You're Not Going to Get to It
Lee L. Krecklow
Greg was sweating. He needed out now. He moved in quick, desperate motions against people moving with equal haste in the opposite direction, people moving into the building, toward the casino floor, toward the same bells and beeps and smoke and yelling that Greg was now sickened by and running from. Anticipation was in the eyes of the others, seizing them, pulling their strings, so many marionettes. And he understood what it was that was inside them, because those feelings were his just hours ago.
At last outside, the air was like a cold shower when it hit his damp skin, penetrated his soaked-through t-shirt. Fresh air filled his lungs and the pressure left his ears and eyes, as if he was surfacing from a long and deep dive.
He walked through the parking garage in a daze, not sure what floor he had parked on, not particularly caring. He was still rattled by what had taken place inside.
The casino had become quite a habit for him, especially since he started winning. Of course, gambling was always a draw. It charged him. For years, while his time was otherwise occupied, he'd been able to keep a distance from it, but it had slowly crept back into him, and for some time now he found it too difficult to stay away. He'd taken to counting cards – using math and practice to turn odds in his favor – and it was working. On a normal day, he would go directly from his job to the blackjack tables. Cards and numbers occupied his thoughts while he was at work, and later, when he'd finish playing and went home at night, he replayed hands in his head while lying in bed. He'd spent months meticulously building a bankroll from small profits earned over the course of hundreds of hours. There were always ups and always downs, but in the long run, he would always come out ahead, provided he left himself a margin for error in his finances.
Cars pulled in and out of spots in the garage. The concrete vibrated under his feet when vans and trucks rolled past. He continued walking up the ramps, from floor to floor, looking and not looking for his car. The walking was doing him good, he thought. He needed to clear his head.
Tonight he had raised the stakes and sat at a high-limit table. Next to him was an old man, a talker with smoke-stained teeth and a southern drawl. Greg didn't usually mind the talkers, but he didn't encourage them either. There was too much to keep track of without worrying about conversing. But somehow this man got into his mind and lodged himself there, blocking all rational thought, ruining counts, enabling recklessness. The old man made comments about the dealer's speed and the waitresses' hair and the decisions Greg made: hitting, standing, splitting.
“Why the hell you do that?”
“It's the right play,” Greg said.
“Like hell it is! People like you is the reason this place is so damn big. Ha!”
The man's laughter was the loudest sound in the pit, and all at once the security staff's heads turned.
“Look at all those fuckin' suits back there watchin' you,” he went on. “They're watching you good.”
“Please stop talking.”
“You keep losin’ money like that, they gonna offer you a free room. Ha!”
Now, hours later, it was obvious he should have left that table. He'd lost his focus and made decisions out of frustration rather than odds and math. He started gambling. He lost. Not to mention that he should have never moved to the higher limit tables to begin with. He'd no business there.
And worse, in a desperate attempt to undo what he'd done, he broke another rule of play; he played with money he couldn't afford to lose. When his first stack was depleted, he stood and went to the ATM. He knew he shouldn't, but he justified it so well, making sound excuses, ignoring consequences, enabling with thoughtlessness what his ego demanded: there was no way he could continue to lose; new shoe; new count; new luck. Before he knew it, he was back at the table with another stack of bills and eyes that were glazed over, far from focused, far from rational. He was making decisions that were not his own. Something else had taken hold.
He found his car on the third floor and got inside and took a few deep breaths. There were ghosts in the silence, echoing sounds from the casino, cheers and groans and the talker's words. He heard the dealer announce to the floor, “Changing three thousand,” and the pit boss reply, “Thank you.” There were chips clacking together and change clanking in buckets and shouts of “bust” and “twenty one” and “insurance.”
Now the filth of his vehicle caught up with him and disgusted him. He shoveled soda cans and fast food bags from the passenger seat to the back, where it made new piles atop clothes the child seat and more garbage.
Fuck. He pulled out his cell phone and dialed Thatch.
“I need to relax,” Greg said.
“I need you to come over.”
“Lori is gone. You come here.”
“I need you to spot me.”
“Are you fucking kidding?”
“Not happening. Just come here and hang out with me then.”
Greg hung up the phone and started the car and pulled out of the lot.
James Thatcher was a friend from college and one of the few old friends that he still spoke with, even if their relationship had degraded to that of dealer and buyer. They were in two different worlds now, and it was becoming harder and harder for them to relate to each other in any way besides a predilection for pot. Thatch owned a condo with his wife just north of the city, not far from Greg, but it was a wife that Greg didn't always get along with, so he'd visited seldom after he helped them move in. But even with the wife aside, there was something that descended on him when he crossed Thatch's threshold that made him feel like an alien, maybe even unwelcome.
While he drove through downtown, the heart of the city, he looked out at the non-iconic cityscape. Nothing came to mind when you thought of Milwaukee. Seattle conjured the Space Needle. San Francisco was the Golden Gate. St. Louis Arch. Milwaukee was nothing to anybody, and he sometimes hated that he was there, because it felt like nobody who lived there could be anyone, either. However, even though nobody recognized the buildings from a distance, he knew to walk among them was to really see them. They were not tall or steel or glass. They were stone, sagacious, aged structures that told stories with their facades and held history within their walls. They were symbols of fortitude and, at the time they were built, of fortune. He remembered sitting inside or outside of so many of them – The Central Library, City Hall – sketching on a gigantic pad, filling the whole thing, staring so intently at one side of one ornate pillar inside one room, or one figure in one relief arching over an entrance, and thinking how much effort it took for such an insignificant detail to be installed. Such focus used to take his thoughts so many places. He vaguely remembered the feeling it gave him: humility and timelessness and weightlessness. I should do that again, he thought.
“You got here quickly,” Thatch said once Greg was inside.
Everything in the room still felt new to him. The carpet still had a springy bounce and the walls were sterile white. The furniture, too, when sat upon still emitted plumes of warehouse-fresh smell. Too perfect. It made him nervous to touch anything.
“I need to finish up work upstairs,” Thatch said.
“Don't make me sit here and wait for you.”
“It’s my fucking job and it'll take two fucking seconds. Jesus.”
Greg went to the kitchen and made himself a drink with ice and gin and set it on a coaster in the living room. On the wall behind the couch was a giant painting, four feet high and eight feet wide. It nearly swallowed the room, with its mangled edges, shapes that twisted and contorted and knotted in and out of one another, drawing your eye back and forth and back eternally. Dizzying. Confusing. It was one of Greg's pieces.
“Here you go, you fucking fiend.” Thatch handed over a lighter and a small glass pipe. Greg immediately touched flame to the bud and pulled, then passed the instruments back.
Greg exhaled his relief. “Thanks,” he said after a pause. He sipped his drink.
Thatch set the pipe on the end table and opened a window and turned on a fan. “What brings
you here broke and hungry?”
Greg said nothing.
“What were you doing? Admiring your work?” Thatch nodded toward the painting and smoked.
Greg shrugged. He was never that impressed with the piece. He was never that impressed with any of his paintings. This one was born years ago during an emotional night of drinking and drugs and rambling. For the two of them, many nights years ago played that way: with them drunk and debating and challenging each other. Someone once likened them to ‘Dean and Sal,’ though Greg never understood the reference. That particular night, however, was very different. It was late and after a “Gallery Night,” and Greg was the featured artist in the lobby of a small office building. There were suits and dresses and wine and hors d'oeuvres. Thatch was there with him the whole night, and Greg kept circling their conversation back to life and pain and pressure. “Sooner or later you'll find that God has his thumb over you and when he decides to press it down, you're stuck under it and there's nothing you can do.” Or, “If you could unravel your life and sprawl it across a canvas, just splatter it where you could see it all, the misdirection of it would make you vomit,” and he went on as such all night long, never without a drink in his hand. He remembered the other people there that night, people looking at his work and congratulating him on what he'd done. He'd even sold a piece. But he couldn't stop thinking that it was all a giant charade, that nobody really cared about his work or his ideas, that they were all just blowing smoke in his face and glad-handing each other for being there, mocking him all the while, and that he never wanted to put himself through it ever again.
When that night was over, he and Thatch went back to the flat they rented and went right down to the unfinished, musty basement. They sat down there and drank and smoked and argued until Greg went to the cellar and emerged with a large sheet of drywall. He painted right on it, splattered, and he cracked and tore the corners off the drywall, and at the end he put a fist through it. When Greg was done, he turned and said, “This is what I'm talking about. Do you see it? It's all a fucking mess.” Thatch said that he did see it, and Greg said, “Good. Keep it.”
Now, years later, they stood in the living room in silence, each staring at that same painting which they had stared at so long ago, time slowing down, thoughts beginning to race.
Greg turned on the massive television. It swallowed his eyes, his attention. There was a nature show on, and he peered through the tunnel that formed between him and the screen. Everything else faded away: the casino, the talker, his job, his responsibilities, Thatch. They would all be there to think about tomorrow.
But Thatch still stared at the canvas. “Hey, where's our painting?”
“Our wedding gift painting. You insisted that your gift to us was going to be a painting. Where is it?”
“I'll get to it.” He turned back to the television, where a bird was diving out of the air and into the water, stabbing with its beak and coming up with a fish and swallowing it whole.
About the Author:
Lee L. Krecklow is a fiction writer living in the Milwaukee area. His work has appeared in Midwestern Gothic, The Madison Review, The Tishman Review, Cactus Heart, 100 Word Story, Cheap Pop and others. His novel, The Expanse Between, from which this story is extracted, is forthcoming from Winter Goose Publishing. Find more here.