The potential for catastrophe was written all over the scenario, but like a Braille-less blind man, he could not see it.
He was in The Zone. Lady Luck was on his side. Clayton blew two gentle puffs into his cupped hand; then, with an expert flick of the wrist, he threw the objects across the green padded table. They bounced against the opposite bumper end before waggling into settled positions. YES!
“WIN-NER!” echoed through the crowds, luring them over to watch. Cat whistles, laughter, victory high-fives mingled together into a frenzy of raucous excitement as Clay continued to pile up winnings. Repeatedly, the loaded dice spun and danced before the fevered, darting eyes of the onlookers. The dealers, well-trained scam artists of sorts, had learned just when to substitute the dice, seducing their victims into spider webs of temporary success. They chose their subjects with careful precision, the most desperate malleable to the ruses. Cameras were strategically installed around and in between the menagerie of slot machines, roulette wheels, blackjack and poker tables. But the real cheaters, the employees themselves, were conveniently avoided in the visual fields to hide the subterfuge.
Clayton loved it all. The smoke-filled air; the tensely-charged atmosphere; the loud, glitzy laughter; the clinking ice in half-drained glasses—all meshed together under the ceiling-laden, crystal-dripping chandeliers. In his saner moments, he recognized he had a gambling problem. He even abhorred himself for it. But these slices of reality were few, his better self taking a back seat in this vehicle of madness that drove his life.
He had decided that tonight would determine his destiny. He would leave victorious or become homeless. Having deserted his wife and three teenaged children (as surely as God had abandoned him, he reasoned) and the subsequent loss of his job had led him to this climatic impasse.
Shrugging off these dismal meanderings, Clayton focused on the winnings before him. His spirits lifted as he played on, snaking his way through the woods of tables. The blackjack and poker games, craps, baccarat, keno, slot machines; all were a means to an end as he approached the French roulette wheel for a culminating coup de grace. All his past, present and future was dependent on the next few hours as he threw caution to the wind, the wheel spinning in sync with Clayton’s glittering eyes, the ball sliding from red to black and black to red numbers until it landed in one or the other with a resounding plop. The odds were in his favor for this strategy if he waited long enough, his determination trumping all else.
As the roulette wheel rolled, Clayton turned over a Roll-A-Dex of memory photos with each ball bounce. First came a snapshot of his bride in all her white gossamer finery, smiling up into her groom’s face. Next flopped a photograph of their first newborn son, pride glistening from his daddy’s eyes like sun-kissed snowflakes. Unbidden, each pose flitted through his consciousness as the roulette wheel spun; until, as the ball finally landed, one picture stood frozen behind his eyes. He studied the mental image of his wife, their pajama-clad children gathered round her like a bevy of baby chicks as she read them a bedtime Bible story. It seemed a pleading accusation from his family, the memory blazoning an indelible print on his heart, burning itself on and through its thickened membranes like a steer’s branding. Simultaneously, a searing pain tore through his body, leaving him breathless. Clutching his chest, he collapsed before them all, these fellow gamblers who shared his passion of double-daring fate . . .
“Dad? Dad! Don’t give up! We’re all here for you!”
“Clay, it’s Margie. It’s all right. We forgive you. Please—don’t leave us.”
Behind the hazy curtain of comatose consciousness, their pleas penetrated while their prayers hammered the throne of God for mercy. He saw them, then, and their tearful countenances brought his addiction to its knees like nothing else could have . . .
“My name is Clayton. I am a gambler. I have been clean for 300 guilt-free days. I challenge you to allow God to release you from bondage and I will travel with you on the journey.
The men and women sitting around him in a circle had to care enough to jeopardize their false senses of security, he knew, and what it would take to bring them to that point was as individual as each star in the sky.
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