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An Austin Tradition! Before Central Market_ Before Whole foods.. —-.7FAkmwNTai there was Wheatsville.. We’re your community-owned grocery store’ Experience shopping an a human scaler ‘wheotsvil le op 31011Guadalu c pe -478-2667 Since 1976 walk away with the casino’s money.” Later the high becomes something else, something they describe as “thrall”: “Something new had come into our otherwise quiet lives. Neither of us had any idea how much those first jackpots would eventually cost.” Following the deaths of their mother and father in fairly quick succession, they were left on their own and feeling hopelessly illprepared. They had spouses but no children to ease a cold-turkey withdrawal from blood family. They began to gamble with a kind of frenzy that knew no reason, their obsession with detail and nuance running apace: You’ve made a big bet, you’re holding an eighteen and the dealer is showing an eight, and you think you’ve pushed, you’re safe. Then you think, Unless she has an ace. No sooner have you had the second thought than you know she has the ace. You wish she didn’t, but you know she does. And when she flips her down card there it is, the ace. And you lose again. Then you think that you caused her to have the ace by thinking it. If you look fairly and honestly, you can see the allure, the pull. For all their worth, the brothers’ day jobs are flat and two-dimensional. Naturally they would stroll over to the dicier side of the street. There waited Lady Luck, the Mistress of the Bipolar, whom gamblers love and loathe a hundred times in the short flash of an hour. The whole idea of figuring out luck had a stranglehold on the brothers, and for them the way to beat the odds involved nothing detached and mathematical but sheer will: a low-level sense of entitlement they had internalized as children. They subscribed to two principles: the power of “words, adroitly deployed” and the fact that, like their father, they possessed an understanding of how things worked in the world and thus could “tame them.” Though the brothers insist the gambling was less about money than about the thrill of chance, the goal was still to wrestle the casino to the ground, and the way to do that was to take home some of its money. They believed they could win, believed it with a pure, dogged determination. By their candid admission, they were out of their minds endearingly so. They found in the casino much beyond the action that key word in the rhetoric of gambling. They found people they likened to a surreal substitute for family, comrades without complications, pit bosses and dealers the brothers liken to fast-food workers, whom they believe to possess the same respect and loyalty for the casino’s money as McDonald’s employees might feel towards Ray Kroc. The difference here with the dealers in particular is that they are allowed to demonstrate an individual sense of style hard to find in the world of more prosaic jobs. “It was not that we liked our fellow gamblers, the pit and floor people, the cocktail waitresses,” they write. “It was more that we loved them, at a respectable distance, the same distance at which one loves characters in books or on television shows.” It is an attraction at once far away and up close: “One forms brief but intense relationships with utter strangers while gambling together, which is as intoxicating and intimate as drinking together, although usually less messy.” Less messy, perhaps. Ultimately, their good-natured, brother-bonding gambling easy-going camaraderie with casino workers, gets them into trouble of the federal kind. But that’s a hand I’m not going to show. To read the book is to believe they are innocent. What Rick and Steve Barthelme are guilty of is navet, a Gatsby-like belief in the Shining American Lie that transcendence is for the taking. In a royal flush on a poker machine, Rick saw perfection, something none of his academic colleagues believed in. As gamblers the brothers fell for the promise and redemption of chance and change. “This was their fool’s secret,” they tell us, observing themselves with perspective, “one they shared with drunks, artists, and children, all of whom they resembled.” For the brothers, perched at a blackjack table next to a guy from Boston with a nail bent through his earlobe who is telling jokes from a cheesy lounge act, “it’s a battle to believe that life is a dreary chore.” Their guilt resided in the six figures of the loss column, money \(their own and that inherited from their cherished mother and gullet first gradually and then suddenly. Besides their love of the night, of the neon and the noise, they embraced the idea of besting the beast of money. All his life their father applied himself to that principle, thinking “anyone could make a rich and happy life” while “overlooking the fact that it hadn’t worked so well for him.” His sons, with the hard edge of realism, saw financial solvency, particularly gained the old-fashioned way, as “the tyrant that has been pushing you around your whole life.” In the end, though, perhaps it is just spilt money. “Double down,” a gambling call that could equally apply to the fate of the brothers, is the phoenix rising, in equal parts about their own beautiful failure to be more than human, and a loving tribute to their parents, whom they have come to see as beautifully flawed as well. Gamblers like to talk, the brothers point out, and so the telling of their story seems a natural. They are writers whose research was conducted at a big cost, but the lessons learned are probably invaluable. “Winning is better than losing,” they tell us simply, “but neither one is the goal of gambling, which is playing. Losing never feels like the worst part of gambling. Quitting often does.” Readers should be glad that the brothers didn’t fold and that, instead, they turned loss into art. Austin writer Betsy Berry is at work on a novel set in France, a project which requires many hours of research in Texas pool halls. NATIONAL WRITERS UNION We give working writers a fighting chance. Health insurance. Solidarity. Journalists, poets, commercial writers. Fort Worth: Alice Davis-Rains E-mail: [email protected] 34 THE TEXAS OBSERVER MARCH 17, 2000