“Money Games” Fiction by Robert Pettus

"Money Games" Fiction by Robert Pettus

Jim Nash sat in the backroom at the Keno machine looking on as the wrong numbers lit up, confirming his continued failure. He grabbed the bottle of Budweiser sitting next to the machine, its beading moisture dampening his hand, and took a heavy swig, swilling it around in his mouth, savoring the carbonated bubbles as they popped on his tongue. He put the bottle down and grabbed a half-smoked cigarette from the adjacent ashtray, inhaling and exhaling like a monk meditatively calming his ever-accumulating nerves. Jim was as bald as a monk, that was for sure—all his hair was on his face.

Jim wasn’t from White River—he was an out-of-towner. No one in town really knew him, and that was the way he liked it. That was why he moved out here to bumfuck South Dakota in the first place, out near the reservation, where the population was sparse. He loved it.

Grabbing another beer from the cooler and making a gesture to the cashier as if to signal his intention to pay for it later, Jim walked back into the gaming room and slid another five-spot into the hungry mouth of the Keno machine, which subsisted on a healthy diet exclusively of leafy greens. Jim didn’t give a shit whether he won, he just enjoyed sitting there, drinking beer and smoking cigs as the numbers lit up. He scratched at his long, scraggly, salt-and-pepper beard, rubbing away the collected alcoholic moisture collected on his moustache.

Jim lost again. He didn’t have much luck when it came to Keno, or gambling in general for that matter. He patronized all the numerous local gambling establishments, even the Rosebud Casino, but he couldn’t win the big bucks anywhere. He would win the big bucks someday, though—he felt that in his ageing bones. He could wait until then; it was no problem for him. What he would do with the big bucks, he had no idea. Maybe move to Colorado, build a house on top of a lonesome mountain.

Jim lifted himself from the barstool next to the Keno station—an indent of his ass remnant on the cushion—and paid for his beers. He walked out the door—out onto the gravel road. White River, being as small of a town as it was, had narrow gravel roads everywhere other than Main Street. Jim twisted the key in the ignition of his green, 1993 Ford F150, pulling out of the parking lot onto the road. He drove from the side street out onto Main in the direction of Mission, the adjacent, small Lakota-Sioux reservation town. From there, he would drive to the other side of the reservation, to Rosebud Casino. It was Friday evening—that’s what Jim did on Friday evenings. He lit a cigarette and continued down the road.

Turning up the AM radio, Jim caught the staticky action of the Todd County Falcons, who were playing the neighboring—though out of state—rival Badgers from Valentine, Nebraska. Jim liked football; his eyes widened hearing the excited voice of the commentator.

Jim stared out the opened window as he sped down the road, cool wind from the outside autumn air brushing against his face. He smiled. Jim had no real human relationships—he connected with nature: with the wind, the rain, and the trees. That’s what he told himself, at least. It didn’t matter, anyway—he didn’t need any friends. That’s why he had moved out to bumfuck South Dakota in the first place—to escape people; especially people who were ‘invested in his life’. He hated that. He wanted to be left alone.

It was halftime. Jim, annoyed with the lengthy commercial for the local Buche Foods grocery store, switched from AM to FM, to the indie rock station, and turned up the volume. It was Svefn-g-englar, bySigur Ros. Jim leaned back, enjoying the ambience. It was such an amazing song—it fit in so well with the naturally bleak, endless dry plains of South Dakota.

The streets of Mission were empty. They were always empty—the only places anyone went downtown were a small coffee shop and an amazingly shitty pizza place. Jim wasn’t sure how anyone could truly fuck up pizza to the point that it was nearly inedible, but this place managed it. It tasted like soggy dough topped with semi-solidified, overly sweet ketchup. The streets were even more empty than usual, though, because everyone was up at the high school watching the football game. Jim put the pedal to the metal and exited the small town, onto highway 83—that straight road through the beautifully barren South Dakota steppe; its tall, golden grass waving in seemingly endless unison, like an Elysian hay-sea.

The radio continued, now playing Your Hand in Mine, by Explosions in the Sky. Jim liked emotional, ambient music. He wanted the music itself to make him feel something, not the words. Sometimes, when he got good and drunk, music could be powerful enough to make him cry. He would sob like a bearded baby. Not even for any real reason, either—just the beauty of the organized chords.

Jim stared out the opened window, letting the cool breeze invigorate him. It was sad. There should be bison grazing in these fields. Jim knew there were still bison in other nearby places, but there should be more. Colonizers had destroyed the life and land of the bison, just as they had the indigenous peoples. Tatonka meant bison in Lakota Sioux, Jim had spoken to enough people around the reservation to at least learn that.

About halfway to the casino, Jim pulled off the road into a drive-in fast-food restaurant called Moonlight Diner, his favorite place. Looking at the menu, his truck idling in its parking spot, Jim considered his options. He still hadn’t tried the Rocky Mountain oysters—he wasn’t sure that he would ever be able to bring himself to do that. Jim wasn’t at all a picky eater, but eating testicles was too much. He settled on fry-bread taco, a bag of flaming-hot Cheetos, and a banana milkshake. That would be plenty to fill up his stomach—soak up the previously consumed booze so he could level-headedly consume further.

The rest of the way from Moonlight Diner to the Rosebud Casino was a breezy drive. Looking up, Jim saw the Sicangu Village water tower, which stated that Water is Life. Jim always used the water tower as a signpost, alerting him that he had made it to the casino, otherwise—considering how much he enjoyed staring out into the fields—he might miss it.

“Water is life, and casinos are money,” Jim said to no one as he stepped out of the truck onto the cracked asphalt of the parking lot. “Supply casinos with water, and you’ve got both life and money.” Jim chuckled at himself, walking inside.

After grabbing a couple Budweiser’s and an ashtray, Jim went straight to his favorite slot machine, called Sky Rider. It featured artwork of several women who rode dragons. Dragons were good at collecting gold, Jim knew that from reading The Hobbit so many years ago. He trusted them to handle his money.

Jim never played poker, craps, or blackjack—he lost all his money too quickly doing that shit. Plus, he had to talk to people to play those games. Jim just wanted to sit back, relax, drink a few beers, and smoke several cigs—just like he did at the gas station Keno machine, though in a different location.  

Jim slid a ten-spot into the greedy, squealing machine, subsequently mashing the BET ONE button again and again to no financial avail. Eventually, he leaned back in his black, fake-leather chair, taking a momentary break. He would lose all his money too quickly at this rate—he needed to pace himself if he was going to spend the whole evening in the casino. His meager pension only went so far; if he spent much more, he wouldn’t be able to afford Buche’s overpriced ham, eggs, vegetables, and cheese the following week. Jim was never happy when he didn’t have the necessary supplies to make his morning Denver omelets; it was one of the most important parts of his day. He had been using the same frying-pan for years—a chipped nonstick pan that was light as a feather. Jim loved it—he could cook anything with that pan, especially omelets. Fluffy omelets, too—American style—not that rolled, gooey French mess.

Jim blinked. He had been zoning out. Sometimes thinking about food caused him to do that.  He downed the last of his bottle of beer and lifted himself from the seat, walking toward the bar to get another round. The victory bells were dinging, the lights were flashing, it was Friday night at the casino. The sights and sounds always made Jim so happy. It didn’t matter to him that he never won—he didn’t give a shit about that—he just wanted to witness the atmosphere, to silently participate, in however small of a way, in the local culture.

“One bottle of Bud, please,” said Jim sliding a five-spot across the counter. The bartender took it, shoved it in her drawer—which dinged excitedly, just like the slot machines—and handed Jim his one-dollar change, which Jim subsequently dumped into the tip jar.

“Thanks, honey,” said the bartender. Jim hated it when people he didn’t know called him shit like ‘honey’, but he was in a good mood, so he let it slide. Normally, he would’ve been prone to do some serious bitching and grumbling.

He turned away from the bar right into the short barrel of a Glock G45.

Jim blinked. The needles of sudden onset terror and anxiety pricked his face and the back of his neck. He blinked again, now registering what was in front of his face. He felt so weak. His vision blurred. He moved to get the fuck out of the way, but he was too late.

The gunman lifted the pistol and whipped the hell out of Jim’s wrinkly forehead, bruising it black instantly. Jim fell hard to the red-patterned, dirty carpet. He was out cold.

*  *  *

Jim blinked. Everything was dark and foggy. He felt tired. Lifting his head, he again almost passed out, though forcing away the drowsiness and planting his elbow into the carpet, he lifted his body forcibly. Jim couldn’t tell if he was truly tired or not. The blow of the gun had fucked him up bad; that could be causing his drowsiness. Jim also more simply felt tired in stressful situations, and he was at the current moment stressed the hell out.

He got up and looked around the casino. No one was seated at any of the machines. It at first looked like the place was empty, but upon further examination Jim noticed that it wasn’t. There was a collection of people kneeling on the ground on the opposite side of the room, near the free soda and coffee station. Their eyes were sad and uncertain—they looked afraid. Another group of people were squatting near the glass of the front door, looking out into the parking lot. Jim limped over to where they were.

“What the hell’s going on?” he said, rubbing at his throbbing head.

“Fuck, dude!” said a younger man, who introduced himself as Curtis Kills-in-Water, “We didn’t think you were going to wake up anytime soon! We noticed you were breathing—we were checking on you! But no cops or EMT’s have been able to get in here yet.”

“Why not?” said Jim, removing a cigarette from his pocket and lighting it.

“Damn, bro!” said Curtis, “Look the hell outside!”

Jim peeked through the glass, seeing outside a black-masked figure encircled by several cop-cars; their lights flashing more brightly than even those inside the casino; their sirens wailing like they’d just won a million fucking bucks.

“Coppers got him, huh?” said Jim, chuckling under his breath while massaging his wound.

“Looks to be the case, my man,” said Curtis. He began laughing as well, but before he could get very far into it—before his sides could really begin aching with the cramp of true elation—a bullet pierced the glass. It then pierced Curtis’s skull, squirting blood and bone all over the screen of a flashing nearby slot machine.

Jim, screaming involuntarily like a rabbit cornered by a coyote, and fell back to the ground, though this time on his ass. He looked back outside. Pops from guns rang out in the parking lot, mixing horrifically with the blaring sirens and the music playing inside the casino, which no one had yet turned off. Come and Get Your Love, by Redbone played loudly throughout the gaming room as if it were oblivious to what was going on. The slot machines, also unaware of the severity of the situation, continued ringing, dinging, and singing—even the one covered in blood—advertising their games.

Jim clutched at his chest, which was quickly tensing up. He again felt weak—his arm had gone numb. He started blacking out, though through the shifting fog of his deteriorating vision he saw the gunman sprinting back into the casino.

A hail of bullets trailed the gunman, but none hit him. Turning behind his back, he fired a shot, striking and killing a police officer instantly. The bullet pushed into the cop’s sweaty brow, through his brain, and then outward, flying into the air and taking his policeman’s cap with it, which spun through the air like one from a Mario video game Jim had seen local kids playing.

Blood and brains painted the parking lot.

Jim fell onto his back, struggling to maintain consciousness. He wasn’t successful.

*  *  *

“We have to help him!” shrieked the voice of a middle-aged woman. She was pointing to the floor at Jim. She was wearing a casino employee’s uniform, but Joe-Ben didn’t give a shit about that. Joe-Ben was frantic; he had fucked up his plan. He had merely wanted to rob the casino; he thought he was doing something good by doing that, anyway. Casino owners were thieves themselves when you really got down to it.

Joe-Ben wasn’t from the reservation; he lived in nearby Valentine, Nebraska. He had played linebacker for the Badgers, playing every year against the Todd County Falcons of the reservation. Joe-Ben liked the reservation—he thought Mission was a nice enough little town—he just hated the Rosebud Casino. His father had spent the majority of Joe-Ben’s childhood at the casino, blowing his money and ruining his liver. He never came to any of Joe-Ben’s football games, and now he was dead, buried back in his hometown—back in Omaha—miles and miles from his wife and kid. It was a fitting resting place. Joe-Ben, feeling robbed by the casino, wanted to rob them back. Plus, he was broke as a fucking joke—he needed the cash.

It was the casino’s fault; that’s why he had never had a relationship with his father. That’s what Joe-Ben thought, at least.

Joe-Ben blinked.

“We have to help him!” again yelled the lady. Joe-Ben looked at her. She was wearing a manager’s nametag which read Sarah Afraid-of-Horses. Joe-Ben then looked to the ground, where Jim lay writhing, detached from reality though still in pain.

“I don’t know what the fuck to do for him, lady,” said Joe-Ben.

“You have to let the EMTs in here so they can get him to a hospital.”

“No can do,” said Joe-Ben.

Sarah turned away.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” said Joe-Ben, pointing the pistol at her, but Sarah didn’t listen. She returned a moment later with a glass of water, which she tried to give to Jim. Jim sloshed the water around in his mouth, only capable of swallowing a little from within whatever subconscious realm he at that moment inhabited. He smacked his lips, sticking his tongue in and out like a rude child. Then he again passed out.

Sarah Afraid-of-Horses knelt by Jim, doing what she could to keep him alive. Joe-Ben stood stone frozen, unsure of what he should do.

“Fuck!” he eventually yelled. “I can’t go out there, lady! I just killed a fucking cop!”

“That’s on you,” said Sarah, “You need to face the consequences of your actions. You can at least still do something good by allowing this old man to continue living. If you don’t leave soon, he’s going to die.”

“Aw, fuck that old man!” said Joe-Ben aggressively, though his cracked tone of voice communicated doubt and intense guilt. Without another word, Joe-Ben dropped the gun and exited the casino, his hands above his head. The police, which had now converged in force in the parking lot, quickly tackled and cuffed Joe-Ben, grabbing him by the back of the head and shoving him into a nearby cop car.

EMTs rushed into the casino, lifting Jim onto a stretcher, and wheeling him to an ambulance.

Sarah Afraid-of-Horses looked on as the ambulance pulled away. She wondered where they would take the old man. He probably wouldn’t last all the way to Rapid City, but that was probably where he needed to go. Sarah then saw a cop walking toward the casino entrance. Sarah hated cops, but she knew she would have to talk to this one. She wondered whether he had seen his friend get blasted; she didn’t want to have to explain all of that to him.

She looked across the gaming room. Casino patrons were still mostly cowering in the corner, though they had begun to emerge back out into the open. Sarah noticed the blood sprayed all over the nearby slot machine. It was one of the most popular games at the casino—Sky Rider. They would have to get that cleaned up ASAP, she knew; it was a real money-pit, that one. She breathed heavily; it was going to be a long night.

*  *  *

Jim Nash awoke only briefly on the way from the Rosebud Casino to the hospital. His chest still hurt; his breathing was heavy. He was confused.

Wha… where the hell am I?” he said to no one.

“Stay with us, sir,” said an EMT, “We’re going to get you to a hospital.”

“A hospital?” said Jim, “Why?” Jim couldn’t remember a thing; his memory had been wiped clean—a tabula rasa. That was okay with him, though. He didn’t like knowing things; he didn’t like being acquainted with people. He was only comfortable in quiet, foreign places where people left him alone. He didn’t even dwell on why he was in the ambulance—it would sort itself out, soon enough. He was sure of that.

Jim Nash wondered if he had a family. He then closed his eyes, this time never to open them again. The stretcher was quite comfortable, really.  

Robert Pettus is an English as a Second Language teacher at the University of Cincinnati. Previously, he taught for four years in a combination of rural Thailand and Moscow, Russia. He was most recently accepted for publication at Allegory Magazine, The Horror Tree, JAKE magazine, The Night Shift podcast, Libretto publications, White Cat Publications, Culture Cult, Savage Planet, Short-Story.me, White-Enso, Tall Tale TV, The Corner Bar, A Thin Line of Anxiety, Schlock!, Black Petals, Inscape Literary Journal of Morehead State University, Yellow Mama, Apocalypse-Confidential, Mystery Tribune, Blood Moon Rising, and The Green Shoes Sanctuary. Money Games is one of the stories he recently wrote. He lives in Kentucky with his wife, Mary, and his pet rabbit, Achilles. 

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