by Chris Bacas
Like a county road crew, a bunch of guys performing repetitive tasks under a fixed hierarchy, we couldn't indulge in brinksmanship on management's dime. One-upping colleagues on the bandstand wasn't going raise your profile. How cocky could I feel about an 8-bar solo on “Swanee River?” Team sport took a special commitment to getting up early or giving up a day-off. Inertia usually won. Poker was the best outlet for competitive spirit. Card games made the hit and runs go faster, too. Small-stakes gambling had the additional benefit of revealing character. When you called a cat's bluff with twenty-two bucks in the pot, you learned stuff about them.
On the bus, while you knotted your tie, someone asked, quite casually, if you played poker. With a yes, he'd get back to you. Four or five guys made a quorum. Next hit-and-run, the game was met. We first played atop a large cooler sitting length-wise in the aisle. A cap served as pot. Three seats on each side were reserved for play. The deal rotated. You'd half-stand to deliver cards to distant players. The head in the back of the vehicle presented a special problem. On the way to relieve themselves, most guys could tightrope walk across the armrests without breaking up the game. Coach and Z couldn't. They either waited for a hand to finish or if nature's call was urgent, we suspended play to let them through.
Each of us had favorite games, betting protocols and a personal style. A colleague drank Crown Royal. Every bottle came in a purple drawstring bag. Once you'd been around, you got your own bag for coins. Welcome to the Iron Lung. To gin up interest in a game, you randomly shook the bag of change; someone shook in answer. Even guys who didn't play, cocked a snoot toward the action. Roomie didn't partake, though he had a brilliant idea for a better playing surface. He took a busser's tray, attached Velcro strips underneath and on the armrests. That made a stable surface at table height. The tray stored easily behind a suit rack.
Games progressed through the night. Oblivious to a world outside our tinted windows, the band played on. On arrival, we pulled up stakes and moved to a motel room. The crew kept its cool through highs and lows until Z hired a new guy. This cat had been out before and got sent home. His return was a favor for an interested third-party. He seemed weird, but most of us had quirks and it wasn't always possible to hide them. Ras, the new guy, jumped at the mention of cards. The night he entered the game, I was foggy from lack of sleep. Ras hit the ground running: he questioned a few innocuous table issues and complained bitterly when his aggressive early betting met with choruses of “fold”. Then, he started winning pots; big pots. His voice, loud already, got obnoxious. Ras was a shambling guy, tall, but blobby in the middle. He was long-bearded, and balding on top with shaggy-hair to his shoulders; a young Merlin, minus hat and spells. Cards were lining up for him. The few pots he didn't win were light: five-card draw with no openers. When Ras dealt, he narrated everyone else's pathetic hand and gloated about his own. I started to resent him, but careful play kept me from staying in to see his cards. Coach came back to watch, Red Sox cap pulled low, hand cupping chin. When he saw big bets, Coach would toss his head back, saying “ruppp…BIG MAAAN!” With his hand now tight by his mouth, it rang in our ears. Guys started to drop out. Ras tore into each one:
“Wassa matter? You tired? Tired of LOSING? Oh well, go da sleep”
“Last one did ya in, did it? Wanna borrow some money?” he said, while bashing the change in his mute bag.
On winning, he dropped cupped hands down hard and dragged coins and paper to the tray's edge, then pawed up cash with scrabbling motions, while the tray rocked.
“Come to poppa, commmmme to poppa, yeeeah, come on, now”
The game was at my seat, so quitting just meant rolling over and listening to coins crunching under his rants. The bus rolled on.
The next day, we couldn't figure out if Ras' theatrics were cause or effect. I held out for cause: he had schtick like every good gambler. The taunts were designed to keep us at the table where his magic cards would empty our pockets (or bags). His luck would pass and so would his interest. I wasn't around for Ras' first run with the band. Maybe he cleaned everyone out and had to face their wrath; a Sergio Leone badman. The game wasn't the thing, anyway. Like the famous dogs painted on velvet, cards were a happy snapshot of indolence and innocence. The privilege to lose fifteen dollars and miss an opportunity to sleep while the sun did, was a by-product of job security. As heads of cabbage on a reefer truck, so were the days of our lives.
A sometime card player, our bass man, announced his impending marriage and gave notice. I didn't hang out with him, so both were a surprise. The rhythm section was tight: mutual respect and shared suffering (the leader's farts, stifling bus days, chain restaurant meals) kept them that way. His section mates planned a send-off. We'd take a day-off drive to Battle Creek, Michigan and turn it into a bachelor party. Bloody Marys were the drink-of-the-day, with cards and maybe a film or two as entertainment. Battle Creek was a choice spot for us. Z loved the gig, they loved him, and the band got free rooms in a nineteen-fifties A-frame motor lodge complete with cozy, cheap bar. We'd have the next day to recover before playing that night.
Stocked with a huge deli tray and enough vodka to fuel a Cossack brigade, the bus left early. We had at least eight hours of driving ahead. I didn't think about how drinking strong spicy drinks and eating massive sandwiches all day might affect my delicate stomach. On board, the gag gifts were predictably raunchy and camaraderie tough-guy sweet. By the time we reached the motel, everyone was drunk and stir crazy; a dangerous combination. Our lodgings, once a roadside way-station, were now surrounded by acres of asphalt, all ringed by a mall. After dumping gear in our rooms, we met in the bar. I couldn't drink anymore and didn't know how anyone else could. Thankfully, our guest of honor decided to shop. We took off in a swarm across the huge parking lot. The only store open, K-mart, was a wonderland: rolls of duct tape to toss, sporting goods, toy instruments to mime music, and a panoramic display of outdoor furniture. Bassman fell hard for a fold-up lawn chair; possibly the most useless item a road rat could own. Forewarned by many dirty looks, we waited near the exit while he paid. Bassman cradled it against his chest and we set off across the black top, drunk more on laughter than booze. About halfway, our honoree stopped. Clumsily opening the chair, dropping, then righting it, he plopped down his long frame, arms and legs akimbo.
“I'm….staying….here” he said, unsteadily.
“Ok, man. I'll come back and wake you up in the morning”
The rest of us staggered on, our fallen comrade receding under high electric lights.
Somehow, everyone made it back to the A-frame and woozy rooms for sleep. Bass man left soon. I don't remember how or where. The chair stayed, I think. Of the personnel when I joined, three were now gone. How many had Z seen get on this bus and how many more would he see off?
“Hot fresh blood they prescribe for decline. Blood always needed. Insidious. Smoking hot, thick sugary, lick it up. Famished Ghosts”