by Jeff Burt
All this explosive, contained pressure in Vegas. You can almost measure it in the air, like a barometer reading, an isobar, this young-person energy all pent up with nowhere to go, like static in waist-high wild grass just waiting to flame. It’s the end of June, and I can tell the city’s going to explode.
I like the young people. I’m seventy-six and can wander with the best of them. I like them because they ink looking for the other side of meaning, and I inked in the fifties trying to get lost from meaning, and because they all have nicknames, a moniker for street cred.
I like Vegas. Las Vegas, the Meadows, a place of a few artesian springs in the middle of the desert. I like it better than Miami or Tampa Bay, even though there’ less to do for an old guy. No barbershop quartets. No bookmobiles. No Friday 3:30 early-bird dinners. No bridge. Here it’s golf early in the morning, quit before nine, take a shower, juice up, hit the air conditioning, read papers and watch television the rest of the day, maybe take in a show once a month, a magician.
I like magicians. I like magicians working with tigers and lions, I like magicians working with grand illusions, I like magicians pulling rabbits out of a hat, and I like magicians who do card tricks. I do card tricks. That’s how I make enough money to survive retirement, to pay for the A/C that’s as much as our mortgage eight months out of the year. I’m not a simple card counter. A lot of mathematicians can do that. I’m a card predictor. I’m a magician.
You see, a card counter can tell based on what’s already gone by, been shown face up, what the odds are the next card will be red or black, a heart or a spade or a club or a diamond, a face card, a three, a red ten, you get the drift. But a card forecaster doesn’t go by odds necessarily. It’s like being the weather guy that doesn’t just read the National Weather Service forecast, but goes out on a limb, changes something up, takes a chance because of his experience reading the clouds, and gives it out over the air.
So it is with me and those gorgeous rectangles dangling from my palms like jeweled handcuffs for over seven decades. Oh, I know the odds, and the odds know me. I have a feel for what is actually coming from the deck. What are the chances that a two will be followed by a two by another two? I predict it, while no card counter would ever predict three deuces in a row.
My wife says I’m lucky, always have been, just one of those people. I’ve never won the lottery, never won a hot dog or a cake at a cakewalk, and never been the fifty-thousandth customer at any place. But blackjack or poker, I’m your man.
Sitting is important, and by sitting, I mean spending time at your craft. I sit a lot. I can afford to, being retired, because I have these energizer socks that come up to my knee that keep my blood circulating instead of pooling in my flat feet and giving me blood clots.
My ass is a pancake now. It fits perfectly on that vinyl four-legged griddle. My wife, Glenda, thinks I’m crazy to walk in the heat from our house, one-point-one miles away, twenty-five hundred steps almost exactly depending on the day, but it’s not the heat that bothers me. It’s passing through the addicts to get to the strip. I’ve got three-and-a-half blocks to get through the bruises and transparent teeth and fellows who look like they came out of the Holocaust, except they shake all of the time, smile too much.
Then the last three blocks are the hookers: old hookers, young hookers, hooked-on-drugs hookers, thin hookers, fat hookers, pretty hookers, ugly hookers, smoking hookers, transvestite hookers, gay hookers, daughter hookers, mother hookers, grandmother hookers, son hookers, father hookers—never seen a grandfather hooker.
I see these kids, all flesh and suggestion, all their mingling and scratching up against one another as if they don’t know what happens when a match strikes the strip. Out of work. Folks losing their homes. So they hang out when it is hell-hot, the kind of hell when all is lost. It’s the hell and the heat of nothing to lose, no future, no hope. They look eternally into their cell phones like staring at a bad hand. One day soon when they’ve got no work and no money for drugs and no food, and the sex stops working, Vegas is gonna explode, the strip is gonna be lit by these phosphorescent walking weapons of mass destruction.
So I do a little magic on my way every day to give them a little pleasure, to let a little flammable gas out of the balloon. A queen of hearts transformed from a queen of spades. A diamond run as glitzy in the sun as a crystal necklace. A two from the ear, the rabbit pulled out of the hat. A lucky seven, and another, and another, and another, and then a fifth seven, all the luck. They’ve seen them before, but it gives a little lift to their day. It pulls the pressure back, takes the dial out of the red.
What is more magic than making them forget about their conditions for a moment? Not an illusion that things are okay, but a moment when they don’t have to confront that someone else already has stolen their jackpot? That’s magic.
They call me Fifty-Two Pickup, or just Pickup. Pick-up. That’s what I do, clipping the fuse from these young sticks of TNT and putting them in my pocket.