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The Redeemed Writing Sample

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On Saturday night, right after Shabbos, I had the good luck to receive a phone call from Yoni, an old friend who was visiting his parents. It was mid-December, I hadn’t gone to shul that Shabbos and didn’t know that he was in town. 

The Rothman’s house still had the Shabbos smell of chicken soup and chulent. Yoni was leaning back on the couch, one of his arms around Deet. She was wearing a red skirt that only reached her knees. Her legs were bare. 

Yoni had put on some weight since I’d last seen him two years ago. His pants and shirt fit him too tightly. When he half-stood up to welcome me, arms open to give me a hug, I thought that at least one of the buttons would pop off his shirt. 

It was the type of awkward embrace that two friends who haven’t seen each other in a couple of years are supposed to have. There was the space in between our chests, the light pat on the back, and a quick disengagement. Yoni settled back on the couch, put his arm around Deet, and let out a little grunt, the effort to stand must have worn him out. 

When he had called me up, and said he had missed me in Shul, I had wondered why he hadn’t called on Friday, before Shabbos. I told him I had been feeling sick.

“You should come over.” He said.

“Right, I should. I should see you before you leave.”

“Why don’t you come over right now, we’re going over to the casino later on.” 

 “Yeah sure, I’ll come over. Could I get a ride?”

Yoni paused before answering. His mother’s voice in the background, called him to supper. “Actually I’m busy right now, can you walk?” 

It was a fifteen-minute walk in the cold and snow to the Rothman’s house. There was a BMW in the driveway. Yoni must really be pulling in some cash to rent a car like that.

Deet went back to talking with Yoni’s mother. “Oh, and I just got Yoni a suit even though he always wears jeans, but you saw it this Shabbos, it was really beautiful, and  I told Yoni, you need a new suit and that the color really went with him…” 

She seemed overanxious, too eager to please, leaning forward, overemphasizing. She’d been living with Yoni for the past two years and I’m sure she was waiting for Yoni to propose to her. If she made friends with his mother, something that I had never been able to do, it could only help. 

Mrs. Rothman had been protective of him when we were growing up. When Yoni stopped being observant she eventually accepted his decision, but had insisted he wear a yarmulke in her house. If he came in without putting his on, she would vent her disappointment. “As long as you’re a mentsch, and have manners like a normal human being, that’s all I want.” She’d yell until he’d give in and search his pockets for the crumpled up polyester yarmulke he kept with him. 

It would only further infuriate his mother, “Wear a normal yarmulke, like the one I bought for you last week, not this piece of plastic, like a garbage bag on your head!” She had never yelled at me, but I always felt guilty. I was never sure if she approved of me as a friend, so I rarely spoke when around her.       

 “Hey man, check these out.” Yoni said, pointing at his shoes. I had to lean over the coffee table to get a look. “I just got them in some shop. I dropped over three hundred on them. Pretty nice?” He was wearing a pair of cowboy boots, the black leather so new that there wasn’t a crease or scuff on them.

“Well I guess so, now you all you need is a cowboy hat.” I said. I wasn’t looking at Yoni’s shoes. Deet was wearing brown Birkenstocks and had slipped off her right shoe. Her bare foot rested against a table leg.

I ate some chicken and rice while Yoni and Deet got ready to go. Mrs. Rothman walked us too the door. “Don’t stay out too late Yoni, remember you have to leave early tomorrow to be back on time for work, and it’s a long drive.” She said. 

Walking up the driveway towards the BMW I still felt like she disapproved of us hanging out together, that she was worried we’d get in trouble. 

Yoni, unused to his heels walked unsteadily down the driveway. I opened the door and was about to get in when Yoni stopped me. 

“Shake off your shoes.” He said, grabbing my arm before I could sit down. He sat down on the driver’s seat, his cowboy boots extended onto the snow-crusted pavement, and clicked his heels together three times. I did the same, sitting down on the tan leather seat, shaking the snow off before closing the door.  

“It’s just a rental, they’re not gonna charge you for wear and tear.” I said to him.

“Actually, its not, I just bought it.” Yoni replied, a touch of pride in his voice.

“Oh, that’s nice.” I said, and ran my hand over the soft leather of the seat. The last time we’d talked he had told me how well he was doing, and offered me a job. I hadn’t taken his offer too seriously.  

“The floor mats haven’t come in yet and I want to keep the inside clean.” He told me. 

 During the ride he showed off his ‘Beemer’. It had a built-in navigation system, and Bluetooth that turned the surround sound stereo system into a giant speakerphone. The GPS guided us towards the casino. We crossed over the bridge and turned right, onto Canal Street. The flickering artificial flame atop the casino hall lit our way like a beacon. 

We both planned on playing some Hold ‘em. I’d taken out a hundred from the ATM, all the bankroll I could afford, and was hoping to play tight, lay low and catch my cards.

Yoni told me about the time he was down in the Caribbean and won twenty thousand in a single night. “I was playing no limit and kept on catching my cards, and even when I wasn’t, I’d bluff the guys down, maybe catch something on the river. I showed a couple of weak hands, to throw the table off, make ‘em think I was playing loose.” 

He landed big slick, Aces and Kings, suited, and raised pre-flop. One of the players, who’d folded a heads-up with him on a previous hand, called his raise. Yoni thought he was tilting because earlier he’d shown him a real crap hand after the guy had folded to him on a raise.

The flop came out Queen and Jack of hearts, and a Queen of diamonds. Yoni was running for a royal flush but checked for a free card. This guy bets, Yoni knew he should fold because he can tell the guy has paired something, but limps in to see the turn.   

The turn shows, a ten of hearts, he’d hit a royal flush, the nuts. At this point, Yoni figured the guy probably had pulled out a flush thinking he had the hand, so Yoni played it tight, checked, let the other guy bet for him. This guy didn’t hesitate, pushed all in, threw his cards down, and jumped for the pot.

He was showing a nine and eight of hearts, a straight flush. Yoni turns over his cards. The guy didn’t see it right away, when the dealer told him it’s a royal flush, he crumpled. 

“He’d gone down twenty grand, probably blown his whole bank account thinking he had the nut hand. That moment when you take someone out, when they lose everything, and it’s not just the money, but everything, their hopes their confidence, and you’re stacking up their chips putting them into your pile, that’s what it’s all about. Later on, when I saw him at the bar, taking shots of tequila, probably part of a bad beat comp. I bought him a drink, told him that he played the hand right, that when you’ve got your cards you push all in, and if you get a bad beat well at least you’ve fucking tried.” 

We took the skywalk over into the casino and found the poker room in the back of the bingo hall, a cavernous room lit by artificial lights. Flatscreen monitors positioned across the room, showed a tight close-up of a bingo ball, the B-21 a step ahead of the one that the announcer called out. The crowd was an odd mixture of old ladies patiently marking their cards, and young college girl in tight fitting tops, stuck without fake ID’s, looking for something to do on a Saturday night. 

Bingo is kind of that gateway drug, when you hit eighteen you go down to the Bingo hall and pick up your first card from the dealer, try it a couple of times hoping to get lucky, then go down to the main floor when you hit twenty-one.

The poker room was sealed off from the bingo hall. The plate-glass windows that looked out onto the bingo hall highlighted how cramped the room was. The place was quiet. A couple of monitors were tuned to ESPN, volume on mute, everyone busy concentrating on their cards. I signed up for a $2-$4 table, figuring that’s all I could play with a hundred dollar bankroll. Yoni went for a $10-$20. There was at least a two hour wait, so we headed down to the main floor. 

Display cases, sunk into the wall, followed the descent of the escalators. They were filled with Indian memorabilia. A pair of beaded moccasins, a peace pipe, dream catcher and other Indian paraphernalia showcased against faux-wood  paneled walls. It was the kind of almost Western stuff that I’m sure Yoni loved. 

As we descended to the first floor, the sound of the slot machines got louder and louder, until stepping off the escalator, and walking through the bank of slot machines I couldn’t hear anything. The bright screens and their clanging were disorienting and tempting at the same time. I felt like dropping in a couple of dollars.

We found the blackjack tables in the middle of the room, where the slot machines could barely be heard, the noise replaced by the low hum of people betting. Yoni looked for a hot table, something with action. He wanted to pull out his bankroll in front of a crowd and break the bank. He settled on a $5-$20 table, that was already half-full. He watched a few hands. One of the women at the table hit twenty-one twice in a row, landing Ace, King both times, pulling in a stack of chips. Yoni sat to her right, hoping to get some of her luck.

“I’ll be right back.” Deet said to Yoni. 

“Wish me good luck, sweetie.” He said. She kissed him. Yoni pulled out his wallet, took out a stack of green, all hundreds, peeled off ten bill, and put them on the table. I stood behind him as he settled into his seat. 

Deet disappeared past the craps tables, walking past the thrower in his polyester-blue work clothes. The creases were still sharp even though he had probably just come off his shift. I caught the sparkle of light off the clear plastic cubes of dice as he threw for sevens. The crowd around him leaned forward straining to read the dice before the dealer, riding with his throw. Deet’s slim figure, tight jeans, red lipstick, copper hair, weaved around people too intent on their chips to notice her.  

  The dealer counted out the stack of bill then fanned them out across the table for the sake of the overhead cameras. They were spread out like the two decks of cards that a dealer when just starting a shift at an empty blackjack table sets up while waiting for people looking to test their luck. The dealer gathered up the bills and replaced them with stacks of chips,  ten stacks of red five-dollar chips, twenty per stack. 

Yoni watched her take them out, matching up each stack until she’d made ten. She slid them over to him. He shaped them into a triangle, its point facing the dealer. She took the cash, counted it out one more time, then deposited it down a slit that led to a safe box under the table.

Yoni pulled out an eight and a seven. The dealer was showing a Jack so he signaled, with a downward gesture of his hand, for another hit. The man to his right busted out, pulling a ten on top of his original hand of twelve. A nine comes out and Yoni busted. The dealer smiled in sympathy, took his two red chips with a shrug as if to say well that’s to bad, but I’m on your side, I’m rooting for you, but that’s the luck of the draw. Yoni leaned back clenched his jaw, reached into his coat pocket for a cigarette. The dealer busted out on a soft seventeen and stacked up chips against the players who’d stayed in. 

Next hand, Yoni put in four chips, doubling up on his previous hand. He busted again, but refused to give in, put in another four reds and waited for his cards. He busted, down a quick sixty in his first five minutes at the table. He was real upset now. Next hand, he played the minimum five-dollar bet. It was going to be a long night, with that big stack all there in front of him. I knew Yoni wasn’t not going to walk away that easily. Now it was him against the dealer and he was going to duke it out, even if it took all night. 

Yoni was still concentrating on his cards, I wondered how long he’d stay at the table if he continued going down. How much he was willing to lose, how big of a dent he was willing to take to his bankroll take before walking away. But there’s always that chance he’dpull it out, go on a roll and hit a string of twenty-ones, come out of there on top. There’s always that chance even when you’re playing against the house and the odds are stacked against you that you’ll pull one out. 

Deet came back, reemerging from the casino’s maze. She saw that Yoni was already down, how he frowned when he bet big. “Yoni, Sweetie, Slow Down!” She said, leaning against his shoulder giving him a look. He stared at her blankly, looked back at his cards.

“I’m gonna walk around a bit, check up on the poker room” I told him. 

“Hey, take some of my chips.” He said, handing me a stack as I was walking away. I took the stack without thinking. 

“I’ll partner with you, anything you win we’ll split, okay?” Yoni said. He patted me on the back without waiting for me to say anything. I nodded. Deet watched as I put them in my pocket. Her arms were crossed, she had the same expression on her face as Mrs. Rothman. I figured I’d get into a poker game and win some cash. I’d play real tight only going in on face cards, leave after winning a couple of pots. 

The road to the escalator winds through the bank of video slots. I’m engulfed by their neon-colors and noise. The machines, even when no one’s winning, clang, whistle, and ring their bells.   An old lady, gray hair in curls, sat by one of the machines, a quarter machine modeled after The Wizard of Oz. Pictures of Dorothy and entourage skipping over the yellow brick road decorated its surface.

The old lady wasn’t wearing sequined shoes, her white nurse shoes were paired with faded blue sweatpants. She barely moved. Her eyes glued to the screen. Her free hand, the one not hitting the spin button, held a cigarette. She took puffs off of it in between spins of the wheel. Her expression didn’t change as she hit the plastic button again and again.  

The wait was still two hours in the poker room. I rode back downstairs, feeling the chips in my pocket. They weighed down the left side of my coat. I took them out, counted the twenty chips, wondered what I should do with them. 

I wandered past the roulette table. The dealer threw the white ball clockwise, against the spin of the wheel. I picked red, placing down one chip, and waited for the ball to settle. It came out black. I waited for the next spin, picked red again with my one chip. Mid-spin the players placed their bets on the board. The dealer called out “Place your bets, bets please.” 

One of the bettors, a short guy in a black polyester track suit, waited to the last second, just when the ball was starting to slow, to put down his chips. The dealer called out “No more bets, no more bets,” saw him put them down on the middle odds. “I’m sorry sir, you’ll have to take off the chips, that was a late bet.” The dealer said. Reluctantly the guy took his chips off. The ball settled on nineteen, none of us had won.

I wasn’t sure what to do with all those chips in my pocket. I thought about going to a blackjack table, or another table game like Let it Ride, to try my luck. I ended up at the bar, decided to have a couple of drinks before making up my mind. I was surprised when Deet sat down next to me.

“I saw you come in, I was sitting in the back,” she said, holding her cocktail glass.

“Yoni still out there?” I asked her.

She nodded, “I’ve told him not to play with so much cash, but he doesn’t care. No matter what I tell him he does whatever he wants, he’s throwing his money away out there. He just doesn’t listen, I can’t stand it when he does that.”

I knew how she felt. “That’s just the way he is, he never listens, if he wants to do something, if he really wants something, there’s no way to tell him no. Like that car he just bought, why does he need a BMW? He likes buying things, the satisfaction of owning them, then he uses them up and forgets about them.”

 “And why did you take his money? What did you think then?” Deet asked.

I still felt the pat Yoni had given me on the shoulder, the way he had abruptly dismissed me. “I don’t know, it wasn’t like I thought about anything, he just gave me the chips, I wasn’t thinking. But I couldn’t have just said no, could? That’s what he’s so good at, if he wants something, he always knows just what to do to get it. Like with you, he’s given you just enough that you’ll do whatever he wants.”

Deet was hurt by what I had said. “That none of your business, what he’s giving me, where not talking about me.”  

“I saw you tonight, with his mother, fawning over her like a house-cat. Do you think he’s going to marry you because you’re talking to his mother? I’ve seen him, I’ve seen the way he acts, there’s no way…”

She interrupted me. “You have no right to talk about that, do you think you can talk to me about things like that?”

“Yeah, I think I can. I know Yoni, I know what he’s like, and I don’t know how you can stand putting up with him, the way he manipulates and does whatever he wants. I’ll tell you this, one day you’ll wake up and he’ll ask you to leave. He’ll be nice about it, but you’ll know he’s trading up, doesn’t have a use for you once he’s taken everything he can. When you’re all scuffed up, when he’s been wearing away at you for years, you’ll think it’s your fault he doesn’t love you, when I’ve never seen him do anything unselfish, for love. He wants to own you. Buy you with a couple of chips.”

I shouldn’t have talked to her like that. It was Yoni I should have been talking to, not Deet. But I couldn’t help it. I knew how hard it was to stick up to Yoni. He’d always gotten his way whenever we argued. Not because he was right, but because no matter how stupid the argument he’d stick with it until I’d cave in.

Deet’s face showed the scars of all those lost battles even under those dim lights. At twenty-one, she had already begun to fade. The bright youthfulness that had made her so attractive the first time I had seen her had already begun to lose its color. There was no freshness left. Was she still that same girl I had seen in New York two years ago?

How many arguments had she lost to him since then? Did she even realize how much she’d changed? How much of herself she thrown away and lost?

 “People change. I don’t know about you, but people change.” Deet said.

“I can see that. I see that you’ve changed.”

“Well I have. We all have. You know, there’s a lot of good in Yoni.”

“Like his money.” 

“It’s not about the money.”

“Really, then what is it. Has he made you fall in love with him?” Because Yoni could do that, he could make you like him, even when he treated you like crap.

“Mendel, sometimes you have to take a chance.” She said.

It wasn’t the type of argument I wanted to win. I didn’t feel like I had won. It didn’t feel as if either of us were winning.

Around three a.m. the environment in a casino changes, the lights grow harsh and bright. I looked around, all the casual players were gone. Now it was just the bad luck gamblers. The ones who’ve had a bad session and are on a tilt, with their dwindling bankroll. They know they haven’t got enough to make it to the end of the month. By three a.m. if it hasn’t been a winning night they start getting a little desperate. They’re tempted to play the big-odds games, where the house almost always wins. 

Once it hits three, which since there aren’t any clocks in a casino, is more of a feel than any set time. That feeling when you can barely keep your eyes open, and have to check you cards twice before mucking your hand. It’s around then when you get the suspicion that the tables are rigged, that you’ll never win, and then, perhaps it’s the high levels of oxygen that the managers are pumping in through the overhead vents, but you get a second wind. You’re punch drunk and have that illusion of happiness that you can still win, no matter how much the odds are against you. 

It doesn’t matter that you’re playing against the house, and that in the long run the house always wins. You get that feeling which you can only get at three in the morning, that you’re gonna beat the house, that you’ll start pulling in the monster hands, that the next hand is gonna land you a blackjack, that the spin of the roulette wheel is gonna come out for you, the next spin of the slot machine’s bars are gonna land you the jackpot.

    I looked around for a table, for one that feels right, where I can try my luck. Deet had gone back to Yoni, who I’m sure was still losing. I wanted to take the stack of chips and double them up, then double them up again and again and again until they reached in giant stacks up to the top of the cavernous room, until they completely blocked that flickering flame that cast its bars of light and shadow into the night. 

I sat down at a $5-$20 blackjack table and stacked up my chips, waiting to come in on the next hand. The guy on my left busted out, and I noticed him staring at me. I ignored him. He had a weekend’s growth of grey stubble. His eighties-style, fighter-pilot glasses were dirty. He hunched over his stack, as if to protect it from the dealer. “You Orthodox?” He asked me.

I wasn’t sure at first what he meant. Judging from his breath, the complimentary soda he was sipping was spiked. He’d probably been on a tilt for the last few hours. I didn’t want to speak with him. “You mean my style of gambling?” I asked him.

He didn’t laugh. “No, are you Jewish?” He asked.

“Yeah, I’m Jewish.” I said. 

“You know, there’s a lot of Jewish gamblers out there. I guess it runs in their blood,” he said drunkenly.

I looked around the table, at the desperate eyes, counting the cards up to twenty-one. They all looked tired, like they were waiting to lose their stack so that they could leave. None of them looked like they were having fun. 

The dealer waited for everyone to put down their bets. “I’m gonna sit this one out.” I said to the dealer. She didn’t mind. She looked just as tired as the rest of the table. Her white shirt had turned the off-grey of too many shifts. I’m sure she had seen her share of busted out gamblers trying to pull together just enough for one last run, trying to get that one lucky run that would turn them around.     

I cashed out the chips and added them to my hundred. It’s always a good night when you double up. Yoni was still sitting at the same table where he’d started off. Deet was sitting down by him watching the cards. “You win anything?” Yoni asked me.

“No, I lost it all.”  

“Too bad. I broke even.” Yoni said.

“That’s not true.” Deet broke in. “You didn’t break even, I saw lose all your chips.” She turned to me and said “He just took out more money, that’s all.”

Yoni interrupted her. “Yeah maybe a couple hundred, but sweetie, I’ve worked my way back up.” Deet didn’t say anything. She’d already learnt that there was no point in arguing with Yoni. Besides it didn’t matter how much Yoni had lost, with the type of money he was making he didn’t have to rely on luck. He could afford to drop a couple of G’s in a night. He had already made his own good luck. 

We stopped off at George Webb’s on the way back. Yoni parked his car across the street, in the Pizza Shuttle parking lot. “You don’t mind?” Yoni asked me. In the old days, we’d gone there sometimes, late at night, when Yoni was hungry. 

Deet looked over the dirty laminated menu spotted with grease, in disgust. “Yoni, can’t we go somewhere else?” She asked.

“You want to get something?” Yoni asked me, ignoring her.

“No, not really, maybe a root beer.” 

“You want some fries?” Yoni asked, pointing to his plate.

“No, no thanks.” I said. 

“Right, you’re still kosher,” he said, as if he had just reminded himself. 

The diner was almost empty. A group of teenagers at one of the tables flirted with their waitress. Her legs looked good even in the cheap George Webb’s uniform. She laughed at something one of them said. She was young, almost as young as the kids she was waiting on. Why she was working the midnight shift, where all the customers were bums, and the waiters burnt out from years of pouring coffee and picking up their tips in loose change? Yoni had flicked the onions off his burger and was raising it to his mouth. “Yeah, I’m still kosher.” I said. 

When he finished eating, we put on our coats. I followed Yoni and Deet back to his car. He had his arm around Deet, she leaned against him. I shook the snow off my shoes before getting into the back of his Beemer. 


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