Under the Gun: Excerpt

Under the Gun
by John Vorhaus

Chapter 1: Apostrophe Catastrophe

under the gun little

The IM that Guy Harris sent Hal Harris that Friday told his brother to drop everything and come to Las Vegas right away. It didn’t say and bring money, but in Hal’s long experience with Guy that was pretty much a given. Hal ignored the message. He figured if it were truly urgent – or even if it weren’t, for Guy was no take no answer for an answer guy – there’d be a follow up phone call. Sure enough, ten minutes later the phone rang, and Guy’s manic voice came down the line, boasting how by dint of skill, native intelligence, and “balls the size of boxcars, Hal!” he had won something to do with some big deal poker tournament. This was, Guy assured his brother, an event of such cosmic consequence that it definitely required glorifying in high Vegas fashion, which for Guy Harris usually meant too much to eat, too much to drink, and a liberal application of strippers.

“Come to Vegas now, Hal. You’ve got to help me celebrate.”

“Guy, I’ve got a ton of work to do.”

“So do I, man. I’m supposed to be playing poker.”

“That’s work?”

“You know it is. It’s my job. But look…” and here his voice changed, “we really need to talk.”

“So talk.”

“On the phone? Screw that. I miss your shining face, sunny Jim.”

Hal sighed. Peel back the histrionics and you arrived at the same old subtext: bring money. “Look,” he said, “if you need cash…” He didn’t know what he was going to say next. Call Western Union? Get a real job? He used to could tell Guy to hit up their parents for it, but with them long dead, the only soft touch left dangling on the family tree is me.

“I don’t need money, Hal. I need to fucking celebrate!”

Once, long ago, Guy had tried to explain to Hal about tells, the mysterious psychic (or merely observational) means by which poker players detect lies in one another’s play. Like how they act strong when they’re weak, or weak when they’re strong, or how they’ll look you in the eye in a threatening manner when they’re bluffing and don’t want you to call. Sometimes, Guy would tell him, it’s like this rift in the fabric of space. You just know they’re not telling the truth. A rift in the fabric of space? Like almost everything Guy ever told Hal about poker, it went in one ear and died there. But for some reason just now Hal thought he heard something in Guy’s voice that, well, felt like a rift in the fabric of space.

“Guy,” he said, “are you scared?”

“Scared? Why should I be scared.”

“I don’t know. You sound weird.”

“Just come to Vegas, will you?”

“I can’t, Guy. Really. I’m in the middle of my crunch.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s right: taxes. Feeding the maw of Uncle Sammy.”

“Hey, just because you don’t – ”

“Don’t start with me, Hal.” This was a well-chewed bone of contention between them. As an accountant and what Guy called with no little contempt a citizen, Hal scrupulously declared every cent he earned, whereas Guy by his own admission took a more “creative” approach to tax filing. How he’d never gotten audited was beyond Hal’s comprehension, but it was only ever a brother’s love that kept Hal from personally dropping a dime.

So Hal didn’t start. Then there was this long silence, like Guy was searching for another avenue of attack but coming up empty. At last he said with kind of a shrug in his voice, “Whatever, bruz. Look, I have some things to take care of. You change your mind you know where I live. I’ll leave a key under the mat.”

“Why would I change my mind?”

“Ah, you won’t. You’re in the middle of your crunch.” He fired off an angry last word – “This wasn’t about money, Hal” – and then hung up.

Hal Harris had no illusions about his brother. Guy was selfish, manipulative, narcissistic to an extreme degree, genially corrupt and gently degenerate, a fan of every casual vice from masturbating in the dark in the room they shared as boys to smoking the kind of noxious cigars that make people gag. He was utterly without self-discipline, other-awareness, or the vaguest sense of social responsibility. But he could charm the pleats off a Girl Scout’s skirt, and he’d get your back in a bar fight. And he wasn’t afraid. Of nothing was he ever afraid. He said that’s what made him such a good poker player. More than once Hal had watched him shove wads of hundred dollar bills into a pot, smiling over his shoulder at Hal and saying, “What are they gonna do, kill me?”

So though Hal tried to forget about the phone call and bury himself in his work – even as it threatened to bury him in it – he kept coming back to the sound of Guy’s voice on the phone. No matter how many coats of bravado-colored paint Guy slapped on, Hal could still see the fear bleeding through. He knew it was real.

What are they gonna do, kill me?

Hal kicked himself for his stupid sentimentality, but what could he do? Blood was thicker than rational thought. So he blazed through a bunch of returns, farmed the rest out, booked a flight online, and cabbed it out to the airport in time to catch a six o’clock nonstop, Pittsburgh to Vegas. With the time change he’d be there before eight, in plenty of time to… well, in time to do what? Even as he boarded the plane he wasn’t sure why he was going or what he thought he was going to do or find. He supposed Guy was having some sort of a meltdown, and the white knight in him – there was a fair bit of white knight in Hal Harris – maybe hoped this was a chance to drag Guy out of chaos and into some semblance of a regular life. He knew that Guy had no patience for dull normals, and Hal frankly couldn’t imagine Guy holding down a job like his, or even any job of any kind, not if it meant reporting to someone or showing up on time or doing things by rote. But maybe Guy had gone so thoroughly broke that he was ready for the narrow and straight at last.

Probably not, thought Hal. Probably he’d just figured out a new way to play me.

¯¯¯

With a brother who lived there and denizened its cardrooms, Hal was no stranger to Las Vegas. He’d served his time in casinos. He knew them well enough: the saturated colors and overloud sounds; the cocktail waitresses with the low cut this and high cut that; the grim grins plastered on the gamblers’ faces as they watched their stake slip away; the way everyone affected the devil-may-care attitude of happy sailors dancing on a sinking ship. For his part, Hal had always held the city of sin at arm’s length. He’d long ago figured out that if you could actually beat Vegas, Vegas wouldn’t be there, which realization dimmed his actuarial enthusiasm for craps, slots, blackjack, all of it. As for poker, he was a dead loss there. Hold a gun to his head and he could recite the ranks of hands –

high card

pair

two pair

three of a kind

straight

flush

full house

four of a kind

straight flush

royal flush

– but that’s about as far as it went. Some people have card sense and others don’t, that’s all. Or rather: Some people have the gamble in them and others don’t. Hal never did. While Guy was pitching nickels with his thug buddies against the back wall of their junior high school, Hal was nerding off in the library or doing supplemental sets of math problems for extra credit. Math always came easy to Hal, like gambling came easy to Guy. “They come, they go,” Guy would say. “Fuck it.” And then hit up his bruz for a loan. Which loan of course he never paid back. It had occurred to Hal that he probably chose a career in accounting just to get some control over numbers, since he could never get control over his brother, who had no control at all. It may also have been why he never learned to play poker. Guy always wanted him to, so he’d have someone to play against when he’d busted everyone else, but Hal never took the bait. Either he was playing dumb or just was dumb, but he figured if Guy couldn’t get decent competition out of him, he’d leave him alone about it, and eventually Guy did. So Hal’s understanding of poker never extended past what beats what, and whenever he watched Guy play he let his mind wander to other things.

After a turbulent childhood and adolescence in which their divergent worldviews ground against each other like tectonic plates, Hal and Guy had settled into an amiable “you go your way, I’ll go mine” adulthood, and saw each other sufficiently infrequently to keep their clashing passions on low boil. While they viewed themselves as chronic opposites, in fact they complemented each other quite well. Being with Guy was a high for Hal: pleasant enough in measured doses but not to be overdone. Hal in return gave Guy the sort of plain, gray background against which bright colors shine in high relief. Measuring himself against his brother’s straightforward (and to Guy’s eyes bland) way of life made Guy feel superior and sharp. In the sense that each other’s flaws just reinforced their own cherished beliefs, they were perfect companions. Opposites don’t merely attract; they validate and confirm.

They were now in their late twenties, and the shape of their lives seemed to be set. Hal, thirteen months his brother’s senior, had taken his accounting degree and immediately put it to work in the sort of company where sensible sensibilities were positively reinforced and wearing a Hawaiian shirt on Casual Friday was the acceptable limit of outrageous behavior. Guy, meanwhile, had given college a scattershot failed attempt, kicked around for a while, burdened neither by focus nor fixed address, and finally come to rest in Las Vegas. When he discovered cardroom poker, he knew he’d found his home.

Romance had eluded both Harris boys, for Hal was too cautious to give his heart away without a clearly calculated and gauged return, and Guy kept renewing his girl-of-the-month club membership for mortal fear that the subscription would lapse. Hal supposed the time would come when he would marry and breed according to the well defined suburban script. Guy had no such illusions. There was no settle in him, as anyone who’d ever watched him fidget in his seat in a poker game would quickly attest. Hal worried for his brother: for the poverty of his spirit, for his wastrel ways, and for his tangible lack of desire to build something lasting in his life. But whenever he voiced these concerns to Guy, his brother would fire back with an existential, “What’s the point, bruz? You can’t take it with you.” This passed for thoughtfulness in Guy’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell philosophy, and was the seawall upon which the waves of both Hal’s logic and his compassion inevitably broke.

The plane descended toward the setting sun, with the mountains on fire behind and the city in shadows and loud neon below. In the crowd around him Hal could feel the quickening pulse of anticipation. Soon these eager revelers would be scattered around town, hunting and chasing the Vegas buzz wherever they could find it: in the free drinks that the house so generously provided; in the stage shows presenting larger than life spectacles at larger than life prices; in the “escorts sent directly to your door”; in the all- night pub crawls that held out the tantalizing promise of real human contact (or anyway sex) but ultimately seemed to deliver only a big bar tab and a hangover of storied proportion. Vegas was like that. It stole so much: sleep, discipline, sobriety, time, common sense; and after it softened you up, it picked you clean. What got Hal was how they never stopped coming back, no matter how many times they went home broke. Insanity, he’d been told, was doing the same thing over and over again in hopes of a different outcome. He didn’t think they were all insane, just victims of selective memory – gamnesia, Guy called it – a bettor’s confirmation bias that filters out the losses and overstates the wins.

Then again, here he was, landing in Vegas again, trying to save his brother’s lost soul again. Insanity, they say…

Hal thought he would cab it to Guy’s apartment, but Friday night at McCarran Airport was impossible for cabs, with a line that snaked through switchbacks like Disneyland on Labor Day. He didn’t feel like waiting, so he went to the rentacar desk with the shortest queue and paid way too much for one of those new cheap Chinese imports, a subcompact Song Serenade with fine vinyl seat covers and all the pep of a narcoleptic rider mower.

Guy lived in a rundown housing complex called the Evergreen Apartments, a name which always amused Hal because there was never ever anything evergreen about the apartments or grounds – except possibly the pool, which was ever green with algae – or the surrounding avenues and streets. It took Hal an hour to get there, a slow, aching grind up the I-15 in an accordion crush of trucks, commuters, minivan cabs, and out-of-state platers. Frazzled and edgy by the time he arrived, he parked behind Guy’s building and made his way up the outside stairs to the second floor rear corner flat that Guy called home. He knocked on the door but got no answer. Not that he expected one. Guy had said that he had some things to take care of. Hal took this to mean harvesting the poker tourists, whose toxic cocktail of eagerness, impatience, and jet lag made Friday Guy’s big money night of the week. He had, he told Hal, made a study of this, and found Friday more profitable than, say, Saturday, because Friday was when most tourists blew into town and hit the poker tables all over-amped and under-skilled. By Saturday the good ones had found their feet and the bad ones had gone broke, leaving the tables top-heavy with locals who, like some latter day Donner Party, spent the evening more or less gnawing on one another’s legs. Floridly put, but Guy was florid like that.

Hal lifted the welcome mat to find Guy’s key. On the mat he read the words, The Sivapathasundaram’s. He couldn’t imagine where Guy had gotten this cheesy artifact – probably stole it off the Sivapathasundarams’ doorstep – but he knew it was the gratuitous possessive that tickled Guy. Words were to Guy what numbers were to Hal. They moved and delighted him, and sang to him in a way. But he was indignant about ignorant assaults on the language. As outlaw as Guy was in his lifestyle, he had a mocking contempt for anyone who couldn’t follow simple rules of grammar, and apostrophe catastrophes were his pettest pet peeve.

“Yoo hoo! Mr. Sivapathasundaram? Anybody home?” Hal stepped across the threshold into a living room littered with beer bottles, chips, coins, cash, playing cards, porno magazines, and promotional discs for online poker sites. An Australian flag draped over the back of a threadbare brown couch served as… what?… upholstery? Style? Above it hung a frameless print of dogs playing poker, staple-gunned to the drywall at an odd angle. Guy had taken a Sharpie and given the dogs dialogue balloons. “That’s not a hand, that’s a paw!” said one. “Call if you don’t like kibble,” said another, and, “Shut up, bitches,” snarled a third. Through an open archway Hal could see the kitchen, cluttered with the flotsam of Guy’s bad food habits: empty pizza boxes, a can of aerosol cheese… and a giant bag of dry dog food? Hal didn’t know Guy to have a dog, but couldn’t imagine his circumstances to have been that reduced, so he assumed dog, somewhere.

Hal went into the bedroom. On Guy’s night table stood an empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s with a candle jammed into it. This, along with a John Coltrane CD case and some empty condom wrappers, suggested a night of well I suppose you’d call it romance. Per the condom wrappers, Hal didn’t search too hard for further evidence.

There was a bathroom off the bedroom, and as he hadn’t had a pee since Pittsburgh, Hal decided to avail himself. A sign on the door – another purloined apostrophe catastrophe – proclaimed this the mens’ room. Hal walked in and squared up in front of the toilet. As he unzipped, a rustle of shower curtain caught his ear. Given the tiny, close nature of Guy’s flat, Hal couldn’t credit a refreshing cross breeze. Curious, he turned toward the sound – just in time to take a thick brick of crystal to the face.

He went down like a drunken co-ed, smashed his head against the sink, and remembered no more.

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