Powder Burn Flash #381 - Tom Darin Liskey
The House Always Wins
by Tom Darin Liskey
My father was as luckless and broke as they came.
The old man was a house painter up in St Louis who liked to play the horses on the other side of the river. He only worked Spring and Summer, and maybe a little in September, if the weather was okay before the leaves start falling from the trees.
He’d always disappear on Friday afternoon after he cashed his check. Me and mom wouldn’t see him sometimes till Sunday morning when he’d come in the house with red rims around his eyes in a foul mood. And flat busted.
The thing is my dad never had much luck with horse flesh. Not much at all, expect for once. He actually won some pretty big money at the track.
So him and a couple of his buddies from work headed over to East St Louis where they could play craps or high stake poker in run down block of low income tenement houses.
The Sicilians and some brothers from the Panthers worked out a deal to use empty apartments in a public housing development near the river because the white cops were too scared to go over there at night. They’d never get busted.
My dad and his friends were more than willing to blow their track winnings on liquor and whores. They got into a game.
He said he was on a hot streak that summer night - high up in an apartment jerry-rigged with the neighbor’s electricity - and almost naked ladies who'd hang on your arm and pour you a drink if you had a pile of chips in front of you.
Christ, he’d almost get teary-eyed when he’d talk about how great that winning streak was. He said it was like a Hollywood movie. He was winning more money than he could count.
But for once, he added, knew when to fold his hand and walk away with his winnings. And that’s what he actually did.
He then said something happened to him when was stuffing the dollar bills into his pockets. He knew he’d never get alive with that money. His friends were gone by then. They’d blown their winnings on the watered down drinks.
When he left he knew the whispering between the Sicilians and one of the Black guys in a beret was about him.
My dad said he made it down five flights before they knocked him over the head in the stairwell. They broke three ribs, blackened both his eyes, busted it nose wide open and knocked out three teeth. They then busted his right hand by stomping on it. Because that was the hand he used to throw chips into the pile. His left shoulder was dislocated too.
Somehow he ended up St Mary’s Charity Hospital back on this side of the river. He had lost it all, almost $5,000, he reckoned.
My dad couldn't paint after that. So my mom had to work two jobs just to get us through the summer.
His gambling, the drinking and his broke ass ways was too much for her. She left us that fall. She hooked up with a trucker who was moving to Spokane. She had met him working the late shift at Denny’s near the airport because my dad was too beat up to pick up a brush.
When she left us she told me she had finally found some happiness in this life because she met the trucker. She promised me she’d send for me when she had the money. She never did.
My dad would still go to the tracks sometimes, but he stopped trying to get into those poker games. He painted houses now and then, but money was always tight with us. He’d spend most days at the kitchen table with a pack of Pall Mall and a fifth of Wild Irish Rose wine playing solitaire.
He’d slide the eight of diamonds or six of clubs or what ever card he had in his hand under the corner of another face-down card with the clicking of his tongue - if it was something he liked - or a hiss - if it was going poorly for him. If there was a ball game, he'd flip on the radio and listen to it.
Then he'd tell me the story over and over again, especially in winter when the sky was gray and no one wanted their house painted.
Sometimes his buddies would come over with a bottle of Wild Turkey and try to talk him into going back to one of those poker games on the other side of the river. He’d never raise his eyes from the cards when they asked him. He’d just kind of smile to himself and say, “nope fellas, the house always wins.”
The strange thing was, the old man actually learned to win at solitaire. Like always. The guy was the king of the solitaire. He didn't have to cheat to win.
BIO: Tom Darin Liskey is a journalist and spent a decade working in Latin America. He currently lives in Texas, which is not as bad as you'd think, but not as good either.