At the Toucan
The methodic beat of rubber on pavement echoed down the slanting corridor of forgotten buildings.
Josh Cramer stood from his seat and leaned over the handlebars. He pedaled harder, pushed down on the handles and popped off a shallow pit of sunken asphalt. For a brief moment, he was weightless, beaming the carefree smile of a 12-year-old boy who had escaped the classroom for a day, and then his Trekton punched back into the street, compressing its front shocks and sending a tingling bolt up Josh’s arms.
It was late September in Sage Springs, Nevada, and the air was sweet. Sweeter out here than in the halls of Huffington Middle, at least. It wasn’t that he hated school so much that he hated wasting days like these even more. Seasons did not relinquish their grasp on the high desert of the Eastern Sierra easily and today was one of those hallowed in-between days, a magical window between the dry, brown heat of summer and the crisp, still winds of autumn to come.
So, he raised his hand, faked sick and snuck off to beat the streets under a sky both bruised and clear, depending on where you looked. His first thought was to pedal over to the skatepark, but that was too much of a gamble. His mother often drove Mayberry Road and it only took one canceled hair appointment for her to leave work early. Then he’d get The Speech, delivered in harsh, rote tones that always faded into grumbled mutterings about a father he’d never met. No, the skatepark wasn’t a smart bet.
The river was tempting, always, but the bite of fall was already in the air. Too cold. There were the foothills that dotted the brush-strewn landscape beside the train tracks, but that would be a long ride. Too far. On a day like today, there was really only one option for a truant boy seeking a bit of adventure: Old Town.
That’s what the adults called it anyway, but to Josh and his cohort, the ramshackle boulevard of abandoned casinos wasn’t just old, it was prehistoric. They had given it a different name, Dinosaur City, and spoke of that strip of collapsing buildings with the hushed reverence of a conquistador explaining El Dorado. It lay on the southeastern outskirts of Sage Springs, where the dust of the desert was thicker and no kid dared venture. Until now.
Josh hopped another curb, shocks popping, and looked around the deserted street. In its heyday, Old Town was a stretch of blinking neon packed to bursting with would-be card sharps out to make a quick fortune from the roll of a die or the turn of a wheel. It was the foundation upon which Sage Springs was built, in those halcyon days of the mid-twentieth century when Vegas had not yet staked its claim on the vices of the world and any one of the casino outposts that dotted the Nevada desert had a fair shot of becoming the new mecca for high-rollers and cheapjack gamblers alike. But, as all who bet too free and loose eventually learn, Sage Springs’ luck couldn’t last forever. The stream of openhanded patrons dried up, migrating south to the extravagant oasis being erected in the Mojave. The casinos of Old Town collapsed, one by one, over the years, until all that was left of the once magnificent line of gambling parlors was moth-eaten felt and shattered glass, the crumbling bones that would eventually become Dinosaur City.
Something caught Josh’s eye.
Across the broken expanse of uneven pavement, the remnants of an old casino loomed into the graying swell of clouds overhead. Above its boarded doors was a crooked line of molded letters, dotted with empty sockets where once colorful lights shone. Only four of the original letters now remained, askew and rusted, to read “U C A N” above the sealed entrance.
The Toucan. Josh knew it. His father had worked there, in the throes of Old Town’s final days, just before Josh was born. So his mother told him, anyway, when she cared to speak of his father at all. Josh liked to imagine his father, dressed in a black suit, pacing the casino floor and monitoring the tables, but he had heard his mother once, talking with his aunt Beth at the table when they thought he had gone to his room, use the word “degenerate” in reference to this man he had never met. The venom with which she spat out that word still made Josh’s skin crawl.
The blink came again. He saw it this time, undeniable. One of the lights, a single bulb, remained set in the center of the towering “C” above the Toucan’s doors. It hadn’t burnt out. That seemed impossible to Josh, but there it was.
Josh pulled up to the opposite curb. The “C” blinked out above. Josh stared at it. A breeze whistled by. The rest of the street remained dark and vacant, doors and windows shuttered against the outside world for years. He was alone. That is why he’d come here, wasn’t it?
The sound of a coin dropping. It had come from behind the shut-up doors of the Toucan. Josh’s brow furrowed. That wasn’t possible, even less so than the blinking light above, but he had heard it. He approached the boarded doors of the Toucan with cautious half-steps.
It was open.
Had it always been? That wasn’t right. The boards were slanted casually against the doorframe, not nailed in. Along its creases, Josh could see a light from within. He should leave, go home. It didn’t matter if his mother was home, that was a safer bet. But he didn’t take it. He moved forward. Inched the boards away with his fingers.
And entered the Toucan.
The room was vacant — of course it was — and the smell of mold sat heavily upon it. Broken glass littered the floor, which was itself a patchwork of torn carpet and bare, stained concrete. The hall was expansive, stretching out from dark corners where shadows pooled. Decaying chandeliers still clung like bats to its high ceiling. There was no light, save what little came through the doorway and dared not venture farther in. Josh knew he shouldn’t either. He should go home. Instead, he took another step.
Again, that impossible sound. There was nothing in this empty room to make it. No, not here. Farther in. Across the hall.
A door creaked open, spilling a line of warm light onto the desiccated carpet. It reached out, long and narrow, to lick at Josh’s sneaker. Beckoning . . .
“What are you doing here?”
The voice was gruff and came on so suddenly that Josh nearly choked on his own breath. A dark shape filled up the doorway across the hall. “Hey,” it said, “I’m talking to you.”
Josh struggled for purchase of his vocal cords. He was unsuccessful. “Uh,” he stammered.
A man stepped out through the door. He was tall and thin, with shoulders that made a straight bridge beneath a slender neck. “Shouldn’t you be in school?” the man asked.
“We’re off today.” The lie came quick to Josh’s lips. He didn’t know why, he didn’t owe this man any explanation.
“That so?” said the man. “And you figured you’d spend your vacation down here at the Toucan, is that it?”
Josh raised his hands and took a step back toward the door. “I’m, uh, sorry. I shouldn’t have broken in here,” said Josh, letting the words float into the musty air as an invisible barrier between himself and the man in shadows.
“Wait,” said the man, “you don’t wanna leave without this, do you?” The man’s hand disappeared around the edge of the doorway then returned a moment later, pushing the outline of a bicycle.
“Hey!” Josh shouted, surging forward instinctively. “That’s my bike!”
The man’s face was still obscured in darkness, but Josh could feel him smiling. “Is it?” he asked. “You got a pink slip on you?”
“That’s my bike!” Josh repeated, yelling.
“Well, how ‘bout we call the cops and have them sort this out?”
Josh froze. The man laughed, a hearty sound, like logs popping in a fire. “Didn’t think so,” he said.
“Give it back,” hissed Josh. He had closed a considerable distance between himself and the shadowman without realizing it.
“That ain’t how it works, kid. It belongs to the House now. You gotta win it back.” And with that, the man gave a curt turn of his shoulders and disappeared again through the doorway, pushing the Trekton along with him and leaving Josh alone in the Toucan’s abandoned parlor.
He pushed the door open and stepped through, following the man.
The light was intense, glimmering from a trio of crystal chandeliers dangling from a mirrored ceiling. The walls were covered in a scalloped, ornately painted paper which matched the burgundy and gold pattern of the carpet, as if the floor was clamoring up the sides of the room. Tables for Blackjack, Craps and other games of chance were scattered throughout. Behind one such table, situated in the middle of the room, was the man who had stolen his bike.
Josh had a clearer view of him now. He was younger than Josh expected, though he was dressed in a vintage suit. His face was beardless, black hair pushed to the sides of his cheeks. He was familiar, but Josh couldn’t say why.
“I want my bike back.”
The man smiled and fanned a palm out over the table. There was a roulette wheel placed atop the painted felt. “Well, I guess you’re playing then.”
“I - I don’t know how. Just give me back my bike, okay?”
“Didn’t your daddy teach you roulette?”
Josh ignored him. “Give me my bike,” he said, hoping it sounded more declarative than pleading.
The man twisted his hand with a flourish. Between his thumb and forefinger, a small, polished ball appeared. Slowly, making sure that Josh was following, the man brought the ball down to the wheel, placed it against the sidewall and then sent it spinning around the rim with a flick of his finger. Round and round it went, a white streak, until it slowed, bounced and toppled finally to a rest in a little trough between two metal brackets.
“Six, black,” announced the man. He looked up at Josh. “Now, if you would’ve placed a bet here,” he motioned to the board painted onto the table’s surface, fingers tapping a black square, then moved his hand to hover over the number, “or here, you’d have your bike back. Easy enough?”
Josh was surprised to find himself leaning against the table. He had no memory of approaching it. “I don’t have anything to bet,” he said absently. The felt was soft beneath his fingers.
The man laughed again, drawing Josh’s attention. He looked even more familiar now. “There’s always something to wager.” His hand disappeared into the pocket of his vintage suit. When it returned, there was a silver coin in it. “Here,” he said, tossing it across the table to Josh where it landed with a plink. “Place your bet.”
Josh stared down at the coin. The head of a winking toucan was stamped into its silver face. “If I win,” Josh began, “you’ll give me back my bike and I can leave?” The man nodded. “Okay, but what if . . .,” he trailed off. Why was this man so familiar?
“Doesn’t do you much good to start off already thinking of losing, kid. But, I’ll tell you what,” the man set the ball back on the rim of the roulette wheel, “if you don’t win, you can still keep the coin. How’s that for a deal?”
Josh squinted up at the tall man, who flashed that same insouciant grin. It was a good deal, Josh admitted. He palmed the coin, which was cool as ice against his skin. “Fine,” he said, sliding his hand across the table. “Bet.”
Josh peeled his fingers back from the coin, revealing its position. The toucan winked up at him, the painted edges of a “1” and “9” peeked out from beneath it.
“Nineteen it is,” said the man and then kicked the ball into motion. Josh watched it scream around the rim of the wheel. He didn’t breathe. Forever, it seemed to hug the curved edge, teasing him. Josh felt his knees go rigid. His back ached, arms tensed. The ball slowed, fell, danced across the numbers and brackets.
Josh closed his eyes. He didn’t want to look.
“Well, how about that.”
Josh peeled back his eyelids, one by one, to find the man grinning down at the wheel.
The ball rested on 19.
“Oh my God!” Josh cried, hopping back from the table. His heart was pounding. The entire room seemed to be humming with energy.
“Very good,” said the man, still smiling. He pushed the bike to the side of the table. “A bet’s a bet.”
“That’s right it is,” said Josh as he snatched up the handlebars and pulled the Trekton to his side. Elated, high on victory, he lifted his chin and showed the man his back as he made his way out of the room. He left the coin on the table.
“Why that number?”
Josh stopped. The truth was he didn’t know why that number had popped into his head, even if he did know its significance. It had come unbidden, as if someone else had guided his hand to it.
Josh turned back to the man. “January ninth,” he said. “My father’s birthday. He – he used to work here, I guess.”
“That’s something,” said the man, chuckling a bit. “That’s my birthday, too.” Josh shrugged, unsure of a response. “Lucky number, I suppose,” the man added with a little shrug of his own. “You should let that ride.”
“No, that’s alright,” said Josh, moving back to the door.
“You can keep your bike. This one’s on the House.” The man laughed loudly as he spread his thin arms wide. “Just don’t tell anybody.”
The room was empty but for the two of them, yet the air felt electric. Josh’s hand gripped the door. It was dark outside of this room and growing darker. And cold. He knew he should leave.
An unfamiliar compulsion tugged at Josh’s gut. There was a smell of cigar smoke and sweet champagne in the air. He heard music and laughter that wasn’t there. How? He didn’t care. It was intoxicating.
He was at the table. There were patrons at the other tables around him, dressed in suits and long gowns. They cackled and cursed at their cards and dice. Where did they come from?
The man held up the ball as Josh climbed into a seat across from him. “Place your bet,” said the man and Josh realized then what was so familiar about him. He looked just like Josh. Older, taller, broader, but still — it was like looking into the future.
Or the past.
Josh tapped his fingers atop the winking Toucan, still resting on “19.” The man nodded and then the ball was spinning.
“Your father worked here?” a voice asked him. It could have been the man, Josh didn’t know. He could not pull his eyes from the wheel.
“I guess,” he answered, barely listening. “I never met him. My mom said he pretty much lived down here.”
“I think she’s right about that.” Josh didn’t care. Only the ball mattered.
It slowed. It bounced.
Josh’s lungs were full, his throat dry and tight.
The ball came to a rest. Josh read a “9” above it, but the color was wrong.
Everything was wrong.
The room was dark. The smell of smoke and champagne turned sour. The tables were splintered, stood on moldy, broken legs. Rats gnawed at their felt tops. The chandeliers were picked clean of their crystals, lights extinguished. The ceiling glass was shattered in a million places.
“Twenty-nine, black,” said that gruff voice and now Josh looked up.
The man was there, but he was no longer a man. Flesh, rotten and gray, hung from hollow cheeks in ribbons. One clouded eye stared down at Josh from a sunken socket. The suit it wore was slashed, exposing more decayed flesh beneath which crawled with fat, pale millipedes.
“Tough luck, kid,” it said in a hot gust of carrion breath. “But, don’t worry, a bet’s a bet. You can keep the coin. It’s yours now.” A melting hand reached across the table, clutched Josh’s wrist and moved it over the winking, silver face of the toucan. “Unfortunately, it has to stay in here.”
Josh moved his mouth to scream again, but nothing came. He couldn’t feel his legs. The corpse that was a man stood and pushed itself from the table. Josh watched it walk to the door. He tried to stand, to follow, but everything was numb, like he was mired in honey. It stopped and turned to him. The face of the man was back upon it, that face which looked so much like his own.
“Better luck next time, kid,” it said. “Never stop chasing it.”
It vanished into darkness. The door snipped shut behind it.
The silver burned hot as embers beneath Josh’s palm.
Outside, thunder boomed as autumn finally descended on Sage Springs, but Josh never heard it.