by Bailey Cook Dailey

I dealt to the hook-handed man first. Single deck Blackjack. He was the only player at the table. He was on a hot streak winning what felt like four hands out of every five. He played exactly the way I would have if I were on the other side of the table: boldly hitting his 16s against every face card, doubling on every 10 or 11 that came his way. He was playing the game as it should be played and it was one of those moments where the job seemed to transcend the banality of everyday life and hit on some sweet spot, pulsing away at something in our nervous system like a baseball cracking perfectly against a bat. The satisfaction of a game well played by an expert hand; mixed with the endorphin rush of the steadily growing stack of chips on his side of the table and behind my paddle. This was a moment where everything in the universe was humming along perfectly. I am gifted with these moments maybe once or twice a week, and this one would have been nothing out of the ordinary, it only strikes such a warm chord in my memory because of the events that took place after.

He was an ordinary enough looking man besides the missing arm. Thirty-something, balding, beer belly; a medley of petty addictions and vices. He was nice enough, too, telling me he worked at a Sprint store and to come in for a phone some day. I shined him on and pretended I might but of course I never would.

The most interesting thing about him was the hook. The way he maneuvered it, carefully accomplishing tasks with it, like striking a match and lighting his cigarette. It seemed almost natural for a task so impossibly unnatural. It was also strange that he had chosen the hook over a more modern prosthetic that bore some resemblance to a human arm. I didn’t know if the hook was deliberate or a matter of financial necessity. Either way, it wasn’t the kind of question I felt comfortable asking.

Eventually, the winning streak was over. We both realized it and tried a futile fight against it, laughing nervously at each losing hand but after about four in a row the man politely colored up. He was up a few hundred dollars and had made me about $100 in the process. I said goodbye and went on break, not thinking much about him.

I came back down to sit on an empty shoe game. It was a slow weekday and as the night progressed into morning more and more people went to bed and the casino took on the cozy atmosphere it always does at around 3 in the morning, when there are more of us than them. Almost everyone left standing is in a uniform.

I stood on my dead game and saw Ed to my left on single deck, dealing to the hook-handed man. A few minutes later he went off to use the bathroom and Ed and I started talking to each other between our games, one of those things dealers are not technically allowed to do but everyone does anyway. It was Ed who noticed it first: that the hook-handed man had been gone a mysteriously long time and there was a swarm of security guards and paramedics surrounding the general area of the men’s bathroom.

We were worried that he had had some sort of accident involving the hook, though it seemed bizarre to us that he could injure himself with it after seeing him wield it so gracefully all night. We watched and theorized, from a distance, unable to leave our trays.

Eventually he wandered back to the pit, dazed and pale.

He sat at Ed’s table muttering. It took me a while to grasp the full story, longer than it should have. A man had slit his wrists in the bathroom and as he sat in a stall waiting patiently to die the hook-handed man had wandered in, seen the pools of blood oozing from underneath the stall and run out until he found a security guard who then called the paramedics.

Halfway through the unfolding of this story the hook-handed man began to weep; big, long, gasping sobs. He put his head down and cried into his remaining hand.

It was then that Ed was tapped out to go on break. Amy came to the table, a stranger to the scene, completely mystified as to why a grown man with only one arm was crying so profusely at her table.

With almost perfect timing, Monica got off break at the same moment and came down to the pit. She was in her 70s and had been at the casino for over 40 years, making her one of the most senior employees there. She was somehow kind and mean simultaneously, one minute she would be showing you pictures of her grandkids or her newest quilting project and the next she would be kicking out drunks or firing new dealers who didn’t make the cut.

She went up to the hook-handed man and hugged him as he wept on her and started stuttering about the war and how he had lost his hand and all of the blood, how he couldn’t believe there was so much blood. Monica patted him and said everything was going to be “OK” in a way where we all almost believed her. Then she sprang to action and got him a free hotel room for the night and had the cocktail waitress bring him top shelf liquor for free and told him he didn’t have to worry about getting home tonight, just to stay here with us until he felt better and then go up to his room to sleep.

The man perked up a little at this news and unexpectedly started playing Blackjack again. Amy dealt to him, perplexed, trying to smile and be cheerful despite having been thrown into a completely chaotic situation. The man drank Patron after Patron and kept playing, sometimes very somber and on the verge of breaking down again, and occasionally becoming almost light hearted and laughing, until Ed and I got off about an hour later.

We met in the breakroom. He was eating greasy scrambled eggs and even greasier bacon.

“Drink after?”

“Drink after.”

We didn’t talk about anything that had happened. We barely talked about my next stop. I refused to tie the two together in my mind. He had two Red Labels. I had one. We joked about everything. Joke after joke, story after story until the slit wrists and the hook-handed man and the bottle of pills seemed so far away it couldn’t touch us.

At 5:45am we said goodbye in the parking lot. A feeble hug between us. I drove the three blocks to my mom’s apartment building. The sun was up and early morning joggers and bums passed me by. I loved feeling as though I was one of them – a morning person –  even though I was an imposter in their early morning world by default of staying up all night.

Her apartment complex used to be a casino and hotel, one she ironically used to work at back when I was a kid. On her breaks during shift she would nervously pace around the building trying not to think about smoking – a bad habit she had finally decided to quit at the time. Nowadays she’s not doing much walking.

I let myself in through the main entrance and went up the musty old staircase three flights to her room. By the time I came in she was already dressed and wearing her wig, offering me instant coffee.

“No thanks, we don’t have time. Let’s get going.”

I drove us another few blocks to St. Mary’s Hospital. We asked for directions until we found a little room to check into surgery. We sat and waited with an older couple and a young boy and his mom. The boy was maybe five or six. He was Latino and had giant, deep brown, almond eyes. He looked like a mournful old man trapped in that little boy’s body.

I assumed he was a guest, coming along for grandpa’s surgery because the family couldn’t afford a babysitter on top of all the medical bills.

“How old are you?” Mom asked the little boy.

He looks away, embarrassed by the stranger’s direct question.

“He turns six next month. Sorry he is a little shy. Ricky say hello to the women.”

Mom keeps the interrogation up. She is very charming and everyone loves her. Now I realize it is because she asks so many direct questions. It makes people feel important – like talking to a shrink or Barbara Walters. This is a habit I later picked up but it is just a direct imitation of her. I am not myself when I do it, I am just doing my best impersonation of her. I have an image of her in my head – blonde, beautiful, piercing blue eyes and smiling widely. This is who I pretend to be most of the time now.

Ricky has Leukemia. He is here for the next of a half dozen surgeries he’s already had in his young life. It has been years of this; his family fighting against an immense and unseen army of cancer cells slowly killing what used to be their healthy little boy. The women talk finances. We love to talk about money in the face of death, because even poverty is less terrifying than the disease spreading inside of us and our loved ones. Ricky’s father is a construction worker in California. Ricky’s mom works in an office in town. Most of every paycheck they make goes to hospital bills.

We are all trying very hard not to cry in front of Ricky, who despite his mournful gaze would probably rather be playing outside with his friends than in this stuffy hospital listening to the adults talk.

Ricky and his mom are called off before us. We are left alone with our thoughts of the dying little boy, playing the number game: how many years did he have, or months? The percentage chance he would live; how many kids like him lived for a year, or for five? Calculating the percentage of hope we as strangers could have, and multiplying it by 100 for his own family. Wondering how these numbers would be mapped out against a timeline of his actual life.

It was then that the doctor called us back. We met the anesthesiologist; a nice old man with a tired suitcase full of used jokes. You could tell when a doctor wasn’t used to terminal patients: there was a tightness or anxiety about them being that close to death. You never got that with anyone in the  oncologist’s office.

Soon I found myself back in the waiting room, alone. Time seemed like it was stuck in place and the dissonance between what I wanted to happen and what would almost definitely happen was so loud I felt like there were chainsaws buzzing inside of me. What needed to happen was for the tumor to have shrunk. It needed to be off a major artery. That way they could schedule a Whipple procedure, the only small tool in the fight against Pancreatic cancer. It was no guarantee in itself but it could add years to her life, another lifetime, even – the only thing that could keep death at bay even for a moment. It was all of our secret desire this past year, the constant obsession in our minds arranging the hope into words that were so sacred I never spoke them out loud.

I was almost asleep an hour later when the surgeon came to find me. The man was so comically good looking we both referred to him as our “future husband” and joked about how we would have to fight over him once she was better. Sitting there alone in the waiting room I just felt unnerved by how handsome he was. I wished I were dealing with a homely man instead.

“The biopsy came back the same. The tumor hasn’t grown or shrunk. It has remained stable.”

“So, what do we do now?”

I asked, like an idiot: a reflex reaction I couldn’t control. Of course there was only one thing to do now – wait around for death. The same thing we had been doing this whole past year in slow motion under the watchful guise of chemo and radiation treatments that were only helping to keep the cancerous cells from multiplying.

Hearing that news was like not winning the lottery. The odds of good news were so ludicrously low that only a fool could expect to win. Still, I was that fool with a bunch of crumpled up lottery tickets in my pockets.

I sat for half an hour practicing how to smile again so I could be doing it when mom woke up.

About the Author:

Bailey Cook Dailey

Bailey Cook Dailey is a writer based out of New York City. She is a co-creator of the existential humor blog, Intelligent Advice. Her work has appeared in MexDFMagazine.