The Gambler

By Alexander Drost

When I arrived in Sparks, Georgia it smelled of grit and dark pine. The air was so muggy that my shirt was its dampest shade of gray. A clan of children hopped on the bus just outside town.

“That was some hit, Peggy!” One of the boys said. “You really beat the devil out of it.” Peggy smiled.

The bus hissed, the children skipped off and disappeared into the hanging woods. I watched them retract from the road and fingered the poker chip in my pocket, gently edging the engraved 19 with my thumb nail.

“This is as far as we get to it,” the driver said. “The Inn is half mile up there—You’re the Thomson boy coming in, yeah?”

“Yesir.”

“Mmmhm—well stand straight Mr. Thomson. Folks in Sparks can spot a weak spine.”

I thanked the driver and sank off the bus into the clay. It became heavier with every stride I took, and it wasn’t long until my slacks were a violent weighty-amber.

STARKEEP INN

The sign was almost unreadable; its paint had eroded to the wood and the post from which it hung was cracked with sap. The Inn’s veranda railed along its face and its wooden sides were peeking through two trees, grotesquely twisted, and feeding off the lawn. I followed the stepping stones.

A screen door slap jolted my glance upward to face two women, most definitely twins. Both dressed in black gowns which in no way accented a lick of beauty.

“Mr. Thomson,” they said simultaneously.

“Please, call me Gad.”

“We’ve been expectin’ your arrival.” The sisters backed into house then stopped their steps together.

“Were terribly sorry that Sparks makes you stay all the way out here with us. But folks in town don’t take kindly to you being here,” said the sister with the deeper voice.

“Believe me ma’am, I don’t want to be here anymore than they.”

“That may be so Mr. Thomson, but your uncle was a good man to the folks of Sparks— They’d be damned if any Yankee come in and take what’s rightfully the town’s.”

It seemed that everyone north of Georgia was a Yankee.

“Well, it isn’t the towns…It was my uncle’s, the good man’s, and he left it to the family–My family.” I mumbled, and globed the side of my gut.

It was just my luck to have to come down here, sweat my ass off and handle the legalities for my sister.

“That’s an interesting way to see it, Mr. Thomson. Follow us, we’ll show you to your room.”

They stepped up. The stairs yawned upward to the attic room where a twin sized bed lay with an ebony nightstand and a matching desk. Before returning down the stairs, the sisters stopped.

“We received a wire this morning,” one of the sisters said. “Judge Steely is feeling under the weather and has ordered to postpone the settlement until next week.”

The other spoke next. “We haven’t had many guests for a good while. You may stay as long as you need to be in Sparks.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“Are your married, Mr. Thomson?” Both of their eyes had no color.

“No ma’am.” I replied.

“We noticed the untanned band around your finger is all.” You would think after two summers it would have filled in.

“You look like a man who likes his drink.” The one sister added.

“Yes’m”

“Spirits are in the cellar if you are thirsty. We’ll leave you to fixing yourself in.”

“Yes’m. Thank you.”

When they disappeared to the lower level of the house I stripped off my britches, tossed them to the floor with a heavy thump and stepped into a new pair. The room was absent of any possessions except furniture, the kind of room you would expect a nun to pray in.

I was creeping over to the window when a flash caught my eye. The glare led me to the nightstand. A coin, heads up, 25 cents. I lifted the coin and caressed the ribbed edges before turning it over. Another heads. I had never seen one of these. Pocketing the treasure, I began to feel the need for that drink.

The sisters forgot to mention that the only way to the cellar was to enter from the outside, like a tornado shelter. I swung open the iron latch and the basement extended before me like a void.

My face met a string which after being tugged, hummed into a sodium glow and illuminated the vault. It was a speakeasy if I had ever seen one. Abandoned after the prohibition, I reckon. Every appliance operated solely by spiders and dust for years. A wooden bar L’d across the wall and confronted the billiards table and gambling stations. It wasn’t hard to find a glass.

As I pulled the cork and tumbled the bourbon into it, there was a startling ruckus of bells, springs and lights behind me. I turned, expecting to find a circus. But, found myself facing a pinball machine–alive and eager to play. Contemplating the gamble, I twirled my poker chip between my fingers, and then I rose from the stool. The game was heated; I had never seen a pinball machine with such brilliance. FREE PLAY was flashing and a silver ball lay in the pocket, ready to be fired.

I pulled back on the sling and shot the bullet up. It clinked, it sparked, shot across the glass, and then dropped behind the paddles. …1800pts…A NEW HIGH SCORE…

There was a loud knock against the wooden field of the machine. The lights died and the four legged gambler stood dormant. The cellar as quiet as it had been for years.

I stepped back to my bottle of bourbon. When I lifted the glass to my lips, the machine lit up again. It cried a celebratory shrill and locked into gear another ball. I approached the wonder. As I looked down at the field, a ball shot up, self-propelled around the wood. The rubber paddles slapped it up again, racking up the score more quickly than I had until it drained to the bottom of the slope ending its turn.

…1900 pts…PLAYER 2…WINNER…A NEW HIGH SCORE…

The backboard celebrated. But I didn’t yank the lever.

…Game Over…

I was puzzled, and backed away. My heel must have caught a knot in the floor, and I spilled over backwards. The thud shot a stun up my spine; it rattled my legs and spilled the nightstand-quarter out of my pocket, rolling it towards the foot of the game. There was a crack of thunder and the cellar doors began to patter and drip.

I rolled onto my feet and picked up the coin, facing my defeater. When I dropped the two heads into the slit, the whirling luminosity began again.

I fired. My paddles were a slapping blur against the glass, the points stacked, and the bells grew louder before my ball sunk behind the bumper.

…2000 pts…

…A New High Score…

The lights died for a moment then lit up again like before. It was the machine’s turn. Its paddles flapped with precision, the score was climbing. Ring. Plunk.

…1970 pts…

…Player 1…WINNER! WINNER!

The double headed coin fell into the return slot and I grabbed it with fervor. The lights dimmed cold and the machine faded back into the cobwebs.

I finished my bourbon with a final gulp and stepped out of the cellar and into the night. It was dark but still hot and wet.

When I reached my pillow, there lay a folded white note.

Mr. Thomson,
Judge Steely has recovered from his bug. You will be resuming the settlement tomorrow. Aim to be back in the city by the end of Sunday.

–Starkeep Inn

I placed the letter on the desk where my pants lay folded, freshly cleaned and ironed. The sisters were nowhere to be heard and the inn slept quietly.

I forced the window open to let in a draft but the skeeters only invaded. I closed my eyes. Only a few more days and I would have been out of that God forsaken swamp.

The next afternoon after the meeting with Judge Steely and the other lawyers, I made haste through the mud. It rained hard, and my body felt like a hot tomato.

When I finally reached the stillness inside of the Inn, the sisters blockaded the stairway.

“Welcome back, Mr. Thomson.”

“The roads are washed out,” I huffed back.

“These storms last for days. The court will surely wait until it passes to continue your case. Looks like you should see yourself to be comfortable, ya’ll won’t be settling anytime soon.” The sisters stepped away and down the hall.

That night had been the hottest despite the rain. I shuffled and creased in the sheets, I flipped the pillows. It was too much of a swelter for rest, the only thing to do was sweat—I needed a drink to cool off.

The stretch to the cellar was a soggy one but bourbon was worth the effort. The bottle stood where I had left it. I stared at the pinball machine; it was lifeless, grey, merely retired decor in the background. I pushed the coin return, pressed the start button. Silence. The machine looked as if it never drank a volt of electricity its entire life.

I emptied my glass and decided to climb back to the attic. When I reached the last step of the cellar, the lights sprung on. The pinball machine below flared with metallic shrills and neon intensity. I slowly stepped back and approached the curious table. INSERT COIN flashed red on the dash.

I fumbled around my poker chip and paused, then slid the two headed quarter into the machine. It gladly accepted, flashing a monstrous array of light and sound within its frame.

I released the sling and slapped the ball sideways, zinged it to the walls and raced it through the coils. I was focused.

…Ball Lost…1850 pts…

I waited for its turn.

The ball cocked and shot through the field before it dropped into the gutter.

…1800 pts…

…Player 1…WINNER! WINNER!

“Hot damn!” Starting a winning streak is the best part of a game.

The quarter rolled back out like it had before.

When the bells hushed and the backboard’s lights dimmed, the rain paused. A silent crack of sun beamed through the cellar steps. Morning was coming early.

The machine buzzed and the INSERT COIN began blinking. I thumbed my ceramic chip then pulled the quarter from the metal hold. The coin slid in easier than before and the machine burst to life, more eager than I was to play another round.

I banked the ball left, up, down. It rang victory throughout the field, racking up points with every knock, until it plunged past the flappers.

…2200 pts… A NEW HIGH SCORE!

“Hell yeah!”

The machine whirled and fired its own play. The ball jumped through the maze with ease until it drained to bottom of the slope.

…2210 pts… A NEW HIGH SCORE!

…PLAYER 2 WINNER…

“Damnit.” I almost won.

The billiard balls began to rattle and the floor shook. My bourbon glass grew red hot. The burning only heightened and quickly my skin began to blister and peel like a sunburn. Before I could drop the glass it shattered and tore a deep canyon through my hand. I sprinted up the stairs and rifled through the cabinets for gauze. The creams the sisters had in the cupboard took a drowsy effect and it wasn’t long until I found myself having my first deep sleep since my arrival in Sparks.

When I finally woke, it was afternoon. The storm wouldn’t hide for two more days and it kept me captive reviewing documents for the will settlement. That night I returned to the cellar, the only way to escape the heat.

I stayed at the bar, never looking up from the bottom of my bourbon. I was six fingers deep when the game fired on again. I did not want to play; just drink. The machine loaded a ball. FREE PLAY glowed on its backboard. I wasn’t interested. But then, the game began to hum and sing. It chimed a hymn that I knew, the hymn that played at my wedding, a hymn I hadn’t heard in a very long time. I thumbed my ceramic chip before rising from the stool towards the gambler. Its lights were a streaking symphony. I yanked the plunger and slung the ball up, rebounding it back and forth. My game was on fire.

…2500pts …A NEW HIGH SCORE…

Top that. The machine shot quickly. His play tracked up the wood, spun round, then fell.
…2200pts…PLAYER 1…WINNER…WINNER…

“Bully!”

The cellar door started to vibrate. The latch swung open and sent a brutal gust through the bar, shattering glasses and sending a wooden trinket-box to the floor.

When the gust died I looked around, the box lay flat in the center of the cellar. I stepped cautiously to the container. The small metallic lock that kept it secret was snapped. Lifting the top, I pulled out a glimmering string. How could this have been here?

I lowered the thread of silver into my palm. I hadn’t held that necklace for years. It was my mother’s, and my wife later wore it. When I sold the silver for my poker, that’s when she left.

I rose to face the bar, but could not recognize it. The wood was freshly glossed and stocked with new and fresh bottles of hooch. I pulled away one of the bottles almost dropping it at the sight of myself in the mirror.
My face had been cleanly shaved and my gut was a washboard.

I hastily shoved my hand down and grabbed the double headed quarter from my pocket. I could win back what I have lost… I could be out of this filthy bog.

I flicked it in and the game rang like a register. But the ball would not drop to the plunger. I spanked the sides and took a step back.

When I was stepped away, the ball planted, and shot forward up the ramp.

It was his turn to go first.

The ball skidded off a spinner, and began a web of winning combos.

It ramped up the inlane and rolled over the outlane. The gambler was a wizard of the table. His play banked off a bumper before dropping behind the end post.

…2500 pts…

My turn.

I released the plunger and the silver orbited around the rink. It slapped between rails and ramps.

My ball was sprung across a pillar and then angled down into the trench.

…2500 pts… TIE GAME… TIE GAME… TIE GAME…

The lights slowly dimmed and hummed quiet. I was alone in the cellar.

“What the hell!”

I smacked it up the backboard, mashed the coin return with my thumb, and then proceeded to cuff my fists on top of the glass. The machine stood heavy and mute and stiff.

My hand scrambled through my pockets. I had no change.

My ceramic chip danced between my fingers, I scratched the inline of the 1, then rounded the 9.

My chip fell into the game slicker than the quarter. With the sound of a deposit, there was a bluster of brilliant reds and greens—vivid and sinister.

I hammered the ball up and triggered a combo. BONUS. I pumped the ball between blasts of bells.

My score was stacking until the play quickly flushed behind the oars.

…2800pts…PLAYER 1…A NEW HIGH SCORE!

“Jackpot!”

The game paused for a moment. The ball then exploded up the wood and banked off a few lights. The spinners were cruising until he got caught in a stopper.

“Come on!”

I shoved the front of the table. There was a loud knock on the wood.

…SLAM TILT…EXTRA BALL…

“Bullshit!”

A second ball loaded. His free play fired up. It jigged through the springs and cried out the bells.

…2805 pts…PLAYER 2 WINNER…

…Game Over…

A demonic wail rang louder and louder throughout the dark.

I lost.

*

A train howled loud enough for all of Sparks to hear before it vanished over the hills. The wood of the Inn moaned back as freshly ironed cotton was pulled tight across the bed. The window beyond the desk hung open and four feet sistered their way down the stairs. The room lay a host for its next guest: a twin sized bed, an ebony-wood desk, and a matching nightstand with a two headed coin.

Alexander Drost was born in New Jersey with his twin brother. He studied Creative Writing and Sculpture at the University of Colorado. He currently lives between Colorado and California, doing odd jobs, making a mess with paints, and trying to figure out what this whole “being a writer” thing actually entails. You can find more of his work online in Ricochet Magazine, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Blotterature Literary Magazine, and 3Elements Review.

Photo Credit: Evelyn Evelyn by Kyle Cassidy

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