The Gambler

1.

The first time I drove a car, I was with my father. I can’t remember what car I drove. My father didn’t even own one; he was notorious for crashing his vehicles, and the state eventually took his license away.

I was eleven. Or maybe twelve. It was summer, and I was visiting him, as I always did during those green-bloomed and hot months in Bridgeport, Connecticut, when my mother let him see me on his terms. To get to Bridgeport, my mother usually sent me down on a Greyhound bus from downtown Bangor, Maine, and she always complained how Greyhound shouldn’t be so far from the Penobscot Nation, that there should be one right off the reservation in Old Town. But there wasn’t one, and there never would be. The only bus terminal was in downtown, right out back of a bar that like the station itself no longer exists.

In Bridgeport my father rented an upstairs room in a red house on the very dead-end road from which our family broke and drifted. The red house was owned by an older couple, whom I called Grandma and Pepa, and Grandma and Pepa rented all their spare rooms out to anybody, even the basement, where for years lived a schizophrenic man who believed Madonna was his girlfriend and thought she was going to show up in a helicopter on the Fourth of July and give everyone a million dollars.

Next door to that red house was a blue house, where Grandma’s daughter and her daughter’s husband lived, a man my father was, at the time, in business with, a moving company my father had started, a company that used to make tons of money but eventually fizzled out and only made some from evictions. My father’s partner and his wife also rented rooms out to people. Across the street from the red and blue houses was a white house, and Grandma’s daughter’s daughter lived there.

You get it: she too rented out rooms.

Like my father, most of the tenants didn’t have cars. So everybody used Grandma and Pepa’s car when they needed to. The only rule, besides not crashing it, was to fill it with gas when you were done. I must have used their car the first time I drove.

My father started letting me drive down to the corner store, less than a mile away, with barely any traffic. The first time I made the drive, my father walked me through all the steps: check the mirrors and the blinkers, and put the seat belt on (which he didn’t do). He told me to press the brake to put the car in drive or reverse, and when we started to go forward, he told me to be gentle with the accelerator. When I was to slow or stop, he said to pump the brakes.

Through all this, I remember not wanting to drive, and so the whole time he told me these rules I wasn’t really listening. Before we’d even begun, I was thinking about how I wished it was over. And so perhaps it was in those directions to which I wasn’t listening that I missed the part about using one foot for both pedals. On my first drive down to the store—a right at the end of the street, a straight shot, and another right into the corner store parking lot—I had control over each of my feet: my left foot worked the brake, while my right worked the gas. But on the way home, I confused the two. When I came to the exit of the parking lot, when I was supposed to brake and look both ways, I hit the gas, and my father and I flew onto the street and drove over the sidewalk.

“Holy shit, buddy,” my father said.

I never made that mistake again. I started using one foot, pivoting it on my heel to the correct pedal. And after a few more times of driving my father to the store, I mastered the skills necessary to complete the journey expertly and no longer had any apprehension about the drive. Turn right, go straight, take another right, and park. My father would get out of the car to buy cigarettes and expensive lottery tickets and two Cokes and a bag of Milano cookies for us to share in the small room he rented.

Every time I had to sit in the car alone, waiting for my father to return, I felt like a criminal, that any minute the police would pull up and look at this skinny, small boy by himself behind the wheel. And this feeling lasted forever: my father always took a long time in the store. He walked with a cane and was overweight. If it was really hot outside then he’d also have his oxygen tank with him, which he’d carry inside the store, and that slowed him down. But maybe there was something else slowing him, weighing on him more than the heat from the sun.

Sometimes my father sent me into the store for what we wanted, usually when it was really, really hot out. He’d give me the money, tell me to buy the cigarettes and expensive lottery tickets and the two Cokes and the bag of Milano cookies. My father knew the man behind the counter never sold the cigarettes or lottery tickets to me, and so I don’t know why, on occasion, he still sent me in for things I couldn’t buy. To test my loyalty? If so, I always passed. But I never returned to the car with cigarettes and lottery tickets, and so from the car my father would yell to the clerk inside. “They’re for me!” he’d say, and the man would yell no, and my father would mumble some racial slur, which went over my head, and he would, slowly, with oxygen tank under his arm, get out of the car and go in for his cigarettes and lottery tickets. And when we got home, when it took him an excruciatingly long time to climb the stairs to his room, he would sit in his recliner, the one that became his bed during the summer, while I would lay on the real bed that he kept level with a suitcase under the mattress. We would pass the cookies back and forth between us while The Maury Show or something else played, and the whole time cigarette smoke would haze the room like a fire we had no fear of was beginning to burn beneath us.

That was driving to me. And so when one day, when I was eleven or twelve, my father said, “Hey, buddy, take me to the store,” I’m prepared. I know exactly what to expect.

We got in the car and I drove to the end of the street. It was automatic. I didn’t even think about it. I put my right blinker on.

“No,” he said. “Go left. We’re going to the bank.”

“I thought we were going to the store,” I said.

My father said something about a check, that he needed to cash it, that his partner in the blue house couldn’t know about it, that it was our secret.

I was sweating as I turned left into an unknown world.

My father liked to fall asleep. He slept because he took something that made him tired, made him pass out; something he stashed in that suitcase he used to level the bed I slept on.

I was driving, and my father was starting to sleep. “Which way do I go?” I asked.

His eyes shut, he answers, “Take a left.”

I took another left, going deeper into this unfamiliar territory.

For a while I drove straight. Then I asked for more directions. His eyes were still shut. “Take a right,” he said.

This went on for a time, his eyes closed while he drifted. When I asked where to go, he spoke to me, the son of his dreams, and I asked again, and he told me again. We took lefts and rights, stopped at red lights and passed through green ones, and I sped through a few yellows, and somewhere around Park Avenue we passed the tall building the color of sand where Grandma and Pepa’s son jumped to his death.

People were honking at me.

“Buddy,” my father mumbled, eyes shut, but alive again. “Be careful.”

On and on we continued in this way, him telling me with closed eyes where to go. But eventually his answers to my questions became fewer, because he really started to sleep. And snore. In the sharp exhales of his breath, I drove us according to the paths that looked the easiest. I took some lefts, some rights, some more lefts and some more rights. And as if my father could sense my fear, my indecision, he occasionally pulled himself up a little, waking, and said, “No, no. Take another left here.” It was beyond me how he knew where to go with his eyes shut. My father had great skill in navigating the world recklessly.

“Pick up speed,” my father said, alive, so alive even though he’s slurring his words with eyes closed, his limp finger pointing to something only he can see, something in the far, far distance to which he’s hoping I’m able to take us. “Use your blinker,” he said, still pointing. “And look over your shoulder too.”

I was on I-95 North, driving 70 miles an hour, in one of three lanes of traffic. Somehow I ended up in the far left lane, in the fast lane, an eighteen-wheeler in front and one behind, impatient drivers passing me by in the middle lane. I was stuck, and my father made no noise. None. He wasn’t snoring, not breathing heavy, and certainly not speaking, not giving any directions. He was as quiet as he would be after the day he died.

An opening in traffic showed itself, and I took it. I switched lanes too fast and my father felt it. “Slower,” he said, like he knew all along I was there, trapped between trucks and cars and that he was testing me.

Then he went back to watching me in his dreams.

I kept on north for I don’t know how long. My father mumbled something, and I took it to be a direction. I got off the highway, I thought, but it was just an exit to another highway whose name I didn’t know. I kept going, and my father kept sleeping.

I don’t know how much time passed, but eventually my father began to wake up. His eyes stayed closed, though, but by the sound of his voice he was coming back to life.

“Take this exit,” he said, yawning.

I did. The first thing I saw was a city sign: Ansonia. Then a bank. It wasn’t even the one my father used—he used People’s Bank, and this was a credit union—but I drove into the parking lot and parked as if this was where he wanted to go. I was pale and sweaty. My hands didn’t leave the steering wheel. “We’re at the bank,” I told my father.

He rubbed his tired eyes and looked around, wide awake.

“Buddy,” he said, looking around. “Where the fuck did you bring us?”

I had no answer, because I was nervous-laughing at his incredulous survey of our surroundings. Looking back on it all, I wish I had asked him the same question.

2.

Twenty-three years ago my mother took me away from my father in the middle of the night. I was six. She packed her car with some of our belongings and left my father behind. And my sister too was left behind in Bridgeport. I always forget my sister stayed, or was left, which may have something to do with the fact that she’s ten years older than I am and we have different fathers.

I don’t remember the drive to the reservation in Maine. At least not that particular drive on that particular night. My mother used to take me to the reservation once in a while, where we stayed with my grandmother and visited with her and my mother’s sisters. Of all those drives, I remember the bridge to Maine, remember passing over it, remember my mother turned our crossing the bridge into a game where we clapped until our car passed over the body of water beneath us. “Only a few more hours,” my mother always said, but sometimes it was more than that: she would begin to doze like my father, to nod off, and she’d have to pull over and take a nap.

But on the night she took me, I have no memory of the drive. Maybe I have a forgotten memory somewhere, a forgotten memory where I watched the stars as we traveled under the moonlight to an unknown destination to which I’m unsure I ever arrived. Or maybe I just slept through it. All I remember is how bright my bedroom lights were when she woke me and guided me to her car. I remember nothing about leaving, and I remember nothing about arriving, about getting settled in a new house in a new place. In trying to summon those past feelings, in reflecting back those twenty-three years, I always return to the present moment with the feeling that I had always lived on the reservation, that that house and life is or was my beginning.

Or maybe I am from two beginnings.

My mother said, as I got older, that she left my father because of his drug addiction, because of his gambling, because he lost our house. “What did he think I was going to do?” my mother asked more than once. “Move into Grandma and Pepa’s house next door with him? Live in a one-bedroom with all those nutcases?”

I never hated my mother for taking me away from my father. She wanted me to escape the dysfunction of that place, which she thought would get worse. But if there was something I hated—not her—it was her creation of a different dysfunction in which we lived. She didn’t do it on purpose, of course, and in that way perhaps she’s not so different from my father.

My mother had an impeccable ability to summon trouble. I say had because trouble seems to avoid her now, or she avoids it. I can’t imagine her past behavior ever repeating itself in the present: I can’t see my mother ripping open car doors of other drivers when they cut her off, yelling in their faces; I can’t see her chasing my sister with a Wiffle ball bat because she thought my sister lost me, this five-year-old boy; I can’t see my mother telling me to get my BB gun, which she loads and pumps and fires into the night at a group of rez kids as they bark and tease our dog, after which the police arrive and she tells them, “Come on, cuff me, do it,” and she holds out her wrists; and I can’t see her laughing and laughing and laughing after each time the trouble ends, can’t see or hear her say to someone, her mother or sister or friend or even my father over the phone, “I know, I know, I shouldn’t have done it, but they had it coming.” Maybe she’s no longer this way because she stopped carrying that cup with tinfoil over it and a straw jabbed through the center as she drove or went anywhere, the smell of wine or liquor if you got close enough. And she stopped taking her prescribed pain medication and now only consumes ibuprofen or her pills for diabetes.

I’m sure all that is what changed her.

So the trouble no longer finds her, and she no longer finds the trouble. When I visit with her and we have lunch and watch the Crime Channel, her anger only ever appears on two occasions: when her Bingo game on the Kindle I bought her is going haywire—“I had fifty fucking coins, where’d they go? Can you tell me that, God? Where’d they go?”—or when she brings up my father, which is quite often and always begins like this: “I loved Johnny,” she says, not looking up from her Bingo game. “I still do, and I miss him. But he messed up big-time.” She goes on, getting angrier and waving her stylus pen in the air, referring to him only as my father: “I’m so mad at your father. He better watch out when I meet him in heaven. Why did he have to go and ruin our life? His life? We had such a beautiful home together, a beautiful yard, and he fucking threw it all away. And the child support! Always making me twist his arm.”

Even though my mother is right, I can never bring myself to beat up on my father with her—to go in on my father and his faults is to deny the existence of my mother’s, which run right along his and are or were equally destructive. And so for the whole time she’s ripping into my dead father, I remain quiet and listen and watch her talk about him until I know she sees it too, sees what I see, because she looks up from her Kindle, stops talking about him in anger, and she looks at me, right at me, and asks, “I’m going to heaven, right?”

“Of course,” I say, not because I know that’s what she wants to hear, but because if there’s one thing I believe in, believe in even more than the existence of heaven itself, it’s that my mother will go there. When that day comes, I wonder what she’ll say to my father.

3.

When we all lived together on that dead-end road, my mother says that my father and sister bickered like siblings. One was always racing to tell on the other, and each’s tattle was always the same:

“Daddy John was at the casino last night!”

“Remember that hundred I was looking for? She took it!”

Each of them knew they were right: my father was at the casino, and my sister did take that hundred. But both of them always denied the allegations.

To catch my sister stealing, my father, who maybe thought his catching her would put a stop to her telling on him, spread out six or seven hundred-dollar bills on the kitchen table, and somewhere in the corner on a sideboard or atop the fridge, he propped up a video camera. Sometime later that day, a bill or two went missing, and my father brought my sister into the kitchen and asked her if she took it.

“I didn’t touch your money,” my sister told him, to which my father pointed at his evidence.

“Smile for the camera!” he said.

After she cried and apologized again and again and again, my father said, laughing, “I got you good. It wasn’t even on.”

I don’t remember how angry my mother was with him, but the story goes that she was terribly mad that he tricked her daughter and set her up. But since I know how terribly mad she can get, I can just imagine what that anger looked like.

My father knew his outings to the casino would not sit well with my mother, especially during those final, fragile years before which our lives would go in different directions, and so instead of deciding not to go, which would have given my sister nothing to tell and perhaps would have held us all together for longer, he decided to pay her to be quiet.

“Here’s two hundred,” he would say. “You didn’t see anything.”

She spent the money on cigarettes and alcohol and maybe drugs. She didn’t buy clothes; she stole those.

It’s beyond me where my mother thought her husband could have been. Overseeing a job out of state? Visiting his mother and father in Boston? I know she must have asked him, and I know my father must have lied—you could catch my father on a camera that was actually recording, and he would still deny that evidence. He would look you in the face and say, “You’re nuts, you know that? That’s not me.”

Regardless of the lies he must have told my mother, she knew. I mean, she did take me away from him that night because of his addictions. And I’m wondering now where my father was those twenty-three years ago on the night she plucked me from bed?

I think I know the answer—the casino—but I can’t prove it. I can ask my mother about it the next time I see her, but I don’t think she’d tell me. “Your father,” she’d start saying, stylus pen waving in the air. “God, I’m so mad at him.”

During the summers I was with my father, he would go to the casino about three or four times between June and August. I would often wake in the late hours to find him not in his recliner, which wasn’t uncommon. He usually was up all night, and if he wasn’t in that recliner then he was downstairs at the kitchen table, smoking and drinking soda in front of the AC. When he didn’t come back up, or when I fell asleep for a few hours more and woke again to him not having returned, I would go and look for him. Most times I found him down there in the kitchen—“Hey, buddy,” he’d say, “you want some Pepsi?”—but sometimes he wasn’t there or anywhere in the red house. And so I’d call his cell from the phone in the living room, and he’d answer, the background full of the noises of dings and bells and voices, and he would say he was at the casino, that he’d be back soon. “Get some sleep, buddy, and I’ll be home before you’re awake.” But I was always awake when he came home, when he walked up those stairs out of breath, oxygen tank in one hand, and came into the room and passed by me, pinching my toes on his way to the recliner into which he plopped down and then slept for the entire day.

When he had the extra money, my father sometimes brought me to the casino. Not for the night, but for the day while he gambled. I don’t know how he decided which casino to go to, but sometimes we were at Mohegan Sun, sometimes Foxwoods. Regardless, I had been to both so many times that I knew the layouts of each. My father would give me three or four hundred dollars to go play in the arcade, but before I’d go he’d show me which table he’d play at or which area of slots he’d be in. “I’ll be somewhere around here,” he’d say. My father was always easy to find because of his weight, his cane, and that oxygen tank.

I spent so many hours in those arcades that my running out of money was not a sad moment. If he had given me four hundred dollars, then that would be one thousand and six hundred quarters, and if each game cost fifty cents to play, that would mean I played eight hundred rounds of various games. Maybe a kid out there would not get bored, but I did. And so after I spent that money and wasted another hour walking around the areas in the casino where children were permitted, killing more time, I would then go and look for my father at the table he’d pointed at or near the slots he’d shown me, and when I found him, when I yelled to him from behind the red velvet stanchion posts, he’d get up from the table and come to me. For a brief moment I would think we were leaving, that that was it, but then he’d reach in his pocket and give me another three or four hundred dollars. “I’m almost done, buddy,” he’d say.

But one time I couldn’t find him. Anywhere. This was at Foxwoods, and I looked in every part of the casino I was allowed in. He was nowhere to be found. And so for an hour or two I sat on a bench, the Rainmaker Statue at my back and atop the rocks, aiming his bow up at the skylight and sun above us all. I waited for as long as I could, trying to stifle the fear that my father had abandoned me, until I couldn’t take it anymore. I went to the nearest security guard, and I said, almost crying, “I can’t find my dad.”

The way he said, “We’ll find him” makes me think now that this was a common occurrence. Two additional security guards stayed with me, asking me questions I don’t remember, until the next thing I knew they were handing me a big, bulky cordless phone, on the other end of which was my mother.

“That fucking son of a bitch,” she said. “Your father . . .”

When they found him, when I watched as the two guards walked on either side of him and escorted him from the gambling area and then left him, I believed only then that my father had not left me and that he never would.

“Buddy,” he said, walking over and out of breath. “I was looking all over for you.”

4.

The first time I said the words “My father is dead,” it was not in the English language. My then girlfriend and now wife and I were studying in Costa Rica. In late June we flew from JFK and landed in San José, near Santo Domingo de Heredia, where we would stay and study. Before we made the trip, we stopped in Bridgeport to see my father, who had moved to an apartment complex away from that dead-end road after his oxygen tank exploded and burned down half of the red house.

My father was not good the whole time we were there. He couldn’t even get my girlfriend’s name right. He kept calling her Courtney. I don’t know what he was taking, but it was a lot of whatever it was. My girlfriend and I couldn’t go anywhere without him falling asleep in one of his electric wheelchairs, which he owned two of, one stolen from the local hospital when he’d driven away with it. At Dunkin’ Donuts one morning, he sat half-asleep and ate straw wrappers; at the pizza place during lunch he dozed and dropped slice after slice on the floor, and he even tried to light a cigarette as we sat at the booth, his hands fumbling with a book of matches; and on our afternoon strolls between here and there he slept and let off the joystick of his motorized wheelchair, and so he was immovable for some time. And even when we were in a space in which sleep was acceptable, he still managed to make the time unbearable, as he had when he slept sitting up and, in his sleep or some in-between state I know very well, he undid his compression wraps and dug at his venous ulcers until his thick blood pooled at his feet.

Maybe he was trying to get me to stay.

My girlfriend and I planned to be in Costa Rica for a month. However, we were there for not even two weeks. Through our time, my father called every day, but I didn’t answer and I never checked the voice mails he left. Because of the way he behaved, I was too mad to talk to him, and I was too mad to hear his voice.

And then one day during our first two weeks there, specifically the day after a small earthquake shook the ground, like some indication of what was to come, some aftershock that would be felt, my aunt, my father’s sister, sent me a message on Facebook. “Can you please call your mom asap—don’t worry, she’s okay but needs to get in touch with you.”

But my mother would not answer. Not on the first, second, third, or fourth call. Not on the fifth, sixth, seventh, or eighth.

“She’s not answering,” I messaged my aunt. “I don’t know why. I called her cell and the house numerous times.”

And so it was my aunt who told me, after I called her, after she said time and time again, “You should talk to your mother. She just has to tell you something,” and kept saying similar things, kept deflecting, until finally her everything-is-okay front, her composure, could not withstand the weight and power of losing someone.

“I wanted your mother to tell you,” she said, crying. “Let your mother tell you too.”

When death comes for those we love it leaves in their place a moment, a moment that transcends time, a moment to which we are able to return on some days, those quiet days—you know the ones, where birds are chirping to each other or the world is hushed by the falling of snow—where those who are gone come back to us, speaking nothing yet everything, and we listen not to some long-ago time but instead to a time we are simultaneously distancing ourselves from and approaching, like a piece of paper with a timeline, two points drawn—a beginning and an end—folding in on itself.

“Mi papa es muerto” is what I told our host mom, Ana, when I had the strength to go indoors, and she gasped and did the sign of the cross.

So my girlfriend and I left the next day. Or the day after. My mother rented a car and drove down from Maine to Bridgeport for the service. I don’t know where my sister was. Maybe my mother left her behind. Or maybe she was in jail or rehab. But I do know that years later, when we spoke of my father, as we often do, she would say, “I wish I was there.”

For a few days before and after the service we all stayed with my aunt and her husband. We told the stories that brought him not back to life but within proximity of us all. I told the story of the time he made me drive him to the bank as he slept. My aunt told the story of how, when he first got his license, he bought a fake police siren, put it on the top of his car, and pulled people over. When he used to drive me around, I told them, if we saw police flashing their lights, going to some call, he would follow them at their speed, honking his horn at cars to pass, saying to me, his buddy, his partner, “We have to get to the scene of the crime!” until we could not keep up and he’d laugh and turn us around.

It’s true, what I said, that my father had great skill in navigating the world recklessly. And it wasn’t even the act of being reckless that killed him: his heart gave out, and he tripped on the tube that ran to his oxygen tank and fell face-first to the floor. Well, maybe his recklessness finally caught up to him.

Every March, and ever since his death, my mother always has to say how long she and my father would have been married: “Twenty-eight years this month,” “Twenty-nine years this month,” “Thirty-years this month. I miss him.”

I think she chooses to forget she divorced him, chooses to believe they’re still married. Or maybe they stayed married on their own terms, some bond that was unbreakable. Something the law has no understanding of. Something to do with their similarities.

The night before my mother, my girlfriend, and I drove back to Maine on I-95, my father cremated and in a black box at my feet, everyone at my aunt’s house except my mother watched my father’s debut on national television. I had never seen it but had heard about it. He was on People’s Court. And dead-end Grandma was his witness, even though she wasn’t a witness to my father’s movers breaking a client’s mirror during a job. But she was there with my father nonetheless, just as she would be, right in the front row, at his memorial service.

While I laughed at the footage and was finally able to understand why my father always said Judge Milian was a bitch, it was actually a sad sight: my overweight father, his upper partials falling out as he held them up with his tongue, getting yelled at by the judge until she banged her gavel. “Your counterclaim is dismissed, John. Verdict to the plaintiff—”

We left early the next day, my mother driving, my girlfriend in the back seat, my father in his black box between my feet. As we neared Maine, somewhere before the New Hampshire State liquor store, a state trooper had pulled someone over. “Get over a lane,” I told my mother, but for some reason she didn’t. Not even a mile away, the trooper caught up to us, his blue lights twirling in the rearview.

“Give me Daddy,” my mother said. We were pulled over, and the trooper was making his way to the car. “Give me Daddy—quick! Come on, give him to me.”

For some reason she thought my father’s ashes could fix this, that she could hold his ashes out to the trooper and show him our pain. I’ll never know if it would have worked, because I refused to use him in this way. She got a hundred-and-thirty-dollar ticket, and every so often on the rest of our drive back home she said between drags of her cigarette, “That trooper was a fucking dickhead. Did you see him yelling at me, spitting in my face? He’s lucky my husband just died. I don’t have the energy to fight. Fucking jerk.”

When my father died, he had on him just over a hundred and thirty dollars. Did I put that money toward the fine? Not quite. At the New Hampshire State liquor store, right before we made it to Maine, where we’d cross over the bridge and in my mind I’d clap my hands, a time now gone but not really, we stopped off to use the bathrooms and stretch our legs. While there, I bought lottery tickets with the money, his money. The expensive ones, the kinds my father bought and in part ruined our life with. I blew through all the money he’d had, scratched all the tickets in the store, and I broke about even, something my father knew nothing about. I cashed the tickets in and handed the money over to my mother for the fine, which I’m not sure she put toward the fine at all, and I went outside to smoke a cigarette and look up at the very same sky the Rainmaker Statue at Foxwoods still aims his bow at. But I could not look at the sky for long. I took out my phone and finally listened to the voice mails my father left, heard his voice that is now gone. Several of them were incomprehensible—a slurred, weak voice—but in the last one, I could hear him, could hear my father so clearly, so wide awake, so alive.

“Call me back, buddy,” he said. “I have to tell you something.”

I’ll never know what he wanted to tell me. And that’s okay. Most things are rarely neat in life, and this end—his end, our end—is one of them. I won’t pretend to know what it was he wanted to say; those words are buried forever in his ashes in a box on my brown dresser. But if I had to guess, if I had to gamble, I bet it was something he had never been able to say to me before: “I’m sorry, buddy.”

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