The hot July afternoon sun cooked James as he awoke in bed, bed which is used in the loosest possible way. Three-inch sofa bed mattress which has been used by god knows how many sweaty crackheads, welfare bums and assorted societal detritus was a better name for it. But a place to sleep is a good place indeed, and James didn't care, so long as he could afford new sheets, freshly washed.
The air was thick and musty with heated dust and stale marijuana - I mean Pot, marijuana is what parents call it. James walked to the window nearest his bed, above his computer, and cracked it open; a few flakes of white paint fell from it, as always. Even though a southerly breeze was blowing into the window, it didn't help much; high Noon on the high prairie, in summer, smelled like dust and distant cowshit. An olfactory reminder, everyday, that he wasn't back home in the humid climes of eastern Ontario.
Bored, he sat at his computer desk and started rolling a joint. He had to work today, but like in six hours, and by then the most he'd be is permafried. Which was not a significant improvement on the usual, but still. He'd filled the paper with fresh, moist weed when he heard the creaking of a door across the hallway, the shuffle of tired feet, and the predictable rapid, nervous knocking on his door.
Fuck. It's way too early to deal with Rob.
Probably not for Rob, who was up at 8 each morning hustling for dope. But James had no desire to deal with Rob right then, so he sat there at his computer, very still, trying not to generate any noise which might give away that he was home. Unfortunately, Rob was wily and shrewd, and started opening his mailslot to peek inside. James dove to the ground behind his bed, but alas, it'd been too late; he had been spotted.
"James? Are you in there? I know you're in there. Come on man, don't be a dick."
James, shamed into compliance, crawled up from behind his Chesterfield, walked to the door, undid the latch and twisted the deadbolt, and opened the door seven inches.
"Hey Rob. What's up?"
Rob looked back at him as always, with hooded eyes and a half-grin permanently etched on his face. As usual, James overcame the impulse to cover his nose; Rob smelled like cooking grease and BO, the universal odour of the indigent and underprivileged, living off of $3.99/ea bacon and no deodorant.
"Ah, well, not too much. Just wanted to know what you were up to, see if you wanted to hang out."
Which meant, roll and smoke a joint. Fair enough, Rob was, after all, James' dope hookup in Moose Jaw, since he didn't know anyone moving here. Or to be more accurate, Rob knew people who sold, and bought it for James in exchange for a small amount in return. But dope was a valuable commodity, always in low supply, and divulging some was a Jesus-like act of generosity.
"Well, I don't know, I mean-"
Rob fished a crumpled, dirty five out of his pocket. "I'll pay you for it."
Wow, he was offering money in exchange for goods/services. He must really be jonesing. Unfortunately, five dollars' worth of dope was far more valuable than $5 cash - after all, you can't smoke a 5 and get stoned. If you could, the gov't could really cut out the middleman. But James, not wanting to offend, spied a patchy growth above Rob's lip, and decided to change the subject.
"Hey Rob, what's that? You starting a moustache?"
He rubbed it thoughtfully. "Yeah man, my dad told me that if I didn't grow one, like a real man, he'd cut me off."
Wow, thought James, that's fucked up.
"Well, it looks good." It looked like shit.
"Thanks, it feels kinda weird though." He rubbed it again, slower this time, like he was really losing himself in an unfamiliar texture. He looked over James' shoulder to his computer desk, and his dull, prematurely aged eyes immediately lit up.
Dammit. He spotted it.
"Dude, you got a fatty ready to go right now, let's light that fucker up and chill!"
Which was logic difficult to refute, but James tried. "Well, I, uh, um..."
"What? Gotta do groceries, go to work? I've heard em all man, now don't be a dick, let's light that fucker up and fly."
James sighed. He wasn't going to win this battle. He invited Rob in, finished rolling the joint, and lit that fucker up, and it was good.
Six hours later, James was clad in a pinstripe suit (no overcoat, reserved for supervisors), dealing blackjack at the local casino. And although he projected an image of competency, the numbers were blurring in his head and it was difficult to concentrate; working on autopilot was difficult when permafried.
He finished dealing the hand (two busts, but you never say bust; always "too many") and pulled out his own cards; ten, three, two...and a six. Twenty-one. The table gasped in shock, yet after he collected their money, quickly put out their bets for another round. Because gamblers are funny that way, if they lose a hand, they'll blame the moon, stars, their dog, their partner, their supper, anything to deflect responsibility for losing $20 in a single hand. But if they win, then they will blame themselves for betting too little, even though they had that feeling; and resolve to not make that same mistake next time.
James dealt out the next hand; and naturally, the one idiot who got a blackjack was the one guy who bet $17, Christ. $17 x 3/2 =...
"It's $28.50, buddy" yelled a smoke-cured voice from the table.
Blackjack of 7 is...$13.50...blackjack of 10 is 15...15 plus $13.50 is...
"$28.50!" piped in another voice from the table. "Yeah, twenty-eight..."
Well, it didn't matter how drunk they were, gamblers sure were good at math. It was like James' uncle Ernie, in the hospital after double-bypass, still drunk on anaesthetic and yet arguing with his wife over exact cab fare; cheapness goes deep to the core, and can't be tempered by your poison of choice. James figured he'd let his patrons do the thinking, and duly paid out $28.50 using a variety of clay-based chips.
Two hours till close, and his brain was almost fully off. Patrons came and went like a blur, and he swept up money, and paid out on occasion, robotically and without noticeable emotion. A higher primate, properly trained, could do the same job and for much cheaper. A few people shuffled off the table, broke but acting like it was their choice to leave, and others planted themselves for the long haul, come hell or...an empty wallet. A sullen youth sat down, and James mechanically said hi.
He looked up and saw Rob sitting there, sans moustache, fucked up on something; but he faked his way sufficiently past security, and now he had to serve him.
"Oh, uh, hey, how's it going?"
"Not too bad man, not too bad." He reached into his pocket and slapped the filthy five on the table, reminding James that he had forgotten to get it off Rob that afternoon, but God knows what better uses it might have gone towards; 1/46th of next month's rent, perhaps. Or maybe a fresh pack of bacon.
James would have rather not dealt with Rob under any circumstances, much less at work. But rules were rules, and he dealt cards to him; a 10...shit...followed by a...yes! A 6. A 16, he'd probably lose this hand, then he'd be out of his hair. He dealt himself his upcard, an eight, and looked in Rob's clouded eyes.
"Hit or stand?"
Rob looked at his hand, and looked at the other patrons for advice, who were only too glad to provide it.
"Guy's got an 8, hit that!"
"Yeah, hit it!"
"You gotta hit 16s against an 8."
He looked incredulous. "But...there are lots of cards that could make me bust."
They looked at him seriously, like sages of the table. "Trust me", said one, "the odds are better."
Rob looked doubtful, but the chorus of approval from the table convinced him. He looked at James.
"Well, OK, I guess I'll take a card, I guess." James took a card from the shoe and slapped it down, praying for some paint.
Rob, naturally, was happy, and the Blackjack Sages all nodded approvingly; their wisdom had proven accurate, against the odds. James was disappointed; 1/3 of the deck, tens or face cards, and he had to slap down a four. Christ. He prayed for a miracle from his hand.
“Come on, Killer! Clean us out!” yelled someone at the table, sarcastically. James had been nicknamed “Killer”, based on his ability to make 21 with absolutely any starting card. It was funny how it worked that way, some dealers just, for whatever reason, paid better than others. James wondered if their attitude towards the patrons didn’t influence the cards somehow, the ones who genuinely liked a full table to talk to generally played the cards that let it happen. James preferred an empty table, and got it plenty. He slid the cards out of the shoe with his left hand, and snapped them beside his eight, one at a time.
“Slam it hard! Show me some paint!” yelled a drunk gambler.
James slid the last card out of the shoe and snapped it in front of him; five!
The table groaned again, with annoyance. “Way to go, Killer.” Said one. “Nickel and dimed to death!” said another. The general consensus was that Killer was bad luck, and the table had gone ice cold; James quickly gathered up the losing bets, all of them, and robotically bid everyone who left a good night. Rob was left at the table, alone, looking despondent. James looked at him with all the sympathy he could muster.
“Sorry man, that’s the way it goes. Win some, lose more.” He gathered Rob’s lone red chip and plunked it into his chip tray.
“You don’t have to look like you enjoy it so much.”
James froze, but just for a second. Damn, he’d been called out.
“That’s not true,” he said. “I like to see people win.” He busily went about clearing off his table, and put the lid on his chip tray.
Rob looked at him clearly, with concentration;
“No, you don’t. You like it when they lose.”
He got up off the table, and slowly shuffled out of the casino. James stood there, alone at the table, the way he liked it.
James, unusually, didn’t hear from Rob for the next ten days, and it was just as well so long as his stash was full. But his dope was running out, and he figured a timely visit to Rob’s place to re-up was in order. He strode across the dim, musty hallway and knocked loudly on Rob’s door.
“Hey Rob!”. He knocked some more.
“Rob, you home?”
No answer. James looked up and down the hallway to make sure no one was around, and opened up Rob’s mailslot and peeked inside. To hell with it, he does it to me all the time. As far as he could tell, no one was home in the tiny, bare apartment.
No answer. Maybe he wasn't home after all. James backed away from the mailslot, and turned around right into the face of the landlord, striding like a baron down his decrepit hallway.
"Hey!" he yelled. "Watch it!"
James apologized. "Hey, do you know what happened to Rob?"
Confusion creased the landlord's forehead. "Rob? Rob who? I know a lot of Robs."
"The guy who lives here."
He shook his head and sighed angrily. "The guy who lives here", he said tersely, "skipped out on the rent last week and left me high and dry. Now I gotta pay to get his shit moved out of there, thank god there's not much."
"Do you know where he is?"
"Don't know and don't care." His cellphone was buzzing in his belt holster. He answered it and kept walking down the hallway.
James walked back into his own shitty apartment, closed the door and twisted the deadbolt, force of habit. He wondered where Rob might have disappeared to. Probably Calgary, they all end up there eventually.
But Rob’s gone. Thank God.
He stood there, alone in his apartment, trying to force a smile. He was happy, wasn’t he? Wasn’t this just the way he liked it?
He sat down at his computer, lit up his last joint, and put Echoes on Winamp. It sure was.