Nov/Dec 1999  •   Fiction

Stickman's Thing

by Christopher Watkins

Recently, he'd taken to carrying dice with him. Everywhere he went. See, he'd decided that was gonna be his thing. Where he was, man, you had to have a thing. You know... a thing, an identifier, a trick, a gimmick, a THING. Like the way Danny always had a toothpick in his mouth, or the way Guy only drank bourbon and sodas. Those were things. Or the way that Janie never wore nothin' but that wool cap all the time, and Pablo always bought Camel filters, then tore the filters off before he smoked them. Those were things too. To be a thing, it had to be the kinda thing where, if a really bad cartoonist did your caricature down at the wharf, or at the fair, and they included the thing in the picture, well, you'd know right away who the picture was of. Even if the rest of it was unrecognizable. So, he'd decided dice was gonna be his thing. Specifically, Craps.

The name just appealed to him right off the bat. Craps. It just sounded, well, crappy. Seedy. Dirty. Craps, that was gonna be his thing. The way he figured it, if ever two things were meant for one another, it was a guy like him, and a game like Craps. Plus, dice were tactile. You could fidget with them, do tricks with them, develop nervous habits with them. That was all good for a thing. Like Danny forever flippin' that toothpick around in his mouth, like a god-damn hamster wheel. Or that Guido fucker at the Lucky 13, always combin' his hair with that greasy black comb. A thing had to give ya somethin' to do with your hands. Havin' yer hands just danglin' all the time, well, it just made ya look like a big, dumb ape. And if ya kept 'em in yer pocket, you'd get the ol' "two balls in the side pocket" rap.

He'd always wanted to be a smoker, but he had bad lungs, ever since he was a kid. Every time he'd get a cold, just a regular one, you know, whatever was goin' 'round at the time, it'd always turn into bronchitis on him. He started smoking anyway, and colds would still turn into bronchitis. But then they'd also turn into walking pneumonia. So he finally quit, but really, it was only 'cause he was tryin' to date a girl who hated smoking. For six months after that, he was sicker than he'd ever been. He coughed up brown phlegm constantly. So cigarettes were out, despite all the good things you could do with them. Tearing the foil, turning the lucky smoke around, ripping the filters off, flicking yer lighter on yer jeans, snapping matches with yer thumb, tucking the pack into your T-shirt sleeve, all that good stuff was out for him. So he needed something else, something else to be his thing. That's why he took to carryin' the dice around.

Before he'd go to sleep, he'd lie there and conjure up images of himself, walkin' cool down the street, rollin' a sparkling silver and black pair of dice through his fingers, or doing a one-hand juggle with a mini red pair with the rounded corners while he waited for the bus, or just idly shaking an old-school black pair in his palm, while he talked to a girl with long, straight black hair, like an Indian, in a short red skirt and a big, puffy, black cotton oxford with flared sleeves, and a black leather belt cinched at the waist. He even imagined gettin' a pair of beautiful brass dice, with patina green dots, tattooed on his shoulder. Big ones, like those fuzzy dice in the seventies pimp cars.

Of course, at the time, he wasn't as cool as he was hoping he'd turn out, and he was also broke. So there was no way in God's unholy hell he was gonna learn the game at the tables. So he went to that great hallowed place where all poor folks go to learn. The library. The greatest scam in modern society. That was the way he figured it.

He had a rap he loved to give about the library. He gave it all the time, and sometimes, it was pretty funny. He liked to deliver it in a great big, loud, carny barker kinda way. Like W.C. Fields.

"It's the greatest deal around, the most under-appreciated, un-used, misunderstood game available. Get this, people, FREE BOOKS! That's right, free! Can ya believe it? You don't even have to do anything, you just go in there....and they give 'em to you! And when yer done with them, you don't have to carry 'em around, or put 'em in storage when ya move...ya just give 'em back! And then get some more! All you have to do is live somewhere, so you can give them an address. Nothin' else, no credit card, no deposit, nothin! No money down! Just an address. They just wanna know that their books are goin' to a NICE place, that they're actually going SOMEWHERE! And if ya can guarantee them that, just that, well, guess what?! FREE BOOKS! It's the greatest scam around. AND NO ONE DOES IT! The place is completely fucking EMPTY! Constantly! Step right up, and into the Library!"

So he went, and he checked out every book on Craps that he could find. The Basics of Casino Craps, How to Win at Craps, How to Cheat at Craps, Street Craps, Bank Craps, Military Craps, Craps for the Trans-Sexual Filipino in Exile, you name it, he checked it out. And read it. That was one thing he was really good at, reading. So he learned all about it, about the pass-line bet, the Big 6 and the Big 8, naturals, fading, and the stickman. That was a good nick-name, he figured. "Stickman." See, a really good thing wasn't just a thing. It also earned you a nickname. Danny the Pick. Cappie. Guido. Well, he liked the sound of "Stickman." He filed it away for future reference.

Some of the things about Craps he dug right away, took right to them. First, it had just been the name. Craps. Yeah.... Then there was being a Right Bettor or a Wrong Bettor. He dug that too. Basic. Right or wrong, no gray area. The books all said there was no "moral implication" to those names, they just signified a relationship to the dice, whether you were gonna bet with them, or against them. He didn't figure it that way though. Right meant right, wrong meant wrong, and he decided right off the bat to be right. A Right Bettor. Of course, there were some things he wasn't too keen on either. Like "betting on the come." That sounded kinda sexual to him, and it made him uncomfortable. Despite the fact that the books all recommended 'come' bets, he didn't figure on doing too many of those.

It was the language of the game he loved best, all the phrases. It was like a code, full of magic and innuendo, a secret language recognized by members only. He'd whisper things to himself while he walked, like "snake eyes!" or "baby needs new shoes!" or his personal favorite, "an eighter from Decatur!" He liked that one, 'cause Decatur sounded like just the sort of place where you'd go to play Craps. Yeah, places like Decatur, and Lincoln, and Metarie. He wasn't too keen on all the stuff about "Lady Luck" however. Based on what he knew about women, well, it just didn't set right with him to go countin' on one for yer luck. Not unless ya liked it bad.

The thing he didn't expect about Craps was all the math. Like the house percentage, the Vigorish. Sure, he'd figured that anyone running Craps, particularly a casino, would have to have a take. I mean, jesus, he wasn't stupid. How would they stay in business otherwise? But having to figure it on the fly, based on an ever-changing array of odds depending on yer bet, well, that was just plain intimidating. And irritating. But he liked one thing. The bit about it actually being worse odds to throw a successful pair of threes for six, then it was to throw a pair of twos for four. He liked it, 'cause it didn't seem possible, yet it was true, and he knew why. It made him feel special, like he was in on it, in on some transcendental sucker scam that only certain special people could benefit from. An insider. That was how he pictured himself, not as a Casino gambler, but a street hustler, riding the doubles scam to glory. He could see himself leanin' across a booth table in a bar, reeling in the sucker across from him.

"So listen buddy, five dollars says you'll roll double four before ya roll double six, and I'll give you six to one odds!"

"But the point's five!?"

"Side bet buddy, side bet. Six to one. Six to one four comes up the hardway before the six does. Point leaves the bet working, Craps kills it."

"Six to one? Let me get this straight. If I roll double four, I gotta give you five skins, but if I roll the double six, you'll give me thirty?"

"That's right buddy, it's a 50-50 chance, but I'm givin' ya six to one protection!"

And of course, that double four would always come up first, even when the guy would get pissed off and go get his own dice. Of course sometimes, it was the deadly seven that would show, the center of the Craps universe. But mainly, he loved that double four. He'd fall asleep countin' double fours, just watchin' those glowing dice sprawling and tumbling across some gorgeous expanse of green felt, over and over and over. Memorizing to himself just why it worked that way. He'd memorize it by imagining himself tellin' the secret to the girl, the one with the hair and the belt.

"See, you can throw a four three ways, 1-3, 3-1, and 2-2. That's one way to double, two to strike out. Plus, the seven, the Crap, can be thrown six ways, so that's a total of eight ways to lose. But the six, the six can be thrown five ways, 1-5, 5-1, 2-5, 5-2, and 3-3. One way to win, four to lose, plus six ways to lose on the seven. A total of ten ways to lose. 8-1 odds on the four, 10-1 odds on the six. So, at 6-1 odds..."

And she'd look at him wide-eyed, and ask him to show her, and he'd roll for hours while she counted, and he always came out ahead. Without exception, that was the part when he would fall asleep. It was always during the part where he was rolling, and she was watching.

So he started carrying the dice everywhere, rattlin' them, jinglin' them, even tossin' them occasionally, but never in a game. He wasn't ready for that yet. He practiced at home, on a hand-made Craps felt he'd put together with green construction paper and a Sharpie. He learned how to bet pass-line, drop free odds on the point, even got used to the come bet. Then, he started going out to bars, but new ones, ones he wasn't known in. He'd play pool only, and sign up his name as 'Stickman,' or, if it was quarters on the rail, he'd introduce himself as 'Stickman' when his game came up. Then, when he was off table, he'd sit at a booth nearby, with a Bud and a whiskey shot, and he'd absent-mindedly (or at least seemingly absent-mindedly) roll the dice around the table, as if he wasn't paying any attention. Like it was just a habit. Maybe even a nervous habit.

He settled in nicely at one particular bar, called Harry's Too. He liked it, 'cause the regular bartender was cut from the old cloth. He never did anything extraordinary, but he was on target all the time. One of those "Hey Stickman, the same?" kinda bartenders. He really liked that, bein' called Stickman, and havin' a 'same.' Ron was the bartender's name. Middle age guy, glasses, and always dressed in Marlboro clothes, the kind you win by sending in proof-of-purchase tabs off the cigarette boxes. When he went down to Harry's, he'd order his Bud and whiskey, settle into his booth, play his bits of pool, and get into the dice rolling routine.

It was two Latino guys who finally caught it. And they caught it good, far as he was concerned.

"Hey maign, what choo got 'dem dice for?"

"Nothin'" (cool)

"Maign, how 'bout you play us for a pitcher?"

"I don't play pool for money, see?" (again, cool)

"Pool? Nooooo maign! 'Dem dice, holmes!"

"The bones?" (brrrrrr)

"Bones? Maign, joo wanna shoot some dice or what?"


"Yeah, yeah awright. Let's shoot."

So it was on, out in the alley, just like he'd dreamed it. They wanted to play quarter minimum, dollar max, which was cool with him, though he acted like it was just a bit small-time. You know, just kinda gave a good snort when one of them called it. But it suited his budget just right. He liked to play at having champagne tastes, but his was strictly a Ripple cash flow.

They had no dice on them, so they used his.

"Yo holmes, this shit better not be crooked! I'll fuck your ass maign, shit BETTER not be crooked!"

The first guy put up 50 cents, and his friend faded him. He checked 50 in as well, and the shooter met him.

"Six five! Natch'l!"

It took exactly 37 minutes before Stickman, the great bone roller, had lost all of his 50 bucks. Somehow, it just hadn't gotten through to him that a corner game wouldn't have any come bets, no pass-lines, no free odds. It was just call a bet, roll, and make or forsake cash money. And the bets came out of those guys mouths too fast for him to keep up with whether or not he was gettin' good odds, whether he had a good or bad percentage, whether it was even his fucking turn. By the end of it, he was just muttering one word under his breath, incessantly.

"Vigorish. Vigorish, vigorish, vigorish..."

"Maign, what da fuck is yo deal, holmes? What the fuck joo want wid lickerish?

"Holmes, if you need a stick to lick...Hah hah!"

He'd been given every sucker bet in the book. The two-roll bets, the even money field bet, even the hardway bet. And he fell for every one. When he went to sleep that night, he had about a thousand dreams, and not one of them had dice in it, but in every one, he'd be posted up somewhere, some scene where there were lots of people standing around looking at him, and in the front of every group there was a girl with long black hair, laughing louder than the rest of them. In one dream, he was in front of a building that had been gutted by a fire, and he was standing facing all the people in their nightclothes who'd been evicted into the night. She was among them, laughing, and turning her head to look into other people's faces until they caught her enthusiastic mirth and started laughing too. In another, he was on the sidelines of a playing field, looking up into the stands, where, amidst a full crowd of smiling, laughing, cheering people, stood the girl, who was looking not at the field, but at him, and laughing louder than the rest, her long black hair whisking 'round her face like a horse's mane.

He woke up, and got dressed slowly. He was gonna go out to the cliffs that afternoon, and throw his dice off the edge and into the ocean. That had been the last dream. He'd been down on the beach, looking up into the bushes that layered the slopes. In the dark patches between their branches, he could see the couples, naked and laughing, with wine bottles, and pocket knives, and swimsuits hanging on the limbs. And he'd seen her, gazing out and down at him, with someone else's hand 'round her belly coming from behind her, from deeper in the bush. And as he looked at her up there, from his spot down on the beach, he saw a translucent pair of red dice come flying off over the highest edge of the cliff, over which he couldn't see. The dice sailed, and grew larger as they passed over his head. He turned just in time to see them crash into the ocean and sink beneath an umbrella of spray, leaving a rainbow arc of brilliant red in the sky above him. He was gonna throw his dice off the cliffs that afternoon, but not before one specific journey. One journey with two stops.

He went down to the wharf, and found the caricaturist out on the ferry dock pier, with his giant pad, and a lawn umbrella over his stool. He had to wait nearly 40 minutes for a family with three kids to get done, and each time a picture was finished, he had to verbally confirm for them that it looked just like them, only funnier. But finally it was his turn. He had the guy draw him tossing two brass dice with patina green dots, and had him sign it "Stickman" in big, flowy cursive. Then, with his caricature rolled under his arm, he ascended up into the shops, till he found the one he was looking for, some two miles west down the coast, into the marina. It was a 'Jokes, Magic, and Novelties' shop. He bought a yo-yo. He figured that was gonna be his thing. Where he was, man, you had to have a thing.