The decoder ring still turns — the answers to mysterious coded ciphers in rusted aluminum relief — but not with the same ease as its glory days. Ollie turns the ring’s rusty top, G with A, H with B. He takes a deep breath and pulls the lever.
Quarters drop into the tray below. He’s on his way. He can double — hell, triple — that ten grand.
–– And THAT’s how you do that!
Ollie smiles at no one in particular, his pride lost in the sea of hunched-over slot machine treasure hunters scouring the hyper-reality of the Foxhole Casino. He straightens his tie –– his favorite, the one with the sunflowers. Never goes out of style. He winks at Margie, her omnipresent poker face betraying nothing resembling awe. She turns and focuses on the slot machine in front of her.
Lady luck’s on his side. He can feel it. He twists the decoder ring. I with C. J with D. Another coin into the slot. Another deep breath. He pulls the lever.
Three sevens. Jackpot.
His compatriots from the Foxhole Tour glare at him, but in spite of the animosity surging through the casino floor, they –– Gerald, Jerry, Margie (she filled in the vacant spot when her husband, “Gerald the First,” died), Bill, and Ollie –– are a tight-knit group. They’ve celebrated birthdays (made it another year!), mourned deaths (anyone we know die today?), commiserated on the injustices of ageism and the aristocracy over breakfasts at McDonalds (Ollie always brings his Tabasco and hot peppers) and picked up cars on dealer trades with equal aplomb (Ollie’s an expert chase car driver).
Ollie makes sure they’re watching. He straightens his tie. Again.
–– It’s Katie bar the door now!
He pulls the lever.
Three cherries. Jackpot.
Glares and the ring-a-ding of the slots reply.
Ollie reaches into the dispenser and shovels his silver winnings into the bucket. He smiles at his Sentinel’s Sentries Decoder Ring, his ever-present friend and security blanket. It gives him the strength to keep going, to right the wrongs of his world. Tonight’s the night he’s going to make it all better. Fix everything. Give the kid a boost. Make everyone proud of him. It’s about damn time. He’s seventy-two after all; not seven, two, or twenty-seven. Seventy-two.
He straightens his tie.
–– 26. Bust.
Ollie stares at the queen of clubs, eight of hearts, and eight of spades. He should have stayed. Rush of it all. Fierce competition with Margie. She’s up. He’s down. It’s her game and she knows it — hell, everyone knows it. He juts out his teeth in gritty determination.
Margie taps her finger to the felt. She’s got two empty margarita glasses (on the rocks, no salt) and a third half-empty on the rail. Ollie nurses a Mai Tai as it nurses him.
The dealer sends another card from the shoe. Eighteen. Margie signals to stop.
The dealer flips over his second card. Hard seventeen. The dealer sends over Margie’s winnings.
–– Place your bets.
Ollie twists the Decoder Ring.
He lifts two chips — his final two chips — and throws them in front of him. $500. All in.
A jack. A nine. Ollie taps his fingers to the table.
The dealer stares at Ollie.
Ollie taps his fingers to the table again.
The house is quiet when he sneaks in. He keeps it dark –– he knows the path to his room. Done it enough times the past month. He tiptoes across the gray carpet and grips the railing. He takes the steps one at a time.
He opens the door at the bottom and walks into his room, his cavern filled with trinkets and memories: toy cars, Jane Russell pinups and toys, a disemboweled and disassembled motorcycle corpse (formerly and someday a 1938 Indian).
He throws his loosened sunflower tie over his makeshift dresser and drops his jacket to the floor.
He lowers himself to his knees and reaches under the bed. He pulls out an old shoebox. He removes the cover and throws two Foxhole Casino chips inside. They bounce off one another with a piercing clink. Five bucks each.
He closes the lid to “Toby’s College Fund” and lies on the floor, arms folded over the top of the box. He stretches his legs.
A scrap of paper falls from the ceiling (actually the laundry chute –– when he needed a place to stay, he got the old laundry room). It’s their secret communication passageway. The scrap lands on the bed. Ollie pulls himself up and on to the bed, kicking off his shoes (wingtips, one scuff only, he’s proud to say). He unfolds the scrap of paper.
Ollie twists the decoder ring to decipher the message. But he already knows what it says. He closes his eyes. Tears creep from his closed lids.
The big one got away, buddy.
The big one got away.
To be continued.