When an acquaintance suggests a wild weekend in Las Vegas, struggling academic Logan Smith thinks it might be just the sort of reckless fun he needs. What he doesn’t expect is a lesson in blackjack from a beautiful and volatile croupier named Dallas Cole, resulting in a night that will change his life forever. Before he knows it, Logan has exchanged the sedate atmosphere of Philadelphia for the searing heat of the desert, a rollercoaster marriage, and a radical new economic theory that questions his fundamental beliefs about the world.
Targeted Age Group:: 18 and up
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
In retrospect, I can trace the genesis of The Burning back to my studies at university, where I earned — grudgingly, one might say — a bachelor's degree in Economics. At the time I felt a vague dissatisfaction with the theories and central assumptions of the discipline, but wasn't able to form a meaningful critique. No matter, I thought. By that point I had discovered literature and decided to add an English major to my studies, completing my Economics degree simply because I needed only one more course to do so.
About a dozen years later, after doing graduate work in English and living in Arizona for a good portion of my adult life, I befriended someone who identified himself as an ecological economist. This friend introduced me to the works of several prominent authors in this field — a field I had never heard of — and caused a profound shift in my understanding of the world. Those vague dissatisfactions I had experienced as a young student suddenly found a conduit for expression. I knew that this rethinking, this regrounding of economics as we know it, would play a central role in what I was going to write.
I had also spent about ten years teaching undergraduates at the universities where I had earned my gradaute degrees, and also at a small college in Prescott, Arizona, where I was living at the time. I knew, then, that the main character was going to be a teacher at a university and that he was going to experience a radical change similar to the one I had experienced, but with much more at stake.
Meanwhile, I was living in Arizona, watching the desert and forests disappear as a result of an unrestrained free-market economy. I also went to Las Vegas occasionally and was struck, right there at the blackjack table one evening, by an idea: What if a man and a woman were to meet in a situation like this? I immediately saw a red-haired woman dealing the cards and a man playing those cards. The money and power, inextricable from each other, as well as the general context of the casino, were simply too much to resist. At first I thought it would be a short story, but soon realized that the man was, in fact, the Economics professor I had envisioned earlier. At that point the first chapter came to me almost unbearably quickly, and one thing led to another.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Logan took shape largely through the economic issues mentioned above, but also through my experiences in Philadelphia, where I had spent much of my leisure time while earning my master’s degree in English Lit at a university forty-five minutes away. This quintessentially east-coast city, where the United States was forged, seemed an integral part of Logan’s character. Dallas, on the other hand, appeared at the blackjack table and needed little conscious work. Like Las Vegas, she burned hot and bright and had no interest in considering the long-term consequences of her behavior. Deck emerged almost theoretically at first, as a conventional economist to rival Logan, but soon developed his own agenda, his own desires, his own intense loneliness that he neither recognized nor understood. Keris initially appeared as the instigator of Logan’s crisis — both economic and personal — and then naturally became the key element in its development and resolution. All of these characters took shape personally, on their own terms, functioning not as symbols for me but rather as visceral ways to grapple with the larger issues at work in the novel.
Sure, it was Vegas, but he wanted to step outside. He walked over to the sliding doors and parted them wide open, tasting the heat as it swelled over him—a tang in his mouth that took him by surprise, like the flavor of someone you’ve just kissed. He leaned on the railing. The metal glowed against his forearms, branding his skin. He smiled. This was what he wanted. The surfaces near him radiating. A fever in all the concrete and pavement. Everything touched with fire. He took a deep breath, but then his chest seized up and he started coughing with his head dropped below his shoulders, seasick-tourist pose. Yes, this is what he wanted. This is humanity on the aggregate scale. This is what you want, this is what you get.
By the time he looked up again his eyes were weak and watery and he had to work his gaze slowly outward: The railings. The stucco. The guitar angled toward heaven with its pulsing red fret and sky-blue body, its golden lights flaring over the parking lot. There were palm trees stretching their necks above the great pink plains of the rooftops, construction cranes in the distance with warning lights blinking at their extremities. Another casino was visible—a mock-up of the New York skyline featuring a Brooklyn Bridge, an Empire State, and a Statue of Liberty all clustered together and out of proportion like a scene inside a paperweight. He coughed again. The sun had disappeared, but the horizon still glowed like a hearth. He tried to restore the place to naked desert in his mind but didn’t know what sort of plants or animals to resurrect. What things lived in the mountains over there? Fading now. Parched, barren, sharp -edged. He was in the Mojave Desert, he was in Las Vegas, and his lungs were burning with exhaust and the churned-up dust of construction, the city doing its usual heavy breathing. But he didn’t know that. His name was Logan Smith and he had just earned a Ph.D. in Economics at the University of Pennsylvania and he wasn’t going to sleep in his hotel room tonight. But he didn’t know that either.
“It screams, doesn’t it,” a voice said behind him. “It makes you want to do everything.”
Logan glanced back. Deck had emerged from the bathroom freshly showered and shaved, his hair spiked gently with a dab of gel as if it just happened to turn out that way.
“Why do I suspect,” Logan said, thinking it was going to be funny until he was halfway through the sentence, “that your everything is different from mine?”
“Blame Prentis. He needs love and attention tonight.” Deck came over to the railing and gripped it with both hands, like he was testing its strength. “And why don’t you join us. The marginal utility of your first purchase always exceeds the price. Give it a try, Dr. Smith.”
This was the joke, already wearing thin, since graduation last week. But Deck liked to get mileage out of his wit. He was angular, finely muscled, a slight stoop to his shoulders that came, it could be said, from adapting himself to the company of smaller people. His mouth went slightly crooked whenever he spoke, like he was telling you a wry and delicious secret.
“I’ve been socking away cash for the past six months,” he said. “Slowly, you know, so I didn’t really feel the drain. This is all free.”
“I can’t see any casinos besides that New York thing.”
“The Strip is that way,” he said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. “And anyway, forget the other casinos. You want to know the best one? You’re standing on it. This is the place. I won’t even mention the ladies across the street. A thirty-second walk. Throw away your car keys.”
“So why did we rent a car?”
“Try it, you’ll like it.”
Logan shifted his gaze back toward New York. A few hours ago he had made the mistake of confessing that he had never been to a strip club. Now it was like having a salesman in his living room. “Really, Deck. Why the car? That was a five-minute drive from the airport, and half of it was traffic lights.”
Deck touched his wrist to his forehead, blotting the first signs of perspiration. “Insurance,” he said. “We want to be perfectly flexible. You never know what you might want to do.”
“Or what Prentis might want to do.” Logan squared his shoulders and felt a dewy moisture inside his shirt. It felt good. Of course, part of the enjoyment, he had to admit, came from seeing Deck refuse to acknowledge how much the open doors bothered him. As if it would be too much of a confession.
“You see the growth figures for this place?” Deck asked. “Fastest-growing city in the country. I’d love to see how much per capita GDP this place carries on its back. Feel the blood pumping. Low unemployment, high wages, a cost of living index smaller than your shoe size. The price of a house . . .” He trailed off when he saw Logan reaching into his pocket again for that slip of paper. “You don’t have to memorize it, for Christ’s sake.”
Logan frowned at the numbers. “You’re sure this is legal? I see myself being dragged outside and thrown into a car with a bunch of mobster-types for a little ride in the desert, if you know what I mean.”
“Please, Dr. Smith. That’s the old Vegas. It’s all clean and corporate now.”
Logan scrubbed a hand through his hair—dark, woolly, prone to Afro if he let it grow more than a couple of inches. It resisted all attempts at alteration. Even Emma, his most recent girlfriend and an amateur hairdresser to boot, had failed to make a change that didn’t clash with his broad nose, his permanent tan—which, she and Logan had agreed, was the obvious result of a tryst or two buried with one of Mom’s ancestors back in South Carolina. Not that either of his parents would acknowledge it. They claimed it was a rogue Italian gene. Logan, on the other hand, simply wondered if love—or, at the very least, consent—had been a factor in the equation.
He folded the scrap of paper and stuffed it into his pocket. “So if I follow the Basic Strategy, it maximizes my chances of winning.”
“It’s the cruise control of blackjack. Set it on the table next to you. Or burn it and ask the dealer when to hit, split, double, whatever. He’ll tell you the same thing. What you have there is a strategy based on the mathematical probabilities. It’s the odds. It’s the law.”
“But what if I don’t—”
The door opened and slammed shut behind them. “Love well, whip well, as Ben Franklin would say. You won’t believe what the cocktail waitresses are wearing.”
This was Prentis Blewster: loud-mouthed, blunt-nosed, his face half-lit with the expression of someone who laughs loudest at his own jokes. He sold weather derivatives to companies interested in hedging against climate risk, which meant that he traded and leveraged options that were worth a certain amount of money to ski resorts for below-average snowfall and to ice cream stores for rainy summers. He and his co-workers were the only people in the East Coast financial markets who kept copies of the Farmer’s Almanac in their desks. It should be emphasized, however, that what he sold wasn’t insurance. This was high-voltage stuff. Or at least as high-voltage as you could get in Philadelphia.
He came up behind them and draped his arms over their shoulders. “I’m thinking about the time zones and realizing it’s way past dinnertime.”
Logan resisted a burlesque impulse to shrug off Prentis’s arm before he turned and went to his duffel bag. There was a minute or two of coordination—a change of shoes, an inventory of his wallet—before he was ready. As he followed Deck into the hallway, though, he remembered the jug of springwater he had bought at a convenience store on the way to the hotel. It was still sitting on the front seat of the car. Heating up, probably. He went back into the room and grabbed the key from the bedside table. He’d bring the jug up to the room after dinner. He had heard things about the tapwater in Vegas. Faulty treatment systems. Traces of gasoline and excrement in the pipeline from Lake Mead.
The sliding doors were still open. The air outside was simmering, the traffic thrumming. The guitar pulsing brightly in the dusk. He crossed the room and lingered there for a moment, gazing at the city’s costume jewelry. This happened, he thought, every single night. He closed the doors and glanced at a framed photo of Jimi Hendrix over the bed—the Monterey shot of him kneeling in front of his burning guitar, squirting lighter fluid on the flames. It would be funny to sleep under that.
Deck and Prentis were already a few strides ahead of him in the hallway, joking about the cymbals shading the light fixtures, the g-clefs and quarter notes patterned in the carpet. Logan caught up with them at the elevator. There were a couple of ashtrays next to the doors with the casino’s logo stamped into the powdery white sand, utterly pristine and odorless, as if the last thing that belonged there was a cigarette.
Prentis ran a finger through it. “It’s like sugar.”
Deck smiled and looked over at Logan for a moment of simpatico, but was met with a subtle frown instead. Oh come on, Deck thought. Give it a rest. Did he really expect anyone to believe he didn’t want to go to a strip club? Deck would have to spell it out during dinner: This wasn’t real. It didn’t mean anything. Nobody back in Philadelphia would ever find out about this. They were just three anonymous guys in Vegas for a couple of days, and whatever happened here, stayed here. It was no accident, for example, that Deck didn’t spend much time with Prentis in Philadelphia. He recognized a social liability when he saw one. But a liability in one place can be an asset in another. In Vegas, the guy was a spark plug. He got the engine running. It was easy enough to break away whenever you felt like it, especially if women were involved. You simply apologized for your friend’s bad behavior and it made you look even better than you would have looked alone.
The elevator doors opened to a pumping, keyboard-sweetened melody that synchronized the movements of everyone who heard it. A processed voice singing about love. They stepped into an interior of fake leopard skin and smoked glass.
Deck arched an eyebrow. “Elevator music.”
“You know what Freud said about elevators, boys.”
“You’ve read Freud?” Logan didn’t want to sound like a snob, but this was too much.
“My mom’s a shrink. Don’t ever tell me your dreams.”
The elevator lurched to a halt. The music stopped. The lights went out. They tried to look at each other to gauge their reactions, but it was like floating in some lonely corner of the universe where light simply didn’t exist.
“I’m patient,” Prentis said. “But let me tell you this happened to me once in Chicago and it turned into a night of ill-will.”
“Was that the time—”
“Trapped with a ladyfriend, yes, indeed. I politely suggested we do the transaction right there instead of in my room. Oh, the words that came out of that mouth.”
OK, Logan had made a mistake and it went like this: A couple of days after defending his dissertation he had wandered into Taps, the local grad-student hangout, to shake off his postpartum depression and set his lack ofjob prospects in the proper perspective, at which point he ran into Deck, who had also defended his dissertation and was flying to Vegas, he said, for two nights of celebration. Was Logan interested? Cheap flight. Free hotel room. Extra bed. Or at least floor space. It had seemed like the sort of silly and extreme thing he needed. But he hadn’t known about Prentis.
“You ever hear from Eastfield?” Deck’s voice.
“Um, no.” It seemed like a strange time to bring up the job search.
“Don’t feel bad. A.E.A. was a funeral this year. Nobody got second interviews.”
Logan turned toward Deck—or, rather, where he thought Deck was standing. “How about you?”
There was a pause. “Two interviews next week. Eastfield and Dalton. Sorry.”
“I didn’t know you applied to Eastfield.”
“They came to me. They’re looking for someone in Micro and Econometrics.”
Of course they were. Everyone was. Deck’s dissertation had examined the effects of point-of-sale ATM purchases on individual consumption functions, using data derived from 126 subjects who, for some reason, didn’t mind having their checking accounts scrutinized. His analysis was clear-cut, convincing, and, Logan thought, entirely predictable. It combined relevant econometric models with a measure of innovation just large enough to create the impression of originality without the threat of its actual repercussions. Members of Deck’s committee had smiled at several points during his defense. The handshakes afterward had been vigorous.
The air was getting stale. Logan closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again he couldn’t see any difference.
Prentis’s voice rose up suddenly. “Hey, what’s your dissertation about?”
Logan knew this was meant for him. “Adam Smith.”
“Who’s that, your uncle?”
“He was the one who wrote—”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. I was joking.”
“The topic isn’t just Adam Smith,” Deck said, apparently on Logan’s behalf, “but a careful examination of Smith’s argument in The Wealth of Nations to expose an inconsistency in his theory of self-interest. You know that line about the butcher and the baker.”
“And the candlestick maker?” Prentis barked out a laugh. “Is that grad school or pre-school?”
“‘It is not,’” Logan recited, “‘from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.’”
Deck slipped into a pseudo-English accent. “Dr. Smith performs a rigorous analysis of the text to show that Uncle Adam didn’t, in fact, believe self-interest excluded benevolence, as the previous quote suggests. Uncle Adam was sloppy in that one section, you see. But that’s the section everyone reads. His words have been taken out of context and misused ever since.” He resumed his normal voice. “How’s that?”
“Bravo,” Logan said.
“So he . . .” Prentis seemed to be struggling with a thought. “So he’s saying that Smith was wrong?”
“I don’t actually say he was wrong. I say he was inconsistent and contradictory. A lot of current economic theory has been derived from Smith as if his points about self-interest are perfectly cogent. But they’re not. Most of the text indicates that benevolence is the guiding principle of people’s behavior and that self-interest has only a limited role in social and economic relations.”
“And, besides, what Smith means by ‘self-interest’ is entirely different from what we mean when we use the word today.”
“So you’re saying—”
“He’s saying,” Deck said, jumping in again, “that the very foundation of economics is flawed. But it’s all between the lines. You should read it. It rocks.”
Just then everything came back to life—lights, music, elevator—and they jolted with the sudden movement. The feeling after an outage of having not only power, but senses restored. A new song came from the speakers.
“Yow! We’re back, boys, and I like what I see.” Prentis did a swing of the hips, Elvis-style, and pointed at the smoked glass, where they all stood reflected. “We look like real citizens.”
Logan blinked and tried to follow Prentis’s thought. If by “real citizens” he meant the Three Stooges, then he was probably right. Deck went for an urbane look with a bright blue shirt and pleated charcoal pants, while Prentis wore the middle-manager-on-vacation uniform of collared shirt, jeans, and sneakers. Logan, by contrast, had chosen an earth-toned shirt from Morocco that Emma had given to him for his birthday last year. The truth was that he rarely risked shopping for his own clothing. The failures were too frequent and deep. Instead he let the women of his life dress him and he accepted their taste without question. If you arranged his closet in chronological order you’d see the taste of each successive girlfriend displayed in the strata, like the Earth’s history in layers of rock. He was that easy. He was the kind of guy who stayed in touch with his ex-girlfriends. There were e-mails, postcards, occasional phone calls to inform of engagements and pregnancies. They had found men with solid careers. He understood the need.
The elevator opened to the main floor, where the music was louder and more momentous, magnified in the wider space. There were ringing slot machines. Knots of people around tables. Players cheering rabidly at one of the craps games.
“Sorry about that, gentlemen.” A security agent reached out and held the doors open for them. He stood sideways to let them pass, but with his barrel chest, his beefy neck, his arms like telephone poles, it didn’t make much difference. The body of a Polynesian idol, Logan thought. He was wearing an earpiece attached to a spiral cord that disappeared under his black sportcoat. “This one’s been givin’ us trouble all week.”
They made their way over to a display case where one of Elton John’s rhinestone outfits stood empty and suspended, as if worn by a ghost. Logan laughed. Jeremy Bentham in his glass case. The greatest pleasure for the greatest number. Welcome to the Panopticon.
Prentis rubbed his hands together. “Let’s do a lap before dinner, boys.”
Viewed from above, the casino looked like a wheel with a raised hub and outer-rim. There was a circular bar at the center, a sunken mid-section that held all the blackjack and roulette and craps tables, and a promenade along the perimeter where Prentis, Deck, and Logan were walking now, past the slot machines, the glass-shelved gift shops, the themed restaurants, the sportsbook with multiplexed screens like the facets of an insect’s eye showing baseball and basketball and horse racing and hockey, a computerized board overhead displaying the odds like a train schedule. There were too many things to look at. Rock paraphernalia everywhere. A dead drummer’s kit perched over a roulette table. Autographed guitars. A chandelier composed of saxophones. Prentis was talking the whole time, apparently itemizing his budget for the evening. Logan tried to tune it out. If he went straight to the blackjack tables after dinner, they’d get the hint.
Deck leaned toward him. “All right,” he said into Logan’s ear. “I know he’s not exactly your blood-brother, but try to detente this one. Ride it out.”
Deck waited for a reply and was disappointed when he didn’t get one. He liked to think of himself as the kind of guy who could smooth out the wrinkles between his friends. Especially when those friends were from the east coast. Let’s be objective here. As an expatriate from southern California—and a relatively blond one at that—he had enjoyed a certain cachet at Penn, slowing his voice to half-speed and giving a big sunny smile whenever he wanted some extra latitude. Beach boy. Easy rider of life’s waves. People seemed to imagine him surfing through his teens and then graduating magna cum laude—although the truth, it should be noted, was a more painful experience involving violin lessons while his friends played baseball in the street. One of those papercuts of childhood. He didn’t tell anyone about it, of course, just like he didn’t tell anyone his full name was Dechert. But that was another issue. What mattered at the moment was this: the flux, the flow, the exchange. The process taking place all around him. This was a service economy in high gear. This was humanity on the aggregate scale. Here was supply. Here was demand. For every price there is a quantity, for every quantity a price. Call him sentimental, but he sensed a beauty in the working of all these linked utility functions, these multi-rowed matrices of want and satisfaction. He understood it in ways that most people didn’t: Happiness equals consumption divided by desire.
He looked over at Logan. Logan looked over at him. For a moment it seemed like they were going to say something to each other, but then one of the slot machines erupted near them and a young woman started screaming . A red strobe began to flash with a shrill and steady bell like an old-fashioned bank alarm. They watched the proceedings for a minute or two—the man with the clipboard, the security guard, the spruced-up handyman checking the machine—until they got bored and followed Prentis into a fifties-style diner, where they gave their order to a waitress in pink polyester and discussed the odds of hitting a jackpot.
They hadn’t noticed her during their lap around the casino. Coarse, heavy, cherrywood hair. Thickly freckled skin. A slight curl to her upper lip. Green eyes the color of oxidized metal. A smoky voice. Because she smoked, off and on. Mostly on. Her name was Dallas Cole and she wore a black corduroy vest over a green satin blouse that matched her eyes totally by coincidence, to be perfectly honest, as she stood at her blackjack table with the cards fanned, her hands resting on the felt. The required body language. This was what, Tuesday? And she loathed this first dead hour when she came on duty at the beginning of the week, basically waiting for people to finish dinner and sharpen up the dream of winning. It was usually like this: a spaced-out feeling as she stood there trying to forget all the dirty dishes piled in the sink or her failure, yet again, to make an appointment at the auto shop to fix either the odometer or gas gauge, take your pick, because she needed at least one of them to end this procedure of stopping at the pump whenever the tank felt low. And when she said “feel” she didn’t mean the weight differential, which was what Felix thought, but actual nerve readings, like do I feel like cereal or pancakes this morning. The constant use of intuition was exhausting.
She glanced back at Felix, who seemed to be ignoring her this evening. Never date a floor man. Who you work with. Who’s married. Never mind what he does for you in bed. She had ended the affair several times, relapsed several times, and then finally called it quits nearly a month ago. But the aftershocks still took her by surprise. The sharp glances or lack thereof, the veiled comments when he supervised her shuffle. Like she had done something evil. Like how dare she be dissatisfied with the terms of their relationship, which consisted of sexual skirmishes in her apartment whenever he could slip away from his precious Lauren or Laura or whatever her name was. No evidence of him in Dallas’s life except his extra toothbrush, which she now used to scrub detergent into stained clothing. They had hidden it from the other employees as well as the wife. Exhausting. She couldn’t live that way. She wasn’t that sort of person. Once in a while she’d call his house and hang up when his wife answered, and then she’d sit there afterward, thinking, this isn’t who I am. She was wide open and straightforward, a blackjack dealer with a half-completed degree at UNLV and she needed to get back to it soon. She hadn’t been registered as a full-time student for a few years. Make that five. And don’t forget that vacant era between high school and college when she had worked housekeeping at the Pyramid, waiting for the true path of her life to reveal itself. She had wasted a lot of time. Last week she had noticed tiny crinkles along her upper lip and then conducted a full-body inspection in front of the mirror, the results of which were not entirely satisfactory. She wasn’t old but she wasn’t young either, is what she was thinking these days.
She liked the song playing on the system. Plain and basic. Guitar, bass, drums. A hard, clean voice.
A few people strolled by and eyed her hesitantly, afraid to make the commitment just yet. She smiled. Take a seat so we can enjoy ourselves. Really. Nothing was better than a full table and nothing was worse than an empty one. But they continued toward the craps game. Of course. They wanted high octane.
“Are you open?” a man asked.
She looked him over. He had either the beginnings of a tan or the remains of one. Close-cropped hair, bluish-gray eyes. Strong jaw. Broad nose. Dallas always went for that exclusive offer known as the face. Who could explain it. Her desires didn’t have clear-cut definitions, so don’t even try. His shirt had an odd design, a burnt-earth color that she liked. A man who knew how to dress.
“Sit down,” she said.
“Is this legal?” He held up a square of paper. “I’m asking now so I don’t get shot in the kneecaps and thrown off Hoover Dam.”
“That only happens if you count cards. Basic Strategy is kosher.”
She gathered up the cards, shuffled, squared them against the shoe, and then pushed the whole thing toward him with the cutter resting on top. He took the cutter and examined it for a moment, like a child wondering what to do with this piece of plastic, and she stopped herself from making a smart comment because she didn’t want to risk driving him away. Besides, if Felix heard her he’d be on the phone to management before she even reached the end of the sentence. So she gently told him what to do, and he inserted the cutter, and she finished shuffling and then loaded the cards into the shoe.
He pulled a few bills from his pocket and held them out to her. “On the table,” she told him, tapping the felt with her index finger.
He set them down. She spread them diagonally, called the amount to Felix, and counted out the chips, half in blues, half in reds, all marked with the casino’s logo on one side and famous musicians on the other, the edges filigreed with lyrics about money. She lifted the paddle and poked his cash into the drop box and said good luck. Then she dealt. He ended up with a ten and a six. She had a queen showing.
He glanced at his scrap of paper.
“You’re supposed to hit.”
“So it says. All right.”
“Make the sign.”
“For the camera.”
He looked up at the tinted hemispheres in the ceiling. “You mean the Eye in the Sky?”
“I mean the camera. Like this.” She tapped the felt with her index finger. “That means ‘Hit me.’”
He did it. She hit him with an eight and he busted. “Do I get to see yours?”
She turned over her other card even though she wasn’t supposed to, technically, because it slowed down the game. But sometimes she did it in the interest of customer relations and management gave her space on the issue. One of the reasons she liked working here.
She flipped it over. A nine. “See? You would have lost.”
“I did lose.”
“You know what I mean.”
Logan was wondering exactly what she meant when he heard a female voice behind him.
He swiveled on his stool to find a waitress wearing a low-cut leather vest and leopard-skin shorts and black stockings. For an instant he forgot what he was going to say. The sudden cleavage, the profound contour of her hips. By the time he had recovered and asked for a bourbon and ginger ale, he realized she had seen his expression on a thousand other faces before. A bright but hard demeanor about her. Of course, the outfit was ridiculous, like most things that attracted men. But here was the truth: it worked. His mind seemed to have very little say in the matter. He turned back toward the dealer.
His next hand was already dealt. He ignored it. “Dallas,” he said, looking at her nametag. “That’s—”
“If you make any jokes involving the state of Texas I will basically deal you bad cards all night, and not because I want to. It generates negative energy.”
He glanced down at his cards. “Seventeen. What am I supposed to do with that?”
“Always stand on seventeen.”
“Make the sign.”
She made a no-more gesture with her palm facing down. He imitated it. Then she flipped over her card. Nineteen.
“If I say your name is beautiful, and if I say it suits you perfectly—and if I say it because I’m motivated by honesty rather than a desire for better cards—does that mean I’ll get better cards as a karmic reward?”
She smiled as she cleared away his spot. He placed another chip on it. His hands were large but with unusually slender wrists. Cracked skin at the knuckles. Short nails. No wedding ring. No rings at all. Not even a watch. Sometimes she could read a guy by looking at his hands, but this one was a question mark. “I already distrust this Basic Strategy. I’m supposed to hold on a twelve?”
“Because I’m showing a six. The general assumption is any card you can’t see is a ten. I have a sixteen, is what you’re thinking. I’ll have to hit and then I’ll bust.”
He made the hold sign. She flipped her card over. A five. She took another hit, and there it was, a ten—but one card later than she said it would be. She ended up with twenty-one.
“Bad example,” she said.
“An exception to the law,” he said.
“Right. You’re learning.” She cleared away his spot. She waited. “You need to put another bet out there.”
“I have to get the hands out at a certain rate.”
“Even if we’re talking?”
“You have to play to stay.”
He hit again and lost again. During the next deal she caught him looking at her face, a more-than-inquisitive glance she experienced sometimes and enjoyed, to be perfectly honest, as long as it was from the neck up. She kept cool, though, directing her smile toward his cards, a king and a queen.
“Guess what you’re supposed to do now?”
He made the hold sign.
She flipped over a ten to go with her eight already showing. “See?” she said, paying him. “Easy go, easy come.”
He nearly laughed. It was a reversal of the old saying his father had used a couple of months earlier—“easy come, easy go”—to explain the sudden loss of his family’s accumulated wealth. The truth, if it must be told, was that Logan had grown up in a section of Philadelphia known as Society Hill, buffered from life’s shocks by private schools and a summer home in Maine. This was a little-known fact. You had to work your way through several childhood stories before you realized his house was a three-story Colonial with fanlights and flowerboxes, his street lined with oaks gently heaving up the brick sidewalks. Instead of an alley outside his bedroom window, there was a court with benches and cherry blossoms, a garage whose door flipped up like the lid of a breadbox. But it all belonged to somebody else now. His parents refused to tell him why. As far as he could tell, power of attorney had been abused, funds had been liquidated, and a former accountant was now living abundantly in the Caribbean. Both the Philadelphia and Maine houses, along with everything in them, had been auctioned off to pay some mysterious debts while his parents resettled in a rented apartment. Unlike Sarah, his younger sister, who had taken up windsurfing in Maui and could scarcely be bothered to send an e-mail every couple of months, Logan lay awake at night worrying. Sure, his parents could take care of themselves. But he wanted to send them some extra money as soon as he found a job. He wanted to help out. In the meantime, though, he was arguing with them—not about where the money had gone, but about their refusal to discuss where the money had gone. On this subject they held to the WASP code of silence. You might as well ask them about their sex lives.
It followed, then, that Logan might have done his degree differently if he had known the family fortune was going to evaporate overnight. This is all speculation, of course, but maybe he wouldn’t have avoided the math so much. Maybe he wouldn’t have slipped through graduate school on subsistence-level econometrics and focused so exclusively on historical texts, spending his time tracing, say, the influence of Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees on Adam Smith’s theory of rational self-interest. It was a pleasure to write papers without having to whip up coefficients or variables to prove every little thing. And it was a strategy that served him well until the very end, when he looked up from the final draft of his dissertation and found himself marooned on Humanities Island. There he was, sitting under a lone coconut tree in his ragged clothing, scanning the horizon for a decent job—a horizon limited by a dissertation that implicitly criticized the ideology of the economics profession. Not many ships wanted to bring a saboteur on board. What else could he do? The only bright spot had been a short article—a simplified extract from his dissertation, to be accurate—published a few months earlier in Revenue, a glossy monolith whose cadre of editors rarely allowed non-Nobel contenders to join its eminent debates. But the promise suggested by the publication simply hadn’t materialized into anything substantial. He had even glanced once or twice toward the private sector, but knew from all his unfettered hours at the Penn library that the object of his passion was obscure, his pace slow, his attention span too easily disrupted by ringing phones and pointless meetings to qualify him for most offices in the civilized world. He wanted a job where he could work on one project at a time, with self-imposed deadlines and spontaneous breaks. He wanted a job with guaranteed vacations and holidays. And although it would be ridiculous to say he wanted a low salary, the clear evidence is that he was prepared to accept it, even in light of his parents’ financial troubles. He could live with a thin wallet.
In other words, he wanted to teach. He had led discussion sections for a couple of professors and then taught a few courses on his own during his final year, hashing out the material with students who, it seemed to him, showed a raw interest in it. He liked to focus on an issue without becoming microscopic, taking time to explore, experiment, speculate, try this or that idea on for size. He could trot out Galbraith’s Dependence Effect, for example, just to see how the class would react to the sacrilegious notion that economic production doesn’t satisfy a predetermined demand, but instead creates the very wants that it claims to satisfy. Logan enjoyed working through the material with his students. He enjoyed discussing some of the forgotten texts and acknowledging that although some of the arguments had been disproved outright, others picked at and slowly stripped of their meat over the years, a few insights remained. Never mind, as Deck said one blurry night at Taps, that the guy couldn’t find his way out of an aggregate supply function if you drew him a map. Logan liked to scour the theoretical junkyards for old parts and stockpile them in his backyard, so to speak, just in case the right engine came along. And he wasn’t as mathematically inept as everyone thought. He simply drew different conclusions. A case in point:
“How many decks are in that shoe?” he asked.
“OK. Six decks. A lot of the cards are worth ten, mainly because of the face cards, but there are also a lot of—”
“You should split those.”
He looked down at his cards, a pair of eights. After she explained the procedure, he put another chip next to his original bet and waited as she separated the cards, then played them as two different hands. Sixes and sevens came out. Bust, bust.
“Which supports,” he said, gesturing at the ruins, “the point I was going to make.”
“About those non-ten cards.”
“I’m supposed to assume any undealt card is a ten, but the odds of that actually being the case are probably about thirty percent.”
“What do you do for a living?”
“There isn’t any room for luck in this Basic Strategy.”
“Luck is math, to be perfectly honest. There’s a higher chance of drawing a ten than any other single card. You’re not the kind of guy who puts on a shirt and tie every day, is what I’m thinking.”
“Fifteen. I should . . .”
“But you have a nine showing.”
“I have a bad feeling about this. If I get anything higher than a six—”
Her smile was dissipating. OK, he thought. All right. He sighed in mock obedience and, averting his face, touched his pinky to the felt as if it might summon a lower card.
When he looked again his bet was gone and some kind of supervisor was standing next to her. Logan’s immediate thought was that he had done something wrong. The guy had bulked-out shoulders and a mild glower in his eye, his hands clasped in front of him like a Secret Service agent.
“You should have a comp card,” the guy said.
“Comp card. It entitles you to benefits.”
“Benefits,” Logan repeated. It was like trying to understand a custom in a foreign country where the letters are backward and the money seems to be fake. He glanced at the guy’s nametag. Felix.
“A free meal. A free room, maybe. Depending on how much you gamble.”
Logan hesitated. Technically speaking, this was an invitation, but it felt like the exact opposite. The expression was all hard lines and surfaces. The eyes of a playground bully, the face of an ex-frat boy.
“He doesn’t want it,” Dallas finally said.
Felix swiveled his head toward her. “I believe the man can speak for himself. I’m offering,” he said, turning back to Logan, “because if you stay at this table you’re going to need all the help you can get.”
Dallas paused in mid-deal. Her body stiffened. “Playing with fire,” she said. “You know that?”
He smiled. “I’m not playing with fire. I’m working with it.”
A shrill guitar solo was coming from the speakers. Logan glanced at the cards in front of him and made the hit sign without even thinking. Dallas dealt him another card. A nine to go with his twelve. Twenty-one. He looked at Felix. “I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member. Thanks anyway.”
Felix didn’t move. He stood there, motionless, until one of the other dealers called his name.
“I have to confess,” Logan said, after Felix was safely out of range, “that I stole that line from the Marx Brothers.” She didn’t reply.
“Bonus points if you can tell me which brother.”
“Multiple choice. A: Harpo. B: Groucho. C: Zeppo. D: Karlo, with a K.”
A smile rose to her face as she figured out the joke. “Karlo Marx.”
“Author of the Communisto Manifesto,” he said in his best Italian accent. “With Frederico Engelli. Full of great recipes, but not very well organized. I really don’t want to hit that, do I?”
She finished laughing before she answered. “I’m teaching you how to play. Listen to me. Follow the odds.”
He shrugged helplessly. An arm sheathed in diaphanous black netting appeared in front of him and set a drink on the table, complete with napkin and plastic stirring rod. One of Vegas’s legendary free cocktails. But it was good luck to tip the waitress, wasn’t it? Logan had heard that somewhere. Probably from a waitress. He picked up a chip and placed it on her tray and resisted the urge to follow her with his eyes as she walked away.
He turned back to Dallas. “I’m an economist,” he said.
She lowered her chin and looked at him. Her hair shifted and caught the light differently, taking on a certain weight, a certain substance. “And you don’t trust the odds,” she said. “What would your co-workers say?”
She was about to say something else when another dealer came up behind her and tapped her on the shoulder. Break time. She cleared her hands by clapping them softly and then opening them with her fingers spread. Part of the procedure.
“You’re not going anywhere,” she said, stepping away from the table. “I’m still teaching you. You’re staying right there.”
Logan promised he wouldn’t move. The new dealer was a soft-spoken man with a goatee and a mild German accent by the name of Weiss. He dealt gently but ruthlessly. Logan faced him alone. A few prospective players hovered at the edges and watched the carnage for a while before moving on. But even as he remained alone at the table, he felt the crowd—the general flux—increasing around him. The music grew louder. The slots became more hysterical in their ringing. The waitress came around again and replaced his empty glass with a full one, accepting his tip with a smile that, he realized, was designed for the same purpose as her outfit.
The game was bleeding him with a surprising steadiness. All the images in his mind had involved sweat and adrenaline, fortunes decided in split-seconds. This was like paying rent. But it was all right. The alternative was to wander the casino by himself and potentially get caught in Deck and Prentis’s dragnet when they returned from the strip club. So he nodded along to the music. He gulped his free drink. And he continued losing. His goal was to survive until Dallas returned.
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