At least twice a year, in between pictures,
I can't wait to get away from Hollywood. Usually it's Reno, although unlike
most movie writers I neither gamble nor intermittently shed wives. It's
merely that the place fascinates me: the new faces, the unfamiliar, desultory
talk of the inhabitants, the hot dusty picture of a small, tired town trying
hard to be a big, mad town. But whatever the magnet, out there I always
seem to be more aware of what is going on around me. Like this last time.
I noticed the man as soon as he came into
Harry's Bar. He was about fifty, I'd say, a thin, dapper little fellow
in easy flannels, with a pair of the liveliest blue eyes I ever saw from
under tortoiseshell. He started to order a drink, and then stopped. He
drew out the loose change from his pocket, gave it a quick, surreptitious
glance, and dejectedly settled for a beer.
Probably because I've never been without,
those sort of things always make me feel a little sick. I slid one bar
stool over and asked him to join me in what I was having. "It's a little
chilly in here," I said, lamely, "better have a short one!" Then, to cover
his thanks, I added quickly, "I was alone, anyway."
I forget what we started talking about, but
he had a very soothing and convincing voice. It was as soft and as sleek
as his hands looked. Gambler's hands, with the nails beautifully manicured.
I couldn't take my eyes off them, because where his words left off, they
filled in the gaps. They were never still. Another reason I couldn't help
staring was that the insides of his hands, from the palm to the tips of
his fingers, were two purplish masses of horribly scarred tissue.
His voice broke off as he caught my shocked
expression. "I suppose you're looking at my hands."
"What happened?" I said. "Or would you rather
But apparently he didn't seem to mind talking
about it. "It's not much of a story," he started, apologetically. He kept
his hands on his knees, and I saw that he was nervously twisting his fingers.
"This goes back quite a while, when Marvin's Club was a hole in the wall.
Know the place?"
Who didn't? "Twenty-three tables, two hundred
and fourteen employees, a nightly take of $35,000, and nothing rigged.
Marvin's doing all right."
He nodded. "I came here with my girl to get
married, just twenty-five years ago this month. I played the slot machines,
I lost all the money I'd saved to get married and--"
"You lost her!" I said, clucking my tongue.
"I lost her to Marvin," he said softly.
"Oh," I said.
"She felt she'd rather be on the right side
of a one armed bandit," he went on. In his language that meant slot machine,
any slot machine. "You know how women are."
I thought I didn't, but I said, "I guess I
know how women are."
He reached for his drink. "I swore there and
then that I'd find some way to beat the slot machines and break Marvin."
"Well, did you?"
"I did," he said slowly, "and I didn't." He
caught my look of disbelief and smiled. "Oh, it took me a long time to
do it. In fact, it wasn't until a few months ago that I succeeded."
"But that uses up up almost a quarter of a
century," I exclaimed.
"Not too long to wait for anything you want
as much as I wanted that."
"Go on," I said.
"I became a dealer, but not at any of those
flat joints," he went on. "I picked faro, and I was a good dealer. At fifteen
smackers a day, I started building a small pile. I didn't gamble, smoke
or drink. I kept it all, or most of it anyway. I bought ten slot machines
of all different makes. I even bought some European ones. I tore them apart,
I put them back together again. But I couldn't beat them."
I called for a new round of drinks, and made
mine a straight ginger ale. "Every now and again I go sissy," I apologized.
"We all have our weaknesses," he replied,
quietly. "Mine was trying to beat the slot machines. After a few years
of working on my plan, I believed that only mathematics or a crowbar would
do the trick, but I wasn't too sure of the first. As it turned out, it
was neither. I hit on something just by luck. Only I had to be very careful.
The whole town knew what I was trying to do. They called it 'Johnnie Nelson's
That's how I got to know his name. "Glad to
know you, Johnnie," I said, and shook one of his scarred hands.
He nodded, and laughed softly. "One night
I went to Marvin's. Sally, the girl I was going to marry, had turned into
a very beautiful woman. She greeted my arrival with amusement, asked if
this was going to be the great day. I assured her it was. I changed a ten
spot for silver dollars and made straight for the $150 jackpot machine:"
"What happened?" I asked, and by now I was
"Have you heard the sound of a jackpot box
opening and the money pouring out?"
"Sweet music," I said. "Sweet and very infrequent
"Sally looked up when she heard the sound,"
said Johnny. "I had put in my seventh dollar, and there it was--the fruits
of years of hard labor. Sally ran over. She was more stunned than anything.
The news traveled like wildfire around the club. Marvin wanted me to come
up to his office and talk. But I wasn't talking."
Instead he went back whenever he felt like
it, played half a dozen silver dollars and always came away with a jackpot.
Then, one night, it was all over. And Johnnie's mouth tightened as he told
me about it. "Sally was playing the machine right next to me. She never
looked more beautiful. Anyway I wasn't being careful, and I dropped the
dollar I was about to put in. She went to pick it up, and then let go of
it quickly. She looked at me with eyes dim with hurt and disappointment,
and ran from the room. She could have cried out with pain, but she didn't.
She was a good sport. But the jig was over."
"I don't get it," I said. "What was it with
that silver dollar that should want to make her cry out?"
"It was red hot," said Johnnie Nelson. "It was the special dollar that
pulled in the jackpot. Until I was ready to play it I had to keep it hot
in an insulated box with batteries in my pocket. Why a hot dollar beat
the slot machines when everything else failed, I don't know. But beat them
"So Marvin barred you from the club! "
Johnnie shook his head. "No, but for a while
I didn't go back to the club. Finally it was Marvin himself who called,
saying how much they'd missed seeing me around. He invited me to return
to play some more. That pleased me, because that meant Sally hadn't told
him what she'd found out, and because I had no reason to want to play the
other slot machines in the town. My little deal, for personal reasons,
was with Marvin and nobody else."
"You went back?"
"I did," he said, "but it didn't do me any
good. My arrival in the club must have been the signal for everyone to
disappear, because I found myself alone in the slot machine room. No one
was watching me--manager, bouncer or shill. So I went ahead and played.
I put my special dollar in after a little while, and held out my hands
to catch the jackpot. One hundred and fifty dollars."
"No dice," I said, knowingly.
"Oh, yes," said Johnnie, feelingly. "It worked
out all right. I got the money. But Marvin had installed the machine with
gas jets, and when the dollars came tumbling out I caught them-the whole
red hot lot." He looked at the palms of his hands ruefully. "The scars
are just beginning to heal, but I haven't been able to get another job
since. The feeling's gone…"
I knew just how he felt. Probably the only
job he could do well was shuffling and dealing cards. Below the counter
I took two five's from my wallet, folded them neatly, and placed them on
his knee. Maybe it was a story I could use some day out in Hollywood, and
then he would hear from me again. "I wish I could do more," I said.
He slipped down from his bar stool.
"Whatever it is, I sure can use it," he said,
and his voice choked a little. "You'll get it back."
When he was gone I ordered another drink,
the last one. I looked up to see Matt, the barman eyeing me quietly. Finally
he said, "Quite a yarn, wasn't it?"
"Oh, you heard it, too."
He polished a glass with a small rag and a
lot of breath. "Yeah, I heard. What did it cost you?"
I laughed embarrassedly. "Just ten bucks. I felt sorry for him. Should
I have given him more?"
Matt poured himself a beer, and shrugged.
"Only what the traffic will bear. You got off easy."
I put down my drink quickly. "You mean the
story's not true?"
"Naw," said Matt. "He's always been on the
wrong side of the tables, the sucker's side. He gets down here, plays his
week's pay, and when he's cleaned out he works his fare home--which is
"I don't get it," I said.
Matt leaned over. "Look, you're a nice guy,
and he's a nice guy, but I'm just telling you in case you want to dig a
little deeper into the pocketbook. Don't. Last week it was the face. That's
"The whole left ear's gone, and carries a
purple cheek, with a hole in the jaw. He got that one at the Los Alamitos
I didn't want to hear anymore. "So he's a
bum," I said, disgustedly.
Now it was Matt's turn to get sore. "Hey,
Mister, you watch your words. Johnnie's a right guy. He produced the show,
but you fixed the cover charge." He paused, and shook his head puzzledly.
"Funny thing you haven't run into him before, you being out in Hollywood.
Five days a week Johnnie holds down a good studio job, one of the best
men they got. But the rest of the time he just has to gamble."
So this was the payoff. "All right, I'll bite,"
I said, sourly. "What does he do?"
Matt snickered. "You a movie writer, and you
still don't get it? Johnnie's over at Orpheum Studios. One of their top
make-up men. Hey, Mister, I think you need another drink--without water!"