The Jelly Bean Gambler

by Matthew Dexter

I smile as Dad slams the empty beer bottle into the table with his fist, taking another sip of warm whiskey while slowly ripping a chunk of hair from the back of his balding head. He stares blankly into space and into my eyes while tearing his ticket into shreds, throwing the pieces into the air and screaming "God damn bunch of Phoenix losers!" at the only television set in the bar. I can feel everyone collectively turning their heads with anticipation of another spectacle from the town drunk.

My mother is too ashamed to accompany us into public because of the sudden escalation of her husband's drunken outbursts. Dad's favorite white shirt is covered with stale sweat and grey cigar ash has smothered black vertical stripes into the dirty cotton fabric. He's so close I can smell the warmth of his breath on my neck. Cheap whiskey mixed with even cheaper cologne.

"What the hell are y'all looking at?"

He doesn't notice their eyes but can sense them circling, like vultures waiting for a zebra carcass to stop breathing. He decides to address them as a collection of curious bystanders, but not until downing the dark well liquor with one large sip, finishing with a hard grimace, as if to indicate that despite the fact he's drowning and feels like dying he's definitely trying to suck every last penny out of the seedy dump that took his last hundred dollar bill. Dad always hates losing. This time is no different.

"Ain't nothing alive and kicking," Dad explains to the room, without making eye contact with a soul. "Not a god damn thing." He grabs his fedora, takes a puff on his cigar, and stands up to pull out my chair. Dad's a gentleman, even in times of despair. "Let's go Anna Banana," he says, offering his hand with a wink as he forces a smile through the enormous smoke ring escaping from his lips.

Half hypnotized by the rising vortex, I listen to Dad's familiar whining with the waitresses before finally deciding to pay the tab and ushering me toward the door. His arms on my shoulders, he pushes my forward, outside into the colder air where my mother is waiting on the park bench across the street, rocking the baby stroller back and forth with the rhythm of the wind.

My nine-month-old brother sees us approaching and raises his arms when we get closer. His golden eyes catch fire and light up like roman candles exploding in the desert. His smile always makes me want to hold him. Dad gestures that it's ok and I take his slender waist in my hands, placing his chest next to my own. I can feel the steady rhythm of his heartbeat as he mumbles words that make no sense.

"Obviously you lost again," my mother says, making room for us on the bench. We sit down and watch haggard drunks staggering out of the fleabag bar toward whatever evil or illegal endeavors await their next desperate move. A few of them laugh at Dad, but he's too drunk to notice. Nobody knows about his condition. We've actually been evicted six times in the past three years, but Dad still tries to keep us happy and always manages to put food on the table.

For now we're living in an enormous stable in an abandoned farm on the outskirts of town. The horses left us lots of hay and Dad plays games with us all day long, when he's not looking for work. It's been very difficult to find steady employment since he lost his job at the hospital. The head nurses fired him after he was diagnosed with brain cancer. The surgeons said he was becoming increasingly erratic, but my mother says they just didn't want to pay his health insurance. Either way, he's still alive and we're still a family.

"Honey, what are we gonna do about dinner?" my mother asks.

Dad takes my hand and rubs it up against the baby's face. He places his other hand on my head and gives it a playful shake. "Well'' he says, "I think after sitting with her old man in that shitty bar all afternoon Anna Banana deserves some pepperoni pizza with pineapple."

I smile. My mother jerks her head sideways and flashes him an ugly look. She objects to this extravagant waste of money. Dad pretends not to notice and continues to serenade me with his deep melodious voice.

"It's nothing," he says, pulling a napkin from his shirt pocket. He slowly unfolds it and shows us the phone number written in purple ink. He takes another puff from his cigar, flashing a wild smile as he walks away, across the street to where the Crow's Neck Bar connects with the sidewalk.

My mother shakes her head. "Humph," she says. She knew it was a lost cause as soon as she heard the idea. All Dad's ideas were the same. You could never change his mind when it was made up. He tried to control his gambling, but like his drinking it quickly metastasized into something too large for him to defeat. Dad was always full of ingenious ideas and big dreams. He was brilliant, but the stress of the illness had torn him apart.

Months ago he told me that he was only gambling so he could win enough money to buy me a purple sailboat. Jelly Bean is what he's going to name it, in honor of my favorite food. I was the one who suggested the name, and Dad says it fits me like a princess. He always promises that things will begin to change. He says the breeze will take the boat places that can open our eyes to new dimensions and beautiful faces we've only envisioned in the back of our minds. He says that dreams are meant to be difficult; otherwise everything would taste like candy.

I let my mother take my brother out of my arms as she shakes her head. I'm afraid to look into her eyes because I always find the same thing'an empty stare into a dark place I don't dare mention, or ever question. I skip across the street to meet Dad inside the bar, expecting to find him sitting on a stool, chatting it up and ordering a secret drink like a fool, the way he usually does when he thinks we won't notice.

Instead I find him walking out of the tiny restroom, wiping his lips and chin with discretion, avoiding making any impression at all. His eyes focus on the floor, where his cow suede boots make almost no sound at all. The Crow's Neck is still nearly packed and Dad clearly doesn't want to be seen. I can only imagine he stiffed the waitress, or owes some drunken degenerates money from another bet gone south.

Dad seems to sense my presence as he approaches. His eyes rise to meet my own and a smile returns as he addresses his princess.

"I was just in the little boy's room Anna Banana," he says.

I know he was drinking in there, but it doesn't matter. His hand feels so comfortable in mine, and his plans always work out in the end. We always have food and he always comes home, even when home is nothing more than a figment of the mind. Though Dad was dying, his dreams were still alive and beating like hell against the current.

"Pizza and sodas will be here in twenty minutes," Dad says when we get back to the bench. He pulls a silver flask from his pant pocket and watches the cars buzz past, whistling as they go. Fifteen minutes later he's passed out on the park bench, his head against the stone fountain. My mother pulls some wrinkled bills from his shirt pocket and pays the delivery boy. The steaming pizza tastes delicious, and the pineapple makes me smile.

Everything is perfect, until a purple flier from the top of the pizza box rips free from the cardboard and drifts over the fountain, into the wind and down the sidewalk. I drop my half-eaten pizza slice on the ground, jump up from the bench and give chase. I run as hard and fast as I can. I run until there is no wind left in my lungs and the unstable surface of the sidewalk is hurting my feet, burning into my legs. Finally, the paper gets hung up on the base of a stone statue shaped like an ancient anchor just long enough for me to catch up and grab it before it flies onward into the wind.

Folding the flier into a paper boat I take it back to my mother and place it into the fountain. I reach into the water and take out the shiniest penny I can find. Discovering a dirty black jellybean on the pavement I decide to place it in my other hand, dropping both items into the boat. I can see that my mother is wondering what I'm up to.

I catch my breath, and with a mighty blow from my chest I direct the vessel into the wind, across the fountain, into Dad's head.

"Look, it's Jelly Bean."

BIO: Like nomadic Pericu natives before him, Matthew Dexter survives on a hunter-gatherer subsistence diet of shrimp tacos, smoked marlin, cold beer, and warm sunshine. He lives in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.