Tapping Out

My alleged stepfather’s last gamble

Now that I look back, it seems appropriate that my alleged stepfather would croak in a casino. For one, Bill never did anything you’d expect, even though he’d often tell you exactly what to expect. Like how he was going to drop everything and move to Central America, when here he was a successful shop owner in the U.S. after having gone through all the trouble of pilfering my Social Security number in order to open a business account. If he had not gone ahead and died, I might have killed him myself.

My mother met Bill in the eighties over a box of broken ceramic beagles at an auction house in Chula Vista and immediately became his best friend. He was a large man with a gambling habit, a mustache like Groucho Marx, giant blue thyroid eyes, and a case of gout exacerbated by the fact that he lived in his car. The car part, he assured everyone, was only because he was a fugitive from bureaucracy, given how the government was drugging us with the water system and that’s why he always carried his own purifier, and yes, he’d drink his own urine if he had to.

And Bill had plans. Big plans. Soon Bill would partner with my mother to open “one of the largest antique dealerships on the block,” and granted, it was a block of pretty big antique dealerships. To open the store, they had amassed literal trash bags of cash by hocking stuff like those broken bobblehead beagles out of the back of Bill’s car at swap meets. I used to get up in the middle of the night on weekends to help them set up their booth. Looking back I realize this is one of the reasons I moved to Atlanta, because I could see Bill’s big plans would continue to entail a lot of heavy lifting on my part. By then they’d bought a used van to haul their wares. It was covered in dents like a tossed army tank, and when I borrowed it to load my meager belongings into the airline’s cargo bin, I backed into a barrier and added a tiny fresh dent amid the miasma. It did not occur to me anyone would notice. I was wrong. Bill chastised me about that dent literally until the day he died.

And as I said, he died in a casino, which was surprising even though he always told me to expect it. For one thing, Bill eventually did move to Costa Rica like he always said he would. When I visited him there, the locals kept referring to me as his stepdaughter. I struggled with that at first, vehemently correcting people at every turn, but in time I figured some things you just can’t fight.

So when Bill got cancer, I thought the last place he’d head would be back to the States, given his certainty that the American government gave him the cancer in the first place. But damn if he didn’t call me from a hotel room in San Diego one day after having sought treatment at a facility nearby. He explained he had to check himself out after the nurse attempted to murder him. I am 100 percent absolutely almost certain this probably happened. I immediately flew to San Diego and tried to bring him back to Atlanta with me, but he had plans. Big plans.

He was on his way to Mexico, he said, to the same clinic he took my mother before she passed, where they performed holistic remedies that were controversial in the States. He assured me he’d be fine, though he did not look at all fine. “You can start to worry if you see me headed for a casino,” he laughed. I did not laugh. He always joked about wanting to die in a casino. Then he assured me he was not on his way to a casino, because I knew that if he were, it would be the same as a sick animal returning to its lair.

When I left him, he did not look like he had the strength to change his pajamas, let alone change his mind and map a course to a casino on the outskirts of Palm Springs. “You still owe me for that dent,” he said. I reached into my purse to pull out some money, but he stopped me. “Save it for the next time we see each other.” He smiled, his eyes still big and blue. That was the trick, you see. I could still see him in there, the old Bill, the cantankerous, maddening, crusty old acid vat that I would have personally pinned down with my sobbing body if I had known what he had mapped out for his last days. I wanted to be with him in the end, like he was for my mother, but evidently Bill had other plans. Big plans.

Illustration by Peter Arkle