Barker

By Nate Chang

Sweat stains his required uniform; a printed t-shirt in ugly orange color, with the words “Girls, Girls, Girls” printed on both the front and back. A stack of cards, each bearing a naked woman and a phone number, flick-clicks back and forth in his hands, the moistness of his hands puckering the spots where his fingers touch card.   

He came to Las Vegas with hope in his heart, fortune on his mind and two dollars in his pocket. He had some moderate success, won a few dollars at the penny slots, a few more at the tables; enough to rent a cheap off-the-books apartment above a bowling alley well off the strip. As it does with so many, his hope faded quickly, his dreams of fortune washed away in a tide of alcohol served by equally-despondent cocktail waitresses: all he could drink for a two dollar tip, so long as he stayed sitting at a slot machine.

He knows what to look for; anyone who makes eye contact, preferably male, early twenties to late forties. Rings on the finger are not a problem, but women on the arm are. He knows that most of his cards will wind up on the pavement around his feet, glanced at for a moment, then tossed away, heedless of littering laws. But he doesn’t care; he gets paid the same wage whether the men who take his cards visit the hookers or not. He flip-clicks the cards again, allowing his hands to keep busy in the hope that it will take his mind off the monotony of his job, the drudgery of his life and the nagging of his wife.

He tried to take a straight job on the strip. Worked stints at a few casinos as a card dealer; he did alright. But there were months when tourism would slip, and some people would get laid off. He was always one of the first to go. Quick to get a job, and just as quick to lose it. It wasn’t his fault, really. He just wasn’t a very good card dealer. He tried moving down the ladder, to the maintenance department. That didn’t work either.

He rubs the back of his arm on his head, bringing it down with beads of salty liquid running along his skin. He looks further up the strip and sees a man selling water for a dollar a bottle. He considers this for a second, but dismisses the thought. He is not a smart man, but he has done the math several times, if for no other reason than to occupy his thoughts. He makes eight dollars an hour, or one point three three cents per minute. At his wage, the bottle of water will cost him seven and a half minutes’ wages. He could also run into the hotel behind him and drink from the faucet in the bathroom. This trip takes him two minutes and costs him nothing. He decides to take the faucet, to save his dollar.

The maintenance department was going well. They started him with elevators and in-room televisions. They moved him up to slot machines after he took a four-week training course at his expense. It seemed worth it; the course cost four hundred dollars, but would mean a five dollar per hour pay increase. It seemed like a good idea until he considered the fact that he would be working on machines that could potentially handle thousands of dollars in cash every single day. He resisted the temptation to tamper with the machines at first, but the idea of striking it rich, staging his own Ocean’s Eleven-type heist from within the casino was too much. It was a simple thing for him, to rig several slot machines to funnel their dollar bills into a secondary collection point, but still think they had stowed the dollar. It worked well for three days, netting him six thousand dollars.

The hotels smell like smoke. They all do. It baffles him how people can willfully kill themselves and pay for the privilege on such a scale as in Las Vegas. He tries to ignore the news reports he has seen on second-hand smoke. They always intrude on his mind when he enters a casino. He has never succeeded in forgetting the statistics. He believes them down to his feet, knows in his core that they are true: every minute he spends in a casino is a minute less he spends as a living, breathing human. He never smokes, for fear of dying early.

The bathroom is nice. Swanky even, though it’s just a bathroom to him. You go in, you piss, you shit, or both, you wash your hands and you leave. He comes in, sticks his head as far under the faux-antique faucet as it will fit and turns the tap to Cold. The water is cool, life-giving, revitalizing. He splashes some on his arms and head, dries off with a single paper towel. Then he returns to the street.

It was the best day of his life, the last day he emptied the slots machines. Collecting seventeen hundred dollars, he went out and bought a gold watch from one of the casino boutiques. But he was careless, sloppy. One of the casino security people saw him buy the watch and alerted his supervisor. Knowing that he couldn’t afford such a lavish purchase on his salary, the casino investigated the machines he had serviced. And before he could try and protest, his job was stolen, his Ocean’s Eleven scheme foiled, and his livelihood destroyed. He was told he would never look at another casino again.

Despite the smoke, he enjoys the air conditioning all the casinos have. He feels his heart tug at his chest as he walks through the doors, back into the humidity. He wonders for half a second why Las Vegas is humid. Doesn’t there need to be water or rain for there to be humidity? He remembers Miami was humid, but he also remembers it raining there. He cannot remember the last time it rained in Las Vegas.

He begins handing out his cards again, flip-click, flip-click, flip-click. He snaps his fingers between clicks, again trying to keep his hands busy so his mind won’t wander. It does anyway. He thinks of his wife, at home in their apartment above the bowling alley. She yells at him to get a better job, that it is no kind of work for a man to hand out prono flyers on the strip. She still can’t say porno correctly. He shudders. He thinks she sounds like an old lady.

He tried to find a few other jobs, but having been disgraced by the casino, no one else would touch him. Not even the fast food chains would take him. He passed a barker on the strip one day on his way to a job interview. He stopped and asked the man how he got his job. The man took a pen from his pocket, drew a circle around an address on one of his cards and handed it to him.

“Call this number, say Ricky sent you,” he says. “We always need more people to hand out cards.”

“Thanks,” he says.

He calls the number. He has a job two hours later.

The sun’s burning begins to slack off as it dips below the roof of the casinos. Another barker in the ugly orange shirt comes to take his place. He nods to his replacement, a silent signal that it has been a terrible day, and that tomorrow will be one too. He doesn’t know his replacement’s name. His replacement does not know his name. Both know that when the other shows up, their shift is over. It’s that simple. And they are at peace with the simplicity of their career.

He met his wife a year after he became a barker. He decided to take advantage of the “employees fuck for free once a month” offer his work afforded him, and spent an evening with Cunning Carmen. She was beautiful, wild and strangely humble once they had trashed her room with a particularly vigorous fuck. She decided to quit her job and try to find work as a secretary after they decided to see each other regularly. They got married in a small civil wedding on the old strip. He tried desperately to please her for the first few years of their marriage, but he could never seem to bring her to orgasm after their first encounter at the whore house. He began to wonder if she had faked it.

He tosses the rest of his cards to his replacement. Only one stack left. The replacement nods and begins flip-clicking. He trudges home, opens the door to his apartment, and is not surprised or shocked when his nostrils are assaulted by gin, whiskey and stale pizza. His wife lies passed out on their living room floor, a box of condoms lying open next to her, it’s contents used and discarded carelessly. Next to her is a small piece of paper.

Don’t ever fucking call me again, you whore.

He reads the paper, sets it back down. His whore wife mumbles in her comatose state before she pees herself. He watches her stain the carpet a darker shade of shit brown. He goes into their bedroom, kneels in front of their bed and says a quick prayer, for all the good it will do him. He reaches under the bed, finds the shoebox with the pistol he bought off a drug dealer. He loads it, goes back to his living room and sits down beside his whore wife. He speaks to her in the hope that she can hear him. He tells her he is sorry, that he hasn’t been much of a man. That his parents never liked her, and they disowned him for marrying her. He tells her that he forgives her for cheating on him, for drinking constantly, and never letting him sleep.

He racks the pistol’s slide back like he remembers TV action heroes doing. He puts a bullet in his wife’s head, then puts another into his own head.

The replacement waits out his shift, handing out his cards and flip-clicking them to keep his hands busy. He looks at his cheap cell phone to check the time. He wonders where his replacement is; he should have showed up by now. He waits an extra hour before he returns to his employer. He collects the day’s earnings, walks to the bus depot and buys a ticket to somewhere far away and very cold. He gets on the bus and never returns. He wonders if he should have told his employer about his replacement not showing up. He thinks better of it. He deserves a rest.

Nate Chang is a writer/artist who lives in Portland, OR with his wife and a cabinet full of model robots. His work has appeared inSoul’s Road: a Fiction Collection, andThe Pitkin Reviewliterary magazine.

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