. I want to see myself through, not merely a dusty valley of slick dreams which I began to call home, but through the one great vale we all cross or die trying.