The Guiltless Gambler

I’ve been rummaging through dozens of ancient folders on my hard drive, full of half-started articles and unexpanded ideas.  I found a few unpublished finished works that I had totally forgotten about.  “The Guiltless Gambler” is one of those, from about ten years ago.  Enjoy!

The Guiltless Gambler

Rick Strenson inventories his hundred-dollar bills, quickly touching the bulges. 20 in my wallet, 50 in my breast pocket, 50 in the left sock, 50 in the right. Then he returns to the airplane window.

Rick and Bonnie Strenson live the Noah’s Ark version of the American dream: two cats, two kids, two cars, too good. Their youngest won a science fair; their oldest has perfect teeth. Bonnie runs the household, runs a bridge club, and runs through the park each morning.

Rick earns six figures as regional vice president of a plastics company. He often makes business trips to Cleveland or Pittsburgh or Detroit. Once each year he goes to a convention in Los Angeles. Before that trip, Rick always does business with his old high school-buddy, Howard Skleep.

“Hey How-weird. It’s that time of the year again.”

“Wuddayasay Rick, you sneaky dog. I seen your outfit on the news the other night. Something about a stock split or sumptin. Nice job, ya lucky buck.”

“Hey, I gotta make a bundle in order to pay your prices.”

Howard comes back smoothly, “You get whatcha pay for, Ricky old boy.”

And Rick gets plenty from Howard. He gets real airline tickets and fake ones, real car-rental receipts and fake ones. Rick always returns during the wee hours so he can take a cab home instead of being picked up by Bonnie.

When Bonnie is dropping Rick off at the airport, she asks an uneasy question, quietly, with trust.

“What do you do in San Diego from Wednesday night to Friday night?”

“Well, we golf some, and eat, and mostly gab. See, after the official stuff is out of the way is when we make some real progress.” Rick’s rare lies are convincing. “What brought on that question? You usually aren’t much interested in my work.”

Bonnie is slightly embarrassed. “It’s nothing dear, really. I happened to see the itinerary for the convention on the kitchen table and I noticed that the last event was Wednesday afternoon. That’s all. I was just wondering.”

At the plastics convention in Los Angeles, Rick wears his official, confident smile through seminars and meetings. He recognizes almost everyone and almost everyone recognizes him. But no one knows anyone. It is the plastic people gathering.

At 2:00 p.m. Wednesday, Rick is at the front desk of the Los Angeles Hilton. He slips four $100 bills and a phone number to Mr. Stimple, the hotel manager.

“The usual arrangement please. I will be leaving tonight around seven.”

“Very good sir. Thank you sir.”

Mr. Stimple briefs the three shift managers in turn. He hands each of them $100, and tells them that if Rick Strenson gets a phone call from his wife Bonnie, they are to put Bonnie on hold, then return to her and say that Mr. Strenson is not answering. Then immediately call this number (the one that Rick provided), and leave a message that Bonnie called.

At 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Rick is at the airport. He never tires of flying. Always a window seat to prop his head and gaze at the surreal world unfolding below. Every cloud and landscape are familiar, but always fresh. Within minutes Rick is in a trance. This is his time, his alone.

He thinks about retirement and the leisure life and unborn grandchildren. He imagines he can feel the rotation of the earth and its movement through space. He ponders technology, and plastics, and he doesn’t take airplanes for granted. But on this trip his thoughts visibly reach for his destination, when he feels for his wallet, touches his socks, and puts his hand over his heart.

Years ago, Bonnie was rummaging through a wastebasket when she came across a stack of scratch-n-win lottery tickets. With sincere curiosity, she asked, “Honey, when did you start playing the lottery?”

“Huh?” Rick was off guard. “Oh, I got those during lunch the other day. I cashed one in for $5,” he boasted, knowing how silly he sounded.

Bonnie didn’t mind, since there was always ample money in the checking account. Plus, if Rick got lucky, there might be lots more. Whenever the lottery drawing was on TV, Rick was always watching, acting like it didn’t matter much, like he was just betting a couple bucks.

Rick has all the symptoms of a controlled, frugal man; he buys sale items, he hardly drinks, and he doesn’t smoke. But he loves to splurge occasionally with money he can afford. Once he went months without buying anything, then came home with a new lawn mower, an exercise bike, jewelry for Bonnie, and all sorts of gizmos for the house.

Bonnie was overwhelmed and ecstatic; “Did you win the lottery?”

“Nope. Just feeling good.”

On the plane, Rick runs through the numbers one more time. “I put away $300 per week for 51 weeks. That makes $15,300. Plus the $3000 bonus after the Dayton deal. That makes $18,300. Minus $400 for the hotel folks in Los Angeles, minus $900 for Howard. That leaves me $17,000 flat.” He touches again.

Rick feels the airplane slow down just a bit and this gives him a buzz. The speakers click on, “We have begun our initial descent and the captain has turned on the safety-belt lights. We will be landing in approximately 30 minutes. The local temperature is 86 degrees. Thank you for flying with us and enjoy your stay in Las Vegas.”