by Kevin Sterne
Bobby Love sat at the blackjack table of the Horseshoe Casino, a windowless affair on the Nebraska side of the Missouri River. The cards were coming easy. He rubbed a hundred-dollar chip and a twenty-five-dollar chip together in his pocket. The most money he’d had in a while. He could never keep money on him from one city to the next but could always afford a drink and hand or two. Tonight, he was pulsing, felt in control. A month ago, he’d run a job for Chilo and had already burned through it on everything a man would need in Omaha, Lincoln, Lawrence, Columbia, and Des Moines. After this job was over—the mountains. Denver. He’d been in the grass too long. Chilo’s payout could keep him a while. Hide out, take it easy.
He was a vanishing man. A skill honed from childhood, from having followed his uncle to three different trailer parks in the southern half of the state, where the dust was thick, and the wind blew so much they called it tornado alley. He had known when his uncle was home, and he shouldn’t have been. And, during that time, he had slipped into the usual trouble a boy could get into.
The dealer dealt him a 7-2 off suit, normally a terrible hand in poker, but, for Love, a lucky one. He doubled his bet and the dealer turned over an Ace and Love took his chips.
If you feel tapped in, the cards come that way—something his uncle had said during one formative moment. He’d taught Bobby the basics of poker, if you could call them that. Cards, booze and women were Love’s weaknesses, like his uncle’s. He’d been strong enough to fight his uncle at seventeen and had been living on his own since.
The key to vanishing was timing. He frustrated himself by giving in to what kept him in a place too long, usually women, lately Honey. But right now, it was this current job for Chilo. He felt for the phone in his pocket, flipped it open. Nothing.
The dealer dealt him two cards and Honey slid into the seat next to him.
“Not tonight, Honey.”
“But you’re on a heater.” She played with something in her purse.
“Hasn’t anyone taught you about superstitions?” She kept playing with that purse.
“I never got to properly thank you for what you did.”
A few weeks back, this suit had called her a lot lizard and Love had followed him to the parking lot to talk. She’d called him a hero. But tonight, he was tired. And he was waiting on instructions.
“Sweetie. Dear. I love you but you’re breaking my concentration.”
“Oh please. Your concentration. Gimme a break.” She put her hand on his knee. He took it and folded her fingers over a chip.
“Next time.” He kissed her hand and walked away.
“When will that be?”
But he’d already disappeared.
And he felt pleased with himself for doing so. Focus, when he had it, came in spades. He half smiled as he walked into the atrium. He threw a quarter into the horseshoe fountain, to repay the good luck he’d used. He was heading to cash his chips when he saw Cat sitting at a slot machine. What were the odds? Before he could decide not to, he was already walking up to her. She looked up at him then back at her game. It was something with cherries and dice. She forced a half laugh and ignored him.
“Last time I saw you, you said you were done with casinos.”
“I said I didn’t like the smell of the men. You all wear too much cologne.” She finished her game and looked at him. He looked at her. She looked healthier; her skin had more color.
“It’s been a while.”
“I guess it has.”
Her face said hug me and push me at the same time and it always pulled him in. He wanted to ask if she was still dancing, how things were after her mom died. He wanted to know about that old Jeep. The Fentanyl. The hole in the wall, was it still there?
“I just finished CNA school. Six months. I’m celebrating.” His eyes went wide. “A nurse now.” She had a glow. But Love was ready to leave, felt uncomfortable. She sensed this and pointed to his arm and said, “What you got there?”
“My winnings.” He grinned. She followed him to the cashier, said her celebrating was over and she hadn’t won anything. “I’m riding big right now,” he said.
“Better hope it lasts.”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
He scribbled his name onto three pieces of paper, gave the cashier his real ID, complained that he was signing his life away. “Same old Bobby Love, making his money in casinos. But this time, you didn’t lose it.”
“I’m a changed man. I have one job to collect from and then I’m getting west.” She laughed. He gave her a good look. She had changed. “Nursing school?”
Outside, the horizon was sucking away the last bit of blood orange from the sky. They stood under parking lot lights, with cattle fields all around them. Pearl millet, sorghum, cereal rye, short but hardy. It was just grass. “How’d you get here?”
“I walked.” A ghostly tumbleweed brushed by them. Inside his car she leaned over him and he smelled lavender. Clouds of silt swirled around them. The wind howled. They were in the middle of a dust storm with nothing better to do. “Cat I can’t.”
“What do you mean—”
He gently lifted her. “It’s this job.”
“You’re talking like the movies.”
“This one’s important.” And so, he told her. And, as he did, her expression changed.
“Well. Where is he now?”
“I have him tied up in the trunk.”
About the Author
Kevin Sterne is a carpenter from Chicago and the author of the story collection All Must Go. He’s the winner of the 2020 Phoebe fiction contest. He’s currently working on his first novel.