If you intend to be more than a one or two-time player, Russian roulette is a game with only one winning strategy: you must learn to secretly palm the round. This was the best advice I could give her. She did ask for it… in those exact words.
Her name is Gina, but she goes by G. She’s eighteen and has green eyes and a good tan. We’re driving in my car, top down, seats back, Beach Boys blaring. It’s just before dusk and LA is coming alive as the lights flicker on through its steel veins. The freeway is conspicuously thin of traffic.
G says she’s going to “Chicaco”. She has a hundred thousand dollars cash and her daddy’s gun. She says she got it off of her dead boyfriend, who died in a shootout after a drug deal gone wrong. The piece is a Colt 1911, all chrome.
“So, why Russian roulette?” She says, considering my advice aloud as she thoughtfully plays with one curly lock of blue-brown hair. “Why not Hold ‘Em? Only a idiot tries to kill hisself.”
“Because,” I say, “it’s a game you can play with city people. All sorts. And if you’re good, that is, if you know the necessary deceits, you’ll never be without a place to stay or a meal to eat in this whole wide world.”
“You do that?” She asks me. “F’real? Just play other people so you can stay at they place and shit? Sounds like one helluva gamble.”
“Maybe you’ve just never done it.”
“And maybe you not a woman.”
“No. You’re right, actually. But it’s usually the friends who put you up, not the people you beat at the game. The ones you’ve just impressed by scaring their buddies out of a few bucks are usually more willing to help. People aren’t so inclined to show you much hospitality after you’ve just won all their money. I learned that in Iraq. Among other things.”
“You was in Iraq? F’real?”
“Real as the Reaper.”
“Is that how you lost yo’ leg?”
I know she’s been trying to avoid looking at it since she got in the car. I nod. “I lost my leg to an IED outside Baghdad. I was the only one in the truck who survived.” Then after a long pause I add, “There were six of us.”
“And you and yo’ buddies used to put pieces to yo’ heads at lunch time, or what?”
It is a bittersweet recollection to remember the games we used to play.
“We always knew we were playing with blanks,” I say, “until one night, in the shit, when we played for real. If I hadn’t hid the bullet in my sleeve I’d be less some gray matter. And I never forgot it, not over one foot of this great country, from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Monica.”
G says, “Is that how far you got to drive?”
And I say, “That’s how far I already drove. Now I’m goin’a turn around and do it again.”
“So tell me more about this game,” she says. “Shit, maybe someday I’ll find myself in a situation where I got to play it, too. Might come in real handy to know the tricks.”
“Well if it’s tricks you want, I got ‘em,” I tell her. “First thing’s first, never play it with your friends. You won’t win as much but the risk is the same. People always risk more around those they think they’ll never see again.”
“What happens if you get caught cheatin’?” she asks.
“On the rare chance you do get caught, you simply make a show of good faith and put the round in the cylinder where it belongs – in everyone’s sight – then put the gun to your temple and pull the trigger for real. Worst case scenario is nothing goes through your mind at all, because the lead’s already been there and you’re dead.”
She raises an eyebrow in what I think is approval, but remains silent.
I chuckle. “Sister, you get your leg blown off in the desert, then wake up and spend a month getting dosed with combinations of every painkiller under the sun because the morphine and oxy ain’t enough… you’ll consider hanging yourself from the edge of the hospital bed with your own IV. And c’mon, don’t tell me you’ve never thought about it. A girl like you from a neighborhood like the one I picked you up in?”
“Whatchu tryinna say about my neighborhood?”
“Nothing, sweetheart. Just that it looks a little rough.”
She nods in agreement.
We spend a little while talking about nothing important. The conversation is nice. Usually I’m alone on these long drives. Now that I’ve hit LA, I was planning on heading up to Washington – lots of open country up there – but Chicago works just as well.
She asks where I’m from, how old I am, why I’ve spent the last three years on the road. I tell her Texas, twenty five, and I’m traveling across the United States because I made a promise to a musician buddy of mine who died that I would play a song on his guitar at a famous street corner of every major city in these United States. My mission brought me here to Los Angeles, where I met G in the parking lot behind a Von’s in Torrance trying to hitch a ride, a golden sun child with a gun… a real California girl.
“I could have been a serial killer, y’know,” I remind her at one point. “What would you do if I was? Did you have a plan?”
“That’s why I have the gun,” she says, defensive. “I don’t need no plan, bruh. Girl carry a heata when she don’t wanna make a plan.”
I laugh. “But do you think you could use it? Do you think you could actually shoot someone?”
“Psh. I will actually put a bullet in yo’ ass faster than a pig spots a donut shop if you so much as try to lay a hand on me, bruh.”
I shrug. “What if I pinned you down?”
“Man, you axe some stupid ass questions.”
“What if I was strong? Let’s say I had both my legs and I overpowered you.”
“Shit, you may have lost yo’ leg but it doesn’t seem to have set you back none. I ain’t tryin’ to bump and grind wit you, dude, I’m just sayin’. You look like you work out.”
“Thank you. But what if I took the gun and drove you somewhere secluded, so I could pull you off the side of the road and kill you? To eat you, or somethin’?”
“Well, you betta not be plannin’ on it,” G says, eyes still fixed on the sunset. “You really creepin’ me out. I thought we was talkin’ about a game. Tell me how to win.”
“Alright, fair enough,” I say. “I want you to do something for me. It’s better if you get it over with now. Take the gun out,” I instruct her.
She looks at me oddly. I repeat myself. “Take the gun out and put it against my temple. Do it.”
She reaches under the glove box for the gun case and when she comes back up a beautiful Colt 1911 is filling her fist, barrel high polished and grips clean as a cheater’s lie. I see in her eyes the hint of an old look I once knew well, that fear that comes before one does it, puts their finger inside the trigger housing. I suddenly wonder if she’s ever handled a piece before. She looks nervous.
She goes to check the chamber, proving my previous assessment about her experience with the steel to be wrong, but I tell her: “Don’t open it.” She complies. We both know her daddy was the kind of man who kept it loaded. The question is: was the road paved recently? “Put it against my head,” I say. I feel the ring of frigid steel touch me there, light. “More.” It presses and bites into the skin. I sigh. “Gina.”
Her eyes dart wildly to and from the road, but her mouth is a rigid line. “What do you want me to do?” I can barely hear her over the whip of the wind and Barbara Ann bellowing through the speakers, but you learn to read lips and gestures like a sixth sense when your hearing gets blown out of your head by an IED and you spend the next three weeks terrified that it may never come back.
“You see, if you shoot me, we crash and you die too. Nothing goes through your mind but the lead. But if we survive what I’m about to do next… well, then you pass.”
A long beat. “Pass what, you crazy bastard?” G says.
I glare at her from the corner of my right eye. “I’m going to take my hands off the wheel now. You’re going to count to six, and if you take the gun away from my head or your finger off that trigger before I reach six, then I’m going to crash us and we’re going to die.”
“This is bullshit,” G says. “This is some bullshit.”
Then, after an eternity of waiting I hear that old, familiar click. I pull my hands away from the wheel. Then I lift my one good foot off the gas and curl my leg up so it rests on the dash. She gasps and shuts her eyes. The traffic around us is moving steadily but she sees a curve coming and reaches for the wheel. I tell her no.
“You should be counting,” I say.
I feel the wind in my hair.
Bar Barbara Ann.
The curve is close.
We’re on the shoulder.
“Damn – six!”
I grab the wheel and correct our path, barely making it back into the lane. The blaring of horns creates a cacophony everywhere. An old man in a Dodge pickup flips me the bird. I smile at him and shrug.
When I look, G is sweating, washing her hair with dry hands. The gun is tucked under the seat again, far from sight. “What the hell was the point of all dat?” she says. She sounds furious, terrified. But a part of her voice sounds triumphant, too.
“We almost died,” I say with a grin.
“No shit!” G yells at me. “You are one crazy ass fool. I never seen such a crazy ass fool in all the days of my life. You coulda got us kilt.”
I say, “Remember what I said about palming the round?”
G recoils. “Man, you are rollin’ on me right now. This ain’t even a revolver!”
“But you believed I was ready to die. Whether or not I really was willing to let us crash or to have my brain eat a bullet if we hit a bump, you believed I was.”
“Yeah, ‘cuz you were,” G says. “Crazy ass bastard. How ‘bout you let me drive from now on?”
“You asked how to win at Russian roulette,” I tell her. “Now you know.”
(First published in the Bumps in the Road anthology from Black Bedsheet Books)