Cal has forgotten to close the jalousies before dropping on the bed at 4:00 AM, and is awakened five hours later by the sun pounding through open terrace doors, frying his forehead and steaming his still intoxicated brain.
The bed linen is twisted and sweat soaked. His eyes are bloody, his tongue, raw and furred. A hot strobe of pain pulses in his right temple. He has been dreaming of double ones, snake eyes, a horrible can't-break-out sequence where he is trapped behind a four or five point prime, it's not clear which, and the game is up to a thousand dollars, and he is rolling double ones over and over again, breaking up his home board, piling pieces into the corner.
Awake, bad as it is, is better than the dream.
He sits up and reaches for the bottle of Metaxa by the bed, takes three long swallows, shudders as the warmth hits his stomach. He stands, naked, walks to the bathroom, kneels and vomits in the toilet, noting how lovely and cool the tiles feel against his shins and knees, how delicious the porcelain bowl rim feels against his hot cheek.
When the dry heaves subside, he takes three more swallows of Metaxa, waits, keeps them down, then crosses the orange tiled floor, still holding the bottle, and steps through the terrace doors, there to squint, sun blasted, at the cobalt sea beyond the crescent of bleached sand below.
He is in a mess and he knows it — no denial there for the foolish Doctor to pounce upon. The Mexican trip had been planned as a money maker, a chance to clean up some debt and maybe even come out ahead for the first time in a while. Zihuatanejo was chosen specifically for cheap lodging and food combined with proximity to Ixtapa and its string of tourist hotels three kilometers to the South. Ixtapa attracted European and American vacationers who often included amateur backgammon players, and was far enough from Acapulco to eliminate most professional competition. Deanna had come with him, ostensibly to vacation, but actually to regulate his drug and alcohol intake by providing a sexual substitute, and also to shill for him by luring wealthy middle-aged vacationing men into their orbit, men who would ultimately participate in friendly backgammon matches and lose money.
At least 'shill' is the term his twin sister had used to describe Deanna's role. Cal argued that he and Deanna provided true entertainment value, just like any slot machine or black jack table. And while he does not volunteer that he is a tournament ranked player, neither does he cheat at the game.
Cal's position is somewhat disingenuous, and he knows it. He is aware of the dynamics at work, the men's desire to impress the dark, imperious beauty watching the match so avidly, the overconfidence inspired by easy victories based on lucky dice, the recklessness engendered by early losses leading to still larger bets and losses. In the end, florid faced and effusive, they would hand over their Traveler's cheques for $1,000 or $1,500, acting as if they lost this kind of money as a matter of course, as if it meant nothing to them. And if they suspected they had been hustled just a little, Deanna's presence usually kept things civil.
That was the scenario. They had done it before. It could have worked out that way but it did not. Deanna is long gone, on her own trajectory back to New York and her all girl rock band. He has a single $100 American Express Traveler's check in his pocket and no solid prospects except an afternoon rematch with a German businessman who shook his confidence by beating him badly yesterday, although Cal believes it was the vodka and tequila that truly beat him. The German had taken the last $5,000 of his stake, calling out "Ay Caramba!" after each victory and "Ay cono" after each loss. He appeared to be an oaf, a classic mark, but after an hour or two his play seemed to take on an efficiency and elegance it had earlier lacked. Or it could have been his own deteriorating play — Cal had been very drunk, and today he is uncertain.
The sun's force is ferocious. He finishes the Metaxa in two long pulls and turns back toward the terrace doors. Cold water first, he thinks, then hot.
...in the shower, eyes closed under the pounding water, he is thinking about Deanna, about crossing the border at Nogales a month ago, how they bought some sweet smelling green marijuana buds from a cheerful one eyed hitchhiker outside Hermosillo and floated down to Guaymas where they checked into a motel by the sea. Their cottage was covered with blood red Bougainvillea. Inside the room, a basket of plastic flowers sat on a table by a window facing the Pacific. The late sun painted bright highlights around the hollows of Deanna's belly and groin.
"Please. Cal, please."
"Lean back a little more."
"Please. I can't. I just..."
"I know. Shut up, darling, and lean back."
"I hate it. I love you. I hate you. Oh God."
"That's right. Vaya con Dios..."
Cal steps from the shower, half aroused. Wrong focus. No time for that now. He towels himself dry, dons pants and shirt of loose white cotton gone gray at the cuffs. He plugs his razor into the adaptor in the wall socket, pushes the switch. Nothing. The electrical current at the Hotel Playa De La Madera is notoriously unreliable in the mornings. He puts the electric razor aside, soaps his face, picks up a straight razor.
As he shaves, he takes inventory in the mirror. After fifteen years of escalating chemical abuse, good bone structure still prevails, eyes deep set, nose thin and straight, mouth thick, almost womanish. But the eyes are blooded and uncertain, the mouth too mobile, the dark blond hair too long — all of which makes the eight inch scar running from his left ear down his neck look more like a mark of defeat that an emblem of macho swagger.
The aura projected contains a whiff of fear, a ragged edge of neglect. And Cal senses what he is giving off, the unwholesome presence he has become. He has seen it in opponents when he was playing at his peak, smelled it in their sweat. In a short time he will sit down again with this German, and like an athlete before a critical match, he is concerned about his physical and mental condition. Coffee, he is thinking, sweet strong black Mexican coffee, lots of it, that's the first thing.
Down the stairs. Senor Gomez at the desk, talking to some woman. Cal owes two weeks on his room and Senor Gomez is beginning to make polite inquiries. Just slip by, into the restaurant.
"Buenos dias, Senor Gomez."
"Buenos dias. Senor Cross, I must know your plans. We must reconcile your account."
"Of course, Senor. I will be making some calls tonight which will clarify my plans."
"Then, tomorrow morning, Senor..."
"And how is the lovely Senora Gomez?"
"She is muy bueno, thank you. So, tomorrow morning..."
"If you will excuse me, I must take breakfast now."
The coffee slides down thick, black and hot. He drinks a second mug, then a third. In the weeks he has been here, the sun has changed from a benign force, an ally, to an enemy that sears the eye, bakes and rots the town. Zihuatanejo is a tumble of one, two, and three story pastel houses, built on the hillsides surrounding a bay. On the hotel restaurant terrace, Cal is again facing the brilliant sea, but when he looks down, over the waist high terrace walls, he sees and smells the sun battered piles of garbage, attended by stray dogs and cats, festering in the rock crevasses descending to the beach below.
It reminds him of Venice — all those colored lights, mandolins, and flowers, floating over a network of canals that have become little more than open sewers.
Cal has one more mug of coffee, snags a roll to feed the stray dog he has half adopted, and then back to his room and the bitter taste of crystal meth on the tongue, essential today for crisp calculations and decisions at the gaming board. To the casual player, backgammon is a game of luck and passion, turning on a critical throw of the dice, while for Cal it is a precise ongoing calculus of odds based on position and probability, with the doubling cube serving, like the poker raise, to mitigate against chance, serving as the final delimiter of talent.
He feels the lift and bite of the coffee and meth, the bright, sharp focus, and lights a joint to buff away the anxiety while leaving the bright focus intact.
What was it about this German? Cal had been spending his time hanging around the pool at the Ixtapa Hilton, playing college kids at a buck a point and making almost nothing. After the final blowout with Deanna he had moved on to the Sheraton, hoping to change his karma. There he spotted the German, Herr Schmidt, who seemed like just the ticket. Grossly fat, rich, careless and cheerful, he lounged about in a pair of fluorescent lime green shorts, drinking rum punches served with little parasols, plunging into the pool from time to time, and playing backgammon with a very large, humorless mustachioed Mexican in a silk robe who appeared to be a business subordinate or servant. While Cal was considering his approach, Schmidt wandered over and asked if he played. He sported an inane smile that revealed a dark gap between his front teeth. Piece of cake, Cal thought. An hour later, Herr Schmidt had lost $500 at $10 a point, and suggested doubling the stakes so that he could have a shot at recouping his losses. Over the next four hours, Cal lost his last $5,000.
As he leaves the hotel, Cal feeds the breakfast roll to the skinny shorthaired yellow mongrel that trails behind him until he turns and says, "That's it. Sorry, guy." He usually names the stray animals he collects after mathematicians he admires, but he is worried about getting too close to this sad eyed creature, and naming the dog somehow implies a commitment he is not yet prepared to make. On the short drive to Ixtapa, he wants to focus on the match, on what went wrong yesterday and whether Herr Schmidt's success could be based on anything more than a run of good dice and his own drunken carelessness. But as he pulls out onto the highway, he spots a backpacker in halter top and shorts with Deanna's long legs and long dark hair and for just a second he thinks, could it be? And of course it isn't, but it breaks his focus and his thoughts drift back to Deanna and their drive down the Pacific coast.
...Just south of Mazatlan, a rocky spine of land hooks out into the Pacific and back toward the town. They swim naked and spawn like sea animals in the rocky tidal pools. They eat roasted conch and melon in a wood shack restaurant by the sea and the juices drip from their chins. Deanna's gray-green eyes are feral, salt rimmed. Cal is sun baked and cunt fucked insensible. He is thinking he could happily die right now, or happily go on to live a very long life. Either would be just fine, thanks.
"Dos tequilas grandes, por favor."
"Give me your foot."
Deanna takes Cal's bare foot under the table and slides it between her legs under her loose skirt. She lifts her hips and buries three of his toes inside her. Her eyes close.
"Move your toes."
"Deanna, for Chrissake..."
Helpless to deny her, he stirs her slowly till she closes her eyes and begins to shudder, biting her lip to keep from crying out. Just as she opens her eyes again, the boy arrives with the tequila. She drinks hers neat in one long swallow...
Cal parks behind the Sheraton, picks up his backgammon board, and follows the landscaped path around to the pool, set in a swath of palms and ferns between the hotel and the beach. The board he carries is Greek, a handsome wooden box with light and dark mahogany and teak inlays. A nondescript board might have been more in keeping with the air of tourist and casual player he is trying to affect, but he loves the look and feel of this one, wants the comfort of playing on it. Yesterday, they used the German's board — a heavy, pretentious affair of polished bronze and aluminum — and the German's dice. Today, they will play with his board, his dice.
Cal spots his man seated at a poolside table under an umbrella wearing a horrible pair of tent-like orange and black trunks.
"Ah, Herr Cross. I though perhaps you had reconsidered."
"By no means, Herr Schmidt. I hope to provide you with a more interesting match today."
"My friend, what will you drink? I am buying the drinks. After my good fortune yesterday."
"Thanks. I'll have a large grapefruit juice. And a large mineral water. Both with lots of ice."
Herr Schmidt gestures negligently and a waiter appears immediately at his side and takes his order.
"I see you brought your own board."
"Yes. You don't object?"
"Of course not. It is beautiful, this board of yours."
Cal feels his confidence building as he opens the board. Just fruit juice now. Perhaps coffee later. He does not presume that Herr Schmidt is up to anything as crude as trying to get him drunk, but he knows he was ripped yesterday. He knows he took doubles he should have declined, and he knows he allowed Herr Schmidt the latitude of scooping up his dice on several occasions before completing his move. Today, he wants to punish Herr Schmidt, to wipe the cheerful grin off his fat face. He feels a frisson tingling his scalp and neck, a meth induced joy ripple of aggressive assurance. Today, he is playing to win from game one, playing with mathematical clarity, playing to wear down and waste the fat bastard in the orange trunks across the table.
"Dark or light pieces, Herr Schmidt?" asks Cal.
Half way into the first game, Cal leans across the board and says quietly, "You must leave your dice on the board until you complete your move. I've seen games forfeited for one instance of that."
"I am sorry, my friend. You are quite correct, of course. And I insist you take this game. We will start again.".
After two hours, Cal is up $420, a modest sum, hardly the trouncing he had planned for Herr Schmidt. He is beginning to tire just a little, and to sweat. He moves his chair further in, under the umbrella, to get his right arm and leg out of the sun.
He knows he needs some kind of breakthrough, a run that puts him up several thousand so that he has some breathing room and can fall into a rhythm and play a truly aggressive and creative game. He thinks about suggesting they double the stakes, couching the suggestion in some off hand reference to winning back what he lost yesterday.
No, he thinks, that's forcing it. Just let it happen. Slow and steady. Just wear him down.
Four hours in, Herr Schmidt is up $180. The match is essentially even — Cal cannot break him or tire him. The meth is winding down, exposing the underlying hangover. The coffee is making his stomach acid and jittery. The sun, a fat red swelling, has moved below the umbrella and into Cal's sweating face. He is wishing he had brought more meth and another joint or two with him. He notes that Herr Schmidt's bluster and bad jokes are absent today. Today, he, too, is all business.
They are bearing off in a game in which Cal has redoubled and holds the cube, an $80 game, an excellent redouble based on the odds. Cal is two pieces up, leaning back out of the sun, listening to the sweet, soaring Mexican tenors and trumpets in the mariachi band serenading the hotel guests. My game, he thinks. Maybe a turning point.
The fat bastard rolls double fours and clears the board. Cal leans forward to look again. He can't believe it.
Double fours, fives or sixes. A one in twelve shot.
"Ay, Caramba!" says Herr Schmidt.
"Why do you say that?" asks Cal rather sharply. "I mean, shouldn't you say 'ach, du lieber' or 'Gott in himmel' or something?"
Herr Schmidt looks at Cal for a full three seconds, then says, "I am sorry, my friend. I did not know it bothered you."
The waiter approaches the table. Herr Schmidt has been drinking rum punches all afternoon with no visible effect. He isn't even sweating.
"Another punch," he says, "and for you, Herr Cross? Another coffee, perhaps?"
The morning pain is stabbing at Cal's temple again. He tries to think. He cannot play with this kind of pain. He cannot quit because he cannot even cover his modest losses so far. A line from the beginning of The Lost Weekend floats into his head: 'His emotional barometer was set for a storm.'
"Tequila," says Cal, "neat."
"Single or double?"
"Double, with a Carta Blanca on the side."
An hour later, down $3,000, Cal asks to double the point stakes. Herr Schmidt asks him, not unkindly, if he is certain he wishes to do this, and Cal cannot mask the flash of anger when he says yes. He is working on his sixth double tequila and fourth Carta Blanca. While his left brain continues to track this kind of trivia, the right brain is on a tear, refusing to acknowledge any limits. He wonders how he can somehow communicate with great subtlety and art the total contempt he feels for this German slug and his incredible lucky dice.
Cal drinks, rolls, drinks. And while the left brain continues to track probabilities almost as an exercise, a mental tick, the right brain, with no reference to this activity, is offering and taking doubles based on a fatal mixture of bravado and rage.
At midnight, $48,000 down and close to blind drunk, Cal quits. His attitude has shifted to the point where he now views his opponent with the kind of respect and fear typically accorded a stern father.
"Well, I'm done. I'm beaten. I will write you a check, Herr Schmidt, and bid you good night."
"No drafts, Herr Cross. Cash."
"But...this is our second day of play, Herr Schmidt, with...with more days to come. Surely..."
"My friend, I refer you to Jacoby, Crawford, Tim Holland. Cash table stakes is the rule. Unless, of course, before the match, a draft is mutually agreed to. But this you must know. Did you not, some six or seven years ago, win the Lucaya tournament? And perhaps also the Clermont Club?"
Even drunk, Cal is beginning to realize the enormity of his misjudgment regarding Herr Schmidt.
"I'm sure...I know...of course you're correct." He tries to smile engagingly. "It's just...tonight...I don't have enough..."
"Because I have enjoyed our play, I will accept two-thirds in cash tonight and a draft for the balance."
"I am afraid...ah, you must forgive me, I have almost no cash on my person. My funds are at my hotel. I can bring you cash tomorrow...ah...after nine AM, when Senor Gomez opens the safe."
"Ah, Senor Gomez..." Herr Schmidt looks massive and serene.
"I...ah...will, of course, give you my personal note tonight...so there is no misunderstanding ..."
"Your note. That would be nice. And perhaps you will draft it for $50,000, a small addition for the irregularity, the inconvenience."
"Of course," says Cal too quickly.
Herr Schmidt turns and calls, "Roque, bring a pen and paper." The large Mexican subordinate of the previous day emerges from the shadowy path to the hotel. A tropical business suit and open necked silk shirt have replaced the poolside robe. His luminous dark eyes examine Cal with a kind of tenderness as he presents a heavy gold pen and a small sheet of gray linen notepaper. Cal scribbles the I.O.U., dates it, signs it with a flourish, and rises unsteadily to his feet.
"Until tomorrow then...Herr Schmidt... shall we say, 9:30?"
"Sleep well, my friend," says Herr Schmidt.
Cal pilots the rented Toyota slowly and badly back to Zihuatanejo and the Hotel Playa de la Madera. His immediate plan is simple: he intends to crash until 2:00 A.M., rise, pack, take a major hit of crystal meth to assure that he can drive straight through, slip past the usually nodding night desk man, and head north for the border as fast as the car will carry him.