Sweet Cheeks is sick of me. I can tell by the disgusted look she gives me while I’m bending over tying my work boots and letting my gut, looking like a dull marshmallow, drop over my belt buckle. When she scowls at me like that her face crumples into a rotten apple and her eyes narrow into two evil slits.
Sweet Cheeks sits naked on the bed with her perky little tits and wide hips. She’s painting her toes with bright red nail polish called Red Hot Tango, smoking a cigarette, and sipping on her usual coffee, half filled with hot milk, and loaded with about fourteen teaspoons of sugar.
“Have you even considered losing that gut?” she says.
“Come on Sugar, don’t start your shit with me now,” I say standing up and throwing on a clean t-shirt. “I got to get to work.”
“My ass,” Sweet Cheeks says. “You don’t work; you run around with your gay buddies bragging about how many women you haven’t laid.”
“Dammit Sugar, you’re mean as hell this morning. You get your ass out and clean carpets all day, see if that ain’t work.”
“I don’t like it when you keep me up all night, Billy. I don’t like it at all.”
“You didn’t have to finish that whole god-dammed bottle, Sweet Cheeks. We would have been just as good with half that,” I say.
“You’re just a damn fool,” Sweet Cheeks says.
I’m moving in on Sweet Cheeks. “Come here,” I say putting her hand on the bulge in my pants. “Hell, I ain’t got a gut.” “You’re gettin’ one and you’re gettin’ a boner too.”
“Then why don’t you just lie down and let me fix that,” I say unbuckling my pants and pushing her on the bed.
“Hell, my toenails are still wet,” she says spreading her legs as I plunge into her. She meets me hard and fast and the whole thing is over in about two minutes.
“You sure know how to wake me up, baby,” she says lighting another cigarette.
I pull up my pants, light a Marlboro, and head to work.
Joey B looks rough this morning. I can tell he’s pulled another all-nighter. His hair’s a mess and his eyes are red and he’s got that pissed-off look that tells me he’s not going to be good-ol’ Joey B for at least an hour or so.
Each crew member meets at George’s apartment at 7:00 AM sharp. George owns the business and the office is in his apartment. He’s a dead ringer for Harpo Marx. The only difference is his head of curls is sweet-cola black, but his big nose, bulging eyes, and heavy lips are the same as Harpo’s.
George doesn’t put up with being late and if you stroll in after 7 o’clock more than a couple of times you’re fired from working for Advanced Carpet Cleaning. George has three vans and three crews with two guys on each crew. I’ve been working with Joey B for the last couple of months. Joey B’s a giant Polack with a wide face and big round light blue eyes that protrude from his head giving him the look of some sort of prehistoric fish swimming in the deepest depths of the ocean. Everything about him is thick: his neck, his lips, his fingers, his calves. Joey B plays guitar in a punk-rock band called The Piranhas. He plays with his girlfriend who does the singing. I watched her one night wearing nothing but a garbage bag and combat boots singing a raw, fast, and frantic version of I Got You, Babe. Joey B sang the Sonny Bono part.
Our routine is the same every morning. George hands us our scheduled jobs attached to a clipboard. The calls have been spread out allowing us time to get from one job to the next. All of the cleaning jobs should be completed by 6 o’clock. If there are no problems we are pulling into the office right about that time and calling it a day. Sometimes we get in earlier and sometimes, if there are problems, we come in later. After George hands us our jobs we get into our vans and check the equipment and the cleaning supplies. I run the scrubber, a machine with a rotating brush and a tank to hold soapy water and Joey B follows behind with the steamer, a powerful vacuum that sucks in the dirty water. Once the equipment is checked we head to Bertha’s Diner and start the morning off with eggs, coffee, and cigarettes. It’s always the six of us: me and Joey B, George and a scrawny newcomer named Brown, and Rughead Dan and his partner Rocky Parlotto, two muscular jocks who love drinking, fighting, and cleaning rugs. By 8:30 we are in our vans and on the road. Our first job is always scheduled for 9 o’clock.
I drive and Joey B looks at the map.
“The fucking Falls,” he says. “I hate going up to Niagara Falls.”
Our first job is easy: Living room, dining room and hallway. It’s our special: two rooms and a hallway for $62.00. We even include Scotchgard to help protect the carpets and keep them clean, but that’s a dirty little lie. We don’t actually have Scotchgard, just a jug filled with soapy water. Our next job is a living room, dining room, hallway and three bedrooms. We sell them Scotchgard for the bedrooms at five bucks a room. We knock out a couple of more jobs and are pulling into George’s by 5:30.
When I get home I can see that Sweet Cheeks hasn’t done much around the place. She is sitting on the sofa with her bare feet stretched before her on the coffee table drinking a vodka and Mountain Dew and watching the local news. She is putting her cigarette out in an overflowing ashtray. On the table sits a half-eaten turkey sub in a Jim’s Steakout wrapper and an opened bag of chips.
“I worked hard today, baby.” I say moving toward her, lifting her head and giving her a kiss on the mouth. “Move over and let me sit down.”
“Damn, you stink. What the hell you have for lunch?” she says.
“I guess I had a little onion on my burger,” I say.
“Well, go brush your teeth, then.”
“Shut your mouth, baby. I ain’t movin’ right now,” I say.
Sweet Cheeks gets up in a huff and I watch her little ass shuffle toward the kitchen. She returns with an opened can of Budweiser and hands it to me.
“Here,” she says.
“What’s to eat around here? I don’t smell anything cooking?”
“I haven’t had time,” she says. “I’ll throw something together.”
Sweet Cheeks is a whore. She has a small racket, a faithful clientele who call her and set up appointments. She takes them into a spare bedroom all decorated like an Egyptian whore’s tent. It’s got a low bed with a draping canopy made from sheer colorful linens. The room is perfumed with incense and filled with mirrors, statues, busts, gold vases and a bunch of big leafed plants. That’s Sweet Cheeks thing, to dress up like one of those chicks in Arabian Nights and let guys come over and fuck her for a hundred bucks or so. She only does this on weekdays, the rest of the time she spends with me.
Sweet Cheeks’ name is Carol Barnes, but I’ve never called her Carol. She doesn’t even look like a Carol; it’s too plain a name for her. I met her when I broke my armfalling off a ladder while painting my mother’s garage. It was a stupid move, standing on the top rung, stretching to get paint onto the peak. The ladder slid and I fell and busted my arm up good. Sweet Cheeks worked at the reception desk at The Buffalo General and when I saw her I believed she was the most beautiful women I had ever laid my eyes on. My doctor had a small office in the hospital. I would go there every few weeks until he was satisfied that my arm was healed. I wooed Sweet Cheeks right there at the desk. It took a couple of times, but I finally got her out and we drank a whole bunch of beer down at Ulrich’s Tavern, then went to her house and had a fine time. Later that evening, I watched as she slid a needle into her arm and experience the relaxing warmth that would calm her down and control our relationship.
This morning we are in the van driving to our first job: a living room, dining room, hallway and bedroom and Joey B’s explaining blackjack to me.
“If you’re at the Casino, the easiest game to win is blackjack. Fuck the machines; fuck roulette, they’re designed for you to lose, but in blackjack you at least gotta chance, you’re only playing against one guy, the dealer. There might be other guys at the table, but you only gotta beat the dealer. If the dealer folds, everyone at the table wins the hand. All you gotta do is get more points than the dealer without going over twenty-one. The cards 2 through 10 have their face value. The jack, queen and king are worth 10 points each, and the Ace is worth one or eleven points, your choice. Don’t get me wrong, you can lose your shit, but it’s about the odds and you got better odds with blackjack than any other game. I’ve won some cash playing blackjack,” Joe B says.
“How much you win?”
“Shit, I won six-hundred bucks one night, right up at the casino,” Joey B says. “I keep it simple. If I have less than seventeen points I take a hit; I take another card. If I have seventeen or more I stay. It works out good for me that way. I’m telling you Billy, you want to make some money, go to the casino and play blackjack. Stick to that rule, though; stay slow and steady on the rule of seventeen. Take your time and you’ll get what you need. Learn how to do it first and then go on up. I’ll bring a deck of cards tomorrow and show you how it’s done.”
The next morning we are crammed in a booth at Bertha’s and I’ve won a bunch of hands at blackjack. Joey B’s the dealer and the rest of us are smoking cigarettes and eating eggs and bacon while he throws cards at us in rapid fire. We’re not playing with money, just learning the groove. I play the hit below seventeen and hold at seventeen or above strategy, and have won more than I’ve lost. Joey B teaches us if you get two starting cards of the same face value, you have the option to split the hand in two. You place another bet of the same size as the original bet and play on with two hands he tells us.
“You can win twice as much that way,” Joey B says.
Sweet Cheeks is in a sluggish mood. When I come home from work she’s in one of those get-ups. She’s got on a golden bikini top and all this sheer colorful silk is draping off her. Her bellies showing and she’s wearing gold sandals with her feet covered with flowered henna tattoos.
“Can you not look like that when I get home?” I ask.
“I’m lovely,” she says and pulls a jewelry box from under the coffee table. From the box she takes out a needle, a spoon, and a baggie filled with a dull white powder. Sweet Cheeks places some of the powder in the spoon, adds a few drops of water, and heats up the underneath of the spoon with a lighter. She rolls up a tiny ball of cotton, places it in the spoon, points the needle into the soaked cotton, and draws the syringe. She points the needle toward the ceiling, flicks the cylinder to get the air bubbles out, wraps a belt around her bicep, pulling it tight, finds her vein, and slowly slides the needle into her arm. Sweet Cheeks pulls the syringe back and bright red blood slowly swirls inside the cylinder. She pushes the plunger gently into her vein, loosens the belt, and lightly slips the needle out. Sweet Cheeks falls back into the couch; her eyes are closed, her mouth is open, and a tiny stream of saliva slides down the side of her mouth. I watch her for a moment, then go into the kitchen and take a Budweiser from the refrigerator. I take a long pull from the Bud and let the cold liquid slide down my throat. I tilt the can and empty it and grab another. When I get back into the living room Sweet Cheeks is looking at me through a delicate haze. She is lovely, I think to myself.
The next morning Sweet Cheeks is in a pissy mood. She sits cross-legged and naked on the bed taking cotton balls doused in nail polish remover and cleaning the Red Hot Tango from her toes. Her coffee and cigarette are in place. Her skin is delicate and pale and I see the red needle marks climbing up her arm like a sad case of measles. I am putting on my work boots and looking for a clean shirt.
“How long are you going to clean those damn rugs?” Sweet Cheeks asks.
“What do you mean, Sugar?”
“When are you gonna stop pussy-footin’ around and get yourself a job that makes some money? I’m getting tired living like this, Billy. You’ve got to take better care of me.”
“Baby, I might know a way I can make some good money,” I say.
“Let me hear it, baby.”
“Blackjack,” I say.
“Yep, blackjack. It’s a good way to make money at the casino. Joey B says, over time, it’s a sure thing.”
“Joey B’s an idiot,” Sweet Cheeks says. “Why are you listening to an idiot, Billy?”
“We’ve been playing every day at breakfast,” I say. “I win much more than I lose.”
“What are you winning, baby?”
“Well, I’m not winning anything, but I’m learning the skill. You could say I’m in training and when I get some money I’m going straight up to the Casino and I’m going to win big for us, Sweet Cheeks.”
“Baby, you’re a damn fool,” Sweet Cheeks says with a mocking chuckle. “When you get money? Boy, I’d sure like to see that.”
“Baby, I’m not a fool. I promised I was going to get you out of this mess here and we would live in Costa Rica, right on the Pacific Ocean where it hardly costs anything to live and we are going to swim in the blue sea and eat all the seafood we can and drink ice cold beers for everyday of our lives.”
Sweet Cheeks lies down and pulls me onto her naked body, “You’re a dreamer, baby; I like that,” Sweet Cheeks says.
“Guess how I won four hundred bucks last night?” Johnny B says.“Blackjack?” I say.
“Blackjack?” I say.
“Goddamn right,” Joe B. says. “I was only up there for about an hour and once I got in the groove, I started hitting. Rule of seventeen, brother. It was fucking magic!”
Joey B’s countenance is a mixture of contentment and pride. We are in the van driving on LeBrun Avenue. Joey B’s sitting in his seat leaning back with the clipboard on his lap and his arm out the window. The streets have widened and curve through bucolic landscapes, the lawns are large and meticulously manicured, managed by a variety of landscaping services with shirtless workers riding stand-up power mowers. Each home has its own extensive garden with colorful winding flower paths, rambling vines, and blooming shrubs. The homes are big stone structures, large and magnificent. SUV’s, BMW’s and Mercedes Benzes’s sit sparkling under the hot sun in wide driveways. “This sure beats my neighborhood,” Joey B says. “Hell, if I lived out here I wouldn’t have one of those Beamers or SUV’s, I’d have me a fuckin’ white and cherry- red, mint ’57 Chevy sittin’ in my driveway.”
“That’s a badass car,” I say.
“Sure fuckin’ is,” Joey B says.We are pulling into the driveway of an enormous English Tudor style home. Joey
We are pulling into the driveway of an enormous English Tudor style home. Joey B reads the clipboard, “Living room, dining room, family room, three bedrooms and two hallways; this will take us a couple of hours,” he says.
At the door, a slender older woman casually dressed in brown penny loafers, slim bright green pants, and a white polo shirt greets us. Her eyeglasses are nestled on top of her head in overly-teased golden hair, and pink lipstick covers a wrinkled mouth. Her face is crumpled and deeply tanned and her eyes are bright blue. She wears the countenance of having money, spending winters in Florida, holidays on the Cape, an annual European trip, and summers on the golf course at the country club. She eyes us with vague disdain, leads us into her living room, and tells us to be careful lugging in our equipment. Joey B gives her the finger when she’s looking in my direction.
The carpets before us hardly need a cleaning; no soil marks or stains anywhere. It is as if this woman is spending money for the sake of spending. Maybe a carpet cleaning truck parked in her driveway elevates her status in front of the neighbors. I don’t really know, but I’m thankful for the easy job.
It is quiet in the house and the woman has left us alone. We clean the living room, dining room, and family room, and then carry the equipment upstairs toward the bedrooms. Inside the master bedroom the walls, carpet, and furniture all blend into a soft cream colored milieu. The woman is lying on the bed with her shoes kicked off and laying on the floor beside the bed. Her toenails are painted the same shade of pink as her lipstick. Bunions protrude from the joints of her big toes and a fly walks aimlessly about her forehead. Joey B knocks at the door and the lady gives no response.
“We’re here to clean the bedroom,” he says.
We watch her and realize she is not moving.
“What the Christ?” Joey B says.
“Well, isn’t that something,” I say. “Do you think she’s dead?”
“Hey!” Joey B says. “You hear us, or what?”
We move toward the bed and I shake her shoulder to wake her. Nothing. Her glasses are tilted crookedly on the bridge of her nose and a copy of Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates is resting on her chest.
“Christ, the old broad kicked the bucket reading a book,” Joey B says.
“She sure did,” I say. “We better call George and we should call the police too.”
“Yes, we better call, but let’s just wait a couple of minutes and think about this,” Joey B says.
“Think about what?”
“Maybe she’s got something we might want.”
“This old broad’s loaded,” Joey B says. “She’s gotta have some cash around here somewhere.”
“I don’t know about that,” I say. “I don’t want to get involved in anything crazy.”
“There’s nothing to get involved in. If she’s got some cash, we take it; no one will know. We’ll call the cops and let George know and they’ll be glad we were here when she kicked. They’ll be thankful she didn’t lie here dead for too long. It doesn’t look like a robbery, nothin’s busted up. Hell, we’re not intruders, she’s the one who hired us; we’ll come out looking like heroes.”
This is a fact. The woman is certainly dead. Joey B figures everything is on schedule and if we were going to help ourselves, now is our window of opportunity. If we wait too long, then, well, suspicion could arise.
Joey B rummages through dresser drawers and I enter a huge walk-in closet loaded with racks of shoes and crisp color coded dresses hanging around the perimeter of the closet. Along the walls, on shelves, sit stacks of folded pants and there are a couple revolving racks loaded with belts of every shade and color. On the shelf under a pile of pants is a metal box and in the box are bank envelopes filled with crisp, new one hundred dollar bills. I bring the box out and place it on the bed for Joey B to look at.
“Bingo,” he says and begins counting the envelopes. “Hell, there’re twenty envelopes with a thousand dollars in each one. That’s twenty-thousand dollars, Billy boy!”
“I don’t know; I don’t want any trouble,” I say.
“I’m telling you, this old broad’s loaded. She’s got more money in the bank then we’ll ever see in our lives. This is just in case money for her, a little stash. No one is going to know. Nobody could prove we took any money. I’ll put it behind the back panel in the van and we’ll call George and the police and report this thing. This is clean, Billy. I’m telling you.”
Joey B is nursing a rum and coke and I am drinking a whiskey and ginger. Three disheveled Japanese businessmen drinking long neck Budweiser’s and chain smoking Marlboros share the blackjack table with us. Their suits are rumpled and their neckties hang crookedly under open collars. The dealer is dark skinned with a soft face and shoeshine-black hair. I peg him to be from India. He is wearing black pants, a white shirt, and black tie and he is losing to the table. A pit boss arrives and watches the action carefully and after a few more hands decides to change dealers. Joey B and I collect our chips and move to another table. This time the dealer is a slight, bald man hosting a couple of fat guys wearing Buffalo Bills Jerseys losing their shit one hand at a time. Joey B and I stick to our rule of seventeen and slowly build our winnings.
The Seneca Niagara Casino is a cacophony of lights, bells, sirens, and buzzers. Slot machines whizz and whirl and the dank scent of cigarette smoke permeates the air. Joey B has explained our strategy and we are sticking to it. He told me: “We are not telling anybody about the money, not even our girlfriends. We’re gonna go to all the casinos around here, Seneca Niagara, Casino Niagara, Buffalo Creek, Hamburg Gaming,
and we’re gonna slowly build on our winnings. We don’t want to draw any attention. Then, we’re going to the Fallsview Casino and get ourselves onto one of those high limittables where we can make some real money. From there we’re golden and we’re gonna have a nice little chunk of change stashed.”
It’s been a month since we helped ourselves to the old ladies loot. We are still cleaning carpets as if nothing’s changed. Not a word has been said about the old ladies money. Sweet Cheeks is still whoring and shooting dope and giving me shit about making a better life for her. I tell her more about Costa Rica, sandy beaches, tall palm trees, and she calls me a dreamer, but little does she know, I’m gonna make a good life for her. She’ll be pleasantly surprised when I lay it all on her. Joey B and I have our secret hiding places where we are stashing our winnings. We both have around twenty-five G’s apiece.
Joey B and I pull the van into the office after a long tiresome week. It is Friday and the thought of a couple days off from cleaning carpets is welcoming.
“Jesus,” he says. “I’m getting tired of this shit, working my ass off. You ready, Billy? You ready to go up to Fallsview and get on some of those high limit tables? Our luck is good lately. We can make some real changes if we hit.”
“I feel good,” I say.
“Put on a nice shirt and pants; we don’t want to go in there looking like a couple of bums. I’ll pick you up at eight o’clock.”
When I get home Sweet Cheeks is sitting on the sofa pressing towel filled with ice against her mouth. She is in her Egyptian get-up. Her hair is a mess and her face is red and swollen. Her lip is split and the blood from her mouth has stained the towel crimson-red.
“What the hell?” I say. “He was a referral from a regular client. I didn’t know him. He got rough and started slapping the shit out of me. I told him I don’t play rough and he just got angrier and angrier.”
In a strange way Sweet Cheeks looks comically pitiful with her red face, watery eyes, and black eyeshadow running in rivulets down her cheeks.
“Get out of those clothes and take a warm bath,” I say to her and then I tell her the whole story. I tell her about learning how to play blackjack like a pro. I tell her about the dead woman and the money and how I’ve bumped up my share to twenty-five G’s, and I tell her Joey B’s picking me up and we’re heading to Fallsview where we can really make some cash. “Who knows, if we win big tonight maybe real soon we can get on a bus and head to Vegas and make enough money to get to Costa Rica. My luck’s good, baby, I feel real good.”
I show Sweet Cheeks the cash and her eyes brighten and she says, “Holy Shit, Billy, you’re not kiddin’!”
Discreet sophistication pervades in the private salon. It is much quieter here than in the main casino. Hardly any words are spoken; we listen only to the dry shuffle and snap of crisp, shiny cards being dealt towards us. We are at a table with two men in tailored suits and meticulously cut hair. Joey B and I look out of place, but we are sticking to the rule of seventeen and we are up ten-thousand on a hundred dollar a bet table. We have our own server standing behind us and he is delivering us two fingers of bourbon on ice. We sip the bourbon slowly and concentrate on the cards, the dealer, and the pit boss carefully eyeing us.
We are now up twelve thousand apiece and the table has turned the dealer’s way. The men in suits have lost close to three thousand and we have lost fifteen hundred in a matter of only a few hands. Joey B is thinking; he is doing the math in his head. He turns to me and nods that it is time to leave. We walk from the dimly lit silent room and enter the loud, echoing main casino.
“Our luck turned,” Joey B says. “A calm man knows when his luck’s run out, at least for now. A lot of people would have stayed and got wiped out. We made it outta here ten G’s richer, though. It’s Vegas now, buddy.”
I am excited about the cash. Ten crisp one hundred dollar bills and a fifty dollar bill fits securely in my front pocket. Sweet Cheeks is going to be happy as hell. I imagine her sitting on our veranda in Costa Rica, looking calmly over the glittering ocean, sipping a cold gin and tonic. Her legs are stretched before her, tanned and lovely.
Joey B drops me off in front of our place. He nods in my direction and shakes my hand.
“I’ll see you Monday morning,” he says.
“Okay, you have a good weekend,” I say.
Inside, the apartment is dark except for the soft flickering light from the television playing one of those infomercials about some sort of juice machine. Muscled men in tight shirts and shorts, and bikini-clad women happily smile at one another while cramming all kinds of fruits and vegetables into a blender and marvel at their magical concoctions. I figure Sweet Cheeks has gone to sleep, so I go into the kitchen, make a ham sandwich, pop open a Budweiser, and sit at the kitchen table skimming through the Buffalo News. Afterward, I put the sandwich stuff away, toss the can into the recycle bin, and head into the bathroom to brush my teeth. I flick on the light and Sweet Cheeks is lying naked in the tub with a sheer pink scarf hanging loosely around her bicep and a needle floating at her feet. Burned out candles surround the perimeter of the bathtub. Sweet Cheeks is very pale and I place my hand on her cold shoulder.
“Why couldn’t you wait for me, Sweet Cheeks?” I say to her. “I told you I was
going to get us out of here.”
I sit on the toilet holding Sweet Cheek’s hand in mine and I let her know how beautiful she is. We sit that way for quite a while until I pull her from the tub and carry her to her Egyptian room and lay her on the bed. I pat dry Sweet Cheeks with a soft towel and dress her in sheer silks and place the gold sandals on her feet. I am momentarily at a loss as to what to do. I don’t know her family; we never talked about them, but I’m sure there must be someone who will claim her.
Before I head out the door, I write a short note and leave it on the table next to where Sweet Cheeks lies. It reads: I am sorry for what I’ve done. I almost made it out of here. Yours truly, Carol Barnes.
The woman at the Greyhound ticket counter looks into her computer screen and lets me know bus fare to Las Vegas is two hundred and twenty-nine dollars and it will take two days, five hours and fifty minutes. That seems like a real long time, but I’ve got nothing better to do. I give her cash for a ticket, board the bus, and move toward the back row. The bus is about half full. After a while the driver turns on the engine and we pull out of the Ellicott Street Station and head through the quiet empty city streets. The seats are comfortable and I adjust mine back and get absorbed in the steady hum of the Greyhound’s engine. I look out the window and watch as the lights fade from Buffalo and we drive silently on the highway into the black night. I am thinking that I will call the police in the morning and I am thinking of Joey B and the slow and steady rule of seventeen.