It was Vic’s deal. As usual, Dougie sat to his right at the hexagonal poker table. Vic shuffled the deck of cards, set the cards on the green felt tabletop next to Dougie, and announced to the five men seated around the table, “Seven card stud, low in the hole is wild.” Then to Dougie who had shown up to the poker game semi-drunk and appeared distracted, he barked, “Cut the cards, for Chrissake!” Dougie flinched and then he sheepishly lifted a few cards from the top of the squared-up deck. Vic slapped the taller stack of cards atop the shorter and commenced dealing: two cards face down and one card face up to each player. A man with a bad 70s porn-star moustache and unruly eyebrows received an ace; he bet first, plucking a few chips from his formidable stack and tossing them into the center of the table. Without peering at his other cards he said flatly with a straight face, “Fifty blind on the bullet.” The next two guys folded. Although Dougie held a garbage hand, he saw the bet, as did Vic who had a nine showing and a pair of threes face down – the “hole” in the parlance of stud poker. Vic dealt another card to the remaining players, providing colorful narration along the way.

“A trey to Ray . . . a king to Eyebrow . . . my nine of clubs to Dougie . . . Dealer gets a fuckin’ jack-off.” Vic deferred to the man he called “Eyebrow.” “Ace-king bets.”

Pushing $100 in chips past an ashtray full of butts to the center of the table, Eyebrow announced, “Ace-king bets a buck.” This time Dougie folded. Without looking at Dougie, Vic addressed him sarcastically, “Couldn’t fold last time, could you asshole?” Dougie frowned and looked down at his hands like a dejected child. It hurt to be called an “asshole” by Vic in front of the others.

Vic Schuyler was the big man of the neighborhood, a tough punk who had grown up to become a fearsome financer of other peoples’ vices and a connoisseur of activities on the border of illegality and immorality: gambling, racketeering, money laundering, fencing of stolen goods and chasing pussy, sometimes paying for it, sometimes not. A nasty bully in school, Vic dropped out at 16 and spent a couple years in juvenile detention. Upon release at age 18 and seeing no future in petty crime, he hooked up with an aging gangster, determined to learn the art of loan-sharking and the craft of persuasive intimidation. During his apprenticeship Vic refined his image, upgrading his wardrobe, controlling his temper, and governing his impetuousness. Vic’s business paid him handsome dividends, affording him a fine German-crafted automobile and a spacious co-op in a desirable section in the Gramercy Park district of Manhattan. He cultivated a respectable, dedicated clientele for his usurious loans and illegal gambling operations – quiet, docile, mostly unlucky men who faithfully adhered to the terms and conditions, requiring minimal intervention from Vic. For those occasional fools who allowed debts to languish or tried to leave behind an outstanding balance Vic inflicted cruel and effective punishment. Around the neighborhood, behind his back, Vic Schuyler was unaffectionately known as “Vic the Prick.”

Dougie liked to think of himself as Vic’s pal, fortunate to be favored by such an influential, powerful player – even if the man had duly earned the appellation “Prick.” He became an associate of Vic’s in high school after Vic agreed to protect the fragile, defenseless teen in return for cash payments and bottles of prescription painkillers he stole from his grandmother’s medicine chest. Now, 25 years later Dougie accompanied Vic everywhere, and although he couldn’t honestly call himself one of Vic’s confidantes, he faithfully did the man’s bidding, never asking questions, never complaining, and never, ever challenging Vic’s oft-demented demands. To an outsider Dougie was a simple stooge, an errand-running gofer beholden to his hard-hearted master; but in Dougie’s mind he was a privileged member of Vic’s inner circle, invulnerable to the evil forces that would otherwise threaten him absent Vic’s protective wing.

The gamblers at the poker table threw chips and bills into the pot. Out of the hand, Dougie poked a finger into his ear, rotated it like a post-hole digger, examined the orange wax under his fingernail, and surreptitiously wiped the greasy mass onto the underside of the table. He grabbed his cash from the table, stuffed it in his shirt pocket and said, “Deal me out for a while. I’m gonna go outside . . . get some air . . . take a piss.” No one seemed to notice or care that Dougie had left.

Vic announced, “Last one down,” as he flicked a card across the table. He took one for himself. It was a showdown now – everyone else had folded – between Vic and the man with the feral eyebrows. Vic couldn’t help noticing how the two eyebrows had grown toward each other, relentlessly converging above the bridge of the man’s nose like opposing armies, forming a single, uninterrupted swath of wiry hair. It bore a remarkable resemblance to the thin, cheesy moustache spread across his upper lip.

“Just you and me, Eyebrow.”

Eyebrow studied his cards which he held close to his face just below his stubbly chin. Then he calmly put the cards down and replied with a touch of irritation as he moved two large stacks of chips, one with each flabby hand, “Five hundred. And stop calling me ‘Eyebrow.’”

“Whoa! Check out big-dick Harry Reems here, tryin’ to buy the pot.” Ray and the others laughed as they did dutifully at his every wry comment and attempt at humor. “OK, Mr. Harry Eyebrow – your five and another thou.” Vic tossed in a couple of fancy chips representing high-value denominations and then sat back arrogantly. Eyebrow picked up his hole cards and brought them back to his bosom for another look. Did this mean his hand was weak, unmemorable? Was it a ploy to hide strength by conveying weakness? Either way, Vic didn’t seem to care. He tilted his chair back on its hind legs and interlaced his fingers behind his head.

Finally, Eyebrow acted. Sliding another tall stack of chips toward the center of the table where it tipped over into the huge pot, he said, “I really should raise your ass, Vic, but I’ll just call.” He revealed his hand: three aces and a wild card. “Four aces.”

“Goddamnit!” cried Vic. After Dougie received the nine of clubs, Vic dealt himself a jack and a three, and for his final down card, another jack. On the board, he showed a nine, ten, jack and a three – hardly intimidating. So when he produced two jacks and three wild cards, Eyebrow was flabbergasted.

Vic feigned ignorance. “I can never remember – does five jacks beat four aces?”

“Nice hand, Vic. A real sleeper,” remarked Ray, a tough-looking, cauliflower-eared Kraut sitting to Vic’s left. Ray was one of Vic’s close associates, an asset Vic called upon when he needed muscle for particularly dirty deeds.

Eyebrow fumbled with his cards for a moment, hoping to assemble an unseen superior hand using the lone wild card with a different combination of cards. Vic reached for the pot. Before he swept in the chips, he asked, “We good?”

Shaking his head in amazement at his crushing defeat, Eyebrow sullenly surrendered. “Yeah, take it. Shit, a mere four aces is all I can conjure up. Next time, be good enough to give me some Vaseline.” Vic and the others laughed. Ray collected the cards, gave them a cursory shuffling and dealt a new hand.

Thirty-five minutes went by and it was now Dougie’s turn to deal. It was only then that Vic remarked, “Where the hell did Dougie go? He’s been gone a long time.” Carl, the player sitting to Eyebrow’s left offered an explanation, “Maybe he went lookin’ for soul food and a place to eat.”

As Eyebrow imitated the “do-do-do’s” of the colored girls on Lou Reed’s decadent “Walk on the Wild Side,” Vic barked, “What the fuck does that mean?” Ray piped up that perhaps Dougie had decided to call it an evening. “He looked sick if you ask me.”

Vic replied, “Nah, he wouldn’t leave before me.” Then, sounding like an irked parent, he added, “Go outside and see what the fuck he’s doin’, Ray. Tell him it’s his fuckin’ turn to deal, but only if he promises not to play one of his moronic games with 14 wild cards.” Ray stood up and walked outside into the brisk winter air. The chill was crisp and bracing. He pulled his jacket close and muttered under his visible breath, “Got to be in the teens.” In the feeble light of the alley, Ray barely made out what appeared to be a body lying on the ground. He bent over to inspect it and then rushed back inside. “Get out here! Something’s wrong with Dougie! He’s lying on the ground and blood’s comin’ outta his mouth!” The men seated around the table quickly jumped up in unison and rushed outside. When Vic saw his sidekick writhing on the pavement, bleeding and convulsing, he ordered Ray to call an ambulance. No one knew what to do so they just stood there, rubbing their hands for warmth and gawking at the prone Dougie; when he glurped up a large dollop of gruel-like vomit, the queasier among them averted their eyes and fought the onset of sympathetic nausea. Unknown to the bunch, Dougie, having earlier imbibed too many whiskeys on an empty stomach, zigzagged toward the exit intending to relieve his bloated bladder in the alley outside the building, and on his way out, stumbled, striking his head on the door jamb. He wobbled onto the pavement and fell flat on his face. Because he had thrust his hands into his pockets against the frosty chill he was unable to break his fall, receiving a direct blow to the jaw.

The ambulance arrived within minutes of Ray’s 911 call but it took another five for the driver to back around the dumpsters obstructing access in the narrow alleyway. As the EMTs loaded Dougie’s limp body onto a gurney the diesel fumes from the idling vehicle poured into the room where a few hard-core players, no longer captivated by the action outside, resumed playing cards. As he dealt cards to a couple other players Eyebrow called to Vic who remained outside with Dougie, “Shut the fucking door Vic, or they’ll have to take all of us to the hospital for carbon monoxide poisoning.”

“Shut it yourself, ya lazy bastard!” Vic jogged out the alley to the street where columns of steam churned up from fractured pipes far below the asphalt surface. He climbed into his black Mercedes 500 SEL and trailed the ambulance as it bolted through red lights and screeched around corners, blasting an earsplitting shock wave at any pedestrian who cavalierly stepped into the crosswalk. Just as the ambulance shuddered to a stop in front of the emergency room entrance a doctor and two nurses who had been notified of its imminent arrival began attending to Dougie. They hurriedly rolled the gurney through the automatic doors and down a brightly lit corridor.

“Can he hear me?” asked Vic?

“Does it look like he can hear you?” responded the doctor in a tone that was neither jocular nor sarcastic.

As the gurney passed the elderly rent-a-cop and approached the ER, Vic was interdicted by a robust Latina receptionist who put up both her hands like a football referee indicating interference. “Sir, you can’t go in the ER now. Please come with me. I’ll take you to the waiting room. You’ll be notified when you can go in.” Vic glanced through a portal window in the door leading to the ER and saw a nurse pull a curtain around Dougie. Then he turned his attention back to the receptionist who had started walking down the corridor.

“Listen, I’m his close friend. I gotta be in there with him.”

Ignoring his entreaty she summoned Vic, “Come this way, sir.” Vic made a half-hearted attempt to assert his authority to gain access but he quickly relented, realizing that like the Wicked Witch of the West in Munchkinland he wielded no power in the ER. The hierarchy there trumped any threats he could muster on the basis of his street credibility. Resigned to waiting alone for God knows how long, Vic slumped into an uncomfortable, plastic, stackable chair and grabbed an old Sports Illustrated magazine off the side table. He didn’t notice that a uniformed police officer eyed him suspiciously.

After an hour the doctor peered into the waiting room. “Mr. Schuyler? You can see your friend now.” The two men walked together toward the corner of the ER where Dougie, now conscious, sat propped up bare-chested against some pillows on the gurney, his chin bandaged and both eyes completely bloodshot. Along the way the doctor summarized the situation. “Your friend suffered a pretty nasty blow to his face. He has a concussion and he chipped two teeth, but miraculously his jaw is unbroken. His throat is irritated from all the vomiting and he’ll have a terrific headache tomorrow but I’m pretty sure he’ll be able to leave here in a couple of hours. I don’t recommend that he drive, however. I’ll write him a script for some pain killers.”

“Thanks, doc.”

Just before the two men arrived at the foot of the gurney the doctor stopped abruptly and stepped up close to Vic, addressing him in a whisper. “The police want to talk to you. They suspect that your friend was beaten up. When he first regained consciousness he was still groggy; he kept asking ‘where’s my money?’ I just wanted you to know that.” Vic cracked his knuckles and wagged his head as if to suggest, “Where do these cops get their crazy ideas?”

“Thanks again, doc . . . Hey, Dougie-boy! How’s the head? That’ll teach ya for takin’ my nine of clubs.” An officer who was nonchalantly pacing around nearby glanced over at Vic. A card game? Vic continued, “The doc here says you can go home soon. He checked your head and told me there’s nothing in there. Haw haw.” The doctor and nurse rolled their eyes – it was perhaps the millionth time they had heard a variation of that lame wisecrack. Dougie struggled to smile, then winced in pain. He croaked hoarsely, “Where’s my shirt?” It was only then that Vic noticed his friend was naked from the waist up. Before anyone could answer, the policeman walked up and directed a question to Vic. “Sir, do you have a moment?”

“Uh, sure, of course. Anything for you, officer.” Do I have another choice? Vic placed a cigarette between his lips and snapped his lighter, catching himself at the last minute. “Forgot.”

“Please come with me to the waiting room.” Vic accompanied the cop out of the ER where he pledged in no uncertain terms that Dougie had truly fallen down on the cold pavement after imbibing a bit too much. No one rolled him, honest officer. I’m his best friend. Ask him, why don’cha? While Vic made his case to the cop, the nurse explained to Dougie that the ER staff had had to cut off his shirt so they could inspect for the presence of other wounds. “There was so much blood on your shirt that we initially thought you had been stabbed in the chest. It’s in the medical waste bin now.”

“Jee . . . fuck! . . . Jesus.” Dougie winced again, and gently stroked his jaw. He spoke gingerly to minimize mandibular movement. “No kidding? That bad, huh? I must look like a goddamn mess.” The nurse smiled and said nothing. Just then a man clutching his chest accompanied by his frantic wife stumbled through the automatic doors into the ER. “Get some rest, sir. Looks like I’ve got a cardiac to attend to.” The nurse bolted. Seconds later, from the other side of the curtain, Dougie heard the pained heaves and grunts of the heart attack victim overlaid by the screams of his wife, all intermixed with the sounds of pandemonium: orders barked, equipment wheeled in, bed rails snapped into place, beeps and squeals of electronic monitoring instruments. The obvious gravity of the situation tempered Dougie’s self-pity. He stroked his jaw some more and tried to stand, but the dizziness was still too debilitating. He fell back onto the gurney; fearing he might throw up and sully his fresh bandages. He closed his eyes and breathed slowly and rhythmically like he imagined pregnant women did in Lamaze class. Exhausted and not yet sober, Dougie was on the verge of nodding off when he sensed someone had entered his space. He cracked an eye and spotted a saucy girl with long, braided, Belgian-chocolate hair bending over a waste basket; the skirt of her greenish uniform was hiked above the backs of her knees revealing a tasty portion of her toned, olive-skinned legs. As she reached for something on the floor, her shapely ass waggled oh so seductively. Dougie called out, “Whatcha looking for, nursie?”

Startled, for she believed Dougie to be asleep or unconscious, the girl spun around and responded, “Pardon me . . . I’m not a nurse, sir.” She adjusted the hem of her skirt downward when she noticed Dougie leering at her legs. “I’m with the hospital’s environmental services department.” Whenever she introduced herself this way to people, they tended to stare back blankly, stumped apparently by the ambiguity of the job description. Dougie was no exception, so she clarified, “I’m a janitor.”

“Well, nice to meet you, Miss Janitor.”

“Maddie. My name is Maddie. Nice to meet you . . .”

“Dougie. I’m Dougie. Say, could you help me? I’m looking for my shirt. The nurse told me they cut it off and threw it into the medical waste bin. Do you think you could get it back for me?”

Maddie answered hesitantly, “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think so.” She wrinkled her nose to emphasize the repulsiveness of it in the hope that Dougie would withdraw the request. “Why do you want it anyway? The hospital will give you a clean tee shirt before you leave.”

“Will it have $600 in the pocket?”

“What?”

Dougie explained, “I had $600 in the breast pocket of my shirt when they cut it off. Tell you what. I’ll give you 20 bucks if you can get it back for me.” Maddie remained visibly reluctant. Dougie pleaded, “C’mon Maddie. Fifty, then. I’d hate to have that much money thrown out along with some guy’s gall bladder.”

Choosing capitulation over confrontation Maddie sighed and walked out, bumping into Vic on his way back from the interrogation with the officer. Vic instinctively raised his arms and inadvertently copped a feel of her tits. His educated estimate: C-cup.

“Excuse me, sir,” said Maddie, who quickly hustled off.

Vic called back to her, “No need to apologize, doll. It’s all my fault.” Vic stared at Maddie, admiring her curvy figure which was strangely enhanced by the defining lines of her industrial uniform. He licked his lips. Damn, that’s sweet. He watched as she walked all the way out of the ER, and then he turned his attention back to Dougie.

“Fuckin’ cop thought I mighta beat your ass. You believe that?” Vic sounded flattered that the cop was inclined to blame him for Dougie’s injuries. “I told him anyone can see that I didn’t . . . ‘cause you look too damn good.” Vic swatted Dougie’s elevated knee. “How’s that?”

“Sounds familiar.”

“So, pal. How’re you feeling? Ready to get back to the game?”

Dougie grinned weakly, loathing the notion of returning to the poker table in his current condition. “I don’t know, Vic. Don’t you think the guys broke up by now? Anyway, all my money is in the garbage can.”

Before Vic could make a snide remark, Maddie returned wearing latex gloves and carrying a small trash bag containing a soiled green shirt and $600 in blood-stained bills. “I got your money from the waste bin, sir. Don’t tell anyone – I could lose my job.”

“You’re a sweetie, Maddie.” Dougie reached into the bag, peeled off a moist, pinkish $50 bill and handed it toward Maddie. Vic swatted Dougie’s arm, causing him to drop the money on the floor.

“Are you out of your fuckin’ mind? You make this beautiful girl rummage through the garbage for your ripped up shirt, and your reward for her is a bloody fifty? Do you want her to get hepatitis or e-coli or whatever disease you have?” Dougie just sat there dumbstruck, wounded by Vic’s thorough condemnation. He recognized that some of the put-down was calculated for theatrical effect, designed to impress Maddie, but on the heels of being labeled an “asshole” at the poker game, it only extended the pain. Vic bellowed, “And fifty? She risks her life and her job for you, and you only give her fifty? Seriously – what a cheap bastard you are, Dougie.” Vic reached into the pocket of his trim Zegna sport coat and pulled out a sizable roll of hundred-dollar bills, peeling off three and handing them to Maddie. She put up her hands in protest.

“I can’t accept that, sir.”

“Call me Vic . . . uh, Marty?”

“Maddie, sir.”

Vic snapped his fingers and tightened his lips like he had only barely muffed it. “You can’t accept it?” Vic peeled off two more bills. “Can you accept this, doll?” From the way Vic cocked his head ever-so-slightly and raised one insistent eyebrow Maddie concluded it was probably best to take the money. By her reckoning Vic had made an offer she couldn’t refuse.

“You’re really too kind, Vic.” Maddie smiled broadly, showing off her sparking teeth. And even though she wore no lipstick to work, at that moment she looked like a Cover Girl model. She tucked the crisp, clean bills into her bra, secured within the tight confines of her cleavage. Vic felt his penis swell. “That’s more like it, Maddie,” nodded Vic approvingly. After another 30 minutes of chatting out of earshot of Dougie, Vic succeeded in extracting Maddie’s phone number and eliciting a commitment from her to meet him again. He felt confident he could make her his personal property for as long as he chose to possess her. From experience backed by a healthy dose of arrogance, Vic believed beautiful women who toiled in subservient lines of work ultimately allowed themselves to be recast into ostensibly better but equally subservient roles.

Sprawled out atop the institutional gurney, impotent and immobile, and with resignation and dismay, Dougie observed the flirty badinage between his boss and the girl he had hoped would have shown him preference. Such was the price for being the big man’s stooge: forced to relinquish the best things in life to Vic the Prick; hoping for a taste of the leftover scraps that weren’t too debased after Vic was through with them.

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